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  • Keep Trousers on the Apes

    Posted on May 29th, 2012 jameslynch No comments
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    This is another guest posting by James Lynch, my high school English teacher. Feel free to leave comments or you may email him directly at at jimadalynch(at)gmail.com

    In their eleven-volume series, “The History of Civilization,” Will and Ariel Durant detail man’s attempts to create stable and secure societies. Throughout recorded history, they recount, nations and empires have striven to replace tribal barbarism with societies in which people can live in peace, harmony and economic self-sufficiency. Along the way, historians, poets, scientists, theologians and philosophers have left records of those attempts.

    As a species, human beings have violence and predation built into their DNA. Durant relates that man’s history can be traced back a million years before Christ, but that farming as a means of survival began only 25,000 years before. How did our ancestors survive for 975,000 years prior to raising crops? Brutality and hunting were indelibly imprinted in our evolving humanity during that span. In the relatively paltry 2,000 years of the Christian era, those inbred tendencies and instincts have battled with man’s attempts to tame the beast within. Indeed, Durant characterizes contemporary humans as “trousered apes.”

    Throughout modern history, societies have attempted to temper those tendencies, as increasing intellectual ability gave rise to rational thought, scientific discovery, and philosophical investigation of man and his place in the universe. It has been a steep learning curve, as wars, destruction and privation dominated the centuries, with the twentieth century ranking as the bloodiest.

    Beginning with Gutenberg, the means of exploring the emerging ideas of scientists, mathematicians, economists and philosophers began to gain wider dissemination, and with them came the gradual understanding that humankind had to recognize and cope with its inherently violent disposition. With burgeoning scientific discovery and increasing economic autonomy, western societies realized that the accumulation and sharing of knowledge held the keys, not just to increased wealth and productivity, but to the possibilities of mutual understanding and peaceful coexistence among peoples and nations as well.

    In order to preserve those materials, the great universities of Europe eventually became the repository of the accumulated wisdom of prior ages. The genius of Plato, Socrates, Aristotle, Homer, Horace, Virgil, Cicero and Aquinas, as well as Shakespeare, Milton, Chaucer, Cervantes, da Vinci, Swift, Hobbes, Descartes, Galileo, Locke, Darwin, Tolstoy, Voltaire and many others provides invaluable insight in our quest to understand the nature of humanity. The ugly as well as beautiful truths they have discovered are the means for continuing intellectual evolution toward a better future.

    In his “Idea of a University,” Cardinal Newman indicated that the role of a university was to help students “ . . . reach out toward truth, and grasp it.” Sadly, that purpose has been largely replaced in this country’s institutions of higher learning. A great college and university system has, in the last fifty years, become less concerned with academic pursuits than with physical expansion and sports. Major universities have become de facto minor-league farm teams for the National Football League, Major League Baseball and the National Basketball Association. The perversion of what should be the intellectual pursuit of knowledge afforded by such schools is evident when sports announcers interview professional athletes after a televised game. The level of discourse is often cringe-worthy. In the 1980’s, all-pro football player Dexter Manly of the Washington Redskins admitted that he could not read – after graduating from college. More recently, Terrell Owens announced that he is in financial straits, having burned through an estimated one hundred million dollars. It’s a safe bet that any of the college classes he attended did not include economics.

    Instead of the core curricula of previous generations, many of today’ schools offer a variety of watered-down courses, as well as a soft grading system. It is striking that even under these circumstances nearly half of enrolled freshmen drop out before getting a degree. The reasons for such a situation are manifold: 1. the rise of self-esteem as the measure of individual worth (“Everybody gets a trophy” and “We don’t keep score”); 2. the fragmentation of family structure; 3. The lack of preparation by elementary and high schools; 4. public education’s mad chase after federal and state dollars attached to flawed assessment, resulting in teaching for the test, and outright cheating in order to meet governmentally-mandated guidelines. Add to that the voracious appetites of colleges and universities for ever-larger student populations to finance expansion, together with mushrooming sports facilities, and you wind up with a perfect storm.

    To keep the college education engine purring, schools often provide a pulse and checkbook admissions policy. Consequently, many poorly prepared students require remediation before they can begin to compete. Anyone who believes that a few first semester remedial classes can erase thirteen years of poor education is engaging in wishful thinking. Once on campus, students can choose classes from columns A through Z which do not require much time, effort or thought. Instead of Greek and Roman classics, and masterpieces of Western civilization – all of which contribute to the cultural bedrock of America – students can now choose elective courses in more contemporary classics, such as 1. “The Simpsons and Philosophy” (Cal Berkeley); 2. “The History of Shopping” (Yale); 3. “The Unbearable Whiteness of Barbie” (Occidental College); 4. “Lesbian Novels Since World War II” (Swarthmore), 5. “Nip, Tuck, Perm and Tattoo” (Alfred University); and 6. “Marxist Concepts of Racism” (Harvard).

    Shakespeare, et al. are seen as “Dead white European males” who can’t possibly offer a valuable educational experience to students, because of their collective “racism, misogyny and lack of diversity.” As a result of such lowered standards and expectations, many graduates can’t identify the three branches of the federal government, provide the decade in which the Civil War took place, or name the governor of their state. A recent study by professors at New York University and the University of Virginia found that nearly half of students show “no significant learning after two years of college.” Going to college has become a very expensive four-year “booze cruise” for far too many individuals, a good percentage of whom do not need a college degree in the first place.

    Unfortunately, guidance counselors have convinced high school students that they need college in order to walk upright without dragging their knuckles. Trade schools for electricians, carpenters, plumbers and masons just don’t carry a sufficient social cachet. College has been oversold as a necessary step to a better life, but the truth is that it is simply not appropriate for everyone. If you’ve got the ideas and ingenuity necessary to build a better mousetrap, you may not need college at all. Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg and Steve Jobs (drop-outs all) speak to this point.

    For those who need a degree – pre-med and pre-law students, engineers, architects, educators, accountants, math and science majors, for example – a core curriculum that includes significant classes should be mandatory. Classes in Greek and Roman classical literature, as well as survey classes in American and Western European history and literature are necessary for a well-rounded doctor, lawyer, teacher or scientist, as are required classes in philosophy, theology and government.

    Steeped in the knowledge of ancient Greece and Rome, as well as the wisdom of European masters, the framers were able to provide the world with the freest and most prosperous nation in the history of mankind. The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution reflect all that is best in that canon. Proper education of citizens is the only way to insure that their vision continues for posterity. In a society where more people recognize Snooki than the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, we’re truly at a crossroads. Can we keep the trousers on the apes, or do we regress to the forest primeval?

    James Lynch
    Fleetwood, PA

  • Golden and I Knew It by James Lynch

    Posted on April 10th, 2012 jameslynch No comments
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    Bishop O'Reilly High School, Kingston PA

    This is a guest post by my high school English teacher, Jim Lynch, who I was fortunate to have as a teacher twice, in both my freshman and senior years. He was one of those rare individuals who was doing what he loved and you could tell how much he enjoyed it. We looked forward to his class and I can recall how he made learning fun which was in contrast to a few other teachers I had along the way. As you may have noticed from a lack of recent postings, I have felt a bit of ‘writers block’ when it comes to updating this blog, so it’s with a sense of irony and relief that my English teacher has come to my rescue with something that is truly worth reading. I took the liberty of scanning his photo from my wife’s high school yearbook so the picture of him you see below is from 1978. He attended the ice breaker for our 30th reunion in 2007 and he had not aged at all. In fact, he looked younger than many of us who were his students in the 1970s. ;-)

    -Lee Devlin

    Golden and I Knew It

    James LynchAfter a two-year stint as a rookie teacher at a small and new Catholic high school in northern New Jersey, I left the job for economic and personal reasons. The economics reflected starting a family (my wife ceased to work as a new mother). The personal involved doubts about my chosen profession.

    Because of a confluence of circumstances, I had been made English Department Chairman. I was given this position simply because I was the first of the new English teachers hired to staff the school, where I taught junior and senior English. Fresh out of college, I felt out of my depth as an educator. I had to design a curriculum, assign classes, and select and order textbooks, all without a veteran teacher or mentor as a sounding board. Lacking any frame of reference, I felt relieved when I had to leave.

    After two subsequent years as the world’s worst salesman (tires), I realized that although I was raw and uneven in my teaching, my future lay in education. What I needed, I determined, was further experience in the company of other teachers who could provide answers to questions that mattered in the day-to-day life of an educator.

    The opportunity to reenter teaching presented itself in 1972 when an opening occurred at West Side Central Catholic (soon to be renamed Bishop O’Reilly) High School in Kingston, Pennsylvania. I took the position full of doubts and reservations, but determined to learn, once and for all, if time and circumstance could make a difference. It was to be a turning point in my life, both professionally and personally.

    My first impression of the students was impressive. They seemed to move through the day with an ease and maturity untypical for teenagers. While they certainly dealt with the universal and eternal concerns of peer acceptance, self-image and increasing autonomy, they nevertheless demonstrated a congenial symbiosis with teachers and administrators, and exhibited a genuine sense of belonging to their school. In general, they looked comfortable and content in their demeanor. There were cliques, for sure, but no real distinct separation. Jocks were in the glee club and in plays, while National Honor Society students played sports and joined homecoming committees. With rare exceptions, they respected their teachers, and looked upon them as professionals who cared about their academic and personal development.

    I always considered them as guests in my classroom. As their host, I both extended and received a respect that permeated our discussions and interactions. Even their gentle mockery of the faculty belied a palpable esteem. I remember student-generated and circulated comic books that poked fun at teachers who, they alleged, were hiding in plain sight as superheroes. One history teacher in particular was presented as Captain Coma, who wore a cape with a huge C in its center. Captain Coma once saved children from escaping tigers and lions at a zoo by lecturing them until they fell into comas in mid rampage.

    We had our share of miscreants over the years, but they usually didn’t last long in the school’s family ambience. They were looked upon as odd or pitiful by the majority of students, alongside whom they stood out in marked contrast. While my rose-colored glasses of retirement have not obscured the undercurrent of experimentation that colors teenagers of all eras, the reality is that such activity rarely breached the surface of student life in any blatant or consistent fashion. Perhaps strong family bonds were part of that equation. At any rate, a positive student demeanor and deportment evidenced itself in an excellent academic and social environment.

    Perhaps the best example of the school’s warmth and vitality can be seen in its addition of an educational program for special-needs students during its later years. Essentially a school within a school, its curriculum was geared to the needs of these students, although there was some overlap in some other courses, such as computer classes. These students also shared the cafeteria, attended pep rallies and frequented sporting events. If the idea was to have such students get used to mainstream society, it accomplished considerably more. As I stood at my classroom door during change of classes, I often witnessed my students making casual conversation with these special adolescents, high-fiving them and asking about their classes. In the final analysis, I don’t know which group learned more about life and love in those interactions.

    The teachers were of two types: generally older nuns from several orders (their percentage of the faculty had begun to decline as vocations ebbed after Vatican II), and generally younger lay teachers. Initially, the sisters seemed to tolerate us as unfortunately necessary components of the teaching staff. Over the years I spent at the school, the ratio of sisters to lay teachers tilted quickly. By the end of the school’s existence, one nun was on staff as a librarian. Lay teachers were generally in their twenties in the early 70’s, and graduates of local colleges and residents of surrounding communities.

    Because Catholic schools were exempt from state/federal educational policies and regulations, and the religious staff generally left us to our own resources, we were able to pursue teaching in a purely practical and innovative fashion. We weren’t bogged down in a morass of state standards, promulgated by faceless bureaucratic “experts” who couldn’t find the inside of a classroom with a map and a flashlight.

    Consequently, we relied upon one another to build and implement teaching methods and strategy. Aside from periodic (and generally inconsequential) teacher meetings conducted by the administration, we discussed our mutual concerns informally – in the faculty lounge, local taverns, at holiday “progressive parties,” and end-of-the-year picnic outings. Because we shared our approaches and discussed our failures and successes, we grew and prospered as a faculty. The result created an exceptional educational experience for teachers and students alike. During the four decades I spent at Central Catholic/Bishop O’Reilly, graduating seniors merited college acceptance in the 90th percentile range and millions of dollars in scholarship offers.

    At the risk of sounding hyperbolic, I found teaching at Central/O’Reilly to be almost magical. The work was both hard and time-consuming, but the classroom experience made those considerations more than worthwhile. Very often the change-of-class bell interrupted a class discussion that neither students nor teacher wanted to end. Because many teachers volunteered their time to chaperone after-school activities, we got to know students, and to be known by them, in an added dimension. Teachers in charge of a student club or activity had merely to ask their colleagues to assist at an event. Proms, all-night dance marathons, plays and concerts all provided teacher-student interaction outside the classroom. Weekly free tutoring at the school in multi-disciplinary areas during early evening hours also offered opportunities to foster mutual understanding and respect.

    In retrospect, the number of second-generation students whose parents I had taught offers confirmation of the value afforded the school. At report card nights, parents often related their desire to have their children share their high school experience. It is noteworthy that we also taught many students whose parents were public school teachers and administrators. Perhaps the most telling and gratifying indication that we were doing worthwhile work can be seen in the number of graduates who returned to the school as new educators and became valued colleagues of their former teachers.

    The time and distance afforded by retirement has deepened my appreciation for being able to participate in such an extraordinary time and place. It is a source of immense satisfaction that the school’s traditions and accomplishments endure in the memories of her graduates and will be passed on to their children and grandchildren. I suppose that line from the Alma Mater had it right: West Side Central Catholic/Bishop O’Reilly will “live on in glory” in the hearts and minds of everyone lucky enough to be associated with that incredibly fulfilling educational institution. Not only is that time a “golden age” in memory, it carried with it a golden aura each day I walked those halls, and for that I will always be grateful.

    Jim Lynch
    Fleetwood, PA
    April 10, 2012
    ————–
    If you’d like to provide any feedback to Mr. Lynch, he can be reached at jimadalynch(at)gmail.com. You’ll need to fix that email to use it, by substituting the @ symbol for the (at) characters.

  • Geocaching

    Posted on May 30th, 2008 Lee Devlin 5 comments
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    During my first year at Penn State’s Wilkes-Barre campus, I took a physical education class called orienteering. The PSU Wilkes-Barre campus is located near Lake Lehman, PA in a rural, wooded area surrounded by fields and farms. The main building on the campus, called the Hayfield House, was previously a country estate that has been converted into classrooms and offices. The campus is visually breathtaking.

    The Hayfield House at PSU’s Wilkes-Barre campus

    The orienteering class required us to use a topographic map and a compass to find a series of flags hidden in the surrounding woods and copy down numbers from them. It was essentially a timed race to see who would find them all and get back to the starting point in the shortest time. It was great exercise, because you covered a lot of terrain in a short time and it had an element of fun to it because you had to think at the same time you were running. Plus, it was all outdoors in a beautiful setting. I still have many fond memories of exploring the countryside around the PSU W-B campus during that class.

    A few weeks ago during one of our regular neighborhood walks, Terri and I found a couple looking for something using a GPS. I asked them if they were geocaching and they told me they were attempting to find their very first geocache. I had heard about geocaching a few years ago from my friend Kyle, but I had never seen anyone doing it. We helped them for a few minutes, but we didn’t find the cache. GPS units are accurate to about 30 feet, and so it can sometimes be a challenge to find a small geocache, especially if it is well concealed. I learned later from a geocaching website that they eventually located it. It was knowing that they found it that convinced me to give it a try.

    GPS signals were not always so accurate. Or, I should say, they were not so accurate for civilian GPS receivers. At one time, civilian GPS receivers were only accurate to about 300 feet. The military intentionally added random noise to the GPS signal which only military receivers could remove. On May 1st, 2000, the Clinton administration turned off this random noise, called ‘selective availability’, and over night civilian receivers had their accuracy improved 10 fold. The removal of SA along with the availability of inexpensive handheld GPS receivers and geocaching websites has made geocaching possible.

    The brief description of geocaching is that someone hides a cache, which is usually a weatherproof container. The cache can be as small as a bullet-sized container or as large as a metal ammo box. The person who hides it posts the container’s GPS coordinates on a website that contains a database of geocaches. The first and largest of these websites is geocaching.com which was started in 2000. It contains the locations of more than 500,000 caches around the world. The person who hides the cache includes a ‘log book’ in it to let those who find it log their username along with the date and a comment. In the small containers like the ever popular 35 mm film canisters, (which are usually covered with camouflage tape), the log is just a small scroll rolled up inside. Some of the caches contain trinkets and, if you’re so inclined, you can take a trinket and leave one of your own. There are also some special serialized tags and coins that are unique to geocaching that you can move from cache to cache and the website can keep track of the object’s whereabouts. Each cache has a unique identifier that starts with the letters ‘GC’. The subsequent characters are assigned by the website at the time the cache is registered. The person hiding the cache usually gives it a clever name and possibly a clue to help locate it. When you set up an account on geocaching.com, you select a unique user ID and you are able to log your discoveries of the geocaches. The geocaching.com website accounts are free, but you can also get a paid account for $3/month that has more features.

    The website allows you to download the cache coordinates to your GPS which is a great convenience. I downloaded a free program called EasyGPS and that will take a file of geocache locations and put them on my Garmin eMap GPS. You can enter the coordinates by hand too, which is what I did for the first few caches, but it takes much more time to do that and can be a source of error.

    A screen shot of EasyGPS along with a route I uploaded from the GPS on a recent bicycle ride. Click on the image to get a full screen version.

    Inside the city of Greeley, CO which has a population of around 87,000 people, there are more than 70 caches hidden. Some of them are elaborate ‘multicaches’ which have clues in them so that you may have to find 3 or 4 caches before you can find the coordinates to the main cache. Some even have quizzes based on subjects like math or history that makes finding the final cache that much more challenging. Within a 10 mile radius of my home, there are nearly 200 geocaches hidden.

    Terri and I have been looking for caches lately and we’ve managed to find 14 just in the area where we take our regular walks. I’ve put a GPS handlebar mount on my bicycle and now that we’ve found most of the caches within easy walking distance of our house, I’ve been planning to venture out to find the more of them on the bicycle and to get some exercise in the process.

    Garmin eMap mounted on my mountain bike’s handlebars

    People who like to work with technology can spend an inordinate amount of time indoors, often sitting in front of a computer. Geocaching requires you to get outside, get some exercise, and do some exploring. If you have a GPS, I’d recommend you give it a try. Will you feel funny doing it? Oh yes, you’ll feel like an idiot at times, especially if there are any ‘mugglers’ in the area. A muggler is a non-geocacher who will stare at you and make you feel odd, and who among us can’t use a little more of that? You’ll get to learn a whole new language too, such as abbreviations that you will put in your on-line log like ‘SL’ (signed log), and ‘TFTC’ (thanks for the cache), and ‘TNLN’ (took nothing left nothing), and it’s hard to put a price on knowing an obscure lingo like that. :-)

  • Colorado Tornado Damage

    Posted on May 25th, 2008 Lee Devlin No comments
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    A tornado came through Northern Colorado and missed our house by 3 miles. It touched down and destroyed some farms just west of Greeley and then went on to Windsor where it did a tremendous amount of damage. Terri took this photo from the LongEZ today and if you click on it, you can get the full resolution image. If you zoom in, you can see the devastation it caused in this Windsor neighborhood.

    I wanted to post this entry to the blog to let everyone know that we are fine and didn’t sustain any damage at our house. Please accept our sincere thanks to those of you who emailed and called to check in on us.

    Update: I’ve posted a few pictures of the tornado damage.