Saturday, April 25, 2009

...and the Future is Now

The end of every academic term is invariably a bittersweet moment for me. It's a reprieve from a lot of hard work. But it's also the waning moments in a large number of intense relationships. In the previous three months, I've been privileged to have met and worked in depth with as many as 45 to 60 young individuals. Each one is special in his or her own way, each one a character with a whole lifetime worth of experiences shared (in varying degrees, of course), each has a certain knowledge base and fount of wisdom that has been tapped in various classroom sessions, each a face with a unique personality that's been unveiled.

It may be a cliche for me to say that what I learn from these university students is far more than I can ever "teach" because we hear this from teachers all the time; but it's not an exaggeration. (And I'm not just talking about the techy stuff I learn from them every term!) This past term, for example, I supervised 17 teams (of 48 students) in their survey-based research projects on "green topics." The range of topics developed, studied and then presented in terms of detailed written reports and presentations was amazing. The works presented of high quality. The ecological intelligence demonstrated was admirable.

Themes included everything from the attitude of student consumers toward the use of plastic bags to student views on the viability of electric cars. One group argued the case that recycling is wrongly overemphasized and then surveyed fellow students on the topic and expounded on the variety of perspectives, while another group investigated the littering of beaches in Singapore after collecting data from scores of respondent/beach users and critiquing views on the issue. A number of research groups even evaluated various areas of the the national university's "green" policy and procedures, producing highly informed reports that would be of value to real-world policy makers.

From following all these projects, and from reading eight postings of reflective, expository and creative writing in 48 individual blogs (and the subsequent commentary), I can honestly say that I have been in the company of many dynamic and seemingly tireless thinkers, proactive in their curiosity and initiative, highly critical in their observations, novel in their insights. I've seen them weather the combined storm fronts of too many courses and too much homework--- how they have persevered! I've seen them receive and accept direct open criticism. from me and peers --- how they've persevered! Many of these guys, whether from China, Indonesia, Malaysia, Mauritius, Sri Lanka, here in Singapore or elsewhere, have shown that they are intelligent in their abilities, competent in their methods, honest in their assessments of themselves and others, inspiring in their words and dreams, and forward-looking in their perspectives --- demonstrating the characteristics of future leaders for their respective fields.

These students have also reinforced my belief in the "good of humanity" as I have watched them meet and communicate with one another, bond and build teams amongst themselves, and support each other intellectually and emotionally while facing challenges under duress that might have brought even the most experienced professionals to their knees. And they seemed to achieve it all while still having time to complete Facebook quizzes and communicate with long list of friends!

In short, I've been extremely lucky. While observing things in some areas of the world leaves me begging for answers and feeling a bit listless, interacting with these students has given me a feeling of great satisfaction and renewed hope. If only they ARE the future....

...because the future is now!

The only questions that remains is this: What heights will these guys be allowed to achieve?

Sunday, April 05, 2009

The Reckless Search for Meaning: Another Week, Another Headline about Gun Violence in America

Gun violence in America. And the elements of the story always seem to be the same. A frustrated main character. Questionable motives. A slew of guns and a bullet-proof vest. A seemingly random place. The explosive moment(s). An innocent group of victims. Then widespread reports in the media.

The aftermath is always the same, too. A public outcry, the pointing of fingers. Some blame the gun industry, its producers, the sellers, the market, the buyers. Others take aim at the National Rifle Association, the organization that the late actor Charleston Heston represented. Those who either own a gun and/or who believe that gun ownership is as American as apple pie will blame only the perpetrators themselves. They claim that America is a country overwhelmed by the criminal and the insane, a land of too many psychoses and vices for any law-abiding citizen to ever give up his or her guns.

In reader comments written in response to an article that documented the recent massacre in Binghamton, New York, one writer suggested that had the immigrants and others who were killed been carrying guns, they would not have died. When reading that, I had this vision of an immigration officer at the US border issuing every entrant a new handgun, just in case.

No matter who is to blame, everyone agrees on one thing: gun violence is out of control in America. The image of hundreds of millions of guns strikes many as a sea that can never be crossed. The stat of thousands of gun deaths every year gives people worldwide the sense that America is still in its Wild West phase, that it's a place where shooting from the hip or getting gunned down in an argument is as routine as singing the country's praises.

When I was a kid in southern Ohio, owning a gun was certainly routine. All my friends, it seemed, had guns, generally used for hunting and for target practice (an odd sport, I now think). I was not from a hunting family though. Neither of my grandfathers and my father never brandished a gun in my sight. My brothers and I did briefly own pellet and bb-guns, which we used for shooting rats at my dad's grain elevator. But those were mere toys compared to the more common rifles and shotguns.

I remember the only time I ever did "real" hunting with a rifle. A friend and I were out looking for groundhogs in a pasture on his farm. I actually got one in my sights, and I shot it on the first go, I think. But before I could reach it, it had managed to crawl 10 meters then back into its hole (where I assume it died). Retracing its death march, I was sickened by the sight of the poor creature's blood lacing the ground from the spot where it had been shot to its home. Oddly, that was a "cathartic" experience for me, and my last outing as a recreational hunter.

Now as an American who has been removed from his country's shores and its "gun culture" for nearly half his life, I find the whole thing absurd. For me, from the outside looking in, using a gun to kill anything, whether a deer or a rabbit or a sparrow, seems as anachronistic as the old practice of burning widows must seem to the modern Indian, or as ridiculous as conducting female genital mutilation must appear to the contemporary African.

Killing humans, sadly, is just a few steps beyond killing other animals. (Look at how many of us train for that option in the military!) Granted, the vast majority of hunters would never do such a thing. However, with recreational hunting so popular and so many guns in circulation, and with TV and film showing us all just how easy it is to pull a trigger and how easy it is to "take someone bad out," the message gets through loud and clear. The gun option is on the table for those who want or need to use it.

And for many Americans, having the gun option is a must. They see it not just as a right enshrined in their country's constitution but as an element of their culture as deeply ingrained as their religious beliefs and their value for family. In that way, it's part of many Americans' identity. Owning a gun is one part security, but three parts self-image. For those characters at the extreme -- whether American or not (it's not a national thing, really, only a question of availability) -- their having and using a gun can become the ultimate power trip.

For this reason, I am not hopeful: the situation in the US will not change, at least not within the foreseeable future.

And for those of us who would rather not live in fear, who would rather that our children (generally) be safe at school and our other family members, friends and fellow citizens be out of harm's way, there are alternative places to spend parts of our lifetimes.

For more on this issue, read here.


One Day's Top Ten Local Stories from an Ohio Newspaper

Below are the "top ten local stories" from the Columbus Dispatch, central Ohio's most widely circulated newspaper. The first story refers to two female university students being robbed at gunpoint. Four of the others also refer to gun incidents. That's 50% of the top ten local stories for a Monday morning.

Consider these headlines in light of my previous post on gun violence in America.

from The Dispatch:

Today’s Top Stories

2 OSU students robbed at gunpoint near campus
Man's body found on West Side lawn
19-year-old man dies in ATV accident
2 die in crash near Circleville
Columbus man killed self, shot girlfriend on East Side, police say
Police ID victim in East Side alley shooting
Male shooter sought in West Side market robbery
City ponders extra $6.5 million paid for paramedics over basic EMTs
'Green' visitor toilets to grace Governor's Residence
Census jobs plenty popular this time around

I love Ohio, and America in general, but this is ridiculous!