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Practically Idealistic blog
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.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Teachers Institute Previews 2015 Seminars

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 sciences.

9:44 am est 

Saturday, January 10, 2015

“Gunned Down” by the NRA

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. 

Sadly, 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.”

According 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.” 

... 

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.”

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.

1:15 pm est 

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Mentoring, in January and Year-Round

January is mentoring month, as President Obama has proclaimed.

9:09 am est 

Saturday, December 20, 2014

“The 100 Greatest Americans of the 20th Century”

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.

Few of 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.

7:31 am est 

Sunday, December 14, 2014

“The Opportunity Equation”

Recently I 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.”

Eric Schwarz, 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.

Large-scale 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.”

10:39 am est 

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Recognizing Student-Athletes and Basketball, at UConn and Yale

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.
9:28 am est 

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Race and Violence, Schools and Society

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.” 

1:52 pm est 

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Literacy Forum: "Libraries in the 21st Century"

The New Haven Independent published my account of a recent Literacy Forum on “Libraries in the 21st Century.”

7:01 am est 

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Yale National Initiative and STEM Education in New Haven

The website of the Yale National Initiative to strengthen teaching in public schools has a new look, with pages ranging from extensive curricular resources to information about giving opportunities, including a campaign for STEM endowment in New Haven.

6:15 am est 

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Resources for Teaching and Learning

The curricular resources that New Haven Public School teachers developed as Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute Fellows in 2014 are now online, for non-commercial, educational purposes locally and beyond.

8:47 am edt 

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Historic Sites

This weekend in Massachusetts, my family visited both the site of the last battle of Shays’ Rebellion (1787) and the W.E.B. Du Bois National Historic Site, where as a young child he lived with his grandparents in the early 1870s.

5:40 pm edt 

Saturday, October 4, 2014

“Dark Is Beautiful”: Film and Social Activism

Last weekend, 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.

8:40 am edt 

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Men, Domestic Violence, and Sexual Assault

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 FoundationMen 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 to Men.”

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.

6:56 am edt 

Sunday, September 14, 2014

History

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”).

Earlier this 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.”
9:30 am edt 

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Defending the Public Library

After a critic used a single event to question the merits of funding the New Haven Public Library, I wrote a brief response.

8:22 am edt 

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Literacy Coalition Board, Blog 8:27 am edt 

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Free Speech on Campus

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.

8:55 am edt 

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Humanities, Arts, and Sciences

In a recent column, Nicholas Kristof invoked philosophers Isaiah Berlin, John Rawls, and Peter Singer to argue the importance of the humanities, as well as the sciences.

Focusing on history and civics (and "STEAM" vs. "STEM"), a November 2013 piece addressed similar themes.

1:45 pm edt 

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Blood Demand, Supply

Blood is always needed.  Unfortunately, an April trip to malaria-prone India precludes me, under Red Cross protocol, from giving blood for a year.  In the meantime, let me encourage other blood donors.  An estimated 8 percent of potentially eligible U.S. donors give blood each year; we can do better.

9:53 am edt 

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Teachers in Boston Public Schools, and Beyond

Travis Bristol, whose work was mentioned in September 2013 (September 7) and June 2013 posts, was featured – along with teacher Hayden Frederick-Clarke – in a recent public radio discussion: “How to increase the number of black male teachers in Boston public schools.” 

7:55 am edt 

Sunday, August 3, 2014

“My Brother’s Keeper” and Literacy

The LiteracyEveryday site includes a new blog post about President Obama’s “My Brother’s Keeper” initiative and boys’ reading skills.

8:58 am edt 

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