Sunday, May 18, 2014

Responding to a Question (2 of 2)

I guess this is more of a response to a comment.

On a recent post I commented that I had had a Keynesian moment regarding the death penalty. For a long time I was a supporter of it but I've recently come to feel that the process behind capital punishment is too riddled with problems that I no longer see it as a just, responsible, effective means of administering justice. One of my readers made the observation that it is hard to reconcile opposition to the death penalty with being in support of abortion rights. It think that is a very good point.

Many years ago I remember eating dinner with a friend who spoke quite passionately about opposing abortion, opposing the death penalty, and opposing the use of war as part of a consistent ideology. Though matters of life, death, and liberty are intertwined in each of these debates, I cannot help but look at them differently. And as I mull over what I feel on each, I fall back on something a former leader of mine would often say: if the process is fair, the outcome should be fair.

My change of mind on capital punishment came about as I considered evidence suggesting the process isn't fair. Simply, I felt that there was significant and reasonable doubt regarding the integrity of the process by which our justice system metes out the death penalty. As for abortion rights, a topic on which I've for a long time been ambivalent, I've come to believe that I simply don't know enough in individual circumstances to know how the fair the process is behind the decision to terminate a pregnancy. In my doubt, I leave it as a matter of prayer for me. Perhaps in the next few years I'll see something to make me more decisive about the process, either in favor of or against abortion rights. It's a topic on which I try to keep an open mind, and remain humbled that I don't have all the answers. As for the powers of a nation to send its young men on missions that imperil their lives and take those of the enemy, I can speak only for my nation. It's a democratic republic guided by a Constitution. If our president or Congress believe it's necessary to use war measures to defend our national interests, I trust that process (and I trust the ability of the people to exercise their powers to sanction leaders who abuse that awesome power).

Though I'm a Christian, I tend to look at these issues rather pragmatically rather than spiritually. Perhaps that makes me a bit muddled or contradictory at times. Faith helps me navigate the pathways of being a father, husband, friend, neighbor, and professional. It doesn't serve me much use in making up my mind on political matters.

In the past couple of years I've come about to a different position on same-sex marriage, too, through pragmatism. As far as I was concerned, the facts changed, so I changed my mind. Somewhere in 2012 I realized that opposing same-sex marriage was inconsistent with my beliefs in the importance of the 14th Amendment. Therefore, I no longer opposed it.

There's a lot of value in keeping an open mind, though it leaves me subject to the charge of being indecisive. Since teaching Macroeconomics, I've become decidedly more centrist (though I still consider myself more conservative than liberal). Since a decidedly anti-education governor won an election in 2010, I've become more convinced that voting one's job rather than one's ideology makes a lot of sense. I'm sure becoming a father has changed my view on a lot of things that I might have felt differently about eight years ago. At one point I never would have considered buying a Japanese car. Soon I'll purchase my fourth. Who knows, one of these years I might get tired of my snit over the trade agreement signed with South Korea and consider buying a Kia or Hyundai. However, the audience can know I've gone nuts if I ever root for the Cowboys or come around to supporting the designated hitter rule in baseball.

*"When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?"

Responding to a question (1 of 2)

One of the joys of combing the op-ed pages is to come across opinions with which I disagree. To wit, a few weeks ago The Washington Post's spring cleaning feature offered the idea that high schools rid themselves of AP courses. You might want to read the column here. It, and a chance conversation with an outstanding former student of mine who didn't believe in taking AP exams (but who regularly took and excelled in AP courses) put me in the position of justifying something I believe quite strongly about.

I'm rather attached to the Advanced Placement program. For one thing, the rigors of it when I was in high school pushed me to become the kind of student I was capable of being. Doing well on those exams translated into several credits at Gettysburg, enabling me to dabble with English and Political Science coursework long enough to know those fields weren't for me.* As a teacher, my greatest satisfaction comes from helping AP students master material and acquire skills that in the short run help on an exam in May but in the long run benefit them in college.

I do see, however, the problems with AP becoming a broader program. I do see the trend by which colleges are making more stingy their acceptance policies. Also, I see the way in which one could argue that the program is watering down its expectations. Finally, I see the potential hypocrisy in my embrace of the College Board's AP product but my disgust with standardized tests such as the PSSA and Keystone Exams.

So, how do I square this?

The AP course incentivizes me to elevate the rigor of what I teach, and it incentivizes the students to follow my lead. It promotes greater sophistication in most elements of my classroom: the content, the acquisition of skill, the tone of conversation. I guess what this program does, and that the Keystone does not, is that it at the end assigns a score to the students, not just to me. Students have skin in the game: a chance at earning credit in college, verification of where they are against peers nation wide, the desire to not squander $89 paid to the College Board. Therefore, there's more student ownership. I know I am assessed, in part, on the basis of my students' performance. So the students and I both have something on the line, which is very much not the culture fostered by states' standardized testing regimens, which seem to make it entirely the schools' and teachers' responsibility to elevate the students' grades.

I wish there was a way to engender the kind of rigor one sees in AP without the national exam or without the appearance of profiteering by a firm, The College Board. Unfortunately, an entitlement mindset has set into public education, and that brings with it a watering down of norms and expectations. The College Board has been a somewhat effective tool promoting rigorous instruction in a time in which prevailing winds motivate us to be less than we can be.

*Had I been exposed to a Religion course freshman year, I might have tried majoring in that alongside history. The excellent Old Testament course I took came too late, in my senior year. Also, had my microeconomics professor not been dreadful, I might have pursued coursework in Economics.

Thinking of Sports

I had great fun reading this column from the Toronto-based Globe and Mail. It reminded me of something a Philadelphia columnist could have written about Eagles fans had the Cowboys advanced in the NFL playoffs. It did make me feel sheepish, for just though I would surely root against the Cowboys if they ever advanced toward the Super Bowl, I did pull for the Giants in their two Super Bowl victories over the Patriots. Should I be ashamed that I committed that sin back in 2012?

Though the NFL doesn't have reason to complain, Major League Baseball, the NBA, and the NHL all suffer from somewhat anemic post-season TV ratings. And I have been embarrassed at times that I check out of watching whatever postseason is active once my team is out. This is true of all the big sports I watch save the NFL. Even last season, when my son and I picked teams to follow in the MLB postseason (Pirates, Cardinals, Tigers, and Red Sox), their games never became must-see TV for me. Has that made me less of a hockey or baseball fan. I've thought for years that it did.

What I loved about the Globe and Mail column was how it made me realize that there's some real pride in being a blinkered Phillies or Flyers fan. There's no shame in turning off the playoffs when my team fails to advance (or doesn't even get in).

TV coverage of the teams, our teams, saturates us in the season. We get not only the opportunity to watch every minute of every game, but we also get the opportunity to see the manager or coach at the end of every game as well as analysis from some talking head following each game. When our teams' seasons are done, so are we. It would therefore seem to me as if televising the post-season of most sports is an endeavor too narrow for the national networks to do. Most teams' fans are finished, so why should we tune in. It might make more sense for the local broadcasters of those sports to carry that championship round on their network, making the feed available to those who want to carry it.

I don't think I should regret anymore (as I sometimes have) the supposed demise of baseball when I hear report of the weak World Series ratings. Nationwide telecasts of games between two local teams are an anachronism, a token from a time in which access along the way wasn't as heavy and when options for video entertainment weren't as abundant.

Except for the NFL that is. They're just able to print money as if they were the Fed. For the time being however. That seems like a bubble that's going to be popping at some point. Just not now.

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Random Post

A review of a book on The Economist used this photograph of John Wayne, playing the role of Ethan Edwards, from the film The Searchers. A brilliant still from a brilliant performance from a brilliant film.


This particular scene comes from the part of the film in which Wayne's character realizes that his brother's family, the only family he has, has likely been killed in an ambush. That ambush is the tragedy that starts a years-long quest which is the story this film chronicles. 

I've periodically come across moments and images that remind me of how much I love history and miss teaching it this year. I had a few opportunities to watch this film with my American History students, and those opportunities meant a lot to me. 

There exists a stereotype that Social Studies teachers rely too often on film as a way to spend time with our classes. Of course students seem to want you to put on a video (though I had a student recently admit that videos bore her and strike her as just an excuse to zone out). If I am to use the precious, limited time I have with students to show a video, it needs to be educationally worthwhile, something the students are unlikely to watch on their own, and something that I can help them draw meaning from. A film needs to begin a conversation rather than conclude one. To that end, I've found the following films very powerful to show in class: 

The Best Years of Our Lives - a better-than-expected time capsule for students to understand post-World War II America 
Dear America - it's a 90-minute long primary document . . . and students cannot get enough of it
Glory - a great tool for showing the power of enlisting black troops into the cause of fighting succession
High Noon - a very powerful allegory for the challenges of conducting foreign policy as a superpower

Well, I guess the facts changed again

John Maynard Keynes, when challenged by a reporter asking why he changed his mind so often on important questions of economic policy, quipped "When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?" In the spirit of Keynes, I guess I'm changing my mind too. 

I'm glad President Obama is ordering a policy review on the death penalty. I hope it leads to a shift away from capital punishment in the U.S. I hope every state puts executions on hold, and I hope every state eventually ends the practice of it. I could support a U.S. Constitutional Amendment banning it. It's done. 

If you're curious as to why I changed my mind, I encourage you to read this article from a recent issue of The Economist. I found it quite convincing. 

That is all for now.