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  • Randall Short 9:19 pm on December 7, 2014 Permalink  

    Celebrating the Neighborhood 

    Last night, I had dinner in the home of friends who were celebrating a special day. They had marked the day – December 6 – to celebrate the neighborhood where they grew up, and they invited my family to join them. They showed us pictures of the neighborhood – it’s beautiful! – and they told us some about their experiences living and raising a family there.

    As we talked, we compared their neighborhood with the ones where my wife and I grew up. We talked about some of the things that we like about each neighborhood, and we talked about things we dislike. We laughed as we shocked each other with stories about customs that, growing up, each of us thought were “normal,” or the way of the world.

    Let me share just two “neighborhood customs” that my friends shared with us.

    The Baby Box

    When a family has a child back in my friends’ neighborhood, the family gets a huge box filled with all kinds of things for the mother and child. It includes diapers, lotions, baby formulas, clothes – that sort of thing. The money for the boxes comes from a community fund of sorts, and basically everyone in the neighborhood contributes to the fund. 

    I told my friends about other neighborhoods that do something similar. But in the neighborhoods with which I’m familiar, it’s usually families with lower incomes that get the box (or something similar – I explained a little about “food stamps” and “WIC”). In those neighborhoods, it could even be embarrassing to get a box like that. You might need and appreciate the box, but getting one tends to set you apart as a “needy” person.

    My friends were surprised to hear that such a nice box, and one that everybody needs, could be shameful. I was surprised to hear that every neighbor, “needy” or not, enjoys getting the box.

    The Education Fund

    My friend’s neighborhood also started an education fund. Apparently, they take a lot of pride in any kid that grows up in their neighborhood, and they want to make sure that every kid gets the education that matches his or her interests and abilities, however much it costs them.

    The community seems to be pretty level-headed and realistic about things. For example, they don’t expect every kid to go to college. A lot of the kids would rather go to trade schools, and some start working with their family business right out of high school. But whatever the kids and their families decide, the community as a whole pays for it. 

    A lot of people might look at a neighborhood like that and think it’s not fair. The wealthier families usually pay more into the education fund, and many who contribute to the fund don’t seem to benefit from it personally (maybe they don’t have kids, or maybe they have kids who start working after high school, only to start paying into the education fund themselves). But my friends — and apparently nearly everyone in their neighborhood – see it differently.

    Again, they take pride in all of the kids, and they genuinely want to see them reach their full potential. But that’s not simply because of some warm and fuzzy idealism about children. Like I said, they’re realistic, and I think they’re at least partly driven by a kind of self-interest. I think it’s a healthy self-interest that sees one’s own needs as inseparably intertwined with those of one’s neighbor. They know that it’s in the long-term interest of their own neighborhood (and even surrounding neighborhoods) for every single kid to get as much education and/or training as he or she needs to become a “good neighbor” in the future. Surely we all know this to some degree, but the people in my friends’ neighborhood acted on this knowledge.

    One more thing that my friends said really impressed me. They mentioned this “side benefit”: moms and dads are able to spend quality time with their kids, families, and neighbors because they don’t have to work extra jobs to pay for their kids’ education. How nice. Then I “impressed” my friends (in a bad way) when I told them that, in my neighborhood, many moms and dads have to work extra jobs to pay back their own student loans as well as the growing expenses of their kids’ education.

    The Good Neighborhood

    So where is this neighborhood? Maybe you guessed already that I’m talking about a country-sized neighborhood. The “neighborhood” I’ve been describing is Finland.

    You might enjoy reading more about it. Here’s an interesting article about the baby box, or “the maternity package.” And you can read about higher education in Finland here or here. (I’m afraid I can’t vouch for the accuracy of these sites; I just searched and found them to get you started.)

    Of course, the more I learn about Finland, I expect I’ll discover that this “neighborhood” has all kinds of problems, just like any other. My Finnish friends certainly expressed some sober concerns about their country’s present and future. They were humble, sincere, and fair as we talked and wondered together why Finns approach education so differently from Americans and Japanese. 

    I think everyone can agree that there are no easy answers, and that there are no perfect “neighborhoods.” And even if there were a near-perfect neighborhood somewhere, we can agree that simple imitation wouldn’t work. But is it possible to admire other “neighborhoods” – to appreciate good neighbors in other places – without fear that we are betraying our own way of life as we do so, or without falling into self-loathing despair that we cannot become more like them overnight? Surely it is. And one place to start is by celebrating the good that we see in others. I was thankful for the opportunity to do that this year by celebrating Finland’s Independence Day. Thanks to my friends for their warm hospitality, the good food, and the good food for thought.

    Hyvää Itsenäisyyspäivää, Suomi!

  • Randall Short 1:42 pm on December 4, 2014 Permalink  

    What has Rome to do with Waco? 

    He knows how to write and how to listen and communicate. He has emotional intelligence. He knows how to work with a lot of personalities.

    These words describe a friend who was chosen to lead “a new nonprofit group that will coordinate existing community efforts to improve health care, education and income.” Not only do they describe him, they are an explanation of why he was chosen for the job (among other reasons, or course).

    As the new executive director of Prosper Waco, Matthew Polk will work with a team of people to “collect and analyze data about the community and then develop metrics to evaluate the progress toward Prosper Waco goals.” His task is incredibly complex. As he says in the article, “it’s not just about education or jobs or any one vector that causes these problems. Education, health care and employment are all intertwined.”

    Given the complexity of the task, who did the Prosper Waco board choose to lead them? Someone who “knows how to write and how to listen and communicate.” Someone who “has emotional intelligence.” Someone who “knows how to work with a lot of personalities.” 

    I have no doubt that Matthew will bring to them a growing store of professional expertise and knowledge about education, health care, and employment. But I think it’s important for parents and educators and, well, anyone who cares about education and society to recognize this: the core competencies that make him most suitable for the job can’t be cultivated and measured by fill-in-the-bubble tests that many schools value so highly. And I don’t think he could have acquired them all through highly specialized training (a good thing!) in each area, even if he were to wind up with three certificates proving that he knows a lot about education, health care, and employment.

    Then what sort of education has prepared my friend to take on such a complex and important job? Matthew majored in classics and history as an undergrad. And he continued researching and writing about history at the master’s and doctoral levels. When I met him, he was researching and writing about ancient Rome.

    What has Rome to do with Waco?

    Though I’m sure Matthew could point out many similarities between Rome and Waco, Texas, I’m afraid I can’t tell you anything about that. But I do know this:

    • If a person can listen patiently, sympathetically, and discerningly (or critically) to ancient and modern voices (and in more than one language)…
    • If a person can understand something as complex as ancient Roman civilization…
    • If a person can make logical connections between cultural, social, political, religious, and other kinds of beliefs and practices…
    • If a person can discover and describe connections and patterns that others haven’t seen…
    • If a person can communicate this persuasively and winsomely in writing and speech to a diverse group of other people, whether they are sympathetic or hostile to the new ideas…

    …then that person has the sort of “real world” skills that are absolutely essential for leading an organization, a company, a family, a community, or a nation in a complex and ever-changing world that tends to pop bubbles, and that puts expiration dates on most certificates.

    I don’t mean to reduce my friend’s qualifications to what can be obtained through a liberal arts education. Nor do I mean to suggest that it’s the only way to obtain those qualifications. But when done right (and I freely admit, it’s awfully hard to do it right, whether you’re a student or professor), I think that general and specialized studies in the “liberal arts” is an excellent way to prepare for just about any kind of life imaginable.

    At this point, someone might rightly complain that I’m advocating liberal arts education for utilitarian purposes, as if it’s valuable only because, in the end, it has “practical” and “real-world” value. If so, pardon me for emphasizing that aspect in this post. I certainly haven’t said all that can be said about the matter.

    I also believe that time spent in “liberal arts” learning — for instance, reading, thinking, and engaging with others about humanity’s biggest, best, and worst ideas; simply admiring and enjoying its treasures; critically discerning its shortcomings — is a wonderful and enriching way to live life even if one can’t find immediate and practical “use” for any of it.

    The question I’ll close with is this: Are you in a place where you can become more like my friend Matthew?

    If not, find a place — maybe a college, maybe a book club — where you can listen to, and talk with, people who have ideas that are different from your own. You may find it to have “practical” value, or you may not. Either way, I think you’ll grow in a good way; I think it will become one of those life experiences that even the most practical person will treasure for its own sake; and, if you’re a “learning for learning’s sake” kind of person, I think you’ll still find it useful for staying sane and finding your way in a crazy world.

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