Tuesday, November 18, 2008

What is America? A Short History of the New World Order – Ronald Wright

As an English teacher, I was always frustrated by my students' poor grounding in history, as historical allusions, etc. meant nothing to them if they didn't have the context. The context that history provides is also essential for interpreting the world that we live in today. Author Ronald Wright provides that crucial tool in his latest book.

Like his last non-fiction work, A Short History of Progress, author Ronald Wright has crafted an eminently readable and concise work that deserves to be read both widely and deeply. In his latest analysis, What is America? A Short History of the New World Order, Wright looks at the history of America, from its earliest days as the domain of the aboriginal, to its current position as probably the most reviled country in the world.

Beginning with a short history of the Spanish subjugation of Mesoamerica (Mexico and the adjoining Maya region of Central America) and Greater Peru which powerfully sets the theme of conquest, the author quickly moves to the time of the English settling of what ultimately became the United States. Much of the history of the genocide and betrayal of the aboriginals living in what, for many, will seem a surprising amount of structure, government and civilization, is well-known to students of that period, but the information serves to provide the context for defining the American character as it has revealed itself over the past two hundred years.

Once the frontiers of America were closed, the U.S government looked abroad to expand its influence and will until we have the situation the world confronts today – a country that subscribes to the notions of exceptionalism and manifest destiny, beliefs that have made it guilty of a hubris worthy of Greek tragedy. Perhaps the best way to view the book is as an examination of a pattern of behaviour that, while hardly unique to the United States, has resulted in a sorry tale of lost potential.

While those who subscribe to the American mythology of benevolence betrayed will be deeply offended by this work, those who are able to rise above blind patriotic fervour will see the truth and validity of Wright’s observation which, as always, are backed by solid research and historical data.

He ends the book on a positive note by looking at one model of co-operation that suggests human beings can rise above their selfish and violent history to work together toward common goals. That model is the European Union which, as the author readily admits, is far from perfect but seems to be succeeding where past structures have failed. One needs only consider their progressive legislation on climate control or medical care for it citizenry to appreciate the accuracy of his observations.

In closing, it seems that all of the goodwill and excitement generated worldwide over the election of Barack Obama suggests that there is still a tremendous hunger in countless countries for the Unite States to succeed as a nation among nations; without question it still has much to contribute, and its tremendous power to influence the direction of world affairs, for both good and evil, is undeniable. But some important questions remain to be answered: Can the United States rise above its national character forged in history, and begin to realize its true potential? Will its citizens, even under inspirational political leadership, be willing to do the hard work and make the necessary sacrifices to achieve that potential?

Only time will answer those questions. I wish them well.

Monday, November 17, 2008

The Positive Side of Failure

There is a thought-provoking column in today's Globe and Mail by Roy MacGregor, who offers his reaction to a high school principal considering banning 'F's' because it 'hurts kids' feelings.'

Many teachers, especially the veterans, will find much truth in his views on the potentially positive results of failure:

The Fs in my past stand for first-rate life lessons


From Monday's Globe and Mail
November 17, 2008 at 12:36 AM EST

Just my luck.

Not only born in the wrong century, but in the wrong province.
Were I heading into high school this year in Saskatoon, there's an excellent chance I would escape ever receiving that report card that sits in an old folder in the filing cabinet: History F… Algebra F… Chemistry F…. French F… Latin F…each “F” written and circled in red ink – just in case my parents might miss them.

No, if this bright young lad were headed for Nutana Collegiate, there wouldn't be much fear, as the “F” letter may soon be banned there.

Apparently, it hurts kids' feelings.

“We don't need to degrade the student by giving them a number,” the school principal was quoted this weekend as saying. “Incomplete” or “no mark” would amount to the same thing, but not so “demoralizing” as an actual “F” – so as of the end of January, the “F” may be dropped from the Nutana alphabet.

I could have used that a hundred years ago in that small Ontario town as I dragged my sorry way back up over the hills to a home where family members were already practising their fist pumps in anticipation of much earlier letters in the alphabet.

Back then, I would gladly have traded my place in the vice-principal's office with those of Nutana, but not in retrospect. Over time, I came to mark that slap-in-the-face kick-in-the-seat-of-the-pants as the best thing that ever happened. It was about discovering you just couldn't slide through without paying the slightest attention. When the school let me back in after some inappropriate snivelling, I had learned a lesson that didn't have a classroom – and I like to think I never forgot it.

We don't spend enough time on the plus side of failure.

It was interesting to watch Michael Ignatieff this week as he announced he was once again running for the leadership of the Liberal Party of Canada and practically boasted about his spectacular flameout in the same quest two years ago. And the reception among pundits this time round seemed curiously warmer, as if failure first time round had somehow made him a more rounded and more attractive candidate.

Certainly failure did not hold back Saskatchewan's most famous politician. John Diefenbaker ran six times before he finally won an election, then ran, and lost, twice for the Conservative leadership before finally becoming Prime Minister of Canada with what was then the largest majority victory ever.

In Peter C. Newman's instantly celebrated new book Izzy: The Passionate Life and Turbulent Times of Izzy Asper, Newman points out that Asper's magnificent failure in politics (he was once leader of the Manitoba Liberals) drove him back to business, where he eventually built his massive media empire.

But that's just politics, where ultimate failure is a given – at least in a country like Canada where the citizens tend to eat their own grown-ups.

The arts are no different. British mystery author John Creasey was rejected 743 times before selling his first novel – and went on to publish at least 500 more. Pearl S. Buck had a dozen rejection slips before The Good Earth found a publisher.

British author J.K. Rowling is the world's most successful living writer – a billionaire who has sold hundreds of millions of her Harry Potter books – and yet her convocation address this past June to the graduates of Harvard University was entitled: The Fringe Benefits of Failure, and the Importance of Imagination.

Harvard grads, she said, might not be very well acquainted with failure, but before they come up against it – as we all do – they might like to look at it in a different light. She wasn't claiming failure was any fun, but she did think it sometimes necessary and often helpful.

There was a time, Rowling told the puzzled students, when “by every standard, I was the biggest failure I knew.” Seven years after her own graduation, her marriage had failed, she was a single mother and unemployed.

She began scribbling away in coffee shops on a book about wizards.

“Failure,” she said, “meant a stripping away of the inessential. I stopped pretending to myself that I was anything other than what I was, and began to direct all my energy into finishing the only work that mattered to me. Had I really succeeded at anything else, I might never have found the determination to succeed in the one arena I believed I truly belonged.”

Setbacks, Rowling argued, make one stronger, not weaker. Knowing you can survive a setback and move on makes one “secure in your ability to survive” and teaches you more about yourself than any examination can.

“It is impossible,” she said, “to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all – in which case, you fail by default.”

She was speaking to Harvard University, but I hope her words are heard by Nutana Collegiate, which I'm sure is a fine school with a fine principal.
The principal might, however, like to reconsider.

The only school letter I ever earned was an “F.”

And it was richly deserved.