Sunday, October 30, 2011

Made in America

In the midst of the usual morning madness to get us both out the door and to our respective destinations on time, my teenager asks "Is WD-40 an American company?" Since the non sequitur is a common occurrence in our conversations, I offer "I'm not really sure; why don't you Google it?" without missing a beat.  And, since focused pursuit of the information in question is also a common occurrence, it takes only a few minutes to hear "I thought so.  It had to be, because Toby Keith sings about it."  And it's a perfect moment.

What's perfect about this moment is the combination of natural curiosity (hers), testing a hypothesis (also hers), and the tracking of seemingly separate thought processes (ours).  My daughter had been listening carefully to the lyrics of Toby Keith's Made in America:

My old man's that old man
Spent his life livin' off the land
Spend a little more in the store for a tag
In the back that says "USA"
He won't buy nothin' that he can't fix
With WD-40 and a Craftsman wrench
He ain't prejudiced, he's just
Made in America
Made in America.  It's a song title, a television series (quite a good one, in fact), a news worthy topic, and a union rallying cry.  Google it and you'll find "about 953,000,000 results."  We talk about it, we write about, we read about it, we debate about it...and we are, as a nation, still fairly clueless about it.

To have products that are made in America--or products made in any country, as it's not just about the country where I happen to live--requires facilities and skilled workers.  And that--the skilled workers--is what's on my mind as a citizen, an educator and a parent.

I can't express it any better than the interview provocatively titled "John Ratzenberger on Why We're Becoming a Third World Country":
The view of most guidance counselors is that if you don't go to college you're a failure.  And it's just not true.  The manual arts have always taken precedence over the fine arts.  There's no exception to that rule.  Michelangelo couldn't have gone to work until someone built that ceiling.
We continue to measure success by the color of our collar. That, too, is made in America.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

I know his name now

Recently Chris, a former student of mine, posted this on his Facebook page (which I quote here with his permission):
When Steve Jobs passed away everyone was bawling because a billionaire died. A man who evaded taxes, denied fathering his daughter, cheated others out of organ transplants, basically sued for or stole most of his ideas and did very little philanthropically with his mountains of cash. He was a beloved crook and marketing talent who swindled communities into some feverish orgy of brand loyalty.
Meanwhile, every last person who has ever touched a computer in basically any form owe their livelihoods, entertainment, ability to communicate, hell even their lives to Dennis Ritchie. He was a Titan to the IT world who truly crafted a thing of infinite genius, and everyone, everyone has been standing on his shoulders since. Here is someone to write articles about and ponder their impact on us all, and no one knows his name.
Given the time I've spent with Chris, I know his opinions are thoughtful and based upon considerable research.  And, since I was one of the people who did not know Dennis Ritchie's name, I began to read. 
In Greek mythology, the Titans were the gods who ruled before being overthrown by the younger Olympians. First generation Titans include Uranus, Oceanus, Cronus, Phoebe, and Mnemosyne (one of my favorites); their off-spring include Atlas and Prometheus.  Before being overthrown, they were powerful rulers during the Golden Age.  The 12 Olympians (including Zeus, Hera, Apollo, and Poseidon) who replaced the Titans are arguably better known to purveyors of comic books, superheros, and popular movies.  

Dennis Ritchie "helped shape the digital era."  Oddly or, perhaps, poetically, he died just 12 days after Steve Jobs and is rightly described as a Titan:

Ritchie was the principal designer of the C programming language and co-inventor of the operating system Unix, two inventions that revolutionized modern technology.
The C programming language was widely considered simple and elegant compared to the more cryptic and inaccessible B language that preceded it, and is now widely used. Based on C, Ritchie and Kenneth L. Thompson invented Unix, which is the foundation of today’s predominant operating systems.
Not a flashy man, Ritchie worked for one company (Bell Labs) his entire career and did not seek the spotlight. He was well liked, well respected, and paved the way for the younger Olympians who stood on his shoulders...and who are far better known.

I'm left with the same question Chris raised.  But now I know Dennis Ritchie's name.  Thank you, Chris.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Some days are like living in a blender

Yesterday, it was Frank Deford on NPR, quoting former University of California, Berkeley chancellor Clark Kerr:
The three purposes of the University?  To provide sex for the students, sports for the alumni, and parking for the faculty.
Today, it was finding a forgotten electronic bookmark to Max Ehrmann's Desiderata and wondering how, in my youth, I missed this:
Take kindly to the counsel of the years, gracefully surrendering the things of youth.  Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune.  But do not distress yourself with imaginings.  Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness.
Two months ago, it was a faculty retreat on excellence in teaching, where a colleague pondered how to engage students who do not wish to be engaged.  And for the past several weeks, it's been my walks across campus, observing the masses of students, reminding myself that each and every one of them is loved by someone (whether parent, sibling, or friend) and that very few of them are on our campus because they love learning.

And if that weren't enough to keep my mind occupied for a while, I've also been remembering a Mark Helprin quote from Winter's Tale:
(T)ime was invented because we cannot comprehend in one glance the enormous and detailed canvas that we have been given - so we track it, in linear fashion piece by piece.  Time however can be easily overcome; not by chasing the light, but by standing back far enough to see it all at once.
How, then, do teachers rise to the challenge of engaging hearts and minds, knowing full well the lessons needed, understanding the youthful resistance to learning, and realizing much we offer will not be embraced for many years (if at all)--all without giving in or giving up?  I wonder if each one of us who teaches (regardless of where or what) must struggle to find our own place to stand, one that provides enough distance to see it all at once and enough proximity to remain engaged.

Some days I get it in an instant; others, not so much.