HAS AMERICA REACHED ITS TIPPING POINT?

BLOG #40, SERIES #5
WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
HAS AMERICA REACHED ITS TIPPING POINT?

October 1, 2014

Unbelievable that we could even be discussing such a thing, but recent events in Colorado are serving as not only a state-wide but national groundswell of concern on the issue. Might it be that we as a people have become so complacent about our 225-year-old democracy that we have missed the ominous cracks that are only now being taken seriously?

In history, rare is the great nation that remains great long-term. We, as a people, however, have blithely assumed we’re an exception to the rule in that respect.

IS COLORADO A WAKE-UP CALL?

This is a question many people across the nation are beginning to ponder. Since we locals are in the eye of the storm, so to speak, we tend to take for granted that most Americans are aware of the raging debate over Colorado’s Jefferson County School Board. Permit me to fill you in on the story:

An unusual situation developed during the last six months when three of five board member positions became open at the same time. Since many local citizens felt strongly that they had little voice in how the district was being run, three centrist locals decided to run for those seats. In spite of being greatly outspent media-wise by union supporters, all three were swept in, giving them a three-fifths majority.

What disturbs so many people is what followed: The media regularly categorizes the three new board members as “Christian extremists,” and passes up no opportunity to disparage or discredit them. The teachers’ union orders district teachers to storm the board meetings, along with union operatives from all over. Without defenders, these board members tremble as hecklers turn their deliberations into virtual lions’ dens. One of the new board member’s own children has been so viciously harassed that the parents were forced to pull the child out of a local school and transfer to a charter school some distance away. Teachers have so openly maligned and discredited these board members that many of the 85,000 students in this large district are now seething with hatred against them. So much so that these board members dare not even step foot in any of the classrooms they are legally in charge of.

At first, the storm of media negativity was general: in essence, trying to make life such hell for the new board members that at least one of them would resign. And daily life for each of the three has become just that. “Daily discouragement” a mild term for how they feel from day to day—and unpaid positions at that!

They were first attacked for hiring a new district superintendent [the original one resigned rather than work with the new board members] who was empathetic to the desire of ordinary citizens to have a say in the running of the district.

They were next attacked for their attempts to tie pay-increases to excellence in teaching. The two original board members voted against it. The union unleashed a storm of outrage that the poorest-performing teachers wouldn’t get the same salary increases the best-performing teachers would.

Then there is the latest storm of outrage over the board decision that some form of positive patriotism in the teaching of U.S. history be encouraged. Deconstructionists raged: How dare they encourage patriotism when so many terrible things have been done in the past!

During the last week, teachers have been disrupting family-life by staging sick-ins; by not showing up for classes, parents are forced to stay home with their kids.

Well-founded rumor now has it that as soon as the fall election is over, a massive recall of the three new board members will be organized and funded.

All this is making many people, not only in Colorado but across the country, wonder what has happened to our nation that such things can be? That such tactics of intimidation and poisoning the well against an opponent can be condoned. Indeed, locally and nationally, Republican candidates are blistered in a media frenzy of attack ads for their right-to-life stances (which is in essence an attack on all American Christians who believe in the sanctity of life).

Woven through all this is a nation-wide tide of ridicule and scorn directed at all conservatives, Christians, and people who still dare to defend traditional marriage and family. One of the new board members’ cars had a Defense of Family bumper sticker depicting stick-figures of a man, woman, two children, and a dog defaced during the last week: defaced by the addition of a painted-on meteor on collision course with the family.

I’m in a personal quandary here because I have wonderful relationships with area teachers and administrators in five area elementary schools, where I’ve worked in tandem with them for eleven years now, as we together try our best to get more elementary students into reading. There are so many individual teachers who continue giving their all each day.

Reflecting national concern over one aspect of this controversy is a September 27-8, 2014 Wall Street Journal major opinion essay titled “Democracy Requires a Patriotic Education” by Donald Kagan (Yale University historian and professor emeritus), in which he weighs in on the issue in observations such as these:

“Our schools have retreated from the idea of moral education, except for some attempts of what is called ‘Values Clarification,’ which is generally a cloak for moral relativism verging on nihilism of the sort that asserts that whatever feels good is good.”

“Just as an individual must have an appropriate love of himself if he is to perform well, an appropriate love of family if he and it are to prosper, so, too, must he love his country if it is to survive.”

“Neither family nor nation can flourish without love, support, and defense.”

“Assaults on patriotism are failures of character. They are made by privileged people who enjoy the full benefits offered by the country they deride and detest, but they lack the basic decency to pay it the allegiance and respect that honor demands. But honor, of course, is also an object of their derision.”

“The encouragement of patriotism is no longer a part of our public educational system, and the cost of that omission has made itself felt. This would have alarmed and dismayed the founders of our country.”

“The story of this country’s vision of a free, democratic republic and of its struggles to achieve it need not fear the most thorough examination and can proudly stand comparison with that of any other land.”

* * * * *

So, my question is this: What can each of us do to help avert further cracks in the foundational structure of our republic? Is our current culture of disparaging, discrediting, and ridiculing conservatives, Christians, right-to-lifers, defenders of traditional marriage, and defenders of traditional family, irreversible? If it is not, what can each of us do to help fix it?

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PLAGIARISM—WHY AMERICANS CANNOT NOT CHEAT

Colorado GOP gubernatorial candidate Scott McInnis is but the latest reminder that, in the Internet Age, one can run but cannot hide from one’s words: Plagiarism is getting increasingly difficult to hide—as McInnis has discovered to his chagrin. Former University of Colorado regent Jim Martin, in his “Dishonesty in the Internet Age” (The Denver Post, July 15, 2010), notes that “A story several years ago on NPR’s ‘All Things Considered’ profiled a University of Virginia professor’s new innovation to catch Internet cheaters—a search engine that can locate patterns of phrasing and match them to other works. The device has already turned up a number of cheaters not only in academia, but also in other areas of our lives.”

As a long-time English and writing professor I can testify that it is incredibly easy to spot cheating in term papers, for once I get a feel for an individual’s style of writing (in controlled writing assignments in classrooms), any significant stylistic deviance from the norm jumps out at me. The difficulty heretofore has been to track down the source the student copied from. No longer: my teaching colleagues tell me that it’s amazing how quickly they can track down an original source thanks to Google et al.

Which brings us to the core issue: Why do we cheat?

Increasingly, we cheat because we cannot not cheat. Permit me to explain why. Before I wrote my book, Remote Controlled (Review and Herald Publishing, 1993), I first researched the subject of the impact of television on the American people for over 30 years. One of the key resulting epiphanies of that research was this: the ability to think, write, and create is not a given; it is extremely difficult to achieve because it can only come into being by having an inquiring mind; a sense of wonder; by questions that never stop; by voracious reading in books, magazines, and newspapers; by daily journaling. Where writing is concerned, we are all works in progress—we never arrive, because knowledge is increasing by the nanosecond. That’s why the Chinese have a proverb: “If you haven’t read in three days, you aren’t worth listening to.” Staying in tune with the Zeitgeist has never been more difficult than it is today.

Nor is it easy to be a researcher (the job Scott McInnis was paid $300,000 for). I tell my students, “It’s not easy to write a good term paper. Unless you so immerse yourself into reading about your chosen subject, and writing notes from all those sources, you’ll never experience that mysterious breakthrough marathon runners talk about: when you literally break through a mental or physical barrier into a new dimension—you’ll know you’re there when you start dreaming about it. When that happens, you can write your paper in your own style. Otherwise, you’ll only be capable of a String of Pearls term paper: one quotation followed by insipid words leading to another quotation—on and on and on. Because the subject never became part of you.”

And that’s the tragedy of our age. We encourage our children to follow the path of least resistance—they faithfully follow our suggestion. How? By staring zombie-like into electronic screens hour after hour. But virtually none of that imagery can ever be their own: it was all created by someone else, and thus it was blasted straight into their mental archives without any involvement of the receiver’s brain. That’s why, when I tell a class of Freshman Composition students to take out a sheet of paper and begin to write, the reader (having many stylistic templates to draw from) can hardly wait to begin writing; the non-reader, however, can only stare at the piece of paper, being incapable of writing a coherent sentence or paragraph.

That’s why millions who grow up plagiarizing cannot not cheat: because of years of mental laziness, there is nothing original (unique to them alone) in their brains to draw from. So they have only two alternatives: fail the course—or cheat.

But when they grow up and enter the workaday world, sooner or later there will come a day of reckoning, when the boss will discover that this particular employee is incapable of original thought. Fortune 500 CEOs have developed a test for prospective employees that involves a series of interlocking steps leading to a solution. When the prospects take the test, they discover that a step was left out (such as A, B, D, E); the reader, having developed a part of the brain scholars call “the library,” where the brain talks to itself, is able to bridge the gulf, or synapse, en route to a solution. The non-reader can only stare at the gulf till Doomsday, unable to move on.

Which brings us back to Jim Martin, who concludes his insightful commentary with these sober words:

Our age of instant information offers in nearly every aspect of business, academia and media the temptation to exalt outcome over process, to value doing something quickly over doing it effectively and honestly.

Somehow, our citizens have come to believe that money or pride matters more than integrity. And we have allowed this to happen.

Our lessons about achieving excellence, getting into the “best” schools and colleges, getting elected to public office and the general opulence and promise offered of e-business have sent a dangerous message to our citizens people: you can have it all and have it now.

Maybe public exposure will put an end to this character defect, but I doubt it. In the long run, society at large will have to re-establish the values of effort and process, rather than simply holding up too high the rewards of success, power, being elected, or money.

All in all, this will be a difficult task, but the message must go out loud and clear—that there is no such thing as instantaneous writing, and that those shortcuts shortchange.

That message may sound old and familiar, but that’s because it is lifted from the familiar lessons of life, not some site on the Internet.

SPECIAL NOTE

Next week, we begin a four-month series of blogs on our historic national park lodges in the Northwest (we just returned from visiting each one).