Monday, August 29, 2011

Creativity Counts More than Education


When I was probably in second or third grade, I started wondering about intelligence.   It may have been because my age group was randomly chosen to serve as the national base for intelligence tests.  Every two years, we took the tests – along with thousands of school kids nationwide – and our scores then served as comparisons for everyone else.

Naturally, we all learned about I.Q.s and the like.

At the same time, I knew my twin brother and younger brother were very smart, but I wondered if their intelligence reflected natural gifts or a better memory.  I couldn’t do anything if they were born smarter, but I could work on my memory.  For many years, that’s what I did. I forced myself each night to remember what happened during the day.  Over time, I strengthened my memory.  Today, I can remember much more of my youth – and books I read – than my twin brother.  I don’t know if that makes me smarter, but it has opened insights into intelligence and learning.

Along the way, I realized that Americans aren’t interested in knowledge.  They never have been.  Instead, Americans prize native intelligence, the ability to succeed without having one’s mind packed with facts.  As Paul Simon noted in his song Kodachrome:

When I think back
On all the crap I learned in high school,
It's a wonder
I can think at all …

Our past heroes are individuals like Abraham Lincoln, who became president despite only an estimated 12 months of formal education; Daniel Boone, who rarely went to school and taught himself to read;  or inventor Thomas Edison, who dropped out of school at age 7.  These days, we admire college dropouts like Bill Gates, David Geffen, Richard Branson and so many others.  College professors are seen as living in isolation from the real world and are often targets of comedians and cartoons.

Such thinking is reflected in modern approaches to education.  Political leaders today shun education ideas offered by college graduates who actually studied education to dictate how students should learn.  They have formalized standard tests to make sure that students have “learned.”

The students may have facts, but that isn’t important.  What really matters is creativity, the ability to use any knowledge to develop new ideas and take a different path – as noted in poet Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken.”

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Lincoln, Gates and the others did not succeed because they were saturated with knowledge.  Rather, they achieved because they were capable of putting whatever knowledge they could obtain to its optimum use.  My brothers didn’t know more than me: they simply had the capacity to use what they knew in a different way than I could.

That can’t be tested in a conventional IQ exam, which today is no longer considered valid anyway because of, among other reasons, cultural bias.  That can only be encouraged through creative programs, allowing children to flex those mental muscles.  Those who lack that ability can then be directed into areas where their intelligence leads them.  This is not a “one size fits all” model of education we have now, but rather an approach that recognizes that all of us are different in how we learn and what we need to know.

Top schools that teach medicine, engineering and other specialized fields have begun to recognize the need to expand the minds of their students by adding coursework in unrelated fields.  They need students who know their field, but can think, too.  We all do. 

Author Isaac Azimov once considered this issue in a science fiction story about a young man shunted away from his classmates.  The lad was depressed, thinking he has failed.  Instead, he has been selected because he thinks creatively.  Education, Azimov wrote, had become so straight-laced that society was in danger of becoming victimized by its rigid approach.  Society needs people who can move beyond the narrow confines of any subject to develop new concepts.

IQ tests may help pinpoint such children, but they must be allowed to be creative.  Our current education system does exactly the opposite.  Reality is reflected in the dismal figures.  A 2008 study found that nearly 50 percent of all public high school students in this country’s 50 largest cities do not graduate.  The report states that “some 1.2 million public high school students drop out every year.”

Some will be successful anyway.  Most will not.  Stifled and confused, they will join so many before them.  There’s no way to save all students, but we can certainly do a better job than we are doing now.  People who simply learn facts cannot help society continue to flourish.  Facts stifle growth. 

We must change education to reflect how people think and encourage them to do so.   It’s simply the intelligent thing to do.

Bill Lazarus regularly writes about religion, religious history and current events.  He also speaks at various religious organizations throughout Florida.  You can reach him at www.williamplazarus.com.  His books are available on Amazon.com, Kindle, bookstores and via various publishers.  Many of his essays are posted at www.williamplazarus@blogspot.com


Monday, August 22, 2011

Why We Can’t make Good Decisions?


I recall reading a doctoral dissertation years ago that dealt with the history of sex.    It was not salacious, but rather an examination of how attitudes change across history.    Some were labeled masculine; others, feminine.  In feminine cycles, the Virgin Mary was increasingly venerated at the expense of Jesus while attitudes towards gays lightened.  Then, the pendulum would swing to the masculine attitude, and leaders would reject such softer views for more rigid ideologies.

At one time, the movement between one period  and another were slow.  Lines between them were clearly delineated through published works, commentaries and civil actions.  That’s not true anymore.  Now, societal views swing rapidly, and, at the same time, contain strands from each side of thought.  Part of conflict today comes from the clash between these two diverse ideologies.


I can think of several reasons why thoughts fluctuate so wildly these days.

For starters, communication is vastly different today than 500 years ago.  In fact, communication changed little between the time of Jesus and the development of printing press in the 1400s.  The next revolution didn’t come until the 1800s with the Penny Press, the telegraph and then the telephone. 
Today, everything is different.  A flash mob can loot stores, as happened recently in Maryland, because people can communicate faster than ever before.  That, in turn, allows for a more-rapid dissemination of opinions.  There are also more avenues for communication. A person can be bombarded daily through any number of sources, all providing the same message – which may or may not be accurate.

In addition, the information has to be presented in bite-sized units.  Pithy statements lend themselves to media presentation, but they fail to fully explain a person’s view.  For example, it’s easy to look at the economy and blame Barack Obama.  That’s absurd.  Few presidents affects the economy in his first term.  It typically takes at least four years for economic policies to filter through.  That’s true for Obama as it was for Bill Clinton.  A rare exception is George W. Bush who, flushed with cash, dissipated it all in his first term and created a mammoth deficit for his successor to deal with.

Moreover, the constant calls today to “balance” the budget – ironically, mostly demanded by those responsible for the imbalance – ignores the reality that most of us are in debt.  Anyone with a mortgage or who didn’t pay cash for a car borrows money.  The only thing that matters is maintaining sufficient income to cover the expenses.  As a result, any budget discussion must include investigations into proper taxation, a topic that doesn’t seem to enter the discussion very often.

As another example, consider Michelle Bachmann’s well-publicized comment that she wants to end minimum wage.  I’m no fan of Bachmann, but that’s simply not true.  The Minnesota Representative and Republican presidential candidate actually said she wants to end all regulations that interfere with job creation and  examine all existing ones, including minimum wage.

She has a point on minimum wage, but only a small one.  At $7.25 an hour, it might prevent some employers from hiring someone.  On the other hand, federal statistics show that about 4.4 million Americans earning minimum wage now,  representing about 3.4 percent of the workforce.  That’s little changed from two years ago when the minimum wage was $5.85 per hour.  Apparently, not many potential employers held back.  Also, people on minimum wage tend to be younger and have limited education.  They are the most vulnerable in this country to economic downturns.

Nevertheless, the sound bite doesn’t reflect Bachmann’s real suggestion for one way to deal with unemployment in this country.  

That’s equally true with most of the other claims, statements and comments broadcast in some form by the media.   Unfortunately, we don’t take the time to examine them carefully, logically and systematically before  the social pendulum begins swinging in the other direction again.

Then, too, there are far more people.  There are about 7 billion of us now.  If even only 1 percent follow a particular ideology, there’s still a ton of people involved.  With communication, they can sound far louder than their comparative puny numbers.

Mostly, though, the reason why philosophies shifts so radically lies in education.  People are more educated on paper.  A greater percentage of Americans  hold college degrees than ever before.  In the 1940s, only 5 percent of Americans held bachelor’s degrees.  By 2002, the total was more than 27 percent, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.  And we trail many industrial countries – 40 percent of Finns, for example, have degrees.

People today are more knowledgeable.  Any question can be answered via the internet.  Information is readily available on any topic.

However, people seemed to have stopped thinking.  That’s a skill not being taught in school.  Because of the emphasis on testing, schools now teach facts, not comprehension and discernment.  The founders of this country understood the difference.  They recognized a democracy cannot survive undereducated voters.  They didn’t want the masses to vote, only landowners who, presumably, had done well enough because of their education and intelligence to comprehend complex issues.

Today, instead, people are bombarded with sound bites that fail to illuminate an issue.  It’s easier to accept the pithy comments as accurate.  It’s faster.  It’s less complicated. It’s sexy.

Unfortunately, such limited comments wild gyrations in opinions and interfere with everyone’s ability to make wise decisions.

Bill Lazarus regularly writes about current events and religious history.  He also speaks at various religious organizations throughout Florida.  You can reach him at www.williamplazarus.com.  His books are available on Amazon.com, Kindle, bookstores and via various publishers. 

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Up a Tree About Age


When I was still in high school, I recall deciding I was too old to trick or treat on Halloween.  To be honest, I never liked candy so I wasn’t exactly making a great sacrifice.  It was sort of like giving up piano playing for Lent since I never played.  I also never liked getting into costumes – still don’t – and invariably went door-to-door in the “disguise” of a student of exactly my own age. 

Halloween, I decided at age 15, was for little children.

In our neighborhood in Akron, Ohio was always filled with kids.  So, we always had lots of them come by the house for candy on Halloween.   Since I wasn’t going out, I decided to climb the large tree in front of our house to watch the costumed nightcrawlers troop up to the front door.   It was like having a closed-circuit TV: I was hidden, yet, at the same time, able to see what was happening. 

At least 10 to 15 kids walked by the tree without seeing me, knocked on the door, got candy and headed to the neighbor’s.

Then, a young woman walked by.  She let a little boy run up to the front door while she stood on the sidewalk.  For some reason, she looked up and spotted me.

“Who are you?” she asked boldly.  She clearly had no concern that I was dangerous in any way.

“The Angel Gabriel,” I told her for no apparent reason.

“Yeah,” she retorted.  “And I’m the Virgin Mary.”

That’s when I learned the difference between being young and old.

Young people can climb trees.  I did that a lot as a child, even falling from the top of a pine tree to the bottom.  I wasn’t hurt, just surprised.  However, after her sarcastic comment, I thought about it.  I realized that I never saw an old (or older) person in a tree.

Think about it: at golf tournaments, where trees provide excellent vantage point above the crowd, they are populated by youngsters.  No one who was older would ever think of climbing a tree there or anywhere else.  Have see an adult in a tree at a park?  There are plenty of trees there. 

An “adult” would think about appearances.  He would wonder what people thought about him, perched on a branch and placidly watching the world below.  He would think about falling and what the ground might do to him on impact.  He would think about ruining his clothes.  He would think about everything but having fun in the sheer act of climbing and then reaching a destination that once seemed too high or too difficult.

A child would simply climb.  The tree would not be a deterrent, but an invitation.  If the clothes get mussed, who cares?  If someone sees him, that’s the idea.  Wave.  Show off.  Look at me.  Hey, I’m up here.  He would feel powerful.  He would revel in the exuberance of conquering a tree, which seems so large and formidable.  He would feel like an adult without sacrificing his youth.

No adult can do that.  We may want to feel like a child again, as Barbra Streisand sang in “Kiss Me in the Rain,” but, in truth, we know we aren’t.  That time has passed.

The only adult I ever saw up a tree was actor Alan Arkin in the movie Catch-22.   As the protagonist Yossarian, he was naked.  The tree camouflaged his body.  Otherwise, I don’t think a director would have opted for a tree.  It simply looked strange.

After that Halloween night, I have never climbed a tree again.  I even developed a fear of heights.  I miss that part of being young. 

On the other hand, that young woman’s comments did activate my further interest in religious history.  I lost out on tree climbing, but gained an avocation.  I’ve been out on a lot of limbs since that day, but never in a tree.

Bill Lazarus regularly writes about religion and religious history.  He also speaks at various religious organizations throughout Florida.  You can reach him at www.williamplazarus.com.  His books are available on Amazon.com, Kindle, bookstores and via various publishers.  Many of his essays are posted at www.williamplazarus.blogspot.com.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Perry's 'Response' Requires Answers


Recently, an estimated 30,000 people turned out in Texas for a Houston prayer meeting billed as “The Response” to the “moral decline” of this country by its main promoter, Texas Gov. Rick Perry.  Of course, Perry was really more concerned about boosting his chances of winning the Republican nomination for the 2012 presidential election rather than anyone’s moral status.

Not that he doesn’t spout a lot of rhetoric about moral depravity and the decline in America.  It’s a nice topic and sure to generate some support.  After all, who is in favor of being morally depraved? 

On the other hand, Perry might consider some historical perspective before stepping off the deep end on this issue.  Just for starters, Americans increasingly are moving away from religion – specifically Christianity.  A study of people who call themselves Born Again found steep declines in church attendance and Bible reading since 1991.  The Barna Research Group’s 2011 report noted that “In the past decade, even the proportion of born-again adults who say their faith is vitally important to them has dipped substantially.”

In those less religiously committed, the decline is more obvious.  “The American church is in crisis,” reported author David Olson, who studied attendance at more than 200,000 American churches for his recent book.

Then, too, Perry has aligned himself with the American Family Association, which was founded back in the 1970s to promote self-identified family values.  Radio host Bryan Fischer is the organization’s chief spokesman, and he’s on record for such comments as “Hitler himself was an active homosexual” and hired gays because “homosexual soldiers basically had no limits and the savagery and brutality they were willing to inflict on whomever Hitler sent them after.”

That’s not true.  Germany had already outlawed homosexuality prior to Hitler becoming chancellor in 1933.  The Fuehrer then ratcheted up the opposition.  An estimated 10,000 to 15,000 homosexuals went to concentration camps to be castrated, experimented on and, usually, brutally murdered.  Another 50,000 men were arrested under the anti-gay law.    Ernst Röhm, the gay leader of Hitler’s first group of thugs, was murdered. 

Hitler’s sex life has been studied; at best, he was not interested.  His first love committed suicide.  He married his long-time girlfriend on the day he shot himself.

More importantly, Americans have become increasingly tolerant of gays.  A May 2011 study, for example, found that 53 percent of Americans now favor gay marriages. 

Any ant-gay approach is simply going to alienate the majority of voters.

Then, too, Fischer has attacked Muslims.  “The reason is simple: the more devout a Muslim is, the more of a threat he is to national security. Devout Muslims, who accept the teachings of the Prophet as divinely inspired, believe it is their duty to kill infidels,” he wrote.

Wrong again.  In fact, the Koran specifically identifies Christians and Jews as “people of the book” who should not be harmed.  For centuries, representatives of all three religions lived and worked peacefully in Islamic countries.  That was not true in the Christian West, where Jews and Muslims were persecuted.  When tired of that, Catholics and Protestants turned on each other.

Sadly, such efforts by Perry, Fischer and other Republican candidates to pander to the far right have occurred in past and will again in the future.  They speak for a small, but vocally group convinced that their religion needs to be defended by demonizing those who disagree.

It’s a time-honored tradition.  The Roman Catholic Church successfully practiced that approach for centuries, calling opponents heretics and inviting true believers to kill them.  The Church even invented the concept of heresies.  Romans and Greeks recognized the existence of other religions, but not the Church.

If there’s an irony to this, it lies with Christian teachings.  An all-knowing, all-powerful, all-loving God certainly can’t need to have his henchmen on Earth kill those who disagree.  As the great sage Gamaliel in the New Testament noted when halting attacks on early Christians: “For if … this work be of men, it will come to nothing:  But if it be of God, you cannot overthrow it; lest haply you be found even to fight against God.”  (Acts 38-39)

That is equally a valid comment today, regarding people’s acceptance of non-conservative philosophies. Let God handle it.  When people do, they invariably violate Constitutional guarantees of freedom of religion and civil rights, creating their own moral cesspool and activating a different kind of response.

Bill Lazarus regularly writes about religion and religious history.  He also speaks at various religious organizations throughout Florida.  You can reach him at www.williamplazarus.com.  His books are available on Amazon.com, Kindle, bookstores and via various publishers.