Category Archives: Uncategorized

THE TYRANNY OF POWER

In 2012 my granddaughter and I visited London and Paris. She was 14 and I was 74. We thoroughly enjoyed both cities as we visited the usual tourist venues and roamed through historical sites. Sometimes with a group but usually by ourselves.

When we visited Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, signs everywhere celebrated the structure’s 800th birthday. Although completed in 1345, construction actually started 200 years earlier. The 800-year mark was a kind of rounding of the depiction of age. 

Our visit was years before the devasting fire that destroyed the cathedral’s roof and other defining features.

Those who have studied the history of Paris are amazed at how the city evolved. In ways so haphazard it almost defies description. Early tribal influences are evident, as are the dominance of Rome and the devastation caused by frequent wars and plagues.

Through all the cycles of power building, construction of monumental institutions of learning and faith, and influences of various monarchies and political and economic elites, Paris has somehow emerged as one of the more culturally interesting places on earth. Contributing to human legacies associated with literature, the visual and performing arts, medicine, food, architecture, even philosophical thought.

The city is also well known for the Reign of Terror and later emergence of Napoleon. Other leaders who claimed royal authority. Those who controlled the populace in ways that caused them to participate in self destructive behaviors.

After my granddaughter and I were suitably awed by the grandeur and majesty of Notre Dame, we walked outside and pondered the meaning of it all. As a young adult, I taught world history. I knew that Paris in the 1300s was nothing like it is today. While a few other large buildings were present, most of the city was not much more than a shanty town.

Filled with disease and human misery. Most people were lucky to live to age 30. Horrible pandemics, wars, and famines killed people by the hundreds of thousands.

Notre Dame, like the dozens of other European cathedrals of that era, was built by the church to cement its power over the people. The contrast between the real world and soaring walls and stained-glass windows of the magnificent edifice convinced the uneducated masses that it was a depiction of heaven.

The clergy were therefore agents of God on earth. Their pronouncements were tantamount to being directives from the Almighty. Since death was just around the corner for many Paris residents, they readily acceded to the demands of priests. In terms of behavior, payment of indulgences, and allegiance to approved theological principles.

It did not take much to convince uneducated peasants they were indeed depraved creatures full of sin and unworthiness. Living in a harsh world only heaven could relieve.

A couple centuries later began an enlightenment that started changing the customs of thinking and acting. Resulting in the Renaissance and the growth of humanism. Human beings did not need to live under the control of ecclesiastical or monarchial authorities, bowing to their power and edicts.

That change of belief was gradual, sometimes resulting in warfare and other forms of revolt. The Reign of Terror was possibly the most extreme rebellion. Tens of thousands of people were either executed, died in prison, or succumbed for other reasons. Members of the clergy were among them.

The tyranny of power is still prevalent. It showed its face throughout the 20th Century. Again, it resulted in astronomical death and suffering through war and the side effects of conflict.

Adolph Hitler oversaw the construction of many glorious monuments to his megalomania. All were destroyed after his death. And the deaths of millions of his followers.

That same tyranny of power is now being displayed in Russia. By a man who believes he is the protector of a certain belief system, cultural destiny, and national imperative. Televised pictures from the Kremlin, his seat of authority, reveal another kind of majestic structure.

Lovely architecture, high ceilings, sparkling chandeliers, and uniformed guards goosestepping their way back and forth. All while he orders subordinates to kill and conquer territory he believes belongs to his nation. To him.

As a Christian and believer that human beings are born good and worthy of God’s grace, the reality of our history on earth mystifies me. Walking the streets of Paris, my granddaughter was transfixed by the wonder of it all. Enchanted by the artistry found in the Louvre and the magnificence of the Eiffel Tower. The majesty of Versailles and picturesque vision of the Seine River. Young couples strolling along the shore. 

I tried to see the cityscape through her eyes. But it was hard.

My upbringing was in a family that respected societal rules of order when they made sense and served the good of everyone. But arbitrariness was another thing entirely.

Both my parents and other members of my family were quick to dispute what they believed to be nonsensical edicts. No matter the source. Government, church, or some official who believed himself to be sacrosanct and gifted with special powers of insight or intuition.

They had no patience with any kind of tyrannical power exercised by someone exuding haughty self-importance. That family legacy remains with me today.

It causes me to become furious at the rise of men and women who find political or financial success through conveying an overinflated ego and so-called strength of conviction. All in the guise of leadership applied to protect us from forces they define as an evil surrounding our culture and well-being.

Paris is known as the “City of Lights.” A center of culture and liberal thought. But the pathway to that status is strewn with the debris of human missteps.

Mistaken allegiance to the tyranny of power. Maybe that is the lesson to be learned today. So we can avoid the suffering of those who lived in centuries past. 

©2022 Stu Ervay – All Rights Reserved

SHAPING CULTURAL DEPTH

We have no say as to when, where, or to whom we are born. Nor can we dictate the circumstances of our upbringing, the quality of our physical development or the culture that envelopes us. Our lives unfold in accordance with the cultural values surrounding us.

We learn to adjust. To cope with challenges and learn how to manage our lives within that milieu of existence.

King Charles III is ten years younger than I am. Born into a British family enveloped with cultural significance and assigned historical roles that today seem archaic and superfluous. By the time he was five years old his mother became queen. And Charles was acutely aware of the symbolism associated with being a royal and heir to his mother’s position when she died.

His most influential early-day family mentors were his father, Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, and uncle, Louis Mountbatten. They oversaw his initial education, making sure he was shaped into a vigorous youth. Capable of enduring mental and physical rigors. Later he was guided into naval service and became a jet and helicopter pilot, as well as a ship’s commanding officer.

Charles is also well-known as Diana’s husband and father of their two children, William and Harry. Also for the tragedy that surrounded the marriage and Diana’s death. The media attention given those aspects of Charles’ life sublimates something else about him that is infinitely more significant.

A characteristic I hope emerges more distinctly now that he is King.

During his late teen years to the present, Charles developed an intense interest in anthropology and our human relationship with the spiritual world. That interest made him seem like an oddball to members of his family and the national press. He was criticized for hanging around scholars and others who advocated a closer connection to our ancient roots and cultural underpinnings.

To many, Charles seemed like a looney vestige of a long-lost past, seeking to develop a modern society based on a cultural myth. Of a time when people lived in small villages and interacted with each other in ways that were mutually beneficial.

When empathy and caring prevailed. When the world was not dominated by economic and political juggernauts that controlled our thoughts and behaviors in ways dictated by those in charge.

Unlike those of us who can only talk or write about such ideas, Charles has money to make things happen. Projects designed to make a difference in many categories of human life. Just a few of his projects almost boggle the mind.

They cover everything from saving the environment to sustaining the economy. He has given considerable attention to saving and sustaining Britain’s rural communities. The nation’s enduring traditions are high on his list of priorities, and he is a major contributor to the visual and performing arts.

Charles initiates and leads projects rooted in the belief that the culture we live in must have more depth and meaning. Wealthy Americans who sponsor charitable foundations also give away money based on their priorities. But I have rarely seen the kind of philosophical depth behind those projects that Charles exudes.

Maybe the difference has something to do with vision.

For years I administered a university research and development center that depended on grants from government and foundations. We were successful in acquiring grant money because we had people in the office who knew how to respond to “RFPs” (requests for proposals). 

My grant proposal writers could figuratively get inside the heads of those administering the money (bureaucrats or foundation personnel). They used the right catch phrases, pushed the right psychological buttons, and made our proposed project seem like solid gold. Even when it wasn’t.

Some foundations did not release RFPs, but instead initiated contact themselves if they believed a project aligned with their priorities.

University administrators always encouraged the seeking of grant money regardless of the project’s quality. But too often I found the funded projects to be superficial. A waste of time and money. They were either trivial or redundant. They lacked substance, because the vision underlying them was too shallow.

Shallow vision is the kind that provides short-term answers for long-term problems. Or offers solutions that have already been tried and failed.

True vision always involves system modifications which eliminates tinkering around the edges of something.

When Charles talks about bettering the environment, he is not suggesting we plant a few more trees or drive fewer miles. He insists on a larger, more systemic commitment. The same is true with enriching the culture.

Cultural enrichment is more than opening a museum or building monuments to the past. It requires a kind of values examination and growing awareness of who and what we aspire to be as a collection of people. Getting to that point requires ongoing and multifaceted education. Institutionally based and incorporated into the daily activities of a community.

Plato believed in the philosopher king form of government. That our leaders should be reflective and intellectually rooted in the best of human wisdom.

Charles comes close to meeting that criterion. A ruling principle vastly better than allowing ambitious and shallow dictators force their will on the nation they lead.

Or depending solely on democracy’s sponsorship of contentious debate that promotes fear or the application of popular quick-fix solutions.

King Charles III is mortal and will eventually die. It will be interesting to see what legacy he leaves Great Britain and the world. Or how he serves the culture into which he was born.

©2022 Stu Ervay – All Rights Reserved

METAMORPHOSIS: AN ACT OF BECOMING

Adaptation is nature’s way of allowing living things, animal or vegetable, to become different within a life cycle. To change as rapidly as possible to survive existence on this planet. In an environment that kills if the new lifeform does not adjust quickly.

Changes are often caused by a natural biological evolution. Think caterpillars becoming butterflies or moths. Mixed with an inbred instinct to move and behave in ways designed to perpetuate survival through a specified life cycle. External factors such as climatic conditions or predators can interrupt the metamorphosis.

Like animals, thousands of plants are born and go through a similar pattern of change.

Biologists continue to be intrigued by the fact most animals are born with inbred instincts or protective qualities that keep them as safe as possible during their formative period.   

But all living things die sooner or later. Regardless of how successfully they find accommodation with their new environment.

Human beings are not wired like other living things on earth. Unlike the lamb that can walk just hours after birth, people require months. Unlike other animals with instinctual abilities to care for themselves in a few weeks or months, we require years. Even decades.

It is therefore remarkable that we, of all earth’s creatures, have dominated the planet. With very little in the way of instinct to nurture our growth and ability to survive.

Anthropologists say it is our eventual ability to walk upright, grow a large and powerful brain, communicate through spoken language, and use our high intelligence and opposable thumbs to manipulate tools that can modify our environment and way of life.

We are also much more Sensient or self-aware. With the ability to create complex cultures that govern, nurture, entertain, and protect us.

And we have relatively long lives. Which is both a blessing and challenge. The blessing is evident. The challenge is complicated.

Human metamorphosis is, at the very least, multifaceted and multidimensional. It wears many faces and includes many personalities. Our evolution has at its foundation survival strategies, war, conquest, and social mechanisms to control our behavior physically, morally, and religiously.

We use our highly developed brain to override limited and baseline instincts that have the power to destroy us when applied on a macro scale. Instincts that otherwise work in micro terms. Within small communities and tribes.

Sociologists and psychologists analyze our behavior and draw conclusions meant to explain or control any abhorrent tendencies. Biologists and medical experts continually study our bodies and brains to determine how they work, or not, and what to do when things go haywire.

When the biological and physiological systems within us become less compatible with our environment, we create and apply strategies to overcome those disorders, diseases, and pandemics.

Religions examine the human condition and draw conclusions about who we are and can become. If we are open and accepting of spiritual direction emanating from the work of a divine presence.

Constant renewal is sought and received through contemplation and reflection on the purpose of our lives. Individually and collectively. With awareness coming through insights gained from study, introspection, and steady connections with God. 

Through writings and teachings of those who previously examined, created, or revealed the means of interacting with our maker.

Becoming

An easier and more comfortable way of thinking about human metamorphosis starts by using a less scientific term: becoming.

As with metamorphosis, becoming is the kind of change that seeks to make us increasingly better. But in our case, it is not simply a blossoming of lovely wings on a butterfly or the colorful hues of a flower as it shows its face to the sun.

Rather, it is a complex array of emotions, behaviors, and thought processes that vary widely with each individual.

That complex array of human characteristics includes knowledge, skills, beliefs, relationships, and introspection. Characteristics not qualitatively uniform among human beings. Which make some knowledge areas and skills marginal.

Beliefs misguided. Relationships tenuous. Introspection shallow.

The act of human learning through formal or informal means is designed to overcome deficient characteristics. To improve dimensions of our “becoming” that are detrimental to ourselves and others. 

Such learning is propagated by teachers of some kind.

Informal types of teaching are usually family or community-based, the prevalent process for centuries. In more recent eras we collectivized the education process through religious organizations and schools.

As our cultures become more advanced, teachers in whatever category must be more than mere information givers. They must be sensitive and intuitive.

Helping their students “become” in truly transformational ways involves thorough engagement. With sought-for outcomes being a sophisticated set of insights that help young people become more in many ways.

American Schools and Colleges are Poor Agents for Becoming

For most of my 84 years, I have been an educator. Trying to help young people manage their own metamorphosis or becoming. Attempting to help them become more than what is offered by ordinary activities.

We live in an era dominated by the notion that formal education is to create a well-prepared workforce. In earlier eras schools were established that centered their curricula on religious studies. With other forms of schooling focused on scientific or technological pursuits. A few were created to prepare clergy and military leaders.

Workforce and domestic preparation often occurred on family farms or in apprenticeships. Community schools were developed later, first for children between seven and eleven. High schools and junior highs emerged. Afterward came the comprehensive high schools offering vocational programs.

School curricula were designed to inculcate students with economic and commercially viable values and skills. With enough social studies to help students understand governmental decision-making. Exceptions to that systems approach were usually within preparatory programs stressing the importance of service and leadership.

Often in military and faith-based schools, somewhat working under the common umbrella of service. To encourage young people to enter a life in which their own prerogatives are less important than those of the people they serve.

Today’s public schools, influenced greatly by state and federal micromanagement, are focused almost exclusively on the idea and practice of factual inculcation. They do not typically help students become more of what their human metamorphic potential is. 

Such as:

  • honorable pursuits,
  • relationship building,
  • pursuing and using knowledge in multiple and diverse settings,
  • strengthening their own resolve to serve,
  • building feelings of empathy, or
  • seeking ways to become part of something greater than themselves to be a force for good.

Instead “becoming” is more akin to robotic and unsatisfying behaviors among our young people. Our so-called millennials and the succeeding group sometimes referred to as Generation Z.  Who may not see the core of their lives as being anything more than existing in a metamorphic vacuum.

©2022 Stu Ervay – All Rights Reserved

ESPRIT DE CORPS

Like all animals, we human beings have a herding instinct. It is built into our DNA for many reasons, but the most important reason is survival.

We are vulnerable when alone. Physically, psychologically, emotionally, and intellectually.

Being or feeling totally alone causes panic or despair. Either condition brings on an acceptance of death as a reasonable option. Ceasing to exist is the ultimate cure for psychic or physical pain.

Death is not always caused by a violent or drug-induced kind of suicide.

Among elderly people who feel isolated and alone, they simply shut down by allowing themselves to cease caring. About themselves. About anyone or anything else. By achieving a kind of ennui and despondency, which triggers the fragile body’s other systems to respond accordingly.

Young people with feelings of dissociation or rejection can do much the same. But their healthier bodies are not as quick to respond to the anguish emitted by the brain. Which makes the suffering much worse. Until they place themselves into a position in society risky enough to likely cause their demise.

Or resort to a more direct way to extinguish the pain.

*********************

My 60 years as an educator and researcher into ways people live, learn, and thrive has taught me many lessons. The most important is that human beings must be positively and continuously engaged with each other to have a purposeful and happy life. To avoid the cataclysmic outlook that leads to the ultimate disengagement.

Achieving that status requires a social catalyst, a stimulus that makes everything else happen. In ordinary words, people must feel REALLY part of a group. Not just a member, contributor, or supporter. But essential.

As in, “Without me the group and its purposes would be difficult to achieve.”

Essentialness is not the same as feeling special. Or superior. It is a quiet dedication with no reward expected. From someone who can be depended on. Even if unique or eccentric.

In fact, unique or eccentric behaviors are often the spark that energizes creativity and success in meeting a group’s mission. Groups that recognize and even nurture that eccentricity benefit in both planned and unplanned ways. A two-way street. Both the group and unique member become better, fulfilled in both tangible and intangible ways. 

Older people usually know how to become engaged with others if they are willing. And if given the opportunity to do it. Groups want to be open and inviting but must actively show how one can become essential.

Then prove it by providing real opportunity for an involvement that means something. That actively recognizes and takes advantage of the individual’s talents in ways that are mutually beneficial.

As a man in his mid-80s, I know how to reach out and become engaged with a group and develop supportive relationships. I also accept the reality that some groups and individuals are more responsive than others, which prompts me to always carry around alternative plans.

My basic criterion is that the group with which I affiliate has a solid purpose and sense of direction. An enthusiasm for existing that is invigorating and dynamic. A kind of esprit de corps.

That term resonates with me because of my past affiliation with the military, and because it is the core of good group dynamics. All for one and one for all. With a personal caveat that the group’s mission is moral, worthy, and well thought out. That loyalty to the group is reciprocated with the group’s genuine loyalty to its members.

My motives for reaching out are not based on an overdeveloped kind of neediness, but rather the desire to expand my interests and talent in providing service. If, after honest attempts to become engaged with a group under those criteria fail, I go to that second or third plan.

I am also cognizant of my years and feel blessed to function reasonably well at an advanced age. Realizing my current condition will not last forever. Future adjustments will be required.

*****************

Young people still forming their personalities and self-awareness are more tentative and emotionally fragile. They may not know how to become authentically engaged with others. They may be confused by the constantly changing mores of our era. Do they know how to protect themselves from their own vulnerability, which makes engaging with others feel risky and sometimes dangerous?

Boys and girls need family and a sense of being an essential part of something bigger than they. A community. A school. Church. Anything that expands on and engages them in a sense of nurturing human service. An activity or association that surrounds them with the aura of essentialism. Their lives as human beings transcending the animal-like existence based only on survival.

Esprit de corps. Being part of something with a kind of universal meaning. Even spiritually uplifting.

I recognized that need when young. Sports activities were an option. But I could not then, nor even now, think of sports or games as being anything more than diversions in which one can excel if physically and mentally capable.

For most of us, any essentialism in the context of sports is fleeting. Something to excite us vicariously while seated in a stadium or watching television. A recreational activity that produces joy in spending time with others in a celebratory or interactional setting. Incidental fun.

This opinion is not a criticism. But esprit de corps attempted through vicarious connections seems shallow and brief.

True esprit de corps is never shallow. It resides in the human soul, not in the temporal regions of our being. It is the foundation for cultural meaning and connection to eternal relevance.

****************

I recently completed a book titled The New Learning Infrastructure. In it I criticize today’s American schools for being micromanaged by those who believe schools are solely for the transmission of information and skills. I strongly suggest they do not uplift students in ways that merge their personas with culturally based depth.

Impersonal facts and skills taught in mechanistic and piecemeal ways are dehumanizing and robotic. None of the creative and inspirational drive that produces meaningful living. Or encourages the feelings of esprit de corps needed to feel truly part of our national or communal culture.

There is nothing to stand for at the end of that educational process. Except to become part of the faceless community of workers, consumers, and those who subsist. Given entertaining diversions and a life without much meaning. And that is not enough.

In The New Learning Infrastructure, I provide a model for how to overcome that inadequacy. The model includes teachers who act with a different motivation and are treated differently. A richer and more engaging kind of curriculum with assessments that are ongoing and multifaceted.

A model that involves serious intellectual and scholastic engagement. With curricular outcomes that make it possible for students to seek out and be qualified to be part of a meaningful and purposeful life.

Making that kind of change will not be easy. But it is necessary for our future citizens to be and feel part of anything essential. Anything that builds individual and collective feelings of esprit de corps.

©2022 Stu Ervay – All Rights Reserved

DIGNITY IS THE ULTIMATE SERVICE

The queen is dead. Long live the king.

Queen Elizabeth II ended her reign and service to the British people like she started it. With no pomp and circumstance until the English penchant for pageantry kicked in. First with a resplendent 1952 coronation and 70 years later with an elaborate funeral.

Elizabeth was born into a royal family. Next in line to the monarchy. Brought into the world as a clueless and helpless infant.

But quickly acceptant of what tradition and citizens expected as she grew to adulthood. To be a dignified exemplar of the culture and steadying influence in chaotic and even dangerous times.

To sit atop a governmental structure that is an amalgam of both aristocratic oversight and democratic dynamism. A system that accepts its parts as mutually supportive. An aristocrat who is maternalistically wise working with a family of those who represent the partisan wishes of the people who elect them.

Generally referred to as a constitutional monarchy. Lofty wisdom reinforced by a love of the people mixed with the turmoil caused by their political preferences and demands.

Our nation is roughly modeled on that British parliamentary form of government. With major differences.

George Washington rejected the chance to be an American king and head of state. Which caused us to combine the positions of head of state and chief executive of the government into one popularly elected presidency.

That modification made sense in 1787. It makes sense to us today.

But merging those two functions causes our democracy to be overwhelmed by political rancor and petty disputes. With no prevailing aura of national purpose other than our Constitution, flag, and traditions emanating from historical highpoints.

No calming influence coming from a loving parent figure within a monarchy.

A monarchy is not a guaranteed way to modulate the governing process and avoid political acrimony. Kings and queens are human too. They can be stupid, misguided, biased, petty, and even wicked.

But they are more inclined to assume the mantle of tradition founded on ancestral principles. As in what it means to be British. Historically and in terms of customs and allegiances.

If the monarch is smart and sensitive, with a deep desire to serve the people as a voice of reason and expression of need, something transcends political debate and the advocacy of extremes. That something is undimmed vision and belief in moral continuity. Sometimes misguided and even flawed. But nonetheless present and powerful.

Then there is the quality Elizabeth II had in spades: dignity. Dignity is a characteristic politicians rarely demonstrate because their governmental systems make it hard to achieve.

Even our most esteemed political leaders lack dignity when running for office. Extreme partisanship, contentious debate, campaign missteps, and impatient or agitated temperament can extinguish dignified behavior.

And modern media has made the melee even worse than it was during the “yellow journalism” days. When powerful publishers could sway public opinion with editorials and biased reporting.

We badly need dignity in our leaders. A behavior to emulate as we navigate our own challenges in life. Dignity in the guise of authentic caring for others, respect for the opinions of everyone, the giving of credit to those who deserve it, and always telling the truth.

Believing in the value of democratic discourse, with a demeanor of reasonableness and acceptance when it is deserved.

Dignity is not pompous or selfish. It is accepting and complimentary, with a curiosity that seeks ideas and opinions of others. And incorporates them into better ways to lead. Acknowledging the worth of everyone.

Dignity is not the characteristic of a perfect human being. Christians believe that happened only once. But it can appear to be present in a few more contemporary people not possessing such celestial connections.

Among American political leaders, Dwight Eisenhower came close. As did Colin Powell.

Catholic popes have too. Certain American first ladies seem to qualify, such as Eleanor Roosevelt, Barbara Bush, and Michelle Obama.

Not to be overlooked are Mahatma Gandhi, Desmond Tutu, and the Dalai Lama. And a long list of others.

All icons of the warmth and graciousness known as dignity. A demeanor that invites reflection and dedication to a higher form of human interaction.

It is time for us all to demonstrate dignity in our everyday and ordinary lives. Not to just hover above the fray, but to accept each other as being worthy and valuable. Allowing political disagreements to remain in that arena of debate. Then to enter a temple of contemplation that opens insight and deeper understanding.

©2022 Stu Ervay – All Rights Reserved

TO COPE IS NOT TO LIVE

Ukraine is on my mind. And its people are in my prayers. As well as in my reflections on serving the purpose of human life.

A recent news report on the death of Mikhail Gorbachev gave me an opportunity to reflect on his life and what he attempted to do with it. He was the last leader of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), with titles such as General Secretary of the Communist Party, Chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet, and President of the Soviet Union.

Gorbachev was responsible for dismantling the USSR and opening Russia to the world as a positive participant in the community of nations. That action brought him both admiration and disdain. Admiration from the world’s democracies. Hatred from many citizens of Russia.

Those outside Russia were relieved that a large and menacing nuclear empire had finally accepted an accommodation with nations that were once enemies. Including the United States.

But that era of good feeling did not last long. A friend of mine explained why.

Dr. Zoya Malkova was once equivalent to the American Secretary of Education within the USSR. After the USSR fell, she traveled the world to explain why that event was traumatic for Russians. In speeches while in the United States, she said that dismantling the USSR was equivalent in America to losing the Constitution and our entire system of government.

Even worse, it was like losing our history and great leaders, along with an intense diminishment of our religious institutions. Losing everything and everyone we once believed in as an American culture.

That kind of disintegration is what was happening in her home country. The Russia she even fought for as a fighter pilot in World War II.

What was left for Russian children to believe in? What was left for schools to teach beyond the basics?

To be sure, Russia’s history included excellent achievements in the arts. Composers, writers, ballet, and other symbols of achievement were enormous contributions. Its military defeated the Nazis after losing 20 million people doing it. And, partially through use of Nazi scientists, the USSR was first to send a satellite into space.

Even so, Russia as a culture worth revering and living in became nothing more than a shell of its previous stature. It had no reverential depth. Nothing that allowed people to proudly salute what had become a nondescript flag. Or identify with a cultural foundation on which personal achievements could be built.

Russia to many of its citizens became a shrunken facsimile of what was once a great power on earth, with its famous czars and czarinas fading into an irrelevant history. An intellectual and emotional vacuum.

Russians learned to cope with that reality. But had difficulty living with it.

Aristotle is thought to have said, “Nature abhors a vacuum.” I don’t know if that is accurate, but human beings have a hard time with vacuums. Both in terms of atmosphere and emotional survival. Breathing is necessary to live. Believing in something is essential for leading a full life.

The vacuum Russians felt and still feel was noticed by leaders following Gorbachev, including Vladmir Putin. Their answer, particularly Putin’s, has been an attempt to recapture what was. At least in territory and military dominance. To gain back the USSR using whatever techniques necessary.

Regaining the country known as Ukraine is a start, at least in Putin’s mind. Portions of that country were known as historically Russian in language and culture. But that smaller nation had moved away from its previous history, so Putin decided to just take Crimea and then everything else through military force.

Because of Putin’s actions many people are having to cope with unnecessary and horrendous losses. Their lives, homes, infrastructure, economic security, and peaceful living they once enjoyed are going up in smoke. Military personnel serving both Ukraine and Russia are being sacrificed daily, all in the service of one man’s ambitions.  For a nation that once existed but exists no more.  And never will.

I served the United States as a tank company commander. But was never deployed to a shooting war such as being fought along the border with Russia and inside Ukraine. However, it takes very little imagination for me to know what is being endured by both military and civilian personnel.  The terror must be inexplicable.

All done in the name of something that is nothing more than the figment of a man’s imagination and longing, to make Russia great again. A man who gives his followers and supporters the same kind of fervor. Thereby taking many people over the precipice into oblivion.

An evil service we already know too well. Of the kind emulated in too many other countries of the world.

Mikhail Gorbachev tried to educate his nation and bring its people to an acceptance of a new way of thinking and acting. That their national pride could be restored in time through peaceful actions and cooperative attitudes. He spoke, wrote, and tried to convey a message that many heard. But others did not, mostly because they refused to listen or believe his ideas.

To them, war is an option. Even if it means disaster. Coping with the unthinkable. Extinguishing life along the way.

©2022 Stu Ervay – All Rights Reserved

SERENDIPITY AND THE GROWTH OF HUBRIS

Forrest Gump was the main character in a film of the same name. The fictitious storyline featured a young man played as an adult by Tom Hanks.

Both physically and mentally challenged, Forrest was born in deprivation. His personal challenges were mitigated somewhat by a loving mother and caring childhood friend.

Like all of us, Forrest could not control the circumstances of his birth. None of us control when and where we will be born, or the quality of the life that awaits us outside the womb. Neither can we control our DNA and genetic dispositions. Like all living things, some of us are more fortunate than others in how our brain and other internal parts work. Or do not.

What I find particularly intriguing about the Forrest Gump story is its underlying commentary about the nature of human characteristics, success, and failure.

Forrest was declared to be a cripple but later could run like the wind. He was considered inept physically but proved to be exceptionally well-coordinated and athletic. He was believed to be stupid but accumulated and used knowledge beneficial for becoming financially successful. His perceived lack of intelligence and perceptiveness was overturned by his intuitive nature.

Understanding his own limitations, Forrest was never judgmental. Nor could he understand why others must be judgmental. Accepting of his own limitations, he was capable of being open to others not so inclined.

Much about the Forrest Gump story is improbable to most of us. But we also eventually recognize that somewhere inside us is a little nugget of genius. Nothing that can be categorized or evaluated with a pencil and paper test. Or given a numerical or letter grade. Or placed on a comparative chart or bell-shaped curve.

Sometimes we fail to recognize that nugget of genius in ourselves. Even when it emerges full blown into a viewpoint or demonstration of skill previously unknown to us. It just shows up and seems to grow inside us until we begin to realize how it makes us special.

As Forrest realized when he took his son to the bus stop and waited on a bench for him to come home from school. He had an enormous capacity for unconditional love.

Who knows why things happen the way they do? As a man in his mid-80s I sometimes look back on my life with wonder. Much of it has been serendipitous, as with all of us.

Why didn’t my 1938 birth take place in Germany as a Jewish boy, instead of in upstate New York to parents who can trace their lineage to before the American Revolutionary War?

It’s likely my life in Germany would have ended within five years of my birth. Murdered in the Holocaust.

The “What ifs?” are endless. Race, gender, condition at birth, historical era, environmental circumstances, cultural beliefs, health, and beyond.

Serendipity. My intelligence is unlike my Down Syndrome granddaughter born with a chromosomal imbalance. My body’s chemical makeup was unlike my alcoholic brother who died at age 31.

My existence has been providential in terms of relational skills and abilities valued by the society in which I was born. Auspicious in that I had skills valued by my culture. Yet lacking many others.

My mental acuity gave me a little advantage in communications. And I could navigate cultural peculiarities with a bit more insight than usual.

My upbringing caused me to face and overcome personal challenges that could have been discouraging. Stuttering morphed into articulateness. Skinny awkwardness transformed into agility. Confusion about life became fascination, especially with how human beings organize themselves.

Clubs, churches, armies, government, schools, and other ways we assemble and work in concert. To fulfill a goal. To oppose an enemy. To build communities and infrastructure. To improve the quality of human life in general.

Maybe that is the reason I first became a public-school social studies teacher. And later a college level teacher educator. And finally, the creator of a nonprofit service (https://cliweb.org/) to improve the quality of American schools. An effort that revealed to me vast differences of opinion about what schools are for and how they should be administered.

Differences of opinion expanded into movements in which like-minded people attempt to sway others toward their ideology through a systematic medium.

A medium for discourse called politics, in which people assume philosophical allegiances out of which they advocate certain kinds of actions. To overturn serendipitous or planned tendencies and beliefs of those who align themselves with viewpoints unlike their own. About money, property, rights, privileges, power, and religious convictions.

The act of people taking sides when disagreements become inflexible positions. Something Forrest Gump never understood, even when thrust into the midst of a 1970s demonstration against a war he survived with honor.

Forrest was simply not capable of political zeal. His world was a source of wonderment, and relationships were straightforward and unprejudiced. Extremes did not exist in his mind. Nor did it occur to him that anyone needed to dominate the beliefs and actions of everyone else.

Or that some people accept that kind of domination. Even seek out and then respect anyone who exercises that kind of so-called leadership. Self-proclaimed leaders who find pleasure in the ability to enflame and envelope other people with the ideas and ambitions emerging from an overinflated sense of importance and entitlement. 

Hubris in the guise of extreme and ethically untethered self-assuredness is a mental aberration proven disastrous to human existence. Many times. It is an evil mission hatched in the same core of exceptionality that produces a need to provide service. But is inflated by a medium that communicates fear and animosity toward others. Promoting an artificial kind of assumed clairvoyance about how human beings should live out their lives.

Forrest’s world of service was to those sitting next to him on bus stop benches, an embittered ex-army officer, people he encountered here and there, and the intelligent son who mysteriously entered his life through a loving relationship he did not fully comprehend. 

A serendipitous feather drifted to his feet. Magically opened a potential he did not realize he possessed. Placed him in contact with an assortment of people he both influenced and was influenced by. And Forrest avoided the hubris that consumes us today.

©2022 Stu Ervay – All Rights Reserved

THOUGHTS ON EFFECTIVE ALTRUISM

The amazing power of human beings allows us to gravitate from one extreme to another in terms of:

  • attitude
  • belief systems
  • philosophy
  • ambition
  • perspective,
  • motivation

My formative years were the 1940s and 1950s. The world was as evil as humans could make it. Starting decades before I arrived on earth. With all manner of power politics, imposition of prejudice and hubris. And a carryover of the delusion that our species can be divided into various levels of inferiority or superiority. Race, gender, culture. Even religion.

Wars conducted up to the midpoint of the 20th Century directly or indirectly killed tens of millions of people worldwide. And left a continuing legacy of pain and suffering everywhere.

My generation in the United States was imbued with the notion our reason for living was to provide service to others. Possibly because so many were appalled at the carnage and despair created by decades of war, genocide, and conquest based on greed. Sickened by the belief that the gulf between privilege and grinding poverty and despair was the natural way of things.

Although service to others was an overriding aspiration, it had geographic and contextual exceptions. Mine was life within the boundaries of a newly expanding Phoenix, Arizona. Within schools that were large because the city could not keep up with its exploding population. New facilities were still on the drawing board. With almost 6000 students in my high school. As a white adolescent, I was in the minority.

My lower middle-class family was the norm among white kids. Friends were representative of all races and economic groups after the Supreme Court mandated racial equity. The one exception was inclusion of indigenous kids still attending BIA (Bureau of Indian Affairs) boarding schools, a practice I later despised.

The service sphere in which my convictions were formed included church, YMCA, and a military that advertised itself as a peace-keeping force. Those organizations were my context. My channels through which service could be provided. A kind of cultural milieu with altruism at its heart.

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A current magazine article details a new movement titled Effective Altruism. The primary influencer is a 35-year-old associate professor of philosophy at Oxford University: William Macaskill.

In his book, What We Owe the Future, Macaskill advocates the expansion of a moral circle. That circle includes those with whom we live on earth today and the millions who will come after us.

Believers in Macaskill’s philosophy are organizing themselves around the world. Many of the strongest supporters of what has become known as the EA Movement are young entrepreneurs. They believe they should share their good fortune with others now and far into the future.

What strikes me about the movement is that it is far from being a new idea. Our largest and most influential religions have advocated effective altruism for centuries. With varying degrees of success.

Even many of the American entrepreneurs of the Nineteenth Century, the so-called “Robber Barons,” gave away their money and other holdings in impressive chunks and for good causes. Andrew Carnegie alone gave away over $350,000,000. Which would exceed $11,000,000,000 today. His donations changed education, libraries, communities, and the lives of millions.

Carnegie’s legacy of largess has made, and continues to make, a big difference. But we must never forget that Carnegie, like the billionaires today, did not make any personal sacrifices when giving away all that money. It was a service that required no personal diminishment of property or well-being.

The EA Movement is essentially an updated take on humanism. The idea that we are all in this thing called life together, and we owe it to each other to be kind and generous. Especially as that generosity relates to property.

Unlike Carnegie, the EA Movement does suggest that some sacrifice on the part of the giver be involved.

To me, service has more dimensions than money deposited for the benefit of others now and in the future. It must be a way of life. A way of relating to others through love and understanding. A way of sharing the view that God has given human beings a sense of why we even exist.

The gift of self to others includes love, caring, time, and the mitigation of hurt, illness, and despair. Whether in the context of humanism or religious responsibility.

My preference is the inclusion of God and religious belief. As a human family that systematically acknowledges its origins and reasons for being. To diligently serve the family with love and humility.

©2022 Stu Ervay – All Rights Reserved

SERVICE AND COURAGE

In a previous post I discussed service and humility. Defining humility not as a condition of meekness or subservience. But the willingness to be a dynamic force, even a change agent, without expectation of acknowledgement or reward. 

Humility is the opposite of deferential compliance. Which is meeting expectations of those who have found ways to exercise dominance over others. To remain docile and even emotionally paralyzed when encountering the juggernaut of political preferences or managerial power.

I am in the process of converting the blog, newlearninginfrastructure.com, into a book manuscript titled The New Learning Infrastructure: Educators with the Courage to Reform Local Schools. As I wrote the blog and prepared the book manuscript, many courageous educators who inspired me came to mind.

Four of them were and still are my greatest source of inspiration. Who they are and reasons why they inspire me in the realm of authentic school reform:

Doug Christensen, Commissioner Emeritus Nebraska Department of Education

Nebraska’s STARS (School-based, Teacher-led Assessment and Reporting System) is an assessment and reporting system created to support efforts to improve the local schools of the state. The foundation of STARS was three dimensional: (1) originates in the classroom and at the school-level, not the state level; (2) focuses on teaching and learning, not test scores; and (3) provides the data and evidence to support the work of educators and policymakers in improving the quality of decision-making and improvement initiatives.

STARS and its minimal “regulations” built partnerships between the state and the local schools to strengthen curriculum, instruction, and assessment for improved student learning. The STARS system used a different set of philosophies, policies, and practical ideas than the federal No Child Left Behind initiative. Resulting in conflicts and uneasy compromises which have taken center stage since 2001.

Doug Christensen courageously fought imposition of the federal mandate, eventually needing to compromise in order to receive federal funds for discretionary school improvement. Nonetheless, Nebraska was the last state to accede to federal pressure to receive ESEA support. Elements of the STARS program still exist in Nebraska. 

Carol S. Roach, President Emeritus Chairman, Board of Directors Curriculum Leadership Institute

Courage is best reflected in the willingness to accept significant challenges, even when circumstances are vague and not especially promising. It is more remarkable when the ongoing effort to achieve results is full of obstacles and complicated problems. Problems like client acceptance of new ideas and strategies. Significant changes in personal and organizational behaviors.

Carol Roach authored and implemented excellent public school curricular guides for law-related education. She worked closely with the Kansas Joint Commission on Public Understanding of the Law. She later created a series of effective training workshops for community college extension programs, businesses, and public agencies, known as Effective Methods of Teaching/Training Seminars. In 1991 she was co-founder of the Curriculum Leadership Institute (CLI). She co-authored The Curriculum Leader book and dozens of other materials used by public schools throughout the United States and overseas. Carol conducted workshops in hundreds of locations and was a consultant to many school districts and other educational entities such as consortia.

Every project Carol led involved courage to advocate out-of-the-box thinking and acting. Most important is her service as role-model to those now employed by or associated with the Curriculum Leadership Institute. After 30 years, CLI continues to provide nationally recognized nonprofit assistance to the nation’s schools. Carol’s legacy is exceptional. Unparalleled service based on courage and unselfish dedication.  

Dan Lumley, Retired District Administrator Researcher, Motivational Speaker, Change Agent Kansas and Missouri / National

Courageous service is often a product of a leader’s fascination with history and the exploration of the “what ifs” of human existence. Often those thoughts result in exploring ideas that serendipitously seem to work for no predetermined reason. Something like Arnold Toynbee’s observation, “History is just one damn thing after another.” 

The genius of Dan Lumley’s courageous service is detailed in his leadership of curriculum and instruction in three school districts in Kansas and Missouri. His fascination with how people interact intellectually, thereby becoming more engaged and motivated. Dan’s service is also based on an ability to give the ordinary a novel and even humorous twist. A skill that makes students and his workshop attendees see the world through a different lens. Difficult to write into a public-school curriculum because it is anything but unidimensional with just one correct answer.

Dan’s approach to learning aligns well with the new emphasis on creativity as being the preeminent learning outcome in the new Taxonomy of Educational Objectives. Today’s learning theorists avoid the term “learning objectives.” They view learning as a dynamic process, more suitable to 21st century work and living. Dan has advocated that idea for decades, which stimulates students and fellow educators to become more than they thought was possible.

Ken Weaver, Dean Emeritus The Teachers College Emporia State University

In 2010, the Kansas State Department of Education sponsored a committee that wrote Teacher Leader Standards. School district support was sought for teachers to defray expenses of earning the endorsement and a $1000 permanent addition to base salary provided by the legislature. Ken Weaver ensured that Emporia State University would be the first to sign on to the project by offering a teacher leader endorsement. Although lack of funding caused by the 2009 recession stopped project development, ESU continues to have an area of concentration in teacher leadership. Five “domains” that emphasize professional collaboration in using research to improve teaching, learning, and use of data for school improvement.

Although the original project is dormant, Ken’s interim leadership of the National Teachers Hall of Fame is now connected with the National Network of State Teachers of the Year. A strategic plan built on teacher leadership. Ken encourages the members of the National Teachers Hall of Fame to use their NTHF platform to elevate the awareness of the bold initiatives they established as dynamic and creative teacher leaders to change schools.

Ken has provided courageous service in previous endeavors as a Peace Corps volunteer, public school teacher, professor of educational psychology, department chair, and college dean. All those contributions bode well for his exercise of leadership in an organization that for 30 years contributed much to the betterment of American schools. And is poised to do even more in the years ahead.

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These four educational leaders demonstrated and continue to provide dynamic service. As opposed to passive and compliant ministrations.

“Dynamic” has many synonyms that underscore its power as an action. Among them are forward-looking, energetic, vital, and vigorous. I add other descriptors that incorporate creativity, essential problem-solving, and incisive sensitivity that result in finding new solutions to perennially perplexing problems.

And above all the courage to assert themselves as people who give their everything to making a significant difference.

©2022 Stu Ervay – All Rights Reserved

SERVICE AND HUMILITY

Service and humility are often used in the same sentence. Associated with Christianity. And the world’s other great religions.

Humility is the opposite of pride. Self-effacing service that expects nothing in return. Not even recognition of sacrifices made on behalf of others.

Modesty is a word often cited as a synonym for humility. Modest people do not work for recognition or praise. They offer their service as a personal gift to fellow human beings.

While I understand the differences between pride and humility, the issue has often confused me. For example, how can someone who is known as an ambitious politician morph over time into a respected and revered statesman?

Consider Abraham Lincoln.

Lincoln started as an ambitious railroad lawyer who found ways to rise in government. To weave through the pre-Civil War political minefield astutely enough to be noticed. Then nominated by a new Republican Party as a presidential candidate who opposed the expansion of slavery.

Lincoln was smart and courageous. He made controversial decisions and pushed them through. It was after his election that humility emerged, brought about by authentic anguish and suffering. The scope of the problem he inherited almost overwhelmed him. But he persevered through depression and anxiety. Rose to the occasion, thereby preserving the union he cherished.

Myths are generated to convince later generations that paragons of virtue, self-deprecating and unpretentious, always emerge from human ordinariness to lead. But even Christ did not do that. He was noticed not because of his humility but through the demonstration of his extraordinary gifts, bestowed on him by God, his father.

I enjoy reading about Winston Churchill. He was anything but humble and did not apologize for it. His literary and oratory barbs on the subject are legendary. Churchill once quipped, “My political opponent is a modest man with much to be modest about.”

What made Churchill so amazing was his ability to see things as they really were. Then he had the courage to act in accordance with needs of the time. In so doing, Churchill made some horrible mistakes. But he also saved his nation from Nazi conquest. Through stubborn self-confidence and risk-taking convictions, with humility nowhere in sight.

But humility existed in Churchill’s psyche. He expressed guilt for asking the people of Great Britain to accept extreme hardships—to save themselves from conquest. From the kind of despotic rule that would ruin centuries of democratic growth.

Saint Francis of Assisi is often cited as the Christian example of humility. But he was not just an invisible monk doing the Lord’s work in isolation. In fact, he started life as a wealthy and vain young man. His subsequent experiences converted him into the self-sacrificing ways he ultimately accepted. And vigorously advocated.

Sanit Francis used skills from his earlier days to create an influential order known as the Franciscans. What makes Franciscans effective is their leadership initiative. Never meant to gain wealth for themselves, but to better serve others.

Richard Rohr is a famous Christian author, speaker, and Franciscan priest. Rohr is a strong spiritual leader, not because of a presumed humility. But because he powerfully advocates better ways of becoming and living. 

His writing and speaking come from a kind of boldness much like the Hebrew word, “chutzpah.” Rohr is sometimes criticized for his beliefs, particularly associated with the meaning of the Trinity. But he persistently hammers home the points he advocates.

He is anything but meek and lowly—two other words often associated with humility and modesty. As taken from the Beatitudes, “Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth.”

The most common interpretation is that we should all avoid furthering our own agendas. Rather, trust in God to direct the outcome of events. To obey God’s will.

But the word obey should not mean utter submissiveness and timidity. That interpretation of ”obey” can be comforting to some who follow God’s commandments. But it can also be used to allow a few human beings to dominate others. To advance their own ambitions. Not God’s. 

Human beings who wish us to obey want us to be loyal. Loyal to their vision as to who we should be, and what we should do. A few of them suggest that loyalty to them is tantamount to being loyal to God.

Some politicians use that same rationale about patriotism, that being loyal to them is truly patriotic.

That is despotism, which has been used to destroy much of the world. And is now being used in Russia. It has nothing whatever to do with God’s will.

Compliance is another word for submissiveness. Usually applied as a legalism in the military or business world. With implications associated with servitude. To do what one is told.

Another blog I have written, soon to be a book, addresses how top-down directives have ruined American schools. Check out: newlearninginfrastructure.com. I suggest ways courageous local educators can cease being compliant civil servants in ways that diminish and even distort real student learning.

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Service to our world is sustained by courage. Jesus Christ demonstrated the ultimate kind of courage. He was crucified because he would not comply with erroneous directives coming from authority figures, or even the societal norms in which he lived. He was loyal only to God, his father. His humility was found in an advocacy that was not self-serving. But sacrificial.

Service based on true devotion to God has nothing to do with subservience. Or merely obeying God’s wishes as interpreted by those who profess to know them.

Service is dynamic and relational. It is based on continuing study and interacting with others. With the role of humility connected to careful listening and contemplation.

That is the essence of learning. Ongoing learning is the foundation for providing effective service. With humility associated with the acceptance of not knowing. And the need to seek greater wisdom every day.

©2022 Stu Ervay – All Rights Reserved