Focus on Focusing

Like most poets, Robert Hass advises us to be wary of the “steady thoughtlessness / of human use.” For Hass, this admonition turns into praise for those who cook beloved, time-consuming recipies, or leave thoughtful notes of thanks to the often overlooked, or put their batteries in recycling bins instead of the trash can.

Such small acts of thoughtfulness require us to pay attention to the physical world around us–and that’s precisely what the Strother School of Radical Attention wants its pupils to do. Their argument, as they present it in this morning’s New York Times, is that we are in the beginning of an era that will require “focus” as a subject that’s just as as reading, writing, or arithmetic. By the time kids get to school, their logic goes, they’ve had thousands more interactions with screens than with physically present humans, and the companies who put content on those screens have a vested interest in distracting viewers from all the other content providers who want our eyes and minds and wallets. The result of such wild, free-market competition: attention spans in young people that don’t often get beyond 47 seconds.

It’s tough to get through any curriculum with an attention span of that range. It’s even harder to have an informed electorate, or a core of citizens who care enough to think critically about the long-term effects of the actions they pursue–or drivers who can go a city block without checking social media.

I’ve long believed that the most radical thing a person can do is to lead a sub-digital life. I don’t know that I can go that far myself. After all, some of you will read this (ahem) important post on your smart phones. But at the very least we must rethink our relationship to electronic devices, as well as the access to them that we allow young people to have. Where should such reconsiderations begin?

Posted in Education, Ethics | 6 Comments

Happy Thanksgiving

MSMS faculty do their best not to weigh students down with heavy assignments over Thanksgiving break. Just so I know you’re still using your critical faculties, let me know something about the art you see while you’re away from campus. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a book, a movie, or a well put together Thanksgiving Day table, tell me about it: give me images, offer context, give insight into its importance.

Travel safely!

Posted in Arts | 6 Comments

And the Winner Was/Will Be?

Public Service Commissioner Brandon Presley and Gov. Tate Reeves squared off in a debate last night. I know most of you aren’t yet old enough to vote, but I encourage you to watch it. Who won the debate? Which candidate will win next Tuesday?

Posted in Politics | 5 Comments

My Tank is Empty Blog

It has been two weeks since I last posted. Several of you have asked for new opportunities to blog, but I’m drawing blanks. I have no idea what y’all are willing to argue about right now. Leave me some ideas–ideas with substance, please. Dogs vs. Cats and Lana vs. Taylor are great for the cafeteria, but not here.

Posted in MSMS Stuff | 8 Comments

Science vs. Pseudoscience vs. Religion

Last April, a parent group sued the state over vaccination requirements for school-aged children on the grounds that it violated their First Amendment rights. Last week, data showed that that chicken (pox) had come home to roost: the Mississippi Department of Health announced that it had granted over 1,800 vaccination exemptions so far this year.

I have no idea what religious doctrines could possibly lead members of a denomination to conclude that vaccinations are sinful. I’m more concerned about the health crisis such exemptions will precipitate. What’s the best way to protect public health and respect legitimate religious tenets?

Posted in Education, Ethics, Politics | 5 Comments

Burning Down the House

Politics has often been called the art of compromise. However, far right legislators in the House and the Senate have decided that ideology matters more than anything else. Sen. Tommy Tuberville has blocked military promotions because he does not want the military to allow female servicepeople to have access to abortions, which has affected the country’s military readiness. Sen. J.D. Vance has blocked all nominations to the Justice Department because he opposes its inquiries into former Pres. Donald Trump’s alleged involvement in the January 6 riots and because he thinks the Justice Department is protecting Hunter Biden.

A larger group of House Republicans is holding the country hostage by blocking negotiations on the 2024 federal budget. They view themselves as protectors of working class American values. They want the IRS to shrink. They demand the cessation of support for the defense of Ukraine in its war against Russian aggression. They want impeachment hearings on President Biden. Perhaps most important, they want to reduce government spending on social programs.

Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy, who is himself a Republican, has accused these legislators of wanting to “burn the whole place down.” Instead of working with people within their own party, they would rather try to get the government to bend to their will rather than work for a common good–unless you agree that their views actually represent a “common good,” which would put you in a statistical minority.

I suppose at the very least, their actions resurrect one of the oldest political questions: what, precisely, do we want a government to do?

Posted in National Politics | 6 Comments

At What Price Victory?

As a teenager, DeSanto Rollins dreamed of playing SEC football and parlaying his experience into a career in the NFL. Then injuries piled up, his in-game speed slowed down, and he found himself on the scout team at Ole Miss. Worse still, between his grandmother’s death and dealing with his injuries, he sank into a depression that made it hard for him to leave his bedroom. In fact, he essentially disappeared from the team for two weeks. From March 7 to March 21–peak time for spring practices–he neither participated in strength and conditioning nor responded to messages from coaches.

When Kiffin and Rollins finally met to discuss his absence from the team, their tete-a-tete produced a decapitation. Here’s an excerpt of that meeting provided by ESPN:

“I mean, you’re acting like my issues aren’t real.”

“I didn’t say they’re not real,” Kiffin responded. “You show up when your head — when your boss wants to meet with you. It wouldn’t have been like this. If you would’ve come here when you kept getting messages the head coach wants to talk to you, you say ‘I’m not ready to talk to him.'”

“I wasn’t,” Rollins said.

“What f—ing world do you live in?” Kiffin asked.

“I don’t see why you have to be disrespectful, honestly,” Rollins said.

“Get out of here,” Kiffin said. “Go, you’re off the team. You’re done. See ya. Go. And guess what? We can kick you off the team. So go read your f—ing rights about mental health. We can kick you off the team for not showing up. When the head coach asks to meet with you and you don’t show up for weeks, we can remove you from the team.

“It’s called being a p—y,” Kiffin said. “It’s called hiding behind s— and not showing up to work.”

This conversation, which took place March 21, became the basis for a $40 million lawsuit against the university, coaches, and the athletic staff.

My experience with college football coaches suggests that this exchange is the tip of the ice berg. The only form of accountability most of them understand lies in getting their teams to win. Win, and anything can be forgiven–verbal abuse, bullying, a lack of regard for academic priorities. Excuses will be made. Deals will be cut. Lose, and find a new line of work. The mental health of athletes is unimportant in that universe. It can’t be measured. Scholarship amounts, NIL deals, and wins can be.

I do not know the depths of the issues Rollins experienced, or the effectiveness with which he communicated those issues to the coaches. I do not know of “real world” working environments where a person can simply go AWOL for two weeks without expecting a tongue-lashing or a dismissal. Nor do I know if Rollins was simply a malcontent who loved excuses more than results. I can say that despite Kiffin’s horrible language, he did not remove Rollins from the team, which means, technically, that he still has a scholarship and all the amenities of being a student athlete at Ole Miss. It also means that he will have a harder time showing compensable damages.

However, this episode makes me wonder, broadly, about the expectations we have for those who coach sports. When does a tirade become abuse? At what point is a coach responsible for a player’s mental health? And when should either of those concerns be set aside in the name of pushing a team to victory?

Posted in Education, Sports | 9 Comments

Time and Money

Last week, the New York Times ran an opinion piece on the increasing number of students your age who do not see college as a necessary investment. This seems particularly true for students and families whose political orientation lies to the right of center, as they see colleges as bastions of left-leaning, ivory tower academicians. (Indeed, most college professors and administrators identify as liberal.)

The other issue involves cost. Those born before 1980 and who hold college degrees have experienced a substantial return on investment for their diplomas. Those born after 1980 have not, especially if they have degrees in fields that are not STEM oriented. Why? Largely because the cost of college attendance has doubled since 1992. Salaries, on the other hand, have increased by only about 5%. For those whose political beliefs run against the liberal politics of college instructors, this adds to the disinclination to seek a four-year degree.

Public policy has also encouraged a shift towards “certification” rather than “degree.” After 18 months of training at EMCC’s Communiversity, an 18 year-old with a high school degree can earn a salary at a local manufacturer in excess of $75,000, which easily exceeds the local average. Most people can earn such certification without taking out loans.

The problem with certification, of course, is that it does not offer the kind of flexibility that a bachelor’s degree does. It will not result in admission to professional programs that result in salaries of six and seven figures. It also will not protect workers from being replaced by robots and other forms of AI.

How will you measure the success of your college education?

Posted in Education | 17 Comments

The Thrill of Victory

As the father of a Division I football player, I know how much time it takes student-athletes to prepare their bodies to excel at the sports they play. Strength and conditioning, practice, and film review take at least 20 hours a week. That doesn’t include a summer regimen that can be even more brutally time-consuming. The games themselves take only about three hours.

High school athletes, generally speaking, might not spend quite as much time preparing for competition.

MSMS athletes, specifically, never do.

Our school demands students to prioritize academics over sports. We produce occasional individual state champions in sports like tennis or swimming; we are occasionally competitive in soccer, though I don’t recall ever getting past the second round of playoffs.

So why do we bother? What’s the purpose of playing interscholastic sports where our school’s core values make it less likely that we will be on a level playing field?

I appreciate the ways people learn teamwork, time management, and goal setting through athletics. I certainly don’t detest sports. However, would an intramural sports program serve our school’s needs better?

Posted in MSMS Stuff, Sports | 18 Comments

Absurdum est reductionem

West Virginia University’s announcement last week that it planned to eliminate its world languages department, as well as its fiction writing program and other humanities disciplines, sent shock waves through liberal arts departments across the country. The university’s president, Dr. Gordon Gee, said the proposed cuts, which would remove 169 faculty members and 32 majors, result from a $45 million deficit.

Naturally, he plans to keep engineering and football. WVU leadership has been putting money in those programs like they were slot machines for the last ten years, which follows a trend nationwide. Sometimes those machines pay out. Students in particular STEM majors do quite well for themselves after they graduate.

Yet it seems disingenuous to reduce funding for humanities then bemoan their inability to attract students, which is precisely what has happened in West Virginia. (For what it’s worth, there has been an upward tick in the number of humanities majors nationwide since 2016, largely because those majors give students critical thinking and communication skills that other majors don’t.) Dr. Gee’s suggestion for students who still want those classes is to take them online from schools that do offer them, which is the ultimate “screw you” to the humanities. Online classes, as we learned during the pandemic, aren’t worth a bucket of cold, week-old dog urine.

Rather than cut humanities programs, governments and universities alike should acquiesce to the notion that education, when done well, is an inherently inefficient, yet supremely important endeavor. They should fund it accordingly, whether than involves shiny new labs for STEM types, or language programs for people yearn to see the world differently. If the money starts to run short, make sure administrators and assistant coaches get the ax long before the people who do the actual teaching. This is only an “either/or” crisis if we allow the Gordon Gees of the world to make it one. How about a “both/and” solution? Let’s teach the left side of the brain as well as the right.

I’m not sure why teachers and leaders in the humanities must defend their existence every time they turn around. It isn’t like instruction in STEM disciplines is apolitical–remember the hullabaloo about stem-cell research?–or inexpensive, or that a STEM degree guarantees a steady income. What can be done to remind politicos, pundits, and university presidents that a good education can only be as deep as it is wide? Or do you find an “education” where you take almost all your courses in your major an enticing prospect?

Posted in Education, Politics | 11 Comments