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Posts Tagged ‘Washington Post’

Room for Debate at the New York Times today has one of a series of ‘conversations’ about the state of education in the US. Today’s discussion centers on the first draft of a set of national standards for all students to achieve in English and math by the end of high school. The Washington Post has a story, too.

As an English teacher by training and for the first eight years of my working life, I read the English Language Arts (ELA) standards (.pdf) with interest. I found little to disagree with in the document, and was even slightly gratified to note that most my lessons over eight years could have been taken for a model of how to implement those standards. (Of course, my students and supervisors might beg to differ.)

Aside from the content of the standards, though, I was interested in two aspects of the process through which they are being developed. First, the federal government is not involved in the drafting process, nor will it be involved in accepting them once they are developed. Instead, the several states are leading the charge in development, and adoption will happen (if it does) state by state. Second, the drafters have referred to the best standards they can find, not only among the several states, but also in the rest of the world. These two elements of the process represent, as I understand it, federalism at its best. Each state maintains its independence but uses innovations and best practice in other states (and, in the modern world, countries) to inform its own choices.

As ‘Abdu’l-Baha noted in a talk he gave in New York in 1912, this federated arrangement has no small consequences:

It is very evident that in the future there shall be no centralization in the countries of the world, be they constitutional in government, republican or democratic in form. The United States may be held up as the example of future government—that is to say, each province will be independent in itself, but there will be federal union protecting the interests of the various independent states. It may not be a republican or a democratic form. To cast aside centralization which promotes despotism is the exigency of the time. This will be productive of international peace.

Such a federal approach to developing educational standards is not confined to the U.S., either. A similar process in underway in Australia, as seen in national Statements of Learning. Viewed more broadly, developing common education standards across national boundaries can be seen as one step in the process of defining the standards of what ‘Abdu’l-Baha labels “human education”, which “signifies civilization and progress—that is to say, government, administration, charitable works, trades, arts and handicrafts, sciences, great inventions and discoveries and elaborate institutions, which are the activities essential to man as distinguished from the animal.”

Of course, the trend toward and necessity of training people to think across the boundaries of traditional bodies of knowledge, which I noted in Saturday’s post, plays a crucial role in developing our sense of what human education is, too. How can we have government, administration, sciences, great inventions, and elaborate institutions adequate to the world today if we cannot analyze broad trends and bring together information from a wide variety of fields? To take two recent examples, Jeffrey Sachs’s Common Wealth and Jared Diamond’s Collapse indicate just how much we can benefit from such an approach to thinking.

Of course, without divine education, the acquisition of human perfections which will allow us to use that way of thinking for our mutual progress, no amount of purely human education will do us much good. Perhaps we’re not quite ready for public schools to take on that subject matter yet.

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The Washington Post and The Australian both follow The Guardian‘s Jonathan Freedland, whose op-ed sparked my post yesterday, in asserting a certain level of pessimism about the potential success of the Copenhagen negotiations. The Post sees some silver lining, while the Australian focuses on the big, gray clouds. I’ve just started reading Jeffrey Sachs‘s Common Weath, and Sachs doesn’t share that pessimism, at least in the bigger picture, though he does outline the great necessity of acting on climate change at a global level. (While I was looking up that link for Sachs, I also stumbled across two interesting blogs that I’ll start keeping track of: Millennium Villages and State of the Planet.)

On the topic of the death penalty, which I address here, Hendrik Hertzberg at the New Yorker posts about how the death penalty works, or doesn’t work, in practice. If a process set up in the interests of ensuring justice ensures suffering in practice, perhaps it’s time to re-examine that process.

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Last Friday marked the eighth anniversary of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center towers in New York and the Pentagon in Virginia. To reflect on those events and their place in the American consciousness, The Washington Post ran an article about a new high school curriculum designed to help students learn about the attacks. Apparently, many of them are too young to remember that day or to know the degree to which it influences American thought and politics today. Despite what that fact says about the level of our public discourse and our ability as a culture to engage young people with important events, I was most struck by the narrative about one student who, for extra credit in Michael Hutchinson’s social studies class in Vincennes, Indiana, interviewed her grandfather about his response that day.

JaLeah Hedrick, 18, had never learned about Sept. 11 in school until she entered Hutchison’s class this week, but consequences of that day surrounded her as she began her pursuit of extra credit. For Hedrick, Sept. 11 was the pledge of allegiance that Vincennes area schools had begun playing over loudspeakers every morning since late 2001. It was the “Threat Level Orange” that she heard each time she visited the Indianapolis airport. It was the way her grandfather, a World War II veteran, grimaced when he spoke of “those Muslims.” It was the USA T-shirt her dad wore when he picked her up from school in an aging Pontiac with a red-white-and-blue license plate inscribed with the phrase “In God We Trust.”

And now, it was homework — due to Hutchison by 1 p.m. Friday.

Hedrick wanted to interview her grandfather Ed Hedrick, because he is a veteran and, she said, “an American hero.” Other classmates were planning to interview fathers serving in Iraq or distant relatives who had worked at the Pentagon, but Ed Hedrick, 83, was the only person his granddaughter knew whose recollections of Sept. 11 might have the gravitas worthy of extra credit.

She rode a mile across town and sat across from her grandfather on his front porch. She pulled a blue notebook and a pink pen from her backpack and then looked at a class handout that provided a list of possible interview questions. “I have to ask you some of these for homework,” she told her grandfather, her eyes still fixed on the sheet. “Where were you when you first heard about the attack?”

“I was sitting in that red chair over there in the living room,” he said.

She nodded and then read the next question. “Did you continue to listen to the radio or watch TV?”

“Yes,” her grandfather said. “I barely moved all week. I couldn’t stop watching.”

“How did it affect you?” she asked.

“Severe anger, for days,” he said.

“What action did you want the government to take?” she asked.

“Well, I guess I wanted them to load up three or four of those H-bombs and send them over there. That’s how I felt at the time.”

Mr. Hedrick’s response struck me because his desire for vengeance mirrored so closely the reaction many of my students had on that clear fall day eight years ago. I remember very clearly my sixth period class. By the time they entered, we had been aware of the attacks for at least three hours. Most of us had watched the plane hit the second tower, had seen the towers collapse, had heard about the destruction at the Pentagon and the crash near Shanksville, Pennsylvania. We had had some time to process our emotions. Still, the faces of the juniors entering my class were dark.

We began to discuss their thoughts and feelings, and I was taken aback by the strength of their emotions. As I asked them to consider what they thought we ought to do, one student yelled, “Just go over there and blow ’em all up, just wipe the whole place out!” No matter that he couldn’t say who they were or where we should wipe out, he was hurt and wanted to express that hurt with the most destructive violence he could imagine. This lashing out, as a cursory reading of the news of any day will tell you, is a common response to violence against one’s own. Though it is a thirst for vengeance, it is also the root of the desire for justice, for an evening of the scales of rights done and wrongs inflicted. In her book Payback, transcribed from her Massey Lectures for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, Margaret Atwood fixes this pattern within the larger cultural pattern of debts, going back at least to the Code of Hammurabi in ancient Mesopotamia.

Another Washington Post article, this one from Saturday, documents an different response to the tragedy, more in keeping with hindsight and coolness of mind.

Obama designated Sept. 11 a national day of service and encouraged communities across the United States to participate. It was part of a national push to commemorate the attacks through good works.

The Obamas helped paint the living room in a Habitat for Humanity housing project in the Deanwood neighborhood of Northeast Washington. The president opted for a roller; the first lady used a brush.

About 200 volunteers with Greater DC Cares were at RFK Stadium, piecing together quilts to give to children who have parents serving overseas in the military. Douglas Cribbes smoothed an iron across a piece of cloth printed with a photograph of a newborn, whose tiny pink hand held his father’s finger. A team from Rolls-Royce North America of Reston cut, ironed and sewed scraps of fabric into a gift for the little boy.

Harper Holmes and Seven Bloom, both 19, turned up at Christ Evangelical Lutheran Church of Bethesda, helping about 45 other volunteers write postcards to service members overseas, sand doors, weed the yard or just clean up. The pair were sixth-graders when the towers fell, and now work with the National Civilian Community Corps, a public service program for young adults.

They’ve spent the past several months traveling across the country doing community service projects. “To see fear turned into a mass uprising of people working for others is amazing,” Bloom said.

Those who strive through these acts of service to transform fear and anger into development and advancement have perhaps a different notion of justice than Mr. Hedrick does. No doubt, theirs is easier to hold eight years after the tragedy than on that day of violence.

In a world where no one nation can claim authority over others or others’ citizens, where the interactions between nations are necessarily the interactions of peers, it is not easy to move away from the tit-for-tat pattern of justice. How is a nation to respond to aggression by another nation or by the citizens of other nations? With no higher authority for appeal, a nation must seemingly use its own power of deterrence. Unfortunately, that power of deterrence is often used out of anger rather than justice. Presidents, prime ministers and kings follow Mr. Hedrick’s feelings and “load up” some bombs.

Baha’u’llah in “Words of Paradise” makes the following exhortation to rulers:

A king who is not deterred by the vainglory of power and authority from observing justice, nor is deprived of the splendours of the day-star of equity by luxury, riches, glory or the marshalling of hosts and legions shall occupy a high rank and a sublime station amongst the Concourse on high. It is incumbent upon everyone to extend aid and to manifest kindness to so noble a soul. Well is it with the king who keepeth a tight hold on the reins of his passion, restraineth his anger and preferreth justice and fairness to injustice and tyranny.

In Tablet of Maqsud, He further commands:

Take heed, O concourse of the rulers of the world! There is no force on earth that can equal in its conquering power the force of justice and wisdom. I, verily, affirm that there is not, and hath never been, a host more mighty than that of justice and wisdom. Blessed is the king who marcheth with the ensign of wisdom unfurled before him, and the battalions of justice massed in his rear. He verily is the ornament that adorneth the brow of peace and the countenance of security.

Perhaps if the rulers of the world restrained their anger to act with justice and combined justice with wisdom in their actions, a new pattern of relations between states would emerge. Then we might imagine a world in which we are not still waging two wars in response to the actions of a small group of terrorists on one day eight years ago.

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Gary Hamel has a blog at the Wall Street Journal called “Management 2.0,” which I occasionally read as someone who has taken on some management within my organisation in the past year or so. Imagine my surprise, then, when I went back to the blog after a hiatus and found Hamel giving advice to church leaders about their management issues. It’s quite a long post, but he summarizes his analysis and advice neatly at the end:

Over the centuries, religion has become institutionalized, and in the process encrusted with elaborate hierarchies, top-heavy bureaucracies, highly specialized roles and reflexive routines. (Kinda like your company, but only more so). Religion won’t regain its relevance until church leaders chip off these calcified layers, rediscover their sense of mission, and set themselves free to reinvent “church” for a new age.

Doing this is going to take a management revolution. Back in the first century, the Christian church was organic, communal and mostly free of ritual—and it needs to become so again—as does every organization, public or private, large or small.

“Organic, communal and mostly free of ritual”: that reminds me of the best of the Baha’i communities in which I’ve lived. Indeed, the whole program of the current activities of the Faith around the world could be described in just that way. At Transforming Neighbourhoods, you can have a look at how this works within the Canadian Baha’i community, though it’s certainly happening in other places too. This video by Dan Scott gives an excellent overview, though the other videos at the site are much more illustrative of the individual activities. (I would love to embed the video here, but the original site doesn’t have a ‘share’ feature, so you’ll have to go look for yourself.)

The core of Scott’s talk is in these two paragraphs:

When we talk about elevating a community, I think what we mean is endowing the community with a sense of mission, in which all the members, as diverse as they may be, work together in a common purpose: to promote the welfare and the well being of its membership, as well as those beyond its own borders. In which everyone works tirelessly in an unremitting quest for spiritual and social progress.

Practically speaking, much of the work now focuses on what we can call “four core activities”: children’s classes, junior youth groups, devotional gatherings and study circles.

A broader description of the Baha’i community can be found here.

Indeed, the very nature of the Baha’i community is to be organic, communal, and without ritual. This is at the heart of its promise as the nucleus of a new system of human organization. Writing in 1934 of the Administrative Order of the Baha’i Faith, Shoghi Effendi shared these auspicious words:

It will, as its component parts, its organic institutions, begin to function with efficiency and vigor, assert its claim and demonstrate its capacity to be regarded not only as the nucleus but the very pattern of the New World Order destined to embrace in the fullness of time the whole of mankind.

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