Sunday, March 27, 2016

Elections have consequences

Here's a shocking headline from a nearby community:

New Hope-Solebury is one of the most affluent areas in the whole state of Pennsylvania. It has one of the highest median incomes, one of the highest rates of educational attainment, one of the highest average home values. That their board has to consider charging students a fee to merely attend school should shame the voters those board members represent. The money exists in this district to fund what the students need. The community has simply chosen not to do so.

This Difficult Election

I'll likely be changing my registration after the April primary election in Pennsylvania. I have been a Republican since first registering to vote in 1994. After I get the chance to cast my ballot for the primary, I'll likely have to leave the party, and become one of the somewhat rare Americans who switch their party affiliation. I'll become a Democrat. Somewhere, the 1993 arch-conservative version of Chris Johnson is shuddering.

What's prompting this change? The likely nomination of businessman Donald Trump. He doesn't possess the temperament, ethics, or grounding in public sector to be deserving of the presidency. And, if he is the nominee of the Republican Party, then the party's values are too incongruous with my own.

This is hard to do. Few Americans stray to the other party from where they were brought up. I was brought up in a Republican household. And I'm proud of that background. I'm proud to have been a member of the party of Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, and Reagan. But now I must cross to the other tribe. In part this is necessary because of Pennsylvania's closed primary system: I take the democratic process too seriously to forfeit my chance to choose nominees, which I'd be doing if I were independent. More importantly, I must do this to make my protest of Mr. Trump as nominee more complete. If he's the party's nominee for the President of the United States, then I cannot be a member of the party. It's as simple as that.

Both of our political parties have their flaws. Democrats tend to underestimate the true costs of their desired policies. They also tend to overestimate the benefits of their desired policies. Republicans, on the other hand, tend to exaggerate the threat posed by liberal ideas and are a bit too quick to dismiss the benefits that come from government involvement in the economy. Regardless of the party I join, these flaws remain.

The Republican party has been making me feel more unwelcome, though, in the past few years. I don't share the fear many in the party have of illegal immigration. I'm a member of a public sector union, which many in the party see as a great threat to the nation's economic and political fabric. I'm a public school teacher and a fan of school funding, which it seems the Republicans (and many Democrats, too) seem to be against. Further, the party seems to have moved on from the assertive foreign policy ideology of the Reagan era and seems to be embracing something more akin to isolationism, which bothers me greatly.

Truthfully, there's a lot to dislike about both parties and their candidates for president. No candidate is speaking seriously about entitlement reform. Any discussion of the national debt has disappeared. There's little talk of how we could use tax dollars to fund schools or build infrastructure, endeavors which can enhance long run economic growth. No candidate is putting forth a very optimistic or ambitious set of ideas about what America can do to better the world.

And I'm no big fan of our current president. Though he's a decent man, I'm dismayed at the scolding tone he too often takes on social and economic issues. I'm disheartened at the passive and pessimistic approach he takes to foreign policy. His reliance on drones to assert U.S. power abroad concerns me. That being said, he's a decent man.

Mr. Trump is not. And I can't put much trust in Senator Cruz whose zealousness in pursuing Constitutional values (not in and of itself a bad thing) has seen him engage in some destructive parliamentary tactics as a Senator. I'm left with Governor Kasich who, as a moderate, doesn't stand much of a chance.

Moderates like me don't have much of a choice.

Pennsylvania's primary election is in late April. I look forward to voting in it, and casting a vote against a man I think wholly unsuited to be President of this great nation. But once that vote is cast, and once the nomination is settled in his favor, it's time for me to go. The party of Lincoln might be high-jacked (hopefully for just one election cycle) by someone with the temperament of George Wallace, and that'll make me retreat to a party that offers me a less horrifying idea of what it means to be an American.

Friday, March 18, 2016

Taking Flight

My children came home from school on a Friday following a long week in a long string of weeks uninterrupted by weather or vacation. Normally, this is the time of year a parent is hoping their kid will limp over the informal finish line that separates winter from spring, when attitudes and effort usually regroup for the end stretch to summer. I remember having to help Sam navigate frustrating passages at the end of 1st, 2nd, and 3rd grade. But this year it's quiet.

Except for the sound of two happy kids. They're finding their niches, and it's neat to see.

Caroline thrives at school.

Sam is starting to find some real gifts in the way of writing.

And Sam's happiest moment of the school day? Getting to practice in an ensemble for the first time that featured strings, winds, and percussion. He was thrilled at the chance to play with a whole symphony ensemble.

I'm truly living the Goldilocks phase of parenting.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

I'm baaaack . . .

*I wrote this nearly three months ago. May as well post it. I'm still bent out of shape over these developments.

And why not get this blog re-invigorated with a blatantly political post!

The only good news to come from the Harrisburg budget stalemate (or impasse) is that now newspapers are using words like that to describe the inability of the legislature to pass a budget. About a week ago, I was instead reading about the budget crisis. Crisis? What crisis? The lights are still on. Police are still patrolling. State offices are still open. And surprisingly, this is all done without a budget. Please pardon me, I'm still trying to figure out how that works.

Has Pennsylvania gone the way of the federal government, with manufactured "crises" seeming to hold up the business of government while government continues to function? There seems to be something very unserious about the manner in which our Harrisburg politicians are going about their job.

I am, though, disturbed at this stalemate in which politicians cannot seem to compromise and commit on a spending plan that intentionally lays out our priorities for using the resources of this state. The sticking point, apparently is funding schools. The governor wants to send more money to schools. Legislators might, too. But only after they exact their pound of flesh from the bogeyman du jour, public-sector unions (full disclosure: I'm a member of such a union) by reducing pension benefits. Oh, I forgot, that's another crisis. Or maybe not. I've lost track of crises.

I don't see a crisis when it comes to schools and pensions, but instead a slow-motion failure in process. There is great reluctance to fund schools. Sure, the state will likely increase funding, but only with caveats about reducing pensions and making it harder for local school boards to raise taxes to pay for programs. In other words, it's not about putting more money to work for schools, instead to shift the burden from local to state sourcing. But in so doing, the state wants to limit what it'll be contributing by limiting pensions. Oh, and don't you dare think about taxing natural gas. And, from a national standpoint: keep our hands off of Medicare and Social Security.

And all the while, what schools are expected to do continues to increase.

Meanwhile, we have an Attorney General whose law license has been suspended, who selectively releases damning evidence to defame political foes, and who applies double standards to benefit her family while persecuting her opponents. The Assembly can't decide whether or not to remove her from office.

Whew . . . glad to get that off my chest. Now, let's get to writing on more fun stuff.


I've been very inactive in this space, haven't I. Cat got my tongue? Not exactly. But there are reasons why I'm quieter these days.

Politics, or should I say the state of politics, is one big reason. If I were to go back through my posts over the years, I'm sure I'd find political statements of which I'm relatively unsure now. The election campaign of 2016, or at least what has transpired in it so far, has been so thoroughly dispiriting, I don't know of much in politics of which I am sure any more. Self doubt may be a weakness for a politician, but for a voter it may be healthy. At some point in the future I'll vent my frustrations regarding this campaign season. But for now it's left me with little I feel like saying.

Teaching economics as opposed to history has also quieted me down. Economics is called the dismal science for a reason, and it doesn't stir my passion in the way history does. Aside from the cool logic of the discipline, and for the frequency at which "it depends" is the answer to an important question, I also find it humbling that I don't get my chances to teach writing like I used to in history. It feels as if I have less to offer my students, and that's humbling.

Teaching itself hasn't given me as much to write about, either. I'm working with a group of kids that I've seen now over two years. Every group offers its own challenges. This group (a likeable one) has fatigued me, though, and has often made me wonder if I'm getting stale in my ability to motivate. That might be overstating the matter. Still, this campaign has had the feeling of a slump, and the feeling that one is not at their best is enough to quiet one down.

I'll be back.

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.