Tuesday, February 24, 2015

I Am a Global Conservative: A Creed

The following is not so much a manifesto as a statement of core beliefs that I have formulated in the last few years. I have come up with a term, the Global Conservative, which pretty well summarizes my position. I hope that I can continue to change this list as my level of understanding and knowledge grows and matures.

I am a global conservative.
I believe that religions, families, cultures, and languages share their authority with the state rather than derive their rights from it, and that the state should refrain from altering or interfering with them except to protect human dignity.
I believe that people have the right to enjoy the fruits of the labor and should not have their property rights taken from them or diminished except for the safety of others.
I believe that people should be free to travel, do business, and settle wherever in the world they choose, and that no person should be denied the right to work in a place where products from his home country are sold.
I believe that freedom of trade without freedom of movement is modern-day mercantilism.
I believe that international structures should enforce the rule of law and the protection of human dignity throughout the world, that these international bodies should consist of representatives directly elected by the people, and that violations of peace, human rights, and contract should be treated as criminal, rather than political, offenses.
I believe that environmental protection is a global matter that should be settled by international governing bodies of democratically elected members.
I believe that democracy is the best protection of natural rights, which derive not from the state, but from our Creator.
I believe that labor should be organized to protect the rights of workers and to combine their efforts for mutual benefit.
I believe that scientific knowledge belongs to the whole of humanity, and that all such knowledge should be made available to all people throughout the world.
I believe that consumerism is the greatest threat to public morals and integral human development, and should be counterbalanced by laws which promote public decency, modesty, and self-sufficient lifestyles.
I believe that parents are the primary educators of their children, and that states should seek to support, not control, them as they carry out this task.
I believe that we all have the right to active citizenship at the local, regional, national, and global levels.
I believe that we are all one race: the children of God.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

If I Were First (A Sonnet)

If I were first with you, then you'd turn red,
As blood fouled up your youthful countenance,
And mid the roses of our wedding bed,
Might weep lost days of pious innocence.

It isn't wrong to pick a blossomed rose,
Or to enjoy a summer-ripened fruit,
But sad to trim the bud that springtime blows
Or cut the upstart sapling at its root.

Then you who have endured the spring and thrived,
And given seed entrapped in berries sweet,
Whose pleasant taste the winter has survived,
Know well the flavor that my tongue will greet.

Oh let me fall as drops of golden rain,
Upon your garden hid by lonely pain.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Education Reform (My Personal Platform)

So, as all of you know, I am a teacher. I have taught for the past six years in various private institutions. I also had the great opportunity of teaching in a public school for a little while at the beginning of my career, and I have met and worked with students from both a public and a private background in the context of an online environment. That, admittedly, may not amount to a whole lot of experience professionally next to some of you, but I would submit that the following suggestions are not so much centered on a criticism of the teaching profession or education per se, but on the way that we organize the education system as a whole. In other words, what I am talking about here is the way that we integrate all of the state's learning environments into a coherent whole. And that has way more to do with politics than it does with educational praxis. So this is a sort of outline, in brief, of the various ideas I have collected over the past few years for reforming Arkansas' public educational system.

First, I think it essential that, in order to have a uniform assessment of skills regardless of educational background, we have a fairly objective system for assessing a student's qualifications at the end of his education. It does very little good to have yearly exams (most of which do not prevent a student from passing to the next grade) which are merely intended to assess the ongoing quality of instruction, if the students, at the end of the program, are not prepared to go on to higher studies. There is also the challenge that annual benchmark exams, as we used to call them in Arkansas, are very specific to each grade level and so encourage teachers to merely "teach the exam" to up their qualifications. I think this is an abuse of the whole idea of instruction. What we should be using exams to do is to help parents decide whether their children are getting the best out of their education, and that would imply a high-stakes exam leading out of high school.

So, what I would propose is that we break apart the whole separation between schools, homeschools, and private schools. Students in Arkansas would simply receive an "Arkansas High School Diploma", of which there would be two different categories. The first, taken at the end of tenth grade, would be a "Standard Level Diploma", which would essentially cover most of the material in the GED and ACT. Students who passed it would receive a diploma and could legally discontinue their education, if they chose. The Standard Level Exam would also include a number of sections for elective courses, which a student could decide to take based on his own level of confidence in the subject. It would not matter where they were educated; they would all qualify for the Standard Level Diploma in the same way.

Students who passed the Standard Level Diploma and qualified with above average or excellent scores in particular subject areas could then take courses in those areas to prepare themselves for the Advanced Level Exam, which they would take at the end of the twelfth grade. Provided that they received average or higher scores in a minimum number of subjects and at least one or two electives, they would qualify for the Advanced Level Diploma which, again, they would receive directly from the state with no involvement from the local school or school board.

I believe that this method of qualifying students would ultimately be the most equitable for students. Parents themselves could decide: Is paying money for a private education really worth it in terms of results? Can I educate my child to the qualifications necessary for them to achieve a useful diploma? I believe in freedom and choice in the realm of education, and I think that forcing the parents (and students) to look seriously at the alternatives before them would benefit everyone involved.

The next part of this is where I will probably get myself into trouble. On the one hand, I support school choice, in the sense that I do not believe that parents should have to pay taxes or fees to public schools when they choose to enroll their children in a private institution, unless, of course, those fees are redirected to the schools which parents themselves chose. This, however, I only support in the instance that the schools that parents are enrolling their children in are free of charge, meaning that they do not ask nor require those parents to pay for their children to take classes at the private school. This is because the taxes themselves are collected on an ENTIRE community to guarantee that everyone in that community receives an education, whether they can afford it or not. It is a rudimentary form of wealth redistribution, and I agree with it wholeheartedly. Just because a person can afford a better school, does not mean that funds should be withdrawn from those schools that serve everybody. It would be like letting people bring their own popcorn to the movie theater. On the other hand, if those private schools are doing a good job educating the community as a charitable organization, then of course, we should support the charitable instinct of individuals over the crushing presence of a welfare state. Another option, of course, would be to exempt individuals from paying the school property taxes and instead taxing tuition payments to private schools, but I doubt that would be any more or less popular.

Where I absolutely do not support school choice is in allowing parents whose children live in one school district to send their children to another school district unless, in exceptional circumstances, the student is simply unable to go to their local school. The reason for this is much the same. Many students, particularly those in poor neighborhoods, will be unable to afford to send their children to schools outside of their district due to additional transportation costs; and if they do decide to send their children away, the longer distance will mean less time at home with family, less time for homework, and less connection between the local community and its school. A local school is a center of knowledge and empowerment for a small community, as well as a neighborhood. If we allow students to flock to this or that public school, it will inevitably rip students out of their communities during the most foundational time of their lives and ultimately result in their integration into a general culture-less consumerist society with no morals and no background.

I also believe in small local schools. Oftentimes, small local schools become a target for accusations of waste, poor management, and poor instruction. However, consolidation has not achieved any more financial viability in the long term as unconsolidated schools, and the negative effects (peer pressure, violence, high teacher-student ratios) seem worse than the problems they were trying to fix. Yet, even from a financial and professional point of view, technology has finally caught up to the problem. It is now possible that a small school in, say, Ash Flat, Arkansas could have a course in Mandarin Chinese, taught by an instructor from Hong Kong and supervised in a large multi-level classroom with a paraprofessional supervisor. I know this because I do this job on a regular basis. It has its own challenges, of course, but in general, I have been satisfied with the results. Today, every school in every small town could have any course offered in the state of Arkansas, and qualified professionals could teach from their own hometowns in multiple districts at competitive pay without having to take jobs outside of their field. Who needs a coach to be a history teacher any more?

I also believe that the school day should be significantly shortened or opened up throughout the state. Ideally, students should be free for at least an hour in the day to study, participate in intramural sports, receive religious instruction from clergy of their choosing, or some other profitable recreation. Students do not have enough time to really process what they are learning in the modern school environment, and I think that results in very shallow presentation by the teachers to keep up with the curriculum timetable. What those periods of time set aside for leisure should NOT be used for is work. Work can happen in the classroom or after school: schools should not be in the business of turning their students into so many cogs in the industrial machine.

Finally, I think it is essential that we consider establishing specialty institutions to target boys and girls for fields in which they are underrepresented. This would require some gender segregation, but with the overall goal of making the professional field more diverse in particular areas. For example, Arkansas needs a public school of math and science that is for female students only. Imagine, also, a boys-only arts and humanities school, or an advanced academic institution for students with learning disabilities. Once again, it is essential that these institutions be either free or public (or both) and focus on enlisting students who show particular aptitude for these skills. Merely making them available would lead to a consistent downgrading of expectations to meet parents' demands.

There are, of course, many different areas where we could improve our educational system and methods. I, however, am a teacher, and if I wrote down every possible improvement (additional courses in agriculture and fine arts, people?), I would never have enough time to grade papers. As it is, I think that adopting even a few of these ideas would so radically change people's perspective on education, that a lot of other improvements might simply follow as a natural consequence.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Jupiter Ascending (2015): Movie Reviews from the Sidelines

There is no movie that seems better designed to drive critics nuts than Jupiter Ascending (2015).

Seriously, you have stunning but cluttered visuals, quirky acting, and a movie that clearly should have been at least an hour and a half longer than what it was. But that's not the story here. The story should be that Jupiter Ascending is an awesomely risky movie set in a fascinating universe that revolves around an ordinary girl from our (non-post-apocalyptic) planet.

In this gorgeous film, a young cleaning lady by the name of Jupiter Jones (Mila Kunis) is found to have the exact genetic sequence of a noblewoman from outer space. This apparently happens because...science. In any case, many of the upper class from this extraterrestrial society, which is populated by humans (actually, our ancestors), tend to view this as a sort of "reincarnation" and even go so far as to leave trusts for such individuals in their will, leaving meek Jupiter to inherit the earth. What do the space-humans want with the earth? Well, that's complicated, but let's just say that we are the crops, and they are the consumers. 

The adventure part of this begins when the heirs of that noblewoman all seek to claim for themselves the inherited treasure of their mother from Jupiter. They all have their various ways, of course, but all of them pretty much center around Jupiter being dead. Enter her faithful (and hunky) protector Caine Wise (Channing Tatum) who risks his life to save hers. Most of the action centers around Channing Tatum, er, Caine, being heroic and making Jupiter weak in the knees.

It would be SO easy to hate this film. Eddie Redmayne, for example, one of the heirs trying to knock Jupiter out of the royal orbit, gives one of the strangest performances to ever hit the big screen, whispering some of his lines and switching from listless mumbling to screaming tantrums. And yet, one really must wonder how entitled nobility who live thousands of years and harvest human beings for profit ought to behave. It is genius that he manages to even show vulnerability in such an emotionally remote character. In fact, he gives one of the only possible depictions of such a character that anyone could give, if the aim were verisimilitude.

At the same time, Mila Kunis, whose main problem in this film is a slight aversion to opening her mouth while she speaks, is nonetheless the perfect "hero" to take on this role. Admittedly, it isn't one of the most female-empowering roles ever created, but she still manages to embody her character: a quirky, discontented twenty-something who is both terrified and fascinated with her surroundings. I can't see any obvious flaws.
The plot is overly complicated. No one can deny that. It has a backstory that would require an HBO miniseries to explain (which would be--geek alert--TOTALLY AWESOME), but it is not incomprehensible, whatever some may say.  In fact, the world is so beautiful and the idea behind its existence such a compelling tale that this reviewer was hungry for more plots set in this classical medieval steampunk dystopia. Any critic that doesn't agree with that sentiment is not worth my dear readers' time.

My Rating: B+ (Go see it.)