Category Archives: education

Abused words: consensus, anarchy, genocide, contractor, home

George Orwell warned humanity in his novel 1984 that totalitarian governments of the future would mangle language to such an extent that the original meanings of words would become lost as history was rewritten, and words would at times even come to connote the exact opposite of their original meaning.

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Pick up any random copy of a business press release, a mainstream newspaper,  mass market magazine, or a government document, and you will be confronted with this mangling of language on a daily basis. The examples could fill an entire book, but here are some of the most egregious:

1) consensus

There are instances when dictionaries cause more confusion than clarity. Such is the case with ‘consensus.’ Most dictionaries define it as general agreement. But what the heck does the word ‘general’ mean in the definition? That’s open to interpretation. One dictionary says that it is an agreement shared by a majority while another says that it is an agreement shared by ALL. So, are we to say that consensus means 51% or greater, or does it mean 100% agreement?  Most writers, reporters and bloggers today use it to mean a majority but when I was living in communities we always understood the word to mean agreement by everybody, no exceptions. Also, the phrases ‘growing consensus’ and ‘general consensus’  are meaningless. Authors, speakers and propagandists who attempt to gain traction for a theory or idea that they are trying to sell often use this word  in an argumentum ad populum.  This type of argument says ‘the majority believe it, so it must be true.’ Furthermore, it sounds more official and learned to say ‘there is a growing consensus’ than to say, ‘a majority of people believe…’

2) anarchy

Leo Tolstoy

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In my lifetime, no word has been more vilified and shredded than ‘anarchy.’ The word traces its roots back to ancient Greek.  ‘An’  means  without and ‘arkhos’   or ‘archon’ means ruler. So, anarchy means without rulers or without government. An anarchist is someone who doesn’t believe in government. Or, to put it in a more active form, an anarchist is someone who believes in ‘self-rule.’ Anarchism refers to the political theory while anarchy refers to the actual practice.

Over the centuries,  further definitions were added on to the original. The second, third and fourth entries in dictionaries  gave ‘disorder, chaos, confusion,’ and other scary words to associate with ‘no government.’

In the years that I have been reading and studying the media, mostly in the USA, I have NEVER seen anarchy used in any context but chaos, confusion, and violence.  As soon as a riot breaks out somewhere, either as a result of a natural disaster or economic conditions , you can bet your life savings that a government spokesperson and television  announcer will proclaim that there is a great danger of ‘anarchy.’

This is a pretty sad state of affairs, and it is nothing more than conditioning and programming of the masses. Governments have always been fearful of the idea of anarchy and have always tried to conflate anarchy and chaos. There was once a time, even in the USA, not too long ago when anarchy and anarchism were talked about seriously. Those days are long gone, and now we can only watch the spectacle of talking heads on television frothing at the mouth and shouting ‘anarchy!’

 

3) genocide

Few words in the English language can arouse  emotion so quickly as ‘genocide.’ The word came into popular usage after World War II. Dictionaries, again,  can steer  us off course. Most state that it is ‘the extermination of a national, racial, ethnic, or cultural group.’  Does ‘extermination’ mean 100% of those members, a majority,  or just a large number? The word has become so politicized now, and is such a favorite of dictators, propagandists, and speechwriters, that anytime a few thousand, hundred or dozen get killed- from a population of millions- someone is screaming ‘genocide.’ Not only is this not accurate and purposefully inflammatory, but it degrades the memory of groups and tribes who truly have been exterminated.  Certainly, when large numbers of people are killed, we should mourn them, but rarely does the killing  warrant the use of the word ‘genocide.’ Even many otherwise excellent and insightful political writers whom I read regularly abuse this word.

4) contractor

Welcome to the USA, post 9/11! Our government ‘leaders’ have dropped all pretense and shame, and now proudly proclaim WAR IS PEACE, FREEDOM  IS SLAVERY, and IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH. Such is the mentality of government warmongers and war profiteers that mercenaries are now called by the politically neutral and benign word  ‘contractors.’ Even the word ‘mercenary’ does not truly do justice to the reality of  murderers- for hire. Nowadays, our mainstream media blithely and sickeningly will only use contractor when talking about the thousands of Blackwater hit-men roaming the mountains of Afghanistan and the streets of Iraq. One can imagine if a reporter from the New York Times were to attempt to write ‘mercenary.’ He would quickly be reprimanded and reminded that news organizations don’t use that language anymore. The CIA says so.

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5) home

I’ve often wondered how and why the word ‘house’ has almost completely disappeared from the English lexicon. As George Carlin so eloquently said, a home can be anywhere -the street, your friends couch, the road- and is more likened to a state of mind than a physical, tangible object. Most people are familiar with the idiom, “Home is where the heart is.” A house is a building,  a dwelling that is usually built by a corporation and meant to be sold to a family or individual so that one day they can call it a home. These days, many people don’t even want to do that; they simply buy it as in ‘investment’, a profit making opportunity.

Pick up a newspaper, magazine, pamphlet, hand-out, or book and try to find the word house these days. It is almost impossible to find. Marketers and PR hacks  discovered way back in the days of Edward Bernays that people resonated with the word home , much more than house . You are far more likely to put down a lot of money to buy a home than you are to buy a house. It all comes down to marketing.

News reporters have been sucked up into this nonsense. How many times have we seen a helicopter flying high over a devastated region after a tornado or hurricane and the reporter looks below at the shattered structures and houses and says, “There are so many destroyed homes…” Selling disaster for ratings.

 

 

 

 

 

 

How to read (and understand) the corporate press. Case study: Serbia

If you walk by a newsstand and pick up a magazine like  Businessweek or a newspaper like the Wall Street Journal, you know that you will be reading ‘the news’ from the perspective of large business interests, and the stories will be slanted to fit into their perspective and worldview. But what about mainstream newspapers and news organizations, such as BBC, Agence France-Presse, AP, Al-Jazeera, The New York Times  and all the rest? Are we getting ‘objective’ reporting about news, especially economic news, which gives us a clear understand of micro and macro economic conditions? No, of course not. All of the news organizations listed are themselves huge corporations, publicly traded on Wall Street, and have boards of directors who themselves sit on other companies’ boards.

What’s humorous to observe and study is the language that reporters for these companies use when reporting on political and economic issues facing countries. The language is carefully crafted to appear as neutral, independent , and objective when in reality it is nothing of the sort.

Let’s take a recent article from Agence France-Presse about recent elections in Serbia. AFP refers to Aleksandar Vucic , the Deputy Prime Minister as a former ‘ultra nationalist hawk.’ This is simple code language, used often in the business press, to refer to a leader who doesn’t ‘play ball’ with the international money lenders and tries to keep his country independent, strong, and sovereign. The big corporations and banks have no use for countries like that. They want weak, impotent countries with puppet dictators whom they can easily control.

Now, however, Vucic is no longer a ‘a nationalist hawk’ who is against joining the EU. He has ‘reformed’ himself and is a new man! Now, he is happily steering Serbia into full EU membership and thus subjugating a once proud and independent country to rule by a bunch of European bureaucrats residing in Brussels. He will no doubt be receiving heaps of praise from media such as AFP.

 

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The article goes on. The reporter informs the readers that Serbia ‘has often been seen as a defiant international pariah since playing a central role in the Balkan wars of the 1990s.’  I wish I had a nickel for every time an organization like AFP or the New York Times referred to Serbia as a ‘pariah.’ In fact, Serbia’s leaders did what any country’s leaders do when attacked by foreign forces: fight back and work to protect their people and borders. Serbia’s real crime was that it was stubbornly independent and didn’t want to trade in its sovereignty for the chance to join the EU. But the lazy writer for AFP is counting on his readers not knowing history or understanding the language he is using.

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In the following paragraph, this reporter gives a couple of statistics detailing Serbia’s current economic troubles- which of course were the result of its being a pariah and not playing ball with Brussels, the IMF, World Bank and Goldman Sachs- and then gives the solution. The reporter writes: “The next government will have to focus on reforming antiquated labor laws and cutting down on bureaucracy, analysts say.”

 

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This is classic IMF/Wall Street lingo, understood perfectly well by those in the upper echelons of the business class, but little understood by the average reader. First of all, who are the ‘analysts’ the reporter writes of? Notice he doesn’t bother to name his sources. He doesn’t need to. No doubt these so-called ‘analysts’ work for Wall Street. He also cleverly phrases it in a one-sided manner, to give the impression that there is no debate on this now, that it’s a foregone conclusion what the new administration in Belgrade must do. ‘Antiquated labor laws’ is phrase that business writers love to hurl at governments , especially of countries like France which have strong laws on the books to protect their workers from amoral and rapacious corporations. ‘Cutting down on bureaucracy’ is another timeworn and favorite phrase of the corporate press. They want governments to gut all the departments which are in place to protect workers, children and families so that the corporations can have free reign to do as they please, i.e. extract, pollute, and exploit.

The nameless reporter plows ahead in the next paragraph. “The new government will also have to push through a stringent austerity package, including the privatisation of 170 state-owned companies, along with subsidy cuts and tax increases.”

Again, where is the reporter getting this information from? It looks as though he has the IMF/World Bank loan form right in from of him. Serbia, he is telling us, will have to drink the same bitter medicine that Ireland, Portugal, Spain, Greece and others have drunk. The banks and large trans-nationals will come in to rape the country of its natural resources, buy all the state companies for pennies on the dollar and subject its population to years, possibly decades , of imposed poverty and disease. Again, it’s presented as if this is the only viable solution, and a done deal. The only thing left is to sign on the dotted line. The same thing will happen in Ukraine, and all the articles about that country will sound just like this one.

‘Austerity’ and ‘privatisation’ mean rape and pillage. But the business press always prefers to use polite language, so you must learn how to translate.

 

Left-wing Gatekeepers: Maddow, Maher, Cockburn, Stewart, McKenna

The so-called ‘Left’ in America is populated with numerous gatekeepers. In a previous piece, I mentioned three of the most prominent: Noam Chomsky, Amy Goodman, and Michael Moore.  Let’s look at a few more.

1) Rachel Maddow.

She’s young, she’s hip, she’s smart, she’s liberal, and… she’s a lesbian. (cool!) She criticizes the government, especially those in government who are on the Republican team.  She is anti-war and anti-imperialism. Not surprisingly, she has attracted a following of young, liberal, urban hipster types with a political bent.

She graduated from Stanford University, the training ground for so many of America’s cold warriors and military-industrial-media-financial elite. From there, she was awarded a Rhodes Scholarship and went on to obtain a PhD from Oxford. The people who award Rhodes Scholarships do not like to waste their money, and they bring in young people who are smart and willing to be groomed to be future leaders. If you are fundamentally opposed to the way the world is currently organized and structured, you will not be awarded things like Rhodes Scholarships and Oxford PhDs. Just something to keep in mind when judging people like Maddow.

 

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Most of what she says about government malfeasance stands up  well. But, when it comes to the ultimate litmus test for gatekeepers- 9/11- , Maddow shows who she is really working for. Addressing the issue, she practically hyperventilated, and went off on – you guessed it- ‘conspiracy theorists.’ What’s wrong with those people anyway, she asked. Don’t they have anything better to do with their time? Those conspiracy people obviously have some misplaced wiring in their brain. The rant went on and on as she bashed Alex Jones and others.  People just shouldn’t question government lies about 9/11. Question government about everything else, but for the major event of the last 20 years… let’s just go along with the story and let it go. Her employer by the way is MSNBC,  owned by NBCUniversal, one of the largest media companies in the world.  Rachel Maddow is a fraud and a tool for the elite.

2) Bill Maher.

It’s difficult for me to watch this guy for more than a minute or two. I don’t know what bothers me the most: His nasally Jewish voice, his unrelenting sarcasm, his “I’m smarter than you” smirk, or his lack of any defining ideology. He uses his show, “Real Time with Bill Maher” to invite on his celebrity  buddies and shoot the shit about politics and religion. He pokes fun at religion, but George Carlin did that much better and long before Maher.

Considering that he has a large platform from which to speak and reach a large audience, and considering that he’s based in New York, and considering that he claims to be highly informed about politics, some folks asked him why  he didn’t bring up the issue of 9/11 and the flimsy government story. And what about Building 7, ?  Well, Bill wasn’t having any of that ‘conspiracy‘  talk and once again fell into lock- step with the other gatekeepers, bringing out the tried and true insults like ‘conspiracy nuts’ , ‘wackos’,  and so on. Bill Maher has never stood for anything, and his job is to be  controlled opposition, a harmless release valve for the ever suffering masses.

3) Alexander Cockburn.

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The late writer for The Nation magazine, who wrote the popular column ‘Beat the Devil’ , was a talented political writer, fierce critic of the Bush presidency and American imperialism.  He was also  a shameless gatekeeper and peddler of absurdities such as the Oswald ‘lone nut’ assassination theory, sold to the American public by the Warren Commission (with of course the full and willing complicity of the national news media)   When I read his pathetic attempt at a refutation of the 9/11 truth movement, I was shocked that a man who could, and did, write eloquently and persuasively on many political subjects, would stoop to such sloppy, nonsensical and vitriolic arguments.  He viciously attacked and mocked anyone who was investigating 9/11 as kooks, not real writers and journalists, like he was. Those crazy folks just see a conspiracy under every rock. Why bother with them?  Cockburn was another controlled opposition fraud, meant to keep the Left docile, uninformed, and helpless.

 

4) Jonathan Stuart Leibowitz.

Another good Jewish boy , working for the ‘Man.’ Oh, Jon Stewart, how many have you deceived with your quick wit, goofy smile, and acerbic intellect?  Quite a few, I see. Your adoring fans tune in every night to watch you mock  the idiot bureaucrats, political buffoons, and corporate hucksters with your talented team of writers.

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There’s something strange going on here, though. What’s up with the guests? Why does Jon bring on so many of the very people that he professes to despise for friendly chats? Ostensibly, he invites them on his show to grill them with hard questions, something he says the MSM never does.

But what these little ‘interviews’ and chats really do is give these monsters a human face, and in the end it’s all just theatre- warm smiles all around, a lot of hand shaking and back slapping and you get the impression that after the show when the cameras are off, they all pile in the limo together to go out to have  drinks and watch strippers.

Need I say that Jonathan Leibowitz, (oh, sorry, ‘Jon Stewart’) disses the 9/11 truth movement? Oh yes. Don’t look there, there is nothing to see. Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain. Yes Jon,  you can hold up your sign saying “9/11 was an outside job” and your brain- dead sycophantic audience will giggle and laugh stupidly, but not all of us are fooled, Jon. And we’re not laughing. You think we don’t know that Comedy Central is owned by MTV Networks Entertainment Group, which is owned by Viacom, one of the ‘big six’ media conglomerates which control 90% of the media in the U.S.?  Those are some serious people signing your paycheck, Jon. We’re talking BIG business. You’re in bed with the devil.  According to recent media reports, you make 30 million USD a year to host The Daily Show. I’m sure that’s enough to make you toe the line, eh Jon? You actually get your audience to believe that you’re just like them, one of the 99%. Nice one! And let’s not forget that his brother is the CEO of the New York Stock Exchange. The family seems to be good at making money.

5) Terence McKenna

Philosopher, ethnobotanist, lecturer, and author, Terence Mckenna (1946-2000) was an underground legend for years in the late 1980s and early 1990s in the psychedelic and rave community before he broke (somewhat) into the mainstream with a number of books published by HarperCollins and Bantam. Those books included The Archaic Revival, True Hallucinations, Food of the Gods, and The Invisible Landscape. 

I read all of his books in the 1990s with fascination. His theories about psychedelic plants, psilocybin mushrooms, the evolution of language, the ‘return to the archaic’, ufos, elves, rave culture, the IChing,  and the year 2012 were fascinating.  None of his theories could be proven, not even remotely, yet they were fun to contemplate.

In 1998, a friend gave me a series of audio tapes of his lectures, some 10 hours of talks at informal seminars. I listened to them many times over the next year and became increasingly uncomfortable with what he was saying to his audience.

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The ‘lecturer’ McKenna was different from the ‘author’ McKenna. When he spoke, he drew in his audience not only with the captivating nature of the material, but also with his charm, quirky humor, and unique ability to turn a phrase.

There’s an advantage to listening to talks on tape. You can focus on the words and the message, and not be sidetracked with the speaker’s visual appearance, or how the audience around you is reacting. One thing I immediately noticed was how adoring and unquestioning McKenna’s audiences were. There was little to no real give and take, and they were just mesmerized by his seeming vast knowledge of all subjects. More worrisome though, was McKenna’s breezy and offhand dismissal of spiritual disciplines like yoga and meditation. For ‘real’ knowledge, he claimed you must ingest the plants. He once referred to the entire Indian subcontinent as ‘one giant scam.’

Furthermore, he often liked to say, in questions regarding global conspiracies, that in reality, “Nobody is in charge.” The world is too big, too complex and too slippery for any group or cabal to ever get ahold of. He implicitly and explicitly encouraged his fans to not bother searching into conspiracies.

For all his verbal wizardry and ethnobotanic knowledge, most of McKenna’s message just led his followers in circles. Now, years after his death, a recording has surfaced from a talk at Esalen Institute where he admits to working as a CIA agent for years after he was busted for smuggling hashish. Suddenly, much of his writing and lectures take on a new light.

 

 

Advice for a college freshman

My niece has recently begun her matriculation at a large state university and this fact has brought back memories of my first year of university back in 1984. I also attended a large state school, numbering some 50,000 undergraduate students with 10,000 more graduate students.

I had attended an academically rigorous private high school and the coursework at the university was no more challenging than what I had already suffered through. However, like many 18-year-olds leaving home for the first time, I was emotionally and psychologically unprepared for many aspects of college life. The first year, and especially the first semester, were extremely difficult for me, as I struggled with loneliness, despair and depression.

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Here are some tips for my niece and other college freshmen undertaking the university path:

1) Attend class. Really, it was amazing to watch the students in my classes gradually drop away as the semesters progressed. Class attendance seemed to decrease by 5% each week until only 50% of the students showed up on any given day. Teenagers and young adults  given an amount of freedom that they were not used to  often resulted in apathetic attitudes toward classes. Obtaining a baccalaureate degree is not that difficult, and going to class is the first and foremost requirement to achieving your goal. Hung over? Tired? Bored? Suck it up and go to class.

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2) Find a good counselor. During my four years, I had someone who I could ask specific questions about classes and prerequisites and so forth, but nobody who got to know me well and could truly advise me regarding my strengths, weaknesses, abilities and desires. A good counselor will not be shy about telling you, “Perhaps you should consider another  major,” even into your sophomore or junior year.

Don’t feel embarrassed about changing your major.  Few people are clear about the goals and direction in life at that age. I could have, and probably should have, changed my major, but stick with it for the wrong reasons.

3) Attend summer classes at least once. The pace is accelerated and it is intense, but not unbearably so. You will get ahead of where you should be, or perhaps catch up if you have fallen behind in your goal to graduate in four years. Furthermore, the smaller class size and faster pace encourage a greater sense of camaraderie with your fellow students and you will make friends in those classes.

4) Study abroad. Go for a year if possible, or one semester if that is all you can manage. Start planning early or time will fly by and the opportunity will pass. All big schools have universities in other countries with which they have partner programs. Choose a country that sounds exotic and which you know little about . It will expand your horizons and enrich your university experience.

Europe: 

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5) Have fun, but don’t get caught up with the ‘party crowd.’ Look around you at the wide range of students at big universities. Most of them don’t come from rich families. Some don’t have family members with a college degree. Many are making a big sacrifice to attend college and aren’t there to fool around and party. See the students with their heads bowed over a book at the library at 10:30pm on a Friday night? They understand why they’re there.

6) If you’re concerned about your GPA (and who isn’t?), use the pass/fail option when you need it. When I learned about this during my sophomore year, I exclaimed “hallelujah.” I knew I was going to struggle with some classes, such as French, and when those ‘C’ grades add up, it can drag down your GPA fast.

7) Big universities all have non-credit, informal classes which are offered in whatever available spaces the university has. Take advantage of them! They are usually very affordable, sometimes ridiculously cheap. I think the most I ever paid for an informal class was $40.  I took Karate, yoga, dance, typing, and other great classes with that system and loved every minute.

 

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8) Chat with your professor. You will have classes in which there are 200 or 300 students sitting in an auditorium and if you don’t make the effort, you will never meet the professor. Don’t let this happen. Visit him or her during office hours. Don’t let the professor be just some disembodied voice speaking from a stage.

9) Get an on-campus part time job. I worked for the catering department of the student union. If you are taking a full class load, you won’t have time to work more than 10 or 15 hours a week, but you will make friends and have some extra spending cash.

10) Make friends from other countries. A good way to do this is to live in an international co-op.

 

Classes:

 

There are some classes which almost all freshman and sophomores are funneled into. However, if you can manage to avoid them, try to stay away from:

A) Psychology 101. You will be in class with hundreds of other bored kids, learning from a boring text and listening to a boring teacher. If you are particularly interested in this subject, check out Freud’s “Interpretation of Dreams” and Jung’s “Man and His Symbols” from the library.

B) Sociology 101. See above.

C) World History 101. This is like learning history from the history channel, only more superficial.

D) American history and American literature. These are hard to get around, but you don’t need a professor for this material anyway. Read Howard Zinn’s  “A people’s history of the United States.” For literature, the only names you need to know are Thoreau, Emerson, Thomas Paine,  Mark Twain, and Robert Frost. Read ‘ Civil Disobedience’ and ‘Walden’ and ‘Leaves of Grass’ by Whitman.

Thoreau. He’s as relevant as ever. 

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Now, for the classes you absolutely should take:

A) Art History. The material  is fascinating. If you’re lucky, you will have a professor who is passionate about the subject  and can really bring it alive. I looked forward to this class like few others, and was hooked from the first day.

B) Photography. Few young people today associate the word ‘photography’ with the word ‘art.’ Fewer still have heard of  Alfred Stieglitz and Ansel Adams. This is unfortunate. With each new advancement in the technology of cameras and photography,  and the proliferation of cameras to most of the world’s population, the quality of photography has gone down. Way, way down. First instamatic cameras, then digital cameras, and now camera phones have degraded photography immensely. With the ease of deleting photos and the cheap cost of taking hundreds and thousands of pictures, few people bother to take the time to frame a good photo. Learning to take good photos is fun and  you can develop skills in a short time with a good teacher.

Ansel Adams, Yosemite:

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C) Gymnastics. Yes, it’s not just for olympians. If you can learn just two tricks- the backflip and back handspring- as I did, you will be walking on air. Take the plunge and go for it.

D) History of the movies. My university called this class “The Development of the Motion Picture” to make it sound more academic. Whatever. Sit back and learn the tricks of the filmmakers and see who really influenced who and why today’s directors still worship at the shrine of David Lean and Akira Kurosawa.

Kurosawa:

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E) Astronomy.  If I had to choose my favorite course, this may well have been it. I was a tad nervous going in, not knowing if I would need to know a lot of math. I didn’t, and I quickly became swept up into the mysteries of the cosmos. The professor was predictably and irritably scornful of astrology, but that was ok. I took this course in the old days before the hubble telescope. It must be unimaginably better now.

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Authentic childhood has disappeared

Being a teacher, I have many opportunities to ask my students about their lives. In particular, I like to know how they spend their free time and what they eat. The answers they give often make me pause and reflect on my own childhood and on how much the world has changed. I am still young and my childhood was but a few brief decades ago, and yet it seems as if we could be talking about centuries ago, given how radically the world has been transformed in the past 20 years.

Another issue which all educators should think about is this: what do students need in order to excel in school and in life? What prerequisites are required? Surely, going to a private school and then on to a private or prestigious university is not enough. The world is turning out far too many company men (and women), young people with a lack of creativity, critical thinking skills and life-force.

I grew up in the suburbs. At the time I was born in 1966,  my family was close to the outer edge of the Washington DC suburbs in Maryland. Beyond our small neighborhood were fields where cows and horses grazed in pastures and pockets of forests remained where one could freely roam without fear.

Our street was a microcosm of America, with families of Italian, German, Greek, and Scotch-Irish origin. All the neighbors knew one another. My parents had numerous parties where they invited everyone on the street to our house for food and drinks. In order to get to my friends’ houses, I had to cut through the yards of three of my neighbors. These days, that would be known as ‘trespassing.’ Doors were often left unlocked. When I arrived at my friend’s house, I simply walked in without knocking (‘breaking and entering’, I think they call it).

Our wealthy next-door neighbors had a pool and tennis court which my siblings and I were free to use any time. We kept a section of fence open between our yards which acted as an implicit acknowledgement of openness and an invitation for mingling. Now, houses in that area are surrounded by large brick fences and other forms of security which naturally discourage spontaneous encounters.

Our neighbors directly across the road, the Adams family, stood out to me as exemplars of kindness. They had a pond in their yard, not too large, but big enough for kids to swim in summertime and ice skate in the wintertime. What a blessing to have that pond available to the neighborhood kids! Usually in December, when temperatures got cold enough for the ice to freeze the pond, old Mr. Adams would trudge out to the pond with his measure and screw to drill into the ice and make sure it was exactly thick enough for safe ice-skating. Word would quickly spread and my friends and I would be there in no time. Not only did the Adams provide the pond, but they also had a collection of ice skates which they loaned out to everyone. Finally, after we returned inside, exhausted, to take off our skates, they would provide us with sweetened crushed ice.

 

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Our house had a well which we used for all of our water needs. When we were thirsty, we simply turned on the faucet – or the garden hose- and filled our glasses. It was clean and delicious and just as importantly, FREE OF FLUORIDE  and other toxic chemicals routinely added to municipal water supplies.

My mother did not have a job outside the home and she cooked breakfast and dinner for my siblings and I every day of the week. Without having any background in nutrition studies, she used her common sense to guide menu planning and the meals were all well-balanced, even though I often vociferously rejected the vegetables on my plate, most especially the peas and carrots. There was fresh fruit on the table every morning, and a fruit drawer in the refrigerator which was always well-stocked. A salad was provided with dinner. The importance of having home cooked food prepared with love on a child’s development cannot be overstated, I believe. Going out to eat at a restaurant was a rare event, and something to be appreciated. Fast food was extremely rare. We went to McDonald’s once or twice a  year and my body and mind were spared the toxic onslaught of what those places call ‘food.’

The food preparation is the first part of the equation and the second part is the eating and sharing it. My parents, again using their innate wisdom and common sense, knew that eating  dinner as a family around the table was an important, even sacred, act and that such things as television watching violated that act. The conversations were not always interesting, and sometimes were downright boring, but that didn’t excuse us from the obligation to sit and eat together.

At that time in the 1970s, television had made its way into every house in the country, and we had two televisions in ours. My parents understood that most of the programs were garbage and that watching it was not going to aid my brother’s and my intellectual development. They allowed us to view it, but with strict limitations. We typically watched no more than one hour a day. We knew better than to ask if we could have a television in our bedroom. My parents would have scoffed at such an idea as absurd. All the kids I know these days have one in their bedroom, along with a computer, x-box , and smart phone. How can a child concentrate or develop an interest in books with all that stimulation at their fingertips?

I developed an interest in reading and books when I was young. I don’t remember my parents ever badgering me about reading, or needing to give me much encouragement. If the books are available and lying about, if the setting is amenable to reading, i.e. comfortable chairs and couches, good reading light and a quiet atmosphere, then a kid with a curious mind will naturally take to it. My mother was a good model. She returned from the library each week with a stack of books under her arm. She left most of them where I could find them and I would often grab a couple to take to my room to read. Later in my life, I became a real library hound, spending hours lost in the stacks.

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The kids in the neighborhood and I were outdoor kids to the max. We were outside 365 days a year. In the summertime, temperatures sometimes exceeded 100 degrees F. and in the winter, they often fell well below freezing. No matter. The heat was a good excuse to swim in the pond or pool and the snow and cold were a good excuse to build snowmen, snow tunnels and snowballs. Sledding down the local hills was popular. In the fall, raking up big piles of leaves and then climbing up on the fence to jump into them was always fun. Our summers in Vermont were spent wandering through the forests and collecting wild berries.

Tree-climbing is a pastime that is hardly any kids engage in anymore. This is unfortunate. Few activities give more benefit. It is great exercise and you don’t need to invest in any equipment. It builds stamina and arm and leg strength. It instills a sense of accomplishment in the climber when he is able to reach the top of the tree. It enables the climber to see life from a new perspective, gazing now over the rooftops. It subconsciously creates respect for nature as the tree becomes your ‘friend.’ You will learn the name of that tree species that you love to climb so much. It provides you with excellent cover for games of hide-and-seek and when you are fleeing your enemies (or your parents.) And you will never be embarrassed to tell your friends that you are a ‘tree-hugger.’

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Bird, insect, and animal life were abundant.  We collected frogs, worms, tadpoles, turtles, lightning bugs, moths,  crickets, butterflies and more worms. Herds of deer came through our yard daily. Red foxes hurried through in the late evening. Rabbits had their families at the base of trees in our backyard. Bats visited in the evening. My mother is a naturalist. She always had a bird feeder set up in the back yard from which many birds got their sustenance in the winter months. She could identify the name of every bird that visited our home. (And if she couldn’t, she went to the library to borrow a bird identification book) My parents knew the name of every plant, flower, shrub, bush and tree in our yard. It was simply a given that you should be able to do this. Hence, it came as a shock to me years later when I asked people about the flora in their yard and they were unable to tell me the names. Needless to say, most city folk cannot tell you the name of a single tree.

When I was growing up, our street ended at the edge of a forest. It had not yet been gobbled up and devoured by developers. Though not a large forest, it was just big enough for a twelve-year-old to get lost in. We used to run around in that forest all the time, looking for treasures and caves. I remember one night getting separated from my friends around dusk and realizing with growing panic that I had lost my way. No familiar landmarks were to be seen and each passing minute would see the forest get darker and darker.  Thoughts started appearing such as “What if i can’t find my way out before it becomes dark? What if I have to spend the night here? Does anybody know where I am? Will anyone come looking? Is there anything in this forest that can eat me?”

I eventually found my way out and raced home, albeit late for dinner. In later years, I often went hiking in other forests in other states, but that first experience of surviving ‘being lost’ and keeping my wits about me was a good lesson in wilderness appreciation.

By the time I was seven years old, I could identify ten constellations in the night sky. I could easily find Mercury, Venus and Jupiter and Mars. Again, this was not seen as ‘scientific’ or advanced knowledge, but simply as common sense stuff that everyone should know. I watched the sky every day and could name half a dozen cloud types. I knew what cumulus, stratus, cirrus, alto-cumulus, and cirro-stratus meant.

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Years ago when I lived in Seattle, I was in my local park one night, at dusk, looking out over the city to the west. It was a clear beautiful night. Venus was shining brightly low on the horizon. A young couple in their late twenties stood next to me, and I said, “Wow, look at Venus, she’s so bright tonight!”

The young man looked at me quizzically, and replied, “Huh? Venus? You mean, like, the planet? You can see that?”

I didn’t know what to say. I felt such a deep sadness for these young people, and all young city people the world over who have no connection whatsoever with nature, who are so cut off from reality that they have lived  three decades of life on Earth and nobody, NOBODY, has ever pointed out Venus to them. Sad, but true.

To summarize: Kids need home cooked food and pure water. They need to spend most of their childhood engaged in free play in nature, with space to roam and exercise. They need to develop an understanding and appreciation of nature and learn to name things, especially their local flora and fauna. They need loving and caring neighbors. And they need to develop their curiosity about the universe through books and ample time for reflection.

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