A WORLD ADRIFT

BLOG #43, SERIES #6
WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
A WORLD ADRIFT
October 28, 2015

Once, very long ago, we had Pax Romana, which lasted for a very long time. If you include the Eastern Byzantine Roman Empire, it lasted well over a thousand years. Then came Pax Britannica that lasted over a hundred years. It was followed by Pax Americana—it has lasted about a hundred years. But now that America has all but abdicated its role of global peace-keeper, the proverbial Pandora’s Box has been opened with a vengeance.

Up until recently, a system of global alliances, anchored by the authority and credibility of America, has helped keep the world from ripping apart. Not so today: Hardly any nation seriously believes America cares much about anyone other than itself any more. Result: Russia has stormed into Ukraine—and now Syria; America is retreating from Iraq and Afghanistan; and is permitting China to challenge it across the Pacific. The Middle East is in shambles and millions of displaced people are overrunning the nations of Europe. Europeans assumed national boundaries meant something—but when people are starving, nothing short of wholesale slaughter will stop them from their desperate search for a better life.

In history, democracies have rarely lasted longer than two centuries. Now many are wondering whether or not the same will hold true for America.

In economics, if global trust breaks down, nothing will be able to save the global economy.

If we ever needed God before, we certainly need Him now.

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Independence Day — What Does It Mean Today?

BLOG #28, SERIES 6
WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
INDEPENDENCE DAY – WHAT DOES IT MEAN TODAY?
July 15, 2015

July 4 has come and gone, and I’ve been wondering just what it means to Americans today. It’s more than obvious, for starters, that it doesn’t mean what it used to.

Fortunately, for untold thousands of American parents and teachers, traditional patriotism is still taught in many homes, schools, and universities across this great land. But what deeply disturbs more and more thought-leaders is a totally different philosophy making serious inroads into American education these days. It is based on Naturalism, a movement that began in France over a hundred years ago with writers like Zola, the Goncourt Brothers, and Balzac. Dreiser was heavily influenced by them.

Today, Naturalism has evolved into Deconstructionism. Both Naturalistic and Deconstructionist authors, scholars, and teachers portray a world seriously deficient in heroism. Reason being that their protagonists are devoid of heroism, true patriotism, idealism, and integrity. Perhaps the most apt metaphor is this: none of them climbs out of the muck, thus they have no true heroes.

The natural result, when teaching American history, is to strip bravery, selflessness, patriotism, altruism, goodness, integrity, from our traditional heroes, leaving the students with the perception that we are a hopeless nation; since if we are devoid of leaders who did their utmost to do what they felt was best for their country, even if it meant giving up their very lives to save it, then why do we even bother to celebrate holidays such as Independence Day?

This is a gravely serious issue, for if America ceases to believe in itself, in its leaders, in the men and women that sacrificed so much to make us “the greatest nation on earth,”—then our future is bleak indeed.

Doesn’t it make one wonder when we hear about yet another so-called “American” who turns traitor to his own nation, and joins terrorist groups like ISIS and Taliban who seek to destroy us? Or traitors like Snowden, who would have been excoriated earlier in our history—wonder what kind of U. S. History or civics they were taught?

But each of us can take a stand on the issue, and then together perhaps we can reverse this insidious erosion of our erstwhile patriotic celebration of our nation and our roots.

THE GIRL WITH DANCING EYES

BLOG #46, SERIES #5
WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
THE GIRL WITH DANCING EYES

November 12, 2014

She would not have been unusual during my growing-up-years—but she is now. She was reading the Scripture text at church: clearly, each word perfectly enunciated, with deep feeling. And her eyes—they lit up the entire church. I literally could not take my eyes off of her.

After church, I spoke with her. I learned quite a bit about her upbringing, but learned little I had not already surmised. I complimented her on the sense of wonder radiating from her eyes—but really it was the parents who deserved the fuller credit for them. For it was they who have so far protected her from losing that God-given sense of wonder all babies are born with, but oh so few retain more than months.

So why, if her eyes are wonder-filled, do I label her “The Girl with Dancing Eyes”? This is why: When she was in church, her eyes were wonder-filled reverent eyes; but, one-on-one, outside of church—I was not a stranger to her (her family reads from my books)—, though the wonder remained in her eyes, there was a joyousness, tied to an entrancing addition of impishness, that was absolutely irresistible: the only word that adequately capsulizes the totality is “Dancing.”

But why is she not the norm among children her age? Reason being that many forces are at work that contribute to stripping that sense of wonder from the eyes of babies and children. Parents do it the very first time they permit the baby to be in the room when the television set is on. Studies have shown that babies are anything but unaware, picking up 60-70 percent of what is said and depicted on the screen. Parents all too often fail to realize how little it takes to quench that spark of vibrant life that brings the glow into the eyes. Parents—and how few parents are not guilty of this!—apparently don’t realize what they are doing when they say, “For goodness sake, stop bothering me with your questions—go watch TV!”

And precious little that appears on the television screen elevates the soul of those who watch it. And even if a program is values-worth-living-by-affirming, all too few of the million-plus commercials each of our children is exposed to during their growing-up years, are likely to increase the candle-power of those pure eyes they were born with.

But parents cannot take that sense of wonder for granted. It must be continually reinforced in the family story hour. For children do not internalize abstractions, but rather they internalize whatever values (uplifting or debasing) they hear or see in stories. Since few of the stories they experience on the media are compatible with the sense of wonder they were born with, wise parents realize that it doesn’t take more than seconds or minutes to blight—or even destroy completely—that glow. But if they are introduced to the right kind of stories (the ones they’ll ask for again and again), they will internalize those values. This is the reason Christ never spoke without stories: He created us to internalize them; to grow into them.

One danger, however, must be pointed out: It is all too easy for concerned parents to over-react. To be so over-protective and restrictive that their children either rebel or grow up to be narrow-minded, naive, and incapable of dealing with the complexities of adult life.

It is an awesome responsibility to raise a child.

PAC MONEY AND ATTACK ADS

BLOG #47, SERIES #3
WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
PAC MONEY AND ATTACK ADS
November 21, 2012

In all my life, I’ve never seen or heard anywhere near this level of post-election disillusion and borderline despair, the general feeling that America—that hope of the world—has reached the tipping point, and that the next steps may prove unreversible.

The catalyst, of course, was the entire unbelievably vicious and below-the-belt attack ads, paid for mostly with PAC funds conveniently hiding the identity of the attackers in walls of anonymity. Neither party came out of the fray with clean hands, but in retrospect, what is likely to leave the longest and bitterest legacy has to do with the early-in-the-campaign poisoning of the well, when Romney, who had exhausted his funding during the hotly contested primaries, found himself up the proverbial creek without a paddle, unable to fund a counterattack to the blizzard of attack ads geared not only to discredit his achievements but to utterly destroy his character. They worked: Romney was never able to fully recover.

The Supreme Court ruling that opened the door to the scorched-earth-leave-no-survivors blitzkrieg of unsubstantiated anonymous attack ads might very well be perceived by future historians as the beginning of the decline of the world’s greatest democracy. In Colorado (one of the so-called Nine Swing States), for month after month, we have had to endure such a blizzard of attack ads, from both sides, that, at the end we were left numb and nauseous. It was a veritable nightmare!

The logical result of all this would be to scare off, in the future, America’s best and brightest from even considering a career in politics. Why would any sane person subject his/her family to such vicious character assassination? Children and young people had to emerge from this mud bath with feelings of revulsion: If all politicians are unethical, unprincipled, unpatriotic, unempathetic, and uncaring, then why even vote at all? For the first time since I can remember, what a politician actually stood for or believed in, or had either achieved or hoped to achieve, was buried in layer after layer of sizzling hot verbal lava that left no reputation untarred.

Nor is the entire swing-state scenario a pleasant one to consider. Have we indeed reached the level where only nine states really matter? And the other 41 do not?

One thing I wish to make clear: I am not claiming one party can justifiably lay claim to the higher ground here. What I am hoping to accomplish by this blog is to add my frail voice to what needs to become a national movement to restore civility, not just to elections but to the periods in-between, when no one reaches across the aisle to the other side, and polarization and the annihilation of the moderates who once served as agents of synapse, has all but brought government to a standstill.

It is terrifying people I’ve interacted with, on all sides, to be reduced to near hopelessness in terms of their perception of America’s future.

But, as one near despondent Kiwanian said last week, “In all this, friends, please don’t despair: God is still in His Heaven.”

DAYTON DUNCAN AND KEN BURNS’ THE NATIONAL PARKS: AMERICA’S BEST IDEA

BLOG #26, SERIES #3

WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE

DR. JOE’S BOOK OF THE MONTH CLUB #11

DAYTON DUNCAN AND KEN BURNS’

THE NATIONAL PARKS: AMERICA’S BEST IDEA

June 27, 2012

 

 

 

 

Without fear of hyperbole, I submit that this collaborative effort by Dayton Duncan and Ken Burns (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2009) is one of the greatest books of—not only this year, but this generation.  It is a prodigious piece of scholarship!  Just imagining their challenges gives me the chills: Becoming the authority on America’s history of conservation, and lack of it; the history of all of our national parks and monuments; the biographies of all the key figures in the development of each one; securing copyright permissions for this warehouse-worth of documentation; securing illustrations of all kinds and permissions to use each one; writing (in association with the filming of the award-winning PBS series of the same name); and then fact-checking every last piece to the mosaic.

 

Obviously though the text itself was written by Dayton Duncan, it had to be synthesized with   Burns’ PBS film series; there could be no noticeable discrepancies between the two.

 

I’m in awe at what they and their staffs accomplished.

 

TWO YEARS WITH DUNCAN AND BURNS

 

For almost two years now, this book has been my bible for writing two blog series: The Northwest National Parks and The Southwest National Parks.  Every time I’ve moved from one park to the next, before I turned to any other sourcebook, I first milked this book dry.  They never let me down.  They and the writer of the two companion books on the wonderful old lodges that grace these parks: Christine Barnes.

 

So it has been, as you have kindly vicariously traveled along with Connie and me and Bob and Lucy Earp, that thanks to The National Parks, we were able to briefly give you snapshots of how the following parks came to be: Crater Lake National Park, Oregon Caves National Monument, Mount Rainier National Park, North Cascade National Park, Olympic National Park, Yellowstone National Park, Grand Tetons National Park, Glacier National Park, Rocky Mountain National Park, Arches National Park, Canyonlands National Park, Capitol Reef National Park, Bryce Canyon National Park, Zion National Park, Grand Canyon National Park, Death Valley National Park, Sequoia National Park, Kings Canyon National Park; we are now studying Yosemite National Park; and we shall conclude the Great Circle with Great Basin National Park.

 

But, my blogs have only provided you with enough information to whet your appetite for learning more about each park; for that it is a must that you buy a copy of the book for yourself and make it your own.  Within those two covers you will have an almost inexhaustible treasure mountain to mine from in future years.

 

But more than all that, you will discover that the book is also the riveting story of the American people, and how thousands of people from many professions and many levels of society came together in making possible a cause greater than themselves.

 

Once you read this book, I will almost guarantee that you will, like our intrepid foursome, wish to personally explore these parks yourselves, using the book as a guide.  In our trips, as we were driving from one park to another, one of us would read aloud from this book to the others in the car so that when we arrived there we’d not only know what to look for but also know the significance of what we saw and experienced..

 

Nor should I fail to bring out a great truth: Our children and grandchildren will value very little temporal things we give them, but they will cherish until the day they die the memories you made with them, the places you took them to, the time you spent with them, the things of value they learned with you.  With this in mind, consider the purchase of this book, reading it, marking it, internalizing it, and making it your family treasure map to the greatest national park mother lode in the world!

 

And—a favor I ask of you: please share with me your own personal book-related reactions and memories resulting from it.  You may reach me at:

 

Joe L. Wheeler, Ph.D.

P.O. Box 1246

Conifer, CO 80433

 

SOURCES USED

 

Dayton Duncan and Ken Burns, The National Parks: America’s Best Idea (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2009).

29th Zane Grey Convention

 

WILLIAMSBURG, VA

Part 1

Every four or five conventions, we go east rather than west.  Williamsburg it was this year—with Jamestown and Yorktown making up the triangular cradle of the American nation.

Once upon a time, in the not very distant past, Zane Grey was a household name across America.  In fact, during the first half of the 20th century, Grey was the world’s most popular and highest-paid author.  He is generally considered to be the Creator of the Romantic West and the Father of the Western Novel.  But today, with reading in decline along with literacy in general, with young people literate in little other than popular culture and sports, with plunging national test scores in history, it should come as little surprise that few people under the age of 50 recognize either his name or his books.

We in the Zane Grey’s West Society seek to do our part to help reverse that sad state of affairs.  We don’t want the love of the West to die out when we step off the stage of life.

Four-hundred years ago, Virginia was the wild West; 250 years ago, the Ohio Valley wilderness was the frontier.  It was during this time period that one of Grey’s ancestors, Betty Zane, became a Revolutionary War heroine when she risked her life in order to race across a clearing, a sack of gun powder on her shoulder, as a desperate act to save Fort Henry (commanded by Col. Ebenezer Zane, her brother) and those settlers within who were being besieged by French and Indian forces.  Since those besieged were out of gunpowder, they were doomed unless by some miracle they could contrive to secure some gunpowder.  Not surprisingly, when Grey grew up and began to write, Betty Zane (a novel based partly on that heroic dash) would become his first published book.  Three more novels set in America’s second West followed: The Spirit of the Border, The Last Trail, and George Washington, Frontiersman.  George Washington was well acquainted with the Zane family.  In fact, after the Revolutionary War was over, George Washington and the Continental Congress authorized Ebenezer Zane and his brothers to blaze a trail into the wilderness, on the west side of the Mississippi.  That route was first known as “Zane’s Trace,” then the National Road, then Highway 40, and today Interstate 70.  All this family history was reason enough for us to meet in Williamsburg the third week of June this year.

I’m often asked the question, “What do you do in your conventions?” Let me walk you through to give you the answer: first of all, we drive to, take a train to, or fly to, wherever a given convention might take place.  Traditionally, the convention begins on a Monday evening, consequently you’d expect everyone to arrive sometime Monday.  NOT.  A number arrive by Friday, and fully half generally check in by Sunday.  Our Zanies so enjoy being together that they can’t wait to catch up on the intervening year.   Registration takes place Monday afternoon, as does the process of hauling books or memorabilia to the room chosen to house the auction items until Tuesday afternoon.  Most everyone brings items since without that annual transfusion of funds, we’d have to dramatically raise our dues (we’ve only raised them once in 29 years!).  The only way we’ve been able to pull that off is to all serve pro-bono.  There is no paid anyone in the entire Society.  For all of us, serving is a labor of love.

Terry Bolinger welcoming the convention

Monday evening is the barbecue or opening banquet.  Since there’d been a lot of rain, this time we held a banquet inside.  No one sits alone—our members make sure of that.  After being welcomed by our president, Terry Bolinger, dinner is served.  Afterwards, Terry had all the new attendees stand, introduce themselves, and tell where they’re from.  These introductions accelerate the getting-acquainted process.  Next came the introduction of James Perry, Public Affairs Officer for the three parks we were visiting this convention: Williamsburg, Jamestown, and Yorktown.  He welcomed us to the colonial triangle and filled us in on what we ought to look for.  Afterwards, Dr. Jim D’Arc, Director of Film archives for Brigham Young University, took us behind the scenes of the famous movie he’d brought along: Drums Along the Mohawk (1939), produced by Darryl F. Zanuck, directed by John Ford, and in the cast: Henry Fonda, Claudette Colbert, and Edna May Oliver.  Sometimes the films Dr. D’Arc brings are shown on evenings other than Monday.

Tuesdays are always the longest days, perhaps because the members Memorial Breakfast begins at 7 a.m.  As soon as breakfast is over, we give members the opportunity to reminisce about those who are no longer with us.  For to live in the hearts of others is not to die.  Before we separate, always—for 29 unbroken conventions now—, I remind the members that before the Society was founded, the other Co-Founder (the Rev. G. M. Farley) and I promised each other that, in order to make sure no one would ever be lonely at a convention, Poet Laureate of America Edwin Markham’s “Outwitted” would be recited, then everyone would repeat it aloud.  We now did just that:

“He drew a circle that shut me out,
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout;
But love and I had the wit to win:
We drew a circle that took him in.”

Joe Wheeler giving his 29th keynote address

After a short break, we reconvened.  After preliminaries, I was introduced, and I gave my 29th convention keynote address.  This one was titled, “Bridge Over Troubled Waters,” and had to do with that traumatic six-year period (1982 – 1988) when it appeared that the Lackawaxen, Pennsylvania home of Zane and Dolly Grey would be lost to the wrecking ball.  Few of our attendees had ever heard before the story of  how the miracle of it ended up in the National Park System took place.

Lackawaxen, PA Museum in 1982

This was followed by Dorothy Moon, head curator of the Lackawaxen Museum, who filled us in on all the fascinating things that were happening there.  She in turn was followed by two representatives (Joanne Duncan and Kathryn Miller) from the National Road/Zane Grey Museum in New Concord, Ohio, who also brought us up to date on that facility.  It has been mighty tough for them because the recession has hit Ohio so hard.

In the afternoon, a good share of the attendees gathered to participate in the annual auction.  Since so much is riding on the income derived from it, I encouraged everyone to get into the act.  Besides the regular auction, there was also the opportunity to bid on a large number of silent auction items.

Back side of Zane Grey House in Lackawaxen, Pa in 1982

In the evening, many returned for Huckster’s Night (an opportunity to hawk items you’d rather sell than have to haul home).  Others took the evening off, a number eating in colonial restaurants in Williamsburg—complete with staff in colonial costumes.

* * * * *

Next Wednesday, we’ll explore Old Town, Williamsburg.

GLACIER NATIONAL PARK TITANS

Give a month to this precious reserve [Glacier National Park].  The time will not be taken from the sum of your life.  Instead of shortening, it will infinitely lengthen it and make you truly immortal.

                                                                        –John Muir (Olin, 31)

GEORGE BIRD GRINELL

George Bird Grinnell was one of the most influential men our nation has ever known.  Founder of the Audubon Society and colleague of John Muir, Grinnell sold his father’s investment business in order to speak out on conservation issues in his Forest and Stream magazine.  But of all the at-risk beauty spots in the nation, Glacier held center stage in his heart.  He labeled it “The Crown of the Continent…one of the most beautiful mountain regions in the world.”

As to what this region had come to mean to him, he wrote “How often, in dreams of the night or days, have I revisited these scenes during the years that have passed. . . .  How often, in fancy, have I seated myself on some rock…and gazed over the beautiful scene.

Few people know these wonderful mountains, yet no one who goes there but comes away with enthusiasm for their wild and singular beauty” (Duncan and Burns, 116).

In 1897, Grinnell pulled every known string at his command to get the Glacier area set aside as the Lewis and Clark Forest Preserve.  Then he immediately set about moving the debate to the next level: national park status.  But the opposition from special interests was determined to continue mining around the scenic lakes, hunting in the mountains, and denuding the forest of its trees.

Thirteen more years would pass, with Grinnell refusing to admit defeat and fiercely battling on, before, at long last, in 1910, President Taft, with a stroke of his pen, preserved for all time the million-acre wonderland the world knows as Glacier National Park.

Years later, Grinnell reflected on the significance of it all: “If we had not succeeded in getting those regions set apart as National Parks, by this time they would have been . . . cut bare of timber, dotted with irrigation reservoirs, the game would have been all killed off, the country would have been burned over” (Duncan and Burns, 119).

LOUIS HILL

But Grinnell was anything but alone in his efforts to save Glacier for posterity.  Louis Hill, the Great Northern Railway tycoon, was tireless in promoting the park.  To attract tourists conditioned to vacation in Europe, he enthusiastically preached the gospel of “See America First!”  He labeled Glacier National Park as “America’s Switzerland,” and employed Blackfoot Indians to dress in full regalia as they met incoming trains.  Disembarking, tourists could rent tepees so as to immerse themselves immediately into the Wild West.  Hill even paid for a group of Blackfoot Indians to tour the East.  And got Mary Roberts Rinehart to write about the park.

Legendary park visionary, Stephen Tyng Mather, viewed Hill—not as an opponent but as a valued and trusted ally.

But Louis Hill’s legacy is far bigger than just smart advertising: he was an inspired lodge-builder and innkeeper.  More on that during the next few weeks.

SOURCES CONSULTED 

Duncan Dayton and Ken Burns, The National Parks: America’s Best Idea (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2009).

Olin, Susan, Insider’s Guide® to Glacier National Park (Guilford, CT: The Globe Pequot Press, 2003). 

White, Mel, Complete National Parks of the United States (Washington, D.C.: The National Geographic Society, 2009).

THE CHILD IS FATHER OF THE MAN

“My heart leaps up when I behold
       A rainbow in the sky:
So it was when my life began;
So it is now I am a man;
So be it when I shall grow old.
     Or let me die!
The Child is father of the Man.”
                 —Wordsworth

The child is also, of course, father, mother, of the woman.

When we consider the fact that half of what we learn in life takes place before we ever step foot into a formal classroom, it makes little sense to continue blaming our schools for our plunging test scores.   For several generations now (not coincidentally, beginning with the introduction of television in American homes after World War II), literacy test-scores have been in free-fall; so much so that our nation has dropped out of the company of the leading nations of the world and now finds itself in embarrassing third-world company literacy-wise.

Somewhere during the last three generations, the intellectual, moral, and spiritual education of our children has taken a back-seat to creature comforts and ever larger homes.  Paradoxical, isn’t it, that at the very time our homes are getting ever larger (larger than is true of any other nation on earth), the parenting/educating within those homes has proportionally decreased.  At an ever earlier age, we shove our children out of the house into child-care facilities and kindergartens. All this to avoid the God-given responsibility to be there for our child.

For each day, each moment, our pre-school child is becoming.  Never again in his/her lifetime will growth occur at such blinding speed.  Indeed, so much of a sponge is the child’s brain that linguists maintain a child could master 50 languages by the age of six!

Up until World War II, no higher priority was there for American parents than being there for one’s children.  As a result, each generation’s children earned ever higher degrees (and ever-higher paychecks) than did the one before.

That is no longer true.

Jackie Kennedy famously noted that the older she got the more convinced she became that no amount of fame, position, or income could possibly compensate for having failed as a parent.

In my own life, I owe whatever success has come my way to having been blessed by parents who considered me, my brother Romayne, and my sister Marjorie to be their #1 priority in life.  Because we were missionary kids, I was home schooled for 14 of the first 16 years of my life.  During those early years I was ferried once a week to the nearest American library where I checked out as many books as I could stagger home with.  As a result, guided by my remarkable mother (an elocutionist who had memorized thousands of pages of short stories, poetry, and readings), I devoured library after library—and have never quit.  My brother became an internationally known concert pianist, earning two doctorates in music, in Austria.  And my sister became an award-winning artist with the brush.

There is an epidemic of home schooling taking place in our nation right now.  It is hard for me to admit this—being the product of two masters degrees and a doctorate, and having dedicated 34 out of 36 years to formal Christian education in my pre-publishing career—admit that today I have grave doubts about the effectiveness of our current formal education template: ever larger classes, ever less time to devote to individual students, ever more complex bureaucratic paper-work to deal with, unable to so much as touch or hug a child without being accused of molestation, graduate students being forced to take classes from graduate assistants so that their ostensible faculty may continue to churn out scholarship no one reads. . . .  This litany could go on.

But I must return to the beginning: the home.  For it is the home alone—the mother and father working hand-in-hand, led by God—that holds the answer to the sad case of Little Boy Blue.  And each time such a twosome determine to sacrifice whatever it takes to be there, be home whenever the child is home during the growing-up years (for at least one parent—be it mother or father—to be there to answer all the tens of thousands of “whys?” that each small child fires machine-gun style each day); to take the time to themselves be the pulpit, to control the avenues to their children’s hearts, minds, and souls; to establish a daily story hour during which values worth living by may be internalized; to make possible the serenity which alone can enable each child to dream…. 

            Ah!  To dream:

“We grow great by dreams.  All big men and women are dreamers.  They see things in the soft haze of a spring day or in the red fire of a long winter’s evening.  Some of us let these great dreams die, but others nourish and protect them; nurse them through bad days till they bring them to the sunshine and light which always comes to those who hope that their dreams will come true.”

                                                            —Woodrow Wilson

* * * * *

See you next Wednesday.

MIRACLE IN SILVER SPRING

Every time I’m overwhelmed by the apparent hopelessness of the next generation of non-reading, unthinking, and inarticulate youth, all I have to do is think of Michael [a pseudonym], and hope is restored.

Let me tell you his story.

Some years ago, in my Freshman Composition class in an eastern college one fall, was a young man from the inner city.  Always, Michael sat in the back row—for good reason: he didn’t want to be called on for answers.  Almost never had he completed an assignment; he could not write a coherent sentence, much less paragraph.  His reading reports were disasters—when he bothered to get one in.  In short, he was about as close to a mental zero as they come.

The most daunting assignment of all, the Nightingale Project (a six-week-long immersion in reading, thinking, and goal-setting), he abjectly failed.

Then came mid-semester grades.  I was relieved to see him stay after class: one more F I wouldn’t have to give out at the end of the semester.  He extended a drop-sheet for me to sign, saying, “Dr. Wheeler, I have to drop your class.”

“Can’t keep up, Michael?”

“No, I can’t.”

“How about your other classes?”

“The same.”  Then a long sigh, followed by, “It all seems hopeless.”

I knew why.  Early on he’d admitted there was almost no silence in his life.  At home, the television set was blaring from the moment the first person got up until the last person went to bed.  No place where he could think.

But his next words surprised me: “But, Dr. Wheeler, I’ll be back—and I’ll get the top A in your class.”

I managed not to choke: Sure you will—about as likely as your being awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature!  I just nodded, however, chalking it up to braggadocio or face-saving.  He left the room, and I forgot about him—just another of those failures that make Bell Curve grading possible.

* * *

Almost a year passed, and it was fall once again.  Another batch of Freshman Composition students streamed into the classroom and found their seats.  When things finally quieted down, I looked up and did a double-take: It couldn’t be!  But it was. Here was Michael again–but with one big difference: he’d moved from the back row to the front row.  Strange!  What’s he trying to prove?

Since there were so many others competing for my attention in the large class, it took a while before things began to register in my mind.  Developments I chalked up to aberrations or possible cheating (a sad probability that all teachers today are forced to deal with): A’s on quizzes, answering questions correctly, hand raised when I asked questions, well-written essays and book-reports.

Finally, at home one night, I took out my grade book and did some tabulating.  None of it made sense to me: short of a brain transplant, this sort of 180E reversal just wasn’t possible.  Something—I didn’t know what—was definitely rotten in Denmark—uh, Silver Spring.  Decided to get to the bottom of it.

When the bell rang at the end of the next class, I asked Michael to stay.  When the classroom was empty, I unloaded on him, in my sternest voice: “Michael, I just don’t understand.  All your assignments are in, you participate in class, your grades are excellent, your writing is clear and persuasive, and to top it all off, you’ve read more pages of outside reading than anyone else in class.  What gives?

I was blind-sided by that radiant smile, the absolute last thing I expected.  “Dr. Wheeler, I’ve been wondering how long it would take for you to grill me.  Normally, you’re so quick, I’d expected it much earlier.”

I was totally at a loss for words.

He continued, “It’s this way, Dr. Wheeler.  You may remember that last year I told you there was no silence in my life, no books in my house—except my textbooks, no magazines, no newspapers—nothing but noise.”

I nodded.  When is he going to admit guilt?

“Well, during the Nightingale Assignment, you demanded of us one hour of silence a day.  First time I could ever remember silence.  Didn’t know what to do with it at first.  Made me think. . . .  But something else happened last year: You forced us to check out all those books from your paperback library.”

I nodded again.  I’d personally sought out, purchased, inventoried, and shelved all those 10,000 books—had a hard time finding a room big enough for them.

He continued, in a slower voice now, “Well, this may be hard for you to believe, but something strange happened to me last fall: I fell in love with reading!  Discovered a whole new world in those books.  After I dropped your class, I practically lived in the paperback library.  It was quiet there, so I studied there often.  That’s why I’m still here.  My grades came up—I was off academic probation by summer.  During summer months, when I wasn’t working, I hung out in the public library.  Kept reading: so many subjects, so many authors, so many new doors opening in my mind.”

“And now, how are your other classes going?”

“All A’s.”

What could I say?  I was too dumbfounded to process all this in just a few minutes.

“Well, Dr. Wheeler, got to run or I’ll be late for my next class.  Oops! [as the bell rang], I already am.”  And he rushed off.

* * *

At the end of the semester, I did something I’d never done before—nor have I since: I phoned a student about his final grade.  When I informed Michael he’d earned the highest grade in my class, I swear I could almost hear his shout 40 miles away from our home in Annapolis.

Then, he blind-sided me one more time: “Dr. Wheeler, I’ve been waiting and hoping for this to happen.  Is it . . . [he hesitated] . . . is it OK with you if I change my major?”

Why was he asking me such a question?

“Because I want to major in English.”

And he did.

* * *

And Michael is the reason I’m still hopeful about the possibility of life-changing miracles—even as late as college years!

Stay tuned.  See you next Wednesday.

NON-READER’S DOOMSDAY

What I say today goes for both sexes: the results are the same. As I said earlier, I studied the effects of television for thirty years before I wrote Remote Controlled. Reading/Writing was one of my four doctoral areas of concentration. And I’ve continually explored the interrelationship between reading and writing during my entire academic career (as teacher and administrator), so this is anything but a new subject for me.

Here, in a nutshell, are my findings:

1. If you do not read, relying instead on the digestion of electronic imagery, you are incapable of creating your own mental connotative pictures. In short, you cannot imagine or think original thoughts.

Why? Because if you read, see live drama, or hear radio drama, no two people will create the same mental pictures, because each person responds to word-association according to known experience. Such imagery is stored in your brain as part of your own thinking apparatus. But, if you watch TV, video, cinema, or other electronic imagery, whether one person watches that image or three billion do, every last watcher gets the self same image—because it is pre-fab: someone other than you created it, so it is blasted into your brain’s archives, by-passing your own thought-processors. Over time, tragedy strikes, because being that everything in your brain was created by someone else, you have virtually nothing original to draw from. You’re a zombie.

When given a writing assignment, you’re all but paralyzed. When assigned a term paper, since there’s nothing original to draw from in your head, you cheat—you have to, or fail. You cannot even structure coherent sentences or paragraphs, for all you have in your head is the chaotic jumblings of media and advertising. I’ve seen it over and over in 34 years of teaching: the reader, having many stylistic templates of favorite authors to draw from, can hardly wait to begin; the non-reader just stares glassy-eyed at that blank piece of paper, hoping for a miracle. And today’s epidemic of cheating/plagiarism is threatening the validity of our entire academic system, as untold thousands are submitting research under their names, that were created by someone else.

2. The Chinese have a saying: “If you haven’t read in three days, you aren’t worth listening to.” Just listen to electronic junkies around you, or receive their text-messages—note how vapid, inane, and devoid of structure it is.

When you grow up and get a job, inevitably the day of reckoning will come: when you can no longer hide the fact that you are brain-dead.

3. Nor can your non-reading electronic junkie speak coherently and persuasively. Reason being: there is nothing structured or coherently organized in his/her head.

4. Nor can s/he handle complex thought. Only in simplistic sound-bytes. Recently an international conference of some of the world’s leading church leaders concluded that they question whether democracy and civil liberty can long exist without a literate reading public (routinely digesting newspapers, magazines, and books). For non-readers, being incapable of complex thought, are easy prey to demagogues, extremists, and would-be dictators.

5. They also make lousy employees. Fortune 500 CEOs often determine finalists for key positions by giving top candidates challenges such as five steps to achieving a solution (Steps A, B, C, D, E), and then deliberately leave out a step. The reader has developed a part of the brain scholars call the “Library,” in which the brain talks to itself. When the reading candidate reaches a missing step, she stops, thinks, and then sends out filaments much like a spider, eventually synapsing to the other side, then finishing the test. The non-reader could sit there for a hundred years, incapable of crossing.

6. Furthermore, all the studies reveal that the more hours a day you expose yourself to electronic imagery, the dumber you get—at any age! Because, again, it’s all second-hand; worse yet—well, let me quote Ted Koppel:

“Almost everything said in public today is recorded.
                              Almost nothing said in public today is worth remembering.”

It’s all, to use an academic term: “Majoring in minors.”

* * * * *

Next Wednesday, we’ll start applying all this to our boys and girls. Stay tuned.