I Wish This Were Sci-Fi

Regardless of whether you believe climate change is natural or caused by humans, it appears that a new, worldwide health crisis looms: as layers of permafrost get warmer, microbes that had been trapped in twenty-degree chunks of earth and water may come oozing to the surface. Already, a peculiar ear infection that eats holes through the eardrums of its hosts has struck children in a specific part of Greenland. One scientist, Jean-Michel Claverie, fears even more insidious possibilities, according to a recent piece in theatlantic.com: “‘No one really understands why Neanderthals went extinct,’ Claverie said. Sometimes, he catches himself when talking about these possible permafrost-locked diseases—they may have threatened humans or human relatives in the past, he’ll say. Then, he’ll change tense, emphasizing that they could do so again.”

In a way, then, it doesn’t matter where we lay the blame for climate change. What matters is having the political fortitude to try to do something about it.

Posted in National Politics, Science | 19 Comments

Making the Grade

While perusing the Mississippi Department of Education’s budget presentation for the 2019 Fiscal Year, I noticed several items that will make citizens proud. Our graduation rate has never been higher, and statewide assessments indicate two consecutive years of better scores. Yet we must acknowledge that our state’s school systems still face significant challenges. Mississippi’s eleventh graders averaged a meager 18 composite on the ACT, and we have far too many districts that do not prepare their students for success in college, or equip them with the skills needed to work immediately after high school. (I’m also somewhat disheartened that the document lists full MAEP formula funding as a legislative goal. I’d love for that to happen, obviously, but it’s simply not a political reality, and putting it in the presentation highlights the disconnect between MDE and the legislature.)

Clearly, your adult leaders could serve you more capably. I’d like to invite you to consider Mississippi’s problems with education as legislators prepare for the opening of the next session. After all, you’ve seen those systems from the inside out. How do we fix broken school systems? How should we deal with districts that repeatedly underserve their students? What do we want schools to teach students?

Posted in Education, Politics | 19 Comments

Pop the Bubble

As most of you know, I am a recovering journalist who deeply appreciates the old adage that if you’re not rocking the boat, you’re not doing your job. When journalists don’t ask difficult questions, they don’t just fail their readers, they fail democracy.

This philosophy also informs the way I teach. Although I insist on civil discussions, I assign material that can confront pleasant sensibilities. The classroom can be an ideal place to learn how to disagree with peers and authority figures in a respectful manner–which is why the Biloxi School District’s decision to pull To Kill A Mockingbird from its middle school curriculum perplexes me. Does the district bubble wrap students during recess? Are they afraid that being challenged is the same thing as being scorned? Do they give high school diplomas, or school participation trophies? Without learning how to confront adversaries in a civil manner–that is, without learning to behave as Atticus Finch behaves–no education is complete.

Harper Lee’s book, of course, is racially charged.

So is everything else in Mississippi.

Discussing either the novel or the state’s affairs requires all sorts of discretion and empathy, which are skills that good teachers model, and that good school districts encourage.

Update: The school district reversed itself and decided to include To Kill a Mockingbird in its curriculum. Good for them.

Posted in Books, Education, Race in Mississippi | 23 Comments

“Borrowing” a Few Moments of Somebody Else’s Time

Help me understand. How can people who have cell phones that cost hundreds of dollars claim that they’re too broke to pay for the films they watch on those devices? How can people at any level of income justify watching pirated material?

My friend Michael Williams, an independent filmmaker based in Mississippi, is watching sales of his work suffer because pirates have put it on streaming sites. Michael is young, talented, and infectiously creative. Why is the electronic world so ambivalent about his well-being?

Posted in Arts, Pop Culture | 24 Comments

When Will the Pendulum Swing to the Middle?

I’ve been trying to make sense of Roy Moore’s victory in the Republican primary for the U.S. Senate seat vacated by Jeff Sessions. Moore, in case you didn’t know, is a former Alabama judge who was censured for having a display of the ten commandments in his courtroom. He also believes that homosexuality should be illegal, that Muslims should not be allowed to hold public office, and the September 11 attacks were God’s punishment for an America that has strayed too far from a righteous path.

What do voters find appealing about such ideas? Nobody can articulate it. A Republican strategist claims that “the activist, angry wing of the GOP … doesn’t care about progress or making America great again. It lives and breathes on anger and resentment. That’s a difficult movement to direct and control.” If that’s accurate, the long-term consequences for the two-party system–and for the tax code, the entitlement system, health care, and the national defense–will be life changing.

With the pending announcement of Mississippi’s Chris McDaniels to run for statewide or national office, understanding how Moore won the primary is paramount.

Posted in National Politics | 14 Comments

The A Words

Just curious: should we consider appropriation and assimilation dirty words? Could we make just as compelling a case that they constitute forms of flattery?

Posted in Pop Culture, Race in Mississippi | 33 Comments

Why Go to College?

As deadlines for early admission programs approach, it may be worth it to ask yourselves what you want from college. A massive amount of data shows that people with degrees out earn those without them. In that sense, going to college seems to be a sound investment. (I must add, though, that my father is a financial planner, and works every day with people who operate forklifts or work on plumbing who will retire long before I do.)

James Fallows has written about the ageless conundrums faced by college students–and the parents who bankroll them–for decades. He’s posting a series of responses to questions about the value of college on his blog. The difficulty lies in balancing the cost of the education you want against the prospect of future earnings. That’s why graduates in medical fields rack up more college debt than anyone else–they can be assured they’ll get a good return on their investment.

And beyond the issue of cost, you have the issue of pragmatism: is a degree merely a credential–a precursor for some entry level job–or should it reflect a specialized interest of ability, or both? I suspect that all these questions have answers that shift like sandbars. However, since y’all are about to take those courses, and accumulate those debts, it would be wise to contemplate your responses to them.

Posted in Education | 26 Comments

Why Binge?

Over the last year, I’ve watched Ozark, The Man in the Green Castle, Bosch, Dear White People, The Keepers–just to name a few. My viewing involves a modicum of guilt. I’m enjoying myself, but I occasionally find myself watching for the purpose of seeing a season through, rather than for the esthetic pleasure of seeing a great story unfold before my eyes, or for great cinematography, or unbelievable acting. I’ve become more adept at finding plot points that will carry over from one episode to the next.

But I worry that my viewing encourages bad behavior–not on my part, of course, but on the part of studios that no longer feel the need to make taut, well-crafted stories. I haven’t seen a series (or an “original,” as they’re being called now) that wouldn’t make for a better movie. Why spend 12 hours watching something that should be boiled down to 90 minutes? What am I getting from spending the additional time? I’d like to say that the depth of characterization has improved, but I don’t think that’s the case. Is the the future of entertainment?

Posted in Pop Culture | 28 Comments

The Sun Sets on DACA

Donald Trump won the presidency at least in part because he insisted on the need for immigration reform. His efforts to build a wall traversing our border with Mexico have stalled. However, he has recently signed an executive order rescinding the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. DACA allowed people who were brought illegally by their parents to stay, provided that they met certain criteria. Is Trump’s new initiative sound? What might his plans reveal about the efficiency of ruling via executive order?

Posted in National Politics | 22 Comments

A Quick Correction Regarding Our System

In an interview with a radio host this morning, Gov. Phil Bryant responded to a question about legislation to change the state flag by saying that the issue ought to be put before the people because we live in a “direct democracy.”

Actually, we don’t.

We live in a representative democracy. That was the intent of the framers from the get go, as we will see when we turn to Federalist Paper #10 next month.

Gov. Bryant’s comments result from his broader irritation with the media. He also said in the interview that he couldn’t talk about anything that’s doing well in Mississippi without being asked questions about “flags and statues,” which he found “frustrating” because such questions make it harder to put the state in the best possible light.

The interview raised a couple of interesting questions. First, should we trust voters to make the best decisions about sensitive issues? If not, where should we turn? Why would leaders want referendums on such issues? Second, is it the right time for Mississippi to worry about rehabilitating its image, or are there other issues to address?

Posted in Politics, Race in Mississippi | 22 Comments