Posts tagged ‘Education’

The Structural Deficit

Texas legislature

Image by johnkoetsier via Flickr

What is a structural deficit? Well, it’s why we here in Texas may soon be firing thousands of teachers and school workers. It’s why social services are going to suffer across the board. But since that doesn’t move the hearts of the most far right wing politicians, I’ll put it in a language they can understand.

When you cut taxes without bringing in revenue to make up for the costs and you spend at the same rate, eventually something has got to give. The Republicans get that. It’s not that they don’t. They just want the people who can least afford to suffer the consequences to bear the brunt of the burden.

There’s no talk of increasing corporate taxes or bringing back the old property tax rates that used to fund our spending. Instead, the Republicans want to cut funding to schools. Why not? Their children will be well schooled regardless. The richest of the rich send their children to private schools. Why should they care about how well other children are educated? It won’t affect their children.

But this is so stupid and short sighted that we should wonder about the quality of these lawmakers’ own educations. For a state that supposedly loves big business, this state seems to have forgotten that businesses need workers. Those workers need to have basic educations. Even working in retail requires one to be able to count change.

In 2006 the Texas state legislature and Rick Perry created a structural deficit by causing less money to go in the coffers than we were spending. We can fix this. How?

Well, we can say that it’s unacceptable for our children’s educations to suffer because of some lawmakers’ fiscal irresponsibility. We can remind politicians like Ron Paul that the state constitution says that the state has a duty to fund public education. We can remind the legislators that firing teachers and school workers and social services professionals will raise our unemployment rate to above 10% and cause a further drag on the economy with unemployment benefits and other seemingly unforeseen consequences.

We can tell our legislators that they have a duty to our children and our economy. That duty is clear. Education has to be a priority. It is the only way to prosperity, both individually and collectively. Doing anything less is nothing short of moral bankruptcy.  And Rick Perry should be ashamed of himself. I don’t know how he sleeps at night.

Let’s run our state like a business. When the costs of a business increase, then the prices of its goods and services have to rise accordingly. The state of Texas should be no different. You can tell Rick Perry what you think by clicking on the last link.

April 13, 2011 at 12:14 am 9 comments

Small Houses and Long Forks

Brad Pitt at the Burn After Reading premiere

Image via Wikipedia

A few days ago Francisco Barrios, a professor in Bogota, Colombia who has been kind enough to link to my blog and to frequently read and sometimes comment on it, made a request. He would like for me to write about architecture. Wow! I can’t resist a request to write on command about a given subject. It’s a challenge, especially when it’s a subject that I know so little about, really.

Here’s what I knew about architecture before I took on Francisco’s challenge. I once worked for the corporate offices of a preeminent manufactured housing company, the Mercedes Benz of trailers, if you will. They build singlewides, doublewides, triple wides, customized modulars, and prefabricated houses. It’s a great company, and I really loved working for them. They were so good to me. I would like to say that this increased my knowledge of architecture, but that would be a big fat lie.

I knew that architecture was the profession of building buildings, the art of designing buildings, and sometimes referred to the buildings themselves. I also knew that the University of Texas in Austin, where I live, has a pretty good school of architecture. Uh, and Frank Lloyd Wright. And I knew that the kind of guys who studied architecture usually find my personality irresistible for some strange reason. That was the extent of my knowledge. And even now, it’s not improved by much.

One thing I do know about myself is that although I appreciate great beauty, and I enjoy study for study’s sake, and I like to study aesthetics, I just don’t have it in me to write about architecture in a classical sense. I am not the right person to write something that would encompass the whole of architecture on a grand scale. I wouldn’t know where to begin, and I would come across as woefully ignorant as well as hopelessly arrogant if I thought I could tackle such a complex subject.

I read the blogs that Francisco linked to in his comments. Well, okay, maybe not the entire blog of Alain de Botton. That’s a log of reading. I read some of it. I knew I had to find my angle, and I remembered my recent post on The Tiny Barn. Finding an angle is the hallmark of a great writer, in my opinion. You have to pick what’s important to you, research it, and then come at it from a fresh perspective. There’s very little that’s never been said before, but you can say what’s been said before in a new way.

What interests me about architecture is the green movement. I like reading about ways that architects are designing buildings from the ground up in ways that are not only pleasing to the eye but also compassionate to the earth and its people. I like reading about architects that design buildings that conserve natural resources, work with the earth’s landscape rather than against it, and take under consideration alternative materials.

These constructions don’t have to be ugly utilitarian monstrosities. In fact, they can be beautiful, and these structures have gotten a lot of publicity lately, especially with Brad Pitt’s sponsorship of the rebuilding of New OrleansLower Ninth Ward (

The Tiny Barn was a humorous post designed to draw attention to the culture of consumerism in the United States. I never meant to really live in a storage shed. The idea, however, drew me to the small house movement. Some call it the tiny house movement. Whatever it’s called, I find it ingenious.

The average square footage of a house built in the United States in 2004 was 2,330 square feet. In 1970 the average square footage was 1,400 square feet. In the early twentieth century most homes were between 600 and 800 square feet. ( (

Family sizes have been decreasing with the advent of reliable birth control that’s readily available, and extended family members do not typically live with each other in America. A culture of producers that once needed storage facilities for everything from canned goods and smoked meats to homemade quilts now buys all those things from the supermarket or the department store. People rarely cook anymore, let alone bake their own bread and can their own vegetables. But our houses keep getting bigger.

I’m not advocating the ban of technology or any such silly nonsense. I love my computer, my iPod touch, and my electricity, my household appliances, and my Target store, the one with the grocery section. I can’t keep a plant alive, and I have absolutely no desire to hunt and kill my own food.

What I’m trying to say here is that I think we don’t need this much space. And that some of this excess of abundance is just that: an excess. It’s a waste. It’s a contributor to everything from the obesity epidemic and the Greenhouse effect all the way to the quality of our modern relationships and even our divorce rate.

People used to live in little houses and make things and have actual conversations with real people in their kitchens over homemade pie. Apple’s FaceTime and instant message are great, but they don’t and can’t substitute for real, substantive and tangible time spent with living and breathing people. Kids nowadays prefer texting to a phone call. If we aren’t careful, then I fear that we will eventually become a race of virtual people, like one of those science fiction movies starring Keanu Reeves or Tom Cruise or Bruce Willis.

One of the websites that I visited for the Small House Movement, the Small House Society ( mentions that, “Some people just desire to live simply so that others can simply live.” It’s not an original saying. I’ve heard it before. It’s sometimes attributed to Gandhi, but there’s no proof that he ever said it. It’s popularly used within the sustainable living movement.

And here’s where I’m going to come full circle and show how architecture relates to Christianity. Live simply so that others may simply live. If you think about it, how far off from that is do unto others as you would have them do unto you?

We don’t all have to live in tiny houses built on trailers to demonstrate our love for Jesus. That’s absurd. I’m not advocating that you sell your 2,400 square foot house in the suburbs or tear it down and start new. That would be an even bigger waste. But you can build or buy a smaller house next time or use the space you do have to make homemade quilts for friends, or to give them to charity. You can invite people over more often. Host an exchange student. Grow a garden; maybe you, unlike me, can manage not to kill a tomato plant. Use the abundance of space you’ve been blessed with if that’s the case.

There is so much emphasis in Christianity on the afterlife and the concept of heaven and hell and purgatory and the Second Coming and all that entails. Evangelicals and even most mainline denominations interpret these things very literally. And I’m not refuting their existence. I’m open to that interpretation because I know my God is an awesome God; he’s capable of more than I can imagine. I’m also open to the interpretation that when Jesus was talking about the kingdom of Heaven, he might just have been talking about a heaven on earth.

Once again, I’m going to conclude with a very unoriginal thought. I heard a pastor give a sermon years ago about the difference between heaven and hell. A boy dies and gets to look in both places. And first he visits hell. Hell is a room with a long dining table, complete with cloth napkins and fine china and a crystal chandelier. The table is heaped with mounds of gorgeous, hot steaming food. It smells so good. But everyone at the table is in a foul mood. When the boy looks closer he sees that everyone at the table has abnormally long arms. And the ends of their arms are forks. They have forks instead of hands. The people try to feed themselves but their arms are so long that they can’t reach their own face.

The same boy gets a peak at heaven. And heaven is exactly like hell, but instead of no one eating and everyone being grumpy, everyone is eating and happy. The people in heaven have arms just like the people in hell. But the people in heaven are feeding each other.

December 12, 2010 at 3:24 am 2 comments

The History of Christianity

The first page od the Book of Acts

Image via Wikipedia

John Shore wrote in his blog the other day about a study that revealed that most Americans are woefully ignorant of the basic history of Christianity and that atheists and agnostics, in general, are better educated about such matters. Wow! I can’t say as I’m surprised. It makes me sad, but it doesn’t shock me.

John’s theory is that since atheists and agnostics are actively rejecting the faith that they’ve done their homework ahead of time, that rather than being passive participants they are very active in researching spiritual matters. They don’t care less like people assume to be the case. Maybe, in fact, atheists care more.

Anywho. I could ramble on for another thousand words or so about how or why that’s wrong, or, I thought, I could make my tiny contribution to the Christian education of my audience. There are now more than five of you. I’m not Matt Drudge yet, but I’ve got some subscribers, and some days I get twenty-five visits without having to indulge in any stunts. I could make a dent in the ignorance, and in the process I might learn a thing or two myself.

So, I’ve decided that from now on I’m going to devote one post a week to the history of Christianity. So, I’ll start this week with a post this coming Saturday about the history of the early church and the apostle Paul. I know. Why do you have to wait an entire week? Well, you have to give me a week to do the kind of exhaustive research that American atheists do…so I can get it right. Also, I want to re-read the Book of Acts and refresh myself.

So, a treat to look forward to: every week on Gooseberry Bush will be a new post on historical Christianity or a profile on a theologian who helped shape the modern Christian Church. Let me know what you think.

October 5, 2010 at 12:17 am Leave a comment

Three Cups of Tea

Cover of "Three Cups of Tea: One Man's Jo...

Cover via Amazon

Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin is the story of Mortenson, a young mountain climber and hippie who impulsively decided to build a school for the children of a poor mountain village in Pakistan. In the early 1990s, Mortenson, whose younger sister had just died, came down from a failed attempt to climb K2. The climb was supposed to be his memorial to his sister, Christa. He was lucky to have escaped from the climb with his life. His guide had lost him, and the guide had Mortenson’s pack with all his food, drink and survival gear with him.

The people of a mountain village were kind enough to offer him shelter and help him to recuperate. The name of the town was Korphe, and when Greg saw the children of this town on a hillside, trying to practice writing and arithmetic with sticks in the sand, he asked them why they weren’t at school. He learned that they didn’t have a school. Pakistan has government funded education, but this is available in larger towns and cities only. Greg Mortenson was so impressed with the children of Korphe and his experience there that he promised to build them a school.

The process was slow going at first. Mortenson learned that he could build a good, solid school building in Pakistan for only $12,000. Astounding, huh? The only problem was that he didn’t have $12,000, and the $12,000 didn’t include his round trip fare to Pakistan. Mortenson was an emergency room nurse. He lived as frugally as possible in order to save his money. He was essentially homeless. He slept in his bedroll on the floor of a friend’s apartment or in his car. Still, it seemed to take forever to save the money he needed.

Mortenson’s mother was the principal of an elementary school. The students at her school saved pennies in jars. They called the project Pennies for Peace, and when the project was done for the year, they had saved over $600 in pennies. The mountain climbing community embraced Greg’s vision for a school, and they let him give talks at a lot of their seminars.

At one of these seminars Greg was introduced to Jean Hoerni, an eccentric engineer, inventor, and entrepreneur who had a hand in the creation of Teledyne, Union Carbide, and Intel. Hoerni was a very wealthy mountain climber who had been moved by the poverty of the people in the Karakoram Mountains in Pakistan, where Mortenson wanted to build his school. Hoerni gave Greg a check for $12,000.

There were many, many stumbling blocks on the road to that school in Korphe. There was a man Greg trusted with the storage of his building materials only to come back and find that he used or sold a great deal of them. There was graft and religious leaders looking for bribes. There were people from other villages who were intent on diverting Greg from Korphe to build a school in their villages, or to build a school for porters instead. But there were also lots and lots more good people who helped him along the way: trusted advisors, a bodyguard willing to lay down his life for Greg, a religious leader who was willing to put his reputation on the line and to petition the highest Shia authority in Iran to approve of Greg’s schools and the education of Pakistani girls, in particular.

Once the first school was built, Jean Hoerni gave the money to start a non-profit with an endowment of one million dollars. Greg started the Central Asia Institute. The Central Asia Institute now has many, many schools for boys and girls in both Pakistan and Afghanistan. Along the way, Mortenson met his wife and started his family. Both the Central Asia Institute and Pennies for Peace are currently thriving.

And why, might you ask, is this important for you to know about? Well, what Greg is doing is important because education is important, period, and because we should be concerned about those people who are less fortunate than us, whether they live next door or in the tiniest town in Afghanistan. And also: educating boys and girls in Pakistan does more to combat terrorism and the extremists of Islam than bombs and guns ever will. Bombs and guns make terrorists. Those children who are given a well-rounded basic education by Mortenson’s schools are the benefits of knowledge. That knowledge will help them to make better decisions about what to do with their lives and how to view their fellow citizens of the world.

The alternative for many of these children is either no education at all or an education of hatred provided by the Saudi funded madrassas. Wealthy Saudi Arabians fund madrassas in poverty-ridden countries. These madrassas do not provide education to girls, and they often do not provide the basics of reading, writing and arithmetic. There is a lot of range in the quality of madrassas. Instead, what they never fail to teach is the rhetoric of fundamentalist Muslims. They teach the Koran to boys who cannot read it for themselves. Sometimes the teachers can’t, either.

The purpose of these schools is to recruit future soldiers for the Al Quaeda and the Taliban and other such organizations that propagate violence. And, much like in America, the wealthy fund the military while the poor become its foot soldiers. The Saudis don’t send their sons to “war.” Instead, they recruit the young men in Pakistan and Afghanistan who don’t have the opportunities that Saudi oil wealth provides.

Three Cups of Tea is an important book, and anyone seeking to further understand the politics of the Middle East and the people of Islam would be well served in taking the time to read it. There is no religious message in the book. The book is about people and cultures and working to find our commonalities rather than our differences. Mortenson grew up in Africa, the son of Lutheran missionaries, but he himself is not a particularly religious man. He learns to pray like both a Sunni and a Shia Muslim in order to fit in, and he adopts the culture and learns the languages of his second home. When in Rome…

September 24, 2010 at 2:41 pm 1 comment

Not My Poster

When I was in second grade we moved to a very small town in Kansas. That first year my popularity quotient was at 1 on a scale of 1 – 10. This is a gift in a small town. Normally, the new kid scores a goose egg. What got me the one was one little girl who befriended me. The girl’s name was Heidi Hanes.

Over time, I grew to hate Heidi Hanes. The girl had such a smug sense of natural superiority. It was like she was born to the manor by virtue of her having been born in a town the size of a flea riding on the back of the Labrador retriever that is America. Her parents owned the hardware store on the thorax of the flea.

One thing that really ticked me off about Heidi Hanes: she was better than me. She was better than me at everything. More athletic – check. Better grades – check. More popular – that, too. There wasn’t anything that I could do better than her. I know. I tried.

As I said, at first we were friends. Heidi adopted me into her little clicque, which was only the smartest girls in our grade. There were four of us. We all hung out at recess together and wore zip up hoodie sweatshirts in different colors. Mine was green. The group was Heidi and me, another girl named Krista, and Suzy Jo. Suzy Jo was my favorite. I liked her best. She was a farmer’s daughter who always wore her hair in pigtails. Krista was tall and thin with coltish legs and brilliant red hair. Heidi and I were short blondes.

We four used to spend every recess together practicing our “gymnastics.” We all took acrobatics lessons from the same old woman, the one who taught everyone in town. She had gained some international renown as an acrobat in her youth, and her studio was plastered with pictures of her in tumbles and pretzel poses all over Europe. Consequently, our cheerleaders were all really good.

At some point, the friendship between Heidi Hanes and me suffered. I don’t remember exactly what caused the big falling out, but I think it may have been the crayon shaving competition.

You see, when Heidi Hanes and I were in third grade we were in the same classroom. We both had this teacher that we really liked named Mrs. Gustaf. Mrs. Gustaf was young and pretty with short auburn hair and glasses. We loved her. We thought she was the best teacher ever. The year we had her in school she was expecting a baby with her husband the gym teacher, and it was like that made her doubly creative and fun.

She took some empty appliance boxes and painted and decorated them and turned them into learning centers. We had designated times every day that allowed for some self- study. You would go into each of the learning centers and work on language or math or science or social studies. I was pretty sure Mrs. Gustaf was the most brilliant teacher EVER. Our second grade teachers never did anything creative besides letting us have a stuffed dog or stuffed kitty on our desk as a reward for being a good student. LAME.

The year I became a third grader something miraculous happened. The people at Crayola decided to make boxes of 48 and 64 crayons with built in crayon sharpeners – in the boxes. Ingenius!! This was still back in the day when most kids were deprived. We had 24 crayons to a box. I begged for the 48 pack, and I got it. Heidi, of course, had the 64 pack. I don’t remember who came up with this idea, but one of the two of us decided that we should sharpen as many crayon shavings as we could possibly produce and then melt them all into a giant crayon for Mrs. Gustaf.

We had a contest with Heidi and I as team captains, to see who could get the most crayon shavings. Since the teams were of uneven sizes, with me having four students and her having, well, the rest of the class, it was no contest. Foiled again! I am certain that this constant beating at the hands of Heidi Hanes accounts for my childhood affinity for both Daffy Duck and Underdog. That little girl was just so despicable!

Of course, I’m not sure what happened to all those crayon shavings. I’m not even sure how we spent so many hours in the day sharpening crayons without Mrs. Gustaf knowing. Maybe she was on maternity leave? It was thirty years ago. I’m a little sketchy on the details. What I do remember is that ultimately there was no giant crayon. I guess we couldn’t get anyone’s mother to agree to ruin a giant cooking pot, melting multi-colored crayon wax into a giant crayon mold that would turn out looking like an elephant turd.

One year some non-profit agency sponsored an art contest in our town, and we were asked to create posters with artwork depicting a theme about something like only you being able to prevent forest fires or how it was important to just say no to drugs. Something like that. Our entire class worked feverishly on our posters. In truth, I didn’t even think mine was all that special.

However, when the judges gave prizes for the art, my poster got first place to Heidi Hanes’ third place. Proof that there is a God! I beat Heidi Hanes at something! Let the river run! Let all the dreamers wake the nation! Come, the new Jerusalem!

We were invited to a banquet where we would be presented with an award and would get to see our posters with the ribbons on them in a glass case. My dad went with me. I remember it was the kind of meal where I had to know which fork to use when, and my dad would have given me a lecture when I got home if I had put an elbow on the table. After the meal we got presented with our awards, and then we could walk down a hallway to see our posters. And there was my first place ribbon stapled to someone else’s poster. I was holding my dad’s hand, in the middle of the hallway. He was so proud of me, and I whispered, “Dad, that’s not my poster.”

He didn’t hear me the first time. He had to ask me to repeat it, and I could have backed out then. I wonder if the thought had even occurred to me that no one probably paid any attention to anyone else’s poster but their own, and I would be the only one who knew that I really didn’t win. I don’t think it did. I think I was just crushed that I really didn’t win. Because beating Heidi Hanes was only important if I really beat her. A victory like this one would be hollow.

So, we went and told someone, that night. And I went home and cried bitterly in the bathroom, on the toilet. My dad came in and said that that was a hard thing that I did, but it was the right thing to do, and that he was so proud of me. He was prouder, he said, than if I would have really won that poster contest. Within the week, the poster contest officials sorted out the dilemma, and the blue ribbon was presented to a classmate named Roy, and I got an official apology over the mixup.

And Heidi Hanes continued to be “better” at everything than me. And the world moved on as it should.

August 26, 2010 at 3:11 pm Leave a comment

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