Further Musings

Beauty smote his heart, he looked up from the forsaken land & hope returned to him

Archive for November 2006

A Brief Rant

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This is the kind of shrill blog post I regularly see in a subset of the blogs I read but I rarely write a shrill post. Normally I keep my complaints and gripes for Charity’s ears only but this morning she is reading in another room so I’ll take a second to complain about the NYTimes article I just finished titled “Home Schoolers Content to Take Children’s Lead.”

On the whole, the article is interesting and I recommend reading it. It presents the idea of “unschool” which is educating your children at home but without a structured homeschooling curriculum. The author does a nice job of presenting the viewpoints and the realities of the lives of unschooling households.

What’s got me hot under the collar is the title and the opening eight paragraphs. Both are misleading.

As I understand journalism you should put the most important facts at the beginning of the story because most people don’t read the whole story. Instead they digest the headline and skim the first few paragraphs to make sure they get the just of it.

If this is the way that readers function then this story has two problems.

1) The title is factually inaccurate.

Unschoolers can logically be classified as homeschoolers but one of the primary points of the article is that unschoolers are different than what most people conceptualize as home schoolers. They are rejecting a fundamentally different part of the popular conception of education. As the title is written it obscures this difference, I can envision people who simply read the title thinking “Here is another piece of information confirming my opinion that homeschoolers are nutters.”

2)The obligatory expert quote is atrocious.

As the article segues from introducing the reader to an unschool family to the context-setting portion of the article the author writes about unschooling:

“In some ways it is as ancient a pedagogy as time itself, and in its modern American incarnation, is among the oldest home-schooling methods. But it is also the most elusive, a cause of growing concern among some education officials and social scientists.”

(insert ominous music)

“‘It is not clear to me how they will transition to a structured world and meet the most basic requirements for reading, writing and math,’ said Luis Huerta, a professor of public policy and education at Teachers College of Columbia University, whose national research includes a focus on home schooling.”

OK, fair enough, writers are allowed to cite experts. If I was casually reading this article I would again check the little box in my head which reads “previous evaluation confirmed.”

But the next sentence reads:

There is scant data on the educational results of unschooling, and little knowledge about whether the thousands of unschooled children fare better or worse than regularly schooled students. There is not even reliable data on how many people are unschooling, though many experts suggest the number is growing. ”

This quote invalidates the weight of the opinion of the person above. If there is no research into a phenomena then he is speculating, which is something everyone is allowed to do, but they should not be quoted as support for the ominous threat of unschooling (or is it home schooling we’re scared of?). The problem with this quote lies in structuring the article by putting his quote in an authoritative position which it does not deserve.

Unschooling is an interesting idea and I’m curious how it works out in practice. I’m glad the Times taught me something new this morning. I just wish they had used better journalistic judgement and written clearly to present a more accurate picture to the reading public.

Whew . . . maybe I’ll go talk to Charity now.

Written by furthermusings

November 26, 2006 at 7:43 pm

Posted in Reviews

The Omnivore’s Dilemma

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I finally finished the Omnivore’s Dilemma today. If you haven’t read it I highly recommend it as an interesting and thoughtful read about eating in America today. It tells the story of American agriculture works today through a look at four different meals and you follow the author’s thoughts as he learns about how the different meals ended up on his plate. He is even-handed with his description of the people and processes involved which form the system which feeds Americans today.

The author, Michael Pollan, first explores how a fast food meal comes to his family through the corn fields in Iowa and a cow born in Montana and finished in Kansas. He then looks at how organic produce and “free range” meats have made their way into our food system, comparing how they are different than “conventional foods.” Pollan then explores the Polyface farm – a family farm in Virginia that uses a unique rotation system of animals to grow them as compliments to each other with almost no off the farm inputs (read fertilizer). His final meal is one that he hunts, gathers and prepares himself.

For the record I liked:

  • how he reflects on his immersive experiences with being in (or out) of the system which brings us our food: with buying a cow and following it through the system, visiting organic and conventional farmers and the process of gathering and hunting his own meal.
  • the Polyface farm with their intellectually intensive farming techniques.
  • the idea of food that can be both more nutritious and more tasty and paying more for those qualities than simply the label of “sustainability.”
  • his respect and delight in food and the social aspects of eating it.
  • his willingness to look hard at the food system and let us listen to him as he wades into it to the extent that he can.

I disliked very little about the book but I didn’t like that every trait and feature of humans, animals, plants and systems is explainable through the lens of evolution. To Pollan is that idea that everything always adapts to its system. At times you could finish his sentences.

I wished that he would have followed the Polyface farm’s interactions with the government more. I would have like to see why small “post-industrial farms” are prohibited from doing some of the things that they are . . . but that’s probably the political-economist in me.

Again, all in all a worthy read. It has inspired a lot of conversation about Charity and I’s eating buying and eating habits and some of those have conversations have changed what ends up in our refrigerator.

Written by furthermusings

November 24, 2006 at 5:08 am

Posted in Reviews

A Few Thoughts on Home Security

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Blogging about home security is like blogging about retirement planning: they are both topics that would make for boring conversation at a party and yet, both quicken my pulse a bit to think of the consequences of poor planning.

On the topic of home security my father wrote a friend of his for advice on how to secure a house. In case you’re interested I am posting his reply below.  Aside from some of our other adjustments, we are very thankful  these days for our retired neighbor and his watchful eyes. Read the rest of this entry »

Written by furthermusings

November 21, 2006 at 9:44 pm

Posted in At the House

The Man Who Came to My Door Continued – New Information, New Thoughts?

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Yesterday was an interesting day from the point of view of the previous post. After administering an exam I dropped by my retired neighbor’s house for a chat and some advice concerning Harold from someone who has lived in a “downtown neighborhood” for 30 years. Among the other things he suggested was that I contact the police and see if Harold has a record.

I did.

He does.

A long one.

For breaking and entering.

As I spoke with the officers last night they knew Harold by name, “Oh I know Harold. He has two games, and one is asking people for work saying that he’s worked for the previous owner and casing the houses as he does it. I’ve been on the force for 4 years and picked him up more times than I can remember.”

Harold’s question as he left on Sunday “Is that your car in the driveway?” lends the officers story a queasy thud of reality. At the time I thought it odd that he would want to break into my car. Now I see the meaning I wouldn’t let myself when asked.

Ugh.

When I came back inside after midnight Charity and I talked far into the night about new ways to secure the windows, install motion sensor lights and hide valuables. A new lock on the fence gate already attempts to secure the back yard.

I don’t know what this means. I’m not sure whether or not to call Harold back next week as I said I would. I’m not sure if I should let him work if he still wants to. I’m not sure if when I leave the house in a few hours if everything will be as it should be when I return.

I’m not sure what I would have done if I had known all this from the start.

Ugh.

Written by furthermusings

November 14, 2006 at 4:11 pm

The Man Who Came to My Door

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I met Harold for the first time this afternoon and during the church service tonight he came back to my thoughts again. When Harold knocked on our front door yesterday asking if he could work in our yard, Charity asked him to come back this morning and discuss it with me. This precipitated a lengthy and tense discussion between Charity and I this morning. Should we hire him to clean our gutters and rake our yard? Does this fit within our budget? Did this fit into our philosophy? Is cleaning the gutters something you’re supposed to do yourself? Is hiring a man who knocks on your door something you should do to help him out?

Harold came back today as Charity, my parents, and I were each plotting deeply about how to emerge victorious from our board game. I went outside in my sweatshirt, shorts and sandals and shook Gerald’s rough, slightly misshapen hand. Harold was dressed in worn jeans, a light sweatshirt and brown work boots. He spoke with a bit of a lisp emerging from his weathered face. He said “Now I used to work for the old man that lived here. Let me tell you what I’m going to do. I’ll do a good job for you. Look up there on the roof. I’ll do all that for you. I’ll do a good job for you.”

Harold led me around the house under the cool grey of the afternoon sky with our footsteps rustling the leaves around our feet as he pointed out the “volunteer” saplings that needed to be removed, mentioned that he could blow up all the leaves, remove the vines and the piles of wood that could stand to be worked on, at every turn imploring me that he could do a good job and would make me a good deal.

As we stood in the backyard gazing up at the overflowing gutters and half full tree branches, I asked Harold his price. Two-hundred dollars and he wanted to start today. I balked. That was 4 times what I had expected and I wanted to wait until the trees of the yard transform into leafless stick figures before he started. He bargained a little and even started to work, but when he saw that I was set on waiting for the rest of the leaves to fall, he let me take his number to call him back.

After I wrote his number down, I bounded back into the warmth of the house. As I picked up my cards off the smooth gold of our maple table and settled into my seat between my parents, I felt the contrast of the warmth inside and the cool grey of the world outside. I felt the warmth of the heating vents, of the colors of the wall, of the laughter and the food and the security. For the first time I can remember, I felt wealthy. I felt a distance between what I perceived to be Gerald’s world and my world, and it grieved me. It still grieves me. It’s a confusing distance as our residence here is by the gracious gift of friends, but today I played the role of a wealthy man.

An hour later he was back. “Sir, I really need some money today. Is there any work I can do today? My grandmother has her 110th birthday today and we’re leaving soon and I need some money to get her a gift.” I don’t know why Harold needed cash so badly and I have no reason to think the worse of him for it. There was something in the desperation in his voice, of the look that came up from his grizzled features, which affected me.

In the end Harold left with a check made out to his uncle and a promise that he would return and do a great job when he did.

It made me wonder what drove Harold to come back and beg me for work. Work today.

It made me wonder about Harold and his life. Was this a life he wanted? A place he chose? What mangled his arm? What happened to his speech? How did he end up so weathered? It made me grieve as I thought about his chances of a “good solid job.” It seems like Gerald’s chances of “succeeding” were pretty durn small.

Part of what’s confusing is that I’m wondering if this is the right way to think. Perhaps the part of my thoughts involved in meeting Harold that I should focus on, are the ones that cause me to admire Gerald. He has the courage to ask a stranger for work. He’s helping his buddy waiting in the car. He’s an entrepreneur and he clearly knows his shrubbery. He seems willing to work hard and take initiative. Maybe I’m inferring thoughts and feelings to Harold that he wouldn’t have about himself.

So tonight, as I sip on my Sam Adams, munch on my frozen pizza and listen to iTunes on my laptop, I’m thinking about Harold living less than a mile away from me and mulling. I’m mulling over the tastiness of the golden beer in my glass. I’m mulling over Harold and the different levels of government that are over both of us. I’m wondering about what his choices have been. I’m mulling over what Harold would like me to feel for him. I’m mulling over what actions this experience requires of me.

Written by furthermusings

November 13, 2006 at 7:02 am

Posted in Reflections

From The Omnivore’s Dilemma

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Last night I read this quote in relations to invention of synthetic fertilizer, NPK (nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium), and the effect it had on the way academics, industry and the government viewed agriculture, creating a tendency to ignore the biological complexity in favor of the simple rules that could be easily understood and applied on a mass scale.

Reading this quote has helped me think about whether or not social scientists are susceptible to the same inherent prejudices of the scientific method and how those prejudices are best avoided.

“To reduce such a vast biological complexity to NPK (nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium) represented the scientific method at its reductionist worst. Complex qualities are reduced to simple quantities; biology gives way to chemistry. As Howard was not the first to point out, that method can only deal with one or two variables at a time. The problem is that once science has reduced a complex phenomenon to a couple of variables, however important they may be, the natural tendency is to overlook everything else, to assume that what you can measure is all there is, or at least all that really matters. When we mistake what we can know for all there is to know, a healthy appreciation of one’s ignorance in the face of a mystery like soil fertility gives way to the hubris that we can treat nature as a machine.” (emphasis mine)

The Ominivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals pg. 147-148.

Written by furthermusings

November 12, 2006 at 7:38 pm

Posted in Political Science