Boys in Trouble: An American Epidemic

 

A Boy in Trouble in François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows

Boys in Trouble

I WANT a hero: an uncommon want,
When every year and month sends forth a new one
Till, after cloying the gazettes with cant,
The age discovers he is not the true one.
                             – Lord Byron, “Don Juan”

For many years I have directed one-week immersion workshops in writing and presentation skills for children in the U.S., Canada, and China. We work primarily with girls and boys whose ages range from 8-15 years.

We utilize feature films as source texts for sophisticated assignments in critical thinking, expository and creative writing, and public speaking. During each day’s writing and editing sessions we provide our students with group teaching and individualized coaching tailored to each child’s personality, comfort level, and skill base.

Our courses’ content and criteria are demanding, our atmosphere collegiate. Many of our writers achieve significant progress in their work and in their attitudes toward intellectuality, inquiry, and oration.

 

An Unnamed Epidemic

During recent editions of our U.S. program, a perturbing problem has arisen.

Each evening as we debrief, my colleagues and I note with alarm that the girls who participate in our workshops outperform the boys by a conspicuous margin. Their superiority is global in terms of such signifiers as motivation, positivism, achievement, and conduct.

The girls who study with us almost always are cheerful, enthusiastic, assiduous, and prideful.

Many of the boys are indolent, ill-mannered, and belligerently apathetic. Devoid of affect, save for an overdetermined enthusiasm for our films’ occasional loud noises, harsh rhetoric, and situational violence.

A large number of our male students seem unwilling or unable to imagine, invent, and emote. We observe a holistic repudiation of personality and performance, a catholic embrace of torpor and incivility.

Many of our partners in education and counseling professions tell me they are witnessing a similar phenomenon in their programs and are feeling similarly worried.

My colleagues and I believe we are in the throes of an unnamed epidemic. A disturbing number of young men in America are in trouble.

 

Causes
We believe there are four primary causes for our lost boys’ condition.

Our students speak openly about them in their writings, when they write, and in their conversations, when they converse.

  1. Overindulgence

We believe the causal agent is overindulgence.

Financial prosperity built by parents and overabundantly lavished upon their sons seems to attenuate the self-regard, aspiration, and effort that are instrumental to the ways in which most males always before in our civilization have defined their character, projected their selfhood, accomplished successes, and achieved happiness.

Children for whom too much is provided and too much is done for them by others – parents, servants, nannies – often fail to form the sense of socialness and the ethos of responsibility most of us believe are essential in life.

This is no small matter. If you never are given a task, how can you measure yourself? How can you know the satisfaction of difficult endeavor? The elation of succeeding. The triumph of proving your determination, tenacity, and competence to your parents, your peers, yourself.

No wonder lost boys lack ambition and initiative. No one has taught them how to desire, develop, and delight in these crucial drives.

Nor have they been taught the invaluable lessons of failure.

Because they are given no tasks, they cannot be unsuccessful at executing them. Therefore, they do not gain experiential insight into their inadequacies. They do not learn the indispensable skills of confronting their unproficiencies and improving themselves on their own.

Fluently or inarticulately, our students tell us that too much opulence and too few personal care and family chore obligations debar them from constructing a natural and ingrained relationship with the true nature of true manhood.

  1. Absent Fathers

Many of our lost boys tell us they lack a father who meaningfully participates in parenting. Participates day in and day out, committedly, purposefully. For real. No pretense.

Some, too many, tell us their dad is literally gone. Divorce. Desertion.

The majority reside with partnered caregivers who include at least one male elder. Frequently, however, their father or father-figure is unduly busy. In reality absent, or in essence aloof. Unavailable. Inaccessible. Not there.

In our time many children are being raised by single mothers and extended-family matriarchal caregivers. Many of these unsung heroines valiantly attempt to teach their sons male virtues, and they try to model male behaviors. But they cannot accomplish these vital teachings effectually, because they are not males.

From where do I derive this seemingly exaggerated assessment?

The lost sons we teach tell us these painful truths in their dialogues with us and in their writings. Their hesitant, halting confessionals are heartrending.

  1. Materialism

Too many affluent parents try to compensate for their lack of time, presence, and loving parental guidance by showering their children with exorbitant presents. Too much cash. Too many sumptuous holidays. Way too many costly gifts of gear, gizmos, gadgets, and games.

Their children are not fooled by the substitution of largesse for love. They recognize their parents’ ploy as a perversity.

Initially they resent it. Gradually they become accustomed to it. By age six, eight, ten at the latest, they learn to expect as their birthright an infinite conferral of unearned money, material goods, outings, vacations. An inexhaustible cascade of undeserved and fundamentally unwanted emoluments and entertainments.

This is bad. Even worse is the privileging of lethargy. The entitling of sloth.

Day after day lost boys learn their parents will permit them to reject even the most rudimentary behavioral requirements. Getting out of bed in a timely manner. Taking care of their room. Preparing their school lunch. Doing their homework.

Conducting themselves respectfully. Comprehending social nuances, niceties and necessities.

Conceiving personal goals. Fulfilling them.

  1. Nihilism

I often ask the children who study with us, Who are your heroines? Who are your heroes?

Every time I do this, almost every girl lights up, sparkles, and speaks vivaciously about her hers. Almost every boy gapes, stares blankly, usually at his feet, and does not, will not, cannot, reply.

Many of the boys we teach do not know who their inspirers are because they do not have any. Many do not even know what I mean by the question.

How can they know?

Is it possible for our errant sons to venerate integrated circuits? Telephonic devices? Video games? Accidie? Rudeness?

Can unmerited torrents of their parents’ shekels and shillings teach their children to treasure wisdom? Courage? Community? Productivity?

Many modern boys lack heroes because they lack canons, creeds, and convictions. They have no idea what principles and prowesses they want a champion to exemplify. What visions and verities they want a saint to sanctify.

Children need heroes. You did. I did.

Children need to heroize and emulate real or mythological figures whom they idolize for their exemplary rectitude, grace, nobility, and deeds.

Every civilization other than our own has understood this percept and has hallowed it.

 

Drool Boy

Who is the worst specimen of the Lost Boy Syndrome our faculty and I have experienced? I will call him Drool Boy.

It is a quiet morning in the epicenter of the Silicon Valley.

One of our male students, baroquely recalcitrant, unfailingly uncivil, emotionally infantile, colossally selfish yet destitute of clarified personality, lolls in his seat as every one of our more engaged leaners, riveted, react ebulliently to a gripping scene in the enthralling film Apollo 13.

This epically lost child sprawls apart from his classmates, isolated by choice, alone, aggressively indifferent, idly drooling streams of saliva onto our classroom’s tiled floor.

He smiles, sleepily savoring the sensations of sourcing and spewing his sickening spittle. He sniggers as his viscous swill swells and spreads.

When ordered to cease, desist, and scrub his mess he looks bewildered. Baffled.

Why ought he be the one to clean it? Why should not his servant? The gentle beleaguered amah who every day delivers and retrieves this smirking lout.

For the longest while the lost boy stares at me. Not in insurrection. Not in impudence. Incomprehension. Sincere stupefaction.

At last he slithers his sleek Calvin Klein footwear backward and forward across his dribble, scrapes and scatters his preposterous puddle.

When told this will not do, instructed to repair himself at once to the men’s room, return with paper towels, water, soap, disinfectant, and properly wash his ludicrous slobber, he again appears befuddled. Confounded. At sea.

It is evident he never before at home or, evidently, in school has been commanded to behave himself.

I believe the phenomena to which this supremely lost lad gives such noxious incarnation are the shocking but predictable consequences of inordinate parental overindulgence. Inordinate parental and societal abstention.

 

This Is New

Many parents will tell you that girls mature more rapidly than boys. We reflexively characterize this imbalance as “normal.”

There is nothing normal about the behaviors we are examining. We are seeing something new. Many boys are in trouble in America. Trouble that is abnormal, dire, and deeply worrying.

In schools, for sure.

Today girls outpace boys in almost every measure of educational success. It is wonderful that young women are attaining superior status in many contemporary academic programs. It is alarming that many young men are floundering.

Medical trends are equally disquieting.

Everywhere in America we see correlations between modern boys’ habitual sedentariness and the widespread incidence of male ill-health. Such degenerative ailments as morbid obesity, early-onset diabetes, and chronic substance abuse are horrific problems in America for both genders. They are becoming irruptions for boys.

Statistics abound. But statistics are abstruse, they are abstract, and we do not need to peruse them.  Our daily encounters expose the extent of the emergency.

How often do you see lost American boys wallowing in tedium? Robotically plying smartphones and consoles. Insensately ignoring people and events, oblivious to every context and contour environing them, fixated on screens, ears plugged, eyes glazed, thumbs tapping, fingers rapping.

How often do you hear our stupefied sons rebuff all calls to energy, engagement, and endeavor? Declaim in tones of persecuted mewl: “That’s no fun.” Or bleat: “Aw, that’s boring.” If they reply at all.

This in a domestic and international socio-economic order in which competition is intense, unrelenting, and unavoidable.

 

Tragedy
There are ever so many responsible, determined, hard-working, noble boys in America and everywhere else in the world.

But we must acknowledge there are multitudes of boys who do not possess these qualities. They are in trouble. They know it. And they are manifestly unhappy about their dystopic state. Many seem clinically depressed.

Of course they are. It is demoralizing to live one’s youthful life as an anomic, malaised, unmannerly, overly entitled drone.

Our damaged sons are disaffected, maladroit, and gloomy. They also are afraid. They do not know how to get out of their self-destructive spiral, and they are frightened about their future. They regularly speak about their fear in their reluctant but revealing discourse and their terse, grieving writings.

They are right to worry. What can they expect of their adulthood?

Their hope, if they can locate a hope, is that their parents will bequeath them a munificent inheritance. They will need an inexhaustible one if they continue to underperform in their schoolwork, disclaim maturation, and rely on omnipresent nursemaid attendance or manservant care.

Even if their forebears deed them a plentiful patrimony, our lost boys understandably fear they may never become worthy of a position in society, friendships, unions, and, one day, someday, a loving, loyal family of their own.

They are frightened because their situation is not hypothetical. It is real, and it is really tragic.

 

Strategic Façades

Their situation is not hopeless, though. No situation is hopeless, if a person wants to generate change.

I never have met a child who wants to remain perpetually demoralized, isolated, stuck in monotonous nugatory alienage, lonely, cringing all his life in withered self-loathing.

Lost boys want to change. Deep down, they long to improve their arid lives.

They rarely make their longing apparent because they have invested the totality of their generative power in appearing to be lost. They will surrender their prophylactic masquerade only if they become convinced they can replace it with a more empowering alternative.

Lost boys fabricate the awful behaviors we are discussing as deliberate responses to their beliefs about themselves. Their behaviors are intentional, ingeniously orchestrated expressions of their incorrect belief that they are unloved, unimportant, inept, and irrecoverable.

Our sons’ estrangement, lethargy, and crudeness are not inborn preferences. They are strategic façades. Carefully crafted anodynes of defiant, protective anomie.

Can’t you see what I am doing? Don’t you understand why I’m doing it?

When I refuse to feel, care, adjust, fit in, strive, I am seizing sovereignty over my otherwise impotent existence.

You think I am a powerless failure.

I am not. I have formidable power, and I am exercising it. I am choosing my isolation. Feigning my inertia. Pretending my apatheia. Playacting my rotten manners.

Never mind. It doesn’t matter what I do, or why I do it. My parents will always take care of me.

The behaviors we are describing are not these agonized children’s innate and immutable instinctions of identity. They are symptoms of a disease. The disease of parental inattention and schoolroom under-stimulation metastasized into a systemic malady of inaccurate storytelling and self-punishing histrionics.

 

Do You Hear What We Hear?

In our lost sons’ tormented cognitions do you hear what my faculty and I hear? We hear the imperial human will to power. The indefatigable compulsion to survive.

We hear it in its latency. We hear it in confusion. We hear it in anguish. But we hear it. We hear that our seemingly lost boys want to exert power over their sad sack lives, and they have begun to learn how.

Their perceptions are erroneous. Their methods are misguided. Their stratagems are counterproductive.  Yet the will to change is there.

It is alive. It is audacious. It should be acknowledged, praised, and supported.

 

Part II

Children always teach the adults in their lives at least as much as we teach them.

The children my colleagues and I teach have taught us that every child is born with a fierce urge to seek, find, and jubilantly proclaim autonomy, authority, dignity, and direction.

Even lost boys.

We have learned there are no incurably lost boys. Only scared, underappreciated, temporarily mixed-up kids.

We no longer feel surprised when our lost boys try to achieve metamorphosis. We program for it.

 

Teaching Metamorphosis

Metamorphosis can be taught. Particularly if a child can be led into enjoying the experience of learning.

Teachers know any number of ways to excite children’s imagination. Here is what succeeds in our practice.

 

Attention

We give an enormous amount of individual attention to each of our pupils. We talk with them extensively. We listen carefully. We read their writings closely. The children give us considerable access into their thoughts, emotions, difficulties, fulfillments, doubts, certitudes, hopes, and dreams.

Most of our students feel amazed and overjoyed when adults whom they respect take cogent and sustained interest in their character and consciousness.

Many children in the modern world feel parched. They are thirsting for their elders to see them, understand them, regard them seriously, and help them pursue their full potential.

How do we know this? They tell us.

 

Affection

I think it is inevitable that as we study our students, as we come to know them more and more thoroughly, we think well of them. We care about them. We like them. We want them to be happy. We want them to love their lives.

There is magic in affection. And there is might. When children feel known and cared about for who they actually are, they almost always will open their heart and strive to expand their confidence, ambition, talent, and knowledge.

Even lost boys.

At first they doubt. They resist. But after a day or two, they thaw.

Bit by bit, they learn to trust their mentors’ solicitude. They relish the esteem it connotes. In time, they instinctively transfer their teachers’ external support into an internal fundament of ever more assured self-respect and asserted self-rule.

 

Expectation

We attach our affection for our students to our high, unwavering standard for their sincerity and effort. We insist our learners envision and require of themselves nothing less than their Personal Best.

We repeatedly explain that we make this demand because we care about their self-image, their contentment, and the course of their lives.

This is our bedrock. We establish the concept of each child’s Personal Best as our classroom’s criterion and our learning community’s culture. We ask our students to join with us in building a sacred space. A shared society of earnest endeavor for excellence.

In support of this demand we invoke the model of athletics – a mode of endeavor most children comprehend and admire.

We ask our students if they could possibly look up to athlete who would choose to do less than her best? If they believe a sportsperson’s acceptance of mediocrity ever could be commended by her coach. Accepted by his teammates. Cheered by adults. Lionized by tykes.

They grin. They giggle. But they get it.

Even our lost boys. They grumble and grouse. They chafe at how much we ask of them. They appear to ignore us. But they listen. They hear us. And they appreciate our motives.

Like all other children, they realize our advocacy for their excellence constitute a form of love. They understand we champion them because we care about them.

Hour by hour, day by day, they become aware that it feels good to be treated as champions. At their own pace they decide to champion themselves. Quite quickly, sweet lagniappe, they also decide to champion one another.

 

Excitement

Children expect to be standardized in their schools. Homogenized, patronized, above all, deathly bored.

No one enjoys being bored.

We try our Personal Best to make thinking, imagining, interchange, and virtuosity feel exciting rather than laborious. Fascinating. Fun. Relevant. Revelatory.

 

Enlightenment

One of our most effective techniques is to substitute motion pictures for written textbooks. We capitalize on children’s enchantment with cinema to catalyze ideas our learners need to discover and ideals they need to develop.

We particularly value Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi.

We begin each of our teaching periods by screening several segments of this brilliant film. Our text’s first “chapters.” In teacher parlance, our first unit.

We pause the DVD player and facilitate group discussion. What do the chapters we have watched together teach us about Gandhi-ji’s life, work, and ministry?

After ten minutes or so we conclude our colloquy, distribute an assignment sheet, and ask the children to write briefly about their responses to our college-level prompts.

Time’s up. We ask volunteers to read their essay aloud – however much of it they have been able to complete – or permit our faculty to read it on their behalf, anonymity assured. We applaud the writers, applaud the readers, and move on to our next unit.

Why does this film work so well? Because Mahatma Gandhi captivates every child we ever have taught.

The Mahatma’s sublimity is impossible for most mortals to attain. But when exposed to the marvel of the Gandhi-ji’s career, his breathtaking genius, the majesty of his comportment, the power of his love, its ethereal actuality, no child, even the most abandoned boy, can fail to feel thrilled. Inspired.

And summoned. Aroused to empathy for others. Called to greatness. Called to her own maximal capability. His utmost potentiality.

We invoke the beatitude of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi to elevate our children’s intellects and excite their souls. We urge our learners to emulate his example. To identify and embrace their own genius, and dedicate their lives to decency, ardor, valor, eternal learning, and honorable pursuit.

We work with many other films that alluringly portray heroism. Heroisms of many sorts.  The 400 Blows. The Black Stallion. E.T. Fiddler on the Roof. Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Temple Grandin. October Sky. The Secret Garden. Anne of Green Gables. The Adventures of the Wilderness Family. Akeelah and the Bee. Hidden Figures.

Invariably we learn that when children feel inspired by a hero they revere, they internalize their hero’s story and determine to make it their own. They resolve they will attempt to pattern their lives upon their exemplar’s epitome of goodness and grace, valor and resilience, leadership and achievement. As did you and as did I, when we were younger than we are today.

No movie can spawn instantaneous, enduring transfiguration. Least of all for lost boys.

Our lost boys continue to struggle. I believe they hear our films’ Call to Action, though. And I believe the films’ Call becomes their own: a clarion sonorous, lucid, prized, yearned for, and worked toward.

This sense of summons may be merely subliminal. But it will become a sentient lifetime quest if the child’s family and school will notice and nurture their seemingly lost son’s nascent desire for growth. His embryonic commitment to his Personal Best.

 

Encouragement

Everywhere in the world the most common pedagogic methodology is to educate by fear. Induce anxiety in pupils so they will drill like crazy to avoid blame and shame in school, and punishment at home.

Trepidation works. Most of us learn to memorize what we are mandated to memorize.

At great cost, alas, because we also learn to apprehend school and to feel lifelong suspicion toward a society that conceives of children as conformable automatons, and education as rote work rooted in dread.

My colleagues and I believe in teaching by encouragement.

We try to identify each child’s qualities and skills. We speak privately with each girl and each boy about the endowments we see. The specific gifts we know are there, flourishing or inchoate, embraced or not yet noticed.

From this basis, the lodestone of each child’s present prowess and as yet unreached potential, we coach our learners. We try to help them see why they should become comfortable with their competence. Confident, ambitious, adventuresome. Proud. Glad. Enthusiastic. Happy.

We try to help them see how they can strengthen their strengths. How they can discover for themselves the incomparable and sacral enjoyment of desiring, working toward, and achieving mastery.

 

Performance

Our most productive coaching tool is a format we call Authors Hour. Our workshops’ capstone event: an end-of-day public performance.

In midafternoon our students select one essay, story, or poem they have authored during the day that they most want to share. They retreat for thirty minutes to edit their draft, revise it, improve it. At 4PM they stand at a podium and read their work aloud to an audience of their classmates, family members, and family friends.

The children’s writings often are superb. Their recitations always are soulful, ardent, and acutely moving.

Communal oration has proven to be a compelling lure. In short order even our seemingly lost boys want to stand proud in front of their peers and parents and perform to full extent of their ability.

How can it be that such a difficult, exposing, riskful exercise entices even the most refractory students to share their intimate thoughts and vulnerable emotions?

Our lost boys explain why. They tell us they cannot help but see that the dynamics of performance are exciting. Deliciously kinetic. Dignifying, daring, and fun. Gratifying for their classmates, elating for the audience.

They get hooked. They desire to participate. They choose to.

Is this not every human being’s most primal motivation and most durable fulfillment?

To aspire because we want to. To try because we prefer pride, presence, performance, and prospering to solitary, dissociative, paralyzing, ultimately silly apathy.

 

Part III

They Want To Change

I know, and you know that many modern boys are in trouble. Terrible trouble. The good news is, they do not want to be.

Their cramped, imploring body language, the haunted, harrowed look in their eyes, the openhearted literature they write for us, the ravaged talk they sometimes share with us declare unequivocally that they feel demoralized by their ostensibly voluntary postures of ennui, enervation, and insolence.

Our workshops demonstrate that lost boys want to change their lives, and antidotes abound. This is not because our programs are uniquely enabling. It is because every child’s nature is optimistic. Avid. Exploratory. Hungering for experience.

These instincts are elemental in all of us.

We crave mastery. We are built for it. Questing for it is every person’s journey, job, and joy.

 

They Want Their Homes

It is lovely that lost boys can wake themselves up and begin to evolve in schools.

Far more consequential transformations can be achieved at home, because for every child who ever has lived, no other stimulant is so powerful as familial love. No other ideas, ideals, and moral codes are as authoritative and convincing as the faiths, beliefs, and values we learn from our caregivers.

Nor is any other reward so puissant as delighting our parents and our kin by becoming more fully formed in our character. Giving the most influential persons in our lives the gift of seeing us convert our youthful mishmash of equivocal impulses and ephemeral energies into our deliberate, defined, and definitive identity.

Our identity.

Not a jejune, tender, star-struck emulation of our heroes’ glorious distinctions but our own personhood become independent, self-reliant, and determinative, built at home, carried assuredly into society, spiritedly enacted in the abundant, welcoming universe.

 

They Want The Real World

Our workshops do help lost boys accomplish striking gains. No doubt many other pedagogic designs succeed as well as or better than ours.

Classroom learning is important. Classrooms are contrivances, though. Courses are constructs. Like all children lost boys need to aspire, act, enjoy, and triumph not in schoolhouses, study groups, or other mythic domains but in the actual unmediated world.

They know this. They may be lost, but they are neither naïve nor stupid.

 

They Want Their Real Heroes

This is equally true of our programs’ cinematic heroes.

Movie heroes can be magnificent inspirers, but they are merely symbols imprinted on celluloid or, increasingly, digitized in coding. Uplifting artifices. Ennobling emblems.

The children we serve want their parents to be their paragons. They want their home life to be their epic frontier. They want their caregivers to be their inspirers.

 

They Want A Real Cure

My career as a teacher has taught me that lost boys’ tragic alienation from themselves is a soluble problem.

Every day I teach, I hear lost boys pleading for help. Desperate for cure. In their awkward, often off-putting way begging for loving concern, intercession, and tutelage.

They ask this of all their teachers. But we are just surrogates.

They do not want us. They want their family.

They do not want films, videogames, electronic sops, hillocks of cash. They want life, not life’s diversions, distractions, and denials.

They want individualness, passion, vocation, mission.

Above all else, they want their family. They want the leaders of their family to become their heroes. And they want to learn from they who brought them into life how to become their own hero.

 

Alarum

This essay does not propose itself as a solution for lost boys’ struggles. It is, rather, an alarum on their behalf.

On their behalf it makes an entreaty to their caregivers, an appeal to their educators, a beseechment to their society.

Please see your lost sons.

Please save them.

Karl Rove: The Paradigm of Struggle

Courage and Consequence: My Life as a Conservative in the Fight
By Karl Rove
Threshold Editions (March, 2010)

The Paradigm of Struggle

“I have become an adjective.”

Karl Rove is a tactician deservedly acclaimed. As an electoral strategist, campaign manager, and presidential counselor he possesses stunning talents, consummate knowledge, astonishing energy, and a record of exceptional success. He is also a transformer. With President Bush and a small circle of Republican thinkers and field operatives, he co-created a spectrum of politics that became of great importance in the United States, and that has generated momentous changes throughout much of the world.

Rove’s spectrum, as his book’s startling title trumpets, conceives and markets itself as a “fight.” The paradigm of struggle pervades his thought, as it did the philosophies and policies of the presidency he did so much to envision, achieve, and administer.

Karl Rove, President Bush, and the party they jointly led regarded their paradigm as political. Certainly the principal electoral and domestic policy advisor to a two-term president, on the second occasion decisively elected, on the first overcoming highly unfavorable odds to forge a near tie, can lay claim to political brilliance.

I’m not sure, though, that the allure of Bush-Rove politics was primarily political. I think it was predominantly spiritual, even religious.

I say this because Rove and his most significant client framed the world broadly and the American nation specifically as arenas for contest between goodness and evil. The forces of good they characterized as their own concepts of conservatism: stern, strong, sophisticated, sensible, serious – sacral. They defined the forces of evil abroad as opposition to the benign will and manifest destiny of the United States. They framed the forces of evil at home as beliefs and behaviors oppositional to themselves and their factions of the Republican Party: attitudes and actions naïve, infantile, emotional, solipsistic, silly, yet dangerous and much in need of adult management.

Their extremism was polarizing in the extreme. For their adherents and advocates, this extremism was electrifying, enlightening, and validating. President Bush and Karl Rove often succeeded in making their devotees believe that the art and science of winning, holding control over, and exercising government were of utmost “consequence.” For their followers, they made political discourse seem consecrated and consecrating: a combat with the mephitic, rather than a well-funded jousting and jostling among various mundane interest groups. Their ideas, elocutions and symbologies were not temporal but mythical and theological.

__________

Karl Rove is not a conscious mythologizer or theologian. He is, though, a person of remarkable acumen, talent, drive, learning, and effectiveness, and his book is far more interesting than his many admirers and legions of disparagers might have imagined.

Most works of memoir, especially volumes of political memoir, have the purposes of manufacturing a legacy, positioning future hires, and alchemizing gifts of advocates’ money into cornucopia of enriching advances. Rove needs none of these unseemly dividends. He is an eminence in his profession, and he long ago achieved thoroughly lawful and justifiable wealth.

So, what is this memoir about? Why was it written?

In his prefatory remarks, Rove declares:

I worked fifteen steps from the Oval Office. From that vantage point, this book will set the record straight. It will pull back the curtain on my journey to the White House and my years there. I will acknowledge mistakes. And I will make the case – defiantly and unapologetically – for the many controversial decisions.

It becomes clear from the moment we enter this long and copiously detailed book that Rove wants to do more than simply “set the record straight.” His animating impulse, genuine and generous, is to defend the rectitude and achievement of his most important client, President George W. Bush: to explain and extol the ideals, qualities, and accomplishments of his presidency, and insist that future historians who study our era’s sweeping geopolitical, economic, and cultural changes will eventually regard his eight-year leadership of our nation as essential, inspired, and salvific.

Rove also undertakes to describe himself. He seeks to define his internal as well as his biographical history – especially the intense pleasures that effort, enterprise, and, in time, paramount power conferred upon a man whom a life filled with family adversity did not treat kindly during his childhood.

Courage and Consequence largely fulfills these objectives. Partisans who have not previously shared Republican visions and views, antagonists who venomously disagree with and despise President Bush, cannot be persuaded by any work of writing to reconsider their opinions. However, readers of fair mind and unbiased intention probably will regard Rove’s book as a heartfelt statement, and possibly will conclude that Rove and President Bush are sincere and ardent persons – passionately patriotic, fervent about their faiths, extraordinarily hard-working, and infinitely earnest in their endeavors. Likable, too.

What we cannot learn from this book is what it felt like during his years of ascendant power to inhabit Karl Rove’s mind and soul. He speaks exhaustively about resume, stratagems, actions, the historical record, the epidermal satieties of success, and the chagrins of miscalculation and blunder. He teaches us a great deal about how modern national campaigns are conducted, how President Bush and his colleagues believed they were managing their solemn responsibilities, and the heroism this bedrock conservative believes inheres in contentious conservatism. And most uncommonly among prominent memoirists, he does acknowledge, with candor and high character, errors small and mistakes mighty.

We learn little about the man’s internal experience while he worked “fifteen steps from the Oval Office.” In one of his chapter titles, Rove alludes coyly to the celebrated television program, The West Wing. Would that his co-author or ghostwriter could have been Aaron Sorkin. Sorkin invented Josh Lyman and brilliantly limned that whole wondrous West Wing cohort. But of course Sorkin knew nothing about the actuality of campaign, governance, or power. He could not know at first hand the exhilaration of Rove’s improbable ascent to epic influence from a youth and adolescence of family disorder, filial sorrow, and social inconsequence. He could not know what it is like to elevate as Rove elevated, to soar aloft real starships, directly affect real social events, mount determinative responses to factual national situations and awful world emergencies.

Karl Rove has lived a rare and crucial life. He has such a story to share. It would have been both lovely and important to have had a great playwright unite with him to tell this fabulous tale, and impart to us the potent impact of its protagonist’s marvelous history on his supernally gifted but inherently unpoetic consciousness.

__________

Many historians have suggested that history is the story of unintended consequences. Intended or not, one of the consequences of Courage and Consequence is that most readers will leave the book admiring and liking Karl Rove and George W. Bush. Many will conclude from reading this unusual book that, at the least, our former president, his indispensable counselor, and the large majority of their colleagues were persons of integrity, faith, and fervor, who became called upon during their tenure in leadership to manage excruciatingly difficult circumstances and conditions.

I leave the book with this judgment, and considerably moved by it. I also leave it wondering about a most complicated question Rove sometimes deliberately, sometimes unwittingly raises.

Is the paradigm of “fight” a valid and worthy metaphor for ourselves and our times? Are we genuinely locked in internecine conflict with a host of adversaries? If so, is it the wisest manner of responding to conflict to embrace it? Expand it? Exult it as an ethos?

To be sure, there are many persons in our shared world who abominate (or who think they abominate) the United States, the western culture, and the modernist age. Even if they commit atrocities, are such persons necessarily apostate? Demonic? Nuts? Do we progress as a people, a nation, and a civilization if we invariably reply to anger and violence by delivering against these energies correlative fury and force?

When in history has that approach worked? When has it wrought lasting cooperation, healing, harmony, and growth? When has the paradigm of struggle ever yielded to and evolved from additional struggle?

The creed of privileged strife, what Rove calls “the fight,” seems to me outmoded, exhausted, and sad. I believe its adherents are without ultimate courage and ultimately meaningful consequence.

George W. Bush and Karl Rove brought to their era vast talent of persuasion, and utterly exceptional ability to navigate through system and process into empowerment. If only they had deployed these birthrights to enact a new paradigm: a paradigm of greater empathy, engagement, bridging, cohering. Our time has called for courage, all right. The courage to reject desiccated doctrines of unvarying bellicosity. The courage to body forth new doctrines of tolerance, fusing, uniting. The courage to continue the only genuinely consequential political journey, the journey pioneered by Mahatma Gandhi and his most prominent disciples, Nelson Mandela and Rev. Martin Luther King. The journey of the most authentic “compassionate conservatism,” the journey of absolute faith.

This is the philosophy and politics much of the world proclaims we most want and need. A lessening of inane, incoherent, inconclusive, endlessly destructive struggle. An invocation of common ground, connection, and community – love, as proclaimed and preached by every faith tradition’s prophets and most influential proselytizers.

There can be no doubt the American body politic desired that its government’s response to the atrocity of 9/11 be virtuously and virulently vengeful. However, history teaches us this instinctive reaction impulse is as counterproductive as it is common.

What might the present now be and the future have become if the nation Rove calls “the greatest governing experiment in human history” had chosen in September, 2001 and thereafter to respond differently to attack from the predictable manner in which it did? With, if necessary, targeted retribution against individuals and discrete homicidal groups; but principally with hugely expanded outreach, profound and persisting calls to healing, a thorough release of the humane conscience and compassion that throughout history has been tragically constrained and deserves to become our species’ governing experience?

Courage and Consequence is filled with prodigious intelligence, informed information, and challenging argumentation. There’s a void at its core, though. The void is a startling absence of communion with humanity friendly and hostile, a banishing of sufficiently deep emotional and spiritual association with humankind’s sufferings, aspirations, and inherent commonalty.

Karl Rove is a skillful political philosopher and a magnificent tactician, yearning inchoately but clearly for a holistically ennobling spiritual identity and cause. He’s accurate, not vaunting, when he states: “I have become an adjective.” Unite this political genius and greatly decent man’s manifold powers with the paradigm most needed in our time, and world-historical change could be achieved. For the Rovian has infinite potential to advance goodness and mercy rather than mere ferocity and more division.

It’s not too late. Mr. Rove is a relatively young man, and he’s constantly growing. His true calling and most valuable work may yet lie before him.

Poor Poor Pitiful BP

Poor Poor Pitiful BP
-with apologies to Warren Zevon

Well, we blew open the bottom of the seas
Plowing her depths for our ill-gotten grease
Now our caps won’t work and because of that wretched AC
Everyone on earth can witness our catastrophe

Poor poor pitiful BP
Poor poor pitiful BP
Oh, Anderson Cooper won’t let us be
Lord have mercy on BP
Woe woe is BP

Exploded our rig, eleven men perished
That wretched Anderson Cooper
Won’t let go of our blooper
Keeps showing the world the families they cherished

Poor poor pitiful BP
Poor poor pitiful BP
Oh, Anderson Cooper won’t let us be
Lord have mercy on BP
Woe woe is BP

Well, we got summoned to the Head of State in Washington
Told us plain what needed to be done
Well, he really worked us over good
Just like he said he would

Thought we’d bought all them politicians
Turned them into grateful patricians
President turned out to be unbought
Made us and our pet Texan Republican absolutely distraught

Poor poor pitiful BP
Poor poor pitiful BP
Oh, Barack Obama, have mercy on BP
After all we share an initial B

Well, we’ve slaughtered all the beings in the sea
Befouled their sands, ruined their feed
We’ve shattered the lives of all the families who fish
Maybe they can learn to bake knish
We’ve crippled their legacy, devastated it all
What the hell
Those Gulf people are just, you know, small

Poor poor pitiful BP
Poor poor pitiful BP
Oh, Anderson Cooper won’t let us be
Woe woe is BP

Barack Obama took away all our dividends
Said we have to make actual amends
Pilloried our Chairman, scourged him hard
Hoisted our Lord Tony on his petard

Poor poor poor BP
Poor poor pitiful BP

Barack Obama slandered us as our sacral industry’s villain
Suspended all our peers’ offshore drilling
Anderson Cooper won’t let us lie, steal, and cheat
Televises those small Gulf people, lets them bleat

Poor poor poor BP
Oh, Barack Obama won’t have mercy on BP
Poor poor pitiful BP
Oh, Anderson Cooper won’t let us be

What’s wrong with those small folk in Alabama?
What’s the problem with those small folk in Louisiana?
Why can’t our Chairman Tony sail his yacht in his Isle of Wight regatta?

What on earth is the matter?
Why won’t Barack Obama quit his impolitic chatter?
Why can’t we stop Anderson Cooper’s indecorous blather?

What is all this American hysteria?
We’ve been doing it for decades to Nigeria

Poor poor poor BP
Poor poor pitiful BP
Verily, are we not the lords of the sea?

Why, oh why won’t they trust us to correct this inconvenience?
We’ll burn the surface fuels, and below we’ll discharge untested chemical dispersants
Why, oh why won’t they trust us?
We solemnly pledge we won’t harm even one wee wittle walrus

Poor poor pitiful BP
Poor poor pitiful BP
Oh, Barack Obama and Anderson Cooper won’t let us be
Lord have mercy on BP
Woe woe is BP

_________________________________________________________

It feels righteous and fulfilling to calumniate one multinational company and its bungling leaders for the disaster that has been visited on the Gulf of Mexico. The truth is, though, we all committed this catastrophe. We wanted oil, we wanted it cheap, we didn’t care who produced and supplied it, we wanted the jobs its collection, manufacture, and distribution seem to produce, and we waste more of it by far than any concept of necessity can suggest we actually need.

We all did this. We did it individually, we did it together, and we did it knowingly. We conceived this cataclysm, we spawned it, and we’ve learned nothing from it. We’ve changed not one aspect of our attitudes nor one facet of our behaviors, and it’s unlikely we ever shall.

We want cheap oil. We don’t care, not truly, what this or any other of our unnecessary wants are doing to the only Earth, to all the other life forms with whom we share our bountiful world, or to The Divine who blesses, gifts, and repeatedly forgives us despite our terrible flaws, faults, and failures.

We can lampoon BP but it’s we who forged this devastation; and the reckoning upon ourselves, all other living beings, the sea beds, estuaries, marshlands, deep ocean, livelihoods fair and foul, and the only known habitable planet will be beyond measure.

In time, Earth will cleanse the calamity we’ve wrought. She’ll do this in her own course of order, in her own scheme of time. Eons.

She won’t dump into her seas industrial dispersants that someone thinks might be, could be, should be functional. No, if we force her to, and we are forcing her to, she surely will do what she’s done with numberless other unadaptable species left behind. She’ll take wing, make us sting, discontinue our kind.

___________________________________________________

What the hell. Let’s fuel up. Rev them engines. Fuel, baby, fuel.

John Sandford’s 20th Prey Novel

 

It sometimes seemed to him that there was an invisible hand behind it all, and it wasn’t a beneficent hand. Evil in the world.

 

John Sandford’s twentieth novel in the wonderful chronicles of Lucas Davenport is called Storm Prey. In a multitude of ways, it’s an extraordinary extension of this superb series.

The novel opens with a vicious robbery. A gang of inept virulent thieves are incited and aided by a cocaine-addicted psychopathic doctor to steal a major Minneapolis hospital’s entire supply of powerful narcotics and other readily saleable pharmaceuticals. Another of Sandford’s ingenious plotting constructs.

In the course of the robbery, one of the addled thieves kicks the pharmacy’s elderly attendant in his kidneys, stomps him savagely over and over again. He does this because – even though he’s a sociopath, he needs to formulate a reason for his intentions – the victim tried covertly to dial 911 on his mobile phone. The petty thief’s brutal battery of the brave old man produces mortal injuries, and transforms an ugly larceny into murder.

There ensues a complication that warrants and triggers the narrative. During their getaway from their otherwise perfect crime, one of the gang’s leaders is observed as he careens their van out of the hospital’s parking garage. Their inadvertent, initially unaware eyewitness is Dr. Weather Karkinnen, an eminent surgeon who’s married to Lucas Davenport, the Prey series’ principal figure, an epically intelligent, skillful, and ferocious investigator for the State of Minnesota. The crooks decide they need to kill Weather so she can’t expose and testify against them.

Big mistake. No one should mess with Weather. For sure no one should mess with Lucas and his devotedly loyal, practiced, proficient, cheerfully rough friendship circle of fellow cops. Especially when Weather is fighting with all her dazzling gifts of skill and spirit to save the lives of two tiny babies joined helplessly at the head.

The criminals’ hunt for Weather and Lucas’s reciprocal hunt for them makes a Grand Guignol of glorious plot, wacky personalities, and astringent atmospherics. Fabulous tours de force of writing, too. Hilarious street riffs. Haunting evocations of psychotics’ thought, cops’ cogitation, surgeons’ craft and mentation. This work of authoring is complex, knowledgeable, fluent, yet seemingly intuitive and effortless. Not a trope nor a formula, but an ascendant artist’s expert instinction.

John Sandford is a master, and he knows it. His only peer, albeit in a different medium, is Kobe Bryant. Probably they’re not aware of one another. But across their dissimilar fields they share an absoluteness of gift and grace, consummate prowess with a predefined though not confining game, and the uncommon discipline of willing themselves continuously to challenge and grow their extraordinary powers.

We expect inspired storytelling and virtuoso writing from Sandford. His ability time after time to fulfill our expectations no longer surprises, but it’s always elating to journey with him on his madcap voyages. This time he far surpasses what we’ve learned to expect, and moves his distinguished series into a new realm of sophistication and inquiry.

Storm Prey is a great read. It’s also a launch. Sandford moves us away from the turbulent thrills of crime, detection, pursuit, and capture. The novel primarily roots itself in quietly profound explorations of the cognitions and consciousness of characters. Characters disturbed and healthy, barbaric and heroic, destructive and generative, vile and noble, moronic and august – all manner of persons. The book delicately but deeply explores the methods and courses of identity, the motives and modalities of behavior, and most importantly, the extreme and extremely dangerous gulf in our society between relative goodness and absolute evil.

In its twentieth iteration, Sandford has created an entirely new and exceptionally interesting kind of Prey novel.

 

__________

 

Sandford always has been intrigued by the nature, origins, and meanings of wickedness. In this superlative work, he investigates three seemingly discrete but decisively interrelated energies: evil, vacancy, and randomness.

In her historic work on Nazism, Hannah Arendt famously characterized evil as a banality. Storm Prey develops many villains. All are creatures of bathos: utterly empty of coherent affect, reason, and objective. Animate voids. Yet from their broad and general vacuity emanates ghastly violence, appalling cruelty, immense destructive power. Absurd but mighty antimatter energy.

Vacancy can generate energy, but it has no ethos. The criminals in this book have no distinguishing sentiment other than anger, no goals or aims, no moral temperament, no explicit beliefs. Their void causes them to crave, sporadically. They want, from time to time, appetitive relief. Drugs, food, sex, firearms, vehicles. When they want, they take. Their motives are nonspecific, their actions cavalier. They’re passionless and, essentially, purposeless persons. They’re incarnations of emptiness. Manifestations of nothingness, and creators of it. They exploit and empty what better women and men build.

Most of these nasty felons are stupid. Their stupidity breeds chaos and spawns suffering, because they lack the sheer commonsense to regulate and restrain their aimless impulses. They just lash out, seize what they sort of want, injure or kill wantonly, cause enormous harm, engender widespread suffering.

Consider Mikey, the robber who improvisationally murders the harmless elderly man at the hospital:

“You think Mikey meant to kill that man?” Honey Bee asked.

“No way,” Joe Mack said. “He’s just … dumb.”

Honey Bee nodded. Mikey was dumb. And violent. Unlike Joe Mack, who was just dumb. Mikey might not have meant to kill the old man, but he probably enjoyed it. Give him a month or two, he’d be bragging it around.

 

 Much later, Joe tells Lucas:

“The whole problem was, we’re stupid people. That’s what caused all this trouble… Mikey kickin’ that guy? Just stupid… I only ran away from you guys because I’m stupid. I know that. Everybody knows that.”

 

Other of the book’s felons, though, are decidedly intelligent. Their impact accordingly is far worse. Their psyches and purposes may be pathological. However, they have the mental power to preserve themselves by being deliberative, shrewd, cunning. They take pleasure from the misery they produce, and they deploy their considerable intellect to repeat and expand their diseased gratifications.

Two of the malefactors, Dr. Alain Barakat and Mr. Caprice Marlon Garner [“Cappy” – he’s named after a mundane model of a Chevrolet automobile] are conspicuously intelligent. They’re also insane. Crazy with horrid aberrant emptiness:

Barakat’s attention had turned toward Cappy. “You as dumb as the Macks?”

“Hope not,” Cappy said. His voice was mild, and he smiled, the corners of his mouth turning up. His eyes were dead as planks.

 

“How’d you do that? Get him to talk?”

Barakat spread his hands. “I’m a doctor. I have scalpels.”

 

“A thrill here. He’d done that. He’d caused this chaos.”

 

The intelligent monsters may be smarter than the dumb editions. But their reasoning is demented; a function of, if anything rational, colossal self-entitlement. For example:

  • Cappy becomes incensed with Weather because she has the effrontery to fight back against his initial attempt at her murder. He feels ravaged with indignation over “the lack of respect” she’s displayed toward him by not passively accepting the assassination for which he contracted. “What kind of bitch is that … I ought to kill the bitch for free, after that.”

 

  • Barakat frames his copious and awful villainies as a righteous remedy for his father’s refusal to enrich him sufficiently.

 

  • Cappy and Barakat develop a species of mutual admiration, even a vestige of friendship. But what they recognize and esteem in one another are certain shared aspects of insanity and nihilism: absolute coldness, chronic drug dependency, evolving necrophilia, thoroughly evolved sadism. This is what they term smartness and strength.

 

  • After a singularly savage murder, Barakat’s sole response reaction, cocaine induced, is: “I would like a doughnut.”

 

Why does Sandford write about such demons? Why does an author of such abundant gifts devote them to so unworthy a galaxy of protagonists?

I think there are two reasons.  It’s important to acknowledge and analyze evil of this sort, because it’s authentic, altogether too prevalent, and horrifically active in our nation and throughout the world. It’s also important to reject, as Sandford unequivocally and powerfully does, the naïve and jejune claims in our culture that such persons warrant understanding, sympathy, and gently corrective treatment. Ought sensible societies empathize with and strive to protect the rights of fiends who wreak untold suffering and enjoy it?

I’ll tell you what. That wasn’t done by a nice guy. He looked right into her eyes and choked the life out of her.

 

“Were her eyes open?”

“Oh, yeah, right until she died,” Cappy said. “They were, like, huge. Like bubbles.”

Barakat cleared his throat and then said, “Makes me hard.”

“Yeah, me too, sometimes,” Cappy said.

 

In Storm Prey as in life, a small number of villainous beings create widespread hazard, tragedy, and anguish, and they derive lunatic satisfaction from doing so. This is what they want and like. Sandford persuasively insists such persons deserve not our empathy, but detection and capture by resourceful and intrepid police officers, secure and permanent confinement, and, if necessary, execution by means legal or not.

__________

 

Sandford is particularly affected by the imperiling chaos of coincidence, circumstance, arbitrariness, unpredictability, what Lucas calls “pure chance.”

The contingencies of randomness are as terrifying in the novel as evil itself. “Pure chance” can affect anyone at any time, the good and the wicked alike. It can’t be predicted, predicated, planned for, prevented, protected against, or policed. Its effects can be horrendous: physical maiming, psychological impairment, death. It can leave in its wake swirling circles and centrifugal cycles of victimization: grieving spouses, children, parents, friends; vitiated institutions and functions; intimations of foulness and violation that defy our most cherished paradigms of commonalty, connection, and community.

Often “pure chance” links itself directly with evil. When wicked persons enact their inane but dreadful vacuous malice, innocent people who happen to be in the line of fire lose not just their possessions but frequently their wellbeing and sometimes their lives. Rounds of misery ensue. Loved ones mourn forever. Children are orphaned. Valuable organizations are weakened. Powers that work for the good are irrevocably lost: surgeon’s skills; detectives insight and courage; charities’ altruism, kindness, and munificence. All for the sake of a few drifting villains’ scabrous impetuosity and insatiable malignant hunger.

This is a central theme of Storm Prey, and it infuriates Sandford and his hero. Here is Lucas thinking about the murder of a woman who happens to cross paths with Joe Mack at a wrong moment:

The anger hit him again. Not necessary: a woman dead because of nothing.

 

Later:

Janis [Joplin’s song, “Me and Bobby McGee”] echoed in his head as he climbed into his car, and he thought: No. Not right. Dead is just another word for nothing left to lose.

 

And:

It sometimes seemed to him that there was an invisible hand behind it all, and it wasn’t a beneficent hand. Evil in the world…”

 

Lucas’ anger intensifies throughout the novel. Its source is local and specific. He feels infuriated by a single mother’s gratuitous death at an early age, and by the lifelong agony her murder will cause her two young daughters. But his anger also is metaphysical. This extremely tough man feels angry in a teleological regard.

Raised a Catholic, become an agnostic, Lucas demands in his unvoiced but immensely thoughtful and characteristically caring constitution to understand what manner of God could permit the advent and activity of crazies, the torture and perishing of the abjectly innocent, the desolation of the innocents’ loved ones, friends, and colleagues. The wasting of civilization.

The consistency and growing intensity with which Sandford’s hero addresses this theological subject suggests that it will become an ever more significant theme in the series’ future entries.

Let us hope so. This fine writer, his fascinating hero, his compelling universe of characters, situations, and stories, will make a unique and potent framework for exploring the bewildering, insoluble, painful mystery of human dichotomy and its relation, if any, to the godhead.

__________

 

Villainy and violence. The hazards of chance. The baffling will or deliberate absence of God, if there be a God. Storm Prey doesn’t sound like fun.

It is, though. It’s such good fun to read, because the book’s essence is love, deep love, for life and living. For people and their foibles. For knowledge and knowing. For doctors as much as detectives, and for doctoring as much as detecting. For marriages, making families, holding them together, building houses, fixing them, keeping hospitals intact, healing, saving.

Storm Prey radiates with love of life. Sandford’s writing flowers repeatedly with beautiful descriptions of meteorology and landscapes, uproarious dialogues, eruptions of ebullient humor, sweet hymns to Minnesota and Minnesotans, lovely effusions of moment and mood, touching ruminations about our species’ traits, dignities, desires, and pleasures. Mesmerizing reflections about our experience and consciousness, our triumphs and tribulations.

Often his life-affirming moods and darksome subject matters conjoin, and he crafts gorgeous sentences that strikingly encompass his full range of wisdom and expertise. As when Lucas tells Weather to concentrate on saving the babies whom “pure chance” has placed in her care: “You do the surgery, we’ll do the bodyguarding.” And, later, Weather thinks of the several dedicated police officers who watch over her: “Guys with guns, taking care of [me].”

Many creatures in this book are iniquitous, and they commit terrible deeds for no good reason. But most of the book’s characters are endearing and enduring women and men who take care of one another, and who cherish and preserve the delicate experiment of human society. From one point of view, Storm Prey’s story, as a detective comments, is “pretty awful.” From another – the author’s – it’s positive and optimistic. Certainly this is what the story’s heroine concludes: “‘As for me, I’m going to get pregnant again,’ Weather said.”

Storm Prey is a feat of authorship. It’s also a feat of confidence and courage. It requires rare certitude and daring to radically expand a proven bestselling recipe and tamper with the very essence of a lucrative franchise.

John Sandford always has possessed formidable gifts of mind and art. He’s freed magic here. Serious, deep, puissant magic.

20 brilliant Lucas Davenport novels. I can’t wait for the next one.

Masterpiece: The Literature of John Sandford

Wicked Prey
by John Sandford
G.P. Putnam’s Sons (May, 2009)

The Literature of John Sandford

The essential American soul is hard, stoic, isolate, and a killer.
– D.H. Lawrence

Western civilizations distinguish rigorously between what we usually term serious or high art, such as literary novels, poetry, and drama, classical painting and sculpture, classical music, etc., and low entertainment: populist arts such as films, television programs, musicals, commercial songs, and best-selling novels.

This distinction probably always has existed. It makes a sort of sense, for undoubtedly there are irreconcilable conflicts between the cognitions, conventions, and craft of serious artistic expression and the requirements of mass commerce. As Charlton Heston once said: “The trouble with movies as a business is that it’s an art, and the trouble with movies as art is that it’s a business.”

This tension notwithstanding, it surely is the case in all societies that artists who attract pervasive attention and persisting affection must exhibit qualities of awareness and expression that are substantive, important, and defining. There can be no doubt, for example, that Elvis Presley, at least three of the Beatles, and Bob Dylan are artists of genius. Their lives and work will matter to students of history for many generations, perhaps centuries. The biographies and creation of such high artists as Philip Glass or Harold Pinter or Susan Sontag probably will not.

In many modern western nations, especially the United States and England, there has evolved a venerable tradition in populist commercial culture of vastly successful yet profoundly thoughtful, skillful, and pleasurable detective fiction crafted as a sequence, framed by a central master police officer, and supported by a company of recurring characters who operate in the stories as friends and coadjutors, engaged in pursuit of a sinister population of repugnant but intriguing villains.

Works of this kind focus putatively on solving and punishing complex, often awful crimes. Their appeal, however, inheres primarily in the manner in which the stories define and develop their heroic detective; and the delicate but intensely felt and artfully advanced analyses of our country, our culture, and our consciousness.

In the United States several major authors have worked in this genre. Paramount among them, in my opinion, are Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Ross Macdonald, John D. Macdonald, Elmore Leonard, and, most recently, John Sandford.

* * *

John Sandford is a nom de plume chosen by John Roswell Camp. The name derives from that of his maternal grandmother, and presumably pays homage to her memory. Sandford began his career as a journalist in Minnesota. He achieved eminence in the profession, often draws upon it in his fiction for context and contour, and on occasion still practices it.

Sandford has created several impressive series. His most successful and significant novels chronicle the work and ever more complicated and fulfilled life of a brilliant, fierce, and multifaceted detective called Lucas Davenport. Wicked Prey is the nineteenth volume in the series. [The twentieth, Storm Prey, will be published in May, 2010.]

In Wicked Prey, Lucas operates in his recently elevated capacity as a special investigator for Minnesota, reporting to the state’s principal police official, its governor, and the governor’s primary political counselor. The counselor assigns him to investigate as tactfully as possible a string of ingeniously conceived, inordinately feral robberies. A small gang of accomplished, shrewd, prudent, surpassingly prepared thieves is stealing very large sums of cash from political operatives who have come to Minneapolis to deliver illicit payoffs for the Republican Party at its 2008 Presidential Convention. The gang assaults and murders civilians both by policy and gratuitously; and they frequently kill cops. Lucas simultaneously must investigate for the Secret Service the possibility that a dimwitted rightwing redneck may be planning to assassinate John McCain or Sarah Palin. And, as the narrative develops, he learns that he must protect his fourteen-year-old ward, soon to become his adopted daughter, from the vengeful predation of a heinous but hilarious psychotic lifelong criminal whom in a previous volume he has policed and appropriately brutalized.

Sandford’s fiction always is driven by stories and characters. His stories are Gordian, captivating, and, despite his remarkable prolificacy, never formulaic or repetitive. His characters are singular, diverse, enthralling, and epically contemporary.

Wicked Prey is elaborately plotted. The story is fascinating. Its multiple strands are discrete and distinctive, yet they interconnect with one another in increasingly daedal and mutually vitalizing ways.

The plot is marvelously populated. The characters, some heroic, some mundane, some villainous, are unique, ebulliently alive, propelled by self-awareness and self-interest but intricately interrelated and cross-pollinating. Individually and together, they inadvertently illuminate the nature of our nation and social order at this most perplexing, dissociative, impassioned time.

The thought processes, energies, and skills with which Lucas and his colleagues discover, track, and ultimately dispatch the criminals are exceptionally competent and interesting. So are the criminals’. The novel’s wicked persons, female and male, are professionally accomplished, unreservedly committed, thoroughly guileful, deeply evil, and devoid, like all of Sandford’s sinners, of fear, hesitation, or remorse.

The criminals’ motivations are never rarefied, empathized with, ratified, or forgiven. We hear nothing in Wicked Prey about corrosive childhoods, imperfect parenting, or social injustices. The bad persons in this book are purely, volitionally, and exuberantly bad. Some want money, and perhaps versions of ontological power or liberty. Some want drugs and, in one instance, reprisal.

What they want and why they want it barely matter. These malefactors are professionals. Their consciousness and conduct are those of career. Some but not all are adept at what they do. They will keep right on doing it, and will impose correlative mayhem and suffering upon civilization and the civilian population of Minnesota until Lucas, his colleagues, or other forces of normative society make them stop it – either by incarcerating them or killing them.

This is a constant in Sandford’s fiction. Criminals in his novels rarely compel authorial sympathy, and they almost never convert to more conventional and correct ways of being. They are elements of existence that need to be discerned, detected, and defeated.

The intelligence and depth with which Sandford delineates and studies his villains shows us how multiple, dangerous, and probably irreconcilable are the gulfs between varieties of human experience. It is common in populist fictions to associate divergent populations, their awareness, and their activities with differing economic statuses and their attendant identity structures. Sandford refuses assent to this formula. He is far more drawn to the belief that all of us choose our mentality or perhaps autonomically receive it at birth, and live as we do because it pleasures us. Some people wish to construct lives of constructive normalcy: existences of structure, fealty, salubrious instinction. Others want to be wanton, wild – wicked. This is their fulfillment, and it comprises their meaning.

Unfortunately, the wicked ones in Wicked Prey prefer to exist by preying upon those who are more conventionally established and empowered. They live by seizing more decent people’s goods and violating their comforts, their dignity, and, often, their safety. The wicked ones do not seek to be understood or compassionated. Nor do they want to be cured. They are terrible, and they like being terrible. They need to be captured or killed by one who comprehends them, loathes them, and is superior to them in cunning, strength, and purity.

Lucas Davenport is just the man for the job. He’s a magnificent protector: supremely intelligent, an avid hunter, a proficient hand-to-hand fighter, a dead shot, and, to boot, a fine fellow. He’s tall, strong, handsome. An accomplished athlete. A wildly successful technology entrepreneur, independently wealthy. Without pretension, he’s a book collector and a clotheshorse. He owns a Porsche, drives it much too fast, and plunks a police light on its roof when he needs to move dangerously fast. He quietly loves poetry and fishing, and more loudly is an aficionado of rock music. He’s broadly capable. He designs houses, repairs machines, is good with tools, handles equipment, is expert with guns and ordnance. He has an easy male confidence that comes from knowing that he can do most things well, and from realizing without arrogance that almost all women and most men like him a lot.

They should like him. Lucas is true, he’s trustworthy, and volume by volume he’s developing into an ever more compelling person. After a multitude of romances, he’s created enduring love with his wife, a surgeon his equal or superior in prowess and complexity. He’s found love with their child, and with his daughter from an earlier relationship, and with his roguish ward, whom he and his wife legally adopt in Wicked Prey. He’s achieved fulfillment with both his casual friends and a repertory company of peers in the police world with whom he’s bonded. He’s building purpose and peace in his work, and seems to be finally conquering his long struggle with clinical depression. He’s quick-witted, immensely talented, and content with life in ways that are cogent and contagious. 

He’s a masterpiece: the most interesting and likable fictional American detective since Travis McGee. He contradicts D.H. Lawrence’s celebrated assertion that “the essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic and a killer.” Lucas stands beyond this archetype and paradigm. He’s emotional, social, evolutional, astute, and very humorous.

As is John Sandford’s wonderful writing. Sandford has created easy fluent mastery, and he’s growing it by leaps and bounds with every book he publishes:

Lucas Davenport rolled in his Porsche through the August countryside, green and tan, corn and beans, the blue oats falling in front of the John Deeres, weeping willows hanging over the banks of black-water ponds, yellow cornflowers climbing on the sides of the road-cuts, Wisconsin farms with U-Pick signs hung out on the driveways, Dutch Belted cows and golden horses and red barns, Lucas’ arms prickling from sunburn … One of the finest summers of his life. 

Two clerks were working the counter: a straw-headed kid, pale and thin, with Grand Theft Auto eyes; and a soft round Indian woman with a dot on her forehead.

[Brutus Cohn] liked it all: money, women, gambling, cocaine and reefer and Saturday night fights in the gravel parking lots outside country roadhouses, with frogs croaking from the roadside ditches and the fireflies blinking out over the farm fields.

“What are you going to do?” Del asked. “First thing, right at the crack of dawn tomorrow, soon as the TV people wakeup, I’m gonna have a big-mother press conference,” Lucas said. “I’m gonna paper the country with pictures of Cohn and this chick. Then, we’re gonna find them and kill them.” “Sounds like a plan,” Del said.

 They all sat for a minute, then Jenkins said: “What do you think we ought to get for Del’s kid? It’s gonna be a boy, right? Something blue?” “It’s Del’s kid; you gonna get him a blue gun?” Shrake asked.

Ranch woke in the beanbag chair. He was used to the disappearance of large parts of his life. Sometimes, he passed out at ten o’clock in the morning, and when he woke up, it was nine o’clock in the morning – some other morning. At first, the time changes were disorienting, but over the course of a couple of years, he got used to it. He simply gave up on time – now life was daytime and nighttime, strung along like beads on a string, and the minute, hour, and date were irrelevant.

“… I don’t think cops should kill people. I mean, murder people. People get trials, they get lawyers.” Letty [Lucas’s ward] sighed. “Let me think about it for a couple days. I’m so confused.” A little song and dance, she was thinking as she spoke: a little song and dance because Jennifer Carey was no longer to be trusted. I don’t think cops should kill people. Bullshit, Letty thought.

Wicked Prey is a great book by a great writer. I can’t explain why Sandford receives so little critical acclaim. I think it may be because he’s utterly disinterested in the designs, affectations, and self-promotion of high art.

For many years, Clint Eastwood was similarly neglected. Sanford reminds me strongly of Eastwood. Like Eastwood, he possesses quiet calm constant expertise. Stunning but subtle aptitude. Extraordinary sociability and decency – leavened comfortably, somehow, with equally extraordinary capacities for violence, self-reliance, and aloneness.

Despite his long history of popular success, the world has not yet found John Sandford. His time, like Clint Eastwood’s, will come. His gifts, subjects, concerns, and tireless body of work mandate and make inevitable the broad and general fondness and esteem he long ago should have attained.

Mad As Hell

 

 Kathy I’m lost I said though I knew she was sleeping
I’m empty and aching and I don’t know why
Counting the cars on the New Jersey Turnpike
They’ve all gone to look for America
                        –Paul Simon, “America

 

Americans have become so angry. Television pundits tee off at one another, the moderator, and the audience. Editorialists and commentators grow every day more bellicose. Friendships fissure over politics. Election campaigns embrace and embody JFK’s brilliant, funny, but sad refrain: “the pleasure of having an opinion without the trouble of thought.”

Tea Party diatribes, CPAC harangues, Liberal tirades, red states, blue states, Democrats, Republicans, Independents. Gun control advocates, weaponry foes, pro-life partisans, pro-choice partisans. High school students, college students, dropouts, the elderly, the middle-aged, the young, the rich, the poor, the middleclass, this ethnic group, that ethnic group. Everywhere we look, vast numbers of Americans overtly or obliquely shriek like the players in that fine zany film “Network”: “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore.”

Our anger has assumed the form of entrenched, obstinate, belligerent intolerance. We blindly manifest the fanaticism and much of the violence we decry in our country’s putative enemies. Few of us converse rationally with anyone who does not already unreservedly agree with our visions and views. Few of us listen, cherish reason, find middle ground, compromise, cohere. We prefer confrontation. We celebrate militancy. We’re becoming a nation of absolutist ideologues.

We’re discarding the capacity to respect, appreciate, and like anyone with whom we do not concur. More and more, we define those with whom we disagree as antagonists devoid of humanity common with our own. We regard every fellow citizen who does not adhere to our opinions as a creature beyond our pale, barbarian and despicable.

We seem to find an ecstasy in anger and its excesses. Raging, isolating, and hating somehow justify our rage, make it appear as though it has meanings and worth. Our anger and its radicalism operate as a kind of moral and political qualification. I must be a worthy man, an enlightened woman, because I pathologically hate every person who does not holistically share my thought and its source fury. Everyone who takes up a side other than mine must be a lout or a demon. People on the Left are scabrous. People on the Right are scrofulous. People in the middle are the worst of all. Sanctity lies here: exclusively and utterly in the angry, shrill me.

This syndrome is not new. In 1964, I heard Senator Barry Goldwater accept his party’s nomination for the presidency with a stentorian rant: “I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice. And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.” His delegates responded rhapsodically to his coded but clear declamation. I was only 19 years old at the time, naïve beyond description. Yet even I knew enough to say to my Dad: “Uh oh.”

Nearly 50 years later, our nation is close to forfeiting the ability to function democratically. As we divide into ever more extreme, autocratic, and irreconcilable camps, we increasingly regard it as a virtue to refuse dialogue. The minority imposes upon our political and governmental activity nothing more than obstinate obstacle; the majority, nothing more than obdurate insistence. Plurality has become nominal. One party establishes a small momentary margin of legislative or executive power, cannot govern, cedes its powers, and is replaced with its mirror opposite that generates an essentially identical fate.

We are constructing an age of absolutist anger. It is cankering individual and social consciousness, and it is crippling our country.

2. Our Anger

What are we angry about?

Most Americans believe they know. We’re angry about politics, we’re angry about other people’s behaviors, and we’re angry about money.

Some are furious about the government’s intrusions upon their freedom. Some are incensed by the government’s failure to provide sufficient support.

Some scream the national debt is too high, make it shrink, but don’t raise taxes. Others scream the national debt doesn’t matter, give me more, take it from someone else who has more than I. Everybody hates taxes and fees. Income tax, property tax, sales tax, death tax, capital gains tax, tariffs, bank fees, credit card fees, airline fees, state park use fees.

Prices are too high, and it’s somebody else’s fault that they are. Everyone blames insurance companies and one or the other national political party for our spiraling healthcare costs, and the terrifying lack of coverage so many of our fellow citizens confront. Many blame the Arab peoples and behemoth corporations for the high price of our fuels. We’re getting ready to blame China for the disintegration of our economy and currency that we ourselves merrily created. Many blame bankers and the Federal Reserve for the collapse in housing and equity values that we all helped parent. Almost everyone abominates the taxpayer bailouts of the finance system we all need, and we all helped corrupt.

Speaking of corruption. Some socioeconomic classes vilify the rich and powerful for colluding with one another, blockading access to achievement, influence, and wealth, and monstrously abusing their already excessive privilege and authority. The rich and powerful vilify the impoverished for being unmotivated, indolent, often immoral, and always seeking handouts; and the middle classes for spending beyond their means, whimpering and wailing, puling, getting politicians to pander to them, and constantly seeking unearned transfers of wealth.

We’re also angry about individuals’ attitudes and actions, even though no one can agree anymore about what constitutes our sanctified norm. Notions once consecrated and unexamined about gender identity, human unions, family architecture are splitting asunder. So, too, are notions that once prevailed about racial, ethnic, gender, and generational identity.

Probably these notions never worked in reality. However, it angers us that so many notions are loosening boundaries, severing our previous persuasions and codes. Well, this makes some people mad. It makes others glad. But the glad ones are mad at the angry ones, and the angry ones are mad at the glad ones. We don’t converse about this unnecessarily fissuring problem. We just shriek at one another, demonize, and despise.

We’re angry about immigration, too. Some maintain with utmost truculence that we ought to expel at once, instantly, every single undocumented immigrant residing in our nation and somehow slam shut our borders firmly and forever. This is called patriotic. Others pillory those who hold these beliefs, and demand the United States of America somehow renew and expand our proud (if maybe mythical) heritage of indiscriminate welcome to all who would migrate to our shores. This, too, is called patriotic.

These are our minor leagues. We’re working up our major league brouhaha about abortion. Responsible polling repeatedly concludes our nation is divided approximately evenly, and with approximately equal anguish on both sides, about whether our government should allow or forbid abortion, and under what circumstances. As if our government should or can control human behaviors. In a more sane surround, this agonized impasse would seem to cry out for a middle way.

Across the loud spectrums of our infuriated opinion, we Americans believe we know what we’re mad about. We’re mad about this, we’re mad about that, very mad, righteously mad, irreversibly mad.

3. Our Wounds

In truth, though, the reason we feel so angry has little to do with politics and its poetics, wealth and its distribution, or other people’s outlooks and actions. I believe we feel so irate and frightened because:

  • Our ideals are vanishing. We no longer possess our previously unifying faith systems and standards of excellence. In their place, we have summoned consumerism and opportunism. Many among us have almost abandoned spiritual ways of knowing and living. Certainly our popular culture and media have deserted the belief in and forsaken the criteria of the transcendent. We traffic excessively with the mechanical and the temporal.

 

  • Our communities are vanishing. We reside with one another in adjacency, but rarely in connection. We less and less regard ourselves as a communal body of interacting individuals with a common history and deeply shared social, economic, and political interests. We are becoming merely contiguous with one another. We occasionally recognize and assist each other. Normally we ignore one another. Or, worse, we exploit one another.

 

  • Our concords with nature are vanishing. We mine, fence, and pave the land. We soil the waters. We injure the air. Most of us scarcely experience the outdoors. We have barely any consciousness of the sea, the sky, the mountains, the forests, the rocks, the rills, the plains, or the multitude of miraculous life forms who flourish among us. We have little sustained, morally coherent association with nature’s processes, gifts, teachings, or sheer majesty and beauty. We are growing progressively more artificial, uninfluenced by our minds and emotions, horribly isolated from the true roots and most profound contexts of our existence.

 

Human beings need uniting ideals, heartfelt congruence with one another, and passionate, persisting placement in the natural world. More and more in America, we lack these primal fundaments of identity, meaning, and fulfillment. So, like the character in Paul Simon’s luminous song, “America,” we feel empty and aching and we don’t know why.

We’ve attempted anthropomorphizing the universe, worshipping greed, and indulging consumption. For decades we’ve tried. But our capitalism, our commodities, and our voracious, orgiastic squandering never fulfill our spiritual needs. We manufacture products and consume them like crazy, but we cannot sate the hungers in our mind, our spirit, and our soul. We construct cities, suburbs, malls, and emporia of entertainment, but we grow ever more homeless, alien, alone, and afraid.

Let us look more closely at what we are losing, and why our losses wound us.

Ideals

Americans once did share and exalt several canonical beliefs that functioned for us as a defining creed. We knew, or at least we thought we knew:

  • Life has been willed and ordained by a Creator, and consequently is purposive and principled.

 

  • We do not need to name the Creator overmuch. We do not need to proclaim anything overmuch, for we dislike displays and prefer not to impose individual beliefs, judgments, or dictates on anyone else.

 

  • Each of us ought to be good, truthful, ethical; honest, forthright, just; open, responsible, and kind.

 

  • We should be fair with one another.

 

  • Because there is evil, there should be justice, clear in its requirements and content, swiftly delivered.

 

  • Each of us must work hard.

 

  • Each of us must be self-reliant.

 

  • Yet, we should share a sense of citizenry. We should feel in unspoken interrelation with our neighbors. Without explanation or fuss, we quietly should help one another raise our barns, harvest our crops, lead our children, manage our emergencies, and protect our communities.

 

  • There ought to be heroes who accomplish fine deeds, proffer excellent example, and impart leadership.

 

  • We should live in close harmonious relationship with nature, and venerate her.

 

These convictions find their classic and most continuous expression in our mythos of the Old West. One of our most important indigenous art forms, the western, tells always the socializing saga of our once unifying set of values. The enduring appeal of this narrative – “Avatar” is but the most recent statement of our defining chronicle – demonstrates how endemic and vital the design has been for our coherence and comfort as a collective and as individuals. [In fact, the allure of the classic American mythos is global. “Avatar,” after all, is commanding by far the largest and most universal audience any cinematic story ever has been able to attract.]

The needs the tacit American belief system recognized, shaped, and satisfied have not disappeared. Only the beliefs themselves are disappearing. And with them, inevitably, are eroding also the responsibility structures and social cohesion they mandated and made meaningful.

Communities

It ought to have been harder in America’s earlier eras to form, preserve, and cherish communities. Our cities were forever recreating themselves as waves of new peoples entered, emigrated from foreign environs, propelled by persecutions, animated by surges of hope, energy, and ingenuity. Our cities perpetually reformulated themselves without plan, without governmental concords, managed only by raw human yearnings and anarchic actions. Our plains, shaped tragically by genocide, were vast. Folk lived in remote homesteads, mammoth ranches, tiny, fragile, barely functional towns. Order did not precede and regulate habitation. It followed.

All the more reason why the American consciousness of community through common ideals flourished, conferred safety, aided survival, and in time achieved sanctity. Our consciousness evolved as our nation did. By experiment. By the gradual evolution of actual human needs.

Now the communities our forebears worked so hard to found and preserve are dissolving into mere nexuses.

Our cities are miracles of intricacy, but now they function primarily as aggregations of assembly. People live alongside or atop one another, chockablock yet anonymous, unknown to one another, utterly disunited focal points for commerce primarily, rarely for intimacy.

Our suburbs operate principally to house during nights and weekends workers who labor in cities throughout each weekday; and to permit escapist families to live as refugees from the modern urban experience.

We preserve ever fewer villages and towns of human scale. We reside in complex, costly urban or suburban artifices that inadvertently disconnect us from our kin, our neighbors, and ourselves.

Like our ideals, our communities are collapsing. Our homesteads are becoming almost entirely happenstance.

Nature

Our reworking of the world not only is isolating us from one another. We also are growing ever more isolated from the creative energies and controlling forces in the universe.

The vast majority of Americans now gain their living by means that have nothing to do with anything organic, animate, integral, or whole. In the procedures of our labors, few of us interact powerfully with any of the phenomena, processes, and cycles of the natural world. This is equally the case with many of our recreations, which increasing are vicarious, electronic, or in other respects synthetic.

Some families still own and operate farms, or fish. For the most part, though, we conduct agriculture, husbandry, and all other of our elemental interactivities with nature through large shareholder corporations or industrial combines.

Many of us do not associate with nature at all. We work in factories, offices, or cubicles. Many of us soullessly perform activities and transact tasks menial or mental that we cannot feel to be in any respect related to natural life or in any regard essential to its rhythms and manifest sanctity.

For most of us, the sole nexus of our pursuit is cash transaction. We are paid money for what we do. We pay money for what we desire and obtain. We purchase, and we are purchased. We less and less frequently act in associative harmony with our instincts, or in gratuitous generosity. We have become absolute, accomplished capitalists.

Our humanity remains, however. Our emotional and social imperatives endure. These constructs are mighty and magnificent. But we increasingly fail to recognize them, and everyday they grow more unfulfilled. We feel ever more empty and aching, and we don’t know why.

4. Our Recourse

So what do we do?

We do what human beings invariably do when we feel baffled and hurt.

Confusion and suffering make us angry. Anger needs targets. We’re not willing to blame ourselves. We don’t want to fault our own flaws. We refuse to recognize and censure our own unwise choices. So we blame others. Like heat-seeking missiles we define external targets, program them as villains, light them up with invective, and explode our rage upon them.

We can’t blame the communists anymore. We did that for decades, and now most of them are gone. It’s hard to get worked up about the North Koreans. We can’t loathe Fidel Castro any longer.

What if we turn against ourselves?

Ah, we can find plenty of butts within our own polity. We can discover a countless number of large or small – usually we select small – differences to decry in one another: our faith traditions, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, age, economic circumstances. Easiest of all, we can denounce minute differences in each other’s politics.

This is the recourse we have chosen. We pillory the distinctions that exist among us, rather than honor them as fascinating aspects of our shared humanity. We impugn our diversities, rather than love them as elements for wonder, admiration, and joy. We convert our perplexity and fright about all we have lost into righteous rage, and we divert it onto other persons’ differences of opinion, style, and behavior.

This diversion is ingenious, and it functions. It does not succeed, though. It relieves none of our emptiness, alleviates none of our aching, and leads us nowhere near the comprehension of pain and relief from fear we so desperately want. We have wandered far from the territory we need and unconsciously crave.

Unfortunately, we are growing day more extreme in this error and its execution. Our politics are becoming daily more fractious, our nation more polarized, our economy more paralyzed, and our governing system more dysfunctional and impaired.

Our situation would be comic, were it not wreaking such havoc and generating so tragic and potentially unmendable an increase in our suffering.

5. Mad As Hell

Anger of this nature and magnitude is madness, and it is a hell. It is what the Greeks called chthonic.

The anger that has been afflicting America is madness and a hell because it has neither genuine objects nor an exit. It is merely corrosive. In time it will destroy all it targets, and it will annihilate all who empower and convey it.

Or maybe not. Not necessarily. We can learn. We can grow.

A wise adage from Alcoholics Anonymous states that people always will remain the same until the pain of remaining the same becomes greater than the fear of changing. Although unaware of its true sources, Americans are in great pain. Perhaps our pain is good. Perhaps it can become a force purgative and purifying. Perhaps we will let it teach us why our way of life has been hurting us, and why we need to create changes.

6. The Changes We Need

We know what we need to change. All of us know this very well.

We need to depend on ourselves once again, not the government. We need to get back to work. We need to dream, dare, drive – not bleat, whine, and collect entitlements no one can pay for.

We need to cease this ruinous distancing of ourselves from nature, and our wanton desecration of her planet.

We need to stop our terrible quantifying of other people, our dumb, hurtful rejecting of other persons’ preferences and personalities. We need to stop shouting at one another. We need to quit tormenting and savaging one another. Quit it cold turkey.

We must transform our corporations, and reconstruct our government. We must make the entities and institutions we support conduct themselves more responsibly, with a modicum of humility and love. Or else we should shut them down, and do without them.

We should recover what we have forgotten from our frontier heritage. We should rely on our own selves, take proper care of each other, and give respectful, grateful reverence to our mother nature.

We can begin with our own selves. We can renounce consuming more than we need, buying what we don’t want, grasping after more possession than makes sense, craving powers and grandeurs we neither want nor can use.

We should give this all up, simplify our existence, root our lives in what truly matters and confers authentic, abiding joys. We should tear down the mess we’ve built and naturalize ourselves again, as we more nearly did during our pioneer eras.

7. Our Power

At one or another level of awareness, all of us realize what we must do. We must lay down our anger, put aside our madness, end this awful distraction of our best selves. If we will but behave ourselves, the universe freely will provide us with everything we legitimately desire.

It took us more than 200 years to choose and construct the discontented culture we inhabit now. It may take us 200 more to comprehend that it does not work, renounce its errors, deconstruct its excesses, and build a new order more natural and fulfilling.

It is the fullest measure of our freedom that we can make this choice, and that we possess this immense power. We can free our power anytime we want to.

This is our power, America. We can exercise our freedom, and make the exhilarating choice gradually to create a civilization more wise, natural, and nurturing. Or, like the confounded character in Paul Simon’s stunning poem, we can continue to ride our present bumpy bus, crying to souls whom we know to be fast asleep that we feel empty and aching and we don’t know why, counting the cars on the New Jersey Turnpike as they hurtle endlessly and aimlessly by.

Calamity and Comedy

-People are crazy and times are strange. [Bob Dylan] 

On January 13, 2010 the nation of Haiti was visited with calamity.  In response to this epic and awful emergency, the conscience of humankind has been moved to extraordinary sympathy, sorrow, and action.  Countless individuals and numerous nations have replied to the disaster with heartfelt grief and empathy, and with donation of money, goods, and services. 

Certain journalists, particularly some television journalists, scarcely could conceal their sense of program and personal marketing opportunity. A desolation so colossal, so photogenic, could not fail to generate during this period of protracted economic crisis an occasion for demonstration, ratings, and advertising. Networks dispatched celebrity correspondents and their support systems. Promotional apparatuses subtly trumpeted the event and its coverage as a validation of television journalism as an apparatus: a social necessity, a system by which humanity can make witness to history in process. Implicitly, however, these relentless television network self-promotions also entail and mean that making witness to mayhem and misery is a species, furtive but not faint, of entertainment. 

[I want to make specific exception to this generalization for Mr. Anderson Cooper and his remarkable CNN team.  In their response to this as to so many other contemporary tragedies, Mr. Cooper and his colleagues have provided exemplary reportage, consummate commitment, and striking compassion.  As well as longevity.  Mr. Cooper, his colleagues, and his network have devoted enormous investments of time and funding to bring the story of the calamity to the world;  and the story of the world’s reaction to the calamity.  I believe Mr. Cooper should be nominated for the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize.]  

This journalistic consciousness of suffering as entertainment, a consciousness subliminal rather than overt, has been horridly confirmed by the American media’s daily sequence of story-making.  For the other great journalistic subject of this week in the United States, across all media platforms, has been the comedy programs of Jay Leno and Conan O’Brien, the travails of their network and its affiliates, and the fairness or injustice with which their corporate employer has treated these obscenely privileged and not particularly talented entertainers.  Urgent attention in the United States can be compelled almost equally by catastrophe and comedians, for both operate upon the modern American consciousness as elements of entertainment. 

Even The New York Times has succumbed to and fueled this disorder in meaning and priority.  In its January 14, 2010 edition, a senior reporter included in his article about the comedians’ dispute with the National Broadcasting System several absurdly sonorous comments from industry analysts.  One example:  “People have rallied around Mr. O’Brien not because they adore his ‘Tonight Show’ but ‘because he’s suddenly become an unlikely (Harvard-educated, multimillionaire) Everyman: the freckled face of American job insecurity, a well-meaning hard worker who’s spent years paying his dues but has now been declared redundant by the halfwit overlords driving his company into the ground.’” 

The article later reports that The Consumerist, a commercial blog published in association with Consumer Reports, made public “e-mail addresses for NBC executives and proposed an ‘executive e-mail carpet bomb.  Get them to pull the dagger out of Conan’s back before it’s too late for all of us,’ the blog wrote.” 

These overreactions are silly.  But they also are signifiers.  They suggest how confused many modern persons are about what is significant and what is not, and what is tragic and what is not.  This is not a question about orders of magnitude.  A calamity that wreaks death on many tens of thousands of human beings and carnage upon a nation is significant and tragic, and requires profound and sustained response.  The realignment of an unsuccessful television schedule is not even noteworthy.  The cathartic posturing of two comedians should not attract extensive feature coverage by the American media, nor an outpouring of abreaction and personal identification by, apparently, millions of American citizens. 

What does this ludic lack of relation with proper proportion mean?  From what does it derive?  What does it portend for the American society, and for the many international civilization and communities the American culture influences?  

We see here one of the many illustrative instances in American life of the invidious impact of opulence.  Emptiness and boredom are hallmarks of our polity.  We have been given so much, but many among us feel balked, frustrated, foiled.  We feel empty.  We earn, spend, acquire, use, explore, exploit, yet we feel ever more undefined, unfulfilled, barren.  We mask our hunger for identity and meaning by seeking entertainment, which we mistake for actual experience and authentic personation.  A disastrous event in Haiti and lasting distress for an immensely suffering people can seem to the badly bored citizens of western empire merely a story, replete with stock images and sound bites, to accompany a breakfast as a read or an evening as a broadcast.  The contrivances of comedians, their rise, their fall, their entitlements, their gibes, seem to us another saga, food or fodder to fall into but not fill the maw of our unconscious randomness, chaos, and degradation.       

This is a condition not merely American, and not modernist alone.  In the literature of every society in every era, we read that one of the universal attributes of affluence is anomie.  Entropy attaches itself to entitlement.  A weary emptiness often surrounds and circumstances wealth.  Many persons who are vastly privileged frequently feel undernourished; and many who are desperately impoverished commonly create multiple pathways for fulfillment, love of living, and seemingly inexplicable gratitude. 

Abundance seems often to generate a deep sense of vacancy or void.  Those who possess a disproportionate share of their community’s resources and goods seem to have a tapeworm embedded in their psyche and spirit.  Hunger for more gnaws at their soul.  No matter how much sanction and status they accrue, they ache to be yet further elevated in social consequence, to amass additional power, to be additionally known, felt, acknowledged, and, above all else, engaged, aroused, amused, entertained.  We do now read of such circumstances among the radically disestablished.  Just as we do not hear of many eating disorders among the people of Bangladesh or Darfur. 

This may be a kind of insanity: the inanity of affluence, the ennui of entitlement.  It does not belong to the United States solely.  It is to be found everywhere that large and unjust divisions develop among human beings and across human societies. 

__________ 

We will further explore these complex and disturbing issues in subsequent posts.  

The Audacity To Win

Book Review

The Audacity to Win: The Inside Story and Lessons of Barack Obama’s Historic Victory
by David Plouffe; published by Viking Books (November, 2009)

For two years, Mom, Dad, and millions like them loved their country enough to change it.

Many analysts agree that President Obama conducted a primary and general election campaign without precedent in skill and effectiveness. The exercise was managed by David Plouffe, an exceptionally astute, inventive, and disciplined professional operative. Mr. Plouffe has written an extensive debrief on the campaign’s goals, tactics, and personnel, and a thoughtful review of the teaching the experience provides for the subculture of election specialists and, more broadly, for our nation.

The Audacity to Win makes it clear that the hallmarks of the campaign were established almost in their entirety from the outset. It was shaped by its leaders’ thorough understanding of the electorate’s yearning for change: change not simply in an administration and its policies, but in all persons’ attitudes, actions, and standards of conduct and the entire manner in which power is organized in the United States.

Barack Obama articulated transcendently well this yearning for transformation. He also embodied it. The campaign recognized this conjunction of a social phenomenon with its leading personality, and built all its strategies around it.

Chief among these were the decisions to create and sustain a series of interrelated change drivers:

  • Inspire grassroots volunteerism on a scale never before seen in presidential politics
  • Achieve new voter registration and voter turnout on a scale never before accomplished
  • Utilize new technologies, especially the Internet, to communicate directly with the electorate, attract donations, and trigger volunteerism
  • Campaign aggressively for every attainable delegate vote and, later, each achievable electoral college vote
  • Instill selflessness, unity, discipline, and civility throughout the staff at all levels
  • Interact primarily and directly with the electorate, rather than political professionals and media pundits
  • Cultivate and adhere to the candidate’s and the campaign’s highest, most pure instincts rather than temporal expediency

Each of these commitments fertilized all the others. The campaign grew into a domestic and international populist movement beyond anyone’s expectations. It led eventually, of course, to Mr. Obama’s historic election.

Many memoirs function as an encomium to self. The events under review could not have transpired, the memoirist usually proclaims, were it not for me. Many memoirs’ barely concealed purpose is to position the author to be hired repeatedly to reprise the triumph.

Plouffe has no apparent ulterior motive. He is intrigued and moved by the events he helped lead. He celebrates every principal protagonist other than himself. In particular, he crafts sincere paeans to the numberless individuals who comprised the campaign’s passionate, inexhaustible, and immensely effective corps of volunteers. And he mounts a sustained effort to help us understand precisely how and specifically why the campaign’s ideals, strategies, and methods worked so well. He also analyzes with merciless candor his own mistakes, his colleagues’ errors, and Mr. Obama’s rare gaffes.

Plouffe emerges as a sophisticated and shrewd scholar of electoral politics in America, an eminently skillful manager of people and campaign process, a combative field commander, and an exceptionally centered, unassuming, decent, and trustworthy man. He is especially cogent about the cost modern American campaigning exacts on participants’ lives, and touching in honoring the unsung heroism of spouses and children.

He is also cogent about the prodigious financial cost of American electoral politics. The Audacity to Win shows us in detail the amount of money that is needed to conduct a credible contemporary presidential campaign. The sum is astonishing. The Obama campaign’s ability to excite an unparalleled number of donors to gift an unparalleled quantity of cash to this initially quixotic undertaking is a marker of the candidate’s unique impact upon our nation’s body politic.

This is also, though, a marker cautionary in the extreme. An electoral system that requires its prospective leaders to garner contributions on so massive a degree mandates a constancy of supplication, perpetuity of beseeching, and near certainty of moral indebtedness or forced obligation. Few persons, maybe none, can seek and obtain funding of this magnitude without becoming hostage to the interests and will of its donors. Plouffe is importantly successful in revealing how our election process and its behemoth price tag virtually invite corruption from all but the most conscientious and most independently empowered leaders. The American people countenance this unconscionable situation at our peril.

Plouffe is much less successful in revealing the content of his own and other leaders’ mind and spirit. We learn almost nothing complex or nuanced about what it feels like to engage an insurgent political campaign of this magnitude; what it feels like to help form and then ride an epical cultural and social occurrence; what it feels like to envision, tap, and then manage multiple generations’ primal needs and emotions; what it feels like crucially to aid and ultimately help raise to power an authentic genius.

David Plouffe is a singularly distinguished political sociologist and campaign director. But he is not by endowment or training an author. The Audacity to Win surfaces a potentially major subject for another writer’s more profoundly insightful and interpretive authorship.

We will read this book perhaps primarily to gain insight into the character and consciousness of Barack Obama. The work does not often place President Obama on center stage. It is interested in campaign much more than in character, in process much more than personality. However, on each occasion that he does enter the pages our president appears to be a strikingly intelligent, reasonable, honest, calm, and unpretentious person.

Plouffe gives especially revealing attention to President Obama’s masterful speech on race relations in response to the several contretemps surrounding Reverend Jeremiah Wright’s sermons; the integrity and grace with which he manages his ascent into fame; the readiness with which he assumes fault and deflects blame away from others; and the wisdom and confidence with which he handles his swift transition from improbable candidate to frontrunner to president-elect to commander-in-chief. These portraits, like Plouffe’s portrait of himself, are frustratingly exterior in their vantage point and content. Yet they suggest that individual around whom this campaign was organized is entirely worthy of the hopes he has initiated and energized.

The Audacity to Win is devoid of suspense, for we know the narrative’s outcome in advance. Yet it is a gripping book, insightful, far-ranging, provocative, and fun. Readers who enjoyed the grandly fictive qualities of The West Wing will find this work almost equally addictive for its address of the actual.

_________

This review initially appeared in the New York Journal of Book Reviews, a new online literary review.

Please see:   www.nyjournalofbooks.com

Education Revolution

 

Broken hands on broken ploughs,
Broken treaties, broken vows,
Broken pipes, broken tools,
People bending broken rules.
Hound dog howling, bull frog croaking,
Everything is broken.
     – Bob Dylan, “Everything Is Broken”

State of Emergency
Few of the authorities who write, speak, advocate, and lobby on behalf of ideologies about education or improvements in its delivery ever have created or managed a school. Fewer still have taught, and virtually none have taught recently. No doubt they mean well, but most authorities know little about actual teaching and learning in the contemporary world. Few have familiarity with nations and cultures that have achieved distinction in teaching language, mathematics, and science. None, in my opinion, place sufficient emphasis upon the sole protagonists who truly matter in any dialogue about education: the learners.

Despite these limitations in expertise, broad consensus exists in the United States that our public education system at all learning levels confronts severe challenges. The consensus is correct. Throughout our country, students’ motivation and academic performance seems to be declining in all fields of knowledge.

Many analysts fault teachers. I believe it is not possible responsibly to criticize or to laud individual teaching professionals, because we do not yet possess any generally agreed means by which teachers’ efficacy can be quantified and measured.

All experts agree we face epic financial challenges in sustaining and modernizing our education endeavors. An alarming number of communities are finding it difficult appropriately to finance putatively public resources. Schools are beset with spiraling costs, decreasing revenues, and attendant challenges in providing core programs, suitable staffing, sufficient facilities, necessary maintenance, and basic safety. In many localities, particularly in economically disadvantaged districts, our education infrastructure is outmoded and, in many instances, in acute disrepair. Lawrence Summers, Director of the National Economic Council for President Obama, recently suggested that 75% of American schools are in an unacceptable state of disrepair.

Resource deprivation is a serious national problem. Even more serious is the sheer pertinence of our curriculum and instruction system. Education in the United States has not changed materially since its origins in outmoded economic, geographic, and cultural paradigms. Our nation no longer is a predominantly rural agrarian civilization existing in immune isolation from global geopolitical forces. Everything about our instructional program, its content, its calendar, and its hours of operation, was designed for an historical situation that long ago departed. Our public education philosophy and practice make little sense for the contemporary universe, and for the world of work our children soon will enter.

In truth, we seldom give the needs of our children and the welfare of our society the attention they warrant. Instead, we focus on the preferences of various sectarians’ ideals, the narrow self-interest of teachers and education bureaucrats, and the pandering of indifferent politicians who seek these influencers’ financial and electoral support.

We blithely ignore the fact that other countries rapidly are improving their education systems. Societies are not necessarily competitors of one another. However, we ill can afford to ignore the reality that our peer nations in Europe and Asia are making major strides in providing their children with impressive competencies in many of the fields that most signify in modern life.

These are our current circumstances in American education. Many commentators agree the conditions constitute an unacknowledged state of national emergency.

The Action Agenda
The corrective action most analysts most frequently advocate is reform. Across numerous political and other ideological divides, we are told education in America needs modification, improvement, revision, renewal, repair.

This is not accurate. Few will say so for risk of imperiling their employment, but everyone who actually teaches in classes or actively administers schools and universities knows that education in America needs revolution. Our conceptions about teaching and learning, their broad purposes and specific objectives, scale and scope, format, governance, management, and economics do not require adjustment. They need to be completely rejected, reinvented, and replaced.

Fixing public education in America is not a task of renovation or reconstruction. It’s a teardown.

The Problems We Face
For more than forty years, I have served as a senior teacher and executive manager in preschools, schools, and universities. My experience has led me to conclude we confront eight key challenge areas in American public education:

  • Candor and Practicality
  • Mission-Critical Truths
  • Purposes and Objectives
  • Content Design
  • Delivery Design
  • Outcome Assessment and Reporting
  • Teachers’ Qualifications and Accountability
  • Teachers’ Compensation and Job Security

 

In the passages that follow, I will discuss each of these problems in turn. I will close by recommending the specific revolution I believe our education system most needs.

1. Candor and Practicality
We cannot identify problems unless we are willing to be truthful about their nature and importance. And if we truthfully seek to find effective solutions, we must commit ourselves exclusively to the criterion of practicality. A remedy is not a remedy unless it actually can work.

In any discourse about education, the welfare of our children and the benefit of our society are the only values that ultimately can command our allegiance. In comparison to these imperatives, the workplace preferences of teachers and administrators are irrelevant. The predilections of idealists, theorists, and partisan adherents of any philosophy, creed, or dogma are extraneous and immaterial.

2. Mission-Critical Truths
Here are several fundamental truths about teaching and learning. Few educators and no polemicists will acknowledge them. They nevertheless are baseline realities, and they centrally concern the process and project of education. Unless we take these mission-critical truths into full account, we cannot possibly design and deliver valid learning for our children, or ensure abiding vitality for our society.

  • Not all children are born with equal intelligence, motivation, complexity, flexibility, emotional resilience, and character strength.
  • Children do not want or need to lead similar lives. They do not need to pursue comparable fulfillments, develop analogous gifts, or create like relationships, careers, and accomplishments. They need to nurture and enact their own selfhood.
  • Children do not learn in the same way, in the same sequence, at the same speed.
  • Learning almost never occurs sequentially. It occurs by leaps and bounds, most powerfully when the learner achieves confidence and attains a personal resolve to learn, a self-motivated joy in discovering, engaging, and internalizing skills and knowledge.
  • Teaching differs drastically from learning. Just because a teacher “covers” a subject does not mean all learners have learned it, or will remember it.
  • A test almost never can reliably quantify what a student has learned. Exceptions may occur in such content-intensive fields as computation, geographical names, orthography, etc. A test primarily measures, if anything, some students’ skill in understanding and mastering the requirements of the test itself. This ability will be importantly affected by many socioeconomic and other environmental factors.
  • Grades are abstract, improvisational approximations. They refer metaphorically to criteria that frequently are undefined, and always are merely figurative. They involve samples that invariably are unstated or overstated: “norms,” “grade levels,” “the general population,” “bell curves,” etc.
  • Much, arguably most, of what we are required to learn in school turns out to have little consequence in the lives we lead as adults. During my grade 9 and grade 10 years, for instance, I was forced to devote myriad hours learning how to recognize and parse the ablative absolute syntax in Latin. I have utilized this awareness rarely.
  • Most adults cherish the memory of one or more teachers who were transformative in the growth of our imagination, our character, and our erudition. Sadly, most of the teachers whom we have encountered produced little influence on our learning or our lives, and many created decidedly negative impacts. In our school communities everyone knew who the great teachers were, and who the mediocre or horrid teachers were. Yet, great mentors rarely were institutionally recognized, honored, or rewarded; and nothing disciplinary or ameliorating ever seemed to happen to middling, below-average, or dreadful instructors.
  • During our school life, especially during our middle school and high school years, many of us frequently experienced emotional discomfort and social cruelty. The principles extolled in particularly our upper school communities, the virtues respected, the values celebrated, excluded most students from inclusion and bore little relationship to what, as adults, we have discovered most matters for living in happiness, success, and goodness.

 

These observations suggest a distressing conclusion. A great deal that is foundational in anyone’s comprehension of useful and healthy education is imperfect or failing in the current American system.

3. Purposes and Objectives
Most citizens of our nation would agree that the primary purpose of education is to prepare children and young adults to conduct happy, beneficial, and productive lives. Most would agree that our schools should produce independent, self-motivated, lifelong learners; and should foster students’ commitment and ability to behave with decency, compassion, integrity, and honor.

More concretely, preschools must prepare their graduates for success in elementary programs. K-12 schools must prepare their graduates for skill and effectiveness in work fields; or, for those who choose to continue their studies, success in universities. Universities should prepare their graduates for discovery and leadership in life.

4. Content Design
American public schools commonly ignore education’s most compelling purposes, and substitute politicized or recondite goals in their place. Many establish self-referential curricula: they “cover” fields of knowledge that local education bureaucracies or other influential forces deem appropriate for various “age groups” and “learning levels.” These fields and their required “coverage” may have little to do with the knowledge base and the thinking and creative skills most universities require; or with the competencies and capabilities employers expect of non-collegiate professionals.

For all intents and purposes, education policymakers ignore students who do not aspire to or seek university education. We increasingly are reluctant to identify and track such learners, or to equip them with qualifying career preparation in honorable, necessary, and remunerative fields of work. Few districts even attempt to audit prospective employers’ hiring requirements for terminal senior secondary school graduates. Few make any provisions for high school leavers.

Our failure to focus on practical outcome objectives is paralleled by our refusal to respond to our country’s rapidly changing social conditions, economic topography, and cultural mores. History curricula in the United States remain obsessively Anglo-European and patriarchal in their emphasis. Few science curricula have kept even approximately current with the remarkable pace of scientific discovery and technological advances that are the most important hallmark of our era. Many science courses are leavened with ideological concerns, or issues concerning religious revelation. Our expectations for learners’ mathematical competency and English language literacy are woefully outmoded for the era in which we now live, and for the polity our graduates eventually must lead. Children and young adults in the United States seldom learn an international language other than English. Despite the fact we now inhabit what we often term a “flat world,” we decline to prepare our learners to comprehend or informedly respect any other society’s consciousness and civilization.

This problem is compounded by our ever-growing insularity and unconscious arrogance. We behave as though our daughters and sons somehow are entitled to flourish in their lives because they dwell in the United States. We often feel contemptuous or bitter about nations that seem to be “pushing” their children to achieve standards more exacting than our own. The reality is that our education system’s graduates must live and compete in the actual great world – not in the realm of our fantasies, biases, and preferences. They need to comprehend and transact in an economy that years ago became incomparably more global and meritocratic than the forebears who designed our education systems could have envisioned.

5. Delivery Design
Deficiency and dereliction in our schools’ content designs are serious problems. Far more dangerous are the defects in our delivery designs.

The most troubling of these proceed from our insistence, against all evidence, that children always learn in a linear order, all in the same manner, all at the same pace. Almost universally, we teach courses of study in a straight line sequence. Fields such as history and literature customarily are taught in a chain of chronology, organized by region or nation. Mathematics normally is taught in a progression of capabilities. So is language acquisition. Those students who do not move along the grid as the teacher presents it lose root constructs and competencies. They are fated to fall ever further behind, unless, improbably, they receive specialized remediation or achieve a self-directed renaissance.

The problem is not simply that we teach in grossly artificial straight-line modalities. The obstacle is compounded by the fact that we habitually aggregate learners by their age, house them in grade levels based upon their age, and make no genuinely consequential provisions for those who learn much more readily and swiftly than the “norms” we invent; or for those who learn much less easily.

We rarely utilize meaningful criteria and instruments to identify gifted or challenged learners. Even if we could achieve these vital distinctions, we seldom empower our most caring and capable teachers to serve either group; or, for that matter, to assist any individuals or specialized groups. In most of our schools, classes are not only too homogenized. They also are grotesquely too large. We permit this syndrome – often we deliberately engineer it – even though knowledgeable researchers and experienced pedagogues always have known that the single most determinative factor in education effectiveness is a low student-teacher ratio.

Every mathematician will tell us that our education “norms” statistically must fail to serve a majority of learners. A greater part of any cohort must perform “below” or “above” any “median” we choose to establish. Every skillful, committed teacher will confirm that our “norms” indeed do fail to serve the large majority of our daughters and sons.

The truth is we don’t care. We placidly accept the despair of perceived inadequacy and progressively more damaging ignorance for those who learn too slowly for the prevailing “norm.” With equal comfort, we resign ourselves to the even more insidious despair of boredom for those who learn too quickly for the benchmarks on offer.

I regard our commitment to synthetic norms as the most pernicious defect in our schools’ delivery system. There are several other grave flaws that warrant attention.

Let us consider our traditional instructional schemes. Most public schools insist educators compose, review with the colleagues to whom they report, and implement in their entirety prefabricated lesson plans: inflexible, inert metrics that assume a teacher should know or can predict how an actual group classroom dynamic will occur and operate. Almost all our schools require teachers to devise blueprints or gridirons of a kind that ensure every “lesson’s” intents will be rigid, its energies formulaic, and its outcomes precisely definable. This practice is intended to guarantee that a “grade level” curriculum will be “covered” on a definite and defined schedule.

Forward planning is a sensible and necessary pedagogic activity. But fabricating in advance the entirety of a lecture, a discussion, a unit, or an entire semester so that classroom work will consist mainly of assembling and uniting standardized parts cannot succeed in generating thoughtful learning across any spectrum of a specific learning community’s inevitable individualism. The manufacturing paradigm so dear to modernist cultures has no salience for education. In fact, it is acutely counterproductive.

This problem is compounded by the teaching tools we commonly utilize. Most schools deploy textbooks as their primary informatory and educative instrument: dry, desiccated, dull, reductive, emphatically hindering learning devices – and hugely expensive. Modern technology offers immense possibilities for teaching and learning. However, technology is expensive to acquire, license, and maintain, it requires enlightened cognition and use, and it often is subject to student abuse. Many schools use some elements of modern technology creatively and constructively. Most, though, cannot or do not.

The unfortunate impacts of this limitation are exacerbated by our most commonly accepted teaching methods and learning platforms. Too often, schools rely still on archaic teacher-delivered presentations, delivered by lecture, supported by dry marker runes drawn on white boards. Too often, schools rely still on outdated student recitation responses repeated in orchestrated chants. Pupils reply to their instructors’ lectures, if at all, by rote, regurgitating mindlessly what a notional authority robotically has conveyed. Or, in the most common supplemental model, pupils reply to set questions when called upon by name. Those who do not volunteer and those who are not specifically summoned to reply are assumed to comprehend the lesson’s material. This assumption normally is ratified by many teachers’ standard closing query: “Are there any questions?” If there are no queries, group mastery of the subject matter supposedly can be presumed.

Contemporary research abundantly establishes that these teaching protocols cannot succeed for a large majority of learners. At best, these methods can force-feed some students information that will help them achieve successful scores on examinations that test these specific data. No one pretends, however, that information mastery and data recollection constitute thinking, problem-solving, or creating – the skill sets most necessary for achievement in universities, workplaces, and the living of life.

As a matter of course, we supplement this ineffective way of teaching by mandating homework. Schools routinely assign learners often quite onerous self-study requirements. These assignments usually are mechanical, repetitive, nonanalytic, and noncreative in their design: they emphasize chores of drill and repetition. If teachers reply to the exercises assigned, they normally do so with an abstract mark and minimal comments. Few teachers would argue, none plausibly, the exercises ensure or even assist student learning that has meaning or purpose. No one will argue homework of this sort can animate and feed any person’s inborn embryonic passion for study.

Nor can our customary classroom architecture and semiotics provide these necessary stimulations. We force students to sit still in enclosed spaces for much or all of their learning day. We bolt chairs to floors or cluster them around tables, with the teacher installed in a symbolic fortress in the front of the room. We signal the beginning and announce the closing of a class period by sounding bells or claxons like we do in prisons, as if education were a regimen punitive, penal, or in some other corrective manner prescribed and inflicted. Our daughters and sons properly ought to regard learning as their joyful vocation. How can they regard the environment that confines and regulates them as either a professional or a pleasurable surround?

We tolerate another conspicuous defect in our delivery design. We no longer expect that our students will assist with sowing and harvesting. Why, then, do we operate our schools for, on average, less than 50% of the calendar year? Why do so many schools conclude the learning day at 3:30 PM or 2:30 PM, or begin it at ever later hours in the morning?

American children need far more school time than we currently provide. Many of our students swiftly forget much or most of what they seemingly learn, especially during break or holiday periods. Our most challenged students desperately require remediation, tutoring, and ongoing guidance. Our most gifted and talented students need, deserve, and would relish accelerated learning opportunities. Many of our children confront compromised or actively perilous homes, and greatly would benefit from assured persisting access to safe, protected, nurturing communal environments.

Our schools should be all-day, year-round community centers. They should be hubs of inspiration and safety where children can engage in academic study, arts, sports, arrays of salubrious extracurricular activities, and ongoing health and wellness counseling.

Nothing prevents us from modernizing and expanding our atavistic education order. Nothing except developing the resolve to do so, and allocating budgetary resources to pay for it.

The problem principally is that of resolve. We already pay for elaborate physical infrastructures that we minimally use. We already pay for a workforce that regards it as a somehow inviolable right to work considerably fewer hours per day and per year than other professionals. And we already pay momentous hidden costs to care for children whom we lose from the schooling and developmental tracks we regard as necessary and normative. In worst instances, we pay massive sums to detect, bring to trial, and incarcerate those whose alienation and neglect lead to criminality.

These are negative perspectives. Let us rejoice in the more positive viewpoint. We may be certain that all expenditures necessary to modernize our education content, design, and delivery systems would be abundantly recompensed by the social and material gains we would accomplish. How swiftly our national productivity would advance if we more fully would recognize, protect, and empower each child’s capacity for learning.

6. Outcome Assessment and Reporting
Measuring learning has not changed substantially in the United States since the advent of public schooling.

Teachers develop assessment mechanisms that in various ways attempt to quantify students’ commitment to and participation in class work, their success in particular exercises, quizzes, and cumulative tests, the results of their homework, and, in some cases, their school attendance and daily deportment.

For the most part, though, American schools still determine learning results by means of locally-generated or standardized written examinations – examinations to which, accordingly, all teachers must teach, and ever more class time must be devoted. We rely on tests no one ever has been able to demonstrate actually succeed in meaningfully calculating knowledge. Not by means or measures many honest and effective teachers will endorse. Not by criteria that in any reasonable manner reflect the lives students will conduct in their communities and cultures.

The tendency to measure comprehension and understanding by test is growing. Indeed, it rapidly is becoming federalized. This process is the more destructive because it increasingly controls the extent to which districts and schools receive finance, and the means by which individual teachers’ effectiveness is evaluated

We continue to report on individual learners’ performance by periodically delivering teacher-generated grades to parents, as if children were not responsible in any degree for their own learning or answerable in any manner to their own conscience. Almost never do we invite or require students to set their own expectations, or help evaluate their own performance. Almost never do we expect learners to establish a formal contract for their learning commitments with their parents and their schools. Almost never do we expect students to generate and present a portfolio of their education’s products, or to discuss in what manner their creations express their learning and reveal the pathways they want to develop for their awakened awareness and knowledge.

I know of no instance in which our public schools attempt to measure or report on a student’s achievements in terms of the individual’s potential. Instead, we report as if the only significant frame of reference for a person’s learning were a single, coherent, definable, monolithic “grade level expectation.”

Why do we fail to measure and report learning outcomes collaboratively with students? Why do we not even try to gauge students’ individual potential in each “subject,” and reflect upon the quality of their learning results in the terms of their inherent capability?

I think this must be because at the present moment our society does not genuinely care about individual children or their learning. Nor do we genuinely care about parents’ percepts and awareness. Our practice indicates we are concerned solely with legitimizing our education system itself: the rightness of its coverage, the rectitude of its methods, the clarity of its self-awareness, and, above all else, the totality of its authority.

Parents do not genuinely care, either. If they did, they would insist upon reform. Passive uncomplaining mothers and fathers are essential to and complicit with the education paradigm our social order inflicts upon their children.

We also must note that most students do not care, either. If they did, they would insist upon challenging and changing the education experience that in a multitude of its most important aspects disrespects and damages them. Mute submissive students are necessary to and acquiescent with the infantilization their educators impose upon them.

7. Teachers’ Qualifications and Accountability
Throughout the United States, prospective teachers are required to prepare for their employment by studying in an accredited university’s department of education. They accomplish state licensure on the basis of fulfilling a university’s program requirements, achieving a passing mark on a written qualifying examination administered by the state’s department of education, and, in some cases, by successfully completing an internship under the supervision of an experienced teacher.

Teachers theoretically are accountable for the quality of their work. Most districts delegate to the administrative leader of each school the responsibility to evaluate the quality of each teacher’s commitment and capability.

Some districts mandate that junior teachers undergo a period of senior peer mentorship and review. These evaluations often are confidential, as are the nature and results of any ongoing mentoring work that may ensue. Increasingly districts measure teachers’ effectiveness primarily by the rate at which their students achieve learning as assessed by standardized examinations. In 2010, the Houston, Texas district determined that students’ performance on standardized examination will serve as the sole criterion by which it evaluates its teachers’ merit and employability.

In many but not all districts, teachers are encouraged to continue their professional development by completing “enrichment courses” provided by university departments of education or other vendors, and by participating in conferences and workshops. The salience and usefulness of these programs rarely are assessed.

I am aware of no instance in which a district permits students or parents to contribute to their “public” schools’ assessment of teachers’ effectiveness.

Most American public schools are unionized. Teachers’ unions vigorously monitor districts’ treatment of all issues concerning licensure, assessment, and accountability.

Our prevailing qualification and accountability procedure hypothesizes that all teachers have achieved and will maintain mastery of the courses of study they provide to students, and expertise in pedagogy. Possibly this is so. It is more likely, though, that our procedure ensures ossification. Established instructors exercise exorbitant control over new colleagues who seek to enter the profession. All teachers, senior and junior in service, are thoroughly indoctrinated in and reliant upon the outmoded education schemes, content designs, delivery mechanisms, and assessment methods we have discussed, and therefore can never become a focal point of resistance to them. We have built a system that is hermetic, self-refereed, hostile to inquiry, and highly resistant to change.

8. Teachers’ Compensation and Job Security
Compensation for teachers varies widely by region. All salaries have improved in our generation. However, as costs of living in the United States inexorably increase, particularly in such chronically inflationary sectors as housing and healthcare, it is becoming ever more difficult for teachers to accomplish economic comfort. No one can build wealth by choosing to pursue this essential but undervalued profession.

Districts compensate teachers on fixed scales determined by length of service. Much debate has arisen about the desirability of creating merit pay systems for instructors who warrant recognition and reward. Teacher unions energetically have resisted this conversation. Few political leaders have dared challenge the unions’ stand. None have done so successfully.

Budget permitting, districts award annual contract renewals to all teachers who meet “average performance” standards. Districts commonly award lifetime tenure to instructors on the basis of minimal longevity achievements.

Few school principals and district superintendents have developed credible means by which substandard teachers can be responsibly identified, improved, or removed from service. No practical means short of proven moral turpitude now exist by which tenured teachers can be involuntarily retrained or retired from employment. [The New York Times recently published shocking reportage about this problem. Please see: “Progress Slow in City Goal to Fire Bad Teachers,” 23 February 2010]

Our present compensation and job security policies link all instructors’ economic self-interest to length of service rather than excellence. Renewal in employment is the sole accomplishment our public schools currently recognize and reward. The ultimate reward is the conferral of lifetime appointment, without any serious annual performance review or professional development expectations.

This situation is irrational and tragic. The essence of educating ought not to be durability of contract terms but jubilant experimentation, deliberate diversity, passionate investigation, and absolute devotion to individuality. Our public school system and its workplace organization encourage apostate energies. Even though we know our education philosophy and practice are not succeeding, we engineer for orthodoxy. We impose upon our principals and teachers, the system’s only feasible internal change agents, essentially insurmountable pressures of compliance and conformity. Indeed, we reward them exclusively for accepting and enforcing our existing, failed conventions.

Exceptions That Prove the Rule
Many education practitioners, numerous analysts, and virtually all political leaders recognize the conditions we have discussed, realize they constitute a national emergency, and share this essay’s judgment about the need to create swift and deep improvement.

Of course there exist plentiful instances of education excellence in American education. We can cite numerous examples of better-equipped, better-staffed schools that generate better results for many students than those criticized in this commentary.

However, the illustrative illustrations are exceptions. The individual schools we may reference know themselves to be out of the ordinary and remarkable. And they are restricted to districts whose population is prosperous. Throughout the United States, there invariably is a direct relationship between family affluence and relative public education quality. Too often, there is an equally direct correlation between family affluence and race.

Although we can find exceptions, and although public education in America has in many respects a proud heritage, no one responsibly can dispute how imperfect our schools now are, how rapidly conditions are deteriorating, and how dangerous this corrosion is for our children’s future prospects and our nation’s wellbeing.

The Reform Solution
The solution most reformers prefer is to perfect and universalize standardization. They believe if we confer control of education to states or, as an increasing number suggest, grant total authority to the federal government, we can regionalize or nationalize:

  • Superior teacher qualification standards
  • Enhanced curriculum
  • Better teaching practices
  • Accurate student assessment [universalizing the use of standardized tests]
  • Reliable teacher assessment [measuring whose students score well or ill on standardized tests]

 

Reformers argue we can enforce the potency of these measures by directing state and federal funding primarily to those districts and schools that achieve the highest degree of success in fulfilling the reformers’ agenda. We can do this most efficiently, it is said, by financing only those schools whose students score suitably on nationalized standard tests. Some recommend we go so far as to close schools whose students consistently fail to score appropriately.

There are many political problems that attach to this scheme of putative reform, particularly during our current era of internecine social and governmental polarity. To name but one disqualifier, we must anticipate that few American communities voluntarily will cede additional control of their schools to state or federal authority.

In my judgment, the reformers’ strategy presents a far graver problem than procuring and preserving political acceptance. I believe the strategy simply cannot work. It cannot work because:

  • Standardizing teaching never succeeds. Great teachers teach in idiosyncratic ways that are indissolubly connected to their personal sensibility. Their specific talents and tactics rarely are transferable.
  • Standardizing learning never succeeds. No matter how well or how ill a pedagogue may teach, each human being learns in a distinctive, perhaps entirely singular manner.
  • Standardized examinations never successfully measure meaningful learning. Such tests do not even purport to measure a student’s critical and creative thinking skills, power of present comprehension, or potential for future gestation.

 

I do not believe in the curative power of additional program standardization. Even if I did believe in this reform as a panacea, I would continue to feel profoundly disturbed by all the other crucial issues of content and delivery raised in this essay: the inexplicably brief length of our school day and year; the parochial and inverted nature of our content designs; the irrelevance of many of our learning programs’ preoccupations; the dysfunction and pathology of our nominal quality controls; the monotony and cruelty of many school communities and environments; our shocking indifference to inspiring each child’s learning aptitude – an aptitude that my long experience in the field has taught me is limited only by the restraints imposed upon it by adult authorities.

The Revolution Solution
Reform will not help us. I conclude public education in America requires revolution.

The specific revolution we need is choice. Let parents freely choose the approach to education they prefer for their children.

Let there be as many approaches to school education as interested practitioners can devise. Let schools clearly and candidly define their approaches. Let schools attract and retain their clientele legitimately by fulfilling expectations, or lose their clientele by failing to provide expected value.

Let this multiplicity, this free market competition, be fairly and fully funded. Let federal, state, and local jurisdictions stop extracting involuntary payments from our citizenry by assessment and directing our tax funds to so-called “public” school districts without transparency or accountability. Let there be instead a Public Education Voucher System. Let each family annually receive for each school-age child an amount of money equivalent to that which our government now allocates per child to public school districts.

This sum is startlingly large, although the dollar amount that reaches each learner for actual education contact hours is scandalously low. Let us fairly tabulate the total to which each child is entitled, and grant it to the child’s parents as a public entitlement. The total should constitute a proportionate amount of the entire publicly levied expenditure for education, including that apportioned for ill-designed, ill-maintained real estate, ill-conceived and underperforming bureaucrats, ill-advised textbooks and other supplies, school vehicles, utilities, officials’ unnecessary perquisites, etc.

Let the free market determine the varieties of education experience parents can purchase for their children with that sum. If families want to spend more than their annual allocation for exceptionally costly education experiences, let them do so. If private schools price themselves out of their market, they will flounder or fail.

Let the free market determine what should be taught, how it should be taught, and how its outcomes should be measured. In its wisdom, over time, the free market will discipline unwise, untruthful, or outlandish education philosophies and practices.

Teach creationism? Fine. Teach Nazism? Fine. Eventually, probably swiftly, parents will note that universities and workplaces do not grant access to graduates who know little, or who espouse mindless viciousness. Mothers and fathers will determine whether they want to use their voucher to enroll their child in a school that vitiates their child’s future. Parents are not dumb; and they want the best for their children.

Religious education? Why not. We are one of the world’s few nations that celebrate and formally legalize freedom of worship. Our society should cherish multiplicity in all aspects of our national life, including state-sponsored education. Again, parents in their wisdom will determine in the free market whether specific instances of religious education are or are not beneficial for their children.

Teacher certification, compensation, assessment, and job security? Let all schools decide freely whom they want to employ, how they want to evaluate their efficacy, the compensations they want to offer, and the employment securities they want to provide. Let teachers contract freely with the school whose system they prefer. For employers and faculty as well as parents, our education system can operate as it ought to: by choice, and by merit.

Current Alternatives
Some may maintain we already are moving toward this solution by authorizing charter schooling and home schooling options.

Charter schooling is a valiant and valuable experiment. But I do not foresee how charter schools can achieve or even pursue significant reform if they must win, as is presently the case, the consent and support of their sponsoring public district and teacher union. These entities, the beneficiaries of monopoly, have obtained exclusive ownership of “public” education through legal privilege, command of supply, concerted action, and consummate political sophistication. In my opinion, neither districts nor unions willingly will surrender any of these entitlements. They have too much to lose if they grant genuine emancipation to enlightened and effective charter competitors.

Home schooling is a burgeoning movement. It is fueled primarily by libertarian parents’ discontent with the public and private school options that are available in their localities.

We ought to permit home schooling, as we should allow all appropriate freedoms in our nation. I believe, though, that we should not allocate tax dollars or in the future award tax-supported vouchers to parents who exercise their freedom to educate independently. Society has an immense collective interest in communal education. It has none in wholly personalized education.

Center of Resistance: Teacher Unions
I believe a universal voucher system and open market freedom for all schools is the education revolution we require. I further believe this revolution is inevitable. The forces that will produce it are building inexorably and swiftly.

There are, though, centers of resistance. These are impassioned, empowered, articulate, and well-financed. The most vocal opponents of a national voucher and free market education system are teacher unions and the political leaders who rely upon organized labor’s support for their electoral campaigns.

In particular, unions fear and fight all threats to existing standards for teacher tenure. Their opposition usually is framed as a defense of freedom of thought and freedom of speech. Unions assert tenure is the indispensable guarantor of education’s sacred principles: the disinterested search for truth, and the sovereignty of independent, honest, apolitical, nonsectarian teaching.

Unions also claim freeing public education from its existing controls and financing parent choice with public voucher stipends would allow unqualified or unscrupulous providers to engage incompetent teachers, offer defective courses of study, report inaccurate learning outcomes, and provide unsafe facilities.

Ensuring teacher quality, teacher independence, learning integrity, and student safety are crucial values. I believe a free market education system will protect all these canonical provisions much more thoroughly than any writ of tenure, or any government bureaucratization of curriculum and assessment in a public education monopoly. Schools that choose to muzzle their faculty, discharge teachers for teaching truths, provide substandard courses, report dishonest grades, or imperil learners in perilous environments will swiftly lose their clientele. In a free market system, discontented parents will react to corrupt schools and inferior education products just as dissatisfied wealthy families do now: by transferring their child to a superior institution.

Center of Resistance: Politicians
Many political leaders maintain that a voucher system will lead parents of gifted and motivated students to withdraw their children from public schools and enroll them at public expense in privileged private academies. Left behind for the public schools, these politicians assert, will be all the children who present the greatest educational challenges: students with learning differences, substandard intelligence, psychological disturbances, indifferent homes, etc.

This argument has force. However, the present situation is a plutocracy’s solution. How does it benefit our democratic nation if only wealthy parents can choose the education program they prefer for their children? How does it assist our populist society if less wealthy parents must accept the public school that is available in their district: a school that is enabled by policy of government monopoly to collective the learning experience for all students of certain ages, regardless of their individual capability and needs; a school that may deliver uninspiring courses of study that insufficiently meet the requirements of many universities or the expectations of prospective employers; a school that may tolerate the wastage and boredom of many learners’ mind and spirit in order to convenience an intractable institutional preference for standardization?

Let us ask three other questions about our politicians’ acceptance of the status quo in our public education system.

1) How can it benefit students in the so-called “general population” who require specialized learning provisions if they do not receive them? How does it aid “special needs” learners if they are subjected to synthetic “norms” whose criteria they cannot meet; or if they are supplied with occasional teaching “specialists,” “special programs” or “streams” that provide only lip service to their complex and permanent requirements?

  • Voucher financing would enable education entrepreneurs to establish learning communities designed to deliver specialized education specifically for children with special needs.
  • Teachers committed to and qualified for special needs education would flow to these schools if they were compensated appropriately.
  • Should political leaders and the voting public determine that additional financial support is necessary to subsidize special needs education, it could be awarded by deed of grant or by increasing the qualified students’ voucher stipend as needed.

 

2) How can it benefit our nation if those students in the “general population” who possess highly developed talents, advanced learning gifts, and elevated motivation are forcibly restrained from learning at the most rapid pace they can accomplish? Do we believe America’s future will be best protected if we cultivate only the brilliance or genius potential of private schools’ most advanced pupils? Do we for some reason suppose that only the children of wealthy parents are capable of precocious and important intellection?

  • In a publicly funded free marketplace, education entrepreneurs would be induced to establish accelerated learning communities for demonstrably gifted students.
  • Teachers skilled at this type of teaching would direct themselves to these academies if they were rewarded suitably.

 

3) If our political leaders believe so fervently in the sanctity of the present public education system, why do so few of them enroll their own children in it?

Preschool Education
A rapidly growing body of research demonstrates children derive enormous benefit from receiving preschool education. Evidence is unequivocal that all children:

  • should enter preschools at the earliest possible age
  • early education teachers should be highly trained and skilled professionals
  • early education programs should provide teaching in language, mathematic, and scientific cognition as well as socialization and life skills
  • programs’ duration should be much longer than is presently conventional
  • kindergarten programs in particular should be far more academic in content than currently is the case, and should be on offer throughout a full school day.

 

I know of no one who is informed about contemporary child development research who disagrees with these conclusions.

Why is it, then, we do not provide universal preschool education? Because it is costly. We assert we cannot afford the expense.

It is an offense to reason to aver that the United States of America cannot afford universal access to preschool education. The truth is we prefer not to afford it. We prefer to invest in other goals rather than maximal welfare for our children.

This is a mindless preference, because it commits our society to constraining the productive potential of our populace. It is mindless, too, because in the long term our country will recover the expenditures needed. We abundantly will recoup every cent of our investment cost in human capital, the outlay needed to incubate and nourish our children’s invention and leadership potential, as surely as we tend to earn back our venture outlays in technology, manufacturing, and other nonhuman sectors.

Not to mention how many valuable, dignified, permanent jobs we can create for our adult workforce if we resolve that our tax funds should build and maintain infrastructure, equip and supply it, and mount a professional instructor corps to design and deliver universal early childhood education. Can taxpayers not more wisely and more enthusiastically support public payments for this purpose than, say, to purchase preposterously large bonuses for incompetent and possibly criminal banking executives? Or to underwrite unacceptable cost overruns for defense systems our military leaders declare we do not need?

This is an economic imperative. The moral obligation is even more powerful and persuasive. Our daughters and sons incontestably deserve every opportunity for intellectual, emotional, and spiritual development our government can provide. What more compelling purpose can any government imagine it has?

Preschool Education Revolution
Here again we confront a situation of opportunity that cries out for a free market solution. We most wisely can protect the value and efficiency of our taxpayers’ investment in our nation’s future if we simply grant each child in our nation who reaches a certain age – ideally, the age of 30 months – an annual Preschool Education Voucher for a certain fair sum.

Let preschool education entrepreneurs make the capital investment in infrastructure, education design, workforce, and supporting technology they believe will be most successful. Let the marketplace determine which models parents prefer to support. Let national Preschool Vouchers stimulate and sustain a host of new early education initiatives that in short order will catalyze massive systemic acceleration in the entire corpus of American elementary, secondary, and university programming and learning.

If local governments wish to provide “public” preschools to compete for voucher clientele with “private” programs, so much the better. The free market cheerfully will tolerate competition, and fulsomely will reward the most successful exemplars.

Nothing can be worse than the condition of national inertia that now applies in the early education field. Why should we tolerate a government monopoly of public education when the monopolist refuses to invest in our preschool-age children’s full learning potential; and neglects to exploit this sphere’s extraordinary immediate and future job creation impetus?

Principle and Precedent in America
Freedom is more than the absence of necessity, coercion, or constraint in choice or action. Freedom also implies confident embrace of variety, range, and mixture. Our nation’s devotion to orthodoxy and homogeneity in public education has been unnecessary, expensive, destructive of many learners’ best interests, and increasingly failed by its own narrow and nonscientific criteria. Our neglect of preschool children’s developmental possibilities is shameful and indefensible.

I believe a universal Preschool Education Voucher system, K-12 Public Education Voucher system and open market freedom for all schools is a social revolution we require.

Americans have a long and venerable history of creating change despite the apparent control of our governors, and against the vested advantages of narrow interest groups in our society. Precedents in our history are ample and consistent. The record shows that when we know something is broken in our polity, we fix it.

The record also shows that no intricate process for change need be artificially organized. The American people not much longer will tolerate an unnecessary, unjust, and failed artificial government restraint against our children’s educational opportunities.

The demand for revolution and the appropriate, readily available, immediately affordable revolutionary solution – funding untrammeled parent choice in an emancipated education market – inevitably and spontaneously will arise.

What Children Need – Part 2

You fathers and you mothers
Be good to one another
Please try to raise your children right
Don’t let the darkness take ‘em
Don’t make ’em feel forsaken
Just lead them safely to the light
– Billy Joe Shaver, “Live Forever”

In my work with preschools, schools, and universities, young people of all ages tell me there are five life experiences they most need from their parents.  In the order of their importance, these are:  

  1. Meaningful Time
  2. Boundaries and Discipline
  3. Healthy Activity
  4. Spirituality
  5. Adultness

1.  Meaningful Time

Children crave dedicated time with their parents.  They yearn for regular, protracted periods of interaction in which their parents’ focus is undiluted, and their energies are wholly committed to communing substantively and intimately.

Children want their parents to talk with them, counsel them, and explore life with them. They want their parents to help them understand complexities, discover wonders, discuss hopes, dispel fears, explore horizons.  They want to talk. They want to listen. They want to share life, love, and learning. Children particularly need and benefit from family reading time, family films, family walks, family trips, and, above all else, regular family meals.

Children especially do NOT benefit from inappropriately long hours in front of a television set, electronic games, earphone isolation, or excessive hours with solitary computer play.

For many parents, finding time to build family intimacy can seem impossibly difficult. The pressures of our careers become ever more consuming. Or we may be out of work, anxious about the future, and desperately seeking employment. We may be preoccupied with multiple other concerns that seem personal, adult, and therefore primary.

Solutions must be found. Parenting must be our baseline priority. Our children need to know that we honor this commitment, embrace it as our paramount calling, and regard it as our most joyful opportunity.

Our children often will not state that they want extensive, fully engaged time with us. Many boys will not say so, and most adolescents will not. They even may object to or complain about customary and intense engagement with us. Nevertheless, they want it.

If they do not receive it, they invariably will believe they are not loved. Even worse, they almost always will conclude they are not loved because they do not deserve to be.  They will assume they are unworthy, ignoble, undesirable, defective.  And they are likely to seek approval, love, and time with those who do seem to appreciate and care for them.  Such people, peers, plausible elders, or emblems of the popular culture, may well be predatory.  They almost certainly will be undesirable shepherds for our children’s psyche and spirit, entirely unsuitable models for our children’s mentality and action.

2.  Boundaries and Discipline

Children need to know the attitudes and behaviors their parents expect of them.  They yearn to understand clearly what our boundaries and limits are, and what, therefore, theirs must become.   Children require rules.

Rules are but rhetoric unless we mean them and enforce them. Children need us to identify our principles clearly. They need us to define fully and fairly what consequences we will impose if they disrespect our expectations. If they disregard our rules, they need us consistently and justly to implement the consequences we have promised.

Many mothers and fathers believe they are parenting progressively and lovingly if they impose no limits, or few boundaries. In my experience, children never see an absence of limits or a neglect of boundaries as either broadminded or affectionate. They invariably regard untoward parental liberty as indifference and neglect. As one seemingly rebellious but in fact tenderhearted and anguished adolescent girl once told me:  “My parents don’t love me.  They don’t care about me at all.  If they did, they never would let me get away with my behavior.”

This child’s suffering and eloquence were unusual. Her judgment’s extremism was not. In my work I have learned that all children whose parents impose neither boundaries nor discipline feel themselves to be unloved. And without exception, children who believe themselves to be unloved suppose they deserve to be. They believe they are unloved because they are unattractive, defective, worthless.

The ringer? Children need their caregivers to give them systems of boundary and discipline that are harmonious and constant. Spouses, grandparents, extended family members cannot appear to be divided and subversive of one another. Binding customs and practices, and the principles that shape them, only can make an internal compass for the child and a communal governance for the family if they are universal and unequivocal.

Children of all ages and both genders regularly will experiment with their parents’ boundaries and test their parents’ discipline. This is natural and necessary. Rules only feel real when they are tried; and children only can learn how to become appropriately autonomous by exploring inappropriate autonomies.

No matter how belligerent their explorations and no matter how bellicose their protests, our children secretly will relish and feel relieved by our unwavering resolve. Our resoluteness is proof-positive that we are in charge, we care about their welfare, and we are committed to protecting them.

The alternative? Children who successfully violate their parents’ rules and abrogate their pledges of discipline have to live in a universe in which no one seems to be in charge. No one, that is, except their own utterly undeveloped selves. Unregulated children always will test their boundaries with ever-increasing ingenuity and extremity. They will press more and more outrageously, more and more dangerously. For any extreme of lawlessness and its attendant perils will seem preferable to a child than accepting a universe in which there are NO controls – and, therefore, no sense, sanity, or safety.

3.  Healthy Activity

Like all human beings, children want and need to be vigorously alive, dynamic, functioning, vivacious, operative, working, playing. They want and need to be alert, assiduous, industrious, energetic, strenuous. They want to be robust, spirited, hearty, healthy.

Children do not need to sit still before an entertainment box. They do not need to lie recumbent. They do not need to twirl knobs and twit buttons.

Nor do children need a multitude of possessions. They need – and they intensely prefer – to create competencies, develop skills, build repertoires of confident capability. They want to delight in their limbs, exult in their lungs, and revel in their musculature. They want their cheeks flushed, and their eyes blazing. They want to feel healthy and happy.

Fit active children stand erect. They stride proudly. They feel themselves to be an essential part of a universe that ebulliently lives. They don’t require incessant external amusements. They don’t require capital investment. They invent their own entertainments, and make their own community.

Parents can facilitate this crucial development by encouraging it. If necessary, they can impose it. The best way we can encourage devotion to healthy activity is to model it, and to include our daughters and sons in our own wholesome pursuits.

Family hobbies, sports, recreations are invaluable for children. Family time that fosters healthy behaviors also teaches beneficial lifelong habits and vital life skills. Family sports, hikes, bicycle rides, camping trips, boating expeditions, ice-skating, snowshoeing, outdoor cooking parties, stargazing gatherings: recreational opportunities have no limits, and confer wonderful benefits for children and adults.

Passivity and sloth, alas, also have no limits. Idleness and immobility, though, do teach habits, do form ways of thinking, and can impose lifelong impacts on health.

4.  Spirituality

Many children who talk with me and write for me speak repeatedly about a hollowness they experience in their affect and in their identity. They describe their hollowness as a vacancy that makes them feel empty, lonely, or lost and severely, if abstractly, frightened.

They define their hollowness as a lack, or a failure. They cannot discern their connection with nature. They cannot perceive their unity with the universe of living beings. They may have a sensitivity or an attachment to religious values and teachings. Yet, they cannot determine in what manner they may know, commune with, and react to the divine. If there is a divine.

In this sense of inchoate but intense anomie, our children may be reacting to broad social tendencies. They may be responding to the excessive authority of science and technology in our era, the disproportionate preeminence of rationality in our culture, the championing of cerebration at the expense of the instinctive and intuitive in our civic lives. They may be dealing with the fact that, in all public and many public schools, it has become impossible to teach character, consciousness, or creeds. They also may be observing that many modern communities are aggregated by commerce or convenience; whereas, in almost all earlier epochs, people gathered into kinship and societies because they shared faith traditions, belief doctrines, or other collective ontological determinants.

Many parents now neglect teaching their children about spiritual dimensions, feeling, and faith. This may be an outgrowth of the fact that, since the onset of the Industrial Revolution, more and more adults have lost faith in received beliefs, and have endorsed the rapid ascendance and controlling dominance of reason, science, technology, and engineering in our civilization. Many adults find it challenging or outright impossible to pass onto their children wisdom and truth about sentiment, emotion, and spirit life, for they themselves suffer from the absence of this elemental human consciousness.

Children long for spiritual life. Spirituality is inborn in our daughters and sons. It alarms them to have this primal aspect of their awareness go unrecognized in their families, their homes, their schools, and their communities. Spirituality is the essence of childhood, and it dismays and frightens our children to lose it.

Solutions for this endemically modern quandary are not easy to find. Concerned parents may want to consult and collaborate with trusted friends, religious counselors, and other spiritual teachers. At minimum, parents should welcome and involve themselves prominently in their children’s experience of the arts, life science, philosophy, and metaphysics. For children rarely will mutely accept a void in their learning. If they do not receive teaching in spirituality from their parents, they may seek guidance and training from peers, improper mentors, or the popular culture – a culture unabashedly committed to temporal concerns, materialism, consumerism, premature sexuality, and, far too often, virulent violence.

5.  Adultness

Children perforce are childish. Children’s peers are childish. Much about the contemporary culture is morally and emotionally immature.

Children love the childlike. They should love it. However, young people always tell me how deeply they need and cherish the presence of decisive, dependable adults in their lives; how they hunger for, rely upon, and are grateful to mature, confident, reliable grownups who responsibly shape, preserve, and protect their family, their minds, their actions, their existence.

This may seem an automatic provision. It is not. Many young people sense that the adults in their lives are not fully adult. Children find nothing else in their experience more terrifying.  No other circumstance or condition more unsettles and disenfranchises them. Children are wondrously resilient. But they need guardians:  fully developed grownups, who are fully devoted to parenting.

Once more let us recognize a truth absolute and eternal. Children will learn. Learning is all that children do. If our daughters and sons cannot learn from authentic adults, they will learn from immature, unwise, uncaring tutors: peers, false prophets, dishonorable gurus, malign forces.

__________

We will discuss effective parenting strategies and techniques in a series of essays entitled:  “Parenting for Happiness and Success.”