Wednesday, March 30, 2005

The Question

My question a couple of weeks back received six responses. Only one opted for A. Oddly, (fittingly?), it was from the person who unknowingly years ago started me thinking about the question in the first place.

In the early 90's I was asked what college course of study I wanted for my daughter. This was when emerging computer driven, high-technology (pre-internet I might add) was rapidly changing practically every business and occupation. This was causing many to question the value of the traditional liberal arts education. The future was going to reward specialized, technically savvy individuals. So those with a crystal ball were advising young people to take math and the sciences, become technicians, programmers, and engineers, not dead-end graduates in the humanities.

At the time I was responsible for training in a large, ultra-modern manufacturing facility. I was seeing first hand the need for greater technical skills for even the most entry level factory worker. I watched office functions wired together for the first time in local area networks. Learning the latest software became the key to success for "white collar" workers and entry-level managers. Those who could not make a database sing or express themselves with a fancy Lotus spreadsheet were doomed.

So when the question came up - I can't remember the exact circumstances - I was a little surprised at my response. I said that I wanted my daughter to be able to understand the natural and man-made world around her, to understand herself and others, love the process of learning, and, most practically, develop the skills to convince others to take a particular course of action. I reasoned that no matter what specialized knowledge one might have, high-tech or not, without the ability to change the behavior of others - to "make the sale" - even the most profound knowledge, best ideas or most brilliant insights have little value. As we moved deep into a "service" economy within the "information age" it seemed to me those who were good at manipulating others were more likely to be successful than those who could just manipulate data with the latest digital device.

Time passed. My daughter indeed found herself a good liberal arts college. She majored in French, met all sorts of people, traveled abroad, and graduated - pretty much the full package. Good fortune then placed her in a very small law office doing everything from watering the plants, writing legal documents, to appearing before a judge on behalf of the boss and their clients. With no formal legal training, it was OJT without a net. She didn't fall. I doubt she even looked down. A second job in another law office gave her a chance to expand her skills working with clients and their adversaries. Today she teaches middle school students, maybe outside of a used car salesman the most manipulative profession of all. Tomorrow, who knows?

Now back to the question and the two choices. Yes, imbedded none too deeply in the choices is the looking-at yourself-in-the-morning-mirror issue of who really benefits from those well-developed manipulation skills. Is it the manipulator, the manipulator's employer, or those who have changed their behavior? Ideally, of course, one gets to convince others of the truth, at least as it is best understood. Then all benefit - a win-win. But those same convincing skills can be used successfully to sell a lie, to get people to act in ways good for others rather than themselves. You don't have to look far for examples. Within this win-lose situation we still have winners, at least in the short term.

Am I suggesting that my daughter learned her liberal arts lessons too well? After all she wrote that she would rather be successful in convincing someone of a falsehood than a failure at convincing someone of the truth. Not really. Remember the other things I wanted her to leave college with? Contained within those are the values, knowledge and skills that should moderate any tendency to misuse her considerable and growing powers of persuasion. Such is my trust of the full liberal arts package. She could have learned many of those same persuasion skills in a business program. Ugh!

Maybe the most complete response that would have been closest to my own came via email.
I think that success or lack thereof is tied to human ego (though I'm quite a fan of it myself, being a human with an ego), & as such the higher, grander thing is to be honest to truth, regardless of fulfillment of ego.
Being "honest to truth" is what a good liberal arts education is all about. Having the skills and opportunity to convince others of the truth - to create win-win's for all - is as good a situation as one can hope to find in our international, digital, 24/7, high-tech, brave new world marketplace.

Thursday, March 24, 2005

Road Trip Report

My visit to Richmond went well. In the Library of Virginia I found just about all the information I was looking for, and stumbled across more that I did not expect. The Virginia women's history conference was wonderful. It was energizing to see and hear these professional historians who were so passionate and thoughtful about their work.

I also had a chance to have dinner Saturday night with a couple of wonderful friends I miss so much. It really did not seem like all those years had passed. Sunday I visited the old family homeplace on the banks of the Pamunkey River and my cousin, its current mistress. I had not been inside the building in almost 50 years. Some of my earliest memories of family holidays have me running its stairs, playing with my cousins under the porch, and annoying the grownups. Now I am one of the grownups. Conflicting emotions were noted.

My sister served a gracious hostess, feeding me, letting me sleep as late as I dared, and even taking me Friday night to hear the Richmond Symphony which was performing nearby with the Richmond Symphony Chorus. The venue was a large Baptist church, nice but carefully not too nice; they are Baptists after all. Fitting the surroundings the program was mostly sacred German choral music, with a Mozart symphony as balance.

I was once again reminded that whatever your musical taste, live music can take you places recorded music cannot. Turning off that MTV, unplugging that iPod, and finding some live music is like visiting again with old friends and revisiting childhood memories, real almost beyond words.

Saturday, March 19, 2005

To Beslan, With Love

bildeThe TV cameras are mostly gone now; the short attention span of the world is directed elsewhere. Local School # 1 in Beslan, southern Russia, stands torn and silent, a memorial to the terrorist attack last year. In the midst of the wreaths, stuffed animals, and wilting flowers that have joined the rubble is a poster from 7th graders at a middle school in western North Carolina. “You are not alone,” it reads. “Your loved ones will not be forgotten.” The message from my daughter's students sits among the debris of tragedy, doing what it can to help the survivors make it through another day.

Early last September the world watched in horror at a terriorist act aimed at children. More than 1,300 hostages were taken at during their traditional “Welcome to School” ceremony. Hundreds of young children spent over two days without water and food in an overcrowded hot gymnasium, wired with explosives. They witnessed the beatings and murders of family members, friends and teachers. After one of many bombs surrounding the hostages detonated, a series of explosions and a firefight followed. Fire and the collapse of the roof completed the devastation. After the smoke cleared three days later 344 were dead, mostly children, with an equal number wounded, many severely. These are the official numbers, the actual number may be much higher.bilde-1

My daughter, who had only a few days earlier begun teaching students of the same age as those killed, was outraged, hurt, and determined to do something positive. She quickly found someone to make the poster and someone who could write a message in Russian. Her students completed the poster with their best wishes and signatures. Finally she found someone who might be able to deliver it.

This month the Ashville Citizen-Times published two followup stories, March 6th and March 13th. In the photo gallery of the second article were photos taken by Constance Richards of the poster.

I suppose this is why we have French majors. Non?

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

National Women's History Month

anniv-logoThis month is the 25th Anniversary of the first National Women's History Month. I am doing my part this weekend by attending the Virginia Women Through Four Centuries: A Women’s History Symposium sponsored by the Library of Virginia in Richmond.

As some of you know, I have gotten it into my head that I should write a history of my family and Pamunkey Neck, the area of Virginia where they have resided for about 300 years. Among the difficulties I have faced is the relative lack of information about the women in my family, the males so dominating written records. So I am hoping to better learn about not only the lives they must have lived, but also how to include my female ancestors in my history.

I will get a chance to again see Linda Sturtz, history professor at Beloit College. She, and her book Within Her Power – Propertied Women in Colonial Virginia (2002), was most helpful as I began my research. She is on one of the panels.

I also will do some more research in the Library, see some family members and old friends, and do some shopping. We are out of ink in both printers and almost out of toilet paper, again.

Thursday, March 10, 2005

And the Winner is....

heating_cooling_gas_electric_48XP_sFor those of you who keep up with this blog, you will remember that about 6 weeks ago our heating system, an old oil burning Williamson unit, gave out. Since then we have been in negotiations with our insurance company, the local natural gas company, and several HVAC contractors to determine what will come next.

We were able to secure a service agreement with the natural gas company which narrowed down our heating choices. Lucky for us our small community has three local multigenerational, family-owned HVAC companies. In a small community like ours contractors that develop a bad reputation soon must get their jobs elsewhere. Each company sold a reliable product and the prices were very close. As we were also replacing our 23 year old AC system, this became an expensive and important decision. I liked all three companies, but finally chose to install the Carrier unit you see. We should see about a 40% reduction in heating and cooling costs.

Work begins in about 10 days. By then most of the heating season will be behind us, we hope.

Wednesday, March 09, 2005

A Question

I have a question for you. If you HAD to choose, would you rather

A) be successful in convincing someone of a falsehood, or
B) be unsuccessful in convincing someone of the truth?

I'll hang up and take my answers in the comments section below.

Wednesday, March 02, 2005

Informed Comment

As the Vietnam War was winding down I read Fire in the Lake by Frances FitzGerald. After reading the 1972 Pulitizer Prize winning book I thought if the real story of Vietnam and its people had been known by our politicians and their advisors, the war need not have happened. We were constantly mislead by people who did not know what they were talking about. Then, as it started to fall apart, we were lied to by our leaders. For the most part Americans swallowed it whole. Of course after then reading David Halberstam's The Best and the Brightest, I was less sure that reality mattered at all. That brings me to Juan Cole and his blog, Informed Comment.

Like FitzGerald and Halberstam, Mr. Cole has drawn the ire of the political right wing, the guys now in power. Cole has serious questions about the wisdom of our military involvement in Iraq, as did FitzGerald and Halberstam about Vietnam. As a professor, author, and Middle East expert, Cole is "reality-based" which would quickly put him at odds who those now overseeing our foreign policy and their media shills. His recent exchange with Jonah Goldberg would be funny of it were not so serious.

Professor Cole does have a considerable amount of knowledge about the Middle East which he shares on his blog. His recent short history of Lebanon is a good example. Unlike Mr. Goldberg, he does not believe it is wise that ideology and resulting judgments about that part of the world should precede knowledge. And he does not suffer fools gladly.

If you would like to learn more about the Middle East I recommend Informed Comment. If you think that to question American foreign policy at this time is disloyal and makes you a bad person, I suggest you stay away. You might learn more than you want to know.

Tuesday, March 01, 2005

Sitting on My Front Porch, Part Two

ParkFromPorchWinterIn December I posted a photo taken in the summer of the park across the street from our house. Here is what that same view is today. The temperature is about 44 degrees.

This is for my friends in Wisconsin who may not think we have seasons in southeastern North Carolina. We do, sort of.