Get Smart

All of us have been in situations where we shake our heads and ask, “How’d they know that?”  Some people just “get it” before the rest of us catch on.  People often think I’m smarter than I really am.  Truth is, I’ve just had opportunities to hang around a lot of people smarter than me.

That, and my hope to catch a few tips, drew my attention to something Shana Lebowitz, Strategy reporter for Business Insider, posted on the World Economic Forum blog. [link]. Maybe if more of us knew what smart people do, and did more of that ourselves, we’d all make smarter decisions.

With that hope, here are the qualities that nearly all super smart people share:

1. They’re highly adaptable. They remain flexible and are able to thrive in different settings.

2. They understand how much they don’t know. Intelligent people aren’t afraid to admit they don’t know. They see this as an opportunity to learn.

3. They have insatiable curiosity. Albert Einstein famously said, “I have no special talents, I am only passionately curious.”

4. They ask good questions. Intelligent people know that asking thought-provoking questions is just as important as providing answers. That’s especially important when old answers (old wine-skins?) don’t answer new questions.

5. They’re sensitive to other people’s experiences. Being attuned to the needs and feelings of others and acting in a way that is sensitive to those needs, is a core component of emotional intelligence. They listen well!

6. They’re open-minded. Smart people don’t close themselves off to new ideas, opportunities or alternative solutions.

7. They’re skeptical. This goes hand-in-hand with open-mindedness. The key is being willing to consider new ideas as long as they’re backed by supporting evidence.

Okay, Kneading Bread is a blog about spirituality. So posting these seven traits of really smart people comes with an ulterior motive. What does “being smart” have to do with our spirituality? How do thinking-people link these traits with our religious beliefs? What do they suggest about a mature faith?

I won’t be so presumptuous as to say what they should mean for your spirituality. I intend only to “ask good questions.” I trust each and all of us will remain curious, open-minded and admit what we don’t know.

All I will hazard to suggest is that we be really, really skeptical of any leader, community or religion that doesn’t want us to get smarter and smarter all the time.

Living An Extraordinary Life

Sometimes we see something and it cuts right to the core.  Sometimes we hear something so clearly expressed we wonder how we could ever have missed it.  Sometimes we read something and know it expresses eternal truth.

More and more, I am coming to the conclusion that all such wisdom is either understandable to children or it is suspect and perhaps counterfeit.

A dear freind shared something with me yesterday that moved me in this way:

Do not ask your children
to strive for extraordinary lives.
Such striving may seem admirable,
but it is the way of foolishness.
Help them instead to find the wonder
and the marvel of an ordinary life.
Show them the joy of tasting
tomatoes, apples and pears.
Show them how to cry
when pets and people die.
Show them the infinite pleasure
in the touch of a hand.
And make the ordinary come alive for them.
The extraordinary will take care of itself.

My hunch is this is precisely what Jesus was trying to teach us when he told us that unless we become like little children we will never enter the Kingdom of God.

Sometimes we confound ourselves with convoluted statements that simply obfuscate the truth.  Sometimes children have it hands down over adults.  Most of the time, the extraordiary is right before us!

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― “Make the Ordinary Come Alive” is by William Martin, The Parent’s Tao Te Ching: Ancient Advice for Modern Parents, #35.

Being of Some Earthly Good

Back when I was doing ministry with the Lakota on the Pine Ridge Reservation — could it really have been more than 25 years ago! — bands of mostly young people traipsed through on service trips. Most came at this time of year with eagerness, generosity and a good dose of naïveté. With a critical attitude that frightens me today, I came to harshly judge the value of such trips smacking of cultural imperialism.

I ranted about others painting Grandma’s house when the responsibility really belonged to her own kids. I cynically dismissed the students for coming from privileged suburban schools to further polish their already exaggerated egos at the expense of people I had come to know as colleagues and friends.  Yes indeed, I could be pretty cynical and harsh!

Such angry judgments embarrass me now.  They have also been found to be unfair and unfounded. There is solid evidence for the power and potential of service. Michelle Sterk-Barrett, at the College of the Holy Cross, is an expert on the issues of best practices in preparation, execution, and the processing of often life-changing encounters.

Sterk-Barrett’s research shows that service experience has a huge impact on both faith formation and citizen engagement. She’s found that service changes students’ world views and self-concepts in critical areas:

  • Students who perform some kind of sustained service during their education discover that social problems are far more complex than they’d previously assumed.
  • They develop a powerful sense that an individual can improve conditions for those who suffer and can influence social values.
  • They discover a level of social concern that changes them into people who identify themselves as engaged, potential community leaders who want to make constructive change.

In contract, Strek-Barrett’s study found that students who did not engage in service experienced no change in these qualities, values or characteristics.

Rather than harshly dismissing well-heeled kids from the ‘burbs, Sterk-Barrett helped me see their generosity as an “eye-opening experience” for them. She states what we all know:

[Many parents] have made decisions that prevent our children from knowing those facing injustice in the world. In a desire to have our children have access to the best educational opportunities and minimize the potential for them to live in unsafe environments, we have collectively segregated ourselves, so that it’s nearly impossible to know and build relationships with people living in poverty.

The result of this segregation?  Stereotypes that perpetuate the misconception that people in need are fundamentally inferior to those of us who have been “successful” in traditional terms.  Service, if done well, has the power to change individuals who change the world.

My conclusion 25 years later? We need many more, and better, service opportunities — and not just for students, but for seniors and every citizen in between! It’s never too early or late to start.  Let’s all get out there and “be of some earthly good.”

Doing something for others — for which we do not get paid — has been shown to be a pretty good indicator of human character!

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This reflection is heavily dependent upon an April 10 article on the website Crux by Kathleen Hirsch. I heartily recommend her article which you may access [here].

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.

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.