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Practically Idealistic blog
The title for this blog originated with use of the term “practical idealist” in this 1996 opinion piece, which asked: “To what kind of work should a practical idealist aspire?” A century and a half earlier, Emerson, in his 1841 essay Circles, wrote: “There are degrees in idealism.  We learn first to play with it academically. . . .  Then we see in the heyday of youth and poetry that it may be true, that it is true in gleams and fragments.  Then, its countenance waxes stern and grand, and we see that it must be true.  It now shows itself ethical and practical.”  John Dewey and Mahatma Gandhi embraced practical idealism in the 20th century, as did UN Secretary General U Thant.  Al Gore invoked it in a 1998 speech. In the context of this blog, the term is meant to convey idealism tempered but not overwhelmed by realism: a search for the ideal on a path guided by common sense.
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Saturday, July 28, 2012

“Neuroscience and Moral Responsibility”

Considering “Neuroscience and Moral Responsibility” in the wake of killings in Aurora, Colorado, the New York Times published a column by John Monterosso and Barry Schwartz, skeptically approaching the question, “Did Your Brain Make You Do It?   

At Edge.org , there is an interview with Sarah-Jayne Blakemore (a British neuroscientist) on “the adolescent brain.”
7:18 pm edt 

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Cluefest, Now a New Haven Tradition

I have been looking forward to participating today in the 10th edition of Cluefest, an annual scavenger hunt around New Haven.  My wife and I have participated twice previously and had planned to team up with another family; together we were to have four adults and four kids, ages two to six.  But circumstances prevented everyone else from showing up, so I arrived at the registration table alone and on foot an hour ago.  Unable at short notice to join another team, I claimed my team’s clue sheet solo.  Without a car or a teammate, I can’t compete with the vehicular teams roaming the city this afternoon!  So I just walked home and sat down at the computer.  If you can’t actually explore the city through Cluefest, the next best thing is to blog about its challenges.  Here are my guesses as to the five locations of this year’s activities:

  1)  Phoenix Press and its wind turbine

  2) LEAP (which just marked its 20th anniversary but is housed is an older building) or another youth organization, such as the Boys and Girls Club or Farnam Neighborhood House

  3) Solar Youth, located at 53 Wayfarer Street

  4) New Haven Fire Department Training Academy at 230 Ella Grasso Boulevard

  5) Yale’s Greenberg Conference Center, on Prospect Street, where World Fellows and others meet; related clues suggest the old Winchester Repeating Arms factory (now renovated at Science Park) and the precursor of the Culinary Institute of America.

Are these guesses correct?  I may walk over to the Conference Center to discover whether that’s indeed the venue of the concluding party.  Whatever the case, many thanks to the Cluefest organizers at TGWNN and to the sponsors.  This is a terrific community event to which my family and neighbors will aim to return next year.

3:29 pm edt 

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Independence Day and Our Debt to Those in Military Service

The NPR series on “Those Who Serve” included on this Independence Day an impressive portrait of a young man inspired by his grandfathers' military service.

“What do we owe the soldier?” was the title of Memorial Day remarks my father – Richard D. Brown – made on May 28, 2012.  He said in part:

“…Soldiers commit themselves to serving the nation, and that service warrants our thanks.  Today, unlike the eras of the Revolution, the Civil War, the World Wars, Korea, and Viet Nam, we no longer have a draft.  Instead, for the first time in our history the United States fields an all-volunteer, professional military.  Consequently parents and youth, my children and your children, no longer have to worry whether their lives will be disrupted or even destroyed by compulsory military service.  Instead, like me in the 1960s, tens of millions of us can pursue the lives we choose as best we can.  Why?  Because others have voluntarily picked up our national burden.  They have made it possible for all of us to choose on our own whether to share that burden.  This is, I submit, the highest form of public service.  The highest.

Consider.  There are many, many ways to serve the public—as firefighters, policemen, teachers, public officials, volunteers.  Think about it.  Everyone who is on a public payroll—including tradesmen and truck drivers—is in important ways a public servant, pledged to do their best for the public.  A few of these jobs are hazardous, too; but military service is special and different, and not in ways that most of us would want.  The soldier is the only public servant who cannot decide where to live, the only one who puts life and family life at risk by deployments, and the only one who, without any consultation, may be sent anywhere in the world according to national need.  And she or he may not come back; or he or she may return disabled.  This is sacrifice.  This is sacrifice.  And because some do it, the rest of us can stay home with our families.  How precious is that?

As the Civil War drew to its bloody end, at his second inaugural President Abraham Lincoln offered a prayer for the nation, a prayer we are morally obliged to consider:

‘With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.’

Now I don’t know about the ‘just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.’  Though the goals are laudable, I do not have enough optimism to see that as a realistic program for action.  But I do believe that we can and we must 'finish the work we are in;' and that includes binding the nation’s wounds with balms and bandages of civility, empathy, and fairness.  And most critical for today’s message, we must ‘care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan.’  Concretely, we, the people of the United States, must join to commit ourselves and our resources to the care of veterans and their families.  Right now tens of thousands of soldiers are coming back to civilian life injured, some permanently.  Right now thousands of widows and orphans are struggling to rebuild their lives and to realize their dreams.  Right now tens of thousands of our most devoted public servants are unemployed, and some are homeless.  There are those who believe the veterans are just another special interest group making a claim for public funds.  I do not.  They are not.  Those of us whose lives as civilians have been made possible by their sacrifice need to ask: ‘What do we owe our soldiers?’  If we keep that question in mind, I believe we can and we will find the right answer.”

In 2010, my father was one of several commentators for a PRX radio program (produced by David Freudberg for the series  Humankind) – touted for broadcast around the 4th of July – on “An Informed Republic.”  This program is among several on the PRX playlist for “A July 4th Radio Picnic.”

4:15 pm edt 

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Digital Divides, Reading, and Play

The New York Times published a “Sunday Dialogue” this weekend about “how children play.”  First came Matt Richtel’s May 2012 article in the Times, “Wasting Time is the New Divide in Digital Era.”  In response, a letter writer named Sarah Chumsky commented, spurring the dialogue.  My own reflections appear below.

Sarah Chumsky has a point about the shortage of safe streets and nearby parks for many families.  Still, she is a consultant to purveyors of indoor entertainment.  She clouds the issue by lauding “playtime” – which indeed is especially important for young children and varies in quality – without acknowledging differences in the ages of “kids” or the balance of time devoted to passive versus productive activities. 

As a parent of young children and as a literacy advocate, I discount Ms. Chumsky's emphasis on the virtues of digital entertainment.  In moderation and with discernment, such diversions have value.  The “Wasting Time” story was about both excesses and disparities in the uses of digital technology – real risks that her letter scarcely addresses.

The debate is not over technology or no technology.  Rather, the questions should be: how much, of what type, with what supervision, at what opportunity cost?  Less time for physical play, for the arts, and for reading are major costs.  As the “Wasting Time” article suggests, disproportionate time for digital diversions can magnify academic achievement gaps – never mind health discrepancies.

In that article, Matt Richtel noted: “As access to devices has spread, children in poorer families are spending considerably more time than children from more well-off families using their television and gadgets to watch shows and videos, play games and connect on social networking sites, studies show.  This growing time-wasting gap, policy makers and researchers say, is more a reflection of the ability of parents to monitor and limit how children use technology than of access to it.”  Experts Vicky Rideout of the Kaiser Family Foundation and Danah Boyd of Microsoft bolster this argument.

Last October, in a Times article on “A Silicon Valley School That Doesn't Compute,” Richtel cited “plenty of high-tech parents” who recognize the benefits of lower-tech learning for their own children.  U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has contrasted the reading he encourages his children to do (e.g., at his confirmation hearing in 2009) with the video games he doesn't favor. 

Cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham –  in his book Why Don’t Students Like School? – writes: “If you want to be exposed to new vocabulary and new ideas, the places to go are books, magazines, and newspapers.  Television, video games, and the sorts of Internet content that students lean toward (for example, social networking sites, music sites, and the like) are for the most part unhelpful.  Researchers have painstakingly analyzed the contents of the many ways that students can spend their leisure time.  Books, newspapers, and magazines are singularly helpful in introducing new ideas and new vocabulary to students.”

Concepts for Adaptive Learning (New Haven) and PC Rebuilders & Recyclers (Chicago) are examples of organizations that refurbish donated technology, equip families with computers, and train students, parents, and teachers to use these tools.  Such efforts can help to counter digital divides.

Yet digital play is no substitute for real play, exercise, or reading.  Social media are not equivalent to news media.  Listening to music is not the same as playing an instrument.  Roomfuls of computers – however welcome! – do not make a quality youth development program. Switching on a device is not reading with a child.   Run; jump; read; learn.

I contributed a chapter, “Harlem Snapshot: Schooling in New Technologies,” to
Children and the Media (Transaction Publishers, 1996 – originally published in Media Studies Journal, fall 1994).  Now, years later, a local cause is the Literacy Coalition of Greater New Haven.

9:32 am edt 

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