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Tiger Woods: What His "Fall" Can Teach Us.

This song by Jimi Hendrix kept coming to mind when writing this. Hero worship is a great example of building "Castles Made of Sand." 

Tiger Woods is one of a handful of people who has been able to dominate his sport through sheer talent and/or force of personality, a list that includes larger-than-life sports figures such as Babe Ruth, Michael Jordan, Wayne Gretzky, Muhammad Ali, Jim Brown, and Roger Federer. Recently, however, his name has been added to a longer, less distinguished list of celebrities tarnished by scandal: OJ Simpson, Michael Jackson, Kobe Bryant, Michael Vick, Barry Bonds, and the list goes on and on.

This story has offended people on multiple levels. Some are obviously offended by his infidelity. (Many men, I suspect, are actually kind of jealous.) Others are more sympathetic toward Tiger and argue that his private life should remain private. Golfing skill earned him fame and respect, not the quality of his personal life. We should continue to focus on those skills that make him great and leave the rest alone. Still others ask the question that I find to be the most interesting and important: Why do we care? There are so many things happening in the world that merit more attention than Tiger Woods’ sex life. I sympathize with this complaint, but I also think that Tiger’s story demonstrates some very important truths. Tiger’s behavior, after all, is not the story. The story is the public reaction to his behavior.

The United States may be the most celebrity-obsessed nation of all time (although this is a trait that is not exclusively American in the modern world). Because people are trained from birth to constantly need some external source of entertainment, they end up worshiping entertainers. Now worship, some might say, is too strong of a word, but I find it very appropriate. Americans on average spend far more time, energy, and money on entertainment than they do on religious activities and institutions. They can often tell you more about sports statistics and contestants on American Idol than they can tell you about the Bible, and in my mind, actions speak louder than words.

The problem, however, goes far beyond spending huge amounts of time and money on entertainment. Many Americans, from what I can tell, show as much interest in celebrities’ personal lives as they do in the entertainment that these famous people provide. And in some cases, due to our modern obsession with “reality” TV, an individual’s personal life is the entire basis of his or her fame. Personally, I try to avoid celebrity “news,” and yet I often know which famous people are currently facing marital problems, struggling with weight issues, choosing the wrong fashion designer, or struggling to get pregnant. All that I have to do is go through the checkout stand at the supermarket to get a quick update. Just the other day, I was able to find out who had the best and worst beach bodies, and while I recognize the vital importance of this issue, those were some images that I (in some cases) really did not need to see.

So where does all of this interest in the personal lives of celebrities come from? One source may be the boredom and dissatisfaction that Americans feel with their own lives. By obsessing about celebrities, they get a chance to live vicariously through someone more beautiful and talented. In other cases, the problems celebrities face may actually cause average Americans to feel better about their lives. We may face marital problems, but at least we are not Tiger Woods. Of course, we may also be a society that is always on the lookout for idols and heroes. In an entertainment-crazed culture, this search naturally draws us to people with musical, acting, or athletic skills. But we want more. We want a human being that we can admire, so we are then unable to resist the desire to find out who this person is that entertains us so well. Unfortunately, idol worship directed toward entertainers will often lead to disappointment, and when it does, we make those celebrities pay in the tabloid press.

In addition to the tabloids and the public, certain companies have also decided to punish Tiger Woods. I remember seeing a chart in a newspaper once that showed the highest paid athletes in the world, and Tiger Woods topped the list to the tune of approximately $100 million in a single year. He made a lot of money winning golf tournaments, but it mostly came from advertising dollars. So why do advertisers dish out that kind of money to a guy who is not necessarily an authority on many of the products – watches, razors, cars, etc. – that he endorses? Part of the answer goes back to the celebrity worship mentioned earlier. I also believe, however, that famous people endorsing products, and advertising in general, is clear proof that the human race is not particularly rational. Because Tiger Woods or Michael Jordan is paid to tell us to buy something, does this improve the quality of the product? I hope that we will all answer no, and yet companies keep shelling out the big bucks. Are they that stupid? I doubt it. The truth is that we are apparently that stupid. Advertising does not appeal to human reason. It appeals to subconscious desires. So apparently, on some subconscious level, we believe that buying a Buick or wearing Hanes Underwear will improve our golf game or make us dunk like Michael Jordan. Celebrities project an image which appeals to our subconscious desire to be successful “like Mike.” This is why Tiger has been losing some endorsement deals. Tiger Woods’ appeal to consumers was not simply his golf game; it was also the positive, “family values” image that he projected. Kobe Bryant ran into the same problem a few years ago when he had his own sex scandal.  Kobe has shown, however, that you can eventually earn some of that reputation back. Will Tiger someday do the same?

Finally, in fairness to Tiger Woods, Magic Johnson, Kobe Bryant, Bill Clinton, Jonathan Edwards, and countless other famous, powerful men who have been unable to resist “temptation” at some point in their lives, it is important to note that these celebrities have opportunities that few men (or women) can ever fully comprehend. It is easy to be faithful when opportunities to cheat are not falling into your lap (pun intended). But if you are famous in a world of people who find fame irresistible, it can be difficult to keep “fighting them off.”  To paraphrase Henry Kissinger – a guy who claimed to get a lot of sex  –  “power is the ultimate aphrodisiac.” Ultimately, we humans are the same as all other animals, who are driven by the primal desire to get basic things like food and sex. The desire for lots of sex, in the end (no pun intended), may be one of the biggest reasons why people want to be famous in the first place. One of the biggest costs of this fame, however, is the privacy that Tiger Woods keeps requesting from the public. Privacy, however, is one thing that he gave up a long time ago and will never fully get back.

Why do Many People Hate Speed Cameras?

Here is a song called "905" by The Who. It is reminiscent of "A Brave New World" and is about a man living in a futuristic police state.

About a week ago, I was listening to a story on NPR about cameras that were being used by the state of Arizona to catch people who were driving too fast. This is a practice similar to the use of red light cameras here in California and in several other states. The focus of the story was on the anger that these cameras have generated in Arizona and on the many ways that people are expressing this frustration. One man drove around in a monkey mask to avoid being recognized in his car. A large percentage of the people who had received in the mail the more than $300 fine for speeding had not yet sent in their payments. There was even a case where a worker for the private company that maintains the cameras was shot and killed by a disgruntled motorist. Due to many complaints from citizens and from some government officials in Arizona, there is a good chance that these cameras may soon go away. Where does all of this anger come from?

I can think of several legitimate reasons why many people hate the concept of speed cameras. First of all, they feed in to the already common fear regarding the possible emergence of a “police state.” If traffic enforcement cameras become increasingly common and accepted, it may set the precedent for other types of law enforcement cameras in the future. At some point, there could theoretically be cameras watching our every move.

Second, there is good reason to worry that enforcement may not be fair. Will people who pass a camera on the freeway going 68 miles per hour receive the same fine as someone doing 90? On residential streets, enforcement could be even less fair because it is often difficult to even know the speed limit. Also, even if you assume that the driver is aware of the speed limit, it is so easy to lose focus for a few seconds and allow yourself to go a little too fast. Will law enforcement officials reviewing the camera footage show a little understanding toward drivers who were inadvertently slightly speeding? Living, breathing traffic cops probably won’t stop you when you are going 45 MPH in a 40 zone. But what will the cameras be programmed to do? After all, you are technically speeding when you drive one mile per hour beyond the speed limit.

Others might question the motives behind these speed cameras. State and local governments are strapped for cash these days. In the name of law enforcement, have these cameras mainly been set up to raise some revenue? If the motivation is primarily economic, there will be a built-in incentive to catch as many people as possible. Very strict enforcement, therefore, could be the norm. The people mentioned in the previous paragraph who may have been slightly speeding could someday find a big traffic fine in the mail, and in many cases, these “speeders” may have actually put no one at risk.

I understand all of these fears, but I can’t help thinking that some of this anger is not so legitimate. All of us, in theory, recognize the need for a wide variety of traffic laws. People cannot be trusted to drive safely simply because they know that it is the right thing to do. We also recognize that the number of police officers is limited, so the highway patrol cannot catch most of the people who routinely break traffic laws. Cameras, of course, could change this equation. Now, in certain areas, there will always be “someone” watching. The roads should then be safer. Indeed, NPR reported in that story that traffic accidents had gone down in Arizona, and yet the people keep complaining.

This anger is one of many symptoms of a deep-seated ambivalence toward government in our country. We want the government to do its job, with public safety, according to many people, being its most important responsibility. Most Americans when asked would also agree that law enforcement officials should receive the resources that they need. Then, if government either asks for these resources or takes action to actually enforce laws that we all agree are necessary, we bitch about it. Deep down, we want the government to let us drive the way we want. They should enforce laws, but only when it is other people breaking them. After all, government should only go out and punish the truly dangerous drivers, something few Americans would ever admit to being. And of course, the government should never take away our God-given “right” to drive.

In many ways, the government cannot win. If they take strong measures to maintain public security or to deal with any other problems, we complain, particularly if their actions affect us personally. Then, if there are lots of traffic accidents, or if, “theoretically,” something crazy like a financial meltdown almost happens because of foolish borrowers and lenders involving themselves in ridiculous home mortgages  - and strange financial instruments that were built on a foundation of these bad mortgages - we blame the government and tell them to fix things. When financial institutions, real estate speculators, and unworthy borrowers were profiting from their risk-taking, they wanted government to both encourage this behavior and to not burden them with annoying regulations. Then, when the risk-taking stopped paying off, they often blamed the government and demanded a bailout.

Of course, it is difficult to find the right balance between too much and too little government. We want the government to provide many services but do not want to pay a lot of taxes. We want the government too keep us safe without infringing on our privacy and other personal freedoms. We want a government that prevents corporate abuses but does not regulate too much. Then, when things go wrong, we blame the government that we never wanted to do too much in the first place.

If the post-9/11 era has taught us anything, it is that we should be wary of a government that takes drastic measures in the name of keeping us safe. Personal freedom without responsibility, however, can also be a dangerous thing. There are lots of drivers on our roads who should not be out there. We all see them every day. Cars are too dangerous to allow just anyone to drive them. However, it is an unfortunate truth that strictly enforcing traffic laws and taking away the driver’s licenses of those who consistently break them will not earn politicians a lot of votes. Also, telling certain people that they may not be able to afford a home or requiring powerful financial institutions to follow certain rules can be politically risky. Unfortunately, many Americans, and possibly the human race in general, are shortsighted, self-centered individuals who do not want to be held accountable for their actions. I guess it is easier to blame the other political party or the government in general for everything and to keep making unreasonable demands.

Gay Marriage: Why It's Fine With Me

In recent years, gay marriage has been one of the most contentious and emotionally charged issues in the United States. I had some reservations about addressing this issue because I know that many people have a problem with my point of view. Then again, the controversy makes addressing this issue irresistible. If nothing else, writing about something that many people are passionate about can attract potential readers, and bad press is better than no press. As always, I encourage comments and feedback, particularly from people who can point out things that I left out or who can show me where I have gone wrong. But be respectful, please. If you can’t back up your opinions with a rational argument, it is probably best to keep them to yourself. Also, refrain from quotations from any scriptures. The last time I checked, our country still had the separation of church and state. Scriptural references, therefore, are irrelevant when discussing this legal issue.

I am going to address this issue a little differently than normal. I have made a list in no particular order of the arguments that I have heard against the legalization of gay marriage. Then I will attempt to refute each argument.

1) If gay marriage is made legal, it will open the door for other types of non-traditional marriage. People might want to marry their pets and farm animals, and polygamy could potentially make a comeback. First of all, the argument that people will marry animals is stupid, and it embarrasses the people who make it. As far as I know, no one has learned to speak dog, cat, or horse language. (Although we can train them to obey simple commands.) Marriage, by definition, is a contract involving two consenting adults. So if we can’t speak animal language, it is difficult to determine if the animal has given consent. And because it is a bitch to pick up a pen with a paw or a hoof, it is impractical to get written consent from them either. Even if we could understand their wishes, I doubt that animals comprehend the concept of marriage. I suspect that we will never know. Now the polygamy argument is more plausible. Polygamy has been common throughout history and still exists in a semi-underground fashion in the United States. Personally, I don’t have a big problem with polygamy. I would not recommend entering into this type of arrangement, but if other people make this choice, it has no effect on me. At least it is honest. Large numbers of Americans have multiple romantic relationships simultaneously, and in most cases this is done secretly. It’s difficult to argue that polygamy is somehow more immoral than cheating or adultery. Now allowing polygamy could raise some tricky questions involving child custody, tax breaks, medical insurance, inheritance, and many other issues, but these questions can be tricky now with our heterosexual monogamy system. Adapting the rules to polygamous marriage might force us to ask ourselves if the current rules and regulations surrounding marriage make any sense. (In particular, it could be another reason to change a medical system in which it is so difficult for many to get affordable insurance.) And finally, attempts to marry animals or to have multiple spouses could occur whether gay marriage is implemented or not.

2) If gay marriage becomes legal, it will be the strongest sign yet that homosexual behavior, something that many Americans consider immoral, has become acceptable. People who disapprove of homosexuality should not be forced to accept it as normal. I agree somewhat with this argument. The acceptance of gay marriage would represent a major cultural shift in our country. The only question, I guess, is whether or not this is a positive thing. No one, however, is going to be forced into thinking that homosexuality is OK. There are lots of perfectly legal behaviors that people have the right to openly criticize: heavy drinking, extramarital sex, gambling, and the list goes on and on. You do not, however, have the right to abuse or discriminate against people who have a lifestyle that you do not like. You will also run into trouble if you try to turn your personal code of ethics into a legal code. It is impossible to legally ban all of the things that you are personally against. If the Ten Commandments were ever turned into a legal code, all of us would be fined or in jail – or in the Old Testament, stoned – fairly quickly, and many members of Congress would be put away first. Can you imagine if adultery was illegal? What if you could arrest or sue someone for coveting your wife, dishonoring his or her parents, or doing some work on the Sabbath day. The only commandments that can be practically enforced as laws are those against killing and stealing, and I think that we can all agree that physically harming someone or stealing his or her stuff does more damage than performing a gay marriage in front of that person. We are all forced to put up with some behaviors that we find offensive. The basic rule in our country is that people have the right to engage in behaviors that do not infringe on the rights of others. Try as I might, I cannot think of any way that other people entering into a gay marriage takes away my rights. The Constitution, as far as I know, does not say that we have the right to never be offended. Interracial marriage used to offend people and was illegal in many states until shortly after the Civil Rights Movement. Forty years ago, my marriage would have been illegal in certain parts of the country. Heaven forbid that people as dangerous and immoral as my wife and I should have the opportunity to offend anyone!

3) If gay marriage becomes legal, schools will be forced to teach children that it is OK. This is a classic scare tactic, similar to Sarah Palin’s “death panels.” I went to school for many years, and I don’t remember anyone teaching me lessons about proper marriages. Schools may have the opportunity someday to tell kids that gay marriage exists and is legal. Schools may also promote tolerance, teaching that all people regardless of race, religion, color, or sexual persuasion deserve to be treated with respect. Does this mean that schools are teaching that gay marriage and homosexuality in general are morally acceptable? Not necessarily. They are just pointing out that these behaviors exist and that you should not be mean to gay people. How could anyone have a problem with that? I doubt that there are many kids who get their morals from schools anyway.

4) If gay marriage becomes legal, it will be easier for homosexual couples to adopt and raise children (or to have kids through surrogates, artificial insemination, etc.) If kids are raised by gay parents, it will do them (the kids) psychological harm. I am unaware of any hard evidence that proves that children raised by gay couples are psychologically damaged. (If you really want to, you can probably make “scientific” data say anything.) If kids are harmed, the damage probably comes from individuals who criticize or make fun of their parents and not from the parents themselves. In this case, it is society that has the problem. Yet, if you could somehow show that it is bad for children to be raised by anyone other than a married man and woman, gay parents are hardly your biggest problem. Huge numbers of children are currently being raised by parents who are living in equally “immoral” circumstances. Divorced parents, single parents living with significant others, and gay, unmarried parents could all be labeled “undesirable.” Should we take actions to prevent these parents from “damaging” their kids?

5) Gay marriage threatens America’s traditional, Judeo-Christian concept of marriage. It will degrade the institution of marriage for everyone.

6) If gay marriage becomes acceptable, churches and religious organizations will be forced to go against their religious doctrines and bestow the sacrament of marriage on homosexuals.

7) Gay marriage is unnecessary. Most (if not all) states have other types of legal contracts that can provide gay couples with all of the benefits that married couples receive.

I am going to deal with arguments 5-7 together. They all come down to the same central issue. Often, when people argue against gay marriage, they are using the term marriage differently than the state does. For many, marriage is primarily a sacrament, a sacred union blessed by God and performed by some sort of a religious minister. In a country where you can get married by a judge or by an Elvis impersonator in Vegas, it does not take long to figure out that the United States does not view marriage as a religious sacrament. According to the state, marriage is a legal contract that has implications for childcare, property sharing, medical insurance, hospital visitation rights, and many other issues. People who say that they are fine with “civil unions” but offended by “gay marriage” do not seem to understand that the state defines them as being essentially the same. Churches and religious institutions, therefore, are not required to perform a marriage ceremony for anyone. I know from personal experience that the Catholic Church has a policy against marrying two non-Catholics or marrying someone who has been divorced. (They require that the divorced participant(s) get an annulment.) As far as I know, no one is suing the Catholic Church for these policies. The state, after all, has no jurisdiction over religious ceremonies. If the church refuses to perform the ceremony, this will do nothing to stop the individuals from marrying. So when people worry about the marriage institution being somehow degraded, their fears are misguided. In a sense, the institution is already degraded. Lots of heterosexual couples have married without seeking any blessing from God. Las Vegas, in particular, degrades the institution every day. Should we ban the Vegas style fifteen-minute wedding?

The most important question that I ask myself is why this issue gets so much attention. In my view, this issue has consistently been used as a smokescreen, a distraction from the issues that actually impact people’s lives: health care, business regulations, entitlement reform, defense spending, etc. The problem with the issues that really matter is that they are complicated, and they often force people to think about details that require a great deal of time, patience, and attention span. Gay marriage seems simple. You are either for it or against it. It also appeals, particularly for its opponents, to emotional, gut-level feelings of right and wrong. Politicians may be many things, but they are not dumb. They recognize an opportunity to emotionally manipulate voters when they see it, and there is no emotion easier to manipulate than fear, the most important emotion in politics. When you go through the arguments against gay marriage, many are rooted in fear.

To many opponents of gay marriage, this issue represents a major front in the “culture war,” a somewhat mythical battle between people who uphold conservative, “family values” and secular liberals pushing, among other things, the “gay agenda.” They seem to think that if they elect politicians who believe in traditional family values, then America itself will have better values. I don’t know about you, but I don’t get my values from politicians. Anyone who puts their hope for family values into the hands of politicians is bound to be disappointed. Whenever you hear about a sex scandal involving a politician, more often than not it is the story of a “family values” conservative who sought out gay men in restrooms or liked to visit his mistress in Argentina. I don’t care about politicians’ supposed, self-proclaimed values; I care about his positions on the issues that actually affect me. If people want the values of Americans to improve, and if they want to protect marriage, they should focus on improving their own marriages and on living up to the values that they claim to believe. Maybe then they will have less time and energy to spend butting in on other people’s personal lives.

A Few Words about Abraham Lincoln

Today is Abraham Lincoln’s birthday. I always remember this because it is the day before my birthday. (I was almost a Valentine’s baby.) Lincoln is one of the most beloved and mythologized men in American History. When you visit the Lincoln Memorial, you feel like you are in some kind of a Greek temple. Except with Lincoln, you want to sit on his statue’s lap and tell him your problems. (Does anyone remember that episode of The Simpsons?)

Lincoln, however, was more human (and interesting) than his statue. A few years ago, I read a biography of Lincoln called With Malice Toward None: A Life of Abraham Lincoln. This book, among other things, brings the real Lincoln to life. Lincoln, as the legends say, did work his way up from virtually nothing to become a successful lawyer, assemblyman, one-term congressman, and eventually President. His father could hardly write, which caused Lincoln to be ashamed of him. (Lincoln himself had a little more than a year of formal schooling.) Lincoln did not even attend his father’s funeral. He loved telling jokes, some of which would be considered a bit dirty by his society’s standards. He would often suffer intense bouts of depression where he would go into self-imposed isolation for long periods of time. Some believe that he may have had bipolar disorder or suffered from manic depression. Throughout his political career, he would make public statements indicating that he did not necessarily believe in racial equality. He once famously said that his opposition to slavery did not mean that he supported the idea if interracial marriage. When he started laying out reconstruction plans toward the end of the war, these plans did not include much in the way of aid for the former slaves he is given so much credit for setting free. When he first became President, a job he would have never dreamed of getting just a few years earlier, he was somewhat indecisive and insecure at times. When his generals during the early years of the Civil War often failed to take decisive and effective action, Lincoln did not feel confident enough to take more direct charge of the war. He was not particularly popular through much of his presidency, and he was nervous about his prospects for winning reelection in 1864. It was only after his assassination that he started to become one of the most beloved men in our history.

My goal is not to trash this man with whom I almost share a birthday. For me, the flaws and weaknesses of Abraham Lincoln make his achievements more impressive. He definitely grew into the job of President, and most Historians rank him as the greatest chief executive in our nation’s history. No President of the future is likely to have a resume that includes achievements as impressive as abolishing slavery and saving the union. He was also a man who showed the capacity to evolve. (Karl Rove would have labeled him a “flip-flopper.”) He grew from a man who believed that abolishing slavery was impractical to the President who pushed through the 13th Amendment. If he had lived to see Reconstruction through, would he have eventually supported plans to help ex-slaves transition more effectively to their new lives? We will never know. Still, the Lincoln story, particularly when it includes his flaws and weaknesses, gives me the hope to believe that a person as imperfect as I can do something significant with my life.

Technology, pt.1: My Modernization Program

I heard this song at LA Fitness for the first time. When I got home, I googled a few lyrics that I remembered, found the song, downloaded it, and had it on my MP3 player in minutes. Ah, the joys of modern technology!

A few years ago, a rare thing happened: a school where I teach had an opening for a full-time teaching position. I decided to do whatever I could to maximize my chances and make myself as marketable as possible. This school happened to be the most technologically advanced of the schools where I taught. So as I thought about the teaching presentation that I might have the opportunity to perform, I realized how technologically backward I would appear to both the dean and to other evaluators. In fact, it was only a couple of years before that I had finally converted my lecture outlines to overhead transparencies: a great leap forward to 1970’s era technology. I had to ask myself if I would hire someone like me.

This was a sorry state of affairs for someone who had begun college as a Computer Science major and had spent a lot of time in high school creating his own computer programs. I am not saying that I was a complete computer geek or wiz kid. After all, I switched from Computer Science to Social Science after only a year. But compared to most people at the time, I was at the cutting edge of computer technology.  Now, and for many years previously, my computer use and skills had become somewhat limited: word processing, e-mail, computer games, some occasional web browsing. It was time to get myself up to date.

I had a few common excuses for why I had never learned how to use Power Point in the classroom. The most common one made it seem that it was the schools’ fault. Many classrooms did not have computers in them yet, and often they did not even have projectors. Teachers would then be forced to sign up for a computer cart and wheel the thing into class each day. This would be a pain for a person traveling from school to school, which brings up another excuse. Since each school had a unique set of circumstances, I thought that it would be difficult to master each school’s technological system.  This excuse was particularly effective for a person like me whose computer skills had deteriorated so much. I did not realize, for some reason, that Windows is Windows and Power Point is Power Point, so computers would operate in basically the same way anywhere. Projectors, which also scared me, also operate in essentially the same way, and they involve little more in terms of technical skills than finding the “on” button.

My main excuses, it turns out, were rooted primarily in fear. Some of these fears were perfectly justified, particularly the one that is the ultimate teacher nightmare: standing in front of a class not knowing what to do. When I was a teacher at the secondary level, this fear usually involved televisions and VCR’s. If my lesson plan included watching a movie, what would I do if the movie did not work? At the secondary level, after all, dead time turns into mass anarchy. Now while college students are more forgiving, I did not want to become too dependent on technology that could break down at any time. And since computers were scarier than VCR’s, this fear was enough to keep me on overhead projectors. The other basic fear, however, was less justified, and this was the simple fear of change. All of us can fall into comfort zones, and this may be more true of us teachers than anyone.

Not all of my excuses, however, were rooted in fear. I would also tell myself and others that I did not want to do all of the work that would be required to convert everything to Power Point. After all, as I said before, many classrooms did not even have computers and projectors in them yet. In addition, a Power Point presentation just seemed like a glorified slide show. Would it really be significantly different from the overhead transparencies that I was already using? As computers became more readily available, however, the desire to avoid all of that work sounded like less of a reasonable excuse and more a product of laziness. And when that full-time position came up, it was clear that it was time to change whether I was ready or not. It did not take me long to realize that a computer-generated presentation could be much more than a glorified slide show. After a semester or two of using Power Point, it was hard to imagine that I had ever done anything else.

This shift to Power Point, however, was only the first step in a technological modernization program that continues to this day. Since classrooms at one of my schools did not provide you with a computer, I had to get a laptop to plug in to the projector that they would provide. Then, because I liked the idea of browsing the internet on my couch, I went out to get a thing that was apparently called a router, which I then had to fumble with until it was operational. Now I was ready to convert all of my outlines. Of course, making good Power Point presentations involves more than just typing outlines with a bunch of bullet points. If a computer is to be more than a glorified overhead projector, the presentation must include as many visual aids as possible. With the internet, of course, there is a seemingly infinite amount of stuff that can be integrated into these presentations. So over the next several months, I spent many hours gathering  and integrating maps, paintings, political cartoons, charts, diagrams, photographs and anything else I could find into my presentations.

I had also heard a lot of talk about some hot new web site called You Tube in which everyday people posted virtually any type of video. So I started seeing if this even included history videos, which of course it does. Now, I integrate these short videos into my lessons all of the time, using mostly primary source types of videos that can quickly bring certain events to life. Some of my classrooms, however, do not have easy internet access, which forced me to learn how to download and convert these videos into something that could be played on any computer. After hours of work and aid from the ultimate computer experts in our society, teenagers, I was able to figure out how to do this. Strangely, I now find myself giving advice about downloading videos and converting them from the FLV to MPEG format, a concept that would have been a foreign language to me a few years ago.

This, however, was not the end of my reintegration into the world of technology. My brother-in-law, the guy who always gives my kids the coolest presents, decided to give them some little MP3 players for Christmas a couple of years ago. It was then up to me to figure out how to use the things. It did not take long for me to realize that these were the coolest things since loafed bread. I had to get one, although mine would, of course, have more features and memory than my kids’ players. More features, of course, meant more complications, so I struggled for some hours figuring out how to organize files and sync my device to my media player in order to create play lists. (And for a guy like me who was raised on cassette tapes, MP3 play lists may be even greater than loafed bread.)

With these skills perfected, I then had to engage in a new technological struggle. For months I had noticed that NPR kept mentioning a phenomena known as the podcast. As far as I could tell, this was radio’s version of a DVR – I had also recently gotten one of those - in which programs could be downloaded onto a MP3 player somehow and listened to at any time. After conducting some research and struggling with a few podcasting programs, I was now able to make more productive use of my many hours of driving time. Through podcasts of programs about both current events and history, I am now able to keep myself much more up-to-date than ever before.

In a sense, I guess that this is what the last few years have been about: getting myself up-to-date. There is such a wealth of resources out there that I failed to tap into for so many years. I am somewhat embarrassed today to look back and see how much that I was missing. I also think of all the students who went through my classes and had an inferior experience relative to my current students. My backwardness, however, had another equally negative effect. Since I am now teaching the first generation of students who view both the internet and cell phones as a natural part of their everyday lives, I was until recently unable to relate to their world. Now, since I am somewhat more technologically adept, I think that some students are more likely to both relate to me and view me with a certain amount of respect. I am not, after all, just some old bald guy living in the past.

There was still, however, one final part of the technological universe that I had not yet entered: the world of social networking. A few months ago, however, this also started to change when I finally broke down and got myself a Facebook account. I initially thought that this would be something that I would only use occasionally, but the next thing I knew, I had found dozens of old friends and was using the site in some way nearly every day. I can now see the attraction of these types of sites, and I often find myself struggling to turn the computer off. And with my newfound venture into the world of blogging, another foreign concept to me not long ago, I am in front of the computer screen even more.

Clearly, this technological modernization program has enhanced my life in all sorts of ways. My courses are easier to teach, and they incorporate a wider variety of teaching techniques that are particularly effective for visual learners. I stay more current in both my knowledge of current events and of new historical information. I have also, after many years, gotten back into collecting music, and I have realized that good music did not stop being made fifteen years ago. My increasing use of e-mail has also made it much easier for me to stay in close contact with students. And as my computer file managing skills became more sophisticated, I also started to get better at using digital cameras, and I am proud to say that all of our family photos and home movies are fully digitized and safely backed up onto DVD’s. As the title of my blog indicates, though, I did not get that full-time gig. (A guy who had been part-time longer than me got the job ) Still, that interview opportunity turned out to be a push that I sorely needed.
There is one technological step, however, that I have not yet taken. . . . . . (To be continued)

Were Old People Always Old?

Click here for a video of The Who playing "My Generation." It's set to a montage of footage from the band's early history. The key line for this post is probably the most famous lyric from the song: "Hope I die before I get old." (Most of them didn't.)

I’ve seen a few advertisements recently for this Sunday’s Super Bowl half time show. Apparently, one of my favorite rock bands of all time, The Who, is getting together again for this year’s extravaganza. I had a few different reactions when I first learned of this. First of all, I was surprised that they had not gone into permanent retirement. After all, they have to be well past the age where many start collecting Social Security. The fact that they are getting up there in age also makes me worried about both their musical abilities and their personal safety. I remember hearing years ago that Pete Townshend was practically deaf from years of playing really loud concerts. Will he still be able to hear well enough to stay in sync with his band mates? Also, if he breaks into one of his windmill guitar moves, is there a danger that his shoulder will come out of its socket? And at the end of “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” when he attempts to smash his guitar into pieces, will he still be able to generate enough force to carry this out?

After some reflection, the logic of booking The Who became clear. Ever since Janet Jackson terrorized the world by flashing one of her breasts a few years ago, the organizers of the Super Bowl have been booking older, seemingly safer artists for their halftime shows: Paul McCartney, Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty, The Rolling Stones, and now, The Who. (You know that the world has changed when The Who and The Rolling Stones are considered to be “safe” acts.) These older artists, whose status is based on the quality of their music and not stunts like a “wardrobe malfunction,” seem less likely to offend anyone. So if god forbid they accidentally flash some private body part to the world, the emotional reaction of the audience is more likely to be repulsion than arousal. And let’s face it; repulsion offends far fewer people than arousal.

I also wonder about the oncoming reaction of the younger audience to these old men rocking out at The Super Bowl. I am sure that some of them are familiar with The Who. Classic rock still gets the attention of some young folks. Some unfamiliar with the band may also be impressed with what these guys can do. In their heyday, after all, The Who played stuff that was louder, harder, and more powerful than just about anything out there today. Still, I think that most of the youth will see some old guys doing old people music, something that is, by its very nature, uncool. Old people can’t do real rock music. Good music, after all, is played by people who know how to be bad.

There is a disturbing moment that all children must go through when they learn about the “birds and the bees.” When the concept sinks in that certain body parts must be placed into certain locations in order to produce children, an image pops into their head that is unavoidable: “If I am standing here, then my parents must have had sex.” Then, if they have the guts to follow this line of reasoning, there is an even more disturbing insight: “My grandparents also must have had sex.” Then, if they have healthy imaginations, other questions follow: “Is it possible that mom, dad, grandma, or grandpa had sex with other people before they got married. I wonder how experimental they were in exploring different ways to…” and then their brain shuts down due to psychological trauma, and they may possibly lose their lunch. It is probably best at that point for kids to convince themselves that mom and dad and grandma and grandpa only did it enough times to produce the kids that they had. It also lasted for a very short time and was not very good.

It is very difficult for young people to picture old people doing all of the fun things that society tells them are bad, whether it is playing wild music or having a good time ‘doing the nasty.” (My Uncle once told me that his kids thought that they invented sex.) This is partly because it is hard for young people to picture older people as ever being young. It is almost like they live under the delusion that older people came out of birthing pods as fully mature adults. The reality, of course, is that their parents and grandparents were young once, and their behavior was not all that different from modern day young people. They may have had moments where they drank too much, drove in an unwise fashion, accidentally set fire to their parents’ garage (which my dad did once), or, god forbid, disobeyed their parents.

Parents are partly to blame for this delusion. We recognize that we are role models for our kids, so we want to present the best image that we can. This includes, of course, giving them at times a somewhat edited version of our own personal history. A couple of weeks ago, I posted an essay called “The Battle Against Schoolhouse Rock (and other Childish Depictions of History.)” (See Blog Archive to the right.) There, I talked about society’s tendency to give kids a romanticized version of American History, which is understandable but can also be potentially harmful if taken too far. Is the same true when we give our kids a romanticized personal history? I will let you decide.

Whatever the case, through the course of writing this I have thought of another good reason for kids to study history. As I have said, it is difficult for us parents to be honest with our kids about our own past (or present). So instead of introducing kids to the fact that the world and the people in it are often messed up through the example of our own lives, maybe they could get used to what the world is really like by studying history. That way, when we as parents inevitably disappoint them, they won’t be so surprised. Sometimes, the opportunity to get a dose of reality about both their families and society in general might come up for kids simultaneously. I can imagine a situation where a kid is watching the movie documentary about “The Woodstock Festival” of 1969. There, in the front row, they might see grandma and grandpa half (or more) naked, smoking something that looks illegal, and having a great time listening to The Who. 

Religion and Public Education, pt. 4: Creation vs. Evolution

Here's a video of Chris Smither singing a folk song called "Origin of Species." His voice is an acquired taste, but the lyrics are a good introduction to this post.

I do not claim to have much in the way of scientific knowledge. I took a fair amount of Anthropology and Geography courses in my day and managed to fulfill the general education requirements for science, but I will make no attempt here to present any theories about the origins of life or of the universe. I suspect that the answers to these great questions are more interesting and complicated than anything that we humans have managed to develop, and there is a good chance that forces we define as natural and supernatural are both involved. In my mind, expecting humans to figure everything out is like waiting for an ant to figure out what the heck a human being might be. There are certain things beyond our capacity. But what do I know. To me, existence itself is the greatest mystery.

As a History teacher, however, I am forced from time to time to confront questions about the origins of human beings and of existence in general. (One of the best things about being a History teacher, after all, is that I get to talk about everything.) In my Early World Civilizations course, these issues come up when we read and discuss the creation stories of different cultures. Now for all of these stories, I present them in essentially the same way: as mythological stories designed to communicate certain basic truths. In most cases, people are fine with this perspective. But when you present the stories in the book of Genesis in this way, this may rub a lot of people in our Judeo/Christian culture the wrong way.

These potential objections, however, are based on a misunderstanding of the term “myth.” For many people, the word myth means “an untrue story,” an oversimplification of the term. Instead, a myth is a means of communicating truth that has been used by various cultures for centuries. In fact, our method of communicating History – the type of dry expository writing that you find in textbooks – is a modern and historically unusual way to write about the past. Legends and myths have been the norm, and the people composing and listening to the stories understood this. After all, they generally did not have the option of writing history in the way that we do. People in the past did not have access to the mass of information that is at the disposal of modern Historians. So they told stories that were orally passed down and altered through succeeding generations until they might eventually be written down. Certain aspects of the stories might be loosely based on actual events, and other elements were based on what people wanted the past to be. Whatever the case, the goals were to present certain individuals of the past as role models (for good or bad), explain mysterious aspects of life, and instill the culture’s values, beliefs, and traditions into the listeners.

Many Jews and Christians have no problem with this interpretation. They understand that the stories were not meant to be taken literally. They acknowledge that the world is probably more than a few thousand years old and that all life forms – including, possibly, human beings – were not created fully intact in an instant. For fundamentalists who take the Genesis stories literally, however, the theories and conclusions of scientists, archaeologists, and historians are potential threats to their world view. So the battle rages and has been given different labels: faith vs. reason, creation vs. evolution, or science vs. scripture.

In my Modern American History course, we confront these questions and their educational implications very directly when we discuss “The Scopes Trial” of the 1920’s. In this event that was one of many “trials of the century,” a science teacher named John Scopes was arrested for teaching that mankind descended from a lower order of animals. His behavior conflicted with a Tennessee state law, a law that was also on the books of a few other states, which stated that teaching evolution in a public school was illegal. This law, however, had not been enforced until opponents of this measure asked John Scopes if he would like to be arrested. After some hesitation, he agreed. They could now use his case to attack this anti-evolution law that they considered to be ridiculous.

So the trial had little to do with John Scopes himself. It should have been pretty straightforward. Scopes should have been asked if he taught evolution. He would then say yes. Trial over. Instead, it turned into this great media circus and entertainment event in which talented, prominent lawyers went back and forth discussing not just the merits of this law but of the whole creationist perspective. (Lots of monkey related items also went on sale in the town of Dayton, Tennessee.) The question of who won this short-term battle is subject to debate. Like all political and religious debates, most people came out believing that their side had made the better case. Over the long haul, however, many would say that the scientific perspective has won the battle in the public schools. Today, the evolutionary perspective is dominant, and people who want to bring back supernatural explanations are on the outside looking in.

Several years ago, people who called themselves “Scientific Creationists” argued that there was scientific evidence to support the fundamentalist Christian perspective. They also argued that there were holes in evolutionary theory, and these holes should not simply be glossed over. Forcing students to listen only to the evolutionary perspective was no different than banning evolution back in the 1920’s. If scientists really believe in free thought, they should not be threatened by the idea of presenting alternative theories in public school Science classrooms.

There were a couple of major problems with Scientific Creationism, however. First, as I mentioned earlier, there are many Christians who do not take Genesis literally, and they would argue, like most scientists, that evidence for a literal interpretation is pretty flimsy at best. A second, even greater difficulty in my mind was The First Amendment. Because Scientific Creationism was so blatantly pushing the perspective of a specific religion, it would seem to violate the provision banning the government from promoting the “establishment of religion.”

People eventually found a way, it seemed, to get around both of these problems. Today, “Intelligent Design” is the new movement to bring the supernatural back into the science classroom. Advocates of Intelligent Design argue that evolutionary theory, which credits the random process of natural selection with creating the world as we know it, is unable to explain certain things, particularly the existence of life itself. In their minds, highly complex life forms originating and evolving into such a wide variety of species could not have possibly happened by pure chance. There must be some kind of a supernatural designer guiding the process. This perspective has two major advantages over Scientific Creationism. First, you are not limited to providing evidence for a fundamentalist interpretation of the book of Genesis. You can now bring in both Christians and members of other religious faiths who might believe that the earth is billions of years old and who accept a certain amount of evolution. They would argue that evolution, instead of being purely random, has been guided by a “designer” working “behind the scenes.” Now, by bringing in people from many different religious perspectives, you can claim that you are in compliance with The First Amendment. Intelligent Design, by not promoting a specific religious faith, can be accepted by all people who believe in anyone or anything supernatural.

Intelligent Design supporters make a good case. Teachers in Science classes should point out the things that scientists are unable to explain. It would also be legitimate to point out that many people turn to spirituality when dealing with things not yet explainable. Inserting an intelligent designer (or designers) to fill these gaps in knowledge, however, goes beyond the scope of science. Science, by definition, is a discipline in which people seek knowledge through experiment and observation. An Intelligent Designer, by definition, is supernatural, which means that he (or she, or it, or them) is not subject to physical observation. Theories beyond the scope of scientific observation do not belong in a Science class.

This does not mean, however, that religious explanations should be kept entirely out of public schools. What the Scientific Creationist and Intelligent Design theories demonstrate, more than anything else, is the degree to which the scientific perspective has become dominant. People feel that if an idea is to be considered credible, it must be backed by scientific evidence. What we have forgotten is that science is only one path to knowledge. Philosophy, mysticism, and the use of metaphor are also approaches one can take when trying to answer life’s great questions. These also happen to be approaches that have been in wider use throughout history than the scientific method. If we overemphasize science, we lose touch with a part of our nature. I would argue, then, that religious ideas should be presented and discussed in public school Literature, Humanities, Philosophy, Religious Studies and Art classes as legitimate options. (Although no single religious option should be emphasized or promoted in any way.) Of course, it would be necessary to offer these subjects in grammar and secondary schools in order to make these ideas known, something that I also think should be done in our overly “practical” educational system.

In my Modern American History class, I always end our discussion of The Scopes Trial with two simple questions: Why did people care so much about this case, and why are people still so passionate about the creation vs. evolution issue? There may be several valid explanations for this phenomenon, but I think it largely comes down to something very simple. When The Scopes Trial occurred in the 1920’s, the country was going through a period of major social change. “Flappers” challenging traditional rules of behavior for women, an emerging youth culture, and the growing influence of a mass media seemed to threaten traditional values. Excessive drinking (in spite of Prohibition), “wild” Jazz music, and reckless spending on new consumer goods made it seem that people were seeking nothing but pleasure. Concerns about the influence of communists and foreigners, fears leftover from the World War I era, made people wonder if American culture itself was under siege. (Sound familiar?)  During times of fear and change, people often cling to traditional values. Seemingly, if scientists had their way, then the Christian belief system that was such a central part of traditional American culture would be wiped out. And if people lose the fear of God, then the rampant immorality of the 1920’s would only get worse. After all, if there is no promise of a reward in heaven or threat of a punishment in hell, then what’s the point of being good?

The human race is in a sorry state if the only reason that people are good is the prospect of getting a reward or avoiding punishment. On some level, maybe we all know that the things labeled as bad are actually good, and we would all go out and experience all the sex, alcohol, and gambling binges that we could if we knew that there were no eternal consequences. There may not be enough atheists in the world to conduct a case study in order to determine if this is true. If it is true, however, then the Christians may be right about human nature. Maybe we are inherently sinful, and we have a limited capacity to figure things out. Whatever the case, the creation/evolution struggle will rage on into the foreseeable future. In the mean time, I will try to focus on becoming a better and a wiser human being (just for the hell of it).