Thursday, September 27, 2007

Ghetto Nation

I picked this up from the new books shelf at the library. I have long been intrigued, in a bad way, by the proliferation of hip-hop culture in the mainstream. When white, middle-class people dress like rappers; when serious journalistic publications use hip-hop slang; when "bling" and "hos" are a part of the "nice kids" thinking, I get a bit frustrated.

Ms. Daniels doesn't really share my frustration. She notices these things, too, and writes about them with the trained eye of a journalist and as a self-described ghetto product. The book isn't particularly organized. Nor does she have any particular thing to say. But there are some entertaining and insightful essays here discussing the spread of ghetto values into the larger culture, as well as the African-American experience. The value of the book really lies in the latter.

Her conclusion is that we are all ghetto. I don't accept it. She comes really close to saying to ghetto culture, "This is wrong!" but she doesn't. She talks extensively about "babymamas" and the guys on the corner, and implies the need for education, work ethic, and responsible parenting, but I wish she would put her weight fully behind Bill Cosby, who she grudgingly, partially endorses.

As a white man, I guess I can't say much about black culture. But as the parent of a black son (and teacher to a bunch of under-achieving black boys), I want to say to black men, "It's time for a culture shift! Don't let ghetto and bling and hip-hop define you!" Ms. Daniels gets part-way there, but not quite.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Star Wars: Dark Empire II and Empire's End

Here's the conclusion to the third trilogy in graphic novel form. Again, it's too bad this will never be a movie. They were fun to read, but lacked the freshness of the original trilogy.

The biggest problem here is Emporer Palpatine's self-perpetuation through his clone farm. It's just absurd. Yes, it's sci-fi, but I don't like it. Plus, this sort of story has to rely on lots of coincidences, but the accidental discovery of descendants of a lost band of Jedi knights, who still retain use of the force, albeit in a different way, is pretty far-fetched as well. The worst was the discovery of a "pocket of space where an entire race of people live cut off from the rest of the galaxy." And it happens to be ruled by a Jedi king!

But I still like seeing the continuing adventures of a domesticated yet still roguish Han Solo, the brave and principled Leia, the fussy C-3PO, and the intrepid R2-D2. There are hundreds of expanded universe novels and stories out there, but if you like the movies and just want to see that story line continued, this is the place to look.

Changing the Face of Hunger

I am not a Democrat. No way. Sometimes I think I am a Republican. More frequently, I claim to be a Libertarian. Most of the time I am disgusted with the whole thing, constantly dismayed to see the extent to which both major parties part with their own principles and the third party is ineffective in applying theirs.

Tony Hall is a Democrat most Evangelical voters could embrace. He's pro-life, and highly principled in his service to our country and to the poor. He served in Congress, representing the Dayton, Ohio area, for over 2 decades. Early in his career in Congress, he became convicted that his task was not just to serve his district or his country, but to use his position to serve the poor and oppressed around the world. With Mother Theresa as his model, who said, "You do the thing that's in front of you," he has worked around the world to address hunger. Most of us don't have the kind of opportunities in front of us as he has had as a congressman and ambassador, but we can certainly do what's in front of us.

It is refreshing to read of a congressman who does so much out of conviction, and he acknowledges that he has received some criticism for not paying as much attention to his home district constituents. However, he was reelected several times; they must have appreciated and approved of what he was doing. I do tend to be a little cynical, though. Hall spends a lot of time tooting his own horn. I wish I knew more about his policies and votes during his time in Congress. My problem with guys like this are their reliance on government as the solution to every problem. He pays lip service to individual action and private initiatives, but most he's a fan of government programs and intervention. That's the correct perspective for a Dem, but that's why I am not one!

He has lots of fascinating anecdotes here, and the reader will certainly be convicted to "do the thing that's in front of you." But please don't look here for a blueprint for foreign or domestic policy.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

The New Friars

This is not an easy book to read, not because of vocabulary or dense philosophical arguments, but because it forces you to wonder what in the world you are doing with your life. The author focuses on that certain breed of missionary who lives and works among the poorest of the poor. These are not just people who maintain a middle class existence and serve in agencies that assist the poor; these are people who relocate to the dirtiest, most dangerous, disease-ridden slums in the world and live there for extended periods, in some cases raising their kids there. I don't know about you, but I have never taken such a radical step in following God.

While there's plenty to be convicted about, the author never goes so far as to say that the call to slum life is for everyone. He compares "The New Friars" to the old friars, St. Patrick, St. Francis, St. Clare, whose lives of poverty and simplicity among the poor not only witnessed the gospel to the poor, but preached "wordless sermons" to everyone else.

Although he puts in a few anti-Western, anti-evil-America jabs, Bessenecker's writing is accessible to even a conservative (politically and theologically) believer. It's hard to argue with a call to follow the incarnational example of Christ. And the fruit of the ministry of Francis, Mother Teresa, and some of the modern examples herein speaks for itself. I'm not ready to pack up my wife and three kids and move them to the slums of wherever, but I pray God will make me ready to go to wherever I am supposed to go.

I just started teaching at a school that is about 90% "economically disadvantaged," which does not mean they live in slums, but they certainly are needy. I am forced to wonder what my role is beyond just teacher. The school is just a few miles from my home; is there some way I can be involved in my students' lives beyond attempting to teach them math? Obviously. Again, I pray God will open doors and help me be effective in my teaching and ministry.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Indoctrination U: The Left's War Against Academic Freedom

Several years ago, David Horowitz began a campaign to remove political indoctrination from universities in America. He created the Academic Bill of Rights, which drew largely from university charters. The Bill's main thrust is that professors should not promote or endorse particular points of view in the classroom, unless related to their academic field. For instance a professor of English literature should not use his position to opine on the war in Iraq. Such a policy seems sensible to me, but he has received unbelievable criticism in the academic community.

This book is mainly a chronicle of his the opposition he has received while promoting the Academic Bill of Rights. Some of the stories he tells of the rudeness, disruption of speaking engagements, and hostility he has received are unbelievable. If it came from stupid 18 year olds, that would be one thing, but tenured professors have responded to him in child-like ways repeatedly. And when they actually have a debate or engage him in print, they distort truth and sometimes simply lie about what Horowitz has said.

Horowitz is a conservative, so liberal professors suspect an ulterior motive. He clearly makes the case that he opposes equally indoctrination by liberals and by conservatives. He does tell a story or two of conservatives who cross the line, but his case would certainly be bolstered if he spent a little time investigating conservative professors who use their position to promote their point of view (outside their field of specialization). Of course, I guess such a conservative is simply harder to find.

A companion book, The Professors: The 101 Most Dangerous Academics in America, reinforces Horowitz's proclivity toward exposing liberal abusers of academic freedom. I didn't read this one straight through. I don't know why anyone would want to. I did know one professor in the book, Marc Ellis at Baylor. He came to Baylor after I left, but I did meet him. He was friendly, but intellectually snobbish, dismissive of points of view which opposed his own. This concurs with what Horowitz writes. Is he dangerous? Are any of these professors really dangerous? He confesses that the subtitle was added by the publisher, and that he went along with it reluctantly.

The line between scholarship from a particular perspective and pure, objective scholarship seems a bit fuzzy to me sometimes. In any field, the scholar and teacher will have an extensive set of presuppositions from which he will begin. If he didn't, would he be forever stuck on first principles? And are academic fields as clearly delineated as Horowitz suggests? Sometimes not so much.

Nevertheless, Horowitz is right about the frequent myopia of academia. The only explanation for the academic community's rejection of Horowitz's Bill is their refusal to admit they might not be right about everything.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Star Wars: Dark Empire I

Like many guys my age (actually, many guys between 4-44), I regret that George Lucas is reportedly all done making Star Wars movies. I seem to remember him long ago talking about a third sequel, Episodes VII-IX. Alas, we will probably never see them. However, the next best thing is the Star Wars Expanded Universe. I think the graphic novels Dark Empire I, DE II, and End of Empire make a good run at being the third sequel. With a little imagination, you can see the movies in your mind. . . .

It's six years later. Han and Leia are married with 2 children. Luke is training Leia in the way of the Jedi. Luke is still struggling with his father's fall and his own destiny. The emperor managed to resurrect himself via clones of himself. (This isn't fully explained, but, hey, it's SF, just roll with it.) Luke decides the only way he can defeat Palpatine is to join the dark side and work from within to bring it down. Of course, Han has to come to his rescue, R2D2 has to convey the stolen plans, and the there has to be a climactic light saber duel.

Maybe this isn't great literature, but it's fun to see where the Star Wars saga may have gone. Now I have to get my hands on Dark Empire II. . . .

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Teach Like Your Hair's On Fire

If you're a teacher, you have probably read books, seen videos, or attended conferences about the fabled super-teachers, who have ideas, energy, wisdom, and gifts beyond what you can imagine. Well, add Rafe Esquith to your list.

I knew I was in trouble on the first page of the introduction: "For almost twelve hours a day, six days a week, forty-eight weeks a year, my fifth-graders and I . . . ." I don't know about anyone else, but I'm not sure I want to put that kind of time into teaching! I want my wife and three kids to remember what I look like! Rafe (his students call him Rafe, so maybe he won't mind if I do, too.) mentions his wife a couple of times--she thinks he's crazy, he says--and mentions a grown step daughter. So I am assuming he doesn't have children of his own. I know I will never have the dedication, time, or creativity of Rafe, but I can take something away from his book and his example.

I have never heard of American psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg, or at least not that I remember. Rafe applies his six levels of moral development to the classroom. These are great; I would hope to be able to develop these in my students, as well as in my own children (and maybe, while I'm at it, in myself!)
Level I: I don't want to get in trouble.
Level II: I want a reward.
Level III: I want to please somebody.
Level IV: I follow the rules.
Level V: I am considerate of other people.
Level VI: I have a personal code of behavior and I will follow it.
Why stop at teaching behavior and demanding students abide by rules? Why not teach character? Easier said than done, but Rafe tells plenty of stories to demonstrate that it can be done.

Another great section is on problem solving, which, as he describes it, is not limited to math, but to all of life. He calls this "the Bible." Students all have copies, and recite it regularly.

How to Solve a Problem
Step 1. Understand the problem
(Put your pencil down.)
Collect relevant data.
Step 2. Choose an appropriate strategy.
Act it out.
Choose an operation.
Draw a picture.
Guess and check.
Look for a pattern.
Make a chart or table.
Make an organized list.
Use logical reasoning.
Work backwards.
Step 3. Solve the problem.
(Pick your pencil up.)
Step 4. Analyze.
Does my answer make sense?

There are plenty of wonderful nuggets in this book. I think most teachers would feel like I do--woefully inadequate compared to this exceptional man. But I think we can all learn from him. I certainly don't want to settle for mediocrity, from my students or myself, and I don't want to be a part of the constantly lowered expectations schools have for students. My hope as a teacher is that a few years down the road, some kid somewhere will remember me fondly and will be a better person for the time I spent with her or him.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

New England White

I am white. My middle child is black. So I have a sort of fascination with black culture, wondering where my child will end up fitting in. I have been drawn to Stephen Carter since I read his The Culture of Disbelief in the 1990s. He is an African-American Yale law professor who bucks the mold of the liberal black intellectual.

So can a conservative black law professor write a good novel? Unequivocally, yes. His first, The Emperor of Ocean Park, was probably better than New England White, but both are good reads. The plot of NEW is almost too complicated for my little brain to summarize in a limited space, but he weaves it together pretty well. You will ask yourself, What does a decades-old murder in a small New England town have to do with the nearby Ivy League college, much less with national politics? But it all comes together in the end. Maybe a little too neatly; the six degrees of separation in this world are limited to 1 or 2 or 3 at most.

Which is part of why the book is particularly interesting to me. The main characters are upper class African Americans who move in elite circles that go back generations. The world of wealthy, elite, New England/New York blacks is quite foreign to me, a white, middle-class, Texan. The social circles and clubs, the Mason-type secret societies, the power wielders of "African America" are new to me. It's refreshing to see this in contrast to the typical hip-hop gangster presentation of black culture in the media (although, inexplicable, the main character's husband, president of a Yale-type Ivy League college, listens to gangsta rap . . . ). It makes sense that there are plenty of well-connected, powerful African Americans, but we don't see them as much in the media as the musicians, entertainers, and athletes.

If you like political fiction or a good mystery, pick this up. If you haven't read Carter's Emperor of Ocean Park, read that first, though.

Why this blog? An introduction.

I read a lot of books. But like a hungry man at a fine restaurant, I usually don't spend much time savoring the words and ideas. Not that I would have anything great or profound to say or think, but maybe I can offer a tidbit of insight or interest to what I read for your benefit. My interests range pretty widely, so there's no telling what will end up here. I am a Christian, a teacher, a dad, a libertarian, and a lover of a good story. I guess most of what I read will be somehow connected to one or more of those categories, but not necessarily. Drop me a line.