Saturday, September 17, 2011

Keep Moving -- Writer's Poke #319

The lucky ones feel a deep sense of belonging. They know why they’re here, and that sense of belonging and purpose informs how they live their lives.

This doesn’t always happen all at once, this feeling of belonging, but it can develop over time. It can take root, and it can blossom.

Do you know why you’re here, or are you simply going through the motions for the time being? Perhaps “for the time being” has been going on for quite a while? Even going through the motions can be a positive kinetic experience. Every day at the gym, I see dozens of people working hard, going nowhere. These are the treadmill enthusiasts. Me, I prefer doing my walking on a real track, but whether or not walking around in a big circle is superior to walking in place is debatable.

The point is to keep moving. Don’t stagnate. Don’t allow yourself to die a little bit more inside each day. We all have the power within us to achieve greatness. This isn’t a cliché. Reaching one’s potential is achieving greatness. Not reaching one’s potential is the living death. So, no, you might not ever be an astronaut, but let that stop you from being what you can be. 

Don’t stop to doubt. If you have to take the time to doubt, then the least you can do is keep moving. As long as your feet are moving, you are keeping your potential in motion. Don’t let anyone or anything stop you, including yourself. And never allow fear or failure to take from you what only you can willingly give away.

What do you do on a daily basis to move one step closer to your potential? 

Continuous effort – not strength or intelligence – is the key to unlocking our potential.” – Winston Churchill

Friday, September 16, 2011

Knowledge with(out) Interest -- Writer's Poke #318

The 2010 National Assessment of Educational Progress indicated that only 13% of American high school seniors achieved “solid academic progress in American history.” I would assume that there is a simple explanation for this. Students don’t read history books, they don’t take history classes, and the culture doesn’t reinforce the value of knowing historical information.

Did you take history classes in high school? I took two full years of history classes, but I was the exception. Some of us took history during the summer, but a lot of the people in that class simply wanted to complete in six weeks what would normally take a full academic year to sleep through otherwise. In other words, some just wanted to “get it over with.” When I took Modern and Medieval History during the regular year, almost everyone in there was simply looking for a place to hide. All of my friends were in Honors and Advanced Placement classes, and these History classes were filler classes, at best – a way to make sure the remedial students didn’t have three study halls in a row.

Right now I’m taking a graduate-level Civil War History course. For most lovers of American History, the Civil War is one of the most popular subjects, but my professor assigned ten books, over 5000 pages, and not surprisingly, the class isn’t full. Even history lovers shy away from such a reading load. But he requires a 20-25 page research paper, and without investing the time in the reading, most of us would find it quite difficult to complete the assignment.

A lot of people complain that they don’t have anything to write about, but the truth of the matter is, it’s pretty easy to write about anything, as long as you’ve taken the time to read deeply. To me, it’s not shocking that high school achievement levels are so dismal. Students now are as bright as any group of students from the past. They have good brains, and they have all the tools necessary to put together astute observations and quality analyses. What they lack are dedicated study habits and the drive to compile a storehouse of knowledge. Instead of asking, “Why do I need to know this?” we need to challenge our students to think, “What don’t I need to know?”

In other words, most students are shallow learners. This isn’t entirely their fault, of course, because they’ve been trained to learn just enough to get by. They’ve been taught to survive, but nobody has ever taught them how to thrive. This is the American tragedy of our time.

Albert Einstein is famously quoted as proclaiming “imagination is more important than knowledge.” Was he wrong?

“An investment in knowledge pays the best interest.” – Benjamin Franklin

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Babbitt's Awakening -- Writer's Poke #317

Joseph Campbell is one of my personal heroes. This week, I stole some time to re-watch his amazing interview series with Bill Moyers, and I was reminded that many people live a life of excuses.

Campbell mentioned the ending to Babbitt, the classic novel by Minnesota author Sinclair Lewis. Babbitt's son tells him that he doesn't want to continue college; instead, he wants to drop out and work in a factory. To this, Babbitt responds: "I've never done a single thing I've wanted to in my whole life! .... But I do get a kind of sneaking pleasure out of the fact that you knew what you wanted to do and did it.... I'll back you. Take your factory job, if you want to. Don't be scared of the family.... Nor of yourself, the way I've been. Go ahead, old man! The world is yours!"

Babbitt supports his son's decision, even if it's one that society might not understand. In terms of Campbell, his son is "following his bliss." It might seem weird to prefer a working-class life over the "promise" of a college degree, but Babbitt understands that the promise isn't bliss. Bliss is in finding what you want to do, and then finding a way to go about doing it. Bliss is about living your own life the way you desire, regardless of what others might think.

The tragedy of Babbitt is that he always lived the life he thought he was supposed to live rather than the life he needed to live. It's actually a pretty common idea in 20th century American fiction. The characters who fail are not the characters who lack passion or dedication or potential; they are the characters who are unable to combine all three components into a life worthy of living.

How can you live the life of your dreams on a daily basis?

"The privilege of a lifetime is being who you are." -- Joseph Campbell

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Blindness -- Writer's Poke #316

Prior to 9/11, water-boarding had long been described as “torture” in The New York Times. After 9/11, however, when the U.S. started using this “intensive interrogation technique” against “persons of interest,” the paper dropped the word “torture” from its description. For some reason, The New York Times determined that it was appropriate to describe how suspects were being interrogated by CIA agents, but that it was not appropriate to call such methods “torture.” Why?

This might seem like a small example, but what’s really at issue here is a form of censorship. Whether or not the paper still accurately describes the process of water-boarding, the fact remains that its decision to no longer label it as “torture” is significant.

It’s not unusual for The New York Times to be attacked as part of the “liberal media,” so why wouldn’t an organ of the liberal media want to continue using the word “torture” if doing so would make the Bush administration, the administration that had approved use of this technique, look bad? Did the Bush administration apply pressure on the Times to “reevaluate” its use of the torture label?

The issue of book censorship in America sometimes seems rather lame to students. After all, we live in a free and open society, and if we want information we can easily find ways to obtain it. Or can we? Certainly anyone with Internet access can read The New York Times, but how many of us stop to consider how the information we’re receiving is being censored through specific language choices (or omissions)?

This is censorship in broad daylight, and most of the time, we don’t even realize it’s happening.

How can we prevent censorship? Or, do you subscribe to the idea that some censorship is healthy because American adults cannot “handle the full truth”?

“Censorship is very American.” – Kurt Cobain

Monday, September 12, 2011

Girl Power! -- Writer's Poke #315

Part of me just wants to say “Girl Power!” but another part of me wants to say, “Why are we being asked to condone the promotion of junk food for the brain?”

In Sady Doyle’s “Girls Just Wanna Have Fangs: The Unwarranted Backlash Against Fans of the World’s Most Popular Vampire-Romance,” focus for one moment on the key word in the subtitle: “unwarranted.”

For something that is “unwarranted,” Doyle certainly does spend quite a bit of time showing why the backlash may be warranted. In truth, she cannot defend the Twilight series. All she can do is defend the girls that like the series. She is probably right that it’s not fair to attack the fans themselves, but defenders of culture shouldn’t have to do that. Tearing down the books is easy enough to do, and the books are poorly written. Simple. And Doyle admits as much.

At the same time, she claims “they speak to a legitimate need.” That may be true, but what exactly is this “legitimate need,” and should we simply accept Twilight because it fills a void? Why not fill the void with something more nutritious? After all, Twinkies might satisfy one’s hunger, but no one would suggest that girls should live solely on Twinkies. But if Doyle’s statistics are correct, it does seem to be the case that the only books girls have been reading for the past few years is the Twilight series. In other words, they’ve been reading the literary equivalent of eating junk food. And we think this isn’t negatively affecting their brains? Do we really want to encourage the exclusive eating of brain junk food?

Doyle notes that Harry Potter has received criticism from some literary snobs, but Potter managed to escape “the girly ghetto.” Boys and girls, as well as adults, like Potter. Why? Is it as simple as suggesting J.K. Rowling’s “male readership” gave her work the endorsement of “universality”? I don’t think it’s that simply. The Potter series is just a better read.

In Doyle’s conclusion, she suggests that “girls are powerful consumers” and that we must therefore “admit that they have the ability to shape the culture.” I’m not sure who Doyle thinks is denying that girls have the economic ability to shape at least the book culture. Publishers have undoubtedly taken notice of the fact that Twilight sells. But left to their own devices, girls might spend all of their food allowance on Twinkies and Taco Bell. Rather than just “admit it,” don’t we have an obligation to help “shape” the culture we live in? While I hate to be a gatekeeper of culture, in this instance, I feel like this is my role. If Twilight is giving girls something that they “need,” then I suggest it is our duty feed that need, but it is also our duty to help them to develop a better taste in literature.

Think of some of today’s most controversial cultural issues. What role do (or should) you play in helping shape American culture?

“The problem is when that fun stuff becomes the habit. And I think that's what's happened in our culture. Fast food has become the everyday meal.” – Michelle Obama