27 August 2011

Uplifting vs. Clean

I stumbled upon this article on the Deseret News this morning. It reminded me of this article that was recommended to me by a friend a few months ago, which also reminded me of some discussions I've had with parents and students in the past about media/literature which meant I had to write about it.

Both of the above linked articles mention a very similar principle: lack of questionable content is not necessarily the best indication that a work is worth your time, though it is often marketed that way. Just because a film/book/song is void of bad language or illicit sexual relationships or otherwise immoral behavior does not mean that it will teach you anything valuable about life or be anything but Wonder Bread style entertainment: not bad for you, but not exactly nutritious either. (The example used in the second article is "The Waltons". Think 50s style entertainment where conflicts are easily overcome and challenges are silly or not really challenges.) There is media that is (what I would consider, at least) perfectly clean and more like whole grain bread, but it seems to be in the minority.

On the other hand, media that does contain bad language/immoral behavior isn't necessarily evil or bad for you, though lots of it is. It doesn't take long to look through the programs on TV, browse through Netflix, visit a bookstore or listen to the radio before you realize that much of what is presented now is complete, wasted garbage. Immoral people being praised or excused in their immorality, destructive lifestyles being laughed over, fantasy escapist worlds that distract from reality - it's all there. But there are many examples of books/movies/shows, etc. that contain uncomfortable material that are still highly moral and contain valuable lessons. But they are also in the minority.

So what's a consumer of media to do? Many (at least in this area of the world, it seems) try to hide from media altogether. As though escaping it is the answer to the problem and if you avoid it well enough it will, eventually, go away. This is a little ridiculous in my opinion. Media isn't going to go anywhere, and not learning how to use it for good is irresponsible.

On the flip side, I have a number of friends who - out of rebellion for those who are afraid of media, I think - will watch and read anything they wish just to prove a point. I don't think that's quite the solution either.

Douglas Callister's speech "Your Refined Heavenly Home" argues that if we are to be refined, then we need to be aware of creations that have stood the test of time and been long respected by educated, refined individuals. Orson Scott Card's article (see above) claims that everyone approaches a work differently and that some will find spiritual upliftment while others will find the opposite - all from the same work.

Does this mean that one person is more righteous than the other one? Can a book/movie etc. be in and of itself either evil or good and if a person interprets that incorrectly the fault is in them? Particularly if one person would consider something evil and another finds spiritual enlightenment from it - has the one receiving the good had the wool pulled over their eyes, or can the spirit actually teach one person through ratifying the media and another through the condemnation of it?

What do you think?

22 August 2011

Be Ye Therefore Perfect

I was up this morning listening to the news when one particular story caught my ear. Today is the first official back to school day for most people across the state, so they had a brief news story on not overbooking your student. Fair enough. There are lots of opportunities in schools and it's a good idea for a student to balance themselves so that they have time to take care of all their responsibilities. I get that.

But then the person they were interviewing said one thing that made me a bit chagrined. She said that it is a myth that every student is exceptionally talented. "Exceptionally talented students are the exception," she said. Instead of trying to expect or encourage exceptional things, we should expose students to a wide variety of activities, she says.


First of all - isn't exposing people to a wide variety of activities what often leads to overbooking?

Second: I hate that many parents will listen to this and use it as an excuse for not having their students commit to the tasks they agree to do. I've seen this at every school I've taught at in the last three years - parents model a kind of behavior in their students that encourages partial commitment to any task and end up using church activities as an excuse for that partial commitment.

Third: If said woman belongs to the same church that I do, then a phrase that says "Be ye therefore perfect, even as I (and your Father and Heaven - depending on the location of the quote) am perfect." I'm fairly certain that the idea of perfection could more or less be acquainted with the idea of excellence. In fact, I think they're probably pretty good friends. I seem to remember LDS Prophet Gordon B. Hinckley saying, "Mediocrity will never do, I am capable of something better." But this woman seems to be encouraging parents to expect their son or daughter to be only normal.

Well, that's a load of junk.

I'm not a parent, but I am a teacher. I agree that "exceptionally talented" students are rare, but "exceptionally capable" students are not. So often people use lack of talent as an excuse for mediocrity. But this is not good enough. The LDS church teaches that we are, through following Christ, capable of becoming like God. This life is not a time for us to accept our own mediocrity but for us to learn how "to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield" ("Ulysses", Tennyson.) So why are we encouraging this in our youth? Why are we satisfied with letting them - or ourselves - be given symbolic trophies for little or no real accomplishment? Gold stars and stickers are all well and good - but if we are to become truly great, then we need to seek for a better world - and that takes focus, hard work, and determination.

16 August 2011

I am. . .

. . . a teacher.

And I am not ashamed of this. Nor do I regret it. In fact, I think I have the greatest job in the world, because I get to work with the greatest people in the world.

When I tell people I'm a teacher I get very mixed reactions, usually leaning on the "oooh. . . well, that sucks. . . " side. I get the "you're so young to teach high school!" and the "Oh, I'm sorry - I'd never be able to teach teenagers, they're so awful," and the "Well, SOMEONE has to do it." Every time I wish I could let these naysayers see what I see.

I remember being a teenager. I got sick to death of hearing people saying that I would understand when I was in the "real" world. (What about my life wasn' t "real"?) That I was part of a selfish/entitled generation. (I had a job, turned in assignments on time, and helped make sure my house stayed clean, among other things.) That teenagers were rowdy, rebellious and underdressed. (I was none of these things.) I didn't like the stigma of irresponsibility, and nothing got up my gander more than people ignoring my opinions or patronizing me. I see the way people look at teenagers this way still.

But it isn't what I see. It never was.

I see a group of people who are full of possibilities. Who don't need to be pitied or pandered to or appeased - but a group of people who, even in their most disillusioned and jaded attitudes, don't want to be in a class that is boring. I see a group of people who want to learn and take on real-world problems. I see a group of people who are fun and smart and capable of so much more than people think. They come with limitations and baggage and inexperience, but when they come - and their time is not wasted - most of the time they will grow and excel beyond what any awful bureaucratic system would be able to measure with a scantron sheet.

Today I greeted a variety of students and parents at back to school night. Some of them I knew from past classes. Many I did not know. Several people from both groups - the known and the unknown - have come to this school because of the class that I team teach. People who are coming from as far as 30 minutes away, every day, because they believe in this class. It is humbling, a huge honor, and further proof to me that I have picked the right career. I love it. I love being a force for good. I love the reassurance I get from students and parents that what I do is valuable. It is an absolute honor to have been blessed with the chance to work with so many who believe so much of me, instead of so little (as seems to be common in schools any more.)

So, new school year? I'm ready for you. Not with all the materials I need and units prepared, perhaps - but with enthusiasm and determination to do great things.

14 August 2011

Grasshoppers and Ants

Embarrassing personal disclosure time:

My mother gave me an excellent book of essays by Louise Plummer recently called Thoughts of a Grasshopper. She thought I would enjoy it since, I, she says, am a grasshopper.

The title refers to the old Aesop tale of ants who spend all summer working (ha!) and then, when the cold winter comes, they are prepared. The grasshopper, on the other hand, spends all his time singing and dancing and playing on his violin and when the winter comes is hungry and left out in the cold by the selfish ants (Aesop), or welcomed in after a lecture by the ants (Disney.)

Given my work situation this summer, I wasn't quite sure how to take this. But I continued reading the article and found that, although I am not wholly grasshopper - I'm far too responsible and afraid of trouble for that - there were some definite comparisons. On my study abroad to England I preferred to hike alone in the back of the group - I revelled in the hours of free time I had to spend day dreaming and letting my thoughts imagine whatever they felt like. When I was a kid I took great pleasure in being the last one at home so that I could put on whatever movie I wanted and, for a little while, pretend to be Anne Shirley or Jo March or Maria Von Trapp or whatever other character I was obsessed with at the moment. I preferred books to recess and writing to socialization. In general, my favorite things involve little human interaction.

Which, perhaps, explains some of the difficulty I have in relationships, romantic or otherwise. I lose interest quickly and move on when the effort doesn't seem worth it any more. Friends move away and I lose touch almost before they leave. I am not unkind to people I don't find interesting, but I don't exactly seek out their company either. I'm not a social recluse, but I'm not a social butterfly either. I'm happiest with a small but close group of friends.

I only say this because it was after I thought about this part of myself that I realized that I do have some grasshopper in me after all. I may be a more prepared responsible grasshopper, but when it comes to relationships, I'm maybe a little too independent for my own good.

This isn't to say that I don't like people. I do. I just - perhaps unfortunately? - seem to approach relationships in the same way that I do books and movies and plays. A friend of mine put it this way, "You just don't want to be the smartest one in the room." This was almost a completely true statement for me. When I'm with my peers, my favorite mode of conversation is intellectual banter. I'm a talker. (Those of you who know me well will be shocked by this, I'm sure. . . ). If good conversation were a "love language", it would be mine, hands down. I'm not as interested by acts of service (and certainly not touch) as I am in a good long conversation. If I perceive that a person can't keep up with me or doesn't want to, then I get bored and move on, or at least don't seek out opportunities to foster a lasting friendship. If a person does enjoy that kind of conversation, that friendship will last a lifetime.

Probably not the most Christlike thing about me, in retrospect.

But is there room in this world for socially reclusive but still talkative and confident intellectual grasshopper types? And - here's a better question - where are all the rest of them? Am I just too much of a snob to find them, or are they really that hard to find? (Could we perhaps focus on the talkative and confident intelligent single male variety grasshoppers?) Then I could have a socially reclusive chatty grasshopper party and make my parents (and myself, for that matter) feel better about my social prospects. . .

07 August 2011

Cohesion vs. Anarchy

I've been getting materials put together to teach Treasure Island this next school year the last several months. It's a great book that can be enjoyed on several levels. Most people teach it as an adventure novel, but teaching it alongside the Revolutionary War, I'm focusing most of the discussion on the two political organizations presented in the book. It's had me thinking all week.

In Treasure Island the hero Jim is presented with two potential groups to follow - the English Captain and his crew or the charismatic Long John Silver and his mutineers. The English are organized, uniform, and predictable. They follow orders, get the job done, and are always aware of what their roles are. They're also boring. The pirates have absolutely no order whatsoever, and little control over their own minds thanks to large quantities of rum - but they live in an environment where people can do what they are excited about. Because they have no clear government telling them what to do, they can pursue what they're interested in. The result of Jim's adventure is unclear - you're never really sure which world he chooses, if he chooses either of them.

Thinking about this in context of a blog post I read recently on The Mormon Child Bride, I've been thinking about how, like Jim, we are faced with many opportunities to decide which "world" we are going to pick. Are we going to actively choose the comfort, security, predictability world or the world that is more lawless but full of creativity? How do you take the strengths of both groups and insert them into the world of religion, education and politics? Is it even possible to have a world that is organized to promote creativity, or is creativity by its very nature best served outside of the world of organization?

I don't believe so. I still believe quite firmly that creativity can thrive in an environment that is organized. In fact, I think an organized society is best for a creative environment because of the stability that comes from organization. Aristotle would, I think, call an organized world the business that needs to come before leisure can be truly obtained. Hugh Nibley would call it honest recognition of goods of first and second intent. There are very good examples of businesses (like Pixar or Apple or Google) who do a particularly good job of organizing creativity. But the balance is precarious.

In education, for example, it becomes quite tricky to encourage a student to discover what they are best at when the state (and now the nation) dictates how and when a student should achieve certain skills. The state also dictates which classes a student must take in each subject with only one or two periods a day available for "electives". The organization is set up to squash out creativity and individualization.

The culture of the church occasionally has the same problem. A mother who works is a sinner. A father without a traditional job is frowned upon. Come to church dressed differently and you risk being a social outcast. Decorate your house wrong or watch rated R movies or have a strange hobby and people wonder about you. I wonder sometimes if people imagine Zion as a place like the community in Lois Lowry's The Giver - everyone has the same house, the same number of children, the same allotment of food each week.

I don't know the answer to this. Robert Louis Stevenson doesn't give any answers. But I do think that we have a responsibility as people to fight against systems that squash opportunities for creativity and individuality to grow. I also think that we need to resist the temptation to become an anything goes lawless society. I think the immediate application means following the advice of church leaders in avoiding judgment of the lives of others.