Monday, December 24, 2012

The Worst Christmas Eve of My Life?

Coming to terms with things that are not so bad.

It is Christmas Eve. 

I am in my favorite room in the house. We generally call it our "den." It has walls lined with books, a desk for the computer, some filing cabinets, our television with PS3, a comfy couch, a recliner and a wood-burning stove which currently houses a cheery crackling fire. Right now, the the television and PS3 are occupied playing a series of about 100 Christmas carols that I have on MP3. The dogs are playing somewhat too rowdy game for the house, but outside a mix of rain and snow makes me want to keep them in despite the rambunctious antics.

Earlier this evening, my wife and I attended our church's Christmas Eve service. We sang some lovely carols and took the Lord's Supper along with our church family. When I got home, I made some snickerdoodle cookies with alternating green and red sugar. I may take them with me to a gathering planned for tomorrow. I am also bringing a cheesecake that I made in the shape of a Christmas tree and a chocolate pie. Others will bring assorted good things to eat and we will have a wonderful time.

If my Christmas Eve sounds positively idyllic, that's because it probably is. The fire is warm. The carols are great. There are so many presents beneath the tree that it can barely contain them. If Dickens were to have written in modern times, I imagine he would have described a setting not unlike the room I am in. If this picturesque image of holiday perfection makes my readers wonder why I would describe this as my worst Christmas Eve of my life, well, that's kind of the point.

This year's disappointments.

Nearly every year of my life I have traveled for Christmas. There was a brief period during my teens when my parents lived close enough to their parents that major travel was unnecessary, but otherwise, Christmas has meant piling into a car and travelling a long distance. This is normal, I believe. At least it is common enough for Perry Como to have made a song famous regarding it:

I expected this year to be no different. My wife has a job which is none to wonderful for a number of reasons, but one advantage about which we were excited was the fact that she was to have two weeks off over Christmas. Since October, however, the company for which she works has undergone some changes. Among these changes was that there would be less holiday time available. At first, we thought we might have at least one week of Christmas break off. Then we heard that we did not. Our plans to travel to see family for Christmas were squashed.

As if that wasn't enough, promising two weeks and giving none, she had to spend tonight at work. Christmas Eve she must spend the entire night at work. So, while I am enjoying the carols, the dogs' antics and the cheery fire, I am doing so alone (except for the dogs).

I've never spent a Christmas Eve alone before. Normally, I like to be alone. Generally, I look forward to the evenings when my wife must work her overnight. I am a solitary person by nature and interaction, even with people I really love, wear on me. I am not particularly social. Don't get me wrong. I love certain social gatherings, but I enjoy the energy I get from being alone. Generally, I find the opportunity to be alone exciting.

But not on Christmas Eve. Being alone on Christmas Eve stinks. It is probably worse for my wife who not only is not able to be with people she loves, but actually has to work all night.

But complaining is wrong . . .

I can get so caught up in the negative. I am alone on Christmas Eve, but my Christmas is much better than Christmas is for the Christians who celebrate in Sudan, Iran or China. It is, in fact, beautiful, comfortable and amazing. My wife will come home in the morning. We will open our presents. We will play with our dogs. We will have a good time.  I often get so caught up in what I do not have that I forget all I have.

Our pastor said something interesting Sunday. It was not a major point of his sermon. In fact, I am pretty sure it was an unintentional short digression. He pointed out that for Christians, Christmas should not be about "giving," it should be about "receiving." Christmas is not about family. It's not about friends. It's not about food. It's not about giving gifts, it's about receiving them. The incarnation, the ultimate gift from God, is for us to receive. It opened the door for us to receive the gifts of salvation, the gifts of the Spirit, the gift of a personal relationship with The Most High God. For me, it is harder to be a grateful receiver than a generous giver. As a receiver, I lack gratitude and always seem to be demanding more.

That's what I've been doing lately. I've been complaining to God, friends, family, everyone about the changes in plan I've had to endure. I haven't focused on all I am receiving. I haven't seen God's grace in the wonderful Christmas I can and will have. Because of that, I have almost ruined it for myself.

So, I am going to change.

I am going to focus on the good. I am going to be a grateful receiver of gifts. I am going to be thankful for what is here. Really, that should be easy. I have been given a great deal and it is wonderful.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Program Prioritization

Coming to terms with university changes.

Every college or university that wants to stay current must occasionally evaluate what majors, minors and certificates it offers. The concept of the university developed from the academies and gymnasiums of Greece and Rome. Those institutions offered more limited training, usually in math, public speaking or philosophy. The idea of a "university" was that it would prepare certain people for a "universe" of knowledge. Not everyone could go to a university. Only those who had enough resources and time that they could pursue intellectual ends rather than the production of goods and services could go. Those people were seen as more free than those trapped in productive labor, and so those things one learned at the University were known as the "liberal arts." There were seven of these. First students learned the trivium: logic, grammar and rhetoric. No one could have the mental acumen to move on to more advanced studies without mastering these, so they were taught first. They were called the trivium because there were three of them. The fact that they were the basis of everything else is the reason that today we call basic knowledge "trivia." Once one had mastered the trivium one could move on and study the quadrivium: arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy. Only after one had mastered these could he (and it was virtually always he) study philosophy and theology, the study informed by these others.

For centuries, some near variation on the program described above was a university education. As a "liberal arts" advocate, I think that there is much to commend it. First of all, I strongly believe that teaching arithmetic to people who haven't mastered logic is a massive failing and the reason so many students struggle with math.  I certainly never understood math growing up. Those who were good at math seemed to see it as a game. Understanding it as part of a larger logical structure and one of many logical systems finally made it click for me, but that wasn't until I took classes in logic in college. How can one really understand trigonometry when one doesn't really know what an axiom is? But this is a digression.

Today's courses of study are not the same as those of a millennia ago. For one thing the lower, "practical" arts have merged with the liberal arts and the rise of democratic philosophies and related democratic societies has rendered the division between free people and those who labor as obsolete (for now). Free people are expected to work. Work for wages is no longer seen as an inherent impediment to an intellectual life. The university for the past two centuries at least has encouraged a "major" in one area, often a practical art, but sometimes a liberal art and "general studies" which give free people the access they need for an intellectual life as well.

So, there are two areas where a university constantly needs to update their offerings. One area is in the practical arts. The other area is in the liberal arts. In a democratic society, the liberal arts are more than just intellectual games. They are the means by which one acquires the knowledge one needs to perform the practical arts as they change. The liberal arts really haven't changed a huge amount since medieval times. We use "algebra" instead of arithmetic or geometry because of its ability to incorporate both logical systems. We have added "science" understood broadly. Most liberal arts programs require a couple different sciences so that scientific ways of gaining knowledge are understood by students. We've sort of decided that any kind of "art" can be substituted for music; it can be painting, sculpture, theater or music. The main thing is that students know how to arrive at knowledge through a creative process. While every university has a slight difference in how it manages the liberal arts, but we could probably create a new series. Students should know how to garner knowledge, logically (through argument), mathematically (through manipulation of numbers), dialectically (through interpersonal conversation or group work), lexically (through interacting with media), scientifically (through empirical observation of the natural world), social scientifically (through empirical observation of the social world) and artistically (through creation). While I could easily find people to argue over my choice of terms, these are the goals of most "general studies" programs, the vestiges of the liberal arts.

The practical arts are the ones that have changed the most and will continue to change the most. It will also be the most different from university to university. The program prioritization at Western New Mexico University is completed, for now. Mostly it has involved the consolidation of certain programs. No positions on the "professor" track will be eliminated, but it looks like some very good adjuncts will probably find their services no longer required.

Perhaps the most shocking to me is the elimination of the Computer Science major (the Computer Science professors will be asked to teach "computer literacy," a form of lexical thinking, and math). When I was an undergrad, during the height of the dotcom bubble, Computer Science was where the "smart" students majored. I.T. was a lucrative field with a guaranteed middle class income for competent practitioners and those who were both competent and creative were guaranteed wealth. Now, the person who can code in 10 languages and do calculus in his or her head seems to be struggling to keep his or her job at McDonald's.  The code monkeys in cubicles have moved to Asia where they make what is well below the minimum wage in the United States. In short, Computer Science majors cannot get jobs. Because people increasingly know that they cannot get jobs with a Computer Science degree, sensible students don't major in that. Because sensible students don't major in that, the program has died. This is the problem with the "practical arts." Whatever skill set one develops is only one skill set in a world wide market. It is almost certainly a skill set that will be obsolete soon. Often, what was most marketable one day is considered useless the next.

I am really sad to see Computer Science go. It is hard for me to entirely explain why. It might be related to my sadness at seeing smoking sections in restaurants go, seeing so few students wearing flannel and the disappearance of the bookstore. It might just be nostalgia for a time when I looked at the future and saw more hope. Of course, as I write this blog on an IPad during a meeting on modernizing and redesigning our courses using contemporary tools, I have a lot of hope for the future and no desire to return to a time when a computer was a big box in my dorm room.

Things change, and the courses that are "practical" right now will be useless in a few years. The courses in gaining and maintaining different kinds of knowledge, however, will continue to allow the people who majored in the "smart" practical fields can adjust to whatever the smart practices of tomorrow are. I am excited to see "what comes next."

Friday, December 7, 2012

Some thoughts on Pearl Harbor Day

I don’t like jerks, which I define as people who can’t have respectful, civil disagreements. I tend to be a right-leaning antiauthoritarian, but I get along well with statists and lefties, although I disagree with them. I can’t stand the anarchists on my “own” side who break windows or vandalize public property. I am a pretty orthodox evangelical, but I like to have respectful conversations across the religious spectrum, although I disagree with them. I can’t stand people on my “own” side who think it is their job to take Satan’s cosmic role and act as “accuser.” I usually try to be more critical of those with whom I agree than those with whom I disagree. It is easy to praise Athens to Athenians (Rhetoric,1367b). To me, critiquing those outside one’s ideology (whether or not that ideology is dominant) is cowardice, and jerks are cowards. Failing to critique one’s own ideology is equal cowardice and shows a lack of intellectual and emotional capacity for critical thinking.

Today jerks are in the spotlight. Reality television makes celebrities out of those who take violent offence at those who slight them. The isolating structure of the Internet assures that a person can surround his or herself with like minded sycophants. The country seems poised at the edge of a fiscal cliff because Republicans and Democrats can only see the anomalies in each other’s ideologies and will not engage in thoughtful self critique. Secularists complain about people of faith’s expression of holiday cheer. Many of those faithful people turn “Merry Christmas” into a warlike attack; “I am going to wish people a ‘Merry Christmas’ no matter whom it hurts!” Think about what you’re saying! America has been engaged in a decade of war, the longest war in American history, mostly because we can’t come to any acceptable terms with those with whom we are fighting. The advocates of marriage between same-sex partners and those who do not approve of such unions do not simply see each other as wrong, they see each other as EVIL. The last election even saw men and women pitted against each other, as if somehow the interests of the genders are dialectically opposed to each other.

There is, as the Bible says, a time for war (Ecc. 3:8). There are times when an attack is so blatant and so violent that a response of violence in kind is necessary. There are times when a failure of retribution is an encouragement for continued inhumanity. Today we remember a time like that. We remember when the Japanese bombed the American military base at Pearl Harbor so as to secure oil shipping lanes for themselves. We remember that this happened on this date in 1941. We remember 2,403 people were killed and another 1,178 people were wounded. The bombing was unprovoked and unexpected. A response was required and America did respond. Both my grandfathers took up arms against the Japanese and fought them in the Pacific. The war ended nearly four years later when the United States used an even more horrific type of bomb, a nuclear bomb, on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. War was necessary. It was fought. It ended.

When it ended, ideological differences between the United States and Japan did not end. Shinto, the religion that at some level informs all of Japanese policy both before and after the war, is not particularly friendly to foreign intervention. The United States was still firmly allied with China at the time, which has a historical antagonistic relationship with Japan that continues to this day. Still, we worked together. Over the next 40 years, the United States helped Japan develop into one of the most economically capable countries in the world. To this day they are our strongest ally in the region and our best trading partner, making equitable trades. We could have been jerks, and kept smacking them down until they agreed with us. They could have been jerks and refused our help unless we also agreed with them. We weren’t. They weren’t. Because of this it’s better for everyone.

See, loving our enemies turns out to be really good advice. Engaging in a civil manner with people with whom we disagree allows us to work together for our mutual benefit. Getting offended and taking your ball and going home means not only that your enemies are deprived of a ball, but that you are deprived of a game. Saying that those who disagree with you cannot win means that nobody wins. Somehow, some way, we’ve all got to stop being jerks, or we’re going to kill ourselves.