Seeking only perfect role models means failing to learn from history

Like many others—including the city’s mayor—I find the choice by the San Francisco Board of Education to spend its time focused on name changes for 1/3 of its public schools in the midst of a pandemic quite shocking. It strikes me as a misuse of resources when the children the Board is commissioned to serve are struggling to learn remotely with no* firm re-opening plans in place.

Binder page listing high school courses for grade 10Contrary to the far right, white supremacist commentators who unilaterally dismiss that Board of Education’s actions as essentially foolish, I’d like to make clear that I support discussion of social justice issues in this context. The feelings of enrolled students about the namesake of their institution deserve to be recognized, though, crucially in my opinion, not catered to by default, and never without extensive study and careful reflection when a preponderance of reasonable people hold differing opinions.

Talking about thorny questions is helpful, even vital to each pupil’s education. Confronting difficult episodes in our shared history enables us to be better as a nation and to become better individual human beings. I disagree with some of the ultimate decisions made by the San Francisco Board of Education about striking particular names from schools, but it’s not because I am unaware of mistakes made by leaders in earlier eras.

By my reckoning, the great hubristic error shown by that Board is the futile quest to pretend any perfect role model exists, unblemished enough to “deserve” to have a school named for him or her.back side of Christopher Columbus monument in Barcelona, Spain

No man or woman can be held up as a paragon of all virtues for all times. All of us fail; the very best of us will lead a life full of foibles. Some of us succeed handsomely in our own time, but later run afoul of changing notions of decency in another era.

The greater the risks taken in life, the more likely we are to make at least one real doozy of an error. People who devote lives to public service will fail with an audience, by definition. Should we teach our children to avoid any action to circumvent the possibility of failure? Do we want tomorrow’s adults to be more afraid of being judged by history than they are of taking part in—and becoming leaders of—public life?

Speaking for myself: no, I would not choose to teach that lesson to my kids or anyone else’s. I think the San Francisco Board of Education is doing a grave disservice to the children it serves by wielding nuanced history as a blunt instrument. Ironically, time is unlikely to be kind to its members. If they are remembered at all, it may well be for presumption and self-righteousness.

There is evidence that children allowed to fail, shown how to learn from their mistakes, then given opportunities to try again to find success grow into healthier, more productive adults. Given the 100% probability that a human being will screw up, a focus on incremental improvement seems like the wisest approach to raising and teaching young ones.

Christen your institutions with improper nouns defining high ideals if you still demand perfection: Liberté, égalité, fraternité, perhaps? Freedom? Justice? Unity? My personal favorite is Integrity.

Statue of LibertyIrreproachable individuals don’t exist, San Francisco Board of Education, but I’m curious to see who you believe holds up better to scrutiny than yesterday’s heroes with their feet of clay.

The social justice warriors on San Francisco’s Board of Education might not like being compared to fascists, but, to me, the parallels are obvious. People in power are attempting to strong-arm the world into abiding by their own narrow standards, ignoring complex reality in favor of pat party lines and simplifications that cast “the other” as willfully evil. Without a doubt, extremist elements on the left are also prone to seeking economic and social regimentation with forcible suppression of opposition.

Our young people didn’t invent cancel culture. Students of history will recognize the eradication of the names of pharaohs such as Akhenaten and Hatshepsut as a similar insult to non-conformists. The term damnatio memoriae may be modern**, but the concept is not.

Let’s teach our children to honor what’s good in our history while recognizing errors for what they were: human failings. Then, we learn what we can from those past mistakes, incorporating their lessons into our own pursuit of a better future. Isn’t that the ultimate point of public education?

* As of January 29, 2021, as I write these words, only one school’s re-opening plan has reached the Site Assesment stage and zero (0) applications to re-open have been accepted.

Presenting a role model as too perfect actually prevents teens from seeing a path to similar success for him- or herself. According to the linked study, kids benefit more from learning about Thomas Edison who worked very hard to achieve success (in spite of his reputation as a real jerk) vs. Albert Einstein whom most regard as a born genius with preternatural intellectual abilities.

On a television show I watched recently, the teens attended a school called Excellence. That’s a fine paradigm for which to aim.

Too bad one of the hyper-pressured teen characters felt compelled to abuse drugs to keep up and cope with the stress, and an otherwise ethical teacher on the show guides a young child toward cheating on high stakes exams to chase the academy’s pursuit of excellence in its reputation over the needs of that pupil.

** 17th century

Just enough German to be paranoid: hören vs. gehören

Sometimes, a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.

I’ve “been studyingGerman for over 20 years!

But, of course, that misleading statement represents one academic year of university courses in the language, then a decade’s gap, and eventually picking it up again as an autodidactic hobby when one of my kids started to study German in school.

Ich verstehe nur ein biβchen Deutsch.I don’t know where I stand as far as the state sanctioned “level” of my ability to understand the language, but I am almost finished with the Pimsleur Level II audio course.

PimsleurI think my official designation is probably something like “rank amateur,” or “what’s lower than A1?”

Case in point: I was researching a future trip and using the Wiener Linien website to download a PDF map of the public transit system. I found this tag line printed on the bottom of each map:

Die Stadt gehört Dir.

Die Stadt gehoert DirThis gave me pause. The more learned amongst you can chuckle knowledgeably while reading through my thought processes in the rest of this post.

I’m quite clear on what “Die Stadt” means. Die Stadt*is “the city.”

FlashSticks German deployed1

Die Lego Stadt, or Lego City

“Dir” is the second person informalpronoun for “you.” It’s used when the word “you” is the indirect object in a sentence.

I frequently make mistakes about when to use the accusative and dative cases as I create (i.e., speak) my own sentences, but I always know who we’re taking about when I hear du, dich, or dir.

German pronounsIt was the verb that confused my weak grasp of the German language.

I know the verb hören pretty well. It means “to hear.”

verb conjugation hoeren

Naturally, I leapt to the conclusion that the Vienna transit authority was telling me:

The city hears you.

Or, giving it a creepier meaning, because I’m a bit paranoid:

The city is listening to you.

Even that might be a well-intentioned statement. My son also misread the sentencemaking the same mistake that I did. He thought Wiener Linien was indicating a customer service orientation with the same language I associated with eavesdropping.

Perhaps I’m the only one whose thoughts turn immediately to Big Brother in 1984 and “his” perpetual observation of the hapless citizens in that dystopian classic?

Google translateMy friend, Google translate, taught me the error of my ways. In fact, Wiener Linien would like me to know that:

The city belongs to you.

That’s so much better, right? Especially if I’m just visiting as a tourist. I mean, how generous, but, really, Vienna, you needn’t go to so much trouble!…

The verb that is actually being used in this sentence is gehören. I should probably learn it. “To belong to [someone]” is an incredibly helpful thing to be able to say when traveling.

I recognize that I am easily tricked by German verbs that begin, in the present tense, with “ge-“ because of how the past perfect (Perfekt) tense is formed. I.e., usually, by adding “ge—” and doing some other stuff to the end based upon rules I’ve read but not memorized.

Please consult someone who actually knows German instead of trying to learn any grammar specifics here. Otherwise, you, too, could frighten yourself as to the actually well meaning intentions of public transit authorities in German speaking countries.

A little knowledge clearly is a dangerous thing. Which somehow forces me to conclude with “the rest is commentarynow go study!

*Stadt being a false friend for the English word “state,” but clearly a related word in the sense of historical precedents such as the Greek “city-state” concept.

My apologies to Maimonides.

Exposé: My alarm clock is for the birds

My alarm clock doesn’t beep, it chirps.

Actually, I think it could simply beep, but I selected bird sounds as the least annoying option on the menu. I’ve got a fancy alarm clock.

Bedside clock nightstand Mg - 1I didn’t buy it for the birdsong option, but because I need light in order to wake up. That’s another topic worthy of a lot more discussion, but I’ll save it for another day.

The clock’s large lamp begins to glow and the intensity of light gradually increases for about half an hour before the time for which the alarm is set. It’s simulating a natural sunrise.

This bright, sunny morning, I was already awake and started on a bit of blogging over my mug of tea well before my alarm went off.

Sitting at my little table, finishing up my Mother’s Day post, I heard those silly, simulated, alarm clock birds start carrying on. I hurried over to hush them up before they disturbed the rest of the household.

But the clock wasn’t lighting up. Its lamp wasn’t glowing! Usually, the birds don’t sing until the virtual dawn has well and truly arrived.

Was my fancy alarm clock broken? Why wouldn’t the off button work?

And then I realized: the unholy chorus was outside my window.

Bird robin tree sky - 1Ah, spring! It’s for the birds.