Tag Archives: education

Writing Lives

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Think about what it takes to create a writing system from scratch. Imagine the intellectual aptitude of someone who draws an image on a rock, in the sand, or anywhere and declares that it represents something – a word, an action, a single sound. What is required of somebody to actually sit down and do that?

Not long after I began walking and talking around the age of 9 months, my parents started teaching me to read. The books were those simply-worded “See Spot Run” types, but I took to them with an uncannily inborn sense of ease. Whenever my folks became engaged with some task around the tiny two-bedroom apartment where we lived, they made sure I was either asleep or sitting on the couch with one of those books. Many of those colorful little pre-school tomes were “Golden Books,” the classics of childhood literature that helped to educate the young masses. I still have scores of them stored away neatly in boxes; surely they’d be collector’s items by now.

By the age of 5 – even before entering kindergarten – I was writing stories. Although I could speak in complete sentences and use seemingly grown-up words (my parents never “baby-talked” to me), putting those thoughts into written form became my primary means of communication. I’ve been reading and writing ever since.

My precociousness wasn’t always viewed with admiration. As a first-grader at a Catholic parochial school in Dallas, me and my fellow students were required to look at our name plates before carefully copying our names onto sheets of paper. I looked at mine once and, upon the second time I had to write it, I simply did so from memory. Proud of my accomplishment, I displayed the sheet of notebook paper to the nun teaching the class.

Her reaction was harsh. “Don’t ever do that again!” she chided.

It didn’t seem to matter that – all of 6 or 7 years of age – I successfully reprinted my name after having looked at the plate once. So I sauntered back to my desk, feeling humiliated and dejected.

Bitch!

I recounted the incident to my parents that evening at dinner, and they beamed with pride. My father reassured me I did nothing wrong and told me, from that point onward, just “pretend” to look at my name plate. I followed his advice, confident in my new-found ability. I never again looked at that stupid name plate; neither did I try to impress that decrepit nun. I surmised some time later that a vow of poverty, coupled with a life of celibacy and a cardboard headdress, must have a nasty impact on a woman’s cerebral capacity.

Another incident at that same school a few years later, however, made me question everyone in the education field. A lay teacher arrived at the school in the fall of 1976 to teach English. She and I got along nicely at first. But my impulsive audacity to question certain things apparently made her head hurt, and she’d stare at me from behind those gigantic 1970s-era glasses (the kind that now would qualify as motorcycle windshields) and seethe with frustration.

Other students in the class loved when her and I got into those “fights,” as one boy described them. That teacher certainly didn’t enjoy it and used every opportunity she could scrounge up to humiliate me in front of my classmates. Then, one morning, things came to a head between us over a single word: llama.

Because it’s a Spanish-language adaptation of an Indian term for the only draft animal to evolve in the Western Hemisphere, I knew it was pronounced “yama.” In Spanish, a double “L” bears a “Y” sound. The teacher shook her head no and insisted it was pronounced “lah-mah,” with the “L” clearly enunciated. I didn’t budge. I knew I was right.

Yet our constant linguistic tennis match finally made a few of her precious brain synapses explode, and she literally yelled at me to shut up and pronounce the word the way she saw fit – with that Anglicized “L” sound.

A near-deadly pall enveloped the room like a tsunami accosting a beachfront. Everyone fell silent, and the teacher ordered me to remain after class. My heart sank, and my stomach felt hollow.

After my fellow students departed, the teacher stuck a well-manicured fingernail into my quivering face and told me never to question her authority again. “Do you understand me?” she growled.

A weak “Yes, ma’am” tumbled from my lips. That evening at dinner I recounted the entire episode to my parents. This time they didn’t offer any coy suggestions for me to remain quiet. Arriving at school the next morning, both of them promptly entered the building with me and demanded to speak with that teacher.

The principal, a feisty and intimidating nun named Jean, told them they either had to make an appointment or wait until an upcoming parent-teacher conference.

My father, who was growing increasingly disillusioned with Roman Catholicism altogether, leaned forward onto the paper-cluttered desk and said, “Jean, get her in here now, or I’ll go find her and drag her ass in here myself.”

Sister Jean’s eyes widened, and her self-righteous demeanor crumbled faster than a Ku Klux Klansman accidentally entering the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation with a suitcase full of Christian bibles. The lay teacher arrived, and, as I waited outside by the secretary’s desk, she tried to explain her side of the story. My parents had always been renegades, but they were also fair. I don’t know what all was said amongst them, but my father made it clear that she was never to yell at or humiliate me in front of the class. He and my mother also made that teacher realize my pronunciation of the word “llama” was correct. Technically, everything was settled, but she still gave me a “B” for that spring semester. It didn’t matter. I graduated from the school shortly thereafter and was more than glad to get the hell out of there.

Neither of those situations diminished my love and passion for the written word. I’ve remained an avid reader and writer. And, just like I resisted the demands of those two teachers to think and behave differently, I’ve resisted any attempts to downgrade my intellect or circumvent my literary aspirations. As we stand on the threshold of this pioneering electronic medium called blogging, I think of the countless writers and poets who simply wouldn’t give up on their dreams to describe the world as they see it, or to tell the truth as they know it. I’m a strong advocate of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which guarantees free speech. But the power of the written word transcends that.

Writers have always been at the forefront of social and political changes. Powerful elites have tried to silence us; lest the truth gets out to the otherwise loyal masses who then should dare to forget their places in a carefully-structured society – places designated by those same powerful elites. Education and literacy are the best tools against tyranny and oppression. Once someone learns how to read and write, they start to think for themselves. And, while that’s good for society as a whole; for some, it forebodes danger. It’s why, for centuries, the Catholic Church tried to keep books out of the hands of commoners, especially women. It’s why, in the aftermath of the American Civil War, some Whites tried to do the same with the freed Negro slaves.

In more recent years, a number of journalists have been murdered in México, as they covered that nation’s ongoing war against the drug cartels and linked some of that violence to government and law enforcement officials.

Of course, composing short stories for my blog or recounting skirmishes with haughty nuns and teachers doesn’t constitute a battle against repression. But, from the moment some six millennia ago, when an unknown individual in the Sumerian desert carved the emblem of a human head in conjunction with a fish to indicate eating, writing has been an essential and inescapable attribute of our existence. I observe, from the comfort of my suburban home, the battles between police and drug lords in México and wonder if any of them are aware that a form of writing arose in the central part of that country around 600 B.C. Do they even realize how significant that is, not just in México’s history, but the history of the world?

I swing my attention to the mountains of landlocked Afghanistan and question if any of the men training to attack Europe and the U.S. in the name of Islam realize their ancestors corresponded frequently about such matters as the possibility of an afterlife and how birds stay aloft. How did that area reach the 16th century and become stuck there?

I remain passionate about literature and education, even in this increasingly digital world where cell phone text messages have become the norm. I have no less than 400 books crammed into my home, placed neatly on shelves or stacked atop one another. They cover everything from art to political science. Moreover, I have scores of magazines: “National Geographic,” “International Artist,” “The Sun,” “Indian” and the “Smithsonian.” And I keep adding to my repertoire. My only hope is that I get to read them all before I die, and even then, maybe carry them with me into the afterlife.

Regardless of what happens anywhere in the world, I know we writers will win the ongoing battles against ignorance and arrogance. Whether we have to stay after class for daring to question a teacher over the pronunciation of a single word, or stand before a hostile government that only wants so much of the truth to get out into the world, writers will always win. Even if we have to die for it.

Image: Mr. Dowling.

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Dreams Bigger Than Ourselves

Watching the debate between President Obama and Mitt Romney the other night invoked a number of emotions in me; mainly nausea.  Obama looked half-asleep, while Romney displayed yet another side of his plastic persona.  Romney contradicted himself more times than someone with schizophrenia, and Obama simply didn’t show any backbone.  Considering that Romney announced he would take down “Sesame Street” and Obama expressed joy last week that the National Football League’s referee strike had ended peacefully, I haven’t been this disillusioned about politics since January 20, 2001, when George W. Bush first took office.

It’s come to this?  PBS and football referees are that utterly important in the overall scheme of America’s ongoing economic crisis?  Well, at least PBS serves a purpose.  But, even before the Obama – Romney debate, I pondered why America has let itself stoop to such lowly aspirations.  This is a country that built the world’s first transcontinental railroad system in the mid-1800’s and, less than a century later, constructed the world’s largest highway system.  Following World War II, this same nation created the strongest middle class the world has ever seen.  We were the first to take flight into the air and the first to place men on the moon.  We helped to develop automobiles, telephones, radio, televisions and computers.  Now, we’re talking about creationism in schools and gay marriage.  Are we serious?  How did the national dialogue become so pathetic?

A half century ago, President John F. Kennedy issued a challenge to the nation; he wanted us “to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things; not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”  And, we did just that!  Less than seven years later, Neil Armstrong became the first human to set foot on the lunar surface.

I’m somewhat of a dreamer.  In fact, I’m a big dreamer.  My quiet, sometimes introverted personality conjures up the most fantastic of stories.  But, it also envisions the seemingly impossible of events.  Thus, while some people worry what Vice President Joe Biden might say in his debate with Congressman Paul Ryan next week and others sit on the edge of their seats, wondering who will take first place on “Dancing with the Stars,” I propose the following challenges to my fellow Americans.

Energy Independent – Every American president since Richard Nixon has called for the U.S. to be completely and totally energy independent.  The oil embargoes of the 1970’s first made us realize how badly our nation is beholden to the Saudi royal family who – just a few decades earlier – were still living a nomadic lifestyle.  Our technology helped them move into the 20th century almost overnight.  Currently, though, the U.S. obtains most of its oil from Latin America, mainly Venezuela.  We actually buy more oil from Canada than from OPEC nations.  But, we’re still reliant upon foreign nations for a good chunk of our fuel.  And, we’re still too dependent upon coal and natural gas.  The fact is that those resources are finite.  They’re also dirty and dangerous to extract from the Earth.  I’d like to see the U.S. develop cleaner and safer means of energy by 2030.  Yes, that’s less than 20 years from now, but I know we can do it.  And, we need to do it.  We can’t continue to pollute our environment and put our citizens at risk just to keep the lights on in the house.

Subterranean Power and Telecommunication Lines – In August of 1992, Hurricane Andrew plowed into Florida as a borderline category 5 storm, before marching across the Gulf of México and slamming into Louisiana.  It was the most expensive natural disaster in U.S. history at the time; costing an estimated $26 billion.  For weeks afterward, residents in the impact zones lived without power.  Andrew had knocked down and / or destroyed thousands of yards of power and telecommunication lines.  In the richest, most powerful country on Earth, people found themselves struggling from day to day in a third world-style environment in the heat of summer.  Twenty years later Hurricane Isaac gently rolled over southeastern Louisiana and did virtually the same thing to all those power and telecommunication lines.  Tropical storm systems aren’t the only harbinger of disaster.  Almost every winter, people in the northeastern U.S. brace for mighty arctic hurricanes that send them back into those third world type living conditions.  The same happens after floods, tornadoes, wildfires and earthquakes.  We can never control what the planet’s natural elements will do.  Every time humans have tried to fight nature, they almost always get smacked back into reality.  But, we can mitigate the impact of these calamities by burying as many of our power and telecommunication lines underground as possible.  This is not a new idea.  Many people – from energy analysts to, yes, politicians – have pushed for this to be done on a massive scale.  But, there have been plenty of detractors.  While we already have a large number of subterranean power and telecommunication lines, opponents claim they’re not necessarily more reliable than overhead lines.  While overhead lines experience more outages and are more vulnerable to every piece of aerial debris from disoriented birds to tree branches, subterranean lines are generally more difficult to access and repair when problems with them do arise.  Another obstacle, of course, is money.  There are greater costs associated with the installation of subterranean lines, and – as you might have guessed – those costs must be passed onto consumers, either in the form of higher utility rates or increased taxes.  But, I think it’s well worth the financial burden.  Ultimately, it costs people more to go without power; food is spoiled and lives can be endangered in extreme heat or cold.  The expenses incurred with the initial installations and ongoing maintenance will more than pay for themselves in the ensuing years.

Humans on Mars – For eons, our ancestors wondered what it was like on the surface of the moon.  When the U.S. finally made it there in July of 1969, our fanciful images of otherworldly beings gave way to the bland reality of rocks and dust.  But, we made it!  We’d successfully landed humans on the surface of another celestial body and brought them back to Earth.  Almost immediately, people began contemplating a trip to Mars.  The U.S. has come close; first with the Viking I and II voyages, and most recently, with the Curiosity mission.  These have been unstaffed journeys, but they’re important.  The U.S. space program of the 1960’s helped to advance technological developments; mainly with telecommunications, such as facsimile machines and cordless phones, but also with engineering and robotics.  As with any grand adventure, however, there are detractors who look primarily (or only) at the money factor.  The Viking missions alone cost $1 billion – in 1970’s-era figures – and, as of now, the Curiosity budget has exceeded $2.5 billion.  But so far, the U.S. has spent nearly $807 trillion in Iraq and almost $572 trillion in Afghanistan.  If we can afford that kind of cash to kill people and destroy entire towns and villages, we definitely can expend a fraction of that money on a staffed trip to Mars.  I don’t believe we’re alone in this universe.  And, it’s in our nature as humans to explore and discover.  I feel we should make a concerted effort to send a craft with humans to Mars by 2030.

100% Literacy Rate – This is the most ambitious of my goals.  Literacy and education are paramount to the success of any society.  But, they’re also the most personal and the most difficult.  As of 2012, the U.S. literacy rate stands at roughly 80%.  While this means that more than three-quarters of the U.S. population can read and write to some degree, we’re still far behind such countries as Denmark, Japan and Norway where literacy rates hover close to 100%.  Why is the U.S. at a dismal 80%?  I think much of it has to do with our elected officials and their reluctance to consider education as equally important as military prowess and individual financial wealth.  Moreover, the United States boasts the largest rate of incarceration than any other nation; some 1.8 million people are imprisoned here, or about 1 of every 100 adults.  Of those individuals, roughly 70% are illiterate.  While rates vary among states, it costs roughly $23,000 per year to house one person in a prison.  However, it costs about $1,000 to educate a child each year at the elementary level and about $3,000 per year at the high school level.  College educations also vary widely among states and differ between private and public universities.  But, the average cost per year is about $15,000.  Once someone graduates from college, or even a vocational training program, however, they can enter the work force and start paying back those costs in earnings and taxes, as well as consumer spending.  Somehow, though, our political elite thinks it’s more feasible to imprison someone than to educate them.  Every year across this nation, states balance their school budgets on the backs of its most vulnerable citizens: elderly, disabled and children.  Just like with the costs of the Afghanistan and Iraq conflicts, it’s beyond me to understand why this nation always has enough money for war, but never enough for education.  I feel it’s the conservative mindset working against us.  Earlier this year former senator and Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum denounced President Obama as a “snob” for wanting everyone in the U.S. to have a college education.  Ignoring such stupidity, though, I think it’s plausible for the U.S. to have a 100% literacy rate by 2050, if not sooner.  It’s well worth the expense, as we’ll see our prison rates decrease, while consumer spending rates increase.  Educated people generally make better decisions and think first before they act.  It’s easier to give a child and book and deal with their barrage of questions once they finish reading it than to let a kid drop out of school and deal with their bad attitude once they’re in jail.

I know naysayers will read this and scoff at my lofty ambitions; perhaps accusing me of arrogance in imposing such goals upon others.  I’m not forcing anyone to believe as I do.  But, the wealthiest nation on Earth should have much greater objectives than ensuring tax cuts for the wealthiest 1% of its citizens or constructing a wall along the southern border.  Our grand ethnic and cultural diversity will allow for it.  Our future depends on it.  It’s in our nature as humans to wonder and explore – and to dream big.

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Cartoon of the Day

I can see it now: thousands of years into the future our descendants will unearth our electronic devices and try to decipher the hard drives.  Then, they’ll realize our own ancestors were actually more ingenious than us.

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Pictures of the Day

It’s not news that the U.S. lags behind other nations in math and science test scores.  But, we also suffer from poor reading and writing skills.  While our politicians debate creationism and abstinence-only sex education, our students are busy downloading music to their I–pods and eagerly await the results of Dancing with the Stars.  Then again, you just have to look at these marquee signs and realize where the problems lie.  Source.

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Broken Windows, Broken Cars, Broken Lives

A few years ago a friend and then-colleague of mine arrived at work bemoaning the sudden loss of his car – a 1980’s-era Oldsmobile Cutlass with sagging interior roof, no handles for the rear windows and skull caps atop the locks.  The city of Dallas had confiscated it from the spot in front of the townhome he shared with his fiancée, he said; blaming the local homeowners association.  He made it sound as if some unfriendly curmudgeon in the neighborhood had called the city, and the dilapidated jalopy was gone the next day.  It wasn’t that simple, though, and after much prodding, I finally got the entire story out of him.  He was returning home from work one afternoon, when – as he made a left turn just blocks from home – the steering column suddenly came loose.  Not just the steering wheel – the entire steering column!  It literally popped out and fell into his lap.  He managed to slow the vehicle and arrive safely against a curb, before pushing it all the way to the spot in front of the townhome where he normally parked it – and leaving it there.  A few days later the city placed a glaring bright orange sticker on the driver’s window warning that the car needed to be moved, or risk being towed – the kind of sticker a vehicle owner shouldn’t miss, both because of its vibrant color and its proximity to where you enter the car.  A few days after that, it vanished.  He decided not to pay a fine to pick it up from the city impound lot; instead driving way the hell out to South Dallas to retrieve the items in the car’s trunk, which he said collectively were more valuable than the vehicle itself.  But, he kept blaming the homeowners association.  Now, I agree that HOA’s are one of those most evil entities humanity has ever created, right up there with the IRS and Congress.  But, in this case – as much as it may have hurt my hard-headed good friend – I had to agree with the HOA.  That car needed to go.  The dirt and the skull-shaped lock tops were the only things holding it together.

On March 2, 2012, James Q. Wilson, a well-respected Harvard social scientist, passed away at age 80.  Wilson is best known for his “broken windows” theory about crime and the communities in which it festers.  In his seminal 1985 essay, “The Rediscovery of Character: Private Virtue and Public Policy,” Wilson proposed that broken windows in any given neighborhood – if left unrepaired – are an indicator of that area’s social ills and portend its subsequent collapse into economic despair and criminal behavior.  In other words, if no one cares that homes and buildings have broken windows, then who cares if trash clogs the streets?  Who cares if cars lie abandoned on front lawns?  Who then would be left to care if drugs are being sold on the corner?  Who would stop prostitutes roaming the streets and parks?  Who would care if someone gets robbed in broad daylight?  It’s a domino-type of ideology; seemingly simplistic with its catchy moniker – broken windows – but much more complex than most people, regardless of political or social ideology, can imagine.  And, even more difficult to solve.

James Q. Wilson

James Q. Wilson

Wilson didn’t pretend to have neatly-crafted hypotheses for all of society’s troubles.  The “broken windows” theory wasn’t a panacea for whatever quandaries plague a particular neighborhood.  But, I find it perfectly logical, since I’ve experienced it firsthand.  In the early 1990’s, I moved into a relatively small, but comfortable apartment complex in far North Dallas.  It was nice, quiet and nondescript.  People were pleasant, and not much out of the ordinary happened.  But, by the end of the decade, I’d noticed the quality of life had begun to decline.  People were getting into more arguments on the property’s grounds.  More cars were getting towed.  Empty beer bottles and other trash were being tossed into the bed of my truck.  By 2003, when I finally moved, things had gotten worst.

It actually seemed to begin late one Sunday evening in January 1999, when a man in a neighboring apartment started terrorizing two women and a young girl.  The shouting and screaming continued for hours into the following Monday morning.  The man got one of the women onto the icy ground of the parking lot just outside my bedroom window.  What I thought at first were gun shots were actually the sound of his hand hitting her face and head. I called 911. The police arrived quickly and arrested the man; something I hadn’t seen yet at the complex.  The event terrified me and other residents.  But, I didn’t know then that it was a symptom of a much bigger problem.

During Memorial Day weekend 2002, people crowded around the pool for a mass cookout; lots of people – loud and boisterous – with music, footballs, dogs, plenty of food and plenty of alcohol.  When I strolled by the area the following Tuesday evening, I was stunned by the sight of the debris.  Beer cans, wine cooler bottles and other refuse lay strewn about the grass; jutting out from the bushes and floating in the pool, which looked like a septic tank on a bad day.  On another occasion, I saw an auburn wig on the same area.  The next day it had been dragged closer to the pool.  I told people at work I’d figured out it wasn’t a long-lost set of dreadlocks; it was a rare red squid trying to find its way back to the ocean.  During one week that following August, police were on scene every single night.  I mean, EVERY SINGLE NIGHT of the week; something I definitely hadn’t seen before.  By then, I had a roommate to help me with living expenses; we resided in a 2-bedroom unit.  A young couple lived above us and, almost every morning – in the pre-dawn hours – they’d suddenly and inexplicably explode into a vociferous series of arguments.  When I heard a baby crying on one occasion, I called 911.  The operator had the audacity to ask if I’d tried to find out what was happening.

“Are you kidding me?!” I retorted.  “Never mind!  I’ll just go up there with a two-by-four and crack it over the head of the first person who answer the door.”  I hung up – and waited.  She called back a few seconds later and said she’d dispatch an officer to the scene.  When police finally did arrive, the couple was still arguing so loudly it was a while before they opened their front door.

I relayed the story months later to my supervisor, and he chastised me for calling the police over such a “trivial issue.”  He added, “You can’t call the police for that.  They don’t have time for that.”

I reminded him there was a baby in the apartment and – with the couple screaming at each other so badly – that child could have been in danger.  He conceded I was right.  Besides, I emphasized, domestic violence is a serious offense, and if someone doesn’t make an effort to get involved and stop it, then somebody could end up hurt or worst, dead.  There’s a fine line between minding your own business and not getting involved simply because you don’t want to be labeled a snitch or a troublemaker.  I lived in that complex and had come to hate it solely because of the low-class people who apparently had taken it over.

But, while I still lived there, though, I felt an obligation to keep it as orderly as possible.  I didn’t let my roommate’s puppy crap wherever he wanted and just walk away; telling myself someone else would pick it up – like the trash by the pool or that set of dreadlocks.  I cleaned up a broken mirror in the middle of the parking lot one afternoon.  I noticed blood stains outside another apartment and informed the manager.  Very early one morning a young man hurtled a curio cabinet from his third floor balcony onto the sidewalk below.  The wood scraping against the balcony surface woke me up, before the sound of it slamming into the pavement sent me and my roommate’s puppy into the ceiling of my bedroom.  I looked out my window at the mess and lay back down.  No, I thought, I can’t just do that; someone could be hurt in that apartment; there could be more trouble.  So, I dialed 911.  The police knocked on that apartment door, but got no response.  I called the management office the next morning to report it.  The assistant manager told me several people had already called her, but no one had reacted like me – contacted the police.  No one else seemed to care.  No one else wanted to get involved.  I kept thinking I’d just overreacted; that it was probably a lovers’ quarrel.  She had walked out on him, saying she’d return for her things later.  And, he decided to get back at her after a night of drinking; taking it out on inanimate objects.  He could have taken it out on her, and I guess that’s what I’d thought might have happened.  Why did I care so much?  Why didn’t I just mind my own business and not worry about it?  It wasn’t my stuff he was tossing off the balcony.

Wilson understood that a person’s innate character reveals how they will function within their given society.  “At root,” Wilson wrote in 1985 in The Public Interest, “in almost every area of important concern, we are seeking to induce persons to act virtuously, whether as schoolchildren, applicants for public assistance, would-be lawbreakers or voters and public officials.”

Wilson wasn’t a self-righteous academic elitist; judgmental and prejudicial towards entire groups of people.  He was speaking about the core of human decency – character.  And, while he formulated his “broken windows” theory during the 1970’s (the “Me Decade”), he noted that character is formed in groups.  In his 1993 masterpiece, “The Moral Sense,” he wrote, “Order exists because a system of beliefs and sentiments held by members of a society sets limits to what those members can do.”

While Washington focuses on such failed states as Somalia, we Americans only have to look at a handful of cities here at home to see how order has crumbled and given way to treacherous lifestyles.  Take DetroitEminem may love it, but many of its former residents felt the opposite and took flight.  At one point, Detroit was the 4th largest city in the United States with a peak population close to 5 million by the 1960’s.  It was the hub of the automotive industry and a vibrant economic metropolis.  But, by the end of the 20th century, it had fallen into almost complete disarray.  Buildings and homes sit empty – with broken windows and junked cars.  A Time photo essay reveals the true sadness in a way only pictures can.  City officials were so concerned about the Census Bureau’s 2010 revelation that Detroit’s population had declined to 714,000 that they brazenly questioned the authenticity of the government’s research methods.  It’s perhaps a predictable response from a city hall that’s lost control of its environs; a classic case of denial.  But, that sense of disconnect is what made many Detroit natives show their disgust by voting with their feet.  If the city council didn’t care, why should they?

New Orleans is another example of a city in a seemingly perpetual state of crisis.  Many people blame Hurricane Katrina with delivering a near-fatal death blow to the “Crescent City.”  Others, however, actually credit the massive storm with exposing the poverty, racism and political corruption that had long infected New Orleans.  This latter view is closer to reality, as one of America’s most beloved cities had been in a downward spiral long before Katrina even formed in the Atlantic.  Like Detroit, New Orleans once was a gleaming metropolitan area; a major shipping port with an ethnically diverse citizenry that enjoyed a prosperous lifestyle.  Its population had peaked at roughly 900,000 by 1960 and began to see a gradual decrease in the ensuing decades.  By the time Katrina struck in August of 2005, New Orleans was home to a little more than 400,000 residents; about three-fourths of whom lived on some type of government assistance.  Much of the petroleum industry that had made New Orleans into a thriving industrial center had shifted westward; outside of the city and sometimes, outside of Louisiana.  Thus, went the lucrative jobs that oil and petroleum corporations provide, and New Orleans began to rely more and more on its myriad tourist attractions to generate revenue.  Many of its residents subsisted on various temporary jobs that frequently paid in cash; often moving about via mass transportation, or on foot.  Thus, when Katrina arrived, a number of them just didn’t have the money to buy a plane or bus ticket or to rent a car.  They had literally become trapped in a city that had already trapped them economically.

As with any place on the verge of moral and financial collapse, the problem doesn’t just lie with a discombobulated city hall.  It includes local law enforcement.  And, the New Orleans police department had one of the worst reputations for corruption in the United States; harboring a shameful record for police brutality.  Throughout the 1990’s, the NOPD’s Internal Affairs Division received numerous complaints of officers roughing up citizens, often without sufficient cause.  Many of those complaints were never addressed, much less resolved.  The corruption was systemic.  It permeated nearly every phase of operations and encompassed officers at all levels – from rookie patrolmen to high-ranking deputy superintendents.  Between 1992 and 1995, for example, roughly 60 NOPD officers were charged in a wide variety of crimes.  Part of the problem lay with salaries: New Orleans’ police officers at that time were woefully underpaid.  In the 1990’s, starting salaries for patrolmen were only slightly above $15,000 a year at a time when the annual salary for the average American was about $35,000.  Even veteran officers were barely making above $25,000 annually.  Most New Orleans cops had to moonlight at second jobs known as “details” to keep up with living expenses.  At one point, an estimated 75 to 80 percent of the NOPD force had second jobs.  The temptation to delve into illegal and more lucrative enterprises was too good for some to pass up.  The “Big Easy” had warped into the “Big Sleazy.”

For years scientists had warned that New Orleans was in danger of serious flooding from a major hurricane.  Surrounded by water on three sides, it’s the only city in North America with the bulk of its geographical area at or below sea level.  It’s also one of the fastest sinking cities in the world, dropping about a quarter of an inch per year.  In 2004, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) conducted a disaster simulation in which a fictional hurricane named “Pam” struck New Orleans with 120 mph winds and 20 inches of rain.  The final report questioned whether the multitude of levees around the city would hold, but estimated that up to a million residents in and around the New Orleans area could be safely evacuated.  FEMA established guidelines for moving even the most vulnerable of residents out of harm’s way and setting up shelters where people could remain for up to 4 months.  The city itself even created a plan to move out citizens using school buses.  Everything, of course, always looks good on paper.

Many blame the federal government’s lackluster response to Katrina, but local municipalities aren’t above reproach.  Then New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin didn’t issue a mandatory evacuation until Sunday, August 28 – the day before Katrina made landfall.  City officials told residents they could seek shelter at either the Superdome or convention center, if they chose to remain close to home.  Both Texas and Arkansas stationed National Guard troops at their respective borders with Louisiana, waiting for a call from Governor Kathleen Babineaux Blanco.  But, Blanco didn’t place those calls until nearly a week after the storm.  By then, New Orleans and almost all of Southeastern Louisiana had descended into unmanageable chaos.  When stranded residents finally were evacuated, they didn’t just disappear, of course; they moved to other cities, like Baton Rouge, Houston and Dallas.  And, many brought with them the same disenfranchised attitudes they had in New Orleans.  Hurricane evacuees, for example, were still living in the Houston Astrodome 6 months after Katrina hit.

This points back to the character issue – or lack of it – that Wilson lamented in his “broken windows” theory.  There is a danger, however, that blaming the people for not caring about their community can transmute into blaming the poor for their circumstances.  It’s one thing a lot of social conservatives do; if people have no incentive to work because of public assistance, they say, those individuals become riddled with sloth and don’t contribute to society.  They expect someone else to work and pick up after them; clean up their trash, sweep up their discarded wigs, tow away their broken down cars.  Wilson didn’t condemn people for being born into and growing up in abject poverty.  But, he understood that – while you can’t speak for those conditions – you are ultimately responsible for yourself.  You can only play the victim so much before people get tired of it and develop compassion fatigue.  America grew weary of hearing about Detroit’s woes and they got sick of hearing about the devastation Katrina wrought.  Enough already!  Don’t just complain.  Do something about it.

Wilson emphasized education as one avenue to equalize the economic playing fields and thereby prevent societal decay.  “Nothing better illustrates the changes in how we think about policy than the problem of finding ways to improve educational attainment and student conduct in schools,” Wilson stated in “The Rediscovery of Character.”  The U.S. spends roughly $800 billion annually on education, or about 4% of its budget.  Even with all the money spent in the past decade on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, taxpayer investment in education exceeds that for national defense.  Still, the U.S. lags behind other developed nations in reading, math and science; 48th out of 133 countries, according to the World Economic Forum.

In 2009, more than half of patents awarded here went to companies outside the United States.  In American graduate schools, nearly half of the students are foreigners who often choose to return to their homelands after completing their education.  While academics push for i funding, you only have to consider former presidential candidate Rick Santorum’s “snob” comment about President Obama and the current debate in Congress on mitigating student loan debt to understand how politics can disrupts the educational process in this country.

No one may lament James Q. Wilson’s death the way they did, say Michael Jackson’s, or someone else with a more colorful personality.  Our society doesn’t seem to mind losing intellectuals, just the celebrities who entertain us and cause trouble doing it.  That’s a shame.  We need more folks like Wilson.  We need more people with character.  We need more people who care.

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