Banned Books Week

Today marks the start of Banned Book Week, a campaign to bring about awareness of works of literature that have been suppressed or authors who have been persecuted for their works. According to the American Library Association, the week celebrates the importance of the First Amendment, while "drawing attention to the harms of censorship by spotlighting actual or attempted bannings of books across the United States." Coming from a family that does a lot of reading, and from working within a couple of libraries, I detest the notion of banning a book for its content, especially in school systems, and I am continually worried when I hear of various books being banned by overprotective parents, school boards of bigoted, ignorant people who misunderstand the reasons behind education.

The ALA published a list of frequently challenged books from across the country. Looking down the list, I see a number of books that I read in high school, and on my own, that I both greatly enjoyed and/or read on my own: The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, Of Mice and Men and The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck, The Lord of the Flies by William Golding, Animal Farm and 1984 by George Orwell (the irony of this book being banned is almost comical), Their Eyes were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston, For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway, The Call of the Wild by Jack London and The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien. I know other books, such as Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials Trilogy and J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series have also been burned or have been pushed to be banned, and I'm reasonably sure that numerous other science fiction, fantasy and other speculative fictions have been banned because of their content.

Education, I believe, is not strictly about the content that students are fed, but a way to understand the world around them. In subjects such as English, this is a paramount lesson to be learned, as books and stories pull specific themes and instances out for characters, and allows students to synthesize problems and see how characters are changed based on their experiences within the story. Within any story, conflict that challenges the characters should likewise challenge the readers, by looking at commonly held assumptions and continually questioning how they go about the world. This is where the greatest learning occurs for anyone.

The outrage here is that limiting the books that students can read traps them within a preset outlook on the world, where books that fall outside of the realm of political correctness, are 'indecent' or overly challenge assumptions are unable to do what they are intended to do. What bothers me even more is that a number of the locations where books are banned within the US come from traditionally right-wing regions of the country, regions where people claim to want to uphold the constitution, to ensure that freedoms aren't limited by their government, while turning around and insisting that they do the very same thing within their communities. The hypocrisy of the situation is stunning, and I can't help but wonder if our insistence on protecting our youth from things that we disagree with is hurting the country as a whole.

The argument against banning books is something that’s been out there for a long time, and there’s very little beyond my own experience and resulting conclusions that I can add to the situation. Looking over my own high school English experience (with some fantastic teachers in the humanities) I am shocked at how many of the books that I read are amongst the most banned list, and for fairly trivial reasons, such as language and content. Moreover, reading some of those books are incredibly valuable experiences for me. Some of the books, such as Of Mice and Men, The Lord of the Flies and For Whom The Bell Tolls, were ones that imparted a number of revelations and provided specific learning experiences that I was then able to build upon. These books are not easy to replace, and students do not read these simply for pleasure: the challenge is the object here.

Nor do I believe that reasons such as language and ‘obscene’ situations hold much water in this day and age, when students have access to the wider internet, where whatever is banned is conceivably right at their fingertips, where there is no guidance or supervision. Instead, parents should take the moral reins and instruction for their children, and teach them right from wrong.

Banning books isn’t the answer, or a good thing for any sort of quality education. Actually educating, challenging and extracting a reaction from students will bring about the proper understanding from students.

Learning to Understand

Earlier today, the former Chief of Staff of the U.S. Army, Gen. Gordon Sullivan, spoke at the museum at Norwich University's campus that bears his name for a brief talk to students. As he opened, he noted that he didn't have a plan for what he wanted to talk about, but pointed out objects in one of the rooms that related to his experience within the time that he had spent in the military. Over the course of his 36 year career, Sullivan has seen a lot: he volunteered to go to Vietnam and served for a couple of tours there, while his career culminated in his presiding over the transition of the U.S. Army after the fall of the Soviet Union, and the massive changes that came as a result of that. A number of points that Sullivan brought up stuck with me over the course of his talk.

General Sullivan is a person that I personally admire greatly, and I’ve had the pleasure of meeting him a couple of times: the first was in 2007, shortly after I graduated from Norwich with a B.A. in History. Several short days after I walked, I boarded a plane for England, then France, and found myself in Normandy with a contingent from Norwich, with Generals Sullivan and Nelson leading the tour of the battlefield, providing a rich amount of historical context for the battlefield, but also an incredible amount of information on the value of good leaders. There is no better place to highlight that issue than on a battlefield, and over the years since, I’ve become fascinated in how this can be applied to everyday life.

One topic that he touched on has particular significance in the modern face of warfare. “It takes troops on the ground, not technology, to solve problems.” To illustrate this, he picked up a piece of metal, a tool that was used in gun, and pointed out that it took over a hundred people to make that part: it was a high tech piece of machinery, and is likely the cumulative result of thousands of hours of research and development, testing and deployment. He then took our attention to a wooden cowbell on the wall of the exhibit, noting that we (The U.S.) were operating in an area where this was a level of technology, and that the combatants on the battlefield could face the United States and come out victorious.

During his tenure of the U.S. Army Chief of Staff during the Clinton Administration, he was working to transition the military after the end of the Cold War, when the operation at Mogadishu resulted in a number of U.S. casualties. The point that he made seemed to wear on him, and he noted that every soldier that died represented a huge loss, losses that the rest of the army, and himself, as the top of the chain of command, were responsible for. And, he noted, this was in a time of peace. His attitude towards the current operations is fairly clear: “You can't kill your way to victory”, and through this, the U.S. has to work with people, get them to change their minds, in order to succeed in this new battlefield.

At one point in his talk, Sullivan noted that he was proud to be a Norwich graduate: "I am proud to say that I took an oath in 1955... I've been part of this for 50 years, and it started here." (paraphrased), and that Norwich was an important place in his life. This has gotten me thinking all afternoon about the value of the two educations that I’ve earned here. The world, and military affairs are incredibly complicated businesses, and a certain level of comprehension brings about a different understanding of the situation.

The military affairs that are going on now are not as cleanly cut as portrayed, and winning is simply not as it was fifty years ago. The military has an ongoing change as its mission shifts from one enemy to others, and with different styles of fighting. Leadership, of the highest caliber, is required to guide these transitions, and I believe that the education that I’ve gotten here, and since earning the official stamps of approval, have given me the mindset that is really required of understanding (at least in part) some of these elements, which I feel will become even more important to our lives. However, as it grows in importance, there needs to be a greater importance in comprehending said events.

I personally count my time in Normandy as one of the most formative educational experiences of my life. I hope that others will follow.

Geek History Month

Website wrote yesterday that August should be Geek History Month, a time to examine the history in all things geek. It's not a website that I have any experience with: the brief announcement that they made had been retweeted from their own feed by several of the people that I follow, and it seems like a good idea.

Geek things seem to be on the rise, from the movies and books that have become increasingly popular with mainstream audiences to the President of the United States dropping in references to photo ops and speeches. Reading over the news every day, I feel like I am reading stories of advances, events and situations that can only exist in a science fictional universe, and it seems that a dedicated month (while somewhat silly) looking over some of the people, events and works that have created the world that we live in a good thing, and a good excuse to write about it.

A society where geeks, and more importantly, their passion for knowledge, science, literature and technology, are valued is something to be treasured indeed. A love for knowledge is something that drives people to achieve great things. In the past century, there has been a remarkable boom in technology, science, and literature that has completely redefined our understanding of the universe, and our very existence.

Earlier last month, I brought along my iPad to my grandmother, as I'd loaded some pictures from my Brother's wedding onto it, and wanted to demonstrate what it would do, as she had been talking about some alternatives to her current internet system, WebTV, which has become increasingly outdated. When I left, I remembered that she had been born in the 1930s, when radio reigned supreme for the public, and since that time, she has seen much in the way of technology, from the first atomic bombs to the first men into space and onto the moon, from when computers once filled a room, to ones that could fit into one's hands and from the first films on the silver screen to the digital theaters' ability to bring just about anything to life.

Looking back at the history of the twentieth century, it seems that much of what has happened over that time is the product of advancements of knowledge, and the people who pursued knowledge, took risks, and sought to entertain, and along the way, defined our nation, and our world, by their actions. It's entirely appropriate that these achievements be looked back upon, as everything that has happened in the past has influenced the present and beyond, creating the geeks of today.

The Fourth of July

Fireworks and cookouts, along with the Red White and Blue that symbolizes our country, characterize July 4th of every year. At the same point, it serves as a good time for reflection on the creation of the country in which we live. The founding of the country is one that is becoming shrouded in myth, with its own set of misconceptions and happenings that are relatively unknown, which makes the constant 'Happy Birthday America' status and twitter updates that I've seen all along be somewhat of humorous statement.

When looking at the founding of the country, the 4th is an obvious holiday to look at, for it was the signing of the Declaration of Independence that formally succeeded the United States from the United Kingdom, and represented the first time that the colonies became a country that stood on their own. However, the founding of the country is something that has happened numerous times throughout our history, and at points, I wonder if the 4th is really a celebration of the beginnings of America, or something else entirely.

If looking at the founding of the country, it is also best to remember that the Europeans who came to the country weren't the first here. The numerous tribes of native Americans have been on this landmass for thousands of years, presumably since the end of the last ice age, when the glacier sheets receded and isolated the continent. They came down through North America and into Central and South Americas, creating their own vast civilizations. The Vikings landed in Newfoundland, Canada around 985-1008 by Lief Eriksson, but later abandoned the settlement. It was not until 1492, on October the 12th that Christopher Columbus, with the three ships under his command, the Santa Maria, the Nina and the Piñta, discovered the Bahamas, believing that he reached the Indies, before continuing down towards Cuba and Haiti. Return trips were planned in the years following his expedition, and soon, Europe was traveling to the newly discovered landmass in larger expeditions. In 1499, the new world was named 'America', after Italian explorer Amerigo Vespucci, who discovered that the new world was not Asia, but a large landmass in between the two. The first European to reach North America was commissioned by Henry VII of England, John Cabot, while others discovered more and more of this new world.

Looking forward three hundred years, the secession of the United States was preceded by decades of events and mismanagement by their British overlords, who taxed the colonies to help offset the massive expenditures of war and government abroad. Various taxes, such as the Stamp Act, Molasses Act Quartering Act and the Tea Tax fanned the flames of irritation against the British government, inciting riots and protests. The famous Boston Tea Party occurred in 1773, as the British government aided the failing East India Tea Company, bringing about the Tea Act, prompting a riot and protest on the part of the Boston merchants. War began a couple of years later in 1775, but clearly, the seeds of discontent had been laid far earlier, bringing about the declaration of independence from the colonies. On August 22nd 1775, the colonies were declared to be in rebellion, and by October of 1781, the British surrendered, and opted to not continue the war by March of the following year, and in November, the United Kingdom recognized the independence of the United States.

In March of 1781, the Continental Congress, began to work on a permanent form of government to lead the country, with plans stretching as far back as 1776, and by the time the war ended in 1781, the Articles of Confederation became effective, setting up a government that granted responsibilities, but almost no authority to maintain those responsibilities. There was a current of distrust in a stronger central government that ultimately crippled the Congress, for it could not regulate commerce, negotiate treaties, declare war or raise an army, create a currency, maintain a judicial branch, and no head of government that was separate from the Congress. While there were upsides to the government, it was unable to effectively govern, and a series of crises arose that threatened the stability of the nation. Shay's Rebellion provides a good example of this, when western Massachusetts went into open revolt in 1786 when the legislature failed to provide debt relief. This was but a singular example of the times, and there were more advocates of a stronger centralized government, where a revision to the Articles of Confederation were demanded, for a government that could regulate interstate and international commerce, raise revenue for the country and raise a single army to confront threats. The Constitutional Convention that arose sparked numerous debates over the rights of the state vs. the federal government (antifederalists vs. federalists, respectively). Despite the intense debate, the Continental Congress closed down on October 10th, 1788, and on March 4th, 1789, the new congress elected George Washington (who believed that the Constitution would only last about 20 years), and a new federal government was born. In a every way, this was the date in which the United States that we know today was formed.

This story of the birth of the United States and 'America', the concept, are important ones to remember, for not only the sequence of events that built upon the last, but their significance in relation to one another. Current ideology amongst popular culture nowadays seems to contort many of the lessons that can be learned from this period of formation within the U.S.. The United Kingdom was thrown off because of an apathetic and overbearing monarchy that failed to represent the interests of the colonies, rather than simply because of the taxes that were levied upon them. To hear senators and public representatives speak that the colonists rebelled simply because of a tax upon tea belies the complicated nature of American independence, and the lessons that were learned in the years afterwards of the failure of a weak centralized government, but also the simple fact that the Constitution of the nation was not the direct product of the American Revolution, but that it was a work in progress, of sorts. America itself, however, has had a series of births and rebirths, and the Declaration of Independence was but one such moment in the history of the nation, concept and location. Still, July 4th is a good of a time as any to celebrate the process, and the existence of the nation itself.

General Barksdale Hamlett

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In 1965, Major General Ernest Harmon retired as the 19th President of Norwich University, after a 15 year career in higher education, presiding over one of the largest growth periods in the University's History during the post-war boom that brought the University a number of new facilities and buildings that still stand today. In his place, General Barksdale Hamlett became the 20th president of the University, after a career that spanned three decades in the United States Army, where he attained the rank of a four-star general, during a volatile time in United States, where he presided over the Cuban Missile Crisis and the escalation of the Vietnam War.

Following a major heart attack that nearly killed him in 1964, Hamlett retired from the military, and in 1965, took the reins of Norwich University (1). In the aftermath of Harmon's rapid growth of the school, there were numerous issues that caused problems for the school. A declining enrollment in the Corps of Cadets was beginning to impact the school's budget, while Hamlett's plans to double the school's endowment from $3.5 million to $6 million dollars was slow as alumni to the school failed to help as much as possible. Just a week after taking his office in July of 1965, Hamlett noted that alumni help for the school's future was "Disappointing", noting that only 32.5% of the alumni base had actually contributed to the $500,000 raised at that point.(2)

In light of the financial issues that the school faced, Hamlett began to create the groundwork that would eventually spell out massive changes to the school. In January, after only six months on the job, he issued long range plans for the school to begin to look into integrating a non-military component and student population to the school, noting: "I told the trustees flat out that if you can't accept change, you better prepare yourself for bankruptcy,"(3) Additionally, he moved to acquire the Vermont Campus College (which occurred in 1972), a civilian school located in Montpelier, Vermont, with a predominantly female population.(4) In one administration, the roots for the modern makeup of the school were planted, and it represented a fairly bold vision for the future of the University, with major changes to a largely traditional offering. At that point, Norwich was one of three schools that was still entirely military in nature.

Currently, Norwich University has a large student population of both military and civilian lifestyle students, although the relationship with Vermont College was dissolved in 2001, Additionally, shortly after this time, the school introduced women to the curriculum, two years after Hamlett stepped down, and two years before the federal service academies. Looking at the Hamlett administration, it's fairly clear that there are a certain number of parallels with the present state of the University.

With the 2008 collapse in global markets, Norwich, like numerous other schools, faced some budget problems, which in turn have pointed to solutions to deal with the University's future, but also the current problems. In 1966, the school's future was in serious doubt, and the University made several drastic changes to the makeup of the school that carry through to the present day: the introduction of civilians, acquiring Vermont College and women to the student body, which opened the school up to new markets and helped to increase the student body.

The current problems facing the school have brought some employee cuts, but a major change in the way the school does business, looking to increase student satisfaction and thus retention to retain students who might otherwise leave. With new dorms and buildings under construction, or recently completed, the school is on track for a good recovery, and with changes put into place to help keep the school functioning for years to come. With the 2019 bicentennial coming up, the future of the school is readily secured, but it does go to show, that while Norwich has faced significant problems in the past, the option to implement drastic changes, while keeping core values at the heart of the school, should remain for those in charge of the school's future.

Hamlett's implementations have remained at the school to this day, and have ultimately proved to be a strong addition to the Norwich experience available to students, who can choose between lifestyles, but also learn from the other side of the equation. With his introduction to the school, there was an 'Emphasis on academic enrichment'(5), something that likewise remains to this day, and despite fears that the school would lose its character, demonstrates the central core of the school's focus: educating practical citizens for the future.

1 - 'Hamlett Inagurated as 20th President', Burlington Free Press, October 26, 1965 2 - 'Norwich Alumni Help Called Disappointing', Burlington Free Press, July 1965 3 - 'Cadets No Longer Submit to Petty Rules; Top Military Schools Have to Ease Rules to Stay in Business', New York Times, May 31, 1972 4 - 'Non Military Students at Norwich?', Times Argus, January 25, 1966 5 - 'Hamlett Inagurated as 20th President', Burlington Free Press, October 26, 1965

Don't Panic! It's Geek Pride Day!

Today, May 25th, is Geek Pride Day. Marking the anniversary of the first Star Wars film release in 1977, the day also coincides with 'Towel Day' to commemorate the passing of Douglas Adams back in 2001, as well as the Glorious 25th of May, for fans of Terry Pratchett's Discworld novels. Overall, while a tongue-in-cheek holiday to commemorate all things nerd, it's a good time to sit back and realize the very real importance of 'geek' and 'nerd' values.

I have long called myself a geek, and it's something that I've written about, and looked at frequently. I've never really gotten the negative connotations of that label: I had my geekier side in High School, that all important time when social stereotypes are defining, and unlike some of my friends, I never had a difficult time with it - Harwood was pretty small, very accepting, and one of my favorite English classes taught Ray Bradbury and Stanislaw Lem. I worked and spent a lot of my spare time in the library, reading away at the extensive Star Wars backlog, before discovering that the library had an extensive collection of science fiction classics. Things were only compounded, when I met several friends at Camp, where I was introduced to such things as Monty Python and Dungeons and Dragons. College brought much of the same, and geeky pursuits have been a common mainstay and interest with my life thus far.

The trick comes with reconciling the vast interests that seems to encompass the 'Geek/Nerd' type of person. Star Wars, Star Trek, Monty Python, Shakespeare, Gothic Literature, Sherlock Holmes, Twilight Imperium, Spiderman, Pirates, Ninjas, The Decemberists, NASA, Narnia, Harry Potter, and so much more all are common interests from most of my friends, sometimes, the same person. Unlike any one field, geeks tend to have an extremely wide range of interests, and while not everyone likes every single element, or just a single one. Reconciling the wide range of franchises and interests that most geeks partake in is close to impossible, where the interests lie with just about everything. A geek, in the larger sense of the word, is essentially someone with a dedicated interest in something - an expert, master, obsessive.

I believe that the speculative fiction genre, which is a sort of umbrella for SciFi, Fantasy, Horror, Gothic and Weird fictions, appeals particularly to geeks because of the immersive and encompassing nature of some of the content. Science Fiction, when done properly, can be literary, scientific, heroic and interesting, all at the same time. There's deep roots to the genre, going back to mythology, but as time moves on, literary influences and scientific advances add on as time goes on. Even when franchises such as Star Wars and Star Trek pop up (not to mention things like Babylon 5, Battlestar Galactica, Farscape, Stargate, etc), the longer storylines, characters and events add in a lot of information to be gone over.

The genre also is one of the rare ones that really translate well over various mediums. Fiction, non-fiction, comic books and graphic novels makes up a lot of the paper content, but video games, films, television shows, online shorts and web comics come across extremely well. The cultural additions that things such as Star Trek and Star Wars have contributed are astounding. Even if someone's never seen the films, they'll generally recognize the Vulcan hand gesture, or the deep breathing of Darth Vader.

There’s a hidden set of values within this sort of interest on the part of geeks. While geek interests been characterized as childish, foolish, a waste of time and so forth, like trying to nail down the definition of the social type, geek values transcend the content, and go more towards the method. There are some exceptions here, especially if one can make a career or living out of what they like to do. Geeks are attentive to detail, and this is a good thing. While the Science Fiction and Fantasy genres are largely passed over by academia, many of the lessons that the traditional mainstays of literature and fiction can be taught with science fiction book. As a student, I was often bored by some of the readings that were assigned: I couldn’t see any practical value in Hawthorne’s The Scarlett Letter, but when it came to Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, the lessons were something that I still value today. The same is most likely true with others. Where people, especially geeks, might be uninterested in one thing, their focus and obsession with what they are interested in is something that can be used as a teaching tool. Some of the biggest industry leaders are geeks, because of their attention to detail, intelligence and vision.

These are good things. A population that is ready, willing and interested in learning is something that is invaluable in today’s society. In a time when there is a perception of apathy with today’s youth when it comes to learning, the right avenues need to be sought out and used, encouraged and nurtured. I firmly believe that my ability and interest to read is one of the key foundations of how I perceive and approach the world. Should I ever have children, they’ll be fed a diet of all sorts of foundations of literature, going back to the Greeks. While I’ve had people question why I’ve read hundreds of Star Wars books, keep hundreds of books in my apartment, and why I’m constantly reading or watching a television show, I point to how these things spark new interests, thoughts, ideas, concepts and so forth, in my mind.

Moreover, the geeks of today are curious, questioning. Science Fiction often is associated with the question: “What If?”, something that is incredibly important in all walks of life. Without that question, humanity never would have crossed the oceans, travelled to the moon or examined something that they weren’t sure about. This, combined with a good education, is something that can be learned from the Geek community.

Plus, Geeks are just damn cool. So, today, on Geek Pride Day, be nice to your friendly, neighborhood geek. In all likelihood, they have some thoughts on world domination, and I can tell you, the high school bullies of the world won’t fare well.

Rant: Education

As someone who studied to become a historian, one of the most frustrating things to watch unfold is the ongoing debate over textbook content that is happening now in Texas. School boards have opted to revise criteria in favor of modern political happenings, injecting their own preferences to combat the 'liberal version' of history as it has been playing out. The political as to how this will impact education aside, this seems to me to be a dangerous shift in how we will educate our younger generations.

In college, I studied both history and geology, and came away with a dominant feeling for context. While exploring vastly different subjects, both the study of prior human events and of geological happenings are linked by a couple of very basic things: they're about actions, and how those actions affect other things down the line. Listening to the radio this afternoon, Vermont Edition talked about a recent landslide that consumed a home in Canada, and geologists on the show noted that there is a direct correlation between what happened over ten thousand years ago and today. Actions have a tendency, in both nature and human history, to have both short term and long term effects. Thus, the context of whatever one is studying is just as important as the individual figures and events that make up the present day.

History is the interpretation of the past. When I've talked about my degree, an M.A. in Military History, I usually have to preface that with an explanation that I'm not an expert in the specifics of World War II, Vietnam, the Napoleonic Era or the American Civil War. This was a degree that was designed to teach someone how to think like a historian, how to research like a historian and how to put together an argument, backed up with evidence like a historian – I can confidently say that I can talk about any number of military concepts, battles and figures, but more importantly, I know how to research those things, but also understand how to examine them within the context of history.

The founder of my alma mater, Alden Partridge, conceived of the school at a time when practical achievements were just as important as the theory behind the words, and as such, sought to educate the first Norwich University cadets in ways that encouraged them to see their teachings in practice, but also to formulate their own thinking based on what they saw when they were seeing. Where Partridge looked to more practical studies, such as Engineering, the same line of thinking applies to the social sciences field, which is where the worry about the Texas Board of Education comes into play.

History is not a static field, but one that is constantly growing and changing as different minds enter the field. Nor is history the study of the past: history is the examination of the past, and the interpretation of events as they happened. Thus, removing important figures such as Thomas Jefferson from mention as a founding father based on some of the things that he pushed eliminates the change to examine some of the context, and arguments, that have helped to shape the present. While teaching any sort of correct form of what happened in the past is far more preferable than teaching something that is ultimately incorrect, the problems surrounding the study of the past in this instance isn’t about correcting past mistakes, it’s about re-framing the past with a modern mindset, and patently ignoring the context of past events to suit modern political thought.

Removing elements of the past is harmful in a number of ways, going far beyond the individual figures: it not only impacts a student’s understanding as to what events happened, but why they happened. Removing Thomas Jefferson as a figure who had pushed for the separation of church and State leaves a void in the understanding for a student as to why the founders placed such a restriction within the constitution. Rewriting history in this manner will thus leave a flawed understanding of the past, which in turn impacts how we view and act in the present.

While that, in and of itself is frightening, what bothers me far more is that a trend towards intellectual backwater and restriction on thought has grown. Often, there are arguments against spending on scientific endeavors, because a practical use or result might not result, or someone cannot think of how any such argument or study can be useful. However, the progress of science and thinking cannot be directed, channeled or moved for convenient thinking: science and learning will ultimately find what it will find: oftentimes, the results and findings exist, but only through searching, will answers be found. The same applies to education, and restricting what people learn simply for the sake of political convenience is short-sighted, ignorant and downright offensive to anybody who wants to see this country grow intellectually, politically and economically in the future.

Tools of the Trade

Facebook has had an awful week, with rollouts and several blotched interviews with employees about the future of the website, with how the site is handling user information. While at points, I've been somewhat worried about what is going on with some of the changes, it's really no different than any other element of the internet, going back to when I first starting building websites online: there is nothing private on the internet. With that in mind, it's important to remember that Facebook is a tool, one that is highly popular, useful, and still very new, but when using it, it should be used as such.

The internet is a place that has absolutely revolutionized how we interact with people around the world. Personally, I work for a graduate school through Norwich University, which deals exclusively through the internet as a way to deliver its content to students enrolled in the various programs that we provide. Speaking as a student who's been through the Military History degree, the online aspect wasn't a huge barrier for me, and ultimately, for other students who go through the program, because the school has refined its methods and found the best way to deliver the content that makes up a graduate degree. And, having gone through the program, I can attest that because it's an online school, it's not an easy thing to do.

Things such as iPhones, Twitter, Facebook, the Angel Learning Platform, hardbound books, and so forth are all tools that are designed (or come to be designed to meet an end) for some purpose. Oftentimes, I've heard people talk about how useless it is to tweet, to be connected to an iPhone, and to spend one's time indoors reading all the time. While it's true that in a number of instances, online resources can be incredible time wasters, they can also be vital for networking, communicating and learning with any number of topics and subjects.

I've been largely leery of twitter, up until a couple of months ago, when I began speaking with several authors and websites through it. Not only did it open several possibilities, I've found that it's a fantastic, informal way to speak with people I might not have been able to speak with, and it allows me to spread what I write as well to those people, who might not ordinarily read my blog, or remember to. At the same point, where I've found that it's a fantastic way to keep in touch with some people, it's likewise a good way to spread news, stories, webpages and videos, like any good social media application should do.

Tools are tools, and the nature of online sites really makes it unclear as to what something is supposed to do. A hammer is supposed to pound nails into things, a car is supposed to transport a person from point A to B, in varying amounts of style, and a website is supposed to promote, create or make money. Facebook is doing just that, and it's doing it well. While I'm disturbed at the sheer amount of unleashed greed and disregard for any sort of ethics behind some of the business practices that Facebook seems to be moving in, it makes perfect business sense for what they're doing: as a business, they need to make money in order to keep the lights on, pay their employees and continue to innovate.

I don't know what the legal obligations are in place for the site to keep people's information secure. It seems like it would make good business sense for them to keep a lid on a lot of things, because with major news organizations and even Congress looking into what they are doing, that doesn't help business, and in the Darwinian world of commerce, something better, like Diaspora, which is touting itself as a startup that will be an open sourced, locked down alternative to Facebook, will take over and go from there. At the same point, users need to realize that Facebook is a sort of tool that allows for connections, and that inherently, they want to make as many connections between users, businesses and items as possible, and opening up information, with that context, makes a lot of sense.

It goes to show that whatever you put online, it doesn't necessarily mean that it's a safe haven. MySpace, Livejournal, Wordpress, Twitter, Facebook, Meebo, Friendster, and the whole lot of it, can be overcome and in all probability, someone else will see it, and they might not be people you want seeing that sort of thing, whether it's a boss, girl/boyfriend, parent, relative, or random other person who has some interest in you. The bottom line, for me, is that it shouldn't go online. Period.

When I heard some of the news coming down the pipeline about Facebook, I was more than a little annoyed. I was almost ready to wash my hands of it, walk away and not look back, but looking at what I use the site for, I would have a difficult time doing that: I use it to talk to people, to share information and to promote my own writing and articles when published, and I have no issues with that. It's become a dominant form of how we talk to each other, and the recent news serves as a good reminder that large businesses don't always have the user's interests at their heart. So, with a little more care online, plus an adblocker, I realize that I really don't care that Facebook sees and shares that i'm a fan of Star Wars, Battlestar Galactica, Sherlock Holmes and Carbon Leaf - the information is there for people to see, and the information that's not there, isn't.

A Library Without Books

The other day, I came across an article that really shocked me. The Cushing Academy in Ashburnham, MA has decided to eliminate their twenty-thousand book library in favor of a digital one. According to the article, they have spent $500,000 to transform the library into a 'learning center' which will be outfitted with several widescreen televisions to display data from the internet and can interface with student laptops, while they have purchased 18 e-book readers (Most likely the Kindle and Sony Reader) which will have access to a large digital library. To cap it off, a coffee shop is being built in place of the circulation desk, including a $12,000 cappuccino machine.

While this really annoys me, I can see why the change is being made. The internet is becoming far more prevalent in our lives, and e-books are going to be on the rise with the successes of's Kindle device and other similar brands. The school is certainly making a logical, and enormously expensive effort to modernize their library to tap into these new changes in how education might go. With this upgrade, students will have access to quite a lot of material.

There are a large number of flaws with this idea, however. The first thing that came to mind for me was what happens during a prolonged power outage? My iPhone, with an e-book reader will barely last a day as I use it, and in a situation such as that, it's going to be going off until I can plug it in. While I can understand the desire to switch to a completely digital library, I can't understand why this would include eliminating the traditional stacks and contents of the library.

This doesn't necessarily stem from a desire to keep books because of the tactile feel and ease of reading - that is certainly a consideration, but that is not the sole virtue of keeping books on the shelves. The biggest concern that the teachers should feel here is the missed opportunities for students to utilize a working library in all aspects - being able to accurately locate a volume on the shelves, how to conduct searches, and simply browsing the shelves for related content. These are skills, especially in the humanities and social studies fields that will be vital for students to learn, for one simple reason: there are many archives and libraries with content that is not digitalized, and nor will it ever be, because of the sheer volume. Computers have successfully been integrated into libraries for years now - they are an invaluable resource for tracking books and their locations throughout a library. I myself have my own tracking software on my computer at home, called BookDB.

The introduction of online shopping and browsing, such as like on or, is something that has never really felt comparable to actually going into a bookstore and browsing the shelves. I've come across numerous books, some of which I never would have come across on my own by just browsing the web pages for books. With every advance, you lose something in the process. Nostalgia aside, presence on a shelf can also make or break an author.

What bothers me more is the attitude that books are unimportant. Books are easily one of the most accessible methods in which to introduce a person to reading, as opposed to an e-reader, which is not only expensive, but is a largely inaccessible technology for most out there - you need an internet connection, computer, account, and so forth. While the successes of the Kindle are well known, proving that there is a market for it, there is a portion of the population that may not have ready access to something like this. People who aren't inclined to read aren't going to go out and go through all the steps, as opposed to a bookstore, where they might browse the shelves and pick up a cheap paperback book.

Another problem with internet only and digital databases is the tendency to rely far too heavily on information gleaned from the websites. Coming from background with a Master's Degree from an online university and working for the same school, I've seen a number of examples of students utilizing Wikipedia as a credible source, as well as other online websites, without carefully scrutinizing or questioning them. Websites such as Wikipedia certainly has their places in the world - it's a fantastic resource for any number of facts, but due to the nature of its existence, it is hard to trust much of it beyond a glance. Online databases are much more reliable, such as JSTOR, but they can be difficult to access and aren't universal to much of the general public, unlike libraries or public archives.

My own experience with online and digital learning was a positive one, but the experience was not completely digitally based. Norwich University's School of Graduate Studies MMH program switched from digital readings to printed coursepacks to alleviate the burden on students printing out everything, and continued throughout to issue books each course. I personally found being able to sit down with a hard copy reading was much easier on my eyes, allowed me to take copious notes in the margins, and were something I could turn to without having to restart my computer after I went to bed.

I personally wouldn't trade books for anything digital. The lesson here that needs to be remembered is that hardcopy books and digital readings are both delivery methods that bring information to a reader, who then does with it what they will. Physical books have the inherent advantage, in my opinion because they are cheaper for the consumer, easier to handle and don't require additional hardware to access. E-books are a fantastic idea to supplement a student body, either through digital textbooks that could be easily updated and distributed, but not as a replacement to a library system in place. Libraries are far more than just for pleasure reading - they serve a scholarly interest, and their use is something that needs to be taught. Plus, walking around stacks of books is just an outstanding way to get carried away.

Residency: Part 2

Norwich's MMH Residency has since come and gone, and I have to say that it was one of the best weeks that I've had in a long while. This week was particularly special to me, because I had started as an administrator with the groups that were graduating this summer, while I walked with them for graduation. I and my March 2007 cohort mates were the accelerated residency group, who essentially graduate early, while still working on our final capstone projects.

The first three days were largely consumed by lectures from the six instructors that attended along with us. This was a change from last year, because we devided to forgo the presentations that used to make up residency in years past. I went to a couple facinating ones about maneuver warfare doctrine, methodology and a rather scary presentation on PhD studies and that entire process.

Seeing and meeting all of my students have really given me some insight into the student side of things. So frequently do I speak with students on the telephone or via e-mail, but rarely (only one of the students who was here was one that I'd met earlier) in person. This provided a fantastic look at how they react to the institution as a whole, while giving me a much better apreciation for what they go through. It wasn't a huge revelation, but a timely and helpful one.

For much of the week, I met up with my cohort mates for dinner and for recreation afterwards. Someone had the brilliant idea to bring along my copy of RISK, which resulted in a couple of really fun nights of beer and board games. While that was fun, it was a great time that I'll remember for a while, and it helped me meet a bunch of people who I'll likely keep in touch with for a long time. I certainly hope so, because there were some very good minds there, and I hope that we can accomplish something in the world with that.

Graduating was weird, because I've worked with this class since I started, and still have more work to do. When I went up on stage, I got a big cheer from my classmates, something that I wasn't expecting at all, and it threw me for a moment. For all of my worries, problems and depression over the past year, I seem to have been doing a good job, and that has cheered me considerably - while I see the mistakes and problems on my end administratively, I've been praised for the work that I do. I realized at that moment that I've been far too hard on myself. It's doubtful that anything is going to change, but it's nice to know that my work has really affected and helped people in this job. I just hope that I can continue to do so.

Leaving everyone was bittersweet. The week went by far too fast, and in my experience with groups, you will never get the same groups together at any one time like this. Real life takes people away, and moments such as this are singular occurances, which makes them all the more better.

Residency: Part 1

This week, I'm finally at my residency for my Master's degree. In March of 2008, I started taking the degree through Norwich University's School of Graduate Studies, working towards a degree in Military History. It's an online school, and every day, I worked with fellow classmates, but through Internet discussion boards and through papers that I wrote and submitted online to my instructors. It's certainly a different way of learning, but I've taken to it.

For every degree, we require that students come on campus, and this week's our week. I'm finally able to meet my fellow classmates, whom I've worked with for 18 months now. Beyond that, I'm finally meeting students whom I've worked with when I first started the program. I've talked with them since day 1 of the degree, and come Friday, I'll be walking with them across the stage. I still have some work to do after this residency (I'm an accelerated student) but the bulk of the program is over. I don't have classwork, just research, which is exciting.

Residency is proving to be a highly productive and entertaining week here. While in years past, we've required students to present their capstone, we've moved away from that this year, in favor of faculty presentations which seems to be pretty popular with the students. Overall, students are enjoying the time, and meeting up with my fellow classmates has been extremely fun.

The first two days have been made up of presentations - I've sat in on ones about military doctrine, the Battle of Kursk, the IRA and the Easter Rising, Roger's Rangers and Historiography and one on how to write and eventually publish a capstone paper. The rest of the week will be some rehersals for Graduation and our Academic Hooding Ceremony, then Graduation on Friday morning. I'm quite looking forward to that.

Vermont Political and Financial Woes

Over the past couple of years, I've gotten far more cogniscent of how politics work and what things mean. While I've largely followed national politics over the past two years, I've gotten a heavy dose of state politics, even more so since the national recession began. In the past couple ot months, I've become extremely frustrated with Governor Jim Douglas (R-VT) and his reactions to the state bugetary crisis. Like many states, Vermont has been hit fairly hard, at least on the state budget level. Overall, we've been lucky - we don't have large masses of housing that can't be sold, heavy industry that's been outsourced to other countries, etc. That being said, we still have a projected $200-$300 million gap, and it's splitting the state down party lines, and not in any good way. There's certainly ways to do this. Cut spending like crazy, eliminating programs, departments and personnel, as the Republicans suggest, or raise taxes and maintain a lot of these programs, as the Democrats have suggested. Both ideas have merit, in my eyes. There have been numerous layoffs already within the state, and some program cuts. The State Senate has already put together a number of plans, with cuts upwards of $100 million, with several additional taxes, such as a .05 cent gas tax and a couple of income ones, only to be told flat out by Gov. Douglas that he will accept no tax hikes at all.

Wait, what?

In normal years, I can fully understand not wanting to have any sort of increase in my taxes - I like my money. But these are extrodinary circumstances, which leads to a sort of double edge sword - while there are most likely programs that are out there that do cost money to operate that can be lost, there are plenty out there that need to remain, because in addition to all of those regular people who have problems, the people whom those programs serve and help to lead any sort of life. Saying no to a .05 cent gas tax makes absolutely no sense, especially when Douglas makes the argument that it will prevent people from ... whatever he's been saying that it'll prevent them from. Bullshit, because a year ago, a gallon of unleaded regular was at least $2 higher than it is today. If there was a time for such a thing, now is it. Once this crisis is over, I'd be more than happy to see it go. This tax in particular would be designed specifically to help fix Vermont's roadways, which, as I've been doing as a lot of driving and can vouch for this, need a lot of work. Between the potholes, cracks and bumps, that money can be put to good use, and free up funds for other programs. Education has been a big issue as well - while listening to the radio, Douglas noted that we have a declining number of students, but are paying for a higher amount. I honestly can't see any problem with this, beause education is the one place that really needs the attention and funds, especially when things such as arts and culture are being stripped away from our schools. Keep the funding and the teachers, and we can provide a far better education for the students that we do have. We certainly need that in this country.

My dad had a good point the other day - Douglas seems to only be saying no in order to maintain a sort of party line - Republican = no taxes, or no higher taxes. While this is admirable, there is nothing good that can come out of this, and he is increasingly alienating the Democratic majority in the Vermont House and Senate, which will make it harder for him in the long run, especially with an election coming up in 2010. He has already suffered a defeat - a needless defeat - earlier this year when he opposed the Marriage Equality Bill that brought Vermont to be the first state to legalize same-sex marriage via legislation, not by the courts.

I'm not opposed to cutting taxes, but I am opposed to the drive to indescriminantly cut away programs simply to maintain a party image to help with re-election. I'm regretting my decision to vote for Gov. Douglas, because I hoped that he would be sensible during this financial crisis. Sadly, I seem to have been wrong.

Education …

 has produced a vast population able to read but unable to distinguish what is worth reading.
G. M. Trevelyan (1876-1962) British historian  


During my senior year of college, I took a course on Norwich University's history. Initially, I wasn't a huge fan of the idea of the course, because honestly, how intertesting is the history of one's own institution? I ended up loving the course, and wound up typing up a piece on the Norwich University students who fought at Normandy, and went to France to talk about it. 


One of the things that I really took away from the course was the school's founder, Alden Partridge, and his ideas about education. He was an incredibly patriotic man, who believed in the idea of a citizen soldier, but who also believed in a well rounded education. One of the big things that I learned was the idea of experiencial learning, and how much of the school's history was set around this style of learning. Partridge would take students out on hikes, marches, field trips, while bringing in experts on all sorts of vocations, but also making sure that his students got out of the classroom and into the field, where students could learn something hands on. 


While I majored in History at Norwich, I also minored in Geology, which I think Partridge would have liked - a mixture of sciences and arts. The Geology department at the school is absolutely fantastic, and those classes are amongst the ones that I miss the most while at the school. We took field trips - lots of them. It wasn't uncommon during some of my courses that we would get together on a weekend and end up in the middle of New York while looking at rocks along the way to see how the rock beds changed as we went further into what was a sea. More memorable, however, was the geology trips to the American southwest, where we visited and studied the Colorado Plateu and Grand Canyon. I feel that because I saw this all close up, I understand it far better than I ever could have by mere examination in a book. 


Over the past couple of months, I've gotten hooked on a webpage called Not Always Right, which features stories from people in service postitions and their odd, funny or disturbing encounters with customers. While reading these, I'm often astounded at the sheer stupidity of people featured in them, and it makes me a bit sad at just how ignorant, backward or just plain oblivious people can be, and while listening to the radio on a program about the state of education or something along those lines, the root problem to this can be solved by some of Partrige's ideas when it came to teaching - experiencial learning can help to solve some of the problems. 


I think that the biggest problem that the United States faces when it comes to educating students is that our education system is largely out of touch with how life really works. Thinking back to high school, I can narry remember a class in which I learned something useful that I apply to today. Most of my social interactions I've learned from summer camp, where I could work with people in the real world. But in school, I never really learned how exactly Shakespheare fit in with a job or anything along those lines. 


The general consensus seems to be that our education system is very out of date and needs to be revised because a lot of students aren't learning what they really need to learn. The content is there, but it seems to me that people aren't making the connection between the academic world, and how to apply things in real life. Looking back to High School and College, the best classes that I had were the ones that the teacher worked to link the class's content with real world applications. In classes such as tech, mathematics, sciences seem to have concepts that are much mroe easily applied in the real world, while classes such as history and other social sciences are a bit tricky, but it is doable. 


What the US needs to do is look to experts in the education field and to see just how kids are learning nowadays. The argument of "It worked for me" just doesn't work because the world that we live in is constantly changing - what might have worked for a politician years ago might not even apply now. 


Learning and education is the most important thing that we can spend money on - teachers shouldn't be cut back, and we need programs that help to support failing schools, rather than undercut their support when they clearly need it the most. But above that, we need to teach people how to think, reason and operate in the world once they come out of the educational system and into the real world.