Friday, February 18, 2011

Rigour or Rigor Mortis

Back in America, a battle is brewing in my home state of Wisconsin concerning public unions. The new governor is proposing budget cuts in the face of mounting debt which include an end to collective bargaining for teachers, requiring public employees to contribute more to their health care and pensions, among other things. Predictably, union members and teachers in particular are protesting these cuts on the basis of workers’ rights.

For those unfamiliar with the history of Wisconsin, it is known as one of the leftist laboratories in America. Public salaries and benefits are higher on average in Wisconsin than many other states. The city of Milwaukee once had a socialist mayor even, which to some is a real accomplishment. Having spent a fair amount of time in Eastern Europe as a younger man, I consider it more of a guilty admission, not a cause for celebration.

It is instructive that the primary protesters in Wisconsin are teachers. They even staged a ‘sick-out’ to enable them to flock to Madison, the state’s capital, to protest Governor Walker’s bill. Whilst I cannot verify that teachers dragged their unwitting students along to these protests, I do have an old friend who advocated this.

The grim joke in this affair is the one thing the teachers aren’t doing currently, which is teach. My intention here is not to talk about whether or not I support Governor Walker. That is a topic in of itself. What alarms me is the audacity of some teachers who assert a right to a job, with lavish benefits on top of it. In my profession, I am rewarded on the basis of how well I perform my job. If I fail to live up to it, then I am rightly reprimanded and, if my bad performance continues, summarily shown the door. In addition to this, I am only as good as my last achievement. I must continually prove my value. The result for me has been a rewarding career in the software industry, stretching back 15 years.

Are teachers in Wisconsin and other American states paid on the basis of their performance? Must they prove they are imparting knowledge and training young minds? Do they even know what a proper education entails? I have yet to see evidence that the protesting teachers are bothering to think about what their recent actions mean to the kids denied the very thing we entrust teachers to do.

Perhaps a bit of perspective is in order. At the young age of 17, I left the comfort of my hometown and ventured to Belgium to live with a family and attend a Belgian high school. My primary goal was to achieve fluency in French, which I did. What I witnessed in my Belgian school, however, shocked me to my core. Not only were my Belgian counterparts better educated than my fellow American students, but they were expected to perform. No mollycoddling. No excuses. Excellence was expected - full stop.

Just what did a last year Belgian high school student learn? In geography class, he was expected to grasp the nature of the Soviet collective farm system and compare and contrast it with western private farming. He was expected in French class to write eloquently about Marguerite Yourcenar’s Mémoires d’Hadrien, among other advanced works of literature. In religion class, he was expected to have a good understanding of the world’s religions and offer up cogent commentary on them. In maths, he was expected to offer critical analysis of concepts barely seen in American universities. In addition to the daily rigour, teachers examined a student’s notes for their accuracy and penmanship and he would be marked down for illegible writing and poor grammar.

At test time, a student received two marks in each subject: one for the material and another for his ability to write. Finals consisted of both oral and written exams. What did this mean for me, an ill-prepared American kid? I was utterly lost. I constantly felt ashamed for the education I didn’t receive and simultaneously revolted by the schools American teachers in Wisconsin are now abandoning in favour of their ‘rights’.

Fortunately for me, my French teacher took me under his wing to help me achieve the one modest goal I had set for myself. He gave me special reading that was within my grasp, but also challenged me to learn more and more vocabulary. I wrote short essays on the books he assigned me and he thoroughly corrected every last sentence in French. He gave me elocution lessons to improve my diction. By the end of my year in Belgium, I could write fluently and could discuss advanced topics with my teacher. Because of this preparation, I was able to attend a French language university and study successfully with native French speakers.

Returning to the paltry excuse for schools in America, I ask the protesters to prove their value or get out. I ask them to rise to the task to become like the late Jean Marchal, my Belgian mentor and intellectual saviour. I demand that they stop allowing children to languish and do their jobs. The heroes in education are not the mob mentality protesters demanding benefits beyond all reason, but those who treat excellence in education as their only goal. Nothing less will do.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

That All-Consuming Passion

As I have travelled through life these past four and a half decades, I have noticed two essential attitudes that guide people's lives. There are those who attack life with gusto, taking on one challenge after another, come what may. Then there are those who muddle through life in a grey lament, neither excelling at anything nor seeking to improve their lives. They exist - or even subsist - but they don't seek greatness.

I, of course, fall into the former category. Never one to let a disappointment stop me, I take lessons from my failures so I can avoid the same mistakes, and then I find a new goal to energise me. I have possessed this attitude for all of my adult life, but it stretches back to my early childhood, too.

At the beginning of 2011, a good friend of mine Steven and I were chatting about life and goals. I talked about how I had wanted to pursue a long-form writing project for many years. As a lover of great fiction, I aspired to create a great plot and story, but after much thought and even outlining, the ideas would fall flat. This, as one could imagine, frustrated me. I love fiction so much and have read hundreds of novels over the course my life, so why couldn't I, a confident and mature young adult, come up with a good story? I haven't an answer to that question right now, but in discussing this, my friend suggested something else. In essence, he said to me: 'What about a chronicle of your life and travels?' My first thought was: who would want to read such a thing? My next thought was: who wouldn't! Why isn't my life interesting enough to write about and therefore put out for the world to read - whomever that might entail?

Returning to the goalless drifters for a moment, I notice another common trait: defeatism. Whilst I possess a certain amount of self-criticism, these others wallow in the things they'll never do. Perhaps as children they had parents who treated them as incapable nothings. Perhaps as school children their teachers did the same. And now as adults, their defeatism encompasses the essence of their souls such that when they encounter a can-do spirit, they express jealousy or even hatred. I, on the other hand, feel a tingling excitement when I meet other people of achievement.

Another friend and former colleague, Liza, recently came to Sydney for some business meetings. She's based in Toronto, but travels the world seeking out new opportunities wherever they may originate. The only word to describe Liza is dynamo. She's constantly on the lookout for new challenges and achievements. Wherever she is and whatever the state of economies in North America and abroad, Liza will come out successful and cheerful. Nothing gets in her way. Over dinner, I discussed my book plans with her and how they began to take form. First, she was surprised to hear that I had been writing for such a long time and then she had only words of encouragement to offer. Though I only see Liza occasionally, I consider her a lightning rod of inspiration. Obviously I don't need her enthusiasm to embark on a daunting project such as writing a travel memoir, but it surely encourages me, knowing that I have an audience of other achievers.

In the end, what I see in my friends and in myself is an all-consuming passion to live to the fullest. Yes we admit that disappointments and failures are part of the on-going experiment, but they are brief moments to accept and then cast aside as the consequence of taking risks. If I flash forward to my dying days and one asks me if I have regrets, I am sure the answer will be a resounding NO. That, I submit, is the difference between one who lives and one who merely exists.