Why do they call it a ‘blackboard’, he asked as I ran a noxious wet marker over the white melamine board in the front of the room. Before you were in school, I replied, teachers used chalk to write on black pieces of slate, so they called them blackboards. Why don’t we still use blackboards? he wondered. I thought about mentioning the bold bright colors and better contrast, but just settled for, they’re just cheaper I guess.

I didn’t want to spend time discussing the efficiency of white vs. black boards. I’m sure an argument can be made for the use of either. But this exchange did get me thinking about the topic of change. Change, if it leads to improvement, is a good and desirable thing. Change, when it is the offspring only of modernity and convenience, is not.

Merely entertaining the idea that not all modern technology is worthwhile puts me squarely in the camp of the old-fashioned, or codgerly. Let me state clearly that I have nothing against modern conveniences. Things that save effort and money are superior, IF, they can do it better than what they replace. For example, I love my laptop and particularly, I love its word (and image) processing ability. I have no desire to return to a typewriter. A word processor is faster, easier, and the end product is better.

No one would argue that email has enhanced our ability to communicate, especially in real time. But when emails are received by the hundreds each day, are used to reply ‘Thanks’ to dozens of recipients, or are sent with the expectation of an immediate reply, that is no improvement over other forms of interaction. If email prevents co-workers from communicating face to face, where is the efficiency in that? It can lead to alienation and even miscommunication.

Used as symbols of tools, chalk and slate are both very elegant in their simplicity. They were used for a long time because they were efficient and easy to obtain/use. One argument against chalk and boards is that the dust created is irritating to sensitive technological equipment. But the smell from dry erase markers? Any thoughts on its irritant value?

I know that technology has but one gear and it is forward. But before we pledge ourselves to advancing our teaching or the presentation of our teaching, let’s make sure that it is a better process. Sometimes tools are so simple because they were perfectly made.

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Read any headline of the news around the world and you’ll be confronted by a multitude of challenges to humanity and its progress. Famine, war, bigotry, crime, inequality, misuse of resources, and disease are problems that continue to vex people around the world. They present very real barriers to a fulfilled existence for much of the globe. These issues have faced mankind for all of its existence. One would hope that as we progress through the modern age, we could alleviate or even abolish some of these challenges. Alas, in the foreseeable future, this will probably not occur. This unlikelihood is not as a result of a failure of will, but rather as a failure of something far more subtle. The biggest barrier to the advancement of peoples around the world is a lack of effective leadership. Look where nations have some of the direst needs and you will find an absence of good leaders. Even in seemingly “first world” nations, national progress is often radically impeded by inefficient leadership.

The concept leadership is a vague and amorphous idea. To paraphrase Justice Potter Steward, ‘I may not know how to define it, but I know it when I see it.’ We seem to recognize great leaders, such as George Washington or Abraham Lincoln, even if we can’t exactly pinpoint what makes them great. Is it an ability to plan for the future, or inspire great acts, or is it being able to bring out the best in others?  Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “Our chief want is someone who will inspire us to be what we know we can be.”

The fame and power that often accompanies leadership can be a potent temptation. This is one reason that so many countries suffer from a lack of good leadership. Political leaders often use their standing for personal or political gain. Rather than envisage the future of their country, they image their own retention of power or influence. In the Roman legend of Cincinnatus, a Roman aristocrat and former leader (Cincinnatus) who was in retirement, was called upon to lead the legions in a time of dire need. He was given absolute powers in an effort to save the Republic. He led his armies, defeated their enemies and promptly relinquished his tremendous authority to return to his quiet retirement. He did this even at a time when former leaders were often seen as potential opponents. His story is an ideal of selfless leadership.

A leader needs to have a clear idea of what they want to do. The ability to see what is needed is one thing  that defines greatness in a leader. The former President of the University of Notre Dame, Rev. Theodore Hesburgh, has said, “The very essence of leadership is that you have to have a vision. It’s got to be a vision you articulate clearly and forcefully on every occasion. You can’t blow an uncertain trumpet.”

Being an effective leader is certainly not motivated by the need for fame or recognition. The best leaders will lead out of a desire to serve or an interest in improvement. Lao Tzu says, “A leader is best when people barely know he exists, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves.”

Whether you are a politician, parent, teacher, businessperson, or friend, you have a heavy responsibility to lead others.  I would go so far as to say that the most pressing need in the world today is for great leadership. Thoughtful, selfless, visionary leadership  can reach into the future and take us all there as well. Many (if not most) of the world’s major problems could disappear under the cloak of great leadership.  As Margaret Mead said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, concerned citizens can change the world. Indeed it is the only thing that ever has.” Indeed.

Please permit a re-post for an important anniversary.

History Comes Alive.

As a teacher, I’m embarrassed to say that I can’t recall much from my first few years of school. All I have is fuzzy memories of creaky desks, penmanship lessons and Sisters in tall habits.

 

Yet one day in my first few months of Kindergarten stands out starkly in my mind.  The teachers woke us from our nap that Friday, (yes, nap time was a standard part of our day), assembled all the students, and dismissed us earlier than usual. They didn’t say anything to us, but outside, anxious mothers and older siblings grabbed little hands tighter than usual. I was delivered home just a few blocks away. When I walked in, I saw my mother and a neighbor sitting side by side on the sofa, sobbing. In the corner, our small black and white television showed muted, flickering images.

 

“What’s wrong,” I asked.

 

“They killed the President,” my mother replied haltingly.

 

This remains the earliest memory that I can identify and I can see it clearly 50 years later.

 

I have often struggled to get my students to appreciate the dynamic flow of history. The entire concept of history itself is tricky for teenagers. Their sense of time is compressed; anyone older than them is “old” and anyone older than their parents is “ancient”. To them, the Internet is the most significant historical development of the last 500 years (maybe it is), and LeBron James is the greatest athlete who has ever worn shoes (maybe he is). When I have assigned research projects about great 20th century Americans, they pick Tiger Woods or Madonna. Their idea of a historical mystery is not who killed JFK, but who killed Tupac.

 

Students can understand the importance of history. It is what makes up their memories. We all own a personal history, a family history, a world history. This is what creates the reference points in our lives. History is nothing more than the imperfect recollections of our shared experience.  As Voltaire said: “History is fables agreed upon”. We breathe history, we don’t just study it. It happens all around us every day. It is intricate, subtle and inevitable. And it stays with us forever.

 

We live in a time of fast changing and tempestuous events. History is the ongoing struggles of individual people and mighty nations. The Presidential elections of today, the natural disasters of last week will fill chapters in tomorrow’s books.

 

What I seek to do is to bring to my classroom a small understanding of history as humankind’s ongoing shared experience. It tells of successes, wonders and failures.  We retell it for comfort, like an old but treasured family story. That family is us. It is that kind of history that makes up my first memory. Many years later, I can close my eyes and still see it.

 

I can also still see the morning one of my students (who later served a tour of duty in Afghanistan), rushed into my room to tell me that planes had crashed in the World Trade Center. We shared that experience that awful day: class memory, national memory, world memory. History suddenly jumped off the page and slapped us all in the face.

 

 I went home that September afternoon frightened, angry and confused. Once again, horrendous images emanated from a television in a corner. I sought out and hugged my 3½ year old son a little tighter than usual, fearing that perhaps his earliest memory had been formed that day.

In the last few years I have read Henry Beston’s The Outermost House, The journals of Richard Proennecke, and Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire. This is of course in addition to Aldo Leopold’s Sand County Almanac and Thoreau’s Walden, which have been a part of my library for many years. What is the common thread in these stories? They all involve the real life stories of men who have survived alone in a wilderness area for varying amounts of time. The books represent their reflections on their experience and how they relate to the wilderness around them.
I wonder about the source of my fascination with these stories. Perhaps it is their beautiful nature writing. Maybe I’m attracted to the conservation themes, or even their philosophical musings. I think I might be drawn to their stories of a focused, carefree existence.

Thoreau, who wrote much about solitude said, “I have never found a companion as companionable as solitude.” However, even in his time at Walden, Thoreau often received visitors and frequently travelled out to town. He also recognized that solitude itself is not always a matter of being apart. He said, “A man thinking or working is always alone, let him be where he will.” Solitude can be seen as a state of mind, something that can be attained anywhere.

Abbey was a fine writer and a bit of a crank. He loved the outdoors, particularly the Southwestern desert, and worked alone as part of the Park service. An outspoken conservation activist, his stories are filled with beautifully evocative portraits of the desert.

Leopold did not specifically live in solitude; his family shared his sparse cabin, usually on weekends. But his writing about his early life contains wonderfully told stories of his early years as a Forest Service employee in the West.

Proennecke famously (due to the films that he made) lived in Alaska for many decades. A skilled woodworker, filmmaker and diarist, Proennecke survived in the deepest wilderness, and most amazingly, never complains in his journals about the cold, the loneliness, or the hardships. He happily lived alone and accepted guests as they arrived. His journals are wonders of benign descriptions of weather, wildlife observations, or his sparse diet. Not given to navel-gazing, Proennecke simply states his life in the wild, letting other draw conclusions about it.
Perhaps the least known of my readings is that of Henry Beston. He spent a year in the mid 1920’s in a small frame house on the easternmost part of Cape Cod. He beautifully describes the changing seasons and a cape that is nothing like the busy tourist playground of today. Beston, who was a veteran of World War I, said, “Nature is part of our humanity, and without some awareness of that divine mystery man ceases to be man.” This nature may have helped Beston emotionally deal with the horrible conditions he experienced in the Great War.

For myself, I think I need a level of occasional solitude, not as extreme as Proennecke’s perhaps, but necessary to wellbeing. I don’t think I can ever live in the wilderness, especially alone. As I get older, I’m less inclined to accept the discomfort and privation. However, I can use a desire for occasional solitude to enhance my interactions with others. Humans are without doubt social creatures; interactions with others are necessary and affirming. While some may be better suited to living alone, most of us need a steady diet of social life. Thomas Merton, who lived a very special type of solitude as a Trappist monk said: “Solitude is not something you must hope for in the future. Rather, it is a deepening of the present, and unless you look for it in the present you will never find it.” Perhaps we can search out the solitude we need in our daily lives and use it the way Thomas Merton did.

I am not about to move to a wilderness area alone and write. Occasional visits to wild areas satisfy me. But I can appreciate the drive that led these authors to forsake society and discover something deep and lasting about themselves, and the world around them. We may need some solitude and silence in our busy lives so that we can contemplate higher ideas and hear inner whispers.

We needn’t move to the forest in order to be open to solitary experiences. We need to calm our desire to be in constant movement, to be ceaselessly ‘doing’. Slow down. Step back on occasion, open your mind, look and listen. As Thoreau said, “It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see.”

In the wake of the breathtaking tragedy in Newtown, Conn., much has been written and even more has been said. It is impossible to comprehend our shock to such horror, let alone understand its causes.

But yet as human beings, understand it we must. Surely a discussion of gun violence in our society is needed. Security in our schools should be vigorously debated. However, let us not fail to try to mine the deep and dark recesses of the human psyche as well. While guns and films and games can all be linked to the tragedy, it is the harrowing, disturbed thoughts of people which lead to these ultimate tragedies.

Joseph Conrad in his novel Heart of Darkness said, “The mind of man is capable of anything.”  Unfortunately, we know all too well by our history that we as humans are capable of anything. Is one of the prices of being human to live with the specter of violence at all times?  Can we overcome our very human tendencies toward evil? What are the acceptable limits of violent human behavior? Do our darkest thoughts and feelings deserve to be aired? What are the limits to decency and common sense that should not be exceeded?

When mass shootings occur, can blame be cast on the families of shooters? Certainly there are and will remain evil individuals in all societies. But if that alone were the case, issues of violence would be rare. But violence is not rare and these individuals embody it in an extreme way. Is the violence in their hearts born there, or is it developed through close encounters with the culture? What do we accept in the name of art, free expression, or free speech?

Does not every blatant and selfish act of violence which we commit to paper or film in some way ingrain in our minds the reality of that violence? We actually praise the work of the most graphic and realistic portrayers of gore. They celebrate their “art”, and collect awards (and paychecks) for their work. To shrink away from this imagery is to be somehow old fashioned or naïve. Where do we see the celebration for reconciliation and avoidance? Is the violence that is portrayed done so to entertain or to educate? The next time you see an act of violence acted out on a screen, ask yourself that question. This doesn’t even begin to explore the effect of these images on a young and developing mind.

We also have created a warrior culture where war is a justified action of an aggrieved people, with little real debate about the long term impact it will have on our nation. Although war is always the right of a nation in self defense, have we considered its reach into the hearts of the millions of soldiers we have trained to kill?

Why does every use of violence not shock and outrage us? Why does the noble act take second place to the bold and violent act? Ironically, when we couldn’t depict violence visually as realistically as we can now, it was much less graphic. As our abilities to enhance the reality of the experience increases, our tolerance for it seems to increase as well. Are these just a reflection of perverse human tendencies? Is the potential for these acts buried deep within us all? Does a civilized society control these ancient yearnings under the guise of culture?

As we try to come to grips with what should be an appropriate response to the tragic situation in Newtown, Conn., we should not forget to plumb the depths of our own psyche. Are the darkest reaches of our minds a curse of being human? Do they reflect an inevitable dark side of the human experience? Are they a rare, but sad part of a damaged mind? Or, rather, are these the self taught eccentricities of our own making? Have we mortgaged our very humanity to the bank of thrills, emphasizing the very worst attributes of human tendencies? Before we look into the heart of a killer, we should explore our own collective hearts; what darkness do we allow to thrive there?

As a teacher, I’m embarrassed to say that I can’t recall much from my first few years of school. All I have is fuzzy memories of creaky desks, penmanship lessons and Sisters in tall habits.

Yet one day in my first few months of Kindergarten stands out starkly in my mind.  The teachers woke us from our nap that Friday, (yes, nap time was a standard part of our day), assembled all the students, and dismissed them earlier than usual. They didn’t say anything to us, but outside, anxious mothers and older siblings grabbed little hands tighter than usual. I was delivered home just a few blocks away. When I walked in, I saw my mother and a neighbor sitting side by side on the sofa, sobbing. In the corner, our small black and white television showed muted, flickering images.

“What’s wrong,” I asked.

“They killed the President,” my mother replied haltingly.

This remains the earliest memory that I can identify and I can see it clearly even today.

It can be a challenge to teach History to teenagers. Their sense of time—and hence, History—is compressed. It is telescoped by their limited experience. Anything that happened before the dawn of the Internet is ancient history and not worthy of much thought. When I assign research projects about great 20th century Americans, they pick Tiger Woods or Madonna. Their idea of a historical mystery was not who killed JFK, but who killed Tupac.

You CAN teach young people about history. We live in a time of fast changing and tempestuous events. History, I like to tell my students, is nothing more than today’s news. History isn’t just the facts and names in a large textbook, it is the ongoing struggles of people and nations. The Presidential election of today, the natural disaster of last week will fill chapters in tomorrow’s books. History is nothing more than the imperfect recollections of our shared experience. We breathe History, we don’t just study it. It happens all around us every day. It is intricate, subtle and inevitable. And it stays with you forever.

I used to start off every class by saying: “History will happen today.” What I sought to do was to bring a small understanding of History as mankind’s ongoing shared experience, like an old but treasured family story. We are the family.

In 2011, I had only had a few classes and not many chances to lead off with: ‘History will happen today.’ But that Tuesday, September 11th, as students and staff anxiously left school for the day, a student passed me and said, “You were right, History DID happen today.” Yes, I thought, and it will surely happen tomorrow as well.

I went home that afternoon frightened, angry and confused. Once again, horrendous images emanated from a television in a corner. I hugged my 3½ year old son a little tighter than usual, fearing that perhaps his earliest memory had been formed that day.

Twenty-five centuries ago in Greece, it would have been a difficult time to live. Slavery was common and accepted, wars were ever-present, and multiple pandemics could sweep through a city-state, killing up to a quarter of the population.

Despite this chaos, the ancient Greeks developed ideas in Mathematics and Philosophy, Science and Medicine, and Politics and Astronomy. The originality of their work is breathtaking. In fact, these ideas form the very basis of modern thought, some of it unchanged for 2 ½ millennia.

Ancient Rome was a squalid place for the underclass. It was a time of constant war and autonomous leaders well known for their failings and depravity. However, the Romans made advances in engineering and administration that impress us to this day.

Colonial America was a place with few comforts and rights were reserved only for  male landowners. However, they made advances in the field of representative government and political philosophy that direct our country-and many others- to this day.

What about our modern world? What are the breakthroughs in thoughts and ideas that will stand the test of time? Are there any lasting revolutions that will be talked about in a thousand years (or even a hundred years)? Where are the original ideas that made great empires of the past so memorable? If we truly live in an exceptional country at an historic time, what will we have to leave to later generations to prove that greatness?

Certainly our time is remarkable because of the tremendous advances in computers and micro processing. But the Internet revolution is more an invention than a true thought revolution. It is to us what the telephone, flight or antibiotics were to previous generations: an amazing leap forward in human achievement. A leap that certainly changes the way we live day-to-day, but not necessarily the way we think.

Socrates forever gave us a system of inquiry that is the basis of teaching for 2,500 years. If I want to pose a rational argument, I use a process that Descartes instituted 400 years ago. Giants like these came up not with facts but with a way of seeing facts which survives through the ages. Legendary thinkers-like DaVinci or Einstein or Freud- are certainly uncommon. Many generations may pass without their peer. But where are those who can influence profoundly even a narrow discipline? Where is our modern Emerson, or even Thoreau, who gave voice and spirit to a new way of thinking.

We live in such a data-driven world that we disseminate data without any structural framework or theories with which to analyze it. It is so easy to gather millions of bits of facts and information that it is often relayed without a backdrop of theoretical support to either prove or disprove its meaning.

We can learn that American students are x percentage points behind y country. Or that x number of American live below the poverty level compared to y twenty years ago. What all the data fails to tell us is why. What are the new theories of human behavior in the modern world or the dynamics of ever changing demographics on the poor? We need creative minds coming up with daring and sweeping ideas that seek to provide an outline to the data picture. Perhaps these theories are there now and time has not revealed them.

Nearly four hundred years ago, Galileo was called to the Vatican in order to renounce his teachings on a sun-centered solar system.  Here a great thinker’s work was not merely ignored, it was actively suppressed. I hope we can be open to the new ideas in our midst, to be actively searching for the framework to help explain the present and future.