Monday, March 31, 1997

School Daze

What's the scoop Baboop? Well the test results are in and although the rabbit may not be dead, that sucker is barely breathing. On the recently administered test of Minnesota 8th grade students in which the minimum standards for graduation were tested, only 41% passed in math and a mere 35% passed in reading. Along with the predictable concern with the results of the latest scores came much talk of the need to reform our schools. Vouchers and later starting school days aside perhaps it is time to take a step back and rethink the way we approach this education thing.

In his book Beyond the Classroom, Laurence Steinberg a professor of psychology at Temple University, suggests the focus of the problem may be the actual problem. Steinberg argues that all of our past attempts at school reform have merely produced lower and lower test scores thus it may be time to look at other areas for the reason our students are doing so badly in school. He suggests that because parents and peers have more influence on how a student will do in school than do teachers, perhaps the focus of change should be in that area. This type of change would require a radical shift in our educational philosophy.

The most interesting notion put forward in Beyond the Classroom is the clear connection between our failing education system and the trend in society for refocusing the blame for what we do wrong. No matter what area you look, it seems like fewer and fewer are willing to take the responsibility for their own faults, instead it is becoming more and more commonplace to look for reasons for our failings. We are all victims and thus we can't help it if we are so screwed up.

Steinberg writes that the students who are succeeding in the very same schools that are mass producing poor educational skills for the majority, are the students who are willing to concede that it is their work ethic and the amount of time they are willing to put into improving themselves academically instead of blaming their failures on something out of their control. The students who blame the system, or to bad luck or some type of genetic or environmental inferiority are the ones giving themselves the excuse for failure. And because the consequences of failing don't seem to be all that great to these students, the mechanism for producing the essentials of a well educated, well prepared work force is constantly deteriorating.

Indeed it has been a learning experience to witness how the current debate shaped up after the latest round of alarming test scores was announced. All the focus was on how we can improve the school systems- whether or not private schools are better than public schools; whether or not we should go to some type of voucher system to make the public schools more on par with private schools. On one side you have those arguing what needs to be done are more progressive reforms. On the other you have those saying that what is needed is a hard return to the basics. In his book, Steinberg argues that until we change the attitude many of our students and their peers and parents have toward their education, no amount of school reform can possibly succeed.

Steinberg writes that because students are much more influenced in their study habits, their work ethic, and their attitudes by their peers and by their parents, unless they are given the message that education is indeed the key to their future, they simply lack the necessary motivation to try to do well in school. Without that motivation they cannot do well in school. Thus our focus should change to reforming our attitudes much more than it should focus on reshaping the educational systems.

Somehow our schools have shifted from a place of learning to a place one merely has to endure. The joy of an education has evaporated as schools more and more become part social hang out, part symptom or symbol of a greater societal problem. It is easier to be able to blame it all on the system in place rather than the attitudes and efforts put forward to try to change the direction, try to reform what is actually broken. It is an all too common approach in how we deal with our obstacles these days. As long as we don't take responsibility for allowing the problems to exist, as long as we have something or somebody else to blame, the solution will never be met. That may be a self comforting approach to adopt but in the long haul we just end up worse than where we began.

Monday, March 24, 1997

And Then There Were Four

Up until sometime early last week, many Minnesotans seemed to be skeptical about the University of Minnesota men's basketball team's success. Local talk radio shows were full of callers who were predicting the Gophers would quickly bow out of the NCAA tournament. It is doubtful many of these callers were hard-core college basketball fans but rather it is more likely they were among the many burned and scorned Minnesotans not used to success of our athletic teams. These people seemed to be unable to enjoy the team's marvelous season because they knew at some point, just as they were beginning to care, they'd be let down.

But this is a very special team that has enjoyed a very special season. Back in the fall when the Sporting News picked them to win the Big Ten, I was skeptical. But then when Clem Haskins started saying that he expected them to win the league we were all forced to listen. Clem has been notorious for downplaying his team's talents to lower everyone's expectations and thus anything achieved seems somewhat satisfying. But right from the start it was clear this team was going to be very good (especially after that dazzling if just a little lucky overtime win in Indiana early in the season).

It is a team without any weaknesses: quick, well coached and excellent defensively (are there any other teams that can boast of such wonderful defensive guard play from both positions?). The team has eight players who legitimately could start for most teams. It says a lot that the two most physically talented, Sam Jacobson and Courtney James, had up and down seasons and still the team steamrolled its way through the opposition. One of the biggest reasons for their success is they really don't rely on one player to win games. If Bobby Jackson has an off night there are others to pick up the slack.

I became a Gophers basketball fan in 1976 with the team that many followers claim was the greatest Gopher team of all time featuring Kevin McHale, Ray Williams, Mychal Thompson and Osborne Lockhart. I was lucky enough to see McHale play for Hibbing in the high school championship game at the Civic Center a few years back (it now appears that was my fifteen minutes of fame as my classmates and I square danced at half time in front of the enthralled eyes of a state. For some reason the camera focused on me- probably seeing the strange sight of an oriental country western dancer twirling his Scandinavian partner had something to do with it). McHale became my favorite player with his awesome low post game (which I styled my own 5'5" play after).

Many have said that the '76 Gophers could beat this year's squad. I'm not so convinced. That team did boast the best starting lineup in the history of the school but when you had to rely on Dave Winey to provide valuable backup minutes, it means a team as deep as this year's Gophers would stand a chance of winning. The 1997 Gophers do what they have to do to win. They have won so many close games- a true sign that they do not panic and their precision approach to the ups and downs of the game is impressive.

The team I had the most emotional attachment to was the 1982 version, the last time the Gophers won the Big Ten title. It was the last season for seniors Gary Holmes, Trent Tucker and Daryl Mitchell who had arrived at the University four years earlier, with Mark Hall and Leo Rautins to much fanfare, supposedly the best recruiting class ever. Their struggles for three years were mighty and it was truly rewarding to be there on the final day of the season to watch them clinch their title by beating Ohio State.

The program fell upon some difficult times in the mid-80's with that horrible weekend in Madison. It was a weekend that in a way detached me from college basketball- the three players accused of rape, not only kicked off the team (proper), but out of the University (not proper); the resignation of Coach Jim Dutcher and the subsequent not guilty verdicts left a nasty cloud hanging over the entire program. I cared enough to be there the next game when the "Iron Five" played for an emotional catharsis but until these past couple of weeks, the connection somehow wasn't as encompassing.

You have to like a good Rocky like story and to see where this team has gotten after how far the program had fallen is rather special and uplifting. To some it may just seem like another sports story but it is more than that. It has been a wonderful ride with a wonderful team. I think many have even learned to let the walls down for a moment and enjoy all that has been accomplished.

Monday, March 17, 1997

Down the Middle of the Road

It was that great philosopher, Mr. Miyagi who once said it was OK to walk down one side of the road, and it was OK to walk down the other. It was not however, OK to walk down the middle of the road because something would eventually come along and you would go SPLAT!

So the middle of the road in another world, another perspective isn't always about moderation and compromise. Coming from a cool college and finding oneself working in a cool record store following college, one was expected to dislike anything that smelled of the mainstream. The belief was that if something was popular with the masses it lacked any type of artistic integrity. There is some wisdom to that view of culture. Part of the role of good art is to challenge preconceived notions, making us feel the unfamiliar as well as seeing the familiar in a different way. Much of our best works of popular culture come from the fringe elements, the types of writers and artists by their very work will never appeal to a mass audience. Yet at the same time, to dismiss a piece of work because a lot of somebody elses like it, is downright silly.

All this comes to mind this week after the news that the Twin Cities, which didn't have a lot to begin with, lost two of its alternative voices, TheReader and REV 105. The buyout of both media outlets continues a disturbing trend of fewer and fewer owning more and more of the sources from which we get our news and entertainment. If there is one area in which we do not want monopolies involved it is the area in which we get our information. The more sources we have, the better our democracy works.

I've never been much of a radio listener, depending more on my own collection of music whether at home or in my car. The little I listen to the radio usually is to get my news either from talk radio or MPR. So losing REV 105 probably won't have much affect on my day to day life. Yet I know there are people in this company, and among the regulars who shop at our stores that cherished REV 105. I saw a discussion on the Internet about the loss of the radio station and someone commented that the station's demographic didn't count its income by monetary figures but rather by how many CDs they had bought used from Cheapo. It is sad to lose that alternative, the one station in town that had the audacity to play Sinatra, Dylan and Liz Phair back to back to back especially in a city that has 19,000 country music stations.

For me, the loss of The Reader cuts a bit deeper. We are one of the few metropolitan areas lucky enough to still have two competing major daily newspapers. That said, the news in the Pioneer Press seldom varies from the news you'll find in the Star Tribune. There certainly are better alternative newspapers than The Reader and the City Pages. Yet both have established themselves as capable of looking at stories that you would not find in either one of our dailies. The voices, the perspectives that appeared in those pages were great reminders of the ideals I learned while studying journalism, and the need for those out of the mainstream to be able to have an outlet to use to speak out. We all are bettered, more informed when that level of dialogue is allowed to exist.

The town of course will survive the loss of both REV 105 and The Reader. Perhaps in time replacements will appear to take their places. Until then it is our duty to disregard Mr. Miyagi's words of wisdom every now and then because once in a while it's worth the risk to step from the side and risk walking down that dangerous and oh so lonesome middle. It takes an occasional SPLAT to wake us up. Often we require that SPLAT in order to ask the right questions to get the right answers. Only now it will be that much harder to find it.

Monday, March 10, 1997

Understanding Human Behavior, Uh Huh, No Sir I Reckon It's Not Easy to Do

Having just completed a month long course at the Humphrey Institute called Managing Human Behavior I was reminded of just about the only truism I've learned over the past thirty two years: the more you are around people, the less you understand human behavior.

The course, taught by Mike Johnson, who during the day teaches business courses to students at the University of Minnesota's Dental School, was one of the better management classes I've attended. We began by studying the elements that influence people's values and to understand that someone who was born during the Depression years in rural Iowa probably doesn't have the same values as a Generation X'er raised in Seattle. To try and manage both people the same way is ludicrous. Once the understanding is there that people have different values and thus have to be approached differently, the class shifted focus to motivating employees. The theory presented was that a person cannot motivate another person, that the best a manager can do is to provide an atmosphere where employees motivate themselves.

This perhaps was the course's strongest point: the acceptance that hard as people try, as much time as we put into trying, we really cannot change another person. We can't get someone to value the same ethic or morals that we do nor can we make someone we find it difficult to deal with actually less difficult. We can however change our own perceptions and actions, learning how to turn conflict and differences into something positive, how to make change something to strive for as much as we strive for constant improvement.

My recent attendance at a current movie reinforced some of what I learned in class. Billy Bob Thornton's Sling Blade is a very special movie, the rare film that creates a world so familiar and yet so different than anything previously experienced. Thornton's character of Karl is someone never quite seen before. He has been described by some as the "dark side of Forrest Gump" based on his lack of mental quickness and minimal social skills. Yet where Gump was a character that represented some kind of pseudo-fable, Karl seems every bit real. Like M*A*S*H's Captain Tuttle, there is a little bit of Karl in each one of us.

The movie begins with Karl's release from a state mental hospital where he has been for thirty years since killing his mother and her lover when he was twelve years old. The doctors, as Karl says, have decided he is now right in the head. At first it looks as if there is no way he will ever survive out in the "real" world and indeed early on he tries to return to the hospital. But then he is befriended by a boy, and the boy's mother and we begin to see that Karl is a most complex simple man.

The movie earns every bit of its unforced sentimentality. While Karl is confused by his foreign surroundings, at the same time his quiet little existence and self taught philosophy, a reaction from the dark shadows that follow him, are the logical response to a world that he describes as "too big." His moral basis, the Bible, which he says "took him four years to read and he reckons some of it he doesn't understand," helps him make his decisions about what is right and wrong. Yet it is through his contact with other humans where his real education, and his real morality shine through.

The movie is laced with three dimensional characters that we understand on an unusually deep level- that is to say like in life we don't know what ultimately motivates them yet we have seen enough people like these characters to know how we react and respond toward them. Dwight Yoakam gives an inspired performance as Karl's nemesis, a man who Karl sees as truly evil. Where Karl understands and accepts his own limitations he knows Yoakam will never reach that same level of understanding. Yet in the end Karl's quiet philosophy of human nature and of Yoakam's character gives him all the advantage despite the difference in mental abilities.

Sling Blade says more about humanity, people's insecurities and peculiarities, human behavior and the walls and bridges that separate us while bringing us together, better than any work of fiction I've seen or read in quite awhile. It contains several lines of beautifully written dialogue that don't seem written, because the characters are fleshed out well enough where we accept and enjoy whatever manipulation might have distracted in a lesser movie. Indeed it plays out like a good novel creating characters that are uniquely familiar, helping us to follow their path while learning a bit about ourselves along the way. And perhaps that is truly the best way to understand another human- through our own motivations and behavior.