Saturday, June 25, 2011

Every American Bilingual

Followers of this blog have probably noticed that I trouble you about both education and social/political issues.  The link between the two is my belief that education is the critical factor in improving society.  It is the reason I chose a career in education in the first place.

Travel anywhere in Europe or nearly anywhere else in the world and people are learning more than just their native language.  A monolingual American English speaker can travel to any capital city in the world and find sufficient English speakers to make himself understood.  Thanks to the British Empire, upon which the sun never set, English is one of the most spoken languages in the world.  Good, you say.  So why learn another language if you speak English?  There are several reasons. 

First though, the disclosure:  I am a recovering Spanish teacher who also did time teaching bilingual reading and English as a Second Language.

My father was a businessman and he often said "You can buy from anyone around the world in your own language, but you can only sell in the buyer's language."  Our current trade deficit and the demise of our manufacturing base have many causes.  But ignoring the limitations of our monolingual culture would be a mistake.  If we got our factories back, would we have enough qualified marketers to sell what we make overseas?

But my greater concern is that too many Americans lack any understanding or empathy for foreign cultures.  Last year's hysteria over mosques brought home the ethnocentrism that rears its ugly head here periodically.  Even traveling doesn't seem to adequately break this pattern.  Tourists visit large Westernized cities and experience the tourism industry, rarely the homes or struggles of other peoples.

In my experience, only those who have experienced a culture firsthand or learned to speak another language find it easy to see things as a non-American might. Though I only studied Spanish and a little French, the struggle to learn those languages helped me be comfortable with the "otherness" of foreign cultures.

I propose that learning a second language rise in priority in America.  It must begin in elementary school, not high school, as language learning gets more difficult as we grow.  Therefore we must ensure that our elementary teachers leave their teacher education programs proficient not only in speaking but also in teaching another language. 

So what languages?  Investing in the most-spoken languages in the modern world makes some sense.  These are:  Spanish, Arabic, Hindi/Urdu and Mandarin Chinese.  And English, but let's assume we've got that one down.  What if two-thirds of Americans spoke any of these four top languages in addition to English?  And what if the other one-third spoke a smattering of other world languages?

I will make a bold prediction.  If Americans had this training, there would be a large body of us able to interpret events and interact effectively with people from any corner of the globe.  This would be a huge boon economically as we once again take our place of economic leadership.  My even bolder prediction though is that America's involvement in wars -- with all the tragedies, expense and international consequences -- would dissipate.  It would take a conflict as dire as World War II to pull America in.  Why?  Because Americans would surrender their singularity of vision; the narrow view of the world that allows us to see enemies without redeeming qualities.  We would no longer accept a one-sided view of the world, the sort that leads people to believe that violence is the only answer.

According the Gallup Poll (2001), 22% of Americans say they are fluent in a second language.  I was surprised it was that high.  But the explanation wasn't hard to find.  Census records indicated that at the same time, 20% of Americans spoke a language other than English at home.  So nearly all bilingual Americans have English as their second language; these are our immigrants.  I suppose that leaves 2% of native English speakers -- the rest of us -- who are fluent in any other language.  A sad reality and a significant contributor to both our economic problems and our foreign policy ones.

Contrast this with China or Europe.  300 million Chinese are learning English (not to mention those learning Arabic, German, Spanish and other tongues).  56% of Europeans are fluent in two or more languages with half of those fluent in three or more. (Source)

So when does America take foreign language study seriously?  According to a recent article, only 30% of high school students take any foreign language classes.  At my previous high school, foreign language staffing will be reduced from 1.67 in 2010 to .5 fte next year.  Two years in a row, budget cuts fell on foreign language.  And there is no foreign language instruction prior to 9th grade.  Whereas a few years ago, our district offered three languages; now only Spanish is offered at any of the three high schools.

Some of you will question whether language learning can have this kind of power.  I would love to see a study on war frequency and multilingual levels around the world.  I'm guessing that wars are not often fought against foes who speak a common language.  And if I'm wrong, what have we lost?

Saturday, June 18, 2011

The 15% Tip: Is it Fair?

One of the awkward things about traveling happens at the end of each restaurant meal.  The bill often comes out more than I'd hoped and now, at 15%, the tip must be higher too.  I've never quite understood our tipping system.  Why 15% instead of a flat amount based on service and customer choice?  If I go to an expensive restaurant, spend $200 on the group's meals, I am expected to tip another $30.  If I dine at Denny's and spend just $20, the waiter gets a $3 tip.  Why the difference?

I have met friends and associates for coffee and spent an hour at the table.  The waitress (always a woman in cheaper diners) seems to be working hard and I'm sure is not paid more than waiters in the high-priced joints.  Though our entire bill might be just a few bucks, I usually leave $5 for the waitress who took care of us.  Well beyond 15%.  In the expensive joints, I have been known to cringe at the final bill and am reluctant to go a whole lot deeper in the hole with a big tip.  Nor do I notice the high-end waiters and waitresses working any harder or acting any more gracious than those making $3 per table at Denny's.

I find our system discriminatory and even a bit sexist, given that most wait-women work in less expensive places and nearly all wait-men in expensive ones.  I prefer to even out what I tip, regardless of what the restaurant owner charges for the meal.  Makes me generous in the one case and a cheapskate in the other.

I worked as a waitress and as a bartender while in college.  My tips (when I got them) were paltry, but then my employers weren't running fancy joints either.   Most of us who've worked in food service learned enough to know we wanted a different career.  It's hard work and like many jobs dealing with the public, can be stressful.  Abusive customers abound.

But what about service people who care for us in other minimum wage jobs?  Motel and hotel maids deserve tips as well.  I wonder how many guests leave any tip at all?  I can't imagine a tougher job and almost always leave a few bucks as a thank you.  I have a habit of tipping gas station attendants who  don't top off my tank or ask before they do (yes, I know it's illegal to top off but many still do it).  Since they seem to hate having to make change, I donate the change plus a dollar.  Not much.  They're thrilled -- tells me it doesn't happen often.

Ushers in movie theaters, clerks in convenience stores, fast food workers -- do any of them receive tips?  Should they?

I understand tipping is supposed to be related to service received.  But unfortunately it no longer seems to be in restaurants.  Give less than 15% and it's a reflection on you, not the waitstaff.  I'm willing to tip for good service, but why only in restaurants?  And why in such an unequal fashion?

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Powerful Men Acting Stupid

It seems every week some political leader is caught up in a sex scandal.  A few from just the past year (Reuters):
  • New York Congressman tweets nude pictures of himself to strange women.  
  • California Governor admits to fathering a child with his maid.
  • Another married New York Congressman also sends a shirtless picture of himself to a woman.  
  • A Nevada Senator tries to cover up his affair with an aide.  
  • Idaho Senator arrested for soliciting gay sex in an airport restroom.  
  • Florida Congressman sends lewd emails to male pages.  
  • Louisiana Senator solicits prostitutes.  
  • New York Congressman solicits a male staffer.  
  • Indiana Congressman has an affair with a staffer.  
  • A Massachusetts Senator hires a male prostitute as an aide.                                         

All are embarrassing not just for the male culprits but for their families as well.  There is something about power and success that makes some men feel invulnerable, able to misbehave with impunity.  And of course the media loves this stuff.  Why?  Because apparently readers and viewers engorge on it.  We lap it up and pronounce our holier-than-thou outrage.  Typically there are calls for the man's resignation and usually he does resign.  

There are other scandals (non-sexual) involving leaders as well.  Consider the following:
  •  A New York Congressman found guilty on 11 ethics violations for essentially theft of funds.
  • A Texas former Senator convicted of money laundering in connection with Jack Abramoff.
  • South Carolina Congressman disrupts the State of the Union, shouting "You lie!" at the President
  • Louisiana Federal Judge impeached for corruption and perjury.
  • Illinois Governor arrested for selling a US Senate seat

Which set of violations is of greater consequence to how our nation is led?  The sexual violations or the financial and political ones?  Even more important, does it matter how these violations come to our attention?  I would argue that it does, even more than the violations themselves.  If political actors are targeting the opposing party to dig up dirt, I want to know who did the digging and who bankrolled them.  I want to know that more than I want to know what Anthony Weiner's crotch looks like.

See a lengthy list of political scandals here.  Many of these involve serious breaches of the public trust:  faking evidence to go to war, authorizing torture, bribery, embezzlement and more.

President Clinton faced 8 years of a special prosecutor, well funded and determined to find dirt on him and the First Lady.  The numbers of investigations and the disruption to the White House's important business were substantial.  Through all of that, the worst he found was an affair and a lie about it.  Do I care about his affair?  No.  I do care about the job he did though.  I care particularly about this tactic being used to do what political parties could not accomplish in elections.  In fact, such tactics serve to overturn legitimate election results. 

Elliot Spitzer as New York's Attorney General single-handedly took on the financial agents on Wall Street.  Had he remained in office and continued his work as Governor, the 2008 economic crash might not have happened. All those shady financial instruments by the Wall Street banks might have been stopped.  But someone (dare we guess?) spent a wad of money tracking his movements and revealed his association with prostitutes.  Spitzer resigned.

Anthony Weiner was a solid liberal resented by those on the right.  Andrew Breitbart was one of those who despised him.  When he published the photos and threatened to release still more, Breitbart claimed Congressman Weiner "invited this level of scrutiny". 
When President Bush's Justice Department ignored its primary mission in order to go after Democratic lawmakers, looking for dirt and bringing them to prosecution, American democracy hit a new low.  Using government itself to target political opponents is the stuff of two-bit foreign dictators.  But even allowing private parties with political agendas to remove duly elected incumbents from office threatens our system.  As long as you and I focus on the dirt they dig up instead of the motive for the digging, we play into their hands.

Next time a politician from either party is embarrassed by his bad behavior, I hope we attend equally to the motivation for snooping around in that politician's life.  I want to know who bankrolled the investigation and why.  

Who among us is safe from a well-funded investigator looking for embarrassment in our lives?  And if you're not squeaky clean (or even if you are but have taken controversial positions on issues), would you consider running for political office and exposing yourself and your family to excessive scrutiny?  If your answer is "no", ask yourself how we ensure the level of political participation envisioned by America's founders.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Medical Marijuana?

Today's local news includes the arrests of 4 people licensed to grow marijuana for folks with medical marijuana cards.  The four were arrested for not only growing the number of plants authorized under Oregon's medical marijuana law, but a good deal more they were shipping "back east" for profit.  The statistics on medical marijuana in Oregon are fairly interesting.

Our law allows doctors to prescribe marijuana for a range of illnesses including severe pain, the effects of chemotherapy, glaucoma and nausea.  Only 3% of Oregon's doctors have prescribed marijuana for 2 or more patients.
10 doctors account for two-thirds of the current and pending marijuana card requests.  Two doctors -- Dr. Phillip Leveque of Molalla and Dr. Larry Bogart of Roseburg -- have been disciplined by the Oregon Board of Medical Examiners for inappropriate recommendation of medical marijuana. Leveque, an 81-year-old osteopath, had his license suspended in March and revoked in October. He said he had signed several thousand medical marijuana requests.  The board in October also stripped Bogart, a 66-year-old psychiatrist who said he has signed more than 1,000 medical marijuana applications during the past five years, of his ability to treat children, prescribe controlled drugs or sign marijuana card applications.  Red Orbit 2005
Dr. Phillip Leveque has granted 49.7 percent of Oregon's medical-marijuana cards since the law went into effect in May 1999. New York Times 2002
In Oregon, people must suffer from way more seizures, severe pain and glaucoma than in California or Colorado.  With a similar population and similar law, one-twentieth as many Coloradans hold a medical marijuana card as here in Oregon.

There are 10 TIMES MORE people in California than in Oregon but close to the same number of medical marijuana cards (OR: 50,000 and CA: 53,000).  Even more glaring are the current year numbers:  8,600 new cards in California this year versus 23,000 new applications in Oregon the same year.

Forgive me if I'm a bit cynical about this program.  I do not deny that marijuana -- like all drugs -- likely has valuable medical uses.  But when the same organizations pushing for recreational legalization are the main advocates for medical marijuana patients, it's hard to focus on the medical issues.  And when a handful of doctors travel the state, advertising they'll be staying in a room at the local hotel to meet new patients and then prescribe one drug and one drug only for whatever ails the walk-ins, I tend a bit to cynicism.

Could we look past the ruse of medical use?  This is, always has been and likely will continue to be primarily a recreational drug.  It is not a good reason to fill our prisons to overflowing with users and dealers.  But we do need to find a reasonable response to the real situation.  The Oregon Legislature's latest response is to double the card fee from $100 to $200.  Not sure how that addresses the problem exactly but it's one of the few responses they could pass.

Recreational drugs are indeed a medical issue:  not as potentials for prescription but rather as medical problems to be addressed medically.  We have programs for alcohol and drug addictions.  Let's regulate marijuana like we do alcohol.  Or perhaps offer Medical Liquor Cards to folks with severe coughing and allow each cardholder to designate a still in her neighborhood.  Either way, our current approach is nonsensical.  Any doctor whose arsenal consists of just one tool -- medical marijuana or any other -- is a pusher not a medical practioner.

I'm guessing that since I offended half of my friends with my prior Sports blog, I've just lost the other half.

See also:  Walk
You Can Take a Pill for That
Sex and the Middle Schooler