Wednesday, February 28, 2007

The Problem With Awards

"Success is counted sweetest
By those who ne'er succeed.
To comprehend a nectar
Requires sorest need." (Emily Dickenson)

Though I grew up in a privileged world, we didn't have many awards ceremonies. I was in the Boy Scouts for a short time and remember going to an Order of the Arrow ceremony, but that was it. I believe that the prevailing philosophy was two fold: 1) that our accomplishments were minimal and 2) that the "reason" for learning was the joy of the process and not for the awards.

When my kids were growing up, I noticed a shift. There were awards everywhere. Kids would get awards for going to award ceremonies. And they (and their parents) seem to buy these accomplishments as milestones in their lives.

One of my teachers used to tell the story that when he was young he won a number of blue ribbons in an art exhibit. His teacher came up to him and said, "remember, you're paintings are never be any bigger than you are."

I called up this teacher one day when I was a hotshot senior in college and complained, upon submitting my work to some art competitions, that I had received a number of rejections. He brilliantly answered, "you must not be any good." That was the last time I complained about not getting an award.

There was a study done a few years ago about the self-esteem of students versus their chances of success in school. It was found that Asians had the lowest self-esteem but the greatest chance of success...and Americans the opposite.

A pet peeve of mine is that the award ceremony often focuses on the individual and not on their accomplishments. I like it when the MC tells what this person did to achieve such divine status. And not that their accomplishment is that they survived for 30 years. Awards should be for more than longevity.

My grandson learned to crawl yesterday and was able to investigate a silver ball in the corner of the room that he has eyed for his entire life. His award is that he gets to touch the ball and explore his own image in it. But suppose his parents pick him up and congratulate him for his accomplishment. Then will he start to explore for parental approval? And suppose he is an adolescent and wants parental disapproval. Is he going to then start on negative behavior?

Grades (especially inflated grades) are part of this culture of awards. Not once has a student said that they deserve an "A" because they've learned so much. Instead they argue that the teacher didn't give them the questions in advance, or that the teacher came late to class, or that someone else got an A so they should as well.

We just had the academy awards. Did any movie become better or worse because of the award(s) it did or didn't get? Of course not.

Another problem with awards is the way that it puts one's accomplishments above others. We achieve in so many ways, that sometimes we think less of ourselves because we didn't do as well in what someone else believes deems most important.

I remember how I squirmed when my great niece (who is truly great) told me that she was the second or third smartest kid in her class. How are these kids being rated and what damage is being done? Don't their teachers realize that we are all good (and bad) at different activities. And that the "story is not over until the end."

Well, to all those who received an award yesterday. Please put it away in the back of your deepest closet and today crawl toward that silver ball just because you want to see the funny little kid reflected in its shiny surface.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007


"Setting boundaries is not a more sophisticated way of manipulation - although some people will say they are setting boundaries, when in fact they are attempting to manipulate. The difference between setting a boundary in a healthy way and manipulating is: when we set a boundary we let go of the outcome." (Robert Burney)

One of my favorite teachers used to describe space as being a variation of densities. There are no real edges to objects because molecules fly in to and out of objects at all times. These molecules do not just fly out a few inches or feet, but actually reach to the edges of the universe.

In order to move through the universe we need room or we will start exchanging molecules with other dense objects. And everywhere there are molecules (parts of our self, so to speak), so we can only bump into parts of ourselves.

Be that as it may, we do feel crowded when others are on top of us, either physically or mentally. Setting boundaries ranges from the octopus hiding in a cloud of ink to someone telling their mate that they'd like to have a few minutes alone in the morning when they wake up.

The expression "don't cross me" doesn't exactly refer to boundaries, but does infer that one desires to go down a specific path without any obstructions.

Some people fall apart when we get too close to them. They get angry and make us the culprit, even though they are the ones who create the discomfort (in their own minds). Others, when crowded, can simply move away a little, or ask another for a little more space.

What are boundaries made of? Are they lead, or are they "ether (believed at one time to be the common matter of space)?" How can we move from having lead boundaries (that no one can cross or see through, to transparent ether boundaries? If we are all congregated masses of the same thing then having bullet proof boundaries make less sense. We are open because we are everything. Everything embraces us because we are everything.

Denying this doesn't accomplish much more than the ostrich does by putting their head in the sand.

Monday, February 26, 2007


Making choices are internal conflicts. I'm speaking here about external conflicts. Are they a proof for the validity of post-modernism, i.e. that there are different ways of perceiving a situation?

Often conflicts seem to be power struggles. Someone is in a position of power over another and the other does not like how they are being treated. The "worker" feels that they are being pushed around. They feel that the "boss" (as in dean, teacher, supervisor) is abusing their power, and/or not listening to them. For example, the boss says "sit down" and the worker says "there is a scorpion on my chair." Each comes to the situation with a different perspective, and with different information. The worker wants to explain. The boss wants to get started with the class, the job, etc. Then the worker gets loud., "but there is a scorpion on my chair!" The boss is focused on his/her job, so he gets agitated and tells the worker to be quiet and sit down. He says "it is just a small scorpion, and what am I paying you for anyway?" Or maybe he will chastise the worker, asking if they have read the "rights and responsibilities of the worker" or maybe a union resolution. Neither party has much respect for each other, and neither is listening to the other's viewpoint.

Some say that the internal conflicts in Iraq are not about religion but about land. Everyone wants their fair share. Again, from a post-modern perspective, each is viewing the situation differently. They may spend more in resources (including lives) than they would to agree on a compromise. They illustrate the saying, "you'd rather be right than alive." And religion does play a role here. We tend to stick together with our own kind. When an outside aggressor shows his/her fangs, we identify even further with our own people. We grow up learning the difference between "us and them." And whenever "them" steps out of line, we take up arms. Many die, many are injured, and love is squelched.

I love the story about the blind man and the man without legs who lived in a forest. They argued continually until a fire started to sweep through the forest. Then they joined ranks and fled, taking advantage of the blind man's legs and the other man's eyes. For me, how we move from conflict to interdependence is the key. Perhaps as we align goals (like getting out of the forest, learning, making a profit) we can start to see that cooperation will only benefit both parties.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Literacy, Social Justice, and Privilege

Travis commented in the post about Paula Hoffman that literacy, social justice, and privilege may be mutually inclusive or exclusive.

Wikopedia gives a common definition of literacy, though some say that it is not the tools commonly referred to (reading and writing), but it is using these tools to understand oneself and his/her world (which, in a post-modern sense, is not the same as "the world" (which probably is meaningless)). Tomorrow I will sit in the middle of a dispute of two parties, both of whom believe their perception of the situation is correct. Is one more literate (and correct) than the other because they are the teacher and have multiple higher degrees? Or is one more literate because they have not grown up with "privilege" and they understand what it means to be disenfranchised? I would maintain that there are different literacies and that the most we can do is to try to understand each other's.

Social Justice plays into the mix because some believe "it is not fair" that some have privilege and others don't. Social Justice seems to be an effort to reduce or eliminate the gap between the haves and the have nots. One of my friends thinks that it is sinful that CEOs get paid 6000 times more than their workers. Social Justice, for him, would be to figure out a way to not pay these SOBs (his words, not mine) so much.

The concept of privilege seems to have come from the French Revolution where some wanted to abolish privilege, i.e. laws that were applied to one group and not another. We still have many privileges (and privileged people) in our society even though the many laws that legalize the injustices are gone. Some can take a walk around the block at night in safety and others cannot. Some can pay George Washington University $50000 a year for an education, and others cannot. And some say that it is not fair that we have so much discrepancy. And others, like the Nobel Prize winner Gary Becker, says that without these discrepancies there would be no incentives for the have nots to get educated and improve themselves. Is it social justice that the privileged have more opportunity to improve themselves?

One can make the argument that everyone is literate, but that some literacies don't avail the opportunities of the privileged, and that social justice is the idea that we need to equalize the playing field so that all have an opportunity to succeed. Should we pay the CEO less and/or pay the coal miner more? Should we provide health care for everyone? And great housing? And transportation? And incentives, as well?

I don't know.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Old Friends

Went last night to two art openings at Webster University. To be honest, I went to one, and then discovered that a second was also going on.

Martin Schweig has a retrospective show chronicling his long love affair with photography. Martin ran a photo studio and gallery since the 1950s. It was one of the few galleries in St. Louis at one time, and the only one at some point that focused (a pun) on photography. I showed there, along with many who were at the opening. So it became a kind of reunion, since many of us had a common heritage.

Martin not only loves photography, but loves traveling and animals. All this comes through in his well-seen and beautifully crafted images. He is not a modernist. His work is a tribute to many photographers, and to a medium that has now been changing because of both new technologies, theoretical constructs, and painters who leaped on the bandwagon. And we see in his photographs his tremendous enthusiasm for the world, from the animal kingdom to delightful images from many parts of the globe.

In the good old days Art (I'm capitalizing Art as some capitalize G_d) photography was just an ugly stepchild and no one sold photographs and if they did, it was for nothing. You did photography because you cared about it, and you didn't care what it would give back to you in terms of fame and fortune. Photographers stuck together because they understood each other, and they trusted each other, and they spoke the same language. Martin did make a livelyhood as a portrait photographer, and he was one of the best. But the majority of the exhibition is the other kind of photography. The kind that you'd do for one reason: that you are addicted to a well-crafted photographic image.

Before I leave Martin and the opening/reunion, I wanted to speak about old friends...childhood friends. With some, the connection is as strong as it ever was, and with others, well, life goes on and we change. The hard part is when it changes for one party and not for the other.

I dreamt last night about one old friend from college who was a great inspiration because of his thirst for learning. His Achilles heel was that he was a sociopath and ended up, after getting a PhD in computer science, in prison. I do web searches for him occasionally, and can't find him (especially hard because he has a common name). Maybe he'll contact me some day like he did in my dream.

In the dream he had popped up in my life, and I was very glad to see him. He looked great and appeared to be on the straight and narrow. I wanted to take him to Chicago so he could see a friend there that was also very close to him.

The second exhibit in the art building was the work of four French artists.

I grew up in art believing that almost all good contemporary Art is done in America, and have since learned how stupid is that perception. Still, I continue to be a little surprised when I see well-conceived and executed (and inspiring) work from other countries.

My travels to Italy, and somewhat to England, suggested that there is a lot more honor given to the past (and to religion) than to contemporary art and thought. It is refreshing to see artists, such as in the Webster show, who are willing to snub their noses a little on their traditional icons and artists.

Friday, February 23, 2007

Art Openings

"In the room the women come and go,
Talking of Michelangelo." (T.S. Eliot, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock)

Imagining that the world exists on a small coffee table in the middle of a room, I was wondering the other day about where I hang out.

Someone accused me of experiencing life vicariously. As a youth, I identified with Colin Wilson's Outsider, who "cannot live in the comfortable insulated world of the bourgeois, accepting what he sees and touches as reality." Perhaps because I felt socially awkward, I slung a camera around my neck and watched people like a fly on the wall. I secretly envied those who were part of life, able to lose themselves in the ambiance of the moment.

Art itself is a vicarious experience (with Jackson Pollack as an exception). In college a therapist told me that I used photography to avoid the intimacy of life (my words). I laughed but realize forty years later that he had a good point.

I suspect that mindfullness (in Buddhism, the practice of being here) really refers to both time and space. Have I ever been anywhere where I've supposed to be? Someone asked me yesterday how I can stand to be in a 4 hours meeting about I subject I have no interest. Maybe I do that by being somewhere else.

I never felt that I had a real job until now. Teaching others how to look on and analyze, rather than be, seemed like play.

I shed the camera a few years ago with the idea that I would go the middle of the room and lose myself in the moment. Yet, I'm still at the edge, even with the idea that I'm watching myself being on the edge. I'm aware of my awareness, and sometimes overwhelmed by it.

I remember a review in the NY Review of Books where the reviewer claimed that the book failed because she (as the reader) got engrossed in the story. What greater pleasure could there be? Is this a failure or success for the author?

I wanted to write this about art openings. I have, in a sense. Last night I was at the edge of an opening, looking on. It wasn't my opening anymore. I am leaving the institution and no longer feel part of the department that hosted the event. And there were lots of young kids. I sometimes feel with young kids that I've been away a long time from Earth and now my spaceship has returned and lots of changes have occurred.

I can't get over how smooth everyone's skin looks when they are young.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

What shall we do tomorrow? What shall we ever do?

Flipping a coin is not as rational as playing Stephen Covey's game of creating a personal mission and selecting a choice that will best fulfill that mission. This process seems logical enough, but also might lead to great unhappiness. We could end up living our lives "in quiet desperation" instead of ecstatic happiness and fulfillment. We might marry for money instead of love.

One of my favorite artists, David McManaway, started out making paintings (he believed this is what "artists" should be doing). When he was bored with paintings he would start combining found objects at the side of his studio. Soon he found that all he wanted to do was his "jomos" (as he called them). Now, 50+ years later, he's had a productive and creative life (and I suspect, he rarely has been bored). And he still doesn't do any paintings.

One reason we may pick the wrong choice is because we are attached to the people and places that we know. One of my sisters told me of an article she read about how we need to grieve when we choose the "road not taken." Yes, it is sad to change or leave, and that loss does not magically go away when you turn our backs on where we were (and loved) and what we've done. Sometimes we just need to embrace our past and kiss it goodbye.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

End-of-Course Tests in High School

I'm curious to what degree (in practice) the score on these tests (see article below) will be the final grade. Given enough time, the government will completely control every aspect of education.

1) They take the citizens' money.

2) They pass laws for mandatory education.

3) They pass laws on how that education will occur.

4) Then they progressively tax those who do well in their education (assuming those people will have higher lifetime earnings).

5) And they wonder why Johnny can't read.

Would we have any greater illiteracy if education was not mandatory?


Vol. 41, No. 11
February 20, 2007
State Board of Education Approves
End-of-Course Tests in High School

The State Board of Education has given the green light to replacing the current MAP tests for high school students with a slate of “end-of-course” exams that will be required in all public schools starting in 2008-09.

During its meeting in Jefferson City last week (Feb. 16), the board approved a recommendation by Commissioner of Education D. Kent King to move forward with replacing the current Missouri Assessment Program (MAP) tests which have been mandatory for high school students (grades 10 and 11) for nearly a decade.

While many details remain to be worked out, the board’s action gives the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education the go-ahead to develop statewide “final exams” for algebra I, English II and biology.

State education officials also hope to create end-of-course exams for other classes such as government and American history, geometry, English I, physical science and chemistry. Exams for these subjects will not be available until 2010, at the earliest.

“We have been talking about possible changes in our high school testing program for more than two years, and it is time to move ahead. This plan offers positive changes for students, teachers, parents and schools,” said Stan Johnson, assistant commissioner of the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

The State Board of Education previously considered, but ultimately rejected, a proposal to adopt a college-entry exam, such as the ACT, as a requirement for all high school students.

The most frequent criticism of the MAP tests in high school is that they have no consequences for students, Johnson said.

“We believe that end-of-course exams will be more relevant and meaningful for students. Schools will receive the results from these exams quickly, and teachers will be able to use the scores in determining students’ final grades. This will make a difference in how most students approach the tests,” he said.

Good Day, Bad Day

Two days ago (President's work) was a "blessed" day. I finished up a variety of tasks and cleaned my desk. The sun shined brightly and melted the snow. I pulled out of the hardware store, went through a yellow light turning red, saw a cop behind me, noticed it was dark and didn't have my lights on, and then saw the cop pass by me for a bigger fish.

Yesterday (a work day) was one of those three strikes days. People disagreed with my decisions, didn't respond to complaints, and gave wrong directions to others. And I had to listen to way too many complaints.

So what is it that makes two days seem so different? Is someone deciding what is going to happen? Is it me?

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Advice: Don't Blog

My best friend told me I shouldn't blog because my thoughts are ridiculous (my word, not hers).

Luckily I learned from a teacher in college, "listen to everyone and believe no one."

I do like to challenge any existing belief, including hers. I'd rather discover that I was wrong after exploring the opposite viewpoint than blindly accept a commonly accepted belief.

An example: she mops the floor in her studio so often that all the tiles are popping up. I wanted to get some liquid nail and glue those suckers down, even if they are brittle and curled at the edges.

Finally I went last night to the hardware store for a second opinion. Steve, who is a manager there and knows everything, said that I need to give up the idea. To remove the liquid nail will entail destroying the sub floor, and the tiles will never straighten out.

So what was to become a very elegant solution will now become another expensive solution: a new floor.

At least this ridiculous idea was squelched in time!

Monday, February 19, 2007

Picasso at the Lapin Agile

Last night saw Picasso at the Lapin Agile at St. Louis CC - FV. It was a great set by Marie McCool, and a wonderful production, directed by Chris Stephens, by a combination of seasoned and new actors/resses.

I have a lot of axes to grind with Picasso from the time I started to learn about painting, but I still see him as one of my gods. It hurts me that he is projected as such a womanizer and egotist. (When I mentioned this to my wife she was unsympathetic, saying that he was all that.) I didn't have as much problem with Einstein, another hero, though I would have like to learn a little more about him in the play.

This all follows a series of depictions that gnaws at my sensibilities: Jackson Pollack, Diego Rivera, Frieda, and on and on. These individuals made enormous contributions to civilization and to be only represented by their frailties is hurtful. Would we do this to Jesus? Does it help or hurt the public's view of modern art?

I don't know.

Sara Paula Hoffman

Went 2/11/07 to see the new work by Sara Paula Hoffman at Messing Gallery/Mary Institute/St. Louis.

My daughter, getting her Ph.D. in literacy and social justice (I haven't asked her what the actual degree will read), speaks to me about privilege. Walking into a school that competes with any country club, and seeing all the beautiful kids being picked up from Sunday activities by their beautiful parents in their beautiful SUVs sharply contrasts with the urban community college where I work.

But Paula's work, which I believe are extraordinary, speaks about the pain of growing up. Something is not quite right in the childhood presented in these oil on panel 12" squares. Sometimes we see bright local color, and other times the secrets hidden in foggy translucent overlays.

Based on Ibsen's Doll House from 1879, these painting echo the speech at the end of the play when she (a women for all times) finally says she has had enough.

And Paula's "ghosts" are represented not of her mind, but as paintings of discolored and aged Kodacolor prints. We view her self-psychoanalysis in these most poignant and compelling images. See her website:

Transparency and Assessment

We don't necessarily know how we are affecting people. Autistic individuals can't read facial cues, but can the rest of us? At school, we make a big deal about assessment, and we separate how students do on content exams from how we are doing as teachers.

One of my colleague clamors for transparency, with the assumption that the faculty should know everything about which the administration is thinking. Administrators certainly do a lot of "what if" scenarios which might be exhausting for the faculty or students to contemplate.

And then there is the issue of how to sell an idea. It is probably harder to sell an idea that was communicated prematurely before it was fully realized.

Though in a world of transparency we might learn to hold back judgement until the idea is realized, and we might become part of a process of evolving ideas, not just voting on them.

I do not know.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

First Blog-My Third Third

So I retire 6/29/07, after 58 years in school as both a student and teacher, and, against my father's wishes, a dean.

My challenge is to make the most out of my third third. I'm not sure if I want to do this because of a work ethic, because of guilt that maybe I haven't done enough, because I don't know how to enjoy life, or maybe because I want to get very serious about life.

I tried hard to fix some things with others and their institutions. Though I certainly did make changes, I think I probably changed more than anyone else.

I've been thinking more and more about spiritual matters. I've always been more intrigued with mysticism than I have with rational thinking.

Ah, so much to learn about. And miles to go before I sleep.


Anatomy Lesson and Love