Yelp with Care, Candy from the mouth of babes, Chris Cornell, & other random thoughts today

Academic standing posted at Angelo State yesterday. Like anyone else tasked with talking to students who earn their way onto academic suspension, I was yelled at, hung up on, and, I’m sure, called all kinds of mean, nasty, and ugly things behind my back. At least no parents have called me yet this semester. I try my best to be calm and understanding with students. They are, I silently tell myself, still 18 and 19 years old and being suspended is an ominous and an outward (and kind of aggressive but well-earned) condemnation of their academic behavior. To paraphrase a Keb Mo’ song: everyone likes to party, but no one likes to clean. Behavior has consequences for the students, and if they party too much, someone has to clean up the mess. At ASU, we’ve simply decided there’s a point at which we can’t keep taking a student’s money if he can’t pass any classes. There’s something flat-out dirty about letting a student rack up thousands and thousands of dollars in debt when she can’t pass classes. For some of our students, though, being suspended seems like the end of the road. When they call, if they don’t hang up on me first, we discuss options. There are, after all, plenty of other jobs in the sea, other universities to attend, and plenty of people live worthwhile and happy lives without a college degree. Sometimes, I tell them, relationships don’t work. This is one of them, but the world is a big place full of opportunity if we can learn from our mistakes and fall forward. We’ll still be here, I say as nicely as possible, if you ever get ready to read those books and do that math.

Day two after academic standing is usually less about anger and more about deal making. Everyone in this world, including college students, wants justice until they decide they really want mercy.

Fortunately, the internet is always around to provide relief in between sob stories. A few random thoughts about some stuff I read today:

  1. Be careful what you Yelp. I’m sure you’ve seen the article about the Yale Dean whose insensitive Yelp reviews have left her boss “grieving” and “unable to envision a way forward.” First off–grieving? Geez. How about mad? Angry? Disappointed? Don’t get me wrong, I fully support Dr. Chu’s First Amendment right to be as insulting and insensitive as she wants. If I were a betting man, I would guess Dr. Chu will send us a press release apologizing and telling the world she was trying to be humorous. Heck, if that excuse is good enough for the president, should be good enough for a Dean from Yale. First Amendment or not, though, words have consequences and if you work in a profession entrusted with educating young minds, you don’t get to tweet racist, classist, and other stereotypical comments that insult the very students you are supposed to educate. Simply put, as college leaders we have to be better than that and I get so frustrated with colleagues who can’t, or won’t, recognize that everything we write (including things like this blog) reflects on the university where we work. That doesn’t mean we can’t write about complex and difficult subjects. I have every right in the world to blog about Donald Trump, Fox News, Barack Obama, race, abortion, Elvis-sightings and any number of other controversial issues, but I have a responsibility to do so with a keen eye on the public nature of the writing and with a clear sense that our role as educators is to conduct ourselves in a manner that represents the values of truth, intelligence, and ideas. I might think Donald Trump is a horrible president and I might think he’s dumb as a box of rocks, but I can’t tweet that Trump should hang or call him a moron without offering some intelligent reasons why. Our job, in the classroom and in public forums, is to model behavior. You might think Seth Abramson is a crazy person, but he’s not threatening the president, and, by all accounts, he keeps his political thoughts out of the classroom. Most importantly, he believes in something and he’s developing an argument, not posting threatening tweets or insulting Yelp reviews. I would never accept an essay from a student that posited simplistic and immature ideas. I demand they make an assertion, develop, and defend with evidence. Most importantly, I tell them we need to hold ourselves to the same standards we hold everyone else. That goes especially for those of us in academia. So. I’m not grieving for Dr. Chu. I’m upset that she’s not savvy enough to recognize that calling people white trash and morons in Yelp reviews is inappropriate and makes the rest of us hard working college professors look like elitist, uncaring dorks.
  2. If you missed out on Girl Scout cookies this year, I think you can blame the person in this mug shot. A friend of ours sent us the link. Forget the story, though. Read the comments on twitter. Sometimes my faith in humanity is restored when people get clever without being mean and degrading. She stole 6,000 boxes of girl scout cookies. The jokes almost write themselves.
  3. I was never a huge Audioslave or Soundgarden fan, but I hate that we’ve lost another huge voice from the music world of my youth. Chris Cornell helped define the grunge movement and tapped into an angst those of us in the mid-80s felt about the world. Musically, those bands fought against the increasingly global record chains and fused punk, rock, and any other kind of music they wanted into songs filled with emotion and rage against the man. Indie music lovers of the world need to thank them everyday. They fought the good fight. Eddie Veder and Kurt Cobain sang with a raw emotion, but for my money Cornell was the guy with a voice. Don’t believe me? Take a listen to his rendition of “Nothing Compares 2 U” and you decide.





Declare Those Pennies on Your Eyes

IRSWriting about taxes on tax day seems so intellectually lazy. Complaining about our complex, confusing, largely unequal, and definitely incomprehensible tax system simply doubles down on the cliche. After all, American’s don’t agree on much, but I think it’s pretty universal that the systems by which we collect money at the local, state, and federal level have become so bloated and outrageous that the only people satisfied are politicians sucking at the public teat and tax accountants who try to guide the rest of us lost souls through the process. Apologies to tax accountants for tethering you to politicians.

Yet, here I sit the morning after our college-age son had to pay 10% of his pretty meager “income” to Uncle Sam after filing his taxes last night. Both our boys worked hard and earned generous academic scholarships. Instead of forking over tuition dollars, I’ve been able to buy a big screen t.v.  (Who says reading to your kids doesn’t pay off!) Last night, though, as my younger son completed his taxes, we found out that scholarship money above and beyond tuition, fees, and required books counts as taxable income.

Really? Somehow, some hair-brained numbskull in our nation’s capital decided that we really need to go after all that extra money full-time college students are pulling down in their spare time between classes. Can’t let those crazy kids live too high on the hog, after all. Better declare those pennies on your eyes, as George Harrison says.

I’m not trying to express some sort of Unabomber outrage. I’ll willingly admit that I do think people need to pay their fair share in taxes. For my money, our taxes give us access to goods and services that make America great, and we need to share those costs. At the risk of oversimplification, it’s much less expense if we share the cost of military protection among the all 300 million of us than if we all form our own isolated feudal compounds and hire our own protection. Public schools, public roads, consumer protections, and thousands of other “goods” work much better when centralized and when costs are shared. Having healthy debates about what those shared costs should be is worthwhile (and, in theory, something we do every election cycle when we vote for candidates based on their debates about the issues–ha, ha, ha!).

As such, I don’t mind taxes on goods and services, property taxes, or other taxes associated with my choice to consume various goods and services. I think it’s worth reminding everyone that rich and poor, citizen and alien, old and young all pay taxes into the system simply by living and consuming in America. Likewise, I have no issues with federal taxes on income, capital gains, inheritance income, and I fully support requiring that all workers pay into the federal system, even if that amount is as small as 1% of earned income. There’s nothing wrong with ensuring everyone has a little skin in the game. I’ll even admit that I’m a fan of a progressive flat tax system with limited deductions to avoid letting the government pick winners and losers based on who hires the best lobbyists.

Full-time students should have access to that limited set of deductions. My son pays taxes when he buys his books, pays for food, and pays rent. He, like any full-time student moving toward graduation, has limited earning possibilities, though, if he’s going to take enough classes each semester to graduate in four years. Those students who work, like my older son who covered his living expenses as a student, pay taxes every paycheck, but they (usually) get a refund at the end of the year because they don’t earn much.

For students who earn scholarship money above and beyond the cost of tuition, though, the tax bill hits even if the amount above and beyond is the same as their colleagues who work. My son last night paid 10% of his scholarship to Uncle Sam. I’m sure if there’s a CPA reading this blog you can tell me there was IRS Form 666 or something we could have filed, but my son shouldn’t have to do do. Likewise, my older son, once he marks full-time student on his W-2 should be exempt from having money withdrawn. He shouldn’t have to wait for a refund. Let’s put money in the pockets of those citizens who need it the most, especially those who are working to improve their futures (and future earnings).

Like so many other things, we can’t trumpet the value of an education and then actively work to make earning that degree difficult. Students who earn scholarships are being paid to do well in school. That money isn’t income; it’s a long-term investment. After, Uncle Sam’s going to get his eventually, anyway.






The Art of the Industrial

A few weeks ago, my wife asked our sons if they wanted to move to Denver for the summer. Jobs, she said, are plentiful if you’re willing to swing a hammer, climb on a roof, or lay some bricks.

It’s no secret that we’re facing a shortage of construction workers across America. Tradesman International points out that nearly 80% of construction businesses are having a hard time finding workers. Most major cities are experiencing construction slowdowns simply because there aren’t enough skilled (or even unskilled) workers willing to take the jobs available. Home buyers and business feel the impact as construction costs rise, buildings take longer to frame and finish out, and builders can’t maximize profits because they are forced to take on fewer jobs.

And heaven help home owners searching for a contractor to perform relatively small remodel jobs. While I’m sure Home Depot and Lowes appreciate a skilled worker shortage that forces home owners to attempt various DIY projects (and then re-do the DIY project after the tile is crooked, the door falls off its hinges, or the sink sprays water to the ceiling), it seems to me we’re reaching a critical point where we don’t quite appreciate the art of the industrial.

Understand that I don’t think the emphasis on a college-degree or college-ready high school programs and skilled trades are mutually exclusive. There’s no reason we can’t have philosophers who can weld (or welders who are philosophers for that matter).

I realize that the shortage of workers is caused by some complex factors. We know, for instance, that many potential construction workers will choose oil field work over framing houses. I suspect, and this is a subject for another day, that the demise and demonization of unions has had a negative impact on skilled workers’ earning potential. It’s also fair to recognize the cultural shift that’s taken place over time. Many parents who did hard, grueling blue-collar construction jobs did so hoping to create more white-collar opportunities for their children. For an entire generation, sending your kids to school was a way to show you and yours were as good as anyone else. Those issues and ideas are no small things. The lure of indoor work and air conditioning aren’t to be dismissed lightly.

Stand by Me

Click and go to 1:17: “We’ll be in the shop courses with the rest of the retards making ash trays and bird houses.”

But I think it’s also fair to say that we’ve done a pretty fair job of hiding the value of the industrial arts. There’s no doubt that 30 years ago, “shop” classes were often viewed by school administrators as a kind of dumping ground for kids who weren’t “college material,” a kind of code filled with racial, economic, gender, and other covert biases. You didn’t often find the bank president’s son or daughter learning how to be a mechanic.

Unfortunately, as is too often the case in education, we decided to throw the baby out with the bath water and phase out industrial arts classes, shop classes, and other trade specific programs.

And here we sit. Builders can’t find bricklayers and the rest of us have to wait a three months for a contractor to bid on a kitchen remodel (and six months for her to finish the job).

At the risk of sounding naive or offering a simplistic solution to a complex problem, I wonder why we don’t reinvest in industrial arts classes and make those classes a mandatory part of the curriculum in junior high and high school. Doing so would show our students that we value the skills learned and, most importantly, expose entire generations, regardless of race, gender, or economic status, to basic skills that complement reading, writing, and arithmetic. Students who want to work with their hands would have a viable path toward a career choice just like those students who want to study finance, education,  medicine, or the liberal arts. As importantly, students who might never consider the craft of drafting, the importance of wood grain, or the dangers of acetylene would have a chance to understand the complexity of skill required to build something. Algebra is complicated and hard, but so is framing windows for a house.

Plus, every parent, grandparent, or guardian in America would have at least one homemade footstool to display proudly.

These two educational paths aren’t mutually exclusive. There’s no reason a student who excels in industrial arts shouldn’t take calculus, college-level writing classes, or physics. In fact, I’d love for my plumber to be a math whiz who can communicate well because he’ll be more likely to understand the slope required for the refuse to get from the toilet to the sewer line. At the same time, how nice would it be if my loan officer also had at least a passing understanding about how much skill was required to put that sewer line in the ground correctly?

Too often, though, we devalue one of those skills in favor of the other, arguing that everyone needs a college education to succeed. Don’t get me wrong. As a dean at a public, four-year university, I love having students choose college, but I also know that we have a sizable chunk of students whose skill levels and talents lie in other directions. I applaud those universities and community colleges who are finding ways to provide skilled trade programs while also teaching the traditional core curriculum. Students shouldn’t have to wait until college, though. Instead, maybe it’s time we open those paths sooner. Or, at the least, stop pretending like it’s not worthwhile path to follow.



WE’RE ALL GOING TO DIE (probably not from Ebola, though)


Spreading Disease, Hollywood Style

Around 2 million people die every year in the US. About 38,000 will overdose on drugs, 33,000 will die in a car accident, 31,000 will get shot (on accident or by choice), and a little over 26,000 will fall down and not get up.

In any given year, 3,000 to 49,000 other people will die from the flu or complications from respiratory disease linked to the flu.

The rest of us will hang around for about 78.9 years until various body parts fail or our cells betray us. I don’t often wish I was 18 again, but sometimes I miss that sense of immortality endemic to youth.

Shortly after I started teaching literature, I had a student ask if all “great” literature (his air quotes, not mine) were about death.

Of course not, I told him, but death and taxes are the elemental constants of human existence. Taxes you can avoid if own a multi-national corporation with off shore offices or you have a Congressional patron allowing you to shirk your duty to America and mooch off your fellow Americans.

Death not so much.

You, I continued, are sitting in this 8:00 am class, listening to me prattle on so you can earn 3-hours of credit, so you can get a college degree, so you can get a good job, so you can buy a house, so you can subscribe to a good cable package, so you can stock a little mini-fridge full of beer and yet, before it’s all said and one, you’re going to die.

Death isn’t a question of if. Just when and how. Don’t get excited, though, if you don’t snort some coke, throw back some shots, and then drive 100 mph waving a gun around the car, you’ll probably be around for the midterm. Please study.

By the way, thanks for spending what might be your final moments with me. I hope you get your money’s worth.

Of course, I should have also said if an airline pilot, beaten by a rogue, genius gorilla trained in James Franco’s attic takes an international flight after a nose bleed, then WE’RE ALL GOING TO DIE.

From the simian flue. Or the SARS. Or the HIV. Or the bird flu. Or the Ebola. Or whatever turned everyone into zombies in the Walking Dead. 

Feel free to skip the final is that happens. 

Sell your stocks. Stockpile tomato sauce, pickles, and fruit cocktail. Bury your gold. Use your book as a fire starter. Literature matters, but when the apes take over, knowing how to find Shakespearean allusions in Sons of Anarchy won’t help you survive.

He never asked another question in class.

I’ve written before about the 24-hour news cycle and the impact social media has on public perception of information. If aliens landed in America (and any of them weren’t shot or put in deportation centers near the border), they would assume America was in the midst of an Ebola pandemic.

Ban travel, Republicans say. Appoint an Ebola Czar, the President says. It’s a conspiracy, my crazy cousin says. “Obama is from Africa. Ebola is from Africa. I’m just sayin’.” Blame the Center for Disease Control, blame Budget Cuts, just be sure to blame some one before we all die!

It’s enough to make me wish Justin Bieber would punch someone so the headlines would change. Maybe President Obama will do us all a favor and hold a latte while he salutes the Marines to give the folks at Fox News something else to talk about.

Honestly, I don’t want to downplay the danger of Ebola (or any other infectious disease) and I understand that by definition something infectious can spread without warning. Around 4,500 people have died in Africa, and we have a moral obligation to help countries not as fortunate as us contain the disease. We also have a vested interest in working to solve world-wide medical crises. This disease can be isolated and contained.

But our political leaders also have an ethical responsibility to calm down just a tad. I realize that American politicians seem to have the emotional stability of a teenager on prom night, but can we at least pretend to care about the facts?

ONE person has died in America from Ebola.


I’m no math major, but that seems like a relatively small number.

So far in America, there have been two infections. Two is really just another way of saying a couple, which is still not many. I haven’t even had to use all the fingers on one hand, yet.

We also know that Senegal and Nigeria have been declared Ebola free, and the Spanish nurse who contracted the disease has tested negative.

I’m not really one for big, sweeping declarations, but even though we’ve cut the CDC budget by almost 50% since 2006, and, as Judy Stone points out in her Scientific American article, we’ve politicized science funding to the detriment of our preparedness, we still have the best medical facilities and infrastructure in the world.

America is uniquely capable and prepared to stymie infectious disease outbreaks.

If we can keep our wits about us and let science work.

No offense Senator Cruz, but until I see the MD after your name let the experts do their jobs.

Like many of you, I’m growing increasingly weary when politicians turn things like Ebola outbreaks in Africa into an opportunity to score political points at home. When Rick Perry had to stand as the voice of reason in your political party, you know things are going off the rails.

Travel bans weren’t a good idea under President Bush (because they don’t work), and they won’t work any better under President Obama. ISIS is not gathering at the US/Mexico Border with vials of Ebola ready to infect Americans with rapid fire sneezing. We don’t need an Ebola Czar to coordinate our Ebola response because a private hospital in Dallas didn’t follow protocols. How much is this guy going to get paid to tell hospitals to follow protocol and why can’t I apply for that job?

What we really need is someone to reassure us tell us that yes, we are all going to die (but probably not from Ebola) and probably not today.

Inflatable Education

I rambled my way through a discussion of grade inflation in my last post. Spurred by an article in the San Antonio Express News that argued our “consumer-based” culture has turned university classrooms into the proverbial easy A, I spent about 1000 words almost making a point. The issue, I argued, wasn’t necessarily economic so much as a pervasive cultural rhetoric where grades are so de-valued in favor of standardized testing that we might as well hand out A’s and avoid the hassle of upset students.

At least, that’s what I think I wanted to say.

As we hurtle toward another school year and I consider what I want my students to learn this semester, I necessarily have to think about how I will measure their success (or failure) by December. Grading, for better or worse, is always on my mind and I want to beat this dead horse one more time.

The data shows that grade inflation exists at the university level, although it is far worse at elite, private schools with high admission standards. Universities with lower admission standards and community colleges tend to show a slower grade creep, although we are seeing some inflation. My guess, and I haven’t delved into the data, is that we see grade inflation at the lower end of the scale at these schools. In other words, even in my own classes, I zealously guard the A, but I’ve probably loosened the reigns on the B and C some.

Unfortunately, I don’t think I’m an outlier, and my guess is we will start to see grade inflation increase (get bigger? blow up?) at public universities in the coming years with an increasingly high number of students receiving higher and higher GPAs. In many ways, the cultural trends I mentioned before will help fuel this grade inflation, but there are some other driving forces.

1. High school expectations will continue to make life difficult for college professors. Accountability and assessment have forced public school teachers to create rubrics, learning outcomes, and, in many ways, to oversimplify the skills and thinking we expect from students. I maintain that accreditation is the greatest threat to academic freedom we will see at any educational level, but the drive to create transparent grading expectations for students over-simplifies our ability to measure what students learn. My students arrive with a pre-conceived notion that an effective essay (a 3 or 4 on a state test) needs to include items that fit on a table/rubric. We’ve turned learning into a checklist of skills that discounts intangible, difficult to measure thinking and development. Common core goals, competency measures, and standardized learning treat intelligence as if it’s simply a dot on the data sheet. In much the same way that these efficiency measures rob teachers of opportunities to create and develop ideas, they encourage our students to see learning as something devoid of creativity and, in many ways, humanity. We might all have individual talents in this world, but, we seem to tell students, you better make sure your talents align with what everyone else can do.

2. Business and political leaders continue to push for college readiness for all high school students. In the last 20 years, we’ve seen an increasing number of students who, for all intents and purposes, see college as an extension of high school. College, what we once referred to as higher education, is a right, something that they think should be publicly funded and with the academic support that will ensure they both graduate and get a job in four years. Businesses that require a college degree for jobs that really don’t need such a degree or who demand a BA or BS for promotions drive this idea. Our growing cultural disdain for manual labor and skills-based “dirty” jobs doesn’t help. Too many high schools have eliminated Industrial Arts and Trade Programs in favor of Student Leadership and other such nonsense classes such that we not only push kids toward college, we create a culture of shame for those who don’t really want to spend four more years reading history books. Simply put, business leaders should begin creating paid internships and training programs instead of relying on colleges to help raise the next generation of workers.

3. I’ve written before about the trophy culture. As I’ve said in the past, I don’t mind giving every kid a ribbon if we also give those who perform at a higher level the biggest ribbon. But, there is no denying that our emphasis on rewards has re-defined excellence in American culture. Many of my students see a C as a failing grade. You can scale up from there. Essentially, failure is not an option or, in some respects, even a real concept for many students. They have never not known success in school. If they failed an exam or an essay, they had extra credit, revision, or a make up opportunity. Failure isn’t a challenge to improve; it’s a commentary, for many of them, on failed instruction or expectations.

4. Every time a college student fails, a faculty member gets raked over the coals by a politician. College completion rates have remained steady over the years but we are seeing more and more states tie funding to graduation and retention rates. The net result, of course, is that universities will become so focused on graduation rates and learning outcomes they will begin to deny access and opportunity to larger and larger segments of the population. Worse yet, the political discourse rarely holds students accountable for failure and they create a monetary reason to lower standards and increase pass rates.

Certainly, I’ve oversimplified the issue and I’m guilty of a reductive logic that might earn my students a C, but I do think that when we couple the four things above with a pervasive political hostility toward higher education, we create a generation of students who see college as a right and passing grades as something they deserve.

And, at the end of the semester, I’m not sure they will get what they deserve, but I do think they will start to get what they want more often than not.

Trapped in a Bubble of Intellectual Isolationism

I’m not entirely sure why this government shutdown bothers me so much more than 1995/96 when the two-year-olds last took over Washington. As I noted earlier this week, our current shutdown strikes me as far more dangerous in the long run. We are moving beyond political ideology and threatening to reshape the checks and balances that have helped America grow as a nation. Simply put, if the Republicans are successful, we will witness a presidency weakened for generations to come.

Such an idea might appeal to the Tea Party, anti-Obama voter today, but it won’t when a group of liberal party leaders shuts down the government over cuts to the SNAP program (or some other program conservatives like) in 5 years. Once we allow a government shutdown to become a viable bargaining tool, we will replay this cycle every time 26 House members decide things aren’t going their way.

That’s not governance. That’s blackmail.

I will readily admit that the video of Rep. Randy Neugebauer chastising the Park Ranger put me in a foul mood Thursday. My mood didn’t improve Friday morning when Rep. Renee Ellmers (R-NC), a person who voted to shut down the government, told reporters she will keep her paycheck.

“I need my paycheck. That’s the bottom line,” she said.

I have no doubt that Rep. Ellmers needs her paycheck. I’ve written before that our Representatives and Senators are, sometimes, in a tough financial situations. Many have two homes and, honestly, living in Washington D.C. is expensive. I don’t blame her for needing her pay.

But my neighbor needs his paycheck also. He would, like Rep. Ellmers, love to be at work today.

I think, though, that what bothers me the most is we are witnessing something far different than in 1996. Beyond the cynical hypocrisy when politicians who vote to shut down national monuments one day rise in righteous indignation the next, we are watching a small group of politicians emboldened by a kind of intellectual isolationism.

I rise to speak for 300 million Americans, Sen. Ted Cruz told us, who oppose Obamacare.

Except 300 million people don’t oppose Obamacare. I’m guessing Sen. Cruz is fed information from source after source that leads him to believe America agrees with him. He daily allows Fox News, the Drudge Report, NRO, and other conservative media outlets to massage his ego and he rejects the possibility that he might, in fact, not be speaking for large swaths of the American public. He has become, like too many of us, trapped in the bubble of ideological social media.

Twitter, Facebook, and our web site favorites block those inconvenient truths we might not want to see and we become victims of the vacuum of voices telling us what we want to hear.

In fact, we can see from the Republican talking points that they miscalculated America’s dislike of the Affordable Care Act. Four days in and they have stopped insisting on an end to ACA and now want to delay the medical device tax. Or they want to negotiate the debt ceiling. Or they want to vote piecemeal on funding the government. Or they want an exit strategy that doesn’t make them look weak. Or they want gold stars and cups of chocolate milk.

Heck, I’m not even sure what they are holding out for anymore. On day one of the shutdown, they owned their choice. Rep. Michelle Bachmann told us they were “giddy,” and Republicans were standing tall, shoulder to shoulder for America. By day two, the shutdown was Sen. Harry Reid’s fault. By day three, Republican Senators were privately grumbling that Sen. Cruz didn’t have an exit strategy.

In so many ways, the Republicans are replaying the same mistakes they made when Karl Rove called into question Fox News pollsters who told him President Obama would win the White House, as if somehow those Fox pollsters were secret members of the mainstream press trying to brainwash their viewers. Rove, like Dick Morris (see simply couldn’t imagine a scenario where people didn’t agree with his world view.

But let’s note that the Republicans aren’t alone in this problem. They are just the easiest target right now.

What is most disturbing, though, is too many of our politicians simply reflect our own willingness to wallow in confirmation biases that cost us our ability to sympathize and empathize with those who disagree with us. We bury ourselves in data that proves our view of the world, increasing our certainty that what we see is what everyone sees.

Or what everyone should see.

The net impact, though, is we increasingly isolate our “self” or our group as something unique and under attack from the hordes of ill-informed Americans around us. We have moved beyond disagreement to anger at other people’s ignorance.

I’m sure Rep. Neugebauer is a decent man. My guess is Sen. Ted Cruz is highly intelligent and he cares deeply about America. Even Rep. John Boehner, my liberal, tree-hugging hippie friends, cares about America.

So does President Obama. And Sen. Reid. Even Rep. Nancy Pelosi, my right-wing, evangelical friends, cares about America.

Don’t misread me here: I’m not arguing for some sort of kumbaya, can’t we all get along, campfire solution to our current shutdown. You can bring politicians to the table, but you can’t make them talk.

I’m not asking my tea party, God-loving, gun-toting friends to suddenly support open borders, free health care, and marijuana in the public square any more than I would want my liberal, humanist, PETA-member friends to support oil pipelines, capital punishment, and low corporate tax rates.

I am asking them, though, to move beyond the sycophantic voices swirling around them.

Democrats simply must recognize large segments of the population are justifiably concerned about rising entitlement costs and the changing demographic makeup of America.

Republicans must recognize large segments of the population believe in social safety nets, have radically different views about cultural issues, and support things like gun control.

These are not silly, ignorant, or uninformed concerns.

We must begin treating disagreements as opportunities to discuss, disagree, and debate not invitations to ignore, shout, and hate.

Our government was built on the former and is in danger of being destroyed by the latter.

We Can’t Always Be Our Brother’s Keeper

Dear Mr. President,

I’m sure your presidency has been a great disappointment. To date, America hasn’t become a socialist republic nor has the Constitution been revised into Sharia law. While the budget is still a mess, we are not bankrupt, the employment picture looks much better than it did a few years ago, and, according to the paper today, people are buying cars again. You’ve failed to destroy the second amendment, incite a race war, create death panels, or force workers into unions. It would seem your desire to be king has been thwarted by too many centrist ideas.

I was a little surprised, though, that you didn’t follow your supposed fascist tendencies and just bomb Syria. Perhaps you are just using the democratic process as a ruse to trick your critics into thinking they might have a voice? In the best of all worlds, of course, our elected officials would debate the merits of military action and consider the implications of American intervention in a civil war. They would debate our moral and ethical obligations to our fellow humans suffering at the hands of a totalitarian butcher. Thankfully, Congressman Joe Wilson is smart enough to tell us your move is really an attempt to distract the public (or at least the 15 Tea Party members who still care) from the IRS and Benghazi scandals.

Tricksy, tricksy. It’s a kind of political rope a dope. You are a cagey fella. Pretending to care about Syrian children. Sly dog.

Unfortunately, I have absolute faith in our elected officials to get caught up in partisan bickering and backroom cowardice on this issue so I am taking it upon myself, as someone hoodwinked by your intelligence, your strong moral character, and someone who voted for you twice, to write you this open letter.

Please do not bomb Syria.

I realize the horrific loss of life. Men, women, and children have suffered at the hands of a man so callous, with such a disregard for human life, that he authorized the use chemical weapons. I recognize Assad’s essential cowardice, symbolized by his willingness to stand in his luxurious palace and order the murder of human beings with sarin gas. I fully understand the ethical responsibility you feel as the leader of the most powerful nation on earth to help save lives and stop more bloodshed. Clearly, Assad’s neighbors have neither the willingness nor moral fortitude to hold him accountable. You feel a responsibility to take action in the face of regional indifference. I applaud the sentiment.

I don’t pretend, as some might, the path is clear and the choices easy. You are faced daily with the images of children who have suffered.

In Voltaire’s 1759 novel Candide, we are reminded that in the 18th century the price of sugar in our coffee was slavery in the Americas and various parts of Europe. I teach my students that Voltaire challenges us to recognize that one of the essential moral choices we face on any given day is the human cost of our comforts. What, I ask, is the human cost of our tennis shoes? Our vehicles? Our freedoms?

Voltaire also reminds us that we can’t pick and choose when we value human life. A child murdered in Syria is no less valuable than a child murdered in Spring, TX.

But, we are also reminded that we must tend our own garden. Far from an isolationist ideology, Voltaire doesn’t advocate we stop being active and involved but he does, at the very least, imply that we must put our own house in order before we can go next door and help our neighbors.

And, while America is the greatest country in the world and I love living here, our house is not in order. Simply put, I must remind you Mr. President that we can’t afford another armed conflict. Regardless of how short such a battle might be. History tells us that military conflict in the middle east is a black hole from which we might never extract ourselves. Our constant intervention, our well-intended actions, are in too many cases hurting the very lives we want to save.

Yes, there are times when we are our brother’s keeper. But there are also times when we must step back and demand that our brother help himself. We must recognize that our attempts to provide welfare run the risk of creating a dependency that leaves both of us morally, ethically, and physically exhausted. It is possible our attempts to offer a hand up are being interpreted as a hand-out. We must recognize that our desire to help is often seen as a colonial arrogance.

But price and perception isn’t the issue.

We can’t afford the human cost, not just in American lives but in the lives of innocent civilians who will die by our weapons or because they support us.

There are times when we must band together as a nation and willingly sacrifice for the greater good of humanity. Lives lost in battle are not wasted deaths. There are moments that warrant a “just” war, moments when war is the only path to peace.

Violence, at times, is the solution.

But we must ask ourselves if this is such a moment.

I don’t ask you to disengage and turn your back on Syria, Mr. President. Send diplomats, encourage our allies to pull people to the table, isolate those who willingly place self-interest and self-righteousness above our shared humanity. Expose those who stand by and do nothing as calloused, careless, and outside the realm of justice. Ask the American people to sacrifice the comforts of cheap oil and energy. Compel Arab nations to stand up for democratic ideals and human rights or learn to live without American financial intervention and aid. Most of all, put the world on alert that we will stop sacrificing our sons and daughters simply because no one else will act.

I feel certain you can think of many more ways to push for peace in Syria. Let’s find a way, Mr. President, to promote peace without preparing for war.

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Washington Monthly

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Joanne Jacobs

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Inside Higher Ed

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NYT > Politics

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Balloon Juice

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Scott Adams' Blog

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The Full Feed from

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