Sailing Alone Around the World

All the girl wants to do is sail alone around the world. What's wrong with that? Nothing, says her nautical Dad. Nothing, says her nautical Mom. Plenty, says the Dutch Council for Child Protection, who have successfully sued for temporary guardianship. So Laura Dekker's not going anywhere, not yet, not at 13 years of age.

Now, if this story didn't push a lot of buttons from back in our homeschooling days, I wouldn't write about it. It's all the way over in Holland. What business is it of mine? But it does push buttons, for with the exception of the sixth grade and post-secondary, our two kids never saw the inside of a school. We came to know much about child developmental authorities - more than we wanted to know - and their confidence that they alone knew the best way.

In Laura's case, they're fretting about dangers on the open seas. "She simply does not have the experience to anticipate the problems and possible crises that await her," wrote the Dutch daily De Volkskrant, joining in the fray. Actually, she probably does, and she certainly does in comparison with any journalist or child agency self-appointed to protect her. Laura was born on a yacht and spent her first four years sailing the oceans. She's been sailing solo since she was six, and conceived an around-the-world trip when she was 10. Nobody debates her sailing skills. She'd planned for her voyage to take two years, putting up in ports along the way to dodge bad weather.
Still, if those Dutch authorities had limited their concerns to physical dangers, we could live with that. Sure, it smacks of imposing mediocrity on all young people - uncomfortable to the point of denial that some might develop special abilities or possess special gifts. Having said that, I admit that oceans are wet and deep. Winds kick up a fuss. Pirates make trouble. Mean animals swim around - did you never see Jaws? Thirteen is pretty young. It's not as if one can't see their point. And what's this fixation about being the youngest person ever to do this or that? Someone or other brought up the case of Jessica Dubroff, a seven year old who crashed her plane taking off in rotten weather, attempting to become the youngest person to fly cross country U.S. (though her on-board flight instructor and dad approved the bad-weather takeoff, which suggests that adults should be banned from these activities, not kids).

Moreover, terms of the Court's decision are not especially unreasonable, surely more balanced than anything I can imagine here in the States. Nobody has said she can never go. If a Court-appointed army of child development specialists conclude she'll be okay, she'll get their seal of approval, perhaps in just a few months. And they're not removing her from her home - at least so long as everyone behaves. The family’s own lawyer was satisfied. The decision “supports the idea that you are not a bad parent if you try to help your child fulfill her dream," he noted. And, regarding Laura, "she is happy with the ruling, and now we can prepare this (journey) in a mature and responsible way." Yes, if those child protective people had limited their concerns to physical dangers on the high seas, we could all get on with life.

But they don't limit their concerns to physical danger - they're also worried about Laura's social skills! "A 13-year-old girl is in the middle of her development and you don't do that alone -- you need peers and adults," said Micha de Winter, a professor of child psychology at Utrecht University. Adults can make choose to be alone, he added, "but for children it is not good....Particularly the absence of parents at such a crucial time of the child's development ... the risks are serious." It doesn't occur to anyone that self-esteem from such a feat, and interaction with repair, supply and regulatory personnel at ports around the world, might offset the temporary draught of run-of-the-mill peers and grown-ups. "Two years out of school will have an impact on her normal development," another expert said. "It is wonderful to have dreams, but they have to be realistic." And, suggesting that the Netherlands is a nation of busybodies, the Dutch Prime Minister [!], Jan Peter Balkenende told a weekly news conference that Dekker's schooling must be taken into account. ("Where do you learn more, on a 2-year trip or at high school?" the family lawyer responds.)

Of all the objections we faced homeschooling, the most patronizing, smug, asinine, and exasperating were those dealing with socialization. Exasperating on two counts: 1) in assuming social skills would not develop under homeschooling, and 2) in assuming they would under traditional schooling. What about Columbine? What about Albertville? What about their social skills? In fact, how many socially-inept deviant misfits are there among young people today? Yet they all went to school.

My pal Bob the architect homeschooled some but not all of his kids. That topic came up the other day, before the Laura Dekker story had broken. He reflected that the social skills of his homeschooled kids far outstripped those of the traditionally schooled, who’d been mostly confined to that tiny sliver of humanity – those of exactly their own age. Students one grade above or below may as well have been from another planet - and adults another universe, a universe where they exist only to instruct and supervise, not to befriend or interact. Where does that artificial grouping find any counterpart in the real world? On the other hand, the homeschooled kids I observed, my own included, freely interacted with all in the community, of all age groups, and grew up without self-consciousness of those around them.

The trouble with child protective agencies, as with many agencies, is that they are seldom content to fulfill their original mandate. Instead, they seek to expand it. Didn't they once confine themselves to issues of maltreatment and abandonment? John Holt of Growing Without Schooling used to decry how, under the guise of protection, children are banned from the adult world - a significant contributor to delinquency, he maintained. A few years back, in East Rochester, parents were cited for underage employment of their child. They were dumbfounded. They owned a small deli - it was the family livelihood - and it was nothing for a youngster, returning from school, to take a turn behind the register. Can the kid's life really have been improved by forbidding his participation in the family business?

Showing that socialization concerns, not the physical dangers, are really the only ones that matter, the Court plans to have Laura interviewed by a team of child psychologists. If she passes muster, she may yet sail off when she is 14. So be it. This girl has handled ships alone through international seas. She has interacted with all and sundry port personnel. The psychologists, on the other hand, have read a lot of books, sat through college courses, and earned degrees asserting they are child experts. My sneaking suspicion is that Laura is far better equipped to analyze them than they her.

Unfortunately, degrees are really all that counts in the world today. It might be a better place were that not so.


Aha! Laura Dekker has her own website here. Now you can follow her adventures with the high seas and high government. You can even sponsor her, if you like.


9/8/2009 update: Whoops. I take it back. Looks like Mom doesn't support the trip after all. Sigh....seems like my Mom also used to tell me I couldn't do stuff I wanted to. And most of my scheme's were less ambitious than Laura's. That's a Mom for you.


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Folk Heroes and Dirty Jobs

“In times of crisis, great nations have always turned to folk heroes.” So writes Joe Queenan in the Oct 1, 2011 WSJ, then he waxes nostalgic over folk like Daniel Boone and Joan of Arc. Then he observes that America is in a time of crisis right now, but....well.....there just isn't much to choose from for folk heroes,is there? Oprah? Lady Gaga? Let's face it...the pool is not very deep. “Frankly, things being the way they are today,” he continues, “I'd settle for the guy in the Ford commercial.”

And why not? The guy in the Ford commercial is Mike Rowe. He is the host of Dirty Jobs, a Discovery Channel TV show inspired by his grandfather, who “could fix or build anything." Mr. Rowe testified before the U.S. Senate back in May of 2011, speaking in behalf of “dirty jobs.”

“We've elevated the importance of "higher education" to such a lofty perch that all other forms of knowledge are now labeled "alternative." Millions of parents and kids see apprenticeships and on-the-job-training opportunities as "vocational consolation prizes," best suited for those not cut out for a four-year degree. And still, we talk about millions of "shovel ready" jobs for a society that doesn't encourage people to pick up a shovel.”

In a country where newly graduated youngsters fret over unemployment, it's not happening for Mike Rowe's folk. He speaks of “450,000 openings in trades, transportation and utilities. The skills gap is real, and it's getting wider. In Alabama, a third of all skilled tradesmen are over 55. They're retiring fast, and no one is there to replace them. Alabama's not alone. A few months ago in Atlanta I ran into Tom Vilsack, our Secretary of Agriculture. Tom told me about a governor who was unable to move forward on the construction of a power plant. The reason was telling. It wasn't a lack of funds. It wasn't a lack of support. It was a lack of qualified welders.”

Contrast his words with the truly rotten mainstream counsel over the last two decades. “Go to college” is all anyone hears anywhere. That's the path to successful happy living. Only losers don't. Need to borrow money? Doesn't it! Need to borrow a lot of money? Look, don't it! You're investing in yourself!! You'll thank me for it someday.

But....we're seeing these reports everywhere these graduates are not thanking those that shoved them into college. Are they cursing them instead? Some are. They're graduating with tens of thousands of dollars of debt into a country with few job openings. Whereas those in skilled labor have openings galore, having trained for them much more economically, sometimes without any cost at all. Suzie Ormond interviewed one of these debt-laden graduates on her TV show. He'd borrowed to go through college, but upon graduation there were no jobs, so......"don't tell me,” Suzie says, “you went back to grad school.” Yes! He had! That's what society had told him to do! Invest more in himself! Upon hearing the total sum of debt, Suzie sent him off with advice to enjoy life best he could, much as you might advise someone with terminal cancer.

“Everybody told you,” says Anya Kamenetz on the PBS News Hour, “that BA degree recipients earn a million more over a lifetime than those people who merely have a high school it's good debt, it's an investment in yourself.....that was the conventional wisdom for a really long time.” Averages, however, “are a funny thing, because they don't necessarily apply to anyone.”

The remarkable thing about student debt is that you cannot get out of it. Even through bankruptcy. Debt from virtually every other source can be discharged.....if you blew it on gambling, say, or drugs, or just living high......but not that incurred by listening to the education experts. It's incredible! Talk about a world that devours it's young! I thought you were supposed to look out for the younger generation. Wasn't it that way once?

Suddenly the JW organization does not look too bad for the advice they've long offered to their young people. When they weigh in on education at all, it is to defy “the conventional wisdom” and encourage youngsters to look at Mike Rowe's “apprenticeships and on-the-job-training opportunities,” plus technical degrees, certificate courses, and so forth. Do not think it is easy to defy conventional should hear the flak they take for it!

But “Laurence Kotlikoff, professor of economics at Boston University agrees [with a recent Princeton University study] that an expensive education just isn't worth it..... “If you think of education as solely a monetary investment, if we are not thinking about all the other benefits from education like learning things, and getting to hang out with me, and also just becoming a more cultured person, then we have to look at this very carefully.”

Now, to be sure, the JW organization's reservations about college are not the same as Professor Kotlikoff's. That is, they're not primarily about dollars and cents. They're more about “getting to hang out with [him], and also just becoming a more cultured person.” Not he himself, of course....frankly, I'd like to hang out with him....but people he represents who dominate campus life, people who are inclined to think humans have the answers, people who are inclined to denigrate faith, people who are inclined to think the purpose of life is to consume, or even that there is no purpose in life. People who are inclined to overstress the value of being a “more cultured person,” whereas Paul would be apt to dismiss it all as “refuse” (Phil 3:8) and mention more than in passing that “the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God.” (1 Cor 3:19) So why “hang out” with guys like that unless it is truly necessary?

The May 2012 Consumer Reports tells of a web designer who likens his student debt, about $59,000, to “a prison sentence.” It interferes with his buying a home. It prevents him saving for retirement. (no one mentions raising a family) The debt, “just grew and grew and grew,” he says, “and I'm saddled with it unless I make twice as much as I'm making.” He earned his master's degree 18 years ago, when education was cheaper. He's not unhappy with his career choices....I don't want to suggest otherwise......but surely he must wonder sometimes whether it was worth it. He used the words “prison sentence,” not I. He's consigned to paying off debt for a long long time. His freedom of movement is curtailed, not augmented, as he doubtless thought would be the case. Moreover, I know of two young people making their living in web design without any college whatsoever.....they just dove into it as a lifelong interest. Surely it's in the interest of the education industry to suggest learning only takes place in college, an assertion Professor  Kotlikoff seems to make. That doesn't mean it's so.

In contrast, Dave McClure, the old circuit overseer reflects on his life and where it has taken him. Some of his old school mates might consider him a failure, he says, but he's not sure why. He's been to more places than they have, done more things, met more people, certainly met with more variety in people. It's all in what you value.

“The skills gap is a reflection of what we value,” Mike Rowe told the Senate. “....In a hundred different ways, [such as the Milton Bradley game of Life, where you are severely penalized if you choose the “business” road over the “college” road] we have slowly marginalized an entire category of critical professions, reshaping our expectations of a "good job" into something that no longer looks like work. A few years from now, an hour with a good plumber, if you can find one, is going to cost more than an hour with a good psychiatrist. At which point we'll all be in need of both.”

Nobody's listening to Mike Rowe. Not many, at any rate. A high school's success is still measured by the percentage they send to college. Unless your grades are in the toilet, just try telling your guidance counselor that you plan to bypass college. Just try it, and see what happens. The promising careers in this country are seen to be in education and health care. (less so in education lately, where budget cutbacks are wreaking havoc) These are also the same two fields whose models are described as “unsustainable.”  But it's still only losers that go Mike Rowe's way.


Read ‘Tom Irregardless and Me.’     and           No Fake News but Plenty of Hogwash


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Education, the Ministry, and Supporting Oneself Decently

After connivers brought down Enron in 2001, tanking pensions and lives, business education courses slapped a quick coat of ethics onto their lesson plans. That this was no more than a quick coat became apparent seven years later, when connivers nearly brought down the entire worldwide economic system, causing its greatest reversal since the Great Depression.

As chance would have it, I took a business course during that year of rediscovered ethics. Our text had a newly inserted ethics chapter stuffed full with banalities about looking deep within oneself, listening to your inner voice, and so forth. The subject was distilled into four main points. Points three and four were ridiculous enough to sear permanently into my memory:

 3 - does this or that prospective move make you feel good about yourself, and
 4)  can you live with your decision.

Sheesh! That's it?! Those 911 terrorists, en route to incinerate the World Trade Center felt real good about themselves. Strictly speaking, though, they were not able to live with their decision.

Is it all internal? - that is, are qualities of ethics and morality to be found by looking "deep within ourselves?" Or, put another way, is man "naturally" good (as opposed to naturally bad)?  This question has long occupied philosophers, but in recent decades it has become axiomatic that "naturally good" is how we are to view matters. Thus, look deep within oneself is the cure-all for any ill. Also, "poor communication" time and again spoils our good intentions, so we can't have any of that. Oh...and if we're naturally good, there certainly is no need for restrictions, hence the contemporary loathing for any agency that would even suggest them, much less attempt to impose them.

 All this is not to say that Jehovah's Witnesses take the opposite view - that humans are "naturally" bad. We are created in God's image, after all, and those good qualities of ethics resonate deep within us. But we are also flawed, victims of inherited sin, inclined to do wrong despite our best intentions otherwise. We benefit, therefore, from counsel from a higher source, and who is higher, better qualified, than our Maker? Or, as the familiar illustration goes, who better to direct you in care for your new Ford than Ford?

All this helps to explain the JW attitude toward higher education, and why we don't push our kids to pursue it. Believe me, we take a lot of heat for it. For all practical purposes, our view is heresy to a world that worships higher education and presents it as the surefire cure for almost anything. But that "naturally good" philosophy (JWs might call it "worldly thinking") permeates higher education today. Does higher education deliver the goods? With few exceptions, national and world leaders are highly educated. Yet we all know how world conditions are, and we know in which direction they are heading. The educated world would have more to show for itself if their "brand" of education worked.

Yes, well....maybe the world is screwed up not because so many leaders have a secular education, someone says. Maybe it's because so many of them are religious or greedy or some other factor. Exactly. So why should not education address suchlike factors, which would also include belligerence, lack of love, pride, selfishness, and so forth? Instead, the focus is exclusively on intelligence, with the apparent assumption that these other items will take care of themselves. But as history shows, they don't. Frankly, if people are hateful, selfish, greedy, etc, you're almost better off not educating them. They're in position to do less damage that way. If plumbers and janitors had run the worldwide financial system, they might have found a way to beat the taxpayers out of a day's wage. But it was MBAs who ran the worldwide financial system, and they found a way to bring financial ruin upon us all.

Or maybe they didn't find a way. They tell me a highlight of Michael Moore's I Love Capitalism is his interviews with various economic "experts," who trip over their tongues trying in vain to analyze what went wrong. So maybe the analogy that fits better is that of your kids playing with nitroglycerin. "What's the problem, Pop?" they say. "Chill. We know what we're doing. Besides, we're doing very well for ourselves."

Jehovah's Witnesses tend to be very specific when it comes to education. Watchtower literature frequently speaks of a person's need to "support oneself decently." For some youngsters, as a family decision, that may include college courses, for others technical training of some sort, certificate, or vocational. We don't accept the inevitability of higher education, as might be recommended by education officials simply on the basis of grades, or these days, merely on the basis of easy money in loans or grants. We're pragmatic. We use "the world's" education to acquire skills to make a living. But as to acquiring wisdom from that source, we're not keen on it. Within our congregations, we defer to training which addresses the more important moral concerns. For us, that goal is achieved in the context of Bible training.

"Yeah, you just don't want your religious views subjected to critical analysis", I can hear the sneering now. Well....yeah...I suppose....I mean, nobody wants their heartfelt beliefs automatically trashed. But the reason they are trashed is largely one of philosophy, not "critical analysis." Our beliefs run contrary to the "man is naturally good" mantra of modern times. They run contrary to other firmly entrenched mantras as well - that humans have the answers, for example, and that this system of things will endure forever, and that religion is no more than a product of human evolution.

"Look out: perhaps there may be someone who will carry you off as his prey through the philosophy and empty deception according to the tradition of men, according to the elementary things of the world and not according to Christ," says Paul. We take his words seriously.   Col 2:8

Repeat anything often enough, with enough vehemence, and it eventually sinks in. Alas, it would be nice if we were not built that way, but we are. Thus, some god-awful hideous style emerges and within a few years we're all wearing it, thinking how cool we are, and wondering how we ever could have imagined the dorky-looking styles of the 80's did anything for us. Even I am almost at the beginning of perhaps tolerating, within sharply drawn narrow limits, certain forms of rap - a prospect I find frightening indeed. If only our "follow the herd" instinct applied only to trivial matters like style. It's's intellectually flattering (and is there anything we like more than to be flattered intellectually?) to think it does. We love to think that styles and fads are one thing, but when it comes to important matters, our razor-sharp intellect cuts allows us to assess matters according to their true worth.'s so flattering, but it's such nonsense. We run with the herd in matters great and small. And these days the herd, with higher education in the driver's seat, is running in a way Christians don't want to go. JWs aren't in a hurry to throw inexperienced kids into it's path.

Look, we're ministers. Not ministers in the modern sense, in which you pay your money, go to theological college, pocket your degree, and pound the pavements till you are hired by some church to teach their congregation. No, we are ministers in the first-century biblical sense, in which every Christian is a minister and has a ministry. It's not a job, and you don't get paid - none of Jehovah's Witnesses at any level do - so it's generally necessary to find work to "support oneself decently." But when we do that, it's our goal to streamline. We don't seek out work so engrossing, so demanding, that we can't do some justice to our ministry. Or, as goes the old joke about job flexibility at Microsoft: "You can work any 18-hour shift you want."

No, you don't go building a career in this system, a not-so-subtle goal of higher education. This system's transitory. Through the vicissitudes of this system of things, our people end up everywhere. No doubt there's plenty at Microsoft. But we don't from the get-go "aim for the stars." Or, I guess we do, but we value different stars. We look for work that allows our ministry maximum freedom.


Addtional material  here


Tom Irregardless and Me      No Fake News but Plenty of Hogwash


Defending Jehovah’s Witnesses with style from attacks... in Russia, with the ebook ‘I Don’t Know Why We Persecute Jehovah’s Witnesses—Searching for the Why’ (free).... and in the West, with the ebook ‘TrueTom vs the Apostates!’ (free)

Alan Greenspan and the Financial Black Hole

As the Large Hadron Collider in Geneva was about to become operational, dire warnings appeared on the internet. Scientists had been salivating about their Collider for the longest time. At last they’d be able to simulate conditions from the Big Bang and learn…..well, all kinds of things about physics. But worrywarts fretted that these wise ones would instead open up black holes right here on terra firma….and swallow up everything! Two fellows in Hawaii even filed a “cease and desist” lawsuit, but the far away European scientists pooh-poohed it all. Not to worry, they said, any results of their tinkering would be at the subatomic level. Nonchalantly, chuckling at these unscientific nutjobs, they flipped the switch….and half the world’s wealth promptly vanished into a financial black hole! The week ending Oct 10 was the worst week for U.S. stocks since 1914  [!]

SIR - Can it really be a coincidence that within weeks of the Large Hadron Collider being switched on for the first time a financial black hole has appeared in the universe? - Barclay Price, Edinburgh     (letter to editor: Economist)

And from the Yahoo question board:

How did the Large Hadron Collider cause the biggest stock market crash in History?

Apparently taking this for a serious question, people wrote in to say that 1929 and 1987 had seen larger single day crashes, that the market slide had begun a year ago, and that real estate and bank shenanigans, not physics, has caused the meltdown. And besides, like all new projects, the Collider didn’t go online as scheduled, but glitches and difficulties kept it under repair from the start.

But let these apologists say what they will….it was those infernal scientists! They can’t leave well enough alone. Always have to mess with things. Just like when my son used to work the car window up and down, up and down, and I’d tell him not to because he was going to break it. And do you know what happened? Exactly…..and I was out the cost of a new window motor. Of course, breaking a car window motor is not as serious as destroying the entire worldwide financial system, but the principle is exactly the same and I wasn't happy.

In the aftermath, Alan Greenspan testified before Congress:

“We are in the midst of a once-in-a-century credit tsunami. Central banks and governments are being required to take unprecedented measures. You, importantly, represent those on whose behalf economic policy is made, those who are feeling the brunt of the crisis in their workplaces and homes. I hope to address their concerns today.”

This is the same Alan Greenspan whose voice to the financial community used to be like that of God, the only difference being that God knew what he was talking about. Not that Mr. Greenspan wasn’t bright and competent and all…'s just that it took only a single flaw to bring down a whole lifetime of work. As chairman of the Federal Reserve Bank, he’d issue statements at least once a month when setting interest rate policy. He’d make the statements incomprehensible….it was almost a game. He’d rehearse them in his head. If they could be understood, he'd rework them. Finance people would strain to discern his real intent, but of course, the task was impossible….by design. Far from becoming fed up with such obscuration, they took it all for brilliance! I mean, any street person would recognize a con-job in two seconds flat, but the bankers hailed it as wisdom from on high. After all, they were making tons of money. Did anything else truly matter?

Mr. Greenspan’s successor, Ben Bernanke, is more straightforward. Mr. Greenspan himself became that way addressing Congress. He dropped the smart-alecky double talk. His words were clear. And not very pretty.

“Given the financial damage to date, I cannot see how we can avoid a significant rise in layoffs and unemployment. Fearful American households [not to mention….which he didn’t…the rest of the world] are attempting to adjust, as best they can, to a rapid contraction in credit availability, threats to retirement funds, and increased job insecurity. All of this implies a marked retrenchment of consumer spending as households try to divert an increasing part of their incomes to replenish depleted assets, not only in 401Ks, but in the value of their homes as well.”

No more smug cuteness building indecipherable word castles. For, alas, “those of us who have looked to the self-interest of lending institutions to protect shareholder’s equity (myself particularly) are in as state of shocked disbelief.”

Then Mr. Greenspan discusses what triggered the collapse: factors involving CDOs, already discussed here.


“It was the failure to properly price such risky assets that precipitated the crisis. In recent decades, a vast risk management and pricing system has evolved, combining the best insights of mathematicians and finance experts supported by major advances in computer and communications technology. A Nobel Prize was awarded for the discovery of the pricing model that underpins much of the advance in derivatives markets. This modern risk management paradigm held sway for decades. The whole intellectual edifice, however, collapsed in the summer of last year because the data inputted into the risk management models generally covered only the past two decades, a period of euphoria.”

Note the absolute failure of the best and the brightest - the cream of the crop of human experts. A Nobel Prize was awarded, for crying out loud, for the economic model that would subsequently ruin us all! This was the not work of con men, but of the most learned, the most highly educated (the most profit-driven?) persons of society. And the final admission is staggering: nobody thought to test the model outside of partytime - “a period of euphoria.” Nobody thought that the real world might be different than the party world!

Isn’t there some scripture somewhere about how you can’t trust “nobles” as far as you can spit?

Do not put your trust in nobles, nor in the son of earthling man, to whom no salvation belongs.
 His spirit goes out, he goes back to his ground;
       In that day his thoughts do perish.   Ps 146:3,4

And doesn’t this validate how Jehovah’s Witnesses don’t bow and scrape and slobber over today’s higher education?Instead they extract from education the ability to make a living, while drawing on other sources for wisdom.”

After his statement, the House Committee grilled Mr. Greenspan for awhile, forcing him to admit:

“I found a flaw in the model that I perceived is the critical functioning structure that defines how the world works. That’s precisely the reason I was shocked…I still do not fully understand why it happened, and obviously to the extent that I figure it happened and why, I will change my views.”

I was going to offer up some feeble joke about how the flaw he didn’t reckon on was the Hadron Collider. But I won’t do it. The whole mess is too serious and sad.


Tom Irregardless and Me     No Fake News but Plenty of Hardship

Defending Jehovah’s Witnesses with style from attacks... in Russia, with the ebook ‘I Don’t Know Why We Persecute Jehovah’s Witnesses—Searching for the Why’ (free).... and in the West, with the ebook ‘TrueTom vs the Apostates!’ (free)

Higher Education and Jehovah's Witnesses

Bill Bishop looked at American migratory patterns for humans, not birds, and he found Americans like to live and speak and breathe with those who think just like themselves. For example, when George Bush squeaked out re-election in 2004.…the popular vote was almost even….almost half the vote came from “landslide counties,” where one candidate trounced the other by 20 percentage points or more. Back then, playwright Arthur Miller asked: “How can the polls be neck and neck when I don’t know one Bush supporter?” He lived in a landslide area, that’s how, surrounded only by those who thought just like him. (the Economist, 6/21/08, p 41)

Bishop’s book, The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America is Tearing us Apart found many other factors segregating citizens. Cable channels that feed viewers only the viewpoint they already agree with, for instance. Even more so with the internet, the author observed. Tell me about it……sometimes I think that nobody has ever changed their mind about anything on the internet, that it’s just one giant forum for preaching to the choir.

But since “education broadens minds,” can we not look to advanced education for hope? Nope. The better educated people are, the more they segregate themselves, found Mr. Bishop. Whether by choice or necessity, less educated persons tend to stay put.

Don’t you get tired of those who insist that education is the answer? Education will solve our problems, they say. Education will bring us all together, they say. Hogwash! Bishop’s book (though I’m sure this is not his point) shows how people use their education: they stake out opposing positions and hurl intellectual bombshells at each other. Nowhere is that more evident than on the internet. It ought to give us pause in the way we view higher education.

The world is screwed up not because people are stupid….for the most part those who run things are both clever and educated… is screwed up because they are greedy and selfish and arrogant. These are the glaring defects of human nature, not lack of intellect. Yet today’s world deems it top priority to feed the intellect. Colleges exist for just that purpose. The more important moral qualities are largely left to chance…catch as catch can, with no one especially concerned whether you catch them or not. Occasionally some scandal forces a temporary concern with teaching “ethics,” but what qualifications do colleges really have to teach it? In the wake of Enron, I took a college business course. There was the hastily inserted chapter on ethics. Look deep into yourself, readers were advised, before making this or that decision. Does this decision make you feel good about yourself? Can you live with yourself afterwards? Sheesh!…..the 911 terrorists felt real good about themselves, though, strictly speaking, they were not able to live with their decision!

Watchtower literature frequently observes that the best education available today is Bible education. To people who link education with landing a big career, this counsel seems ridiculous. But put aside that link for a moment and it makes sense. Surely it’s reasonable to conclude that today’s world…..political, economic and religious….run by the most educated of persons, is a practical demonstration of today’s aggragate wisdom. Seeing that said wisdom has produced such disastrous results, how wise can it be to immerse oneself in that atmosphere for four or six years through higher education? Doesn’t higher education typify today’s wisdom? For that reason, Watchtower publications are decidedly cool toward university careers.

Of course, one must make a living. Those same publications speak of training one’s children so that they can “support themselves decently.” For some, the economic benefits of college outweigh detriments in other areas. But on the bell curve, JWs lean toward vocational degrees, technical and certificate programs, or trades. Where youngsters go to college, it is recommended that they do so while living at home. Dormitory living, where the only adults present are those raining down condoms as confetti, does not agree with the moral training with which parents try to equip their children. Still, a member of the Ithacacongregation tells me there is usually a small stream of Witness college students at their meetings who attend either Cornell or SUNY Ithaca. Sometimes they do all right spiritually, sometimes not. Education is a family decision, and all are advised not to stick their noses in another family’s business. People being what they are, however….that counsel is not uncommonly breached.

Since their beginning, Jehovah’s Witnesses have constructed their own houses of worship. Even Assembly Halls that seat one or two thousand are built by volunteers. Same with “Bethels” around the globe, organizational headquarters. Organization has been streamlined to the point that Kingdom Halls are built in one or two weekends of volunteer effort. A number of our youngsters thereby pick up the building trades….electrical, HVAC, plumbing, etc….and go on to make a living in that way. Often they go abroad as Western aid jumpstarts Kingdom Hall building in lands where people don’t have much.

With such a restrained view of education, might the really high-flying careers elude our people? Yeah….they do, at least for those who adhere to the advice. But that’s by design. The apostle Paul recommended that those using the world, “not use it to the full” since “the scene of this world is changing.” (1 Cor 7:31) Jehovah’s Witnesses view this world’s system of things as passing away, soon to be replaced by government of God’s design. Generally speaking, they don’t shoot for lofty careers in such a world. They prefer to focus on a ministry which tells of the coming changes and trains people in godly ways. Many of our youngsters school for “portable” skills allowing them to pick up and move and work part time as desired, so that they can more readily put their ministry first.

Your religion is fine, just keep it in its place is the advice people sometimes offer us. Last place is usually what they have in mind. Jehovah’s Witnesses don’t feel that way. Meantime, Bible education has produced a people who long ago overcame nationalism, and racism, who enjoy overwhelming unity, and who can cooperate towards a common end as no one limited by this world’s wisdom can.



Tom Irregardless and Me             No Fake News but Plenty of Hogwash

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John T Gatto and Growth without Educators

When did we lose teachers and gain educators? Isn't that new word pretentious? Doesn't it imply that we'd all have empty heads without them?

It's just just the opposite. It's hard to prevent children from learning. Witness their ability to pick up a language. Without any instruction at all, they absorb whatever language is spoken in the home. If two languages are spoken, they absorb two. If three languages are spoken, they absorb three. We read a lot to our children when they were infants and toddlers. Classics like Go Dogs Go! and One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish. They picked it right up and were both reading before kindergarten. Beyond pointing to the words we read, we never showed them how. 

If learning is so natural why do so many kids not do it? It's not because we have too few educators. It may be because we have too many.

John Taylor Gatto was named New York City Teacher of the year in 1989 and 1990 and 1991. In 1991, he was named New York State Teacher of the Year. But then he turned on his fellow educators! Yes, he agreed, he was a good teacher. But it was only because he bucked, at every turn, the stifling strait jacket of the school system. The district where he worked twice suspended his license for insubordination. He was too innovative, and the bureaucracy too inflexible to accommodate. In 1991, he quit. Writing to the Wall Street Journal, he declared that he could no longer "hurt kids to make a living."

But might he have waited for "school reform?" He observed: "Socrates foresaw if teaching became a formal profession, something like this would happen. Professional interest is served by making what is easy to do seem hard....School is too vital a jobs-project, contract giver and protector of the social order to allow itself to be "re-formed." [italics mine]

Visit Mr. Gatto's websiteand you'll see he's working on a Ken Burns style documentary about the education industry, The Fourth Purpose. "The time for pussy-foot measures with the forced schooling institution is long past," he says. "....What justice cries out for to break this logjam is shock treatment." It promises to be good.

In the right environment, flowers will grow all by themselves. It's a natural process. They don't need professional "sprouters" to measure and critique every move. Our homeschooled son never went to school, save for a brief stint in the 6th grade. He went through a phase in which he would read for hours on end. Huge tomes, mostly history. My wife, Mrs Sheepandgoats, had some allies in the school system and she went running to the local principal. "I don't know what to do," she pleaded. "He won't do any of his workbooks. He just sits and reads all day!" "He reads? said the principal incredulously. "Don't do anything!" Yet had he been in that principal's school he would not have been allowed to read. They would have made him do those workbooks. Thus a naturally enjoyable experience (learning) would be made hateful.

Our boy entered 6th grade mid-year. It was time to give it a try. Rochester City has an odd system of school assignment. You are usually but not necessarily assigned to your neighborhood school. But since our boy went suddenly, he had no say whatsoever and was assigned to a gritty school with a cross-city bus ride. Never being in school before, how would he fit in? we wondered. Would he be a nerd? Would he be beat up and picked on? Somewhat to our surprise, he had no difficulty whatsoever, turning the "socialization" myth on its head. At the end of the year, he had a choice to continue in school or to homeschool again. He chose to homeschool. "I had no time to read when I was in school," he said.

During that 6th grade year, his teacher declared pi was 3.14. My son, because of things covered before, knew that 3.14 was a rounded number, and the actual decimal value stretched on forever. He stated such, and the teacher was upset to be contradicted!

Every parent likes to think their kids are naturally bright. We do too. Yet we fear that their brightness may not have been allowed to flourish without homeschooling.

The next time the boy saw a classroom was age 16, at the local community college. They gave him placement tests since they weren't sure how to regard homeschoolers. Consequently, he was assigned remedial math (remedial from a college point of view. In other words, he was age-appropriate) Yet his reading comprehension, they informed us, was "off the charts" They were slow to believe that he had not already had college courses. Interestingly, he never regarded himself as abnormally bright. "I had no idea there were so many stupid people," he said afterwards.

Not everyone will be in position to do as we were able to. Nor was it the answer in every way. I don't mean to suggest that you can't attend public schools and thrive. You can. They hold some advantages over homeschooling. But they're not very flexible. You have to skirt around many shoals.



Tom Irregardless and Me                  No Fake News but Plenty of Hogwash

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An Interim to Save the Day?

How many times is it that the guy who isn't campaigning, doesn't want the job, and must be drafted, is the one who saves the day?

Will it turn out this way at the beleaguered City School District, long afflicted with one superstar superintendent after another? Maybe.

Manny Rivera, recruited from somewhere-or-other out of town, serving his second gig in Rochester, landed a better job as Boston's superintendent of schools. Boston is bigger than Rochester, and students need more work, since they talk funny over there, like the Kennedys. Only, before Rivera could take the reigns, he found a still better job, as education czar with Governor Spitzer. So Boston is scrounging for a new chief, just like Rochester.

Meanwhile, while scrounging, they have to have someone to preside. So they turned to Bill Cala. Cala just retired from the neighboring affluent Fairport school district, with plans move to Kenya and work in education there. That's the kind of guy he is. But while he's getting his plans firmed up, maybe he will come and hold down the fort at the City School District, until they find another superstar. Yes, Bill says, he will. So he is the interim superintendent.

Did they figure he would be merely a low-key-preserve-the-status-quo guy? That's not him, as Tim Louis Macaluso reported in City Newspaper. A few weeks on the job, and Cala charitably says: "This district isn't organized like any I have ever seen." No, it isn't. We've long suspected it. Each year they demand more money. Each year they show poorer results. When incoming mayor Pete Duffy asked for operational facts and figures (seeking accountability, since the city has to fund the schools) they absolutely bristled. And stonewalled. They didn't tell him anything other than "keep that money coming."

So Cala aims to make changes. "My biggest concern, the reason this is necessary," he says, "is we are not focused on kids. And that's the only reason we're here. There's no other reason to come in through those front doors." School 45 Principal Vicky Gouveia agrees that "the system was working to favor the needs of adults, not children."

Several weeks ago, we learned that the City School Districts graduation ratelast year was 39%. Yet the then-superintendent was named National Superintendent of the Year for 2006! Doesn't that say it all? And, alas, it suggests that it's not just local administrators who've yet to focus on kids instead of adults.

(Incidentally, the Democrat and Chronicle recently reported that this fellow's predecessor, another superstar, was just sacked from his moving-on-up assignment, the Washington DC. School District.)

"I can tell you right now that I'm looking at a leaner organization," Cala says. "Right now, there is no one in charge of curriculum and instruction, which is astonishing to me. It is divided up among many people.....what is most problematic is seeing how there can be two separate lines of communication about kids, with information that isn't shared. [!] People are working in their own separate silos, and that's got to change."

Each decision he makes, he says, he puts through a simple screening process: "How does this help the kids? If I do this, does it help them? Is it neutral? Or does it hinder them? That's all that really matters, and I want everyone here to use the same set of guidelines. What am I doing? What am I spending my time on that helps kids?" How can you not like this guy? Surely the man must know how to speak educatese, but there's no sign of it here.

Most do like him, but a few don't. One critic from the school board association points out that big city school districts are "incredibly complex." Maybe Cala, from the bucolic suburbs, doesn't realize that. But, in general, you should watch out for people who carry on about things being "incredibly complex." What you look for is someone who can simplify them.

Not everyone thinks Cala should be making structural changes. He's only the interim super, after all. Let the permanent super make the changes. Cala's unimpressed. He'll be doing the next guy a big favor. "It will make the job more attractive. I know that I wouldn't want to walk into this. Besides, I am addressing the problem in phases. I have 27 years of experience. I know how educational systems should work, and I know what's best for kids."

So maybe, just maybe, there is light at the end of the tunnel, and it is not an oncoming train. Most likely the district, wowed as usual by theories instead of results, will again hire some overpriced clod who speaks fluent educatese, but at least he will inherit less of a mess than he would have before.



Tom Irregardless and Me               No Fake News but Plenty of Hogwash

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Leaving the Kids Behind

When "No Child Left Behind" became law a few years back, politicians were ecstatic. Finally, no child would be left behind! They had been left behind before, as many as 61%last year in the City School District. (in spite of the law) Incidentally, that assumes that the 39% who did graduate were well equipped academically, an assumption not everyone would be willing to grant. But, who knows, perhaps before No Child Left Behind, it was only 29%. How could anyone not be excited?

Nobody wanted to be left behind on the "not left behind" craze. Thus, the local bus company declared that no passenger would be left behind! Everyone was enthused. On day one of the new program, almost all passengers were there right on time at the first bus stop. But a few didn't show up. These ones would have been cheated before, but with the new policy, they would not be left behind! The bus driver waited and waited and waited and waited. Still they did not show. Not a problem - this had been anticipated! Each bus had some rousting personnel on board, and those rousters went right to the laggards' homes and rounded them up! Finally, everybody was on board. The bus reached downtown with no passenger left behind! Of course, they all missed their appointments.

My uncle was a hell raiser as a kid. Back in the 1940's, long ago. Constant complaints from his teachers. Finally, his dad said: If the boy won’t behave, pull him out of school. He was “left behind!"

I knew in the first week it was a mistake, he told me later. In time, he got his act together, and lived out the remainder of his years a productive person.

Guys my age cannot help thinking that, years ago, jettisoning the hell raisers, or at least segregating them, might have averted today's educational catastrophe. We try to get over it, we really do, but there's that nagging suspicion that we've all been sold down the river by educators, who proudly strut the deck of a sinking ship, blaming everyone but themselves for letting the ship fall into disrepair. Yes, we try to get over it, but.....isn't it possible, if you'd long ago let students "fall behind," that 6 percent would have, and that half of those, like my uncle, would later realize their mistake and catch up? Then you'd have 3% permanently "left behind." That is a sobering thought.

But it sure beats the 60 percent effectively left behind today, either through not graduating or through graduating with dumbed-down curriculum that caters to the most disruptive and dysfunctional kid.



Tom Irregardless and Me               No Fake News but Plenty of Hogwash

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The Communist and the Kids

I called on a old fellow in the door to door ministry who said he was a Communist. He wasn't especially pleasant, but he was genuine, and unique. Didn't the fall of the Soviet Union and its satellites disprove Communism as a viable system? I asked. (It had only recently happened) No, because Communism was imposed by force upon a agrarian country. It wasn't the revolt of the proletariat, such as one might have foreseen in the U.S. at one time.

He had a house full of antique inventions, among them an Edison phonograph.

I homeschooled my daughter then. A few weeks later I had her out with me in the ministry. She was about 9 or 10. I stopped in on the Communist.

"So how's the discipling going?" he asked (or something similar). "Just fine," I replied. "I'm sorry to hear it," he said. Had I not left myself wide open?

"So what do you want?" he demanded, more gruff than even his prior gruffness. Just as gruff, I shot back "I came to show my daughter your antiques!" He opened the door, let us both in, gave us a tour, explained the different machines, and could not have been more pleasant! How often does a child get to see such old gadgets?

Kids are useful in the ministry. Of course, we don't "use" them. You don't bring them along unless they're ready to come, and you don't let them speak unless they want to. But in my experience, they usually want to. Joel Engardio, producer of the documentary Knocking was raised a Witness but left for a career in journalism. Nonetheless, he assures us, as a kid he was the designated doorbell-ringer, a "cool job for a 4 year old." As a teenager, he continues, "I gave presentations at doorsteps around town in hopes of becoming a "publisher," or minister, of the Bible. I found fulfillment in telling others - anyone who cared to listen -that all of mankind's plagues would be solved when God's kingdom arrived." So there is something to training children in the ministry, when (and if) they are ready.

My kids, as with Joel, wanted to speak at a quite young age, so I obliged. But it seemed that I ought to introduce them. After all, when I approached a house with a waist-high child, and it was the child that did the talking,  I always imagined the householder looking at me as if to say "you dumb lug....why don't you say something?" And frankly, you'd want to screen householders.  Not all are the warm fuzzy kind that you'd want to feed your kids. So I'd say something like: "Hi, I'm Tom Sheepandgoats. I've got my boy with me, Georgie. We take turns talking's his turn." That was my son's cue. As long as he was willing and able to handle matters, I would stay silent. The householder might listen to him, but answer me, and I'd say "'s his turn." All this within the bounds of common sense, of course. In most cases, towards the end, I would chime in somehow. As the kids got older and more capable, they got tired of being introduced, it became unnecessary, and I chimed in less and less.

My kids are grown and gone now. I just got done working with Jakie, a 6 year old. Someone else's son, it seems to me he was bashful at age 4. He sure isn't now. Distributing invitations for the upcoming district convention, he would have none of "being introduced." So I said he could introduce me! Either that, or just take the door himself. He did every door, except 3 or 4 that were a little awkward, and so I took them. In some cases I'd tell the householder "I'm far too bashful to talk to you right here at your door, so I brought my buddy here to speak for me!" He did just fine. Most youngsters do when they can go at their own pace.


"Is that your son?" the homeowner asked Dave McClure, our old circuit overseer, about a youngster he was working with. "Nope," he replied. "But if it was, I'd be proud of him."




Tom Irregardless and Me             No Fake News but Plenty of Hogwash

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Homeschooling and Manny Rivera

When Mrs Sheepandgoats and I decided to homeschool our 2 kids, 21 years ago, some challenged us. How could we expect to do better than professional educators? they wanted to know. We looked at it differently.

How could we do worse?

To be sure, had we lived in one of the suburbs, we might have been less confident. But we didn't. We lived in the City School District, which last year achieved a graduation rate of 39%. Yet I'm glad we lived there. Not only did our kids' homeschool education surpass what a suburban school would have offered, but they became "streetsmart," and learned to mingle freely with persons of all ages, levels, and cultures.

My daughter carries herself well. At her workplace, a spa that caters to the well-to-do, co-workers ask her where she was raised. "We lived on a side street off Hudson," she says. "Oh...," they murmur in confusion. (Hudson is in a poor area) But then they brighten... the street ends in more upscale Irondequoit. "You mean the part in Irondequoit," they say knowingly. "No," she replies, and leaves them scratching their heads. 

But she would not likely have had such poise had she actually attended the Hudson Ave schools. Superintendent of those schools, Dr. Manny Rivera is just leaving, headed for greener pastures, taking an education job with the Spitzer administration. City! newspaper interviewed him on his tenure with the District. What had he learned?

"I learned that we couldn't do it alone," he says. "It's too big a problem to think we can handle it by ourselves. We needed our college and university partners." Also the "unions." Also the "business community."

We all want "higher performance," he says. "but you have to have systems in place to get there." The trouble is  [when speaking with the mayor] "we didn't get to a strategy for implementation.....If this community can come together and embrace key strategies, Rochester would get the results everybody wants to see."

We need "systems," "our partners," our "key strategies." Not only our key strategies, but we have to "implement" those key strategies, and to do that we need to "come together!" Fine words. How can one not be enthused? Yet the skilled interpreter of Educatese can without difficulty detect the underlying message: don't expect any changes in your lifetime.

Trouble is, this is the same baloney we heard back in 1986 from Rivera's predecessor. Had we entrusted our kids to them back then, I wonder just where they would be today.




Tom Irregardless and Me            No Fake News but Plenty of Hogwash

Defending Jehovah’s Witnesses with style from attacks... in Russia, with the ebook ‘I Don’t Know Why We Persecute Jehovah’s Witnesses—Searching for the Why’ (free).... and in the West, with the ebook ‘TrueTom vs the Apostates!’ (free)

Hal and the Astronaut Farmer

The name of the rocket was Dreamer. It's builder was a dreamer.

With "The Astronaut Farmer," my wife and I knew we were in for a quirky film straight from the opening scene, a blend of two American icons. There he is on horseback, riding alone on the deserted plain. But wait! Zoom in steadily and we see he's not a cowboy at all, but an astronaut, or at least a guy in a spacesuit.

It's an irresistible movie. Part endearing family tale, part reckless pursuit of a dream, part good guys vs bad guys, part fantasy. Fantasy, because clearly, the plot could never happen. If you're one of those picayune people who huff over improbabilities, stay away. Everyone else gets a green light. Billy Bob Thorton plays Charles Farmer, an ex NASA rancher determined to pilot a rocket from his barn, with his family's help. It's a homeschool project, no less. Billy Bob has that eternal optimism, that unshakable good nature, and most importantly, that absolute inability to see when his goose is cooked that makes him unstoppable. In real life these guys make invincible salesmen. In movie life, they orbit the earth.

Each time we see a movie, I read internet reviews afterwards so I can tell my wife if I liked the film or not, a habit which drives her nuts. Reviews of Astronaut Farmer were mixed. The deciding factor, I discern, is whether you can imagine and appreciate a kook like Farmer. I can. Take Hal, for instance.

Hal enjoyed the same combination of qualities. Incurable optimism, unyielding good nature, bedrock decency. And absolutely oblivious to obstacles. People loved Hal. True to calling, he was a salesman. You'd sooner get his customers to bump off their mothers than buy from a rival. If only I had half his nature.

In the congregation, Hal was fully capable of off-the-wall remarks, as unpredictable as they were nutty, like how you could forget the resurrection if you died on an amusement park ride since you had deliberately risked life and limb. Fortunately no one took him seriously. "That's just Hal," they would say. The secret of human relations is to appreciate folks for their fine points, and cut them slack on the rest.

He'd be offered oversight of this or that department at the circuit or district level. Of course, he'd accept. Never turn down a privilege. They'd dig up some assistants for him. The assistants would putz along, confident in Hal's sure hand and direction. But two thirds of the way through they'd realize, to their horror, that Hal had absolutely no idea what he was doing. So they'd work their tails off, doubletime, tripletime, and as a consequence, all would turn out well. "You see?" Hal would chime in, "Jehovah provides!"

And who's to say that's not leadership? The assignments got done. Those assistants developed skills they never thought possible. In fact, I believe Hal attracted a corps of young Ministerial Servants eager for the challenge.

But I wasn't one of them. We both served for a time on a committee looking into a Kingdom Hall build. Hal was enthralled with those then-new fold down baby changing tables. "We have to get one of those," he'd gush. "Put it right there in the men's room! Why should it be only the sisters who change babies? Times are changing! Not just the wives, but also the husbands should share!" On and on he'd go, so enthused.

For crying out loud, we hadn't even located land yet!


Tom Irregardless and Me      No Fake News but Plenty of Hogwash

Defending Jehovah’s Witnesses with style from attacks... in Russia, with the ebook ‘I Don’t Know Why We Persecute Jehovah’s Witnesses—Searching for the Why’ (free).... and in the West, with the ebook ‘TrueTom vs the Apostates!’ (free)