Tuesday, August 28, 2007



Isanna Dale is a middle-aged, broad-beamed English blond who was probably once something of a knock-out in a 1980s figure-hugging stewardess uniform, back when flight attendants were known as airline stewardesses. The United Airlines uniform she wears now has been taylored to give her room to breathe and allows her to move easily about the crowded economy-class cabin. She smiled genuinely as she dispensed small warm moist paper towels at the beginning of the long flight, and throughout she cheerfully delivered airline breakfast, snacks, and drinks. She never scolded when she found a seatbelt unlatched or a seatback not forward before take-off or landing.

Air travel ain’t what it used to be. It’s actually better. Planes don’t shake and rattle quite as much and as often as they once did. Pretense is gone from the environment. Planes now boldly admit what they are: Greyhound buses that can fly. Line up, march on board, endure the time it takes to get from one place in the busy world to another. Food service is offered mostly on a pay-for-what-you-want basis, and passengers are not embarrassed to eat what they’ve brought from home or bought at the Macdonalds in the departure terminal.


Americans in Europe complain about almost everything: the high price of breakfast when considering the calculation of pounds or euros to dollars; the long wait in check-in lines at airports; the one-bag carry-on rule in European airports; chaos in airport waiting lounges. At Heathrow before the Lufthansa flight Margaret and I were pleasantly surprised to find ourselves in the pre-boarding group. Why? The only obvious reason was that we are “elderly.” Wow! The pay-off comes: dramatically reduced transportation costs in America, senior breakfast at Denny’s and senior coffee at Macdonalds; and pre-boarding in Europe. No complaints from me. On the other hand, perhaps we were allowed to pre-board because Margaret looks like the Queen of England.

In England and in Germany few airport service workers are caucasian. Although the flight crews wearing their jaunty military uniforms appear to be mostly white, Lufthansa airline personnel at check-in and on the airplanes are a mixed group. Multilingual Lufthansa flight attendants switch easily from English to Spanish to French to German. They seem happier to have their jobs than American flight attendants serving on domestic routes in the United States. Perhaps it’s a cultural thing.

Achieving work-free status is a common goal of many Americans. Failing to achieve financial security without having to take a job, Americans consider the next best thing to be employment that requires little actual work but provides maximum pay. Parents and teachers tell children they should go to college so they “won’t have to work so hard.” In America we make a big point of being an egalitarian society with equal rights guaranteed for all citizens. We like to brag that there has never been a time in our nation’s history when a noble class enjoyed the right to be idle simply by being born into the right family. Two hundred hears ago at the same time the French were engaged in revolution to dismantle and dissolve their noble class structure and establish government “of the people, for the people, by the people,” our founding fathers were struggling to sever their connection to a monarchy that hasn’t even to this day been completely dissembled. Our first president was a frontiersman who didn’t complete grade school. He insisted that nobility was not conferred by birth or by election but that it had to be earned, and he obviously assumed that noble status was not guaranteed forever but could be maintained only by constant effort. Perhaps it is time for us to emphasize in our system of education that work is good not just for grades while we are students or for a cushy job after school but for the sense of worth that comes from earning what we are and have. He would be shocked by our new American culture that insists that celebrity is all that is necessary for one to be considered noble. Our culture produces “famous” people who shoplift because they assume their presence in a store is payment enough for whatever the desire and people who kill because they assume they are above the law. We have a president who apparently presumes to be able to make something real by saying it is so. He brought his nation to war because he said it was necessary to do so. He believes a mission is accomplished when he says it is accomplished. He insists that a mandate is what he declares it to be and that not only the people have declared him to be the decider for all of us but that God has ordained it. Our first president would find little to admire in George W. Bush. He would be appalled by Bush’s lack of preparation for leadership. Our self-educated first president would wonder how a rich boy who was admitted to one of the best universities in the country would deliberately avoid scholarship. Our first president, who came to office after a brilliant military career, would be embarrassed by this president who deliberately avoided draft and any engagement in real military activity but would relish the role of “Commander-in-Chief, put on the the uniform of a fighter pilot and land on an aircraft carrier, and strut under a “Mission Accomplished” banner only two weeks into a war that would drag on for years. Our president is the role model for young Americans who want all of the benefits of meaningful employment without any of the difficulties of appropriate preparation and little understanding of what real work requires.Dael is Dutch AND American. She knows the difference.AMSTELVEEN AND AMSTERDAMBeing an American in Paris or Madrid or Amsterdam is to stand before a mirrow as big as the world. People are generally too polite to ask about “the American way” that could result in bringing to ultimate political power a group as inept as President Bush and his closest advisors. Why couldn’t at least a simple majority of us have recognized in the time leading up to the last election that the emperor has no clothes. The first election is difficult to explain. All the world knows that George W. Bush lacked a majority of votes. The electoral college is difficult to explain in a way that makes good sense. The second election is another matter. How do we explain that one? The world is watching. People who are not Americans are very interested in the 2008 election. So am I.MY FRIEND HECTOR sent me the following bit of news:
Recent polls have shown that a fifth of americans cannot locate the US on a world map. Why do you think this is?

"I personally believe that U.S. Americans are unable to do so because some people out there in our nation don't have maps. And uh, I believe that our education, like such as in South Africa and, uh, Iraq and everywhere, like, such as... and, I believe that they should, our education over here in the U.S., should help the U.S. or should help South Africa, it should help Iraq and the Asian countries so we would be able to build up our future for our children."
- Miss Teen South Carolina, Miss Teen USA 2007 Competition

Tuesday, August 21, 2007


A conversation with my good friend John Davidge about the education of his children got me thinking about a subject that was on my mind every day of my working life but can now be retired to the back recesses of my brain. John described for me a new program designed to bring up test scores in the New York City schools. As I understand it, “Fair Funding” is supposed to increase by as much as fifty percent the money given to schools with large numbers of people living below the poverty level and to schools with racial and ethnic majority populations. People who live in middle-income communities are being reassured that funding for their schools won’t be cut. No assurances are given that classes won’t become larger, and there is no promise that the city’s education department won’t hold funding at current levels for subsequent years. It doesn’t take middle school math to know that more money is needed each year just to keep up with inflation and that the money has to come from somewhere.

All the President’s men and women who were assigned the task of fixing America’s schools put their heads together and came up with “No Child Left Behind,” but the plan has not produced a great leap forward. Signs are clear that many children continue to fail to meet minimum standards. The Bush plan calls for cutting funding and ultimately shutting down schools that fail to meet standards. Presumably parents will find a way to get their kids from neighborhoods with failing schools to neighborhoods where kids’ test scores are higher. Now Mayor Bloomberg is going to fix the problem in his city by throwing money at lowest performing schools.

Neither the Bush plan nor the Bloomberg project will help many people, and those programs will likely hurt many families. So what would I do to fix schools if I were president of the country or mayor of a city? I would begin with what I know works. Reading and writing are essential skills. Although most of us don’t regularly do more with numbers than turn from page one to page thirteen in our newspapers, I agree that math skills also are essential. Then it’s reading, writing, and arithmetic. That has a familiar ring to it, so I guess I agree that not much has changed in terms of what children should be expected to learn in school.

I would put one thing ahead of reading and writing and arithmetic. As a matter of fact, I suggest teachers begin each lesson-planning session by reminding themselves that this one thing is more important than all the others. I would have as a goal in my city and in my country that every child will become self-reliant. All the other things will follow naturally and logically for the child who is growing toward self-reliance and self-sufficiency. Of course, some people are smarter and more capable than others; so you ask what should be done to or for those children who are naturally less self-reliant than others, who grow toward self-reliance more slowly. While we educators don’t talk much about differences in cognitive abilities, and we never ever mention I.Q. in any context, it is true none-the-less that some people have greater cognitive abilities than others. Thank goodness degrees of self-reliance don’t depend on brain power. Will power has more to do with self-reliance than brain power.

Where do we begin? Obviously, the program must start at home. We all know that a new-born infant is utterly dependent. Absolutely everything must be done for a baby for quite a long time after birth. The time comes when the little person begins to reach out to the world, to negotiate with other members of the family and caregivers. That is as it should be and as it always has been with us humans. We modern human animals, individually and as a species, are the result of many generations of evolution. Through the natural process of evolution over millions of years, Individuals who were links in the chain of individuals becoming our species survived and reproduced if they were sufficiently self-reliant. If they didn’t become self-reliant early in life, they couldn’t survive long enough to reproduce. Reading, writing, and arithmetic skills came much later, and even without those skills an individual can grow up and reproduce. In an easier, modern world we now have people living and reproducing, expanding the human population, even though they lack the skills considered essential for productive, satisfactory life experience. We have an obvious problem.

Self-reliance is no longer a prerequisite for growing to sexual maturity. I am tempted at this point to make crude, totally inappropriate remarks on the subject; but that wouldn’t help me make the point that we are obviously failing in our education programs to produce people who are first of all self-reliant. As a species we have developed in ways that make it possible for a person to live quite comfortably without having to do very much for himself. As a matter of fact, having other people in service to meet one’s needs is thought to be a mark of success, a worthy goal. I am an old man with old friends. Apparently, the most successful of us are those who can retire and do nothing.

Common sense dictates the activities for families who want their children to be self-reliant. Toilet training happens. Things get messy and uncomfortable for everybody if it doesn’t. Knowing when and how to take care of that basic need fits naturally into the education of the child in the home. Some parents make it harder than it has to be, but it finally gets done; and the child becomes able to take care of the whole process all by himself with absolutely no help from anybody. The learning curve in developing complete self-reliance in feeding varies from child to child and can also be a bit messy, but that gets done as well. Finally, by the time a child is presented to the school, he should be able to do all kinds of things for himself. If his parents have been overly indulgent, he may expect the school to indulge him. If she has learned at home to be self-directing, she will fit easily into a school routine. If not, the school’s first task will be to address the child's lack of self-reliance. What’s the point of going on to pre-reading if the child doesn’t know how to sit quietly by himself with a book?

In this short essay I won’t offer other specific suggestions about how to develop self-reliance in a child. I offer instead a reading list for kindergarten through grade twelve. Dear reader, don’t misunderstand and think I am doing a Samuel Johnson “Eat the Baby” paper. I’m absolutely serious. The reading list is one I am giving serious thought to making. I admit that I began putting the list together while thinking and trying to dodge cars as I was riding my bicycle around San Diego. The bicycle isn't one of those ubiquitous pedicabs that have proliferated all around San Diego. I was doing my own peddling. I’ve decided that I will suggest only the first couple of books in the list. I want to hear from readers of the BLOG. Please make suggestions about what you think should be the required book at each (or any) grade level. Remember that the object of reading the book is to promote self-reliance.

I am going to be in Europe for a couple of months may not do much blogging until the middle of October. When I'm back home again, I'll go through the suggestions I receive and post a reading list on this BLOG. Please include suggestions for books to be read by children as they go from Kindergarten through grade twelve.

Send your suggestions to my e-mail address: jerralmiles@mac.com

The couple of books I mention come out of my own experience as parent and teacher, and they are stories that I remember from my own childhood.


“The Little Red Hen,” a nursery tale

I particularly like the version by Helen Dean Fish with pictures by Katharine R. Bernard published in the Better Homes and Gardens Story Book, Meredith Publishing Company, 1958. There are many good versions of this classic nursery tale, but I especially like this one because it inserts drawings of the characters and items for the child to name as he “reads” along even before he can read words. The key bit of dialogue is, “And the little red hen said, “’Then I must go and do it myself.’”


“The Little Engine That Could,” by Watty Piper

The Little Engine that Could” was published in 1954 by Platt and Munk, with illustrations by George and Doris Hauman.
There are several versions of this newer, American tale about a long train that must be pulled over a mountain, but I prefer the Platt and Munk book. Anthropomorphically the engines can speak, and one after another of the larger engines is asked to help; and they all say they can’t pull the train over the hill and won’t try. At last the only one left to ask is a little switch engine, and the little engine says, “I think I can.” Because a generation of older Americans remember actually seeing and hearing trains pulled by steam engines, the sound of the little engine chugging, “I think I can, I think I can, I think I can,” is unforgettable.

Children today like the story, and their interest peaks when the grade is steepest near the top and the little engine slows down but keeps saying, “I...think...I...can, I...think...I...can, I...think...I...can,” until it gets bravely to the top and goes down the other side, “I thought I could, I thought I could, I thought I could.”

To think of hard things and say, "I can't" is sure to mean "Nothing done." To refuse to be daunted and insist on saying, "I think I can," is to make sure of being able to say triumphantly by and by, "I thought I could, I thought I could."

Monday, August 13, 2007


Anyone who has driven in a European countryside will never forget the visual pleasure of approaching a town and seeing a great cathedral dominate the landscape. In some European towns the spire of a simple village church may be seen from far away. Chartre Cathedral can be seen for miles before any of the town’s houses come into view. Seen from across a hayfield and bay, Mont Saint Michel rises in absolute splendor never to be forgotten. Mad Ludwig’s castle rising above the forest can’t be erased from the mind of even the most jaded traveler.

So what do we have in California? Well, there is Yosemite with its Half Dome and cascading water falls, and visitors agree that the towering redwood trees in the Northwest are unrivaled in the world of trees. The natural beauty of our wildernesses and our sea coast imbeds itself in our memories so we can never forget that we live in a wondrous place. When we name architectural wonders, we make a respectably long list that includes San Francisco’s unforgettable Golden Gate Bridge and the newer Sundial Bridge in Redding.

And we have our cathedrals. I don’t mean buildings like Grace Cathedral on Nob Hill or the new Church of the Angels in Los Angeles, a church that only some of the people who see it agree that it is worthy of the name cathedral. Visible from far away, our cathedrals are practical monuments to industry that rise above the flatness of the Great Central Valley. Perhaps it is only because I am in love with the land and with driving or riding or walking across it that I can thrill at the sight of the massive grain elevators that cluster and rise above sunflower fields and rice paddies. When I was a boy, I stared in wonder at the nut and rice storage silos that dwarf homes and businesses in places like Dixon, Sutter, Colusa, Knight’s Landing, and Robbins; and now that I am an old man, I find them just as wondrous. Like cathedrals and castles they seem eternal.

Farm roads and railroad tracks intersect connecting vineyards, orchards, villages, and cities, most of which would be forgettable if it were not for the water towers and storage silos rising above them. The storage silos on the banks of the San Joaquin River in Stockton, for instance, are more memorable than any of the puny city buildings across the bridge even though I know what goes on in the banks and shops in town. I feel mysteriously connected to the gargantuan structures by the docks which remind me that I have needs which could never be satisfied in a shopping mall.