"The glory of God is man fully alive, and the life of man is the vision of God." -St Irenaeus of Lyon

Posts tagged “education

Following the money

In a follow-up from my post on Tuesday about the role of the government, I stumbled upon an article describing how the German government functions relative to spending.

I found the article compelling on several points and thought it made sense to see how some of the observations I made on Tuesday might play out in a case study. I suggested that the first role of the government is to follow the money, starting at the national borders.

Leonhardt offers another starting point in stating the German government has been “more ruthless about the wasteful parts of government” while making the observation that German economic growth “has not been concentrated among a small slice of the affluent.”

Tellingly, the German government looked expressly at their unemployment benefits systems that discouraged work. Specifically, the story Leonhardt portrays includes, “The able and healthy were matched with potential employers.” I generally dislike passive voice constructions, and here I have the honest question: matched by whom? And how? From the looks of the article, I would hazard a guess the government followed and tracked people into the job market because provisions were made to allow people to take work below their current benefits level without penalty. The time to gain skills in the workplace likely created a step-up effect where the previously unemployed could take on more responsibilities.

Additionally, the German government coordinated educational reforms, particularly geared around math, reading and science. The skills gained in these disciplines have immediate utility in a technologically orientated economy. [Some historians of ideas recognise that the US conceptions of technology build on a strong foundation of German philosophy and thought.] With the proper training, educated Germans could move into the economy more effectively, reducing the overall need for a later step-up effect.

Yet, then the article goes into the place where I think most Americans would want to turn a blind eye. Leonhardt claims that in a market economy, the central role of government is regulation.

Regulation has a rather nasty image, but I would like to offer a different starting point for thinking about regulation: the regulator worn by SCUBA divers. The regulator worn by SCUBA divers directs and controls the flow of air so the diver can breathe. If the air can’t flow, then we have a problem. Similarly, if money doesn’t flow, we have a problem. If money doesn’t flow, then we call that problem “poverty.”

In Germany, it seems as though regulation concerned principally the people at the bottom creating spaces for them to participate more fully in commerce. Preserving labour unions represented a big part of the government’s regulation, but actually making sure that the labour unions are functioning requires continuing to follow the money. The German government observes that wages for the middle class have risen in parallel with the wages of the top earners.

I’d also like to posit this observation: if the government places meaningful efforts to help its citizenry develop professional skills, then it makes sense that the government might want to ensure that its workers are able to move those professional skills across the borders in a global economy. After all, that’s where I contend that we start following the money anyway.

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Oh no, Not responsibility!

Today was a good blogging day in that I received a comment on a post I wrote months ago about educational realities.  I am encouraged when other people post their thoughts on my posts.

We live in a world that has a rather perverse concept of rights.  My dictionary defines perverse as “showing a deliberate and obstinate desire to behave in a way that is unreasonable or unacceptable, often in spite of the consequences.”  We actively question who can define the terms of reasonable and acceptable.  My commentor suggested that the key place of authority relies on parents disciplining their children.  I would contend that people waffle when trying to frame concepts of obligation.

Looking at good parenting provides an interesting springboard.  I have gotten to know some families with fantastic children.  Even just thinking about how awesome these kids are induces homesickness.  It’s a rather impressive feat as I do not generally like children.  But I have noticed that these children flourish under sound parenting.  The more I watch people who can parent small children well, the more I conclude that obedience is a gift that has to be freely given.  It is generally hard to demand obedience.

We have an instinctive, child-like reaction to commands we do not respect: “Oh yeah, make me!”  We fight and claw and whine to avoid responsibility.  Whether we learn obedience from our parents, from our churches, from our employers, from the legal system, or from [insert authority of choice], we always have the option to disregard authority when authority asks us to do something unpleasant.

We call this reaction our “rights.”

How does obedience function in adult life?  We live in a world seemingly constructed to render this concept meaningless.  Generally, people with the most money can manipulate the system such that the system serves the interest of the rich.  We view intervening agents with suspicion, particularly if we assert that agent negates an individual’s rights.

Can we speak of obligation and responsibility in our societies?


Crazy Ideas

I really like anthropologists.  They tend to be extremely open-minded and consider non-traditional ideas.  This week, I had the ability to sit in on a really fascinating global development lecture.  Our speakers have been very critical of international organizations.  If the speaker fails to be critical, then the students will certainly be.

After the seminar today, a group of students got talking about how to reform international organizations.  We have the options of reforming from in the organizations or from exterior of the organizations.  All of this discourse has me thinking: If I were going to a WTO (or G20, or IMF, or really any large organization) gathering, what sort of protest sign would I want to carry?  A bunch of students thought that it would be intriguing to create a particular protest section at these gatherings as an alumni event.

So I went to the anthropologist convening one of our courses and suggested that we create a wall of protest signs we would carry at one of these large gatherings here on campus.  I targeted the anthropologist because I knew I would likely have a receptive audience.

Sure enough, I was right.  But I do think asking a professor if we could create a collage of protest signs at the end of the term is one of my more ridiculous serious ideas I have had in a while.

Seriously though, I am loving the open-minded and creative academic culture here.  If we manage to create such a wall by the end of the term, I’ll be sure to post some pictures.


Input, input!

I have been doing double time trying to keep up on my news feed.  Sometimes, being a graduate student feels a bit like this:

There are so many things to read, so little time.  Approaching reading with selectivity is hard!  I focus principally on keeping up with current events.  Yet the world changes constantly.  Many of the changes are major.  You can never really know what will be important to observe at any given time.

So, I’m reading, reading, and reading.  Even though it can get a little overwhelming, I am absolutely fascinated by what I am reading.  Different people raise different questions.  I see connections between ideas.  I live in a scholarly community where people have very diverse backgrounds.  It’s really fascinating.

But I can really relate to Johnny going on his input frenzy.


A Practicing Student

Despite claims to the contrary, I do not think that anyone is all that good about being a professional student.  Learning is hard work.  The best contexts for learning occur amidst space for exploration and pursuing one’s interests.  It can be helpful to have a guide, but sometimes the main function of a guide is to point you in the right direction.  Being absolutely inundated with mandatory reading can stifle the learning process.  The more convoluted the texts, the less likely you are to learn anything.

But I think there are ways to practice as a student.  Some are easier than others.  And I would be a total hypocrite to suggest that I successfully do all of these things.

1. Consider your courses relative to your goals. Taking time to figure out how a particular course might speak to your goals can go a long way in helping you aim for a learning target.  Sometimes the best you can do is to assert a general skill goal such as “I hope this class will allow me to write strong papers about complex ideas.”  Other times you can put your goal as a critique, “I hope this class will prepare me to respond when people argue for a use of a particular technology.”  At least you have asserted something that guides your process.

2. Read something you’re interested in personally on a regular basis.  I’ll admit to being an avid reader.  I try to balance what I have to read for classes with something totally unrelated that I want to read of my own volition.  Sometimes it is course-related, sometimes it is a non-fiction work that I am generally interested, sometimes it is a devotional resource, sometimes it is children’s fiction.  But such a habit keeps me from getting too locked into one perspective, and occasionally my brain makes random linkages between really diverse concepts.  Who knows?  You may stumble upon the Medici Effect.

3.  Embrace questions.  Listening to people and trying to discern a question worth asking can be a great way to take advantage of even stale lectures.  Hunting for a good question can be like a scavenger hunt.  And even the most dry material can take on new life when you try to grease it with a good question.

4. Write regularly.  You might have a flash of insight worth following up on even if it is just an awareness that you have a jumble of words trapped in your head that you would much rather vomit out on paper.  Word vomit can offer a diagnostic for your thinking.  If you think an idea could be worth developing further, write it down.  If you have a question that has an elegantly simple sense about it, write it down.  If you have a broad concept that you’re trying to think through, start writing.  St Theophan the Recluse offers this relative to the writing process: “Always write straight from the shoulder.  Write what is on your mind, and take care to state fully the questions which are stirring in your head and begging for an answer.”

Do you have anything to add to my list?


Growing Up is Optional, Provided You Read Chapter Books

I love books.  I have this relationship with books that almost reaches to the point of an addiction.  Personally, I prefer the label “well-read” but books generally are overly welcome in my places of residence.  Reading provides a fantastic window on the world.  Authors even carefully construct alternate worlds to explore broader themes of being human.  And occasionally, you find an author who just writes for fun.  It is hard to create unilateral criteria for bad books.

Unless the book happens to be a picture book.  Recently, the New York Times ran an article about parents avoiding picture books for their children.  I love my picture books.  One of my favorites is “Purple Green and Yellow” by Robert Munch.  I can still rattle off “super-indelible-never-come-off-until-you’re-dead-or-maybe-even-later coloring markers” with the best of them.  Short stories formed a critical part of my reading repertoire, particularly when learning to read aloud for others.  Picture books bring a level of creativity to reading.  They open up the creative mind to other forms of communication.  Have you ever thought about the critically literate imagination of a renown illustrator?

Recently, I re-encountered Dr. Seuss after a long hiatus.  I was amazed at his depth regarding complex themes.  The Butter Battle Book is all about the Cold War.  The Lorax is all about environmental mindfulness.  Literally Dr Seuss is also a ton of fun.  I think learning the rules of iambic pentameter would have made a lot of sense under his playful tongue instead of getting lost in the oddities of Shakespearean English.

Chapter books are excellent.  Matilda remains among my absolute favorites to this day.  However, to assert that a child’s intellectual development accelerates by picking up chapter books earlier and earlier and earlier is absolutely absurd.

So for the love of all things childhood, let’s keep the picture books around.  Let’s learn to appreciate this unique literary form.


The Limitations of Culture

Increasingly, people have identified “cross-cultural skills” as a core skill needed for success in the 21st century.  Accordingly, university educational programs respond to develop cultural awareness skills in a way that stands independent of a definition of culture.  Knowing, for instance, that the Japanese tend to be privately aggressive, group-orientated, relationally-inclined while having a sense of minimal speaking space is supposed to help someone understand why a Japanese business team generally comes as a team, stands very close to one another and the other negotiating parties, and will negotiate over tea.  Yet, culture broadly speaking has been understood by what we believe, what we do, and what we make.  To engage a different culture effectively, one must be willing to question one’s own assumptions, reflect carefully on the group’s orientation towards itself and others, and discuss process.

We work better cross-culturally than we think we do, particularly when we consider cross-cultural engagement to involve people with different beliefs, actions and artifacts.  Many common jokes exist because of relevant cultural expectations.  A well-known joke in engineering characterizes a swing or a plane according to the different disciplines involved in creating a product.  My favorite is the structural engineer seeing the plane as an I-Beam.  Yet, somehow we manage to consider the people in front of us on various teams.  We might commit to the group based on a desire to preserve relationships, to just get things done, or a mixture of both.

Every team has a way of setting up an in-group and an out-group, almost by feature of necessity.  Certain people will be on the team.  Other people are not on the team.  Various people receive insider privileges owing to relevant access to power.  Yet, I am reminded of a story from John Maxwell.  An American asked a Japanese colleague to identify the most important language in business today.  The American expected to hear “English” yet the Japanese businessman answered “The language my customer speaks.”  Carefully reflecting on both in-team dynamics and relationships with external persons forms an essential aspect of reflective process when working cross-culturally.

Process can be an overlooked dimension of group life.  Taking time out to ask the question “How are things going?” on various scales helps clarify key differences blocking group cohesion and effectiveness.  We can be tempted to operate on auto-pilot according to our dominant modes even when all signals alert us to something being amiss.  Learning to pay attention to these signals helps us make changes midstream.  Very rarely do we encounter linear, step-wise processes, especially when we work in the construct of design.  Things iterate, people morph, situations change.

While I am far from an expert about modern teaming, I cannot think of any clear situations of truly homogeneous teams at work in the world today.  My own vantage point may be constrained, yet it is not clear to me whether the world functions by sending a team of New York businessmen to Moscow for short-term negotiation.  Most of the examples I can think of deal with travel within a particular multi-national corporation.  Rather, what I tend to see are short-term and extended-term compositions of people from just about every imaginable background under the sun.  These teams must come together in a way that allows them to create a operating group culture of their own.  Negotiation and flexibility remain key.  But superficial ideas of who stands where only touch the surface of the skills required to engage effectively within this space.