All American

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The Book of the Week is “All American, The Rise and Fall of Jim Thorpe” by Bill Crawford, published in 2005.

America’s tradition of holding a Thanksgiving Day college-football game began in the early 1890’s. The schools with football teams practiced profiteering from the get-go. They charged fans admission to the games, and gambling was rampant; even in preseason games. Even among the coaches– who themselves, sometimes played in the games. The coaches also made obscene salaries, even then.

Football had no passing, only rushing, until 1895. And hardly any rules: with respect to creative plays, and preventing injuries. There was unnecessary roughness galore, not to mention minimal, if any, protective equipment, and fan interference was sometimes allowed. Officials arbitrarily enforced the few rules there might have been. Play continued in all kinds of weather.

Born in May 1887 in Oklahoma, Jim Thorpe received most of his education on sports fields, although he was supposed to have been in school. His mother was of Native American, Irish and French origin. At sixteen years old, Thorpe began attending Carlisle Indian Industrial School. It was a military-style trade school for Native Americans where they could live on-campus.

In 1903, the Carlisle team tricked the Harvard Crimson with a play in which a Carlisle player hid the ball under the back of his jersey while his teammates hid their helmets under their jerseys so the opposing team couldn’t find the ball until its actual holder had run into the end zone for a touchdown.

Another dirty trick involved sewing an image of half a football onto various players’ jerseys, making it unclear as to which receiver caught the ball, to trick the opposing team’s defense. But, there was still no penalty for pass-interference, so receivers could be tackled before touching the ball. All of them. Even if they didn’t have the ball.

It should be noted that other, better-funded teams had tens of players who could enter the game anytime, whereas Carlisle had a tiny team whose players were both offense and defense.

In 1906, the newly formed NCAA established specific rules that dramatically reduced injuries, but failed to address the financial shenanigans that have greatly enriched colleges and individuals for the past century.

In 1907, when he was twenty, Thorpe joined the Carlisle football team, which had been coached by Glenn Warner since 1899. Warner headed the school’s Athletic Association, but he was not an employee of the school. So he got paid by a profit-making organization, which got its revenues through gate receipts of sports-competitions hosted by the school– football, baseball, track, etc.

Since Carlisle was a school for Native Americans, it received full federal funding for tuition, room and board for all its students. The Association didn’t have to award tuition-scholarships. Coach Warner used the Association as his personal piggy bank.

Yet another part of Warner’s job that has characterized football coaches since time immemorial, was to hush up the bad behavior of his players so as to squelch bad publicity the school would receive when players got drunk and destroyed property or got into fights, broke school rules or NCAA rules, etc.

Read the book to learn of what an exceptionally excellent multi-sport athlete Thorpe was (though he played mostly football; hint: “Twice Thorpe managed to run downfield and catch his own punts” and on one of those receptions, he shook off three or four tacklers to run twenty yards to score a touchdown.); the scandal surrounding him; and much more about his life and the tenor of the times in “amateur” sports.

We Were the Future

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The Book of the Week is “We Were the Future, A Memoir of the Kibbutz” by Yael Neeman, published in 2016. Readers might argue that the author and her cohorts were raised in a cult– brainwashed from birth. The kibbutz movement strove for 100% socialism– the economic system in which all the people (not the State) collectively owned everything; and collectively governed themselves.

In 1947, the total population of kibbutzim as a proportion of Israel’s (Jewish) population reached a high of 7%. It waned after Israel achieved sovereignty in 1948. The first half of the 1950’s saw global historical events (the trials of: Prague [1952], the Doctors in the U.S.S.R. and the Rosenbergs in the U.S. [both 1953]) that were jarring to Jews. The kibbutz movement split over ideological disagreements, especially after Stalin died in 1953 and his crimes were revealed in 1956. Adults around the the author held zero discussions about this recent history.

Neeman was born in 1960 in Kibbutz Yehiam (founded in 1946) in Western Galilee near the border with Lebanon. Her kibbutz was a branch of Hashomer Hatzair (meaning “Young Guard”), the movement’s umbrella organization that began in 1913. Their motto was, “For Zionism, Socialism and Brotherhood Amongst Nations.” Her children’s group consisted of eight boys and eight girls, who did everything together, every day. She was raised among them by women who collectively took care of the kibbutz’s children grouped by age; she visited with her biological parents, but didn’t live with them in the same building.

The lifestyle encompassed a number of major ideas:

  • “Family and education in the rest of the industrial world were considered bourgeois institutions.”
  • “Everyone knew after all, that work [on the kibbutz] was more important than school, more important than anything.”
  • Egalitarianism for all the people was key– all decisions were made by committee.

Contradictorily:

  • There was a hierarchical division of labor– upper and lower. The former consisted of high-level positions in the fields and factories; held by the founders of the kibbutz, the (mostly Hungarian) First of May group. The latter consisted of low-skilled, dead-end jobs such as peeling potatoes.
  • The kibbutz undertook a number of enterprises through the years, including a banana “plantation” which was the most “profitable.” [these words with nuanced meanings were translated from Hebrew, but even so, these were capitalist endeavors.]

Kids whose behavior was troublesome were exiled from the kibbutz, and sent to a “special institution.” At twelve years old, all the conforming kids began to attend what amounted to boarding school, located off the kibbutz campus. They had previously received an eclectic education of hands-on instruction on a myriad of topics. Beginning in adolescence, they were allowed to shape their own education, or lack thereof.

Currently, analogous experiments are underway in American education in which adolescents are placed in front of computer screens with no teachers. Educrats and profiteers expect the software to teach them. At that age, most kids have neither the judgment nor the discipline to acquire the knowledge and skills required for becoming mature, responsible adults who can financially support themselves.

Kibbutzniks were afforded too much freedom and not enough guidance and supervision within their tiny, limited community in their early childhood. So they had a rude awakening when they were permitted (on rare occasions) to see how other kids in the rest of the world lived.

One other interesting factoid: Neeman wrote, “In our biological home, we [she and her three siblings] were already allowed to smoke on Purim when we were in the first grade.”

Read the book to learn about a boatload of other ways Neeman’s upbringing was extremely unconventional due to her fledgling homeland’s exceptionalism.

The New Cool

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The Book of the Week is “The New Cool, A Visionary Teacher, His FIRST Robotics Team, and the Ultimate Battle of Smarts” by Neal Bascomb, published in 2011.

In the single-digit 2000’s, Amir Abo-Shaeer taught robotics in a “STEM” (four subjects that would help the United States remain economically dominant in the world: Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) program at Dos Pueblos high school in Goleta, California (a western suburb of Santa Barbara). If he was able to raise $3 million, he would receive matching funds from the state of California to start to build STEM academies all over the state. Dean Kamen’s goal was to have a robotics team in every school in the country.

Kamen was gravely concerned that the United States education system was falling woefully behind that of other countries. He might best be remembered as the inventor of the Segway, but at the dawn of the 1990’s, he also began to change the world in a much more impactful way.

Kamen and Woodie Flowers’ goal was to spark students’ interest in STEM. They wanted to give young people hands-on, real-world skills, not just convey knowledge. In 1992, they co-founded an annual program of STEM competitions for American students called FIRST. About a decade into the program, there were hundreds of thousands of students of different age groups competing in different events.

Elementary schoolers built structures out of LEGO. Each high school team was required to build a robot, and then in the competition, form alliances with other teams in playing a complicated physical game that differed every year, against another alliance.

In January 2009, the aforementioned Shaeer and his robotics team (consisting of high school seniors he taught) attended the briefing that Kamen, Flowers and NASA simulcast– of the terms and conditions of the robotics competitions to take place in the next three months. If their team emerged ultimate winners, they could win scholarships and might be more motivated to pursue a STEM career.

Read the book to learn of Shaeer’s students’ extremely hard work in preparing their contest entry (the robot), and the suspenseful story of how the team performed with its alliances in its very emotionally charged matches against other alliances, and whether Shaeer got the funding for his schools.

Ghosts from the Nursery

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The Book of the Week is “Ghosts from the Nursery, Tracing the Roots of Violence” by Robin Karr-Morse and Meredith S. Wiley, published in 1997. The authors cited scientific studies to support their assertions about the links between the increasingly younger ages at which Americans are committing increasingly more frequent horrific crimes, and the social and cultural trends that are driving this alarming revelation.

At the book’s writing, in the United States, criminal justice system spending was three times (!) the entire healthcare budget. The authors argued that the seeds of criminality in humans are planted in the womb rather than in early childhood, as previously thought.

Environmental factors, such as a future mother’s or father’s consumption or inhalation of toxic substances, alters the reproductive mechanisms in a fetus’ brain cells. If the fetus’ environment is neglectful, chaotic or hostile– people are raucous, or physically abusing the mother-to-be– it stands to reason that the child might have behavioral problems later on. These problems could range from hyperactivity, impulsivity, attention deficits and learning disabilities to criminality.

The range and extent of damage done varies with the time frame in which the abuses occur. It has been found that any amount of alcohol drunk by a potential father or mother can adversely affect: spermatozoa and ova weeks before conception, the zygote, embryo, fetus and then the child’s health thereafter. Maximum visual damage is done to the brain of a fetus, when the abuses occur during the limited time, for instance, in which the neural connection from the retina to the visual cortex is made. Language skills develop or fail to develop, similarly.

The opposite is true, too: a nurturing environment will maximize benefits for the child (even in the womb!) when parents’ soothing or happy voices are heard by the fetus during his or her audiological development. After emergence from the womb, the baby can recognize his or her mother’s, father’s or others’ voices. Preverbal memory (an emotional vibe emitted by parents and others– a mood felt by the fetus and then infant and then child) stays with everyone through their entire lives. Parents have been shown to display the same behaviors their parents did with their own babies and children.

The authors mentioned several European studies that showed the incidences of juvenile criminality and suicide increased with an increase in unwanted pregnancies. That’s obviously a can of worms. But, since reams and reams of data have been collected from decades and decades of sociological, psychological, medical and legal studies worldwide, perhaps a multi-pronged approach applied locally would help– instead of commissioning more, additional expensive studies for the purposes of procrastination and patronage.

HOWEVER, one particularly rich vein of data on how to invite failure of the multi-pronged approach at the federal level of poverty-fighting (and on a related topic, crime-prevention), can be found in the administration archives of the late president Lyndon B. Johnson. A 20/20 hindsight look at the enduring actions he did take, are unfairly omitted from the history books that show an anti-liberal bias. His administration saw the start of Medicare and Medicaid and the passing of landmark civil rights legislation. BUT, these great accomplishments were overshadowed by conspiracy theories that he plotted the assassination of JFK and of course, his role in a needless war.

Johnson had grand plans to eliminate poverty at home, but shortly after he came to power, he decided to send Americans abroad to fight a war that led to countless deaths and ruined lives. And continued to rationalize why it needed to continue. Johnson’s anti-poverty programs weren’t given sufficient time to succeed because they became starved for funds.

That is why this country has regressed on the social-programs front: Every American president has sold his soul to the MILITARY [Currently, that military is fighting a war at the Mexican border instead of overseas; a future post of this blog will elaborate on this].

The only president fully justified in diverting significant taxpayer monies from improving conditions at home, toward fighting a war, was FDR. Since WWII, alpha males with hubris syndrome have been funding military actions whose long-term costs outweigh the benefits.

As a final insult that indicated that Johnson had major control issues, was the fact that he cruelly teased his own Democratic party by withdrawing from a 1968 reelection bid at the last minute, leaving the field to a few other candidates, and uncertainty in his wake. He also gave his political opponents a golden invitation to smear him in so many ways.

Granted, there are countless other vicissitudes of history that come into play with any president’s actions, but as is well known, campaign-finance regulation in America has become horribly eviscerated in recent decades, so the increase in financial influence of special-interest groups other than the military, has also played a role in this nation’s shifting priorities.

Be that as it may, the United States’ practices fly in the face of reason by bringing in a “pound of cure” (after the fact!) via a complicated, expensive bunch of bloated, bureaucratic government services (special-education, welfare, foster care, criminal justice, etc.). Instead of an “ounce of prevention.” One specific program has been found to be the most effective solution thus far in preventing crime in the long run: infant home-visitation programs, because the problems are dealt with early! This was the conclusion of a criminology team who submitted a report to the U.S. Congress in April 1997.

Clearly, different levels of government can implement more of a combination of social programs and legislation in order of what works best pursuant to all those scientific studies (preferably longitudinal ones), regardless of costs, limited by whatever the budget will reasonably bear; instead of going the easy, greedy, or power-hungry, politically expedient (and fraught military) route.

A grass-roots movement would have to hold officials’ feet to the fire on that– perhaps appealing to their egos by giving them a legacy via a footnote in the history books crediting them for getting it done. This, while keeping political patronage to a minimum (It used to be called “honest graft” but has reached excessive levels in certain regions; time will tell whether upcoming elections oust the “Tammany Hall/Boss Tweed” contingents.).

So, for instance, a hypothetical mandate for a large, diversely-populated city might consist of:

First, an infant home-visitation program;

Second, no-charge universal pre-kindergarten program;

Third, stricter background checks and bans on specific firearms and loophole-closing;

Fourth, a community-policing program (that does not involve military hardware) like those mentioned in this blog’s posts, “L.A. Justice” and “Riverkeepers”; and

Fifth, imposing and enforcing a legal maximum to class sizes in early-childhood education.

If additional funding is found (for whatever reasons), there could be other kinds of education programs that deal with issues such as: teen pregnancy, sex education, contraception, substance abuse prevention (all possibly as a part of the high school health-class curriculum), parenting classes, family planning, welfare-to-work, at-risk youth centers, and job training– again, prioritized from the most to the least effective outcomes.

Anyway, read the book to learn much more about research results on this topic, and the authors’ suggestions on crime prevention via focusing on ways to improve outcomes in connection with pregnancy and child care.

World Class

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The Book of the Week is “World Class, One Mother’s Journey Halfway Around the Globe in Search of the Best Education for Her Children” by Teru Clavel, published in 2019.

Born in the early 1960’s, the author had very different educational experiences from that of her children. She spent her early childhood years in Greenwich, Connecticut; middle years in New York City, and teens in Westchester county, New York. She, her husband and their three children spent a decade in Asia, and moved back to the United States in 2016.

They began their stay in Hong Kong in the expat community, but the author wanted her children to see how the natives actually lived and learned. The rat race among the super-rich elitists had become tiresome. So in Hong Kong and later in Shanghai, she found a preschool and elementary school that were right for her then-two children. Even so, most local Asian schools demanded discipline and rigorous academics that were standardized nationwide.

In Shanghai, though, her family endured hardships in order for her children to get the best educations– authentic to the culture of that place and time. In Asia, teaching is a highly respected profession for which there is rigorous training and a highly selective hiring process.

Both the author’s family’s local public school and their residence were structurally dilapidated. The former had classrooms that were unheated, so in winter, the kids wore their coats all day. The grounds had no playground, only a concrete basketball court with a bare hoop. The family’s home had vermin and unreliable water and internet service.

At the elementary school, the teachers specialized in math, Mandarin, English language or other subjects, and were paid more than the homeroom teacher. The kids learned with pencils and paper; not tablets and videos.

Every day before preschool began, the kids were subjected to a color-coded health examination: red (a lucky color in China) meant the child was well, yellow meant slight illness but okay to be in class, but blue indicated that the child would spend the day at the school infirmary. Most parents of elementary schoolers work to support a multi-generational household: an only child, the parents, and both sets of grandparents of the child.

The author’s six-year old son’s report card was a 46 page bound book containing assessments in each subject including social skills– comprised of opinions of the parents, teachers and students themselves. According to the author, the Chinese education system is a meritocracy, with high school and college entrance exams the keys to the kingdom.

The author wanted her children to attend high school in the United States, so the family moved to Palo Alto in California– the best school district in the nation; but, as the author found out, only reputationally.

Read the book to learn: many more details of Asian education and cultures, and how they compare to the American system in recent years; the author’s advice and tips for how parents can seek out the best education for their kids; and biographical information on the author and her family.