Musings of An Old Fogie

Too many elders become cynical and fearful as they observe inevitable change occurring within a dynamic culture. I never want to be like that or be dismissed as an “old fogie”. However, I must confess deep concern, worry and skepticism about where our country is headed.

This past weekend we had a terrific weekend at Lawrence University in Appleton, WI centered on the Junior Recital of an extraordinarily gifted young woman. Meeting Elena’s friends was delightful and reason for great hope.

This same weekend a grand-niece was graduating from San Diego State. Yes, amid all the wild fires – only most recent evidence of the climate change which is dramatically transforming what had been considered one of the earth’s most ideal climates. My nephew reported that temps were near 100 in a region where most homes haven’t bothered with air conditioning.

I desperately do not want to be an “old fogie” trapped in fear and cynicism. I am determined to remain hopeful, happy and optimistic. How are we to live with the tension, the very concrete evidence that gives reason for serious concern for our children’s future?

If ever there was a time, we are in need of dusting off what have classically been called the Cardinal Virtues: prudence, justice, temperance and fortitude! Only these seem an adequate antidote to the worry and skepticism even a casual look at “reality” would generate.

A case in point comes from a bastion of conservative American culture, The Wall Street Journal: The class of 2014 is holds a very dubious and discouraging distinction. They’re the most indebted class ever. [link]

The average graduate with student-loan debt leaves with an obligation of $33,000 they need to pay back. Even after adjusting for inflation that’s nearly double the amount borrowers had to pay back 20 years ago. A little over 70% of this year’s bachelor’s degree recipients are leaving school with student loans, up from less than half of graduates in the Class of 1994.

Apparently wanting to avoid the old fogie moniker as well, The Wall Street Journal reports: “The good news for the Class of 2014 is that they likely won’t hold the title of Most Indebted Ever very long. Just as they took it over from the Class of 2013, the Class of 2015 will probably take it from them.”

The Cardinal Virtues were initially articulated by Plato in The Republic and expanded by Cicero. Christianity picked up on them through Ambrose, Augustine and Thomas Aquinas. The term “cardinal” comes from the Latin cardo or hinge; these virtues are considered cardinal because they are the basic virtues required for a virtuous civic life.

This old fogie cannot help but look around and be concerned about some pretty significant fraying in America’s “social contract” around civic virtues such as prudence, justice, temperance and fortitude. Perhaps this is what The Wall Street Journal sees as well.

Never having been accused of being “conservative”, I cannot help but think of the Preamble to our Constitution:

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

I worry – in fairness – whether we are passing on what we old fogies received.

In Praise of Mrs. Dugdale (and others)

FLASHBACK! Cathedral Grade School, Omaha, Mrs. Dugdale’s religion class. It’s the 1960-61 school year. I am in that stage of brain development when rote learning and memorization is what my gray-matter does best.

It’s the time that most boys collect baseball cards and can cite every player’s statistics like they were their own. I collected photos of cars and could identify every new make and model Detroit could churn out.

Mrs. Dugdale: “Dick, what are the Corporal Works of Mercy?”

Richard (AKA “Dick”): “The Corporal Works of Mercy are seven: feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, shelter the homeless, visit the sick, ransom captives and bury the dead.” I smile with pride.

Mrs. Dugdale: “Very good, Dick! What are the Spiritual Works of Mercy?”

Dick (AKA “Richard”): “The Spiritual Works of Mercy are seven: instruct the ignorant, counsel the doubtful, comfort the sorrowing, admonish the sinner, gladly forgive injuries, bear wrongs patiently, pray for the living and the dead.”

Mrs. Dugdale: “Excellent, Dick. You may be seated.”

I was beaming! That was as easy as distinguishing the characteristics and relative merits of the Pontiac Catalina, Chieftain, Fire Chief, Star Chief and Bonneville. I boasted a broad smile as I took my seat.

My friends who went to public school would learn the same information in Sunday School or summer Bible camp. They would most likely learn it directly from Scripture by memorizing 1 Peter 3:8; Romans 12:8 or 15:2; 2 Corinthians 7:15; Philippians 1:8 or 2:1; Colossians 3:12 or Hebrews 13:3. But those of us who went to Catholic school also knew that the best list to memorize was from Jesus’ teaching about the Last Judgment (Matthew 25).

FAST FORWARD: Today, 63 years old, Minneapolis, retired. I am immensely proud of Cathedral Grade School and remain eternally indebted to the Dominican Sisters who ran our school and teachers like Mrs. Dugdale. They knew what was going on, and was comprehensible, in my ten-year old noggin and gave me the education for a lifetime.

Yes, they taught us the Ten Commandments. But quite honestly, I just memorized them without understanding what the heck many of them meant. “Loving God alone with my whole heart, soul and mind” seemed like a worthy idea but wouldn’t change a thing – Mom and Dad and the teachers at Cathedral saw to that! I didn’t steal, except once I took a candy bar from B&B Grocery – but I apologized to Mr. Brannigan the next day! I didn’t have a clue what it meant to covet a neighbor’s wife and no one would even talk about “adultery”!

Corporal and Spiritual Works of Mercy… At least I understood the vocabulary. Even more, I saw my parents, neighbors, teachers and people at church actually doing these things. They were praised, practiced and possible.

Now that I have 63 years of trying to “walk the talk” I am recognizing the profound difference! Too many pious Christians are hung up on the Ten Commandments. They are scary as hell! Not enough people understand that Jesus says absolutely nothing about violation of these commandments when giving us the criteria by which we will be judged.

In Jesus speech about the Last Judgment, no one who murdered, stole, committed adultery (I now know what that is!), lied or cheated is condemned. Jesus’ condemnation does not concern violations of the Ten Commandments!

Jesus’ admonition focuses on failures to do good! Yes, we sin by failing to live according the teaching handed down to Moses on Mt. Sinai. But, Jesus exhorts us to live by something more, by a higher righteousness. (Matthew 5:20)

Seems to me we’d be better off erecting marble monuments on our court-house lawns that quote the Corporal and Spiritual Works of Mercy rather than the Ten Commandments!

On this Mothers Day weekend I am eternally grateful and indebted to Mrs. Dugdale, the Dominican Sisters, and so many other great women who “mothered” God to me. Of course my own mother, Gert, tops that list!  Today, I hope all of you are beaming with pride for what you did with your lives and how you taught others to love.

Still very much a ten-year old boy, someday I want you to be able to say that I’ve done you proud!
I am indebted to Mercy: The Essence of the Gospel and the Key to Christian Life by Walter Kasper, Paulist Press, 2013 for prompting these – and many other – reflections. Taken especially from pp. 142-5.

Doing Our Mothers Proud

Sunday will be the eighth Mothers Day without my Mom. I no longer turn away from the greeting cards prominently displayed at Target. Pop-ups offering flowers interrupting my web-surfing don’t make me sad as they did. Yet, I still miss my Mom and wish I could tell her again – with new insight and fresh motivation – how much I love her.

A few days ago I even posted a request on Facebook: share your best suggestion for how those of us who have lost our mothers are to mark this weekend holiday. Friends offered some great ideas: make one of her favorite recipes, do something she enjoyed doing, share favorite stories about her with others, visit someone in a nursing home.

The suggestion I like best did not come from Facebook but from columnist Nicholas Kristof. The world community is increasingly aware and outraged by the 276 school girls kidnapped by religious fanatics in Nigeria. His “update” from yesterday deserves to be read [here] regardless of his great suggestion for celebrating Mothers Day.

Neither Mr. Kristof nor I begrudge anyone celebrating our mothers with flowers, chocolates or out-for-brunch. I wish my Mom were here to enjoy them. Kristof’s brilliant idea is to celebrate them by honoring the girls still missing in Nigeria. Think of their mothers’ anguish.  In my family’s case this would be especially appropriate.

Regulars here will recall that my favorite Grandmother was orphaned at age 7 and sent from Boston to South Dakota on an orphan train. Her formal education ended at the third grade. My mother earned the highest score in her county on her eighth-grade standardized exam. However, cultural values prevented her from going to high school, despite the protestations of her teacher, because my grandparents presumed she had enough education for what they envisioned her future to be. (Read my previous post [here]).

The greatest threat to the extremism of the Nigerian kidnappers is a girl with a book. Boko Haram, whose name means roughly “Western education is a sin,” admits responsibility for this violent abuse being played out in Nigeria. The greatest antidote to their fanaticism would be to educate and empower women. I am absolutely certain my mother would agree.

Kristof offers a number of excellent suggestions: One would be a donation to support girls going to school around Africa through the Campaign for Female Education [link]; a $40 gift pays for a girl’s school uniform.

Or there’s the Mothers’ Day Movement [link] which is supporting a clean water initiative in Uganda. With access to water, some girls will no longer have to drop out of school to haul water.

You may wish to support something closer to home. This year I plan to send what I would have spent on flowers for my Mom to Avenues for Homeless Youth [link].  On any night in the state of Minnesota, 4,000+ youth and young adults are homeless and unaccompanied by an adult. Youth homelessness has jumped 63% in Minnesota since 2009.

Other than keeping the pressure of global outrage on the tragedy in Nigeria, there is little you and I can do to rescue the kidnapped girls. Whether our mothers are with us to receive our expressions of gratitude and love or they have passed from us, there is still so much we can each do to honor these girls and celebrate the lives of our mothers.

Let’s make them proud!

How Are the Children?

As a development officer at the University of Minnesota I was well aware that two-thirds of students enrolled in four-year colleges and universities nationwide take on student loans to help pay for their education. Each year I would soberly inform prospective donors the debt a typical student carries upon graduation, today nearly $30,000. The burden of such an obligation – especially for our grads in the College of Education and Human Development who generally enter careers at the low end of the salary range – was a good motivator for me to get up and go to work every day. I naively assumed that money I raised would really make a difference.

Now I recognize that our students are enmeshed in a system that is much more complex and resistant to meaningful reform. Here’s the harsh bind in which young people find themselves: Many wouldn’t be able to attend college at all without easy access to loans. Over the past thirty years the real cost of attending a four-year institution has at least tripled, far outpacing inflation. I saw this at the U of M and how available grants and scholarships just didn’t go as far as they used to. Besides, we fought an erroneous perception that as a “state school” costs at the U are relatively cheap and well subsidized by tax-payers. Not true! Combine all this with the fact that family income levels have been stagnant since the 1970s.

The squeeze placed on our young people ain’t pretty! An incisive article in the current issue of  Commonweal [link] by Hollis Phelps reports that 38 million individuals now hold a combined total of more than $1 trillion in student loan debt. That’s four times what it was ten years ago, and it surpasses total U.S. credit card debt. In fact, when it comes to what Americans owe, student loan debt is second only to mortgage debt. And generally, these obligations are virtually impossible to discharge in a bankruptcy proceeding. While many are struggling to keep their heads above water, at least 10 percent of recent borrowers are currently in default, the highest rate in almost twenty years.

Hollis describes a typical situation: Students, especially those with the greatest need who sometimes graduate with double the average debt, aren’t necessarily poor planners or irresponsible borrowers, misinformed about the debt they are taking on to finance their college education. They just come from homes that couldn’t afford to put money into a college savings account. They already have part-time jobs, but a typical minimum wage doesn’t make much of a dent in current tuition rates. They know what it means to tighten their belts, since they’ve done so all their lives.

Most of us are well aware of these challenging realities. But Hollis article opened my eyes to a shocking truth: moralistically shifting all responsibility onto the individual borrower conceals the fact that student loan debt is, in one way or another, a highly profitable business. The Congressional Budget Office has estimated that the federal government stands to make $175 billion in profit from student loans over the next decade, and profits for loan servicers and lenders have continued to rise. Investors and speculators are also in on the action, as student loan debts, like risky mortgages, are bundled and sold as securities in financial markets. The Wall Street Journal has reported that investors want more, with demand as much as fifteen times greater than supply.

Then there are the schools themselves. There are campuses to maintain, faculty and staff to pay and fierce competition out there for bodies, especially among the huge number of schools that are dependent on student tuition for operating revenue. The simple fact is that many institutions would likely cease to exist, at least in their current forms, without the reality of student debt. As with too much in our Free Market economy, we have “commodified” our students.

Hollis correctly observes that higher education functions similarly to our current healthcare system: it’s a complicated market composed of numerous actors that operate at various levels to sell a product that individuals in some sense have to consume. Opting out of either system isn’t really much of an option, and individuals will go to great lengths, including taking on exorbitant debt, to use the services both provide, because both have direct impacts on livelihood. All the while, those who run the systems profit from our needs and desires.

It’s a big mess! I suspect we will not muster the energy to resolve the economic, social, academic and political challenges until we recognize our moral responsibilites imbedded in the current state of affairs and accept, in justice, the obligation we have to more than our own biological children.