Taking Away Your (Library) Card

The City of  Columbus and Lowdnes County have been engaged in an open war for about a year. They’ve squabbled over the language of the restaurant tax, which resulted in significant reduction in the amount of money allocated to the Columbus Visitor’s Bureau. Then they argued over who should pay for the maintenance of the soccer fields, which the county recently agreed to manage. Next, they fought over whether or not the language of tax agreements would reduce the millage devoted to Columbus Public Schools. Now, they’re bickering over whether or not the city is footing its fair share of costs associated with running the library.

In short, you could argue that county leaders believe that the people running the city are guilty of mis-, mal-, or nonfeasance, or that they’re generally incapable, or both. Or you could argue that people in the county merely want their money to be spent in the county. Regardless, the conflicts hurt area residents where they will feel it most painfully and for the longest amount of time: the institutions dedicated to educating and improving the lives of young people.

If people in the county want continued growth and development in the county to continue, starving the city for tax revenues is hardly the wisest policy to pursue in the long term. Conversely, the city needs to be more transparent regarding the wisdom of its stewardship. Both parties are to blame. As with any divorce, the children will suffer the most.

Posted in Books, Education | 7 Comments

Numbers Game

Of the eight million student athletes who play high school sports, about 480,000 will compete in college–a whopping six percent. An even tinier portion of those student athletes will compete in a sport professionally.

Parents go nuts at youth sporting events. They’ll drive their kids six hours for a tournament, spending money at restaurants and hotels along the way, but won’t get out the checkbooks for piano lessons or trips to the museum. Our newspapers frequently dedicate a third of their copy space to sports coverage. Do sports make us happy? Better people? Healthier? Explain the fascination.

Posted in Education, Sports | 18 Comments

Institutions and Success

Stirring the Pot

Towards the end of Hillbilly Elegy, J.D. Vance writes that “We can build policies based on a better understanding of what stands in the way of kids like me. The most important lesson of my life is not that society failed to provide me with opportunities. . . .  [Social welfare programs] are far from perfect, but to the degree that I nearly succumbed to my worst decisions (and I came quite close), the fault lies almost entirely with factors outside the government’s control.”

So that those who haven’t read the book yet will know, Vance grew up primarily under his grandparents’ care because his mother, for large portions of her life, was an unemployable addict. Without Social Security and other government programs, Vance’s hard life would have been much worse.

I’m curious, then: what kind of investment should governments make in the education and well-being of its children, especially those who are poor? If somebody like Vance concludes that personal choices dictate levels of success, then how should we prioritize government spending on educational and health institutions? Vance’s descriptions of his journey to success are compelling, so I am curious about your reactions to the conclusions he draws about government policies.

Posted in Education | 14 Comments

Honey and Vinegar

A dozen years ago, I signed my oldest child up for rec soccer. I also volunteered to coach, and I was stunned to find out that the league required no training for referees, and that it required teams to have offensive players and defensive players. It wasn’t soccer. It was a strange form of kickball. I let the parks and rec people know how wrong they were, sent them examples of other rec leagues’ rules, and suggested we make changes to keep up with them.

In short, I was right.

But I was also insufferable. I managed to alienate an unfortunate number of people who might have been amenable to a better way of doing things if I had remembered that it is never enough to be right. If you can’t convince other people you’re right, you might as well be wrong.

I overheard a conversation in the hallway today in which a conservative student expressed frustration with being mocked for supporting Pres. Trump.

I’m sorry to hear that. It’s one thing to take a classmate to task in a policy debate. It’s another to berate her for being conservative.

Many of those who protest the President’s words and policies are well meaning. They can point to his lapses in judgment, his Supreme Court nominations, his dismantling of the EPA, his potentially treasonous dealings with Russians, his naive dealings with dictators, his inability to appreciate differences in time zones–the list of reasons to be frustrated with Trump is so long that Stephen Colbert will never need to fear unemployment. Those who support the President have just as easy a time ridiculing the left. Consider the idiocracy at Reed College, pampered students who demand trigger warnings, the demonstrable growth in the economy despite the left’s doomsday predictions.

I’m giving you straw men here, of course. My point is this: the left and the right currently talk at each other, rather than with each other. It may feel good to describe the President (or Bernie Sanders) as a mouth-breathing idiot. However, such language only divides groups farther. Effective communication, in most circumstances, should bring us together. (There are historical examples of absolutes being the best way to proceed. I argue they are the exceptions rather than the rule.)

Politics is defined as the art of compromise–which means that each side has to find something to give, and something to give up, when crafting a vision of the future. Those who enter into political discussions should consider what they’re willing to give up before they open their mouths. Otherwise there can be no progress.

Posted in Pop Culture | 25 Comments

Welcome to the blog

(Now here are the rules)

Welcome to the 2018-19 edition of the blog. Before we get started in earnest, let’s go over the ground rules.

Students may earn up to one-third of the total number of quiz points per quarter by participating in the blog. They may not blog more than twice during the last week of the quarter.

Participants must have an MSMS email address. There will be a brief lag between the first post and its appearance, as I will have to approve new users.

Some topics will generate conflict. Disagree civilly. No ad hominems will be allowed. Provide links with evidence or analysis if you’d like to bolster your argument.

Finally, if there are topics you’d like to introduce to the blog, shoot me an email.

Posted in Education | Leave a comment

Eternal Optimism

My friends Deb and Jim Fallows have a new book coming out tomorrow: Our Towns: A 100,000 Mile Journey into the Heart of America looks at cities around the country that have rebounded after devastating plant closings and the like. They came to Columbus a few years ago and have dedicated a section of the book to the Golden Triangle. One of the things they have noticed here, and in other cities that try to recover from setbacks, is the way that good leaders find new ways to look at old places.

What do you see in Mississippi that can be re-purposed? Something old that most others would reject, but that could be the foundation for something innovative and wonderful?

Posted in National Politics, Pop Culture | 6 Comments

And now for something completely different. . .

A student request:

I was wondering if you could make a blog post about how Kanye West lost all of his followers (around 9.2 million) in a matter of minutes due to the fact he posted a picture in a “Make America Great Again” hat to support Donald Trump.

And to add: people have started a viral hashtag called #ifslaverywasachoice due to Kanye’s comment on slavery … “400 years of slavery was a choice.”

I am not a Kanye expert, so I will defer to the experts who populate the classrooms. . . .


Edit: Here’s a column from a Kanye expert, in case you’re interested.

Posted in Politics, Pop Culture | 19 Comments

Nanny State (University)?

From the headlines of today’s Clarion-Ledger: Ole Miss is being sued for suspending a male student for having sex while under the influence of alcohol. His partner was not suspended. One could argue that universities have a vested interest in making sure that students behave appropriately while on campus. However, if the reported tryst took place off campus, and affirmative (though perhaps alcohol-impaired) consent was established, did the university exceed its authority in suspending the male student? Should the female have been suspended, too?

Perhaps more important, at what point do the intimate relationships between students become the business of universities?

Posted in Education, Gender Issues | 31 Comments

Weather Wimps and the ACT

Some people take to standardized tests like ducks take to water. They view such tests as a high-stakes form of entertainment, or as a validation of years’ worth of academic preparation. I was one of those people.

My oldest son is not.

For the last month-and-a-half, we have gotten up at 5:45 a.m. four days a week to sneak in some confidence-building test prep for today’s ACT. Today’s test was supposed to be the culmination of even more work  than that–two sessions with a fairly expensive tutor, Saturdays spent taking practice tests, extra visits to a math teacher.

Then the tornado sirens wailed, and the test takers had to go into the hallway to wait for the all clear. And wait. And wait. Calls were made, and the word came from on high that the test takers had the option of cancelling scores and getting to take the test again at a later date, or processing the scores but getting zeroes on the incomplete sections.

Sticking around to complete the exam was not an option. Test takers and their parents were expected to shrug benignly and say, “It is what it is.”

So here’s what I have to say to the higher-ups at the ACT. If you don’t trust the people you hired to proctor the test in situations like these without compromising test security, then you ought to re-examine your hiring practices. But you’d be silly to do that here. My MSMS colleagues who administer the test are absolutely above reproach. Hooper Science Building was as secure a location as one could have outside of Fort Knox. There were no cell phones out. There were enough adults there to prevent table talk. Concerns over test security were ludicrous. I can only conclude that we’ve been forced to live by a protocol that applies to other places. Round hole, meet square peg.

As for weather alarmists everywhere: a heavy thunderstorm came through the Golden Triangle of Mississippi. Big. Fat. Hairy. Deal. I’ve watched my kids play soccer in weather as bad as what came through our corner of Columbus. If my kids can do that outside, then it’s surely safe to take the ACT inside.

I’m not talking about ignoring a Category 5 hurricane bearing down on the coast. I’m not talking about mowing the grass with a tornado whirling in plain sight three miles away. I’m talking about taking a test inside while there’s thunder and lightning outside.

I’m also talking about a three-week period in the not-so-distant future where my son and I will be up very early four days a week to prepare once again for a test that he hates.

Posted in Education | 20 Comments

On Gerrymandering

I live in Mississippi House District 37, which stretches from the eastern border of Lowndes County, through a corridor in West Point so narrow that my son could throw a baseball from one side to the next, and on into West Oktibbeha. The representative himself lives in New Hope. He sells insurance there, and works very hard to make sure that the lives of the people who live and work in New Hope get all the advantages from his legislative work that they can.

But I live in Clay County. The work that representative does barely touches me, when it touches me at all. I assume the same is true of those who live in West Oktibbeha. So why is he my representative?

After the most recent census, Mississippi Republicans re-drew districts in such a way that most incumbents were protected, and those who weren’t were Democrats. To be fair, Republicans did this because they had for years been on the other end of that stick–Democrats were just as bad about this process, which is known as gerrymandering, as Republicans are now. Politicians also can draw district lines without fear of judicial consequences. The Supreme Court does not usually get involved in gerrymandering cases. As long as districts have roughly the same number of constituents, the court looks the other way–with one exception: when minorities cannot win a proportionate share of representation. In Mississippi, what that has meant is that legislative districts get drawn by race and then geography.

One could argue that gerrymandering works well for Mississippi. We do, after all, have the highest proportion of African-American representation of any state legislature.

At the risk of sounding perverse, though, let’s consider the possibility that we are better served by legislators when districts have more geographical integrity. With whom do I have more in common: a politician who lives 20 miles away, or a politician who lives in my own county? Regardless of race, gender, or party affiliation, will representatives be more likely to find common ground with me if I actually see them more often?

Posted in Politics, Race in Mississippi | 12 Comments