Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Brains and Beauty

The society which scorns excellence in plumbing as a humble activity and tolerates shoddiness in philosophy because it is an exalted activity will have neither good plumbing nor good philosophy: neither its pipes nor its theories will hold water.
  -- John W Gardner - Excellence: Can We Be Equal and Excellent Too? (1961) 

I ran into a former student of mine who's working as a beautician. We’ll call her Carrie. She said that one of her customers was the mother of a former classmate, who looked down her nose at her and said, "So this is what you're doing with your fancy private-school education?" Carrie just smiled and thought to herself, "Just shut up and hand over the money, lady."

Ah...one of the things she got from her "fancy private-school education" was the courtesy to not say that out loud.

My grandmother was a beautician, and owned her own business for years. I know that they make good money. More than I ever made as a teacher. It's recession-proof too, because people always have to look good.

Carrie’s education was most decidedly not wasted because she's a beautician instead of an engineer. She has figured out what she wants to do with her life, and is doing something that needs to be done. She's also one damned smart beautician, and I'm proud of her.

But this speaks to another problem in the way we look at education. We keep trying to push our kids into high-status programs at high-status schools. We keep trying to push more and more students, and especially girls, into fields like engineering and computer science. And by doing that, we imply that these fields have more worth than things like cosmetology or carpentry. We assume that the point of an education is to make sure that you get that “good job” as opposed to being a well-educated person in whatever field you choose to go into.

Carrie started out in engineering, and decided it wasn’t for her. She tried out English and a few other fields before deciding that she was wasting her family’s money trying to fit into a box that someone else decided she should fit into because of the education she had.

We should be giving our children an education so that they’ll have choices in life. This means that they can choose to become a well-read beautician or they can choose to work for Google, but either way, it’s a choice. And yet some parents see the education they give their kids as providing them with a choice…a choice between parentally acceptable careers, a choice between careers with status that they can brag to their friends about.

I’m not sure that’s really a choice.

I’m glad that Carrie has decided to become a really good beautician rather than a second-rate engineer.

And I’m glad that she felt that her education gave her a choice.

Besides...I know an awful lot of engineers who are out looking for jobs right now.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

On Privacy and Perspective: 1

Many years ago, in a school somewhere in Canada, a dumpy-looking kid wandered into the room of the AV Club and recorded himself fooling around with a golf ball retriever, as if it were a light-saber, over the tape of a school basketball game.

A little later a classmate found the tape, showed it to a friend, and had a good laugh. There was absolutely nothing wrong with that. Had they called in a few more of their friends to have a good laugh at the tape they found, there would be nothing wrong with it. I might even stretch it so far as to say that had they called in 10,000 of their friends, one by one, to say, “Hey, get a load of this tape I found,” there would be nothing wrong with it.

But that’s not what happened.

What happened is that one of those friends digitized the tape and distributed it among the students in the school, and at that point a line was crossed. It’s one thing to laugh at someone privately among your friends. It’s something totally different to make him subject to ridicule throughout the entire school.

But wait. There’s more.

One of those students took the digitized file and uploaded it to the Internet, where, after being edited by someone else to include Star Wars type special effects, sounds, titles, and music, it became the hottest thing since the Dancing Baby.

And our dumpy-looking kid’s life was over.

Or so he thought.

He withdrew from school and his parents filed a harassment lawsuit against the families of four of the students involved with originally distributing the video. But I’m not sure this was right. Did those students mean to “ruin this kid’s life?” Were they harassing him with malice aforethought? Or were they simply being stupid teenagers, saying “Get a look at the funny tape we found?”

Was it bullying or cyber-bullying? I’m sorry, but I’m a little old-school about bullying. As one who was regularly shaken down for my lunch money, or beaten up after school just because I was the little guy, I have a hard time with how we’ve expanded the definition of bullying to include anytime that people just aren’t nice to you. That’s a slap in the face to people who’ve been…well…slapped in the face.

And what of the student? Was his life really ruined, or does there come a point where you, and your family, have to gain a bit of perspective and humor and say, “You know, this will be really funny in a few years, and I should learn to roll with it?” Are we way too thin-skinned these days?

Or as Helen Popkin of MSNBC suggested, once his moment of Internet fame arrived (which included people petitioning George Lucas to give him a part as an extra in one of the Star Wars movies), rather than running and hiding, the Star Wars Kid should’ve proudly walked through his high school halls, embracing his new-found fame, and “answering every verbal Jedi jab with a handgun finger point and a cheerful, ‘That’s me! Right back at cha! No autographs until lunch period!’”

Yes, we need to be very careful about what images we post online of other people. But we also need to gain a sense of perspective that allows us to remember that when that embarrassing video or set of pictures of us makes it to the Internet, it’s not the end of the world; we should especially remember how much we’d laugh if it were someone else we were looking at.

And take it in stride.

And if, by chance, you've been under a rock for the past 10 years, and don't know what I'm talking about, check out the original video, the edited video, and the Wikipedia article telling how many times that video has been spoofed in other places.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

The Odd Couple?

You know, I just love it when adults try to force their issues onto things meant for kids. And for those of you who are sarcasm-impaired, that means that I absolutely hate it when that happens.

Back in 1999 there was the whole issue of the Teletubby Tinky Winky being gay because he carried a red purse. Despite a popular response that he couldn’t be gay, because the purse didn’t match the rest of his outfit, those who liked to find hidden meanings in things insisted that Tinky Winky was a gay role model.


And now, with New York finally legalizing gay marriage, a movement has grown to allow what they call one of TV’s longest-running closeted couples to finally get married.

Who is this couple? None other than Ernie and Bert from Sesame Street.

Sigh again.

Come on folks. I’ve been watching Sesame Street on and off ever since it first went on the air back in 1969, and not once over the past 42 years did the thought ever cross my mind that Ernie and Bert were gay.

OK, so they were two guys sharing an apartment. Many of us did that in college…it’s called dorm life. And come to think of it, many of us did it after college…it’s called saving money.

And if you’re gonna talk about Bert and Ernie, then what about Oscar and his roommate? Oscar Madison and his roommate Felix Unger, that is. I don’t believe that anyone thought that the two leads from the long-running TV show The Odd Couple were gay. Of course, it helped that the opening narration for each episode of the series mentioned how they were both thrown out by their wives.

Come on now, I no more thought about Bert and Ernie being gay than I did about the fact that Porky Pig doesn’t wear pants (and some people spend a lot of time thinking about that). Sometimes you really can just over-analyze things (like Porky Pig not wearing pants). They’re puppets, for Pete’s sake! And according to Sesame Street Workshop, producers of the show, they have no orientation because there’s nothing below the waist (I’m not even gonna go there).

But seriously, the producers say that the two characters were created to show children that two people who are very different can still be best friends. I’m quite certain that there was no gay agenda to this when the characters were first conceived of in the late 60s. I’m betting that the idea that anyone would think that these two characters were gay was the farthest thing from their minds back then.

But times change, and as we talk more freely about homosexuality, a lot of us start to read it into situations where it perhaps isn’t. A lot of us start to read our own issues into them.

Has this ever happened before? Of course it has. Many of us of a certain age have shared apartments with people of the opposite sex, and remember the winks we got from people who assumed that some sort of hanky panky must be going on, and who wouldn’t believe that we were just friends splitting the cost of an apartment.

Because that’s what their issue was, and they couldn’t imagine sharing an apartment with someone of the opposite sex being for any reason besides…well…sex.

But years have come and gone, and no one bats an eye anymore. People are used to the idea of two (or more) people of the opposite sex sharing an apartment platonically.

So then why do some people seem to have an issue with two people of the same sex doing so? Two puppets, for Kermit's sake!

Ah, but this too shall pass…and people will find some other children’s show to force their adult issues onto.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

If They Can Do This To Jerry...

The headline my college friend wrote for the WMAL website said Muscular Dystrophy Association Kicks Jerry Lewis to the Curb.


It seems that after 45 years of hosting the annual telethons, and over 50 years of being its national chairman, the Muscular Dystrophy Association has decided that they no longer need Jerry’s services.


You saw that right. He was planning on retiring from the telethon after this year anyway, but rather than letting him go out with a bang, the non-profit organization announced that he won’t be appearing on this year’s revamped telethon, and they won’t be replacing him as national chairman either.

You have absolutely got to be kidding me. If the information at the WMAL website is correct, Jerry Lewis helped to raise over $1 billion for this organization. And this is the thanks he gets? He doesn’t even get to have one last on-air appearance?

Maybe MDA decided that it was time to “go in a different direction,” or to try to “reach out to a different audience.” And there’s some validity to those concerns. They make perfect business sense, and MDA is a business, after all. But it’s a business whose public face is all about compassion. They’re not looking very compassionate right now, and in a horrible mistake, they don’t understand that the amount of compassion they appear to show in their “business decisions” may affect how much compassion people are willing to show through their support.

Now, as far as I can recall, Jerry Lewis wasn't taking any kind of salary for this, so if they can do this to someone who works for free, then what hope is there for those of us who actually get paid?

Well, now that you mention it, here in Central New York, there’s a big fuss about how the Diocese of Syracuse is streamlining the operations of the 13 cemeteries it owns by dissolving the individual non-profit corporations, coming up with something new, and then allowing the gravediggers who have been faithfully toiling at those jobs for many years to apply for new positions in the new corporation, with no guarantee that they’ll be rehired or keep the same salary and benefits.

You’d think that after the PR fiasco the Catholic Church has had with the mishandling of pedophile priests, they would’ve known better. You’d think that an organization that has gone on record as fighting for social justice would do better than this.

One can only hope that this “business decision” made by some bean-counter in the Chancery Office is a mistake that will be corrected when it’s brought to the attention of Bishop Cunningham, who will remind this person of the church’s commitment to compassion and social justice, and point out that this does not reflect either one.

But still…what if Bishop Cunningham doesn’t step in to fix this? If the Diocese of Syracuse shows us that the face of its inner workings are much different than its public face of compassion and social justice, then what hope do we have for the inner workings of other organizations whose public faces are based on compassion?

Or cooperation. Or courtesy. Or even concern?

Is it unrealistic of us to expect organizations who say that they stand for these values to reflect those same values in their inner workings and the way they treat people who have given so much to them? Is it unrealistic of us to demand that organizations that claim that they stand for these values, and that we support because we believe in them, reflect those same values internally, remembering that every “business decision” is a person?

No. Not only do I not think it’s unrealistic, but I believe that we have an obligation to hold them accountable. I know that I will be writing to the Muscular Dystrophy Association and the Diocese of Syracuse to express my profound disappointment with them.

Jerry deserves better. The gravediggers deserve better. And surely, you know others who have been kicked to the curb by organizations whose public faces make it appear that they should know better.

Who will you be writing to?

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

We Still Need To Teach Computer Literacy

Hmm…something went wrong a few days ago, and this didn't get automatically posted on Tuesday. So here we go right now. Sorry about that.

As I embark on a new career after spending almost 20 years as a teacher, I find myself now free to publicly comment on certain trends in education without either “biting the hand that feeds me,” potentially embarrassing my institution, or getting in trouble with those above me in the food chain. That being said, I’ll probably tackle one issue every few weeks. The issue I’d like to reflect upon now is Computer Literacy vs Technology Education.

A few years ago I went to a conference of computer and technology teachers, and there seemed to be a disturbing trend away from teaching students the basics of computer literacy and pushing them into more technologically advanced and “cutting edge” things such as robotics, computer-aided design (CAD), and moviemaking. Similarly, a number of public school districts in the Syracuse area had stopped teaching basic computer literacy classes because “the kids already know how to do that.”

I disagreed with that, as did a number of the teachers I met at that conference. We felt that our schools were making a big mistake that they wouldn’t recognize for about five years. It’s true that today’s students are much more familiar with using computers than they were when I first started teaching. I remember having to teach kids what a mouse was, and the difference between clicking and double-clicking. But familiarity with the device doesn’t mean competency with it.

About 20 years ago, in one of the computer labs at Syracuse University, I saw a student working on her resume. And as she sat there typing, she said that the thing she liked most about using the computer to do this was that if she made a mistake, she could just wipe it out with the eraser tool and put in the correct word.

I was aghast! The eraser tool? She was doing her word processing with a paint program. It apparently was the first program she had learned how to use, and she figured that that was all that she needed to know. She was probably also using that to write her papers with, because no one had made her learn any differently.

Today we have students who aren’t much different from that young lady at SU. They know a few simple things about Word or Pages, and figure that’s all they need to know in order to get their work done. Worse, their principals and superintendents think the same thing. They think, “Oh, they know how to open the program, how to write, how to save, how to print, and how to quit. That’s all they really need to know. Now we can move on to the cutting-edge stuff that looks cool, impresses parents, and will help America return to number one in the global economy, right?”

Well…no. Computer Literacy and Technology Education are two different, but complementary, things. I like to say that the first is Driver’s Ed while the other is Auto Shop. A smart school will recognize this, and have one teacher for each area. In fact, when I first started teaching, it was understood that I was the basic Computer Literacy person, while the other guy they hired was the Advanced Technology person. But as schools of all kinds, both public and private, find themselves with funding and enrollment issues, they’re trying to do more with less, thinking that they can do without basic computer literacy anymore, and putting a lot of high-tech window dressing on their other classes in a mistaken attempt to look cutting-edge and relevant.

They’re not doing anyone any favors.

But let’s leave high school for a moment and look at colleges. We just recently finished the college process with our older daughter. And as we looked at schools for her, did we ask about whether they had a great robotics lab? Did we care about the high-end CAD classes? Did we care about how many iPhone apps had been written by last year's freshmen? No. What we were concerned about was that they had the two programs she was looking for – Linguistics and Music – and what they had in terms of tech support for the students in the dorms who come in with printer problems, networking problems, and yes…problems with their word processing, spreadsheet, email, or music composition software.

Where will the students who become the experts at these campus computer centers come from if no one is teaching them the ins and outs of the software they’ll end up supporting?

Our schools area making a big mistake, and it's not just me saying that. If they talk to any of their graduates who’ve been through college, they’ll say the same thing. They’re graduating a generation of students who’ll be able to build great Lego robots, but will write the paper about how they did it using a paint program.

But maybe they’ll figure that out in about five years.