Thursday, October 21, 2010

Parents must support education

From the 25 October 2010 Greater Niagara Newspapers

By Bob Confer

California’s Pleasanton Unified School District conducted a survey last year that found 72 percent of parents in the 17,000-pupil district either seldom or never helped their children with homework. The students who responded to the same survey put the lack of parental participation even higher, at 81 percent.

This situation is not unique to Pleasanton. A few years ago Microsoft ran a study that showed similarly unpleasant attention to school work across the United States. According to their survey, 51 percent of parents claim homework is a source of tension in their household. Other studies estimate that slightly more than half of all parents help with studies.

These numbers are all over the place, but they still say the same thing: A majority of parents aren’t regularly involved with their children’s educations.

Contrast that with the number of parents who support extra-curricular activities. According to Families Worldwide 83 percent of kids ages 6 to 17 participate in at least one regularly scheduled sport, lesson or club. A survey of 50,000 Minnesota students done earlier this century produced nearly-identical results, 80.9 percent for boys and 87.4 percent for girls.

That begs the question: If parents are dedicated enough to devote time and energy to their sons’ and daughters’ sporting events, dance recitals and concerts, then why can they not find the time to help them with their scholastic pursuits, which should be paramount in their young lives?

Could it be that they don’t have the time? That’s the most common complaint heard from parents, even though the average worker in America spent 38.1 hours on the job last year, which was down from 39 before the recession started and below the 40 hour average that was the norm in the late 1960s. Today’s parents are no busier than their parents, let alone their grandparents and great grandparents who lived in a more agrarian society where farming was a demanding lifestyle, not just a job, and technological advances (like washing machines, microwaves and ready-to-eat foods) were nowhere to be found. If hours worked have continued to drop and modern amenities have made the tasks of life so much easier, where did all the time go?

It comes down to priorities. If the average American can, after pushing their kids through after-school activities, somehow find the time to watch 4 hours of TV a day (according to Nielsen), he or she can certainly find the time - even one hour a day - to help the kids with math or science, which are among our worst subjects. Our nation is ranked 25th and 21st in those studies respectively.

Today’s parents don’t see it that way. Whereas the first of the baby boomers and their parents emphasized the importance of education and held their children to high expectations (a result of the lingering taste of the Great Depression and first generation American struggles), Generations X has, until this Recession, seen nothing but prosperity and ongoing change throughout their lives, which kind of taints the prospects for pushing oneself and one’s offspring to be better by masking the reasons to do so. With America so readily meeting and exceeding its potential in recent decades, inane personal, leisure and material pursuits have taken much of our adults’ attention. Because of that, the little things (like education, which should definitely not be considered a “little thing”) get lost in the shuffle, just like our continued prosperity will.

This has occurred at the same time local control - and therefore local interest – in education has been taken from us. With the Department of Education coming to be in the 70s and bringing with it greater federal oversight over the day-to-day operations of our schools (standardized testing, funding, No Child Left Behind, etc.) many people wrongly assume young minds are in capable hands and are solely the responsibility of the schools. This was never the case and now, more than ever, it cannot be. Many teachers are overwhelmed by and ill equipped to deal with onerous federal and state standards (which don’t have the best interest of the students in mind), thus making kids who are the same.

It takes a team effort – a village, as Hillary Clinton once said - to raise a child. Teachers, administrators and, above all, parents need to take the appropriate measures to give students the very best education they can get. Remember, children mimic the example set by adults: If they don’t care about schooling, neither will the kids.

Friday, October 15, 2010

The President divides a nation

From the 18 October 2010 Greater Niagara Newspapers

By Bob Confer

President Obama has been on the road a lot over the past few weeks. He’s not out and about trying to reassure Americans about the future of our economy. Nor is he trying to calm our nation’s concerns over the ongoing Afghan occupation or the terror thereat that has enveloped Europe. Instead, he’s stumping for his Democratic brethren, trying to drum up support – financially and in the voting booth – for their efforts to keep control of the House and Senate in the November elections. He has been a cash cow, raking in millions for the Democrats.

Doing so while in office is not new to the presidency. Take our previous president for example: In just one 2006 fundraising event alone George W Bush brought in $23 million for the GOP. Millions more were had from his cross-country road trips. Many presidents of the past have campaigned for their party and it has been almost routine since the 1800s when presidents slowly devolved from being true statesmen to political operatives.

But, as the old adage goes, two wrongs do not make a right. From a purely philosophical standpoint, sitting presidents should not campaign for their parties.

The President of the United States is a unique position in federal rule. Like the role of governor at the state level, he is not supposed to, like a legislator would, represent a defined, ideologically-limited and geographically-limited constituency. As an executive his sphere of influence is larger and his constituency is all-inclusive. Whereas governors need to look out for the best interests of all residents of their state, the president is supposed to be concerned with the best interests of all Americans. The president is supposed to bridge the gap between a divided America. He is not to be a bridge burner who divides us even more.

In his struggles to save his party, Obama has done the latter like others before him. Not a day goes by that there isn’t a newsy sound bite where he derides the intelligence and ideals of the Republicans, blaming them for all that ails us. His tone is typically nasty, divisive and arrogant. His predecessor used a different style, combining humor with a matter-of-fact indifference, bordering on total ignorance, to opposing views.

When our de facto leader so openly and aggressively discounts the validity and beliefs of the opposing party he is in essence doing the same for half of the nation. Depending on what polls one looks at, our nation is almost equally split between the Right and Left, so the partisan bickering and name calling of one who should be above such a fray puts millions of Americans in the crosshairs. How can one respect a president when he himself does not respect his people?

Presidents should be held to a higher standard. The executive branch should be leading by example as it once did. Think back to some of the darkest days of our history. Amidst world wars and civil wars and depressions and economic slowdowns, previous generations could count on the president to be a calming force who gave Americans hope and looked past differences to orchestrate a combined effort by all parties and all people to affect positive change that took into consideration the wants and needs of all citizens.

Things are so markedly different nowadays. Even though we are in some dark times – this young century has been fraught with terror attacks, wars, and economic crises – our two leaders chose to divide us rather than bring us together to overcome a shared adversity. More so than most men before them, Bush and Obama are guilty of fracturing a nation. You cannot find two successive presidencies as hotly controversial and stubbornly partisan as theirs. Such behavior from the top is not healthy for America: Sadly, it too often seems we are only the “States of America”…the “United” bit was thrown out long ago.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Government to guess your next move

From the 11 October 2010 Greater Niagara Newspapers

By Bob Confer

There’s no doubt that many times over the past 10 years you’ve complained at length about President Bush or President Obama. With all the chaos taking place in our lives (wars, economic crises, etc.) there are plenty of things to gripe about regarding their job performance.

If you’re a reasonable human being you probably didn’t wish them dead or severely injured by an assassin’s bullet.

At least that’s what you think.

The government, on the other hand, doesn’t think you think what you thought.

In something that seems straight out of a science fiction movie set in some oppressive futuristic landscape, the government is getting closer to utilizing technology that will analyze your thoughts and actions, guess your next move, label you as a threat for it and ultimately ensure prosecution, whether you deserve it or not.

That’s what’s in the works at the Mind Machine Project at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Scientists there have developed a computer program that will scan phone calls for perceived threats by tracking resentment in voice and the talkers’ affixation on certain topics. It will do the same with emails, noting similar behaviors that could, in their eyes, put government officials or the public in danger. According to MIT scientists, the system is being built to analyze 100,000 conversations per hour.

A computer of such magnitude (one of many) isn’t being made to look over correspondence collected from a handful of suspected terrorists. No, the goal that is being strived-for will allow Big Brother to look through endless reams of data, including the emails and phone calls that you - as a law-abiding citizen - share on a daily basis.

It’s bad enough that such technology will require expansion of the Patriot Act and the further destruction of our Fourth Amendment rights all in the name of national security. This technology will take it one step further and put words in your mouth and make assumptions about your motives for criticizing those in power.

Think about how often you’ve had phone conversations in which you’ve complained about the Obama Administration’s poor efforts in jump-starting the economy. Think about how many emails you’ve sent chastising the Bush Administration. Think about how many columns I’ve written about the federal government’s misguided ways. In all such cases, we’re creating extensive portfolios about ourselves, the trends of which show that we have a fascination with a certain subject, one that would be deemed uncomfortable and inherently evil by the Mind Machine and those who use it.

It’s not a stretch to think it will be used in such a manner. As a matter of fact, there’s plenty of proof that it will be.

A couple of weeks ago Hilbert College held their First Responder – Military Symposium at which one of MIT’s professors, Mathieu Guidere, spoke at length about the Mind Machine Project and how it will be used to ascertain potential threats against the President’s life or determine if someone possesses the same obsessive traits that lone bombers do.

This is old hat to Guidere and the federal and local agencies that fawn over him. He was instrumental in the development of the Radicalization Watch Project which also used behavioral analysis to stereotype government critics as radicals and he was a keynote speaker at a component of the International Law Enforcement Symposium held in Florida this part February that focused on post-deployment soldiers as a threat to law enforcement. Under both circumstances, those with patriotic tendencies (be they individuals who are concerned about our country’s future or fought for our country’s future) are perceived to be dangerous to society, just like they are in a variety of state and federal documents such as those produced by MIAC, a derivative of Homeland Security (refer to “Bob Confer: Terrorist”, published here in April 2009).

Information is deadly in the hands of a government that thinks that way. Because of that, someday soon - maybe even now – it won’t be safe to talk with your friends or share emails with them unless you’re all about rainbows and butterflies. It’s scary to think we can’t say one bit of negativity about the ruling class without a computer assuming we’re criminals. Whatever happened to the freedoms of speech, privacy and thought?