Sunday, January 31, 2016

An Indictment against Well-Roundedness

It's going to be a fun semester, in large part because a student has appeared on my roster who was with me before. This young man tends to be a good questioner, usually seeking to clarify learning. Sometimes it's a check on information. Other times it's more philosophical.

And that's what he did Friday.

I'm working my way through an introductory lesson on economic thinking, a lesson that involves talking about how economists prize specialization over generalization. The basic idea is that we are richer, and society is richer, if we specialize in something that suits our talents rather than try to be jacks-of-all-trades. Makes sense, right.

Then came the question: So is being well-rounded not all it's cracked up to be.

Great question, especially given the student's status as a 12th grader (in the throes of the college admission process and sitting at the end of a public school odyssey in which we praise students who are well-rounded).

My initial answer to him was honest, but could have gone deeper. I told him that a) I'm not an economist, that b) this sort of topic is what prevents me from loving economics, and c) what is economically true doesn't necessarily reflect what I admire in others or try to instill in my students or children.

I wish I had given the answer a bit more thought, because it seemed like I was preaching a discipline much at odds with what the student and his peers had been learning over the years. Here's what I wish I had thought to say.

At some point, in life, it's necessary for us to specialize. This time comes as we approach the point in our life where our efforts translate into something with a market value. In my early 20s, I entered that phase when I became a specialist in teaching Social Studies to adolescents. As I've advanced in my career, I've become more and more a specialist rather than a generalist. At different points we all become specialists as our particular skills and opportunities create value. That time comes early for some, say, the Division-I college athlete on scholarship, and later for others, like those who take a longer pathway toward graduation.

But until that point in time when one must specialize, the well-roundedness pays off. I'm the product of a liberal arts education who believes strongly in that approach. The well-rounded, and general, education one gets and the well-rounded experience one gets by dabbling in the teen years allows you to find that pathway that's likeliest to lead to the specialization that brings value.

So, I guess, we're not perpetuating a fraud as teachers and parents.

Sunday, January 3, 2016

Facts and Stories

A couple of weeks ago I had penned a post that I never published. It was an irritable post, reflecting an irritable frame of mind about stalemated, shortsighted politics in Pennsylvania. Though I don't disagree with the sentiments I expressed in it, I'm glad it remained in draft form. After nearly two weeks away from work and with family, I find myself much less irritable and more thoughtful. I'd rather resume this post in that frame of mind.

My friend delivered a sermon this morning that was quite interesting. In commenting on the story from Matthew about the visit of the Magi, he contrasted the power facts about a person have compared to a story about that person. Though I mulled on the spiritual implications of what Dane had to say (seriously, I did mull on that for quite a bit) I got to thinking historically. A few figures in particular came to mind.

Five things that are true about Abraham Lincoln: he was from Illinois, he only held elected office once time before becoming President, he was a father of four (and outlived two of those sons), he was closer to his stepmother than his father, and he was a Republican. A story Americans often like to tell of him is apocryphal, that he sketched out the Gettysburg Address on the train ride to Gettysburg that November (the speech was actually in creation for several months), which I guess is a statement to our perception that he was so wise. But a story my professor in college told, of how the president compelled the resignations of two sparring members of his cabinet and then slipped them both into his desk for future use (remarking "I have a pumpkin in each sack. Now I can ride.") is the story that I keep in mind about Lincoln. It reminds me of a leader I admire who had such a seemingly impossible task of wrestling with warring factions, in his administration, the government, the nation, and how he so deftly reconciled those conflicts.

I could go on with other figures in history who speak to me: Washington, Churchill, Theodore Roosevelt. Interestingly, I can't think of good stories to go with Franklin Roosevelt, though there are so many facts one could recite about him and his presidency.

On one sad note, Dane's sermon got me to thinking of how I don't get to spin so many stories teaching Economics now. Perhaps the students can spin some stories about me. Wait, they do. And so do those kids that live under my roof.

Dane's intention probably wasn't to inform my professional practice as I return to work tomorrow. However, his message reminds me that in a school and public school environment driven by content standards and testing, we are also the meeting places of hundreds of interesting people, each with interesting stories and who, in our interactions on a daily basis, create more interesting stories each day. I hope I remember to look for ways I can let those stories breathe in the new year.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

TV Characters

Revisiting an old blog post reminded me of how I spent some time this summer watching old M*A*S*H episodes and gave me reason to explain how I revered Hawkeye Pierce as one of my great TV character heroes. Here's a list.

Hawkeye Pierce from M*A*S*H - The first character I remember admiring as I grew up. Mom and Dad were huge fans of the show, and I was watching it well before I could appreciate all that was going on in it. Despite my somewhat conservative leanings, I found the liberal, irreverant, and somewhat narcissistic main character of the show heroic in his efforts to look out for those who couldn't look out for themselves, and to poke a finger in the eye of full-of-themselves authority figures. Truth be told, I'm more like B.J. Hunnicutt than Hawkeye. Perhaps Hawkeye reminded me of who I'd like to be.

Jimmy McNulty from The Wire. The lovable jerk. It's the only way I can think of him. He was endearing in his authentic quest to do good policework, even if it meant crossing ethical line after ethical line. And just as one was coming to admire him, he would do something to remind you that, deep down inside, he was a jerk. I don't see myself as being like McNulty and don't want to be. I'm more like his boss, Lt. Daniels. McNulty was one great character in a cast of great characters, a cast unlike I remember from any other television journey.

Captain Jean-Luc Picard from Star Trek: The Next Generation. Many Trek fans would consider this blasphemy, I say it still: Picard, not Kirk, is my default captain. I admired the way the character always kept his temper in check, and I relished the way he delivered choice lines: ones from "Yesterday's Enterprise" and "The Wounded" come most readily to mind.

I guess I'm a sucker for men in uniform: Commander Bill Adama from Battlestar Galactica was the flawed but revered commander, often allowing his personal feelings cloud his decisions regarding subordinate officers who occasionally failed him.

Detective Lennie Briscoe from Law and Order was my favorite from that long-running show. It's a slight nod for him over Jack McCoy. Still, I loved Lennie's one-liners, his professionalism, his flaws. The episode "Marathon" is a brilliant look at a man fighting old man time to stay relevant as an officer. 

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

An old favorite photo

In the summer of 2008 the photograph you see below came home from preschool. The frame has finally deteriorated so badly I had to throw it out, but not before saving the photograph.

Funny. At age 2 he shows the same kind of expression one might see on him today.

Monday, September 21, 2015


The textbook for my Macro class discusses wealth distribution in one of the first chapters, and in doing so it introduces the term "income quintile," a term which really flummoxes my seniors. When it comes to vocabulary and jargon, they're rigidly literal. I was very interested, therefore, in an article that appeared in The Economist two weeks ago with the ironic title "It's Expensive to be Poor." It features a pretty good example of an income quintile. More importantly, it does a great job highlighting the difficulties that poorer Americans have navigating a financial system that is reluctant to offer fee-free checking and more than happy to offer payday loans.

Now that's a quintile. 

I see it as something of a duty to talk about matters of poverty with my students. We work and learn in an area of affluence. All the metrics - median household income, median household value, unemployment - point out how wealthy our attendance zone is. Of course there are students from families who are shut out from this. Generally speaking, though, I teach students who don't encounter poverty much at all. This explains why I seek out articles like this to help build some idea about the faces behind the statistics and stories they see and hear in the media. 

One student's reflection. 

Short and to the point. 
Spending time with the article was particularly timely given a blog post that appeared, penned by a somewhat recent graduate of the school where I teach who tried to articulate what it's like to be on the outside looking in. To be from the one neighborhood all know isn't so fortunate in the midst of a community characterized by wealth and affluence. 

It's part of my job to make the students conscious about matters of wealth and poverty. I don't do this because I have some grand plan to bring about equity or foment a political movement. My goal is somewhat hazy: to elevate consciousness about how Americans of lesser means that is typical in my area live. It might not be an ambitious undertaking, but if I can get a dozen or two teenagers to walk from my doors thinking of a checking account as a luxury, because to some it is an unattainable one, I've done something important. 

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Blatantly Self-Serving Post Commenting on Political Affairs

A nearby school district is making headlines by way of its refusal to pay into the pension system.

I can sympathize with the sentiments and frustration of that district's board and the taxpayers who support their protest. It's maddening to see government not meet its obligations. It's maddening to feel like one is in a situation in which one's tax dollars are simply being transferred to another citizen rather than paying for a service or good that benefits them or their community. Over the past couple of years, however, I've tired of being in the cross hairs of political anger and I guess my patience has worn down a little bit. If I look at the actions of the Quakertown board selfishly, I can't help but think that they are threatening my financial future, I guess just as they think a program that benefits me is threatening their financial present and future.

Since my wife is employed in the financial industry, and since I teach economics, I've given a great deal of thought over to the pension problem | crisis | uncomfortable conversation (circle one). In some ways, I'd be comfortable with transferring over to a defined benefit system for providing for my retirement. I see what such a system can look like when it's done well in the private sector. Savers are free to make financial choices, and live with the good and bad consequences of those decisions. Employers match employees' contributions, at least in part. There are tax benefits for savers if they properly make use of federal tax law. I could live with such a system.

If one looks closely at the most recent proposal in Pennsylvania for pension reform, it doesn't deliver those things, in general and in particular to my younger colleagues. Existing 403(b)(7) law limits the number of vendors who can serve a district, thus restricting the freedom to find the best retirement services provider. There is a limit as to the potential gains one can make on their savings decisions (but no limit on the potential loss). And, finally, there's no whiff of any option for an employee match.

In fairness, those latter two limitations come from the fact that pension reform attempts to maintain a stream of revenue to the pension fund to benefit older employees, which (*gulp) is what I am at age 39. But these speaks to one of the great political limitations of pension reform: It's still politically unpalatable to destroy benefits current retirees or people well in the system (like me) have earned. Therefore, even if we cut the youngest teachers out of a future pension there still must be a means of providing for the older ones. Ugh. That's a tough one.

I also don't see any situation in which there'd be political support for districts to match any portion of voluntary retirement savings by employees. Districts have a hard enough time justifying any sort of tax increase: justifying a tax increase to permit a match of, say, dollar-for-dollar for up to five percent of one's salary isn't going to happen.

All of this leads to some real political conundrums. Many want to treat teachers more like private sector employees. But the retirement savings match which is common in much of the white collar corporate world wouldn't take place in education. That being said, I'm conscious of how self-employed Americans never get an employer match. Yet, I don't see many making parallels between teachers' station in life and business owners. We're not consultants or contractors.

Many decades ago we decided, as a country that professionals in public service would receive pensions as a safeguard against financial hardship in their later years. This was, in part, a way to keep professionals in public service. It was also a way of offsetting the lower pay one typically earns in public service relative to private sector jobs where pay raises can be more impressive. Unraveling a decades-old bargain is difficult.

Quakertown's board is attacking just such a complicated bargain. Any solution will create losers, just like staying with the status quo creates losers. I guess I'm one of the many who need to fight so as to make it less likely I lose.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Remembering a Teacher

Mr. Bechtel, a teacher of mine, passed away last week after a battle with cancer. Some might be surprised to hear me call him a teacher because of his outstanding reputation as a police officer in the Pottstown area. Mr. Bechtel's call to teaching was a call to the periphery of the work week: on Sunday mornings and evenings teaching youth at church.

Among the many things that touched me reading his obituary (which he penned himself) was that he thought of himself as a teacher as well as a police officer.

His obituary (found here) is worth reading. It's a very eloquent reflection on one's life. I hope I can be so eloquent when I am looking at the end of my life.

Raymond D. Bechtel Jr. Obituary

What do I remember of his teaching? I cannot recall any particular lessons, but I do remember four examples he taught through simply being him.

I remember his expectation that even though we were confirmed high school kids, we still had a responsibility to arrive at Sunday School on time.

I remember the day he came to Church after a night shift in his uniform and sidearm. No time to go home and change. It was time to teach kids.

I remember him happily orchestrating soup dinners served at Church to coincide with the Super Bowl, and how he had all of us teenagers working as a happy, efficient team.

Most importantly, I remember his acknowledgement that the older youth needed a place to call theirs on Sunday morning. It's easy for congregations to overlook the confirmed high school students and let them drift. Mr. Bechtel knew there was a corps of us who sang with choir at 8:00 am then had nothing specific to do until rehearsal at 10:45 am. To him the problem had a ridiculously simple solution: teach them Sunday School.

Mr. Bechtel taught me a lot about service. Service as a Christian. Service as a citizen. Service as a dad. Rest in peace.