They Can’t Listen

Some of the complaints that the older generation has about the younger generation have been voiced almost as far back as there has been a way of recording those complaints, and they’re all familiar enough. They young don’t respect their elders; they don’t listen to their elders; they have no respect for tradition; they think they deserve something without really working for it, etc., etc. And, frankly, there’s some validity to those complaints today, and there always has been. That’s the nature of youth, to be headstrong, self-centered, and impatient with anything that hampers what they want.

But being adjacent, shall we say, to a university, I’m hearing what seems to be a variation on an old complaint, except it’s really not a variation, but a very troubling concern. What I’m hearing from a significant number of professors is that a growing percentage of their students can’t listen. They’re totally unable to maintain any focus on anything, often even visual presentations, for more than a few seconds – even when they seem to be trying. When they’re asked what they heard or saw, especially what they heard, they can’t recall anything in detail. We’re not talking about lack of intelligence – they do well on written multiple-guess tests – but an apparent inability to recall and process auditory input.

Unless there’s something of extraordinary interest, their attention span darts from one thing to another in a few seconds. Whether this is the result of a media driven culture, earlier teaching methods pandering to learning in sound-bites, a lack of discipline in enforcing focus, or some combination of these or other factors, I can’t say. But, whatever the reason, far too many students cannot focus on learning, especially auditory learning.

Unfortunately, the response of higher education has been to attempt to make learning “more interesting” or “more inspiring” or, the latest fad, “more experiential.” Learning through experience is an excellent means for attaining certain skills, provided the student has the background knowledge. But when a student hasn’t obtained that background knowledge, experiential learning is just meaningless and a waste of time and resources. And, generally speaking, learning has to begin with at least some listening.

Furthermore, in the “real world,” employers and bosses don’t provide “experiential learning.” They give instructions, usually vocally, and someone who can’t listen and assimilate knowledge from listening is going to have problems, possibly very large ones.

Despite all the academic rhetoric about students being unable to learn from lectures, lectures worked, if not perfectly, for most of human history. That suggests that much of the problem isn’t with the method, but with the listener. And it’s not just with professors. They can’t listen to each other, either. That’s likely why they’re always exchanging text messages. If this keeps up, I shudder to think what will happen if there’s a massive power loss, because they apparently can’t communicate except through electronic screens.

The “Federal Lands Fight”

The state legislature here in Utah has proposed setting aside $14 million for legal action against the federal government to “force” the United States to turn over all public lands to the state. This is just the latest effort in Utah to grab federal lands.

There are several aspects of this hullabaloo over federal lands that neither the legislature nor the Bundyites seem to understand… or want to. First, the Constitution vests public lands in the federal government, and numerous court cases have upheld that reading of the Constitution. Second, a 2012 study calculated that managing those lands would cost the state of Utah something like $278 million a year, and while much of that cost might be initially reclaimed by oil, gas, and coal leases, once the resources were extracted, the costs of management would remain, and the lands would have even less value. Third, if the grasslands were leased to ranchers, either the grazing fees would have to increase, since the BLM only charges about a third of what it costs the BLM for management [and one of the problems now is that the BLM doesn’t have enough money to manage the wild horse problem and a few others], or the state would have to pick up the difference, which it can’t afford.

In short, not only is what the legislature proposes illegal and unconstitutional, but the federal government is actually subsidizing the ranchers and the state of Utah, something the legislators don’t seem able to grasp.

The ranchers here in southern Utah are furious that the BLM doesn’t essentially round up all the wild horses so that there’s more forage for their cattle, but even if the BLM had the resources to do that, which it doesn’t, because Congress has insisted on not fully funding the BLM and upon keeping grazing fees low, that still wouldn’t solve the problem, because not only were western water rights predicated on the climate of the early part of the nineteenth century [which geologists have discovered was one of the wettest times here in the west in something like 10,000 years], but so were grazing rights. That is why the BLM has cut down on the number of animals allowed per acre, which is yet another rancher complaint.

In short, the ranchers, the legislature, and the Bundyites are precluded from doing as they please by the Constitution, the climate situation, and the Congress, and they’re so unhappy about it that they think the second amendment is the only answer. So, despite all their railing about their Constitutional rights, I guess they really mean that they intend to comply with just those parts of the Constitution whose they agree with, and that they’ll continue to insist that the Supreme Court has been wrong about what the Constitution means for over a century.

Everyone/No One Is Entitled?

Over at least a decade, there’s been debate about entitlements and about a younger generation that may or may not feel “entitled.” Almost always, the use of the phrase is derogatory and suggests individuals or groups who feel they deserve something without paying for it. Although the actual meaning of the word “entitled” means that someone has been given the right to receive something, Americans have a problem with those whom they believe do not deserve that right.

My problem with all the debate is that it’s not inclusive enough, that all too many groups and individuals are receiving societal/governmental benefits for which they either have not paid anything or for which they have paid a minimal amount in comparison to the value of what they have received. Now… in the United States, there are certain benefits to which law-abiding and tax-paying citizens are or should be “entitled.” We deserve fair and impartial laws and a justice system that supports them. We should have a government that protects us from attack by other countries and by terrorists or by law-breakers within our own society. We have decided as a society that part of the role of government is to support highway systems and air transport systems that benefit us all, and to regulate businesses and organizations so that we all have clean air, safe food, and various safe products. For these and other services we pay taxes.

The entitlement problem comes when people are perceived to receive services and benefits out of proportion to what they have paid. When people receive welfare benefits of various sorts for long periods of time, with some families receiving them for generations, people get angry, even though statistics show that most welfare recipients don’t receive benefits for nearly that long.

Likewise, often business owners or professionals in a field get angry when younger people express the idea that they are “entitled” to a job, especially a particular position, even when they don’t have the requisite education and/or experience.

Those are the well-known examples of “undeserved entitlement,” but what about those that aren’t so well known? For example, isn’t the corporation that receives the overall services, legal system, and national market provided by the government, but which pays no taxes on billions of dollars of income, receiving an undeserved entitlement? Or the Bundy family, which is supposed to pay $1.70 per cow and calf for federal grazing rights [a fee less than a tenth of that charged on private land], yet hasn’t paid any of those fees for almost a decade and claims that the land belongs to them through what amounts to squatters’ rights? What about a company that “bargains” for tax breaks from states when relocating a new facility [which effectively places more of the burden for state services on other taxpayers]? Are oil companies and others investing in oil and gas development entitled to a “depletion allowance,” which can reduce taxable income by as much as fifteen percent, simply because it’s possible they might run out of oil and gas to extract? Why are homeowners entitled to deduct their mortgage costs from their taxable income [perhaps as a subsidy to the construction industry?], but renters can’t deduct their rent payments? Then there are the unnecessary military bases that the Defense Department can’t close because senators and representatives insist their constituents are entitled to the remaining jobs at those facilities – which means the rest of us end up paying for those entitled jobs.

So… when people start complaining about entitlements, perhaps they should consider how many they enjoy that they haven’t considered. But then, those are always the exceptions that are deserved.

A Perspective on Numbers… and Violence

More than a few commentators and political figures have trotted out words to the effect that we live in the most dangerous time in human history.

Yet, for the last several years, and perhaps for as long as a decade, a number of social scientists have been making the point that, statistically, the present is the best time to be alive because, among other things, the likelihood of death from violence is the lowest ever. The reasoning behind this is that, historically, a far smaller percentage of the population dies from violent causes today than ever before. Statistically, speaking, based on both records and the causes of death determined from ancient skeletons, in Iron Age times and before, an individual faced a ten to twenty percent chance of dying violently, depending on the locale and year. The author of The Better Angels of Our Nature, Stephen Pinker, notes that in “the transition from tribal societies to settled states, there was a reduction from about a 15 percent chance of dying violently down to about a 3 percent chance in the first states.”

In the eighth century, the An Lushan Revolt in China resulted in 36 million deaths at a time when the world held roughly two hundred ten million people – a world-wide casualty rate of more than 15% just from that one uprising. The Mongol Conquests of the thirteenth century resulted in roughly 40 million deaths at a time when the world population was between 350 and 435 million people, meaning that Genghis Khan effectively killed ten percent of the world’s humans. World War II resulted in 55 million deaths from a world population of 2.3 billion [2.4%].

There are pages and pages of statistics supporting the general conclusion that, on an individual statistical basis, we live in the safest and most peaceful time in world history. While the statistics can be convincing, very few people believe them, true as they are.

Why not? First off, very few of us live the life depicted by the statistics. Compared to a slave in 1850, an inner city black male today is statistically far better off – but compared to a white male junior executive, he’s a lot worse off. And when some thirty percent of women, just in the United States, suffer domestic or sexual abuse in their lifetime, it really doesn’t mean much to them to hear how much worse it once was. While it may be “statistically comforting” to know that the murder rate for males has dropped from 15% to less than one percent over the centuries, that isn’t exactly comforting to the families of the nearly ten thousand men killed in the U.S. every year, or the fact that almost fifteen percent of all males will suffer severe physical violence during their life.

Second, most people don’t relate to numbers and statistics. They relate to people they know, to what they hear from acquaintances and friends, and to visual images they see, especially on television and social media. And those stories and images convey danger, danger, danger. But while each of those personal stories or received images is largely accurate, they don’t represent the totality of the world.

There is also a third factor, which bothers me. Although it is uncontestably true that the percentages of death by human violence have been decreasing over the years and centuries, human population has been growing, with the result that the number of deaths caused by World War II, for example, would have wiped out the entire human population of the world three thousand years ago, or a third of it at the time of Christ. Or consider that over 100 million people died as a result of war in the twentieth century, equivalent to roughly half the world’s population at the time of the Roman Empire.

Somehow, saying that it’s a lot better than it used to be isn’t as comforting as some of the statisticians claim, but, at the same time, it is a whole lot better than it once was. The improvement’s just not near as good as it should be… or could be. And, please, don’t tell me it could be worse. It has been, and, if we’re not careful as a species, it will be again.

David Hartwell… Legacies

As many of my readers should know, my long-time editor and friend, David Hartwell, died last Wednesday, January 20, 2016. He died from a burst cranial artery either from, during, or incident to a fall down a staircase while lugging an expensive bookcase. The glass in the bookcase was undamaged, which, in a bitterly and ironically strange way, could only have happened to David, the editor of countless books and the passionate and incredibly knowledgeable collector of so many more. I’m still a bit numb from losing someone with whom I shared so much for so long and so regularly, but David’s death brings up the fact, again, that no one gets out of this life alive. Yet so often, we act as if death is something that always happens to other people.

Perhaps that’s an instinctual survival mechanism, a denial of the inevitable, just as perhaps so is the belief in an afterlife or reincarnation. Yet death also can be a poignant reminder to the survivors not only of what we have lost, but also of what we still retain.

What I have retained from David’s death is all that I learned from him and all we shared over the years, and that was a great deal. I also know, because of the great number of both authors and editors whom he mentored and taught, that what he stood for and believed in will endure far beyond his passing, and if those whom he influenced in turn pass on that legacy, his contributions to society and culture will likely long outlast his name, for names are forgotten, even while the effects of the acts of those names ripple down through the ages.

That’s also true of the words and stories that were published under his editorial oversight, because the number of authors he developed and/or supported and backed over more than four decades is truly astounding, and some of us would never likely have been published without David’s expertise and understanding. David was never about finding the next best-seller; he was about finding the next good and great book that had something to say and then getting it into the best form and content possible, and then getting it published, month after month, year after year. So far as I know, few of the authors he published wrote mega-best-sellers, but many were best-sellers, and a very high percentage of them sold well.

In thinking about David’s death, I realized that upon several occasions, I have had mishaps on staircases that could have been serious, but were not. A casual acquaintance and neighbor of mine went walking several weeks ago and slipped on the ice and suffered internal cranial bleeding. When and if he will recover is uncertain. I, too, have slipped on ice while on my morning walk, and somehow managed only to bruise my back and shoulders. I could list other similarities, but that isn’t the point. What these terrible accidents brought to mind was how narrow the margin is between minor injuries and fatal impacts, and, if you will, how uncertain life is… and how important each moment can be.

And that is something with which David would have agreed, as well, because he did his best to make every moment count with not just me, but with everyone he knew, during all the years we shared.