How To Improve Your Life

Most articles about making one’s life happier and healthier follow a fairly predictable track: lose weight, sleep, exercise, and eat well. Others focus on the importance of cultivating relationships, hobbies, and pets. A few are more directly prescriptive, suggesting specific books to read, yoga poses to practice, or destinations to visit.

I have a somewhat different perspective on how to avoid a host of deathbed regrets, and I share my one simple suggestion because I believe it is a path to health and happiness that works far better than a plate of raw vegetables or whittling—although each may have their places in the lives of many.

Here it is: Insist upon being treated with respect.

There is nothing that more quickly curdles the soul than to be treated with discourtesy. Sometimes we simply have to bear some level of rudeness from strangers because a confrontation would likely be pointless, but we should demand better from family, friends, and colleagues. I am not advocating that we should all live our lives with our fists up and chins out, but we need not be anyone’s punching bag either—whether this is simply metaphorical or an sad fact.

Too often we grind our teeth at night because of the cutting comment, the thoughtless disregard, or nasty neglect of others. We also frequently respond by retreating and blaming ourselves for somehow “provoking” the other person. In some small subset of circumstances we are perhaps receiving exactly what we deserve because of our own behavior, but in the vast majority of cases we are bearing the brunt of someone else’s insecurity, anger, or disappointment—and we are simply the convenient targets that allow someone else to feel better about their own shortcomings.

To allow yourself to be routinely treated in this manner is to set in motion a cascade of catastrophes that likely will cause your life to be (my apologies to Thomas Hobbes) nasty, brutish, and short because the physical and emotional stresses of being subjected to disrespect will simply eat you alive. Insisting on that which is our due from those around you will likely cause its own stresses in the short term because you will be accused of being difficult or confrontational, but this is the response of bullies—not of those who care about you.

I also believe that demanding respect from those around you will provide the sense of self-esteem that will motivate you to begin to engage in the many positive behaviors that are the staple prescriptions of self-help articles. You will find it easier to lose that weight, sleep peacefully at night, exercise regularly, and avoid that box of doughnuts because you will learn the most important precursor to a happy and healthy life—you are worth it. Change for the better is nearly impossible when we are filled with self-loathing because we allow others to walk all over us, but it becomes a real possibility when we walk tall instead of slinking through life.

Also published in The News-Gazette ( January 1, 2017


The Free Speech Conundrum

One would need to have been living under an extraordinarily large rock over the past couple of decades to be unaware of the ongoing war between the advocates of free speech and those of “political correctness”. On the one hand we have those who insist that it is sometimes both useful and necessary to express thoughts and opinions that differ—and, as a result, may offend some—because listening to all sides of an issue is a necessary precursor to the intellectual rigor that leads to good judgment and decisions. On the other hand we have those who are equally insistent that we must banish all words and thoughts that make anyone uncomfortable in order to create a society where all feel welcome and valued because to cause anyone to feel criticized or excluded is both wrong and wrongheaded.

These battle lines have formed virtually everywhere we look, and the controversies these opposing ideas cause inevitably crop up in our neighborhoods, schools, houses of worship, and workplaces. When these conflicts arise, government is often called upon to act as an arbiter and write rules that govern our daily interactions with one another—an increasingly expansive mandate guaranteed to offend those who dislike restrictions on their freedom of speech. Although “speech codes” are increasingly a facet of our lives, I generally frown upon these because, while recognizing there is a clear difference between discussing and insulting, I agree with those who believe that we need to sometimes suffer the idiocy of the few to protect the rights of the many.

Many claim that the surprising—some might say shocking—victory of Donald Trump was fueled by the rejection of politically correct cultural norms on the part of a large portion of the electorate. This has, in turn, led many to conclude that racists and misogynists determined the outcome of the election, which seems to have hardened opinions on both sides. Rather than lead to a reasoned discussion of the appropriate balance between open expression and respectful behavior, the 2016 Presidential election has caused advocates on both sides to simply snarl at one another while lobbing charges of “intolerance” across the great divide.

It would be foolish to claim that, for example, racism and misogyny do not exist in our nation; there is no doubt that some voted as they did because of Hillary Clinton’s gender or Barack Obama’s race. However, it is equally nonsensical to assert that Donald Trump’s victory was due to nothing other than sheer bigotry. To do so would be to ignore widespread discontent with the outsourcing of jobs, the cost and management of government programs, terrorism at home and abroad, immigration policy, and the cataclysmic failures of the Affordable Care Act. The positions of most voters, if you take the time to speak to them, are quite nuanced and thoughtful, and to paint those who voted one way or another with an overly broad brush is, I believe, a demonstration of one’s inability to recognize the validity of opposing viewpoints.

I will readily admit that I am a fierce proponent of free speech, but I also recognize that people sometimes deliberately use words to wound rather than enlighten. Simply as a matter of common courtesy and human consideration for the feelings of others, we should always frame our disagreements and discussions in a manner that avoids unnecessary hurt and pointless invective. Insult is the shortcut of the intellectually weak, and it should not be a surprise—although it is scarcely a comfort—when we are subjected to a barrage of f-bombs from someone who cannot otherwise figure out how to express their feelings or beliefs.

However, insult is not solely the purview of the uneducated; our college and university campuses are far too well known today for the flame throwing rhetoric aimed at those who have the audacity to challenge the herd. If, despite your education, you are unable to convince someone of your point of view on the merits of your argument, characterizing those who believe something different than you as idiots or bigots is often a sign of intellectual laziness that is not much different from that of the buffoon who showers curses upon those who disagree.

Explaining what you think—and why—to others is time-consuming and occasionally maddening. Even worse, sometimes our cherished values and beliefs collide with an alternate reality that shocks and angers us because we have not been exposed to viewpoints that are different from our own. Our entirely understandable egocentricity leads us to believe that we are right and others are wrong, but this natural bias seems to me to have been exacerbated in recent years by cultural patterns that encourage insularity. We more and more listen only to people and information that reinforce our existing viewpoints, and we are increasingly confident that wrapping ourselves in a smug bubble is appropriate because those who think differently are not merely people with contrary ideas—they are ignorant and downright nasty.

The various bubble worlds that we inhabit are intensely self-comforting, but they are also dangerous and damaging. Any time we close our ears and our minds to ideas other than our own, we put ourselves and others at risk, eliminate the possibility of functional compromises, ratchet up the level of societal discord—and wall ourselves off from the possibility of personal growth.

Most of us probably don’t have to work very hard to think of examples of people and situations where we felt that our viewpoints were dismissed out of hand because they contradicted someone’s accepted narrative. I’ve experienced this a number of times recently, and I can tell you that it’s pretty darned upsetting to be denigrated because you believe something different. Still worse, to have the other person, the more you try to reasonably explain your viewpoint, grow more inflexible can be terribly disheartening.

I believe most would agree that to refuse to listen to someone and insist that you are absolutely correct is not only incredibly disrespectful—it is also quite arrogant and annoying—and we should all avoid behaving in this manner. Speaking as an educator, I find it frustrating if this happens with students, but it is doubly disturbing when I encounter this problem with colleagues whose job is, by definition, supposed to be about keeping an open mind and seeking to broaden the understanding of others. When the teachers decide that believing or teaching only one side of an issue is A-OK, we have crossed a line that calls into question the very purpose of our profession.

College Remediation Rates Reveal Significant Problems with Illinois’ Education System

Two years ago, I published a commentary in my local newspaper entitled “Data Must Drive Education Decisions” that read in part as follows:

“I have a suggestion for those who believe standardized testing in our public schools is untenable, unreasonable, and unfair: look at the national and local data on the numbers of college freshmen who require remedial coursework when they enter college and see where students who graduate from your local district stack up.    
Given that some passionately feel that testing in our public schools is rife with problems, perhaps a more persuasive case can be made for examining what happens to our area high school graduates (and the sub-groups of those graduates) after they receive their diplomas. Our area colleges and universities gather student data that matches their high schools with information on who requires remedial courses upon admission….
This would be very instructive information to make available on a school district’s website because it will allow local residents to have a very clear snapshot of whether their high school is better or worse at preparing their students for college success, and it would allow us to really drill down into what our schools are—and are not—doing well.”

I made this suggestion because I was tired of “champions” of public education who fuss endlessly about using standardized test scores to measure the performance of America’s public schools. Apparently my suggestion that we should be concerned about how few of our nation’s high school graduates are college-ready based on measures as “flawed” as the ACT, SAT, or PARCC tests was simply failing to recognize what a truly wonderful job our public schools are doing. Given the heat that standardized testing sometimes generates, it seemed to me that college remediation data would allow us to move beyond the argument and controversy so we could look at real-world student outcomes we could correlate with academic achievement at the high school level.

I also presumed this would never happen because it would shine a politically problematic light on the education provided in our state’s public schools.

So imagine my amazement when I discovered that this year’s Illinois Report Card, which provides a searchable database of every school in our state, has new charts attached to the Academic Progress tab when you type in the name of the public high school in your community: “Post-Secondary Remediation.”

I encourage every parent and concerned citizen to spend some time on the website and learn about the characteristics and academic outcomes of your public schools. Now that this information is available, pay particular attention to the percentage of your school district’s graduates who require remedial coursework when they enroll in their local community college, which is the starting point for about half of our nation’s high school graduates.

Hopefully, you will be pleased—but many will not.

What Now For The Mass Media?


It has been interesting to read and listen to the ongoing post-election soul searching—often tinged with stark fear—on the pages and channels of America’s oldest and finest newspapers and networks. The election of Donald Trump as our nation’s next President has prompted a range of reactions that variously read like one of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s stages of grief or some sly satire from the pages of The Onion.

Whether his election is blamed on FBI Director James Comey, the Electoral College system, fake news sites on social media, rampant racism and sexism, or Anthony’s troublesome weiner, it often seems the “opinion makers” are befuddled by the voter preferences expressed at the ballot boxes of America. Given that every major newspaper in the United States endorsed Hillary Clinton for President, it seems that many are still in shock about turning around on Election Day and discovering that the expected parade of compliant readers had vanished.

This has unfortunately sometimes morphed into a vaguely concealed contempt for the very Americans who decided their daily newspaper’s coveted endorsement wasn’t worth a bucket of warm spit in terms of influencing their votes. The ability that we all now enjoy to search out and curate our own news and information on the internet puts everyone from The Wall Street Journal to MSNBC in the position of figuring out how—and if—they are going to adjust to readers and viewers who no longer neither need nor entirely trust them.

I understand why a great many newspapers endorsed and actively supported Hillary Clinton. Trump’s pugnacious and punitive style of speech was a startling and scary change for those who were expecting the usual soothing pabulum; the media elite were simply not ready for a candidate in the Republican primaries who growled rather than groveled. Jeb Bush was much more their soporific cup of lukewarm tea, and his early exit from the campaign trail should have been a pretty clear warning that this election was going to be very, very different.

It did not help, of course, that Donald Trump’s default campaign setting was to attack, slash, and destroy those who stood in his way. For example, women who found—and still find—Donald Trump’s manner and words disturbing have good cause to feel this way. Trump sometimes reminds me of drunk guys in bars who carry on to everyone about how great they are in bed—you, sir, doth protest too much. No matter the circumstance, perhaps it would be better for Mr. Trump to exhibit the least bit of restraint and discretion. What goes on in your head—particularly when you are President—need not always come flapping out of your mouth or end up posted on Twitter.

However, Hillary Clinton and her supporters in the media and elsewhere fell right into the trap of confusing Trump’s seemingly troglodyte style with the substance of what he was actually doing: putting together an unprecedented coalition of disenchanted voters who were sick of being told that everything that was screwing up their lives was being done for their own good. He spoke directly and effectively to those who were tired of being ignored by policy elites who had built their lucrative careers on parsing the peculiar pathologies of those who work, worship, and want a soda larger than 16 ounces (even if it’s unhealthful) after a hard day.

This election was their chance to tell the smirking Ivy League jerks who tell everyone how to live their lives to go to hell—and a great many obviously did just that.

So what does this mean for the editors and news directors who were wiser than us all—yet totally clueless about what was happening right up to Election Day? I suspect it means that they have just written their own professional obituaries unless they are willing to welcome a wider variety of viewpoints onto their editorial pages and news shows.

Continuing to feature the usual credentialed and cloistered suspects who can’t seem to fathom the possibility they might be dead wrong will do nothing to broaden your audience or promote an open discussion of the many difficult issues now facing our nation. Changing this ossified mode of operation will cause a meltdown among those who cannot distinguish the difference between journalism and advocacy, but it might be the only remedy available if you are a newspaper or cable network that wants eyeballs and advertisers instead of a dusty spot in a museum exhibit sometime in the very near future.

Please Calm Down, People


It might be best for disappointed Democrats to dial down their distress. The daily street protests, Twitter flames, and Facebook meltdowns seem more than a little out of proportion to the facts of the matter: Your candidate lost and expected gains in Congress did not materialize. This is not the beginnings of an American Reich; it is what happens in a democracy when the votes are counted.

However, President-Elect Trump’s startling lack of specificity regarding his policy solutions to many of the problems facing our nation is causing understandable and reasonable anxiety, so it is worth taking a closer look at what we “know” so far regarding some of his plans for our country.

Those who worry about the ramifications of a crackdown on illegal immigrants—and who somehow manage to simultaneously forget that Barack Obama claims to have deported more people than any President in history—are quite correct that this will be difficult and unsettling. Most law enforcement actions are. Nonetheless, the alternative is to continue a de facto open border policy that serves the interests of the few at the expense of the many. Given that Trump wants to focus the initial enforcement efforts on those who have both entered the U.S. illegally and committed crimes while they are here, I’m unclear why anyone would find this policy so objectionable that they would take to the streets or gnash their teeth.

By the same token, it might be worth remembering that Trump is not proposing that we should all die painful deaths due to a lack of healthcare. He has already indicated that he is open to retaining some parts of Obamacare while ditching others in an effort to bring some fiscal rationality to a program that is imploding as premiums skyrocket and insurers flee. Indicating a willingness to roll up your sleeves and try to fix a program that is so fundamentally flawed that it is near to financial collapse only a handful of years after its initial passage is not a sign of heartlessness—it is a healthy engagement with dollars and cents reality.

Finally, now that the total non-military Federal workforce has risen to a record 1.4 million people during a time of unprecedented growth in annual budget deficits and total debt, it seems not at all unreasonable to evaluate who can be cut—and to let everyone know this is coming so that they will not be caught unaware. To do otherwise would be foolish. It will certainly be the case that some agencies will actually grow because there is a great need for the services they provide—while others will reduced or be eliminated. This analysis this would be an example of wise stewardship of limited resources that will allow us to push back against the tide of red ink that has engulfed Washington for many years. It will provoke howls of dismay from those who are comfortable with the unsustainable status quo, but I doubt it will lead to the Zombie Apocalypse. It may, in fact, make more Federal jobs more secure over the long haul by putting the nation’s financial affairs back in order.

Rather than immediately condemn and denigrate any and all policy proposals that are introduced in the months ahead, it might be better for all sides to cooperatively engage and be a part of the long-term solutions. New ideas about the roles and functions of national government might do our country and its citizens a world of good, and thoughtful and open-minded discussion of every point of view might be just what we so desperately need in order to clean up the many messes we now face. The time for self-righteous snark, name calling, and conspiratorial thinking is now gone. We need to calmly and clearly think about what we can do together to build a strong and vital America where everyone feels their voices are heard and their needs are being met.

I cannot—nor can anyone—foresee what the next four years will bring. I can, however, guarantee that nothing will be improved by those who insist upon stamping their feet until their non-negotiable demands are met.

Change is what is needed. Change is what we are getting. Give it a chance, people.