An ode to my parents

First, sorry for the radio (blog?) silence of late. I recently started a new job–my first nursing job! So I’m pretty preoccupied with that now, and blog posts and activity will most likely be confined to the weekends. But anyway, I wanted to talk about something that I’ve been thinking about lately: my parents.

My parents are far from perfect. I see that and will openly admit that. But I think that they did a good job raising me, and I think that because of them I’m a well adjusted, productive adult capable of critical thought. So what did they do to raise a successful child? Tutoring after school? Heart to hearts around the fireplace every night? Making me learn another language or skill? Sending me off to science camp? As it turns out, my parents had a rather different strategy.

They were hands-off parents.

That isn’t to say that they didn’t love me or protect me or offer me the benefit of their experience when I needed it. They did indeed love me and protect me and they did offer me their wisdom when I asked for it. But by and large, my parents didn’t meddle in my life. They essentially allowed me to be my own person, even at a young age. My individualism was never squashed or tempered–unless of course I was being a little dickhead and doing something that hurt or offended other people.

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But because I had a lot of freedom as a child, I never really was aggressive. I’ve always thought that aggressive children are that way for one of two reasons. Either they have aggressive parents and just learn that that’s an acceptable way to deal with problems or they don’t have the skills to express how they feel and it comes out as anger. And I’ll come out and say that, from what I can see, the generations that came after me are either maladjusted or are going to be maladjusted mostly for the latter reason. When all is said and done, parents who micromanage every minute of their child’s life or protect them from everything are doing those kids a tremendous disservice.

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Just because I had freedom didn’t mean there wasn’t structure in our home, though. This is bed time and this is when I’m going to wake you up. Dinner is always at 6 o’clock. Be home before the streetlights came on. Don’t lie. Ask permission before doing something. That sort of thing. The bare essentials.

I remember that in high school I was the only one of my friends without a curfew. My parents just wanted to know where I would be and what time I thought I would be back. But if the answer was “midnight” they didn’t stop me.

My parents gave me the sex talk, but they never really discouraged me from having sex. They encouraged me to wait for someone I loved, but they didn’t really seem to be worried about me having sex as a teenager–so long as I used protection. Pregnancy and disease were definitely part of that conversation. When it came to sex, my parents used a strategy that involved two rather unconventional things in our society: realism and honesty. They knew that as a living, red blooded teenage male I was going to be curious about and want sex. So they were upfront and honest with me about it. They didn’t shame me about it, they didn’t tell me I had to be X years old or whatever and they didn’t wrap up a perfectly natural act in morality. They told me that sex should be with someone you love and that I should use condoms. And that was my sex lecture. And you know what?

It worked.

I waited to lose my virginity. I was 19 when it happened. It wasn’t because I wasn’t interested. I had started to explore my sexuality long before that. But because my parents were forthright and didn’t bullshit me, I respected their advice. I can’t emphasize that enough. This strategy worked pretty well for them and for me on a lot of topics.

When you’re honest with kids about taboo topics, you demystify them. You take away the allure. Guns? My dad owned guns growing up, and I was taught gun safety and to respect firearms, and when he deemed I was old enough allowed to use them with his guidance and supervision. I never came across a firearm while at a friend’s house, but if I had, I wouldn’t have been very fascinated with it. Been there, done that. I knew what they were, how they worked, and more importantly how dangerous they were. I knew the reality of guns because my father was realistic and honest about it with me.

My dad would also let me drink whatever alcohol he was drinking. Wine, beer, liquor, whatever. If I was curious I could try it. And I did. And I distinctly remember not liking it at all. Again, taboo demystified.

I was never shamed about any of these things, I was never told that I was a bad person if I did them or used them. I was never really forbade anything. I had very few limits imposed upon me.

Now, hearing that, you might think several things. Surely, some people might think (especially the ones my parent’s age) that a child with no limits, who while never directly encouraged to try things certainly wasn’t discouraged either, was a hellion growing up. Surely I went wild and experimented and tried everything under the sun without parental discipline and limitations.

The answer to that is a resounding, “Not even close.”

I was quite the opposite, in fact. I waited until is was 21 to drink. I was 19 when I lost my virginity. I never once smoked a cigarette or even so much as tried any other kind of drug–and still haven’t to this day. I was actually a very, very responsible child and teenager. And do you want to know why?

Because I knew that my parents respected me and trusted me. And I didn’t want to betray that trust. By letting me set my own limits and make and learn from my own mistakes and exercise my own judgment, my parents were telling me that they trusted me to make the right decisions. And I wasn’t about to let them down. Because my parents had confidence in my abilities and thinking and judgment, so did I

But you know who did end up going wild and crazy in high school and especially college? The children with super strict or very religious parents. Gee, who didn’t see that one coming? Who would have guessed that the kids who were repressed and suppressed and not allowed to explore the world and social conventions–things that stifle critical thinking and good judgement–would bottle it all up and let it out on their 18th birthday?

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Free from the shackles of their parents, a lot of my compatriots had a lot of exploration to make up for, and boy did they ever. When you’ve never had freedom in your life and then suddenly boom–no one is telling you what you can’t do anymore–people tend to lose their shit. Drugs, smoking, binge drinking, sex–all of the people I knew growing up who were raised to be “proper” suddenly went nuts. People I knew who went to church every Sunday and were in youth group and went to bible camp and wore purity rings were doing body shots and having sex with total strangers.

Some people might also be wondering how a child with no limits could do well academically. Well, with total freedom comes exploration. And with exploration comes curiosity. Curiosity is the cornerstone of learning. Because of the way my parents raised me, my natural curiosity and wonder were allowed to flourish. If I was interested in something, I wanted to naturally learn more about it. So I did. I was really interested in history and space as a child, and so I spent my free time learning about those things. That freedom also meant flexing and developing a healthy imagination, which also goes a long way in learning.

And more importantly, I had time to learn these things. Helicopter parents send their kids off to endless stupid camps during the summer or enroll them in activities the parents think are good ideas or in competitive sports–all things that eat up time for exploration and tend to squash a child’s imagination. That isn’t to say children shouldn’t be enrolled in sports or activities. But let the kids pick them and please don’t overload the poor things.

Perhaps the biggest benefit to having been raised in this manner was that it was naturally scientific. Since limits on my exploration were few and far between, I was allowed to investigate things, to develop a trial and error process, to be curious–all very important aspects to being a scientist. Because of all this, I had the ability to critically think and a pretty good sense of judgment. Perhaps that’s why science has started to decline in this country over the last few decades–children are naturally little scientists, but adults have stamped that out of them or suppressed it.

It sounds counter-intuitive, but if you want your kids to be well-adjusted socially and academically, give them freedom. Let them be individuals. If you don’t, you’re just creating little maladjusted ticking time bombs. Sheltering your kids will only make them confused adults who don’t know how to deal with their own feelings and inclinations. And then they end up making poor choices. You may think you’re sparing them hardship, but people learn the most from failure. Children should be free to make mistakes and to fail. It builds character, it teaches them how the real world works, and it gives them skills and experience to use going forward in life.

So thank you, mom and dad, for letting me be me.

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School, education, and employment

I read a Q&A session that Mike Rowe of Dirty Jobs fame recently did with CNN this morning. Mr. Rowe, as anyone who has seen his shows knows, is interested in and passionate about blue collar jobs. In this latest interview, Mike touched on some general themes about the skills gap in this country, stigmas and stereotypes surrounding blue collar jobs, and the unfilled demand in America for skilled trade jobs. In particular, he stresses that a 4 year college degree isn’t the only path to success in this country. I agree with all of his sentiments and believe that he makes many valid points. Especially when you consider the trillion dollars of student loan debt that exists and the fact that unemployment for 20-24 year olds remains much higher than that of older age groups. I’d like to spend this time talking about my experience with the education system and where it succeeds, but also where I feel it fails us. Let me start by telling you my journey through the American education system.

I had a wonderful k-12 education. This is one area where I think our country shines. I received an excellent foundation in all the basics–reading, writing, math, science. And I had a lot of opportunities and latitude within the school system to explore those things. My high school offered AP classes (similar to IB) in a variety of subjects where you could take a college level course and receive credit for it in a high school. The benefits of such programs are obvious when it comes to learning. But there was also an economic benefit as well. By the time I graduated high school I had enough college credits to enter college as a junior. Skipping two years of tuition and room and board obviously saved me a ton of money, and as a result I was able to obtain my first degree without incurring any debt.

But no system is perfect, and k-12 education does have its flaws. For one thing, while the education afforded to me was first class, that is not the same experience students can expect in other parts of the country. The US is unique in that the public school system is funded by property taxes. Growing up I lived in one of the most affluent communities in my state, and that was certainly reflected in the schools I went to. But other areas–particularly rural and inner cities areas–don’t have as much funding. And that’s a big problem because it creates a giant education disparity which creates economic complications for us.

Second, while the education I received was stellar in regard to math, science, and writing, the system itself did absolutely nothing to prepare me for real life. While the things that the school system emphasizes are important, they do nothing to really prepare you for how to function in the real world. By the time I graduated I knew more about chemistry and biology than the average college student, sure. But I didn’t really know anything about banking. I had no concept of debt. We spend 4 years loading students up with equations and concepts and Catcher in the Rye and then just thrust them into the real world. Not surprisingly, most people flail.

Even though I was a bright and successful student, I didn’t really have time management skills. For my entire life up until the point college, my entire school schedule was planned out for me by someone else and all I had to do was follow along. Then in college, suddenly I was responsible for managing every aspect of my time and education. It was pretty overwhelming. A lot of students don’t even know how to balance a check book. When you’ve lived with your parents your whole life, chances are you don’t have a clue what it means to be “in debt.” I didn’t receive any counseling on debt, nobody explained to me what I was in for, nothing. And the same goes for other college students. And even if someone tells you, you still don’t really have any concept of what it means to owe someone $40,000 (or more). It’s just a really high number.

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And, to make Mike’s point, nobody in high school ever once talked to me about trade school, vocational school, or apprenticeships. Never once. It was just assumed that we would all go to college. And most of us did. Of course, that might have had something to do with the affluent part of town that I grew up in. If your school is populated by mostly upper-middle class children, it’s probably assumed that college is the path for them. And that really gets to Mike’s point about stigmas and stereotypes surrounding blue collar workers and jobs. Those types of jobs were probably never introduced to us because culturally they were “beneath” our socioeconomic class.

Now that I’m older I realize that this is a bunch of bunk. My first degree was in English, and as a result I’m pretty well read. But looking back now, I can clearly see that I didn’t have to pay someone $10k a year to read and discuss a bunch of books. There’s no reason why a carpenter or plumber couldn’t be well read. There’s really nothing inferior about self-education (unless we’re talking about a STEM field, but we’ll get to that). But self-education doesn’t make people money, unfortunately.

Now let’s talk about when I actually got to college. I was lucky (or smart if you think I planned it out this way, in which case I’ll definitely take the credit) in that I did enough work in high school to enter college as a junior. As a result, I never had to do the whole “gen ed” thing. I skipped all that and was allowed to go straight to the courses that pertained exclusively to my major. Even with my second degree this was the case; since I already had a BA I didn’t have to take general education courses for my BS in nursing. The majority of my compatriots in the college system, however, weren’t so lucky. General education is a total and complete rip off. There, I said it. “General education” is what you spent the previous 18 years of your life receiving before you got to college. It seemed ludicrous to me, watching friends repeat classes and subjects that they’d already covered in high school–except now they were paying $700/credit plus books to do it.

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Now, I will take this opportunity to highlight another thing that our educational system does well. And that’s community colleges. I know a lot of people who did the inescapable gen ed thing at a local community college and then transferred and finished out at a 4 year college. Doing this allows people to live at home, and as a result pay for those first two years out of pocket. Avoiding two years of loans is definitely a good thing. And the people I know who did this were very satisfied with the education that they got, and in the end they still got the 4 year degree. Unfortunately, more people don’t do this because for two reasons: again, community college is stigmatized to some extent in this country. But by and large, people want to have “the college experience.” The independence, the life experiences, etc. And there’s something to that to some degree. But it’s not worth $40,000. You can have life changing experiences and personal growth without massive debt.

As I mentioned, I have two degrees. One in English and one in nursing. I don’t regret my degree in English, let me make that clear. It actually served me incredibly well during my nursing program. You write a lot of papers, you chart a lot, and the area of nursing that I’m interested in (public health) requires the creation of a lot of educational material–all of which are greatly aided by an ability to quickly and efficiently absorb information and then concisely and coherently communicate it on paper. In that regard, my English degree was actually a boon to me. But it didn’t really help me find employment upon graduation. Remember my epiphany about paying to be well read? Turns out employers think the same thing. Live and learn.

So I overpaid for my first degree. The amount of money I paid did not align with the amount of doors it opened for me. And in general, I think a lot of college grads who hold degrees in liberal arts find themselves in a similar predicament. But the story is quite different when it comes to my nursing degree. That certainly has worked in my favor by opening up a lot of well-paying doors. And that is where I think the ultimate fault in college lies: it only makes sense to go to college if your future debt-to-income ratio makes financial sense, if you’re using it as a springboard to a graduate degree, or if you’ll end up in some sort of position that offers loan repayment. Otherwise it’s essentially a bust.

And that’s where STEM comes into play. It makes financial sense to enter a STEM field. The payoff at the end justifies the expenses incurred. Unlike, say, an English degree (unless you’re going to take that English degree and apply to law school, I suppose). Plus you can’t really teach yourself a STEM field. You can’t be a self-taught doctor, sorry. You need the education system for that one. So in that regard, our college system is excellent. And if you still want to study philosophy or literature on a college level, just be smart about it and try the community college experience. You’ll pay 1/4 the cost for the same exact result.

So, what can I say I took away from all of this? Well, for one thing there is a difference between school and education. We tend to conflate the two in this country. I know plenty of people who went to school, but don’t know enough or think well enough to be considered “educated.” And conversely, school is not the only way to receive an education. Anyone who goes to a trade school or enters an apprenticeship is still being educated. But instead of learning about what the color green means in The Great Gatsby they’re learning a practical, applicable skill.

Which ultimately leads to the realization that education and intelligence are not always linked. The amount of letters that come after a person’s name or the piece of paper framed above their desk doesn’t always mean that they’re “smarter” than anyone else. That may well actually be the case, but that paper and those letters aren’t the likely causative agent of the intelligence–some people are naturally intelligent, and thus they naturally excelled in and took advantage of our educational system. But someone with a fancy degree doesn’t necessarily have a higher IQ than someone who doesn’t. A carpenter or electrician can be just as intelligent as a surgeon. And that’s part of the stigma we have surrounding blue collar work: that it’s for people who aren’t smart. We probably think this because, well, there was no college education! But this stigma and other stereotypes are based on fallacies.

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So how do I think the education system could be reformed? I have a few ideas.

1. Prepare students for the real world. Teach them life skills–how to budget, banking, time management, etc. High school is the perfect time to do this.

2. Advertise all career pathways. Every student should be aware of ALL of the opportunities at their disposal, including trade and vocational schools, apprenticeships, etc.

3. More loan repayment options. We don’t have to make college free (although I think that’s a viable option as other first world countries have shown), but make it easier to pay it back. Teachers, doctors, and (thankfully) nurses have programs where debt is forgiven because of their service to the public. Why not extend that option? Why not forgive, say, 50% of anyone’s tuition if they provide, say, 2,000 hours of documented community service?

Or make the repayment easier. Student debt will follow you for life. Rather than penalize people who want to better themselves, we should make the options for repaying a loan directly tied to income earned. The standard 10 year model of repayment forces pretty outrageous payments on people who can’t afford them. So instead of making someone with a degree in philosophy who can’t find any employment other than as a barista pay $300/month for 10 years, why not charge them $100/month for 30 years? A sliding scale makes much more sense for loan repayment.

4. A PR campaign for blue collar work. That’s really the only way we’re going to get rid of the stigma and stereotypes surrounding perfectly viable jobs that often pay just as well–if not better–than many white collar jobs. This idea was touched upon in the Mike Rowe interview and I think it has a lot of merit.

5. Less emphasis on what you know and more emphasis on how you know. Right now we do a lot of teaching toward standardized testing. And while standardized testing certainly has its uses, ultimately this kind of education is extremely harmful. It’s much more beneficial for schools at all levels of education to teach students how to think critically. If you can become a critical thinker, you can really master any skill or concept or pass any test because you have the foundation and the tools to learn, well, anything. But if you spoon feed people information for the purpose of regurgitation, they don’t really learn anything and they certainly won’t be able to use that information in a meaningful way later on. Granted, there are some things that you just have to remember–but memorization is not the way to knowing.

At the end of the day, while I think that there certainly are aspects of the American education system that succeed, I also think it’s pretty clear that there are a lot of broken parts. I think that solutions can come from many different places on this issue, thankfully: locally, federally, and within families. Hopefully some meaningful reform will happen on both a policy level and in our cultural perceptions. I’d love to hear what everyone else thinks about education in America. And for any foreign readers, feel free to share how your country’s educational system differs!

Insidious change

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I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that, in general, we humans don’t like change. Patterns and predictability are safe, and a deviation from that represents risk. I absolutely understand why it is that we don’t like change. But lately I’ve been thinking about our responses to change. With most changes, the response is to try and make things the way they were before. Or to at least mitigate the risk that a change represents. So why is it that some changes elicit a response while others do not?

It seems to me that there are three factors at work here.

1. Time frame.  Rapid change generates an equally rapid response. It’s jarring, and our response is almost reflexive. But what about changes that occur more slowly? These changes seem to be more insidious because we are less likely to extrapolate their cumulative effects into the future and it’s easier to ignore them.  This applies to many subjects. Matters of health, for instance. Weight gain is a prime example. When we see morbidly obese people, we often wonder “How did they let themselves get that way?” The answer is because most people don’t gain 150 lbs overnight, or even over a few months.

Weight gain is one of those insidious changes. You pack on a pound here, a pound there–over the course of a few months you might not even notice a physical change. A few more months go by and you notice a slight physical change–easy to shrug off or make excuses for, easy to promise that you’ll start exercising. But the snowball effect has already started. As you keep gaining weight, it becomes harder to lose it, and eventually the task becomes a daunting undertaking all because you let it sneak up on you.

This can extend to scientific principles like evolution. I often hear people say things like, “Well how come I’ve never seen evolution happen?” Well, you do see it happen. But the guiding principle of evolution is that it takes place over vast stretches of time. It’s like watching a movie that’s been slowed down by a factor of 1,000,000–obviously you aren’t going to see any meaningful changes soon. Or, if you’d prefer another film analogy, it would be like taking a reel of film and looking at each frame individually. The changes between frames are minute and probably hard to perceive, but when you add them all up they do show a significant change. And it’s because of this large time frame that people don’t change their response to available evidence–it doesn’t occur in a time frame that they can handle.

Climate change also falls into this category. So the temperature goes up 0.1 of a degree. Big deal. We probably wouldn’t even be able to perceive that in our day to day lives. And if each year the average temperature goes up by 0.1 a degree, maybe we can acclimatize for a bit and again we don’t notice it. Until it actually does disrupt our lives. Just like the fellow with hypertension who can’t actually feel his blood pressure increasing until he gets incredible headaches. Whether you believe in climate change or not, and whether you believe it’s due to man’s activities or not, the numbers are inescapable, and they show a trend of increasing temperature. Just take a look at the data:

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2. Geography. Out of sight, out of mind. That old saying probably does have a ring of truth to it. Ice sheets the world over are shrinking? So what? I can’t see that. It doesn’t affect my day to day life if it’s happening half a world away. We lost an inch of coastline this year? Doesn’t matter, I live inland. It’s very easy to trivialize, rationalize, or plain ignore something when it isn’t staring at you directly in the face or when it’s happening to other people.

3. Loss. Sometimes we do know that something needs to be done about a change, but we just aren’t willing to do that something because it represents an immediate loss for us. There are giant islands of plastic floating in the pacific ocean. We know this. We could change this by reducing use of plastic and/or increasing efforts to recycle. But we don’t do that because it would result in a loss of profit, it would require more of a time investment for John Q Public, and quite frankly people like the convenience of disposable plastic things.

Over-fishing is another example. More than 70% of the world’s fisheries are either over-exploited or depleted. Seems like a pretty easy fix, doesn’t it? Just stop eating so much fish. Increase hatchery activities. Decimating a significant player in the food chain of the largest ecosystem on the planet also seems like a bad idea on paper that most rational people would agree with. But what do you think fish consumption around the world looks like? Here, too, this is a problem that we can’t actually see.

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Apparently we just can’t give up the tuna

You can apply these principles everywhere. To economics with inflation and wage stagnation, to scientific principles, to medicine and health, social issues, etc. The dangers of changes that take place out of sight or very slowly are very real, and our responses to them are fully within our control. We have the ability to recognize and understand these processes which means we can overcome them, ultimately.

The rise of the nones

I’m going to lay some statistics from recent pew polls on you guys in a second, but first I think I’d better define what a “none” is. A “none” is a person with no religious affiliation. That doesn’t mean that they don’t believe in God or a higher power, it simply means that they don’t believe in a specific religious doctrine. This is important because I think most atheists–myself included–would say that spirituality in general isn’t dangerous, but specific religious doctrines are.

The bottom line is that nones in America are on the rise. Take a look at the data from a Pew research in 2012:

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It’s interesting to note that everything in the none category rose over this five year period. Atheism and agnosticism rose, and so did people who believe in a God/higher power but not a specific religious doctrine. This last group, as you can see, comprises the vast majority of this slice of the population, which is now just a hair under 20% of the country.

It’s because of these data that I’m not surprised to see the latest Pew research on religion and politics. Let’s start with the first set of data, whether or not people believe that the influence of religion in America is decreasing or increasing:

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Those are some pretty significant numbers. Nearly 3/4 of Americans believe that religion is losing influence in America, which is up a whopping 20% from nearly a decade before. When you factor in the increase of the proportion of nones in the population this becomes less surprising. As the number of nones increases, those who remain religious are bound to see such an increase as a loss of influence. And nones themselves are sure to generally see their growing numbers as a loss of religious influence as well. Now let’s take a look at a follow up set of data regarding religion and politics:

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Not surprisingly, the number of people who now think that churches should express their political positions and that churches should support political candidates has increased dramatically since the 2010-2012 period. It makes sense that as the number of nones grows, those who remain religious–and who see their influence as waning–would want to utilize politics as a platform to retain influence and power. It makes perfect sense to me that facing decreasing numbers and a decreasing influence, religious people in this country would try to politicize and legislate their beliefs, which is something I write about frequently on this blog and something I would posit correlates to this data.

While I think that this is far from the death knell of religion in this country, I think that this does show that America is going to be reaching a tipping point. If the trends continue, it would seem the religious are on their way to becoming a minority in this country.

Hyperspace

Late at night, when the sweet release of sleep won’t come, ideas float around my head at random, bouncing off of each other, unrelated and fleeting.

Suddenly there is a burst and I am focused like a laser.

All of my ideas begintocoalesce and suddenlythecreativefountains within my brain spring to life outofmycontrol, fasterandfaster until finally afeverptichisreachedandthemomentbecomesafrenzyofclarityandinspirationandunderstandingandIhaveenteredhyperspace.