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FORMAL EDUCATION—LET THE BUYER BEWARE

In last Wednesday’s blog, I touched on a number of things about formal education that are good, positive, and helpful growth-wise. In this week’s, we’ll deal with formal education’s down-side. Since I’m a product of homeschooling; parochial education; state university education; ivy league education; teaching in junior high, senior high, junior college, college/university, adult education; as well as independent research, editing, and writing, I feel I can now approach formal education objectively.

First and foremost, formal education is not the real world; each segment of it is a self-propelled entity bordering on virtual reality. Thus it is a grave mistake to assume that academic success will equate with real world career-success. In fact, the two are not very compatible with each other. Let me explain:

Once your parents enroll you in formal education—let’s say kindergarten—, it’s like an assembly-line or car-wash; your own engine is left on a siding for it won’t be needed for a long time. Year after year, your teachers and administrators will be your engineers; all you have to do is follow orders. Over time, you become ever more subservient to these academic demi-gods who have such awesome power over you; if they dislike you, they can cripple your future career by lowering your grade or failing you outright, for grading is one of the most subjective and least-understood things on earth—paradoxically, even among educators themselves.

But what happens when you graduate at last and enter the job market? What all too many discover is that their own engine has remained on a siding for so long, it’s all rusted out. They no longer know how to be self -propelling. Many never do get the old engine up and running again; in such cases, they either accept other-directedness or find some job position in academia, the only world they understand. And some (a real serendipity to school administrators and business managers) become perpetual students: always learning but never putting their learning into practice.

Also, in degree areas that ostensibly equate with the real world (such as business, management, economics, technology, engineering, etc.), there is invariably a significant gap between cutting-edge developments in the real world and academic catch-up. For instance, schools of business are now reeling because the template they were basing their degrees on has dramatically revealed its obsolescence in the plunging, undulating roller coasterish stock market in today’s recessionary times, where no one is perceived to have the answers any more: not Wall Street, not economists, not pundits, not talking heads, not overseeing bureaucrats—not even that erstwhile golden boy of investors: Warren Buffett—no one appears to have the answers. Least of all, academia.

Another weakness of formal education is that it is so stratified and straitjacketed by regulations that it more often than not fails to adequately challenge eager learners. All too often, especially in elementary and secondary education, it degenerates into a form of social homogenization and control. If a teacher has 25 – 35 squirming bodies in a given class, s/he cannot possibly do justice to each one, therefore administrators will, more often than not, judge teacher performance by classroom discipline (that’s far easier to measure).

One significant weakness of formal regimented education is that it makes no room for side-trips. You are told to study certain things; and if you regurgitate them according to the teacher’s expectations and demands, you may be awarded an A. Thus, if I am taking a literature course, and told to study only one play by Shakespeare—say King Lear—, there is no incentive for me to also read Hamlet or Richard II. But—if I am taking but one literature class at a time, or being homeschooled, or reading on my own, while I’m at it, I can read Shakespeare clear through. Which I’ve done. But not while taking a full-load in an academic institution. Actually, I’ve experienced far more mental growth taking just one class at a time than I ever have taking a full-load, where I have to rush just to keep up with the teacher’s reading demands.

Also, formal education is hard on individual creativity. In the vast majority of instances, you are not rewarded for creativity, but rather by conformity to the demands of the teacher or the system. Mavericks are tolerated at best. Those who tend to think outside the box are not generally popular in academia—unless you’re a McArthur or Fullbright scholar, of course.

I guess what I’m getting at in this blog is this: I am not suggesting that we throw out the proverbial baby with the bath water. What I am suggesting is that we realize up-front that academia cannot be considered to be “real world”—that is not its function. Thus, if you wish to be truly successful in real life, then that presupposes that you will continue to keep your own engine in good running order, with plenty of independent side trips to give it exercise. Parallel to your formal education ought to be a major emphasis on personal growth (based on such things as voracious reading and journaling from books, magazines, newspapers, judicious use of the media, travel, lectures, personal inquiry, research, writing, etc). If you do these things, you will have a counterbalance to the dependence that invariably results from grade-dominated formal education. Thus you may end up with the best of both worlds.

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DON’T LET CONCRETE SETTLE IN YOUR HEAD

The moment you’re satisfied with what you’ve got,
The concrete has begun to settle in your head.”
—Reader’s Digest

Modern technology has made it imperative that education be lifelong rather than merely a stage. Do you remember the feeling, as a child, of holding on to the circular bar of a playground merry-go-round as it went faster and faster, and the centrifugal force was so great you felt that at any moment you’d blindly sail off into space? Sometimes the frantic pace of our lives produces the same feeling. Yet, the price of just letting go is higher than one might think.

Nicholas Murray Butler put it this way: “If your curve of efficiency is ascending at 45, and keeps ascending after that period, it may well move upward for your whole life, but if there is a turn downward at 45, you will never recover.” Of course the age designation of 45 is a relative term.

The good Lord created us to grow at every stage of our lives—and on into eternity. Again and again, in His parables, Christ hammered home the message that continual growth is a divine mandate, not merely an option.

Some years ago, in Texas, I was privileged to develop, implement, and run an adult degree program created for all those who seek to re-board the growth-wagon of life. Those were some of the most energizing years I ever experienced. What a difference between those students and the average college students (18 – 22 years old) who more often than not are clueless about life and rarely pose Life’s Three Eternal Questions: Who am I? Where have I come from? and Where am I going? All too many flounder through their college years, drop out, or graduate without any real sense of purpose, or even direction.

Not so adult students! When they re-enter the academic world they remind you of Shakespeare’s Cassius:

“Yond Cassius has a lean and hungry look”

That’s just it: they come back because they are hungry for what they once took for granted, and are frantically trying to make up for lost time. Indeed some keep sighing, “Oh, I keep thinking of all the years I’ve lost,” as though that loss of momentum precludes ever climbing back on Life’s Juggernaut. I refused to accept such a cop-out; most would sheepishly grin and sign up when I posed this reality to them: “You know, five years from now you’re going to be five years older whether or not you begin the degree process—why not at least be aiming somewhere?”

It was surprising to discover how many were back because they’d finally realized one of life’s most brutal realities: they might very well be the men or women who, more than any others, propelled their company or institution to success, but almost invariably someone with that piece of parchment we call a degree was holding the key position of leadership in their sector, and drawing a commensurate paycheck. And it never ceased to amaze me how quickly my adult students would move up the career ladder once their bosses discovered they were enrolled in a degree program and were making steady progress towards that goal.

That’s really what degrees do for you. They don’t by themselves make you more intelligent, but because people perceive that they do, they validate in the public’s eye everything you do, write, or say. Then there is the requisite self-discipline. Employers feel that anyone who has earned a degree has exhibited staying-power, something they’re always seeking in their top employees.

Degrees accomplish something else in our lives. Sort of like the Millionaire game show: if you miss a given question, you can only drop back so far (to the last major plateau). Just so degrees offer you achievement plateaus you can drop back to, and build towards the next plateau higher up. They represent solid foundational blocks of achievement.

Nor should we ever discount the difference degrees make in our own attitudes toward ourselves. Deserved or undeserved, we stand taller and straighter with them than without. Though it is a subtle difference, we feel it, and it energizes us to continue growing. Each graduation ceremony may thus be likened to another booster rocket in our life’s trajectory.

Given the current rate of technological change, however, degree programs, and even the textbooks prepared for them, may become obsolete before you can even prepare for them. That’s why what your degree is in means less and less each year that passes; it’s the fact that you completed one that makes you a viable job candidate.

Also, as a former chair of English and Communication departments, and hence coordinator of job placement of our graduates, I can testify that, more and more in a society obsessed with electronics, there is developing an ever more desperate search for women and men who can think rationally, reason from cause to effect, explore different schools of thought without getting argumentative, and articulate coherently and persuasively both in speech and on paper.

So, wherever we are in life, the truly imperative thing is that each of us needs to make sure we’re in a growth mode. Not to be in one is a living death.

I’ll leave the last word today to Phillips Brooks:

The ideal life is in our blood and never will be still. Sad will be the day for us when we become contented with the thoughts we are thinking and the deeds we are doing—where there is not forever beating at the doors of our souls some desire to do something larger, which we know that we were meant and made to do.

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SLAUGHTERING CREATIVITY IN THE CHILD

It is both wondrously simple and unbelievably complex: this mind God gave us—that either works, or doesn’t; sings—or sputters.

Famed obstetrician Dr. Frederic Loomis, in his memorable books, The Bond Between Us and Consultation Room, noted that in his long medical career (early to mid twentieth century), delivering over 3,000 babies in California’s Bay Area, invariably the new mother’s first two questions were either, “What is it?” (In those pre-computer days, the baby’s sex was unknown until its birth) or “Is it . . . all right?” and invariably the second question was the one asked with the most trepidation.

So it is that if the answer is positive, and it’s “all right,” the stage is set for the most incredibly rapid rate of brain growth the child will ever experience in life: not sipping life but swallowing it in gulps gallon by gallon. It is during this period of life that the child’s non-stop fusillade of questions about everything drive parents crazy. This period doesn’t ebb until around the age of six, when it is said that we’ve learned half of what we will learn in life. I must qualify that assumption by adding: half of what we need to know in order to function as human beings.

But there is no valid reason why this learning curve should not continue throughout life—unless. . . . And it is this “unless” that is a national tragedy for our nation. The tragedy has to do with the disconnect between the parents who are so euphoric about their babies’ being “all right” and their impatiently squelching, if not outright suffocating, the learning process once it has begun. How? By responding to the little question-machines with, “Don’t bother Mommy! Can’t you see I’m busy? Go bug Daddy!” Or “You and your interminable questions—you’re driving me crazy!” “Give us some peace, and shut up, for Pete’s sake!” Or, the most deadly cop-out of all, Oh, go watch TV, and leave me alone! No, I don’t care what you watch, just get out of my hair!”

And so that God-given creativity is blighted, and begins to shrivel up and die.

It’s that simple.

That dying of the once aspiring mind is accelerated by another tragedy: the wholesale annihilation of print in the home: no books, magazines, or newspapers to be found anywhere—only an impressive stack of electronic gadgetry that attach their tentacles to the child like so many octopus suction cups that drain away what creativity is left.

How?

By by-passing the receiver’s brain and blasting in, like so many moment-by-moment howitzer shells of pre-fab information created and packaged by someone else. Just a few of those results in little damage to the receiver’s creative process; the problem in today’s electronically obsessed society is that it continues day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year, and decade after decade. And the more of this pre-fab imagery that stacks up in the mental archives of the receiver the less likelihood that anything created by the receiver’s brain will be left. Over time that person becomes what sociologists label “other directed” rather than “inner-directed” and ceases to function as a creative force at all.

I built a foundation for this new series of blogs on education and creativity with Blog #16 (March 10) – “Little Boy Blue”; Blog #17 (March 17) – “Non-reader’s Doomsday”; Blog #18 (March 24) – “Miracle in Silver Spring”; and Blog #19 (March 31) – “The Child is Father of the Man.” In coming weeks, we shall continue to explore this vital subject.

* * * * *

Every young man and woman is now a sower of seed on the field of life. Every thought of your intellect, every emotion of your heart, every word of your tongue, every principle you adopt, every act you perform, is a seed, whose good or evil fruit will prove the bliss or bane of your afterlife.

—Stephen S. Wise

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LEARNING CURVES

When I was growing up, we perceived life differently from what is true today.  Education was something you did but once in life: your graph line went up, and it came down—and that was all there was to it.   The basic assumption: one grew smarter through one’s 20s, then began the long decline.  If you missed the early surge, that was just your tough luck.  Now we know that assumption was false.  Indeed, almost everything we once learned about the learning process itself is now being rewritten.

In my life, I’ve had a number of steep learning curves.  The first (and the longest) lasted 39 years—from birth through bachelor’s, two masters, and doctoral degrees.  At the conclusion of classroom instruction, when I’d read 40,000 pages of immersion into the Southern American Novel; Modern American Literature; Cross-currents in Russian, French, and American Literature; and Freshman Composition, in getting ready for my doctoral qualifying exams, the pressure was so great I broke out in hives and had to flee to the Smoky Mountains for some R & R. At that juncture, my advisor announced, “Joe, you’ll never be this intelligent again.”  In other words: “It’s all down-hill from here.”

In some respects, he was right.  In other respects, he was not.  Where rote memorization and cramming minutia into my head was concerned, he was right; but where almost everything else was concerned, he was wrong.

Which brings me to my second intense learning curve: my nearly 40 years of researching the life and works of America’s greatest frontier writer, Zane Grey; my initial three years’ research resulted in my becoming the world’s foremost authority on the subject; the other 37 years have had to do with assimilation and digestion of some 15,000,000 words.  At the end of three years, I was too close to hero worship to be objective: it took me most of the next 37 years for me to conceptualize the forest as well as the trees.  Had I published my initial 400-page biography then, I’d be terribly ashamed of it today.  Sometimes knowing too much about a subject can be a liability rather than a strength.

My third intense learning curve had to do with Adult Education, internalizing the most complex—by far—type of education there is: Learning how to understand, conceptualize, evaluate, and validate knowledge and skills gained outside the traditional classroom.  In other words: taking a room-full of adults (ranging from their 20s to their 80s) and assisting them to make enough sense out of all they have learned in life (by means of an autobiography); that includes every type of job, involvement, activity, contribution, etc., they can remember in life that might somehow equate with class credit we could build a solid case for and shorten their distance to a baccalaureate degree.  Nothing in my entire educational career had ever prepared me for such a daunting—almost terrifying—challenge and responsibility.

The fourth intense learning-curve had to do with my 34 years in junior high, senior high, college, and adult education, both as a teacher and as a departmental chairman.  Also, as a mentor.

The fifth curve has to do with development, public relations, general fund-raising, sales, and promotion (all of which were and are life-long).

The sixth curve has to do with my publishing career (71 books and counting), which has accelerated during the last twenty years of my life.

The seventh curve has to do with somehow making some sort of sense out of the whole amorphous mess.  The whole wisdom thing.  During the last two decades, I have belatedly come to prize wisdom by realizing how dumb I really am.  More to the point: How since God’s wisdom is the only wisdom worth quantifying, I have finally admitted my own gross ignorance and, on my knees each day, humbly request God to grant me wisdom from His deep wells so that what I write and what I say can meet with His divine approval.  If my (our) books have any lasting validity, it will be because He has granted my daily request.

It will be upon the backs of these seven learning curves that I shall base this new series of blogs that deal with life-long learning.

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MEASURING OUR LIVES BY BUTCHART GARDENS

Yes, ‘tis true: we do just that. We first experienced British Columbia’s Butchart Gardens 42 years ago (Greg fondly remembers it; Michelle does not because it was dark in the womb—but she was there). We’ve returned to what most likely is the world’s most beautiful garden three more times, in every season except winter. Most recently, in mid May.

We cannot perceive of any garden in the world being more beautiful than it was this time. Tuips, azaleas, rhododendrons, pansies, primroses, and many other May-time flowers—as well as flowering trees and shrubs—made every turn in the path a vision of paradise.

Though each season has its unique loveliness, it’s mighty difficult to imagine anything more magical than the post-winter explosion of spring.

This time, at the very inception of cruise-to-Alaska season, hordes of tourists were being disgorged from buses, bringing delight to Vancouver Island business owners as well as those cruise ship passengers.

For the first time in four decades, I took a mental inventory of what we’d seen and experienced over the years. In retrospect, I now realized that Butchart was anything but a finished product: it had continued to change, evolve, expand. There were far more pools, brooks, streams, waterfalls, bridges; types of trees, shrubs, and flowers, than ever before. Earlier, it had been merely memorable and beautiful—now, it took your breath away. Of course, with people from all over the world making it a destination stop, with more and more cruise ships docking in Victoria because of it, Butchart owners have more than enough money to hire a veritable army of gardeners to manicure it on an hour-by-hour basis.

Something else I hadn’t noticed before—was kids. Bus loads of them. Most with check-lists in their hands, searching for items to check off, delighted to cross bridges or leap from flagstone to flagstone in pools, etc. Whoever declared that kids no longer appreciate beauty in their lives these days should have been there to listen to those awe-struck children and tweens! Butchart managers are wise to give them special rates, for no child I saw there will ever be the same; for the rest of their lives, they will make a point of returning whenever it’s possible to do so.

At the front of Butchart’s wall calendars is a condensed version of the Garden’s history—it’s now more than a century old. Robert Pim Butchart was the pioneer manufacturer of Portland Cement in Canada. In 1904, with his wife Jennie and two daughters, he settled on Vancouver Island at Tod Inlet, 13 miles north of Victoria. From 1905 – 1910, huge amounts of limestone were quarried from the area. Jennie Butchart sighed at how unsightly and downright ugly the vast pit was becoming.

Because she loved to have beauty around her, she decided to do something about it. She discovered that the mild weather conditions on the island made for perfect flower-growing. First, she planted rose bushes, then, with the help of laborers from the cement works, she developed a Japanese garden.

Word got out, and more and more townspeople from Victoria began to visit the gardens. The Butcharts named their home “Benvenuto” (Italian for “welcome”), and the grounds were always open.

It has remained open for over a hundred years now—with more and more people from around the world adding it to their personal Bucket List of places to see before they die. And more and more like me and Connie, feel impelled to return again and again.

Steinbeck must have envisioned a place like this when he read in Genesis 2:8

And the Lord God planted a garden eastward of Eden; and there he put the man whom he had formed. . . .KJV

When Steinbeck wrote his unforgettable novel, East of Eden, I can’t help wondering: When he wrote it, had he seen Butchart Gardens?

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SLED DOGS OF ALASKA

Since our seventh collection of animal stories has to do with animals of the North, our recent cruise to Alaska was a real serendipity. Reason being: we could thereby dig deeper into stories we were engrossed in. Thus when we discovered that one of the shore excursions offered by Royal Caribbean in Juneau would give us the opportunity to study sled dogs firsthand, we jumped at the chance.

Togo by Robert J. Blake
Togo by Robert J. Blake

I’ve attempted to capture that experience in the introduction to our upcoming book, Togo the Sled Dog and Other Great Animal Stories of the North; here’s a sneak preview of part of it.

Togo, image courtesy of Robert J. Blake.

Another contributing factor to the epiphany was a visit Connie and I made (during that same cruise) to a summer training camp for huskies in the hills above Juneau. I don’t know what I expected to see and experience, but it most certainly didn’t mesh with the reality.

As our minibus approached its destination, it seemed like all the dogs in the world were barking at once! Well, 150 huskies barking full-torque at once—suffice it to say, it’s an unforgettable experience. Until that moment, the dog-factor of sled-dog racing was just an abstraction in my mind. Suddenly, this collective howlerama blew years of misperceptions of what sled dogs were out of my mind, leaving me with a tabla raza on which I might construct a new template.

For it didn’t take long before I realized what all the howling was about. Just outside the circle of howling dogs (each one tied to a blue wooden hutch) was the beginnings of a sled-dog team. And each of the unchosen 150 dogs was belting out a canine plea: Hey there! Don’t you dare leave me out! Don’t you even think of not taking me along! Every last one of them harbored an all-consuming dream: To pull a sled at full speed somewhere. Had any of the 150 ever raced in the Iditarod, undoubtedly they were now dreaming of doing it again.

We were permitted to look at, and pet, those huskies (most with Sepphala Siberian ancestry in them) as we walked down the line. All the while, other huskies were being untethered from their hutches and brought over to the growing team. Believe me, each of those dogs was more than a handful! For the excitement over being chosen was so great they could hardly keep all four feet on the ground for the very rapture of what might lie ahead.

Who knows what goes through the mind of a wannabe sled dog? For starters, we must realize that since their life expectancy is only about one-sixth of ours (that they’re old by twelve), it means they have to cram into their moment-by-moment living six times as much intensity as we do.

At any rate, it took several dog handlers to keep them from tackling each other. Continually, they were messing up the lines attaching them to the tugline. And they’d leap high in the air in exuberant ecstasy at being among the elect. Just imagine trying to keep two dozen rough-housing little boys from tearing up a house—multiply that energy by at least six, and you have some idea of what it would be like to be a musher. Keep in mind that all this time the continual howls of outrage at being left behind from all the other dogs added up to an inimitable sound track. One that will remain in the archives of our minds forever.

At the end of this tugline was a cart large enough to carry up to a dozen people (total weight: a ton and a half). A wheeled cart because, though there was still snow on the slopes above, it had already melted down below. Someday I hope to be able to repeat the experience, but on snow. But mushers, in order to keep their sled dogs in year-round condition, yoke them to wheeled carts during the off-season months. And we tourists represent a serendipity: plenty of weight to pull [even more than normal, after getting off a cruise ship].

Finally—after what must have seemed an eternity to the fourteen dogs, it was time to move out. As we did, so excited were the long tied-up dogs that the musher had to keep the brake on to keep them from running away with us.

The rest you’ll get when you buy the book—that is, if my editor is kind and leaves all the words in.