The title for this blog originated with use of the term “practical idealist”
in this 1996 opinion piece, which asked: “To what kind of work should a practical idealist aspire?” A century and a half earlier, Emerson,
in his 1841 essay Circles, wrote: “There are degrees in idealism. We learn first to play with it academically.
. . . Then we see in the heyday of youth and poetry that it may be true, that it is true in gleams and fragments.
Then, its countenance waxes stern and grand, and we see that it must be true. It now shows itself ethical and practical.” Mahatma
Gandhi embraced practical idealism in the 20th century, as did UN Secretary General U Thant. Al Gore invoked it in a
1998 speech. In the context of this blog, the term is meant to convey idealism tempered but not overwhelmed by realism: a
search for the ideal on a path guided by common sense.
Sunday, March 1, 2015
8:02 am est
I just finished reading Walter Isaacson’s The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks
Created the Digital Revolution. From Charles Babbage, Ada Lovelace, Alan Turing and Grace Hopper
to the creators of transistors, microchips, software, the Internet, and the Web, the book covers a range of individuals and
technological developments in the history of computing.
the balance between individual brilliance and a collaborative ethos, as well as the integration of the arts and humanities
with the sciences and mathematics. He attends also to the importance of investments by government, private industry, and “open source”
participants alike. He writes:
“…Creativity is a collaborative
process. Innovation comes from teams more often than from the lightbulb moments of lone geniuses. This
was true of every era of creative ferment…. But to an even greater extent, this has been true of the digital age….
The digital age may seem revolutionary, but it was based on expanding the ideas handed down from previous generations. The
collaboration was not merely among contemporaries, but also between generations. The best innovators
were those who understood the trajectory of technological change and took the baton from innovators who preceded them….
The most productive teams were those that brought together people with a wide array of specialties…. Throughout history
the best leadership has come from teams that combined people with complementary styles…. Another key to fielding a
great team is pairing visionaries, who can generate ideas, with operating managers, who can execute them…. The Internet
facilitated collaboration not only within teams but also among crowds of people who didn’t know each other. This
is the advance that is closest to being revolutionary.” (p. 479-82)
invoked figures from Aristotle and Leonardo da Vinci to Vannevar Bush, Walter Isaacson concludes:
creativity involves values, intentions, aesthetic judgments, emotions, personal consciousness, and a moral sense. These
are what the arts and humanities teach us – and why those realms are as valuable a part of education as science, technology,
engineering, and math. If we mortals are to uphold our end of the human-computer symbiosis …
we must continue to nurture the wellsprings of our imagination and originality and humanity…. Interplay between technology
and the arts will eventually result in completely new forms of expression and formats of media. This innovation
will come from people who are able to link beauty to engineering, humanity to technology, and poetry to processors. In
other words, it will come from the spiritual heirs of Ada Lovelace, creators who can flourish where the arts intersect with
the sciences and who have a rebellious sense of wonder that opens them to the beauty of both.” (p.
Similar themes characterize the “STEAM” (versus “STEM”) movement, mentioned
in a November 2013 op-ed.
Sunday, February 8, 2015
“Two Republics, and Global Citizenship”
9:30 am est
of India published my recent article, prepared to coincide with President Obama’s visit to New Delhi
on the occasion of India’s Republic Day (the anniversary of its constitution’s having taken effect in January
A similar version, including several embedded links, was published via Medium.
Saturday, February 7, 2015
Invest in Infrastructure, Promote Cleaner Energy: Raise the Federal Gas Tax
10:15 am est
NPR this week ran a story about President Barack Obama’s reluctance to raise the federal gas tax, despite his call for increased transportation spending. Earl Blumenauer, a U.S. Representative from
Oregon, was quoted among the backers of a modest increase in the gas tax. Such a measure has long
been favored by mainstream economists, who recognize that the most efficient way to discourage behavior (e.g., driving of
polluting vehicles) is to tax it – and redirect the revenues in more positive directions.
recently contacted U.S. Senator Christopher Murphy of Connecticut about “the need for the U.S. to strengthen financing
of its transportation needs.” Thanking him for his bipartisan work in this area with Senator
Bob Corker of Tennessee, I wrote:
“Even if such efforts have so far proved politically
unsuccessful, I urge you and others to continue and indeed to become much more ambitious in your pursuit of viable, long-term
funding for the nation's transportation needs (and related jobs). With gas prices relatively low at present, there is
no better time to increase the federal gas tax to raise revenue, encourage efficiency, and set our country on a more promising
course -- including more, better mass transit as well as better roads and bridges, not to mention the national security benefits.
[Those benefits include, for example, greater independence from the whims of oil and natural gas producers – and reduced
risks from the instabilities of global climate change.]
My message to Senator Murphy continued:
“Other aspects of the tax code can be made more progressive and simpler to offset the ostensibly
regressive aspects of the gas tax. For example, I would support a phase-in, over 10 years, of an increase of the tax
to $1 a gallon. Related revenues would allow substantial tax relief, as well as investments, in other areas.”
As with the construction of the interstate highway system, the federal government should lead in improving
and modernizing our infrastructure now. States including Connecticut are right also to be attending
more to their roads, bridges, and rail lines – and should secure sufficient revenues for these purposes. Still,
the gasoline tax should be more a federal than a state responsibility, both because of the national/global aspects of energy/transportation
policy and because state-level gas taxes can create a corrosive competition between neighboring states that may attempt to
lure drivers from higher-tax states, thereby depriving them of revenue.
Sunday, February 1, 2015
Yale Basketball, Update
10:30 pm est
A December 2014 (December 7) post addressed student-athletes, with a focus on the current Yale men’s basketball team, days after
it won at UConn.
Since then, one member of the Yale team – senior Armani Cotton – received attention for a camp that he runs with a dual emphasis on basketball and academic success. Another senior, Matt Townsend, was named a finalist for a national award recognizing “a student-athlete … [with] notable achievements in four areas of excellence: community, classroom,
character, and competition.”
The December 7 post concluded:
“2014-15 could be the first year since 1962 that Yale wins the Ivy League
title and makes the NCAA tournament, where the team’s experience, poise, and unity would make it competitive.
New Haveners with any interest in basketball should be encouraged to come out and support this group of young men.”
Now, weeks later, Yale is in first place and off to its best Ivy League start since 1962. February 6 and 7, Dartmouth
and Harvard visit for what should be two good games.
Saturday, January 17, 2015
Teachers Institute Previews 2015 Seminars
9:44 am est
The Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute has announced its 2015 seminars, offered in response to teachers’ requests for curricular and professional development in both the humanities and the
Saturday, January 10, 2015
“Gunned Down” by the NRA
1:15 pm est
A recent PBS Frontline episode, “Gunned Down,” examines the disturbing political power of the National Rifle Association (NRA) – which has increasingly accommodated
its extreme elements in recent decades. This documentary would have benefited from more attention to problems of urban
gun violence in addition to school shootings and such atrocities as the attack on Gabrielle Giffords et al. in Arizona.
Also, it’s disappointing that the film doesn’t more explicitly treat the extent to which the NRA is supported
by gun manufacturers, not only by zealous gun owners (though the Frontline website does address this in
a separate segment with filmmaker Michael Kirk).
Still, the program is useful in exposing the scope of the NRA’s clout
in defeating even the most modest of safety measures: expanded background checks for gun purchasers. “Gunned Down”
implies what an effective counter to the NRA will demand: a mass mobilization of voters who favor the right not to get shot,
over the supposed “right” for virtually anyone to bear highly lethal weapons with the potential to kill many more
innocents – through accidents and intent – than they will protect.
just before the new year, a mother in Idaho was accidentally shot to death at a store by her two-year-old son when he unzipped
a purse that contained her (legal) concealed handgun. A Washington Post account quoted a friend of the deceased, whose comments seemed inadvertently to capture a kind of warped sensibility by which guns
are so normalized that they are taken for granted – even when there’s no real need for them, and they create more
hazards than they cure.
“In Idaho, we don’t have to worry about a lot of crime and things
like that…. To see someone with a gun isn’t bizarre. [The victim] wasn’t carrying a gun because she felt
unsafe. She was carrying a gun because she was raised around guns. This was just a horrible accident.”
to a fact sheet from the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research,
“Compared to homes without guns, the presence of guns in the home is associated with a 3-fold
increased homicide risk within the home. The risk connected to gun ownership increases to 8-fold when the offender is an intimate
partner or relative of the victim and is 20 times higher when previous domestic violence exists.”
A February 2014 (February 8) post to this blog mentioned an article in Pediatrics on “Hospitalizations Due
to Firearm Injuries in Children and Adolescents,” as well as an American Psychological Association report, “Gun
Violence: Prevention, Prediction, and Policy.”
A January 2013 op-ed discussed “guns and security” from the perspective of a parent (me) whose own grandfather was an avid hunter
who owned many guns and gave him (me) a .22 caliber rifle for his (my) 11th birthday.
On the history of the Second Amendment, there is Saul Cornell’s book A Well-Regulated Militia: The Founding Fathers and the Origins of Gun Control in America.
Thursday, January 1, 2015
Mentoring, in January and Year-Round
9:09 am est
Saturday, December 20, 2014
“The 100 Greatest Americans of the 20th Century”
7:31 am est
I’ve been reading Peter Dreier’s The 100 Greatest Americans of the 20th Century:
A Social Justice Hall of Fame. This 2012 book has enhanced my appreciation of figures from Robert
La Follette Sr., Florence Kelley, and Fiorello La Guardia to Ella Baker, Walter Reuther, and David Brower – who may
been the most important environmentalist since John Muir and Theodore Roosevelt.
the selections would be controversial in progressive circles, though I disagree with the inclusion of Bob Dylan in particular
(despite his artistry). If one were to add an entertainment luminary to the likes of Joan Baez, Woody
Guthrie, and Pete Seeger, a strong candidate would be Paul Newman. An actor-activist who made Richard
Nixon’s enemies list, Paul Newman also lent his name to Newman’s Own, the company that has generated hundreds
of millions of dollars for charitable causes.
Sunday, December 14, 2014
“The Opportunity Equation”
10:39 am est
read a new book by Eric Schwarz, a founder and longtime leader of Citizen Schools, called The Opportunity Equation. (The Carnegie Corporation of New York and Institute for Advanced Study collaborated on a commission that
produced a 2009 report, on STEM education, with a similar title.) His subtitle: “How Citizen
Teachers Are Combating the Achievement Gap in America’s Schools.”
whom I met in summer 2000 and recently saw briefly when he gave a book talk in New Haven, concentrates on the role of volunteer “citizen teachers” that Citizen Schools has
deployed for two decades. His book is an unusual combination: part memoir, part institutional history,
part how-to manual, part policy brief, and part call to action. A former journalist, he narrates effectively
– with elements of humor as well as data and well-earned experience. He is respectful of professional teachers
while recognizing their need for greater support.
increases in volunteer mentoring and tutoring, and in federal support for the AmeriCorps service program, are among his suggestions.
His own privileged background, far from something he takes for granted, fuels his zeal for expanding
learning opportunities and learning time in order to counter inequalities. He argues (page 195):
“…Some of the achievement gap (20 to 30 percent) is caused by inequality between schools
in wealthier and poorer backgrounds. This inequality needs to change. But most of the gap comes from unequal access to learning
opportunities offered after school or in the summers, at home or in a growing constellation of tutoring centers, skill-building
camps, and paid enrichment and internship programs. Upper-income kids get many thousands of dollars
invested in these types of extra learning opportunities, and as a result they hone their basic academic skills; they build
new skills such as the ability to innovate and create and work on teams, and they build increasingly important social networks
and social skills. This inequality needs to change too.”
Sunday, December 7, 2014
Recognizing Student-Athletes and Basketball, at UConn and Yale
9:28 am est
This is Pearl Harbor Day,
and there are numerous subjects of global, national, state or local consequence on which one might opine. But
as a father of young children and as a volunteer youth basketball coach, I’m going to address the diversion of sport.
This blog has occasionally treated UConn basketball, as in April 2011 and April 2014 (April 8), after the men’s team won NCAA titles. In between, a March 2013 (March 10) post considered both UConn and Yale basketball and the “promising seasons” the teams could anticipate
in 2013-14, during which senior-led UConn would go on to win the national championship (with superb coaching by Kevin Ollie
and his staff) – and Yale to finish second in the Ivy League after an early season loss to UConn.
Friday night, my son and I were in Storrs to see UConn host Yale in a rematch
(28 years after Yale last beat UConn). This season, UConn is a relatively young team and Yale a more
veteran squad, albeit without the NCAA tournament experience of the Huskies.
In March 2013, I wrote that on Yale’s senior night, “Sophomores, including two known for their sobriety, helped lead” an Ivy League win. Now,
those sophomores are seniors. (One would-be senior, Connecticut native and political science major
Brandon Sherrod – a founder of “Team Sober” – is taking a year off, having joined the Whiffenpoofs singing group.) The remaining seniors
include his Team Sober cofounder, Javier Duren, an economics major and starting point guard; Armani Cotton, a psychology major and another starter, recognized with a team
award for “hard work and dedication”; Greg Kelley, an American studies major who is the captain; and Matt Townsend, a molecular, cellular, and developmental biology major who is
a starting forward and now a Rhodes Scholar.
(UConn’s basketball team also had a Rhodes Scholar finalist this year, Goldwater Scholar Pat Lenehan.)
Justin Sears, a junior political science major at Yale who volunteered with New Haven public school students and writes occasionally for The Basketball Diary, is the Ivy League preseason player of the year.
In an era when athletes are often disparaged for off-field or off-court behavior and major universities
are investigated for academic fraud that includes athletes (and others), members of this Yale team have earned attention not
only for academic distinction (one of only two Ivy League teams with a cumulative GPA of 3.0 or better) but also for community service, including for the cause of literacy. The players I’ve met have uniformly made a good impression and reflect well on Coach James
Jones as a judge and developer of character, not just talent.
(My occasional interactions with UConn players over the
years have also been positive; for example, Friday I happened to meet R.J. Evans, who played a postgraduate season at UConn
in 2012-13, earned his master’s degree and works in business. Kevin Ollie and his staff are themselves
former UConn players.)
On Friday, Yale dealt UConn a rare home defeat, a dramatic 45-44 upset in the final seconds.
I am a fan of both Yale
and UConn basketball and confident the Huskies, momentarily humbled after three straight losses (in which injuries have played
a role), will soon be winning again. This season and likely even more so in 2015-16, UConn will perform at a high level.
I’ll be in the stands, or at least watching on TV, whenever possible. 2014-15 could be the first year since 1962 that Yale wins the Ivy League title and makes the NCAA tournament,
where the team’s experience, poise, and unity would make it competitive. New Haveners with any interest
in basketball should be encouraged to come out and support this group of young men, too.
Saturday, December 6, 2014
Race and Violence, Schools and Society
1:52 pm est
Half a century ago, in May 1964, President Lyndon Johnson envisioned a nation advancing not just toward “the rich
society and the powerful society, but upward to the Great Society” that might “end poverty and racial injustice.”
This lofty rhetoric has not,
of course, been fulfilled – even as progress has occurred.
Travis Bristol – whose work has been mentioned on this blog previously
in August 2014 (August 10), September 2013 (September 7), and June 2013 posts – wrote a recent Edutopia piece, “Race and Violence Should Be a School-Wide Subject.”
Saturday, November 8, 2014
Literacy Forum: "Libraries in the 21st Century"
7:01 am est
The New Haven Independent published my account of a recent Literacy Forum on “Libraries in the 21st Century.”
Sunday, November 2, 2014
Yale National Initiative and STEM Education in New Haven
6:15 am est
Sunday, October 12, 2014
Resources for Teaching and Learning
8:47 am edt
Sunday, October 5, 2014
5:40 pm edt
Saturday, October 4, 2014
“Dark Is Beautiful”: Film and Social Activism
8:40 am edt
my wife and I attended a screening of “Firaaq,” a powerful film that Nandita Das – director and actor as well as social activist – made about the 2002 “carnage” (as she characterized
it) in the Indian state of Gujarat, where Muslims were massacred after a sectarian dispute and controversial train fire. The
Gujarat government at the time was headed by Narendra Modi, now the Indian prime minister, who was in the U.S. this past week
to speak at the UN and meet with President Barack Obama.
Nandita Das, a 2014 Yale World Fellow, will be speaking in New Haven (6 p.m., Luce Hall) the evening of October 10 about a campaign to counter skin color bias, in India and beyond. The effort, “Dark Is Beautiful,” has received attention in the U.S. as well as India and elsewhere.
For a preview, see this video.
Racism and skin tone bias are all too common across cultures and continents. Personally,
in the case of India, my wife’s mother has spoken of ugly comments she received from a young age about her skin tone. Let
us hope that messages such as “dark is beautiful” will help advance progress.
Saturday, September 20, 2014
Men, Domestic Violence, and Sexual Assault
6:56 am edt
Amid news of campus sexual assault and various NFL players’ abuse of women and children, President Obama announced “It’s On Us” – a campaign emphasizing men’s responsibility to address such problems on
campus and beyond.
Twenty years after the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) became law in 1994,
let’s hope that a belated movement of men to seize this responsibility is finally underway. There
have been stirrings for decades, including undergraduates (mostly women, but some men, too) marching to “Take Back the
Night” from sexual violence, and efforts to inspire the majority of men actively to oppose such violence, rather than
to be mere bystanders as a small minority of men become serial abusers.
On campus, I recall “Take
Back the Night” rallies from 2004 and earlier years.
Regarding abuse by athletes among others,
“Domestic Violence No Game” was an October 2008 piece that discussed such organizations as the Joe Torre Safe at Home Foundation, Men Can Stop Rape, and Men Stopping Violence. There and elsewhere – such as in May 2013 (May 4) and August 2014 (August 2) posts – I’ve written of the “Coaching Boys into Men” initiative and “A Call
We must insist that violence toward women and children (and men) be recognized
as a public issue to be confronted through law and prevention, not viewed as a private matter subject to shame and the whims of discretion. Confidentiality
is often important to victims and should be maintained where possible, to the fullest extent of the law. But
cover-ups and complacency must stop. It is on us.
Sunday, September 14, 2014
9:30 am edt
Today marks 200 years since Francis Scott Key wrote
“The Star-Spangled Banner,” tomorrow 51 years since four Birmingham girls were killed in a horrific church fire-bombing. Constitution Day is approaching September 17. The latest documentary film series by Ken Burns, on the Roosevelts, begins tonight.
The New York
Times Magazine has a front-page article on Bill Gates and his enthusiasm for “Big History” (which evokes a Yale course, taught by geophysicist David
Bercovici, on the “Origins of Everything”).
month in the Times, James Grossman of the American Historical Association wrote about the importance of historical study, with minimal interference from politics.
The American Academy of Arts and Sciences publishes Humanities Indicators.I wrote a piece on history, civics, and balancing “STEM” with “STEAM.”
Sunday, September 7, 2014
Defending the Public Library
8:22 am edt
After a critic used a single event to question the merits of funding the New Haven
Public Library, I wrote a brief response.
Saturday, September 6, 2014
Literacy Coalition Board, Blog
8:27 am edt
Saturday, August 30, 2014
Free Speech on Campus
8:55 am edt
In his recent address to freshmen, Yale President Peter Salovey focused on campus free expression. He recalled the report of a committee that the late historian C. Vann Woodward chaired four decades ago – a
report that became influential nationally.
Woodward and colleagues were appointed to that committee by the late Yale President Kingman Brewster.
The Woodward committee (along with an earlier committee, chaired by the late political scientist Robert Dahl, that addressed
coeducation among other issues) was a subject of a 2013 senior essay by Nathaniel Zelinsky: “Who Governed Yale? Kingman Brewster
and Higher Education in the 1970s.”
An aide to Kingman Brewster, Jonathan
Fanton, later went on to become president of the New School – where for several years I worked for him.
Amid controversies in California
(at Berkeley) and New York (at the New School), a 1996 Wall Street Journal op-ed treated campus free speech.