Today is Memorial Day. Today we remember the fallen. Today I will make my annual pilgrimage to Fort Logan National Cemetery here in Denver. My grandfather is buried there and I want to pay my respects. He was a World War II veteran who fought at Guadalcanal, Iwo Jima, and Okinawa. He saw his share of action and was wounded several times. Although he survived and lived until the age of 74, my grandmother always said he was a casualty of the war. It broke his health. It aged him a few decades. He was living on borrowed time and seemed to know it. I joined the Marine Corps because of him. Giving eight years of my life was the least I could do to pay him back.
Today I will also raise a glass to fellow Marines who died in combat. One of them was Ronald Baum. I met Ron at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey when I was a Lance Corporal and he was a Sergeant. He will always personify to me what a Marine NCO should be – tough, smart, disciplined, a great infantryman. Somebody who knew what he was doing. Somebody you would follow into Hell because he knew the way. We idolized him.
The last time I saw Ron was in Hawaii. I was running in a company formation and passed by his convoy. He was at the wheel of a Humvee and recognized me. I had become an officer by then and he leaned out the window, shouting at the top of his lungs: “Lieutenant Braden! Get some!” Another lieutenant running with me turned and asked, “How much did you pay him to say that?”
“Years of loyalty” I said.
Ron was killed in Iraq on May 3, 2003. He was on patrol in Anbar Province, northwest of Baghdad, when his convoy came under attack from enemy mortar and machine gun fire. His turret gunner was taken out, so Ron climbed up to replace him and was killed by a mortar shell. His children were 10, 7, and 4 years old.
He never asked anybody to do something he wasn’t willing to do himself. I can picture him climbing into that turret, saying something like, “you SOBs, I’ll teach you to attack my convoy!”
God bless you, Ron.
My thoughts today hover around the concept of loyalty – how to get it and how to give it. We Lance Corporals were loyal to Ron because we trusted him. He was not a time-server. He was not a careerist. He was a Marine who loved his job and the people he served with. There are just some people you know you can trust with your life. He was one of them.
Another was my commanding officer, Colonel Richard Zilmer. He led the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit in 2000 when I was one of his junior officers. I commanded an intelligence detachment that worked directly for him: 21 Marines whose job was to eavesdrop on enemy communications and provide information on their intentions.
I called them “The Wild Bunch” because they were. They loved to party. A little too much, as it turned out, because one of them got arrested by an undercover San Diego police officer for selling Ecstasy and Special K at a rave.
This guy also liked to smoke weed. This is something you cannot do in the military, and with good reason. You can’t have a guy packing your chute or operating a heavy machine gun when he’s stoned out of his mind. After the Vietnam War the military instituted a Zero Tolerance policy because too many veterans were coming back from Southeast Asia with serious drug habits. It nearly tore the military apart.
Upon further investigation, I found out that another Marine under my command was doing cocaine. And my Gunnery Sergeant, supposedly my right hand man who I could trust to take care of these kinds of things, knew about it all and tried to cover it up.
So, after coming to grips with the fact that my platoon had turned into a scene from Narcos, the next step was to inform Colonel Zilmer. Since this fiasco required some serious housecleaning (I was about to fire three of my top people), I needed his backing. To make matters worse, we were leaving on our 6-month deployment that Monday and all this happened the Friday before. I remember walking into his office as he was packing his things up and breaking the news to him. After giving me a look that said, “You’re killing me”, he calmly asked what I wanted to do.
“Sir, the Gunny and the two Sergeants are done. I need to call the battalion back in Hawaii and tell them they’re coming home.” He agreed. I also said that I would take responsibility for this and call the battalion commander personally.
He then did something I’ll never forget. He said, “Nate, this isn’t just your decision, this is our decision. If you think they need to go, you have my support. I will call the battalion commander myself.”
You could have knocked me over with a feather.
I should back up a bit at this point and explain. My platoon was sent by our parent unit, a battalion in Hawaii, to support the 15th MEU. Without getting into details, this battalion we came from was…how shall I put it? A chicken-shit outfit. It was poorly led and highly politicized. Loyalty was given to whoever made the commander look good. It was a haven for yes-men. You always felt you were skating on thin ice there because it didn’t matter how well you did your job; what mattered was how well you played politics.
I was fully prepared to jump on this grenade because I had never before received support from that unit. Instead, Colonel Zilmer taught me a lesson in loyalty. You are one of my officers and I will back you up if you think this is the right call.
Needless to say, a colonel’s intervention carries much more weight than a captain’s. Rather than me informing my battalion that I was firing three NCOs and getting an earful of abuse in return, the commander in Hawaii got a call from Colonel Zilmer himself: “They’re done. We’re sending them back. End of discussion.”
I had never expected this. I could not believe it. But this is the way things are supposed to be done! How had my head become so twisted that I felt like I had to walk the plank alone?
You don’t need to. When you give a little loyalty, you will get some in return.
So thank you Ralph Braden, Ron Baum, and Richard Zilmer. And thanks to all those who have served in uniform and continue to serve.
Happy Memorial Day.
George Washington has been taking it on the chin lately. A few months ago the San Francisco Board of Education voted to remove a mural from one of its high schools called “The Life of Washington” because it depicts slaves and a dead Indian, with George Washington presiding over and presumably condoning it all. The board claims this imagery traumatizes students. City Supervisor Matt Haney would not only like to remove the mural but rename the school because Washington owned slaves. Not to be outdone, activists in nearby Marin County are trying to change the name of the Dixie School District because it is apparently named after a song that praises the South. Another mural painted in the 1930s was removed from a school in Oak Park, Illinois because it only pictured white children.
Where will this all end? The fact that Washington freed his slaves when he died is probably irrelevant to his detractors. Or the fact that this San Francisco mural was painted by a Communist protégé of Diego Rivera whose intent was to shed light on the darker corners of America’s past. No matter. It offends – so off it goes!
At Mile High Ed we’re big fans of George Washington, not least because of his noble stewardship of our young democracy. During his Presidency he could have easily become a dictator or followed his contemporary Napoleon into reigning as an emperor. Instead, he honored the spirit and letter of the newly minted Constitution by leaving office after two terms. At the time there was no rule against Presidents seeking a third term; had he wanted one he could have had it. Yet he thought it best to set a precedent of chief executives leaving office voluntarily, like his hero Cincinnatus. This precedent lasted for 144 years until Franklin Roosevelt – whose Works Progress Administration funded the offending San Francisco mural – won a third term.
We also cherish Washington’s legacy because of his attempt to create a national school where “the youth of fortune and talents from all parts thereof might be sent to complete their education in all the branches of polite literature, in arts and sciences, in acquiring knowledge in the principles of politics and good government.” Washington knew that a democratic republic – more than any other kind of government – required an educated and engaged citizenry. Democracy is not a spectator sport. It demands the constant care and attention of all its citizens, regardless of race, color, or creed. This is the vision we promote here in Denver with our education retreats.
I would like to think that when Washington proposed this idea in his will he too had in mind children of all races and backgrounds, including the children of slaves. The primary criticism of our Founding Fathers is, of course, that half were slave owners. These were not stupid men, however, and there can be no doubt that they recognized the hypocrisy obvious in the endorsement of the idea that “All men are created equal” by those who kept other men in bondage.
The 56 men who signed the Declaration of Independence and the 39 who signed the U.S. Constitution – Washington included – knew they were making a Faustian bargain. As one of their contemporaries said later: “There was never a moment in our history when slavery was not a sleeping serpent. It lay coiled up under the table during the deliberations of the Constitutional Convention. Owing to the cotton gin, it was more than half awake. Thereafter, slavery was on everyone’s mind, though not always on his tongue.”
That deal with the Devil – a country with slavery or no country at all – exploded in violence in 1861. The payment due, the “reparations” if you will, was 600,000 dead men. That was two percent of our country’s population at the time – the equivalent today of 6.4 million people. Add to that ledger another 100 years of segregation, plus another 50 years of lingering mistrust and division, which today includes bitter arguments over Civil War monuments and Depression-era murals.
Isn’t that enough?
Apparently not. So let’s imagine what tomorrow’s youth might think of today’s self-righteous and sanctimonious public figures. What will the youth of 2069, looking back on our own antics, judge to be our greatest sin?
Personally, I think they will ask this: “Why, Americans of 2019, did you spend so much time arguing over wall paintings while spending us into penury?” Our national debt this year is $22 trillion. That’s 108% of our Gross Domestic Product. We have spent our children’s money and are now spending our grandchildren’s money because we refuse to change the way we work and live.
What is this but another form of slavery? Our grandchildren will be enslaved to debt that we are charging. They will be limited in how much money they can earn and keep because so much of their income will go to servicing this debt. They will be limited in where (or even if) they can buy homes. They will be limited in when they can afford to start a family. They will be limited in when (or if) they can retire. They will be limited in what they can spend on solving domestic problems. They will be limited in how far they can project American power to keep the peace abroad.
George Washington enslaved 124 people but gave us a Nation. We are enslaving tens of millions of unborn Americans and giving them nothing in return. At least Washington knew he would have to answer to God for his sins. What’s our excuse?
Consider time for a minute. Think about the clichés related to it: “Time waits for no one”; “no time like the present”; “a stitch in time saves nine.” A few years ago we did an ad spot with the Chambers Brothers’ song “Time Has Come Today.” I chose it because I like the ticking clock at the end – a musical way to convey the thought: we are running out of time.
Time has been on my mind as we go through our new ASVAB Prep Program here at Mile High Ed. This is an initiative we started in January. Our instructors meet with young men and women who want to join the armed forces but have failed the ASVAB (Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery) – the military entrance exam.
The results have been promising. Out of our first group of seven candidates, five saw significant gains in their scores. The average increase was 203% and the average number of hours we taught them was 17.42. A few are still short of the minimum score of 32 (out of 99), but they are at least within striking distance.
This was a pretty diverse bunch too – three Hispanic, two Black, and two White students. Four were native-born and three were immigrants (Ghana, Russia, and Mexico). The military is especially popular with immigrants since they earn their citizenship after their first enlistment.
For the immigrants, the deficiencies in literacy and numeracy can be partly traced to the fact that English is not their native language. But what of our homegrown kids? All were high school graduates or GED holders. None were discipline cases. All were motivated enough to contact a recruiter and take the ASVAB. Yet most are functionally illiterate and can’t do basic multiplication. A few didn’t know that there are twelve inches in a foot. One guy didn’t know how to pronounce the word “café”. He thought it rhymed with “safe”.
Hence my thoughts on time. And how much of it is wasted in public education. This occurred to me as I was driving to one of our classes and passed by Aurora Central High School. It was 1:30 in the afternoon and I saw students leaving the building and walking home. At 1:30? After, what, a grueling five-hour day? The following week I passed by the school again during spring break, which now includes the Friday before and the Monday after. The Friday before was taken up by “teacher training.” The teachers also apparently needed the Monday after spring break off so they could get organized for the four-day week that followed.
I counted the number of days Aurora Public Schools takes off, including “teacher training” days. I think any day a teacher is not in the classroom is a day off. They should do professional development on their own time like everyone else. The total number of weekdays they have off in the 2018-19 school year is 90. Add weekends to that and this comes to four months. Four months! Can any job that takes one-third of the year off really be considering full-time?
Yet Denver teachers went on strike a few months ago. They want to be paid more. Well, who doesn’t? But what exactly should taxpayers pay more for – additional “training days”? Maybe they should use a few of those days to teach multiplication. Or reading comprehension.
What if we do away with the entire school schedule? Think about it. Next time you’re in a classroom, note how much time the teacher spends getting the students to sit down, settle down, and take attendance. After that usually comes, “get out your textbooks and turn to page 47…” or “work quietly in groups on your homework assignment…” Think about passing periods between the classes, or the whole concept of homeroom. Much of the day is chewed up in useless administrative maneuvers. And that is before the kids are released at 1:30 or 2:30 to go home or spend time on extracurricular activities. I have no problem with students taking part in extracurricular activities – provided they already know how to read and write.
Now imagine a block system. Students choose one course they want to study for the entire month – chemistry, for example. The first two weeks are spent in class learning the fundamentals; all day for ten days they learn nothing but the Periodic Table, basic chemical reactions, and physical properties of elements. The third week they go to the field – maybe to a working laboratory or an energy company where they can observe a petroleum engineer in action. The last week can be dedicated to review and testing to make sure they have mastered the material.
Parents could even choose which months they want to take off. Maybe the kids go to school in the summer because Mom and Dad can’t get time off from work until October. Maybe the whole family just prefers to take their vacations in November, December, and January instead of June, July, and August.
Flexibility. Better time management. Freedom of choice. These are all good things. Plus, as we saw this week here in Colorado, the more time kids spend in the field the less chance they have of being shot.
Today is Black Monday in the National Football League. As of 10 AM, Eastern Standard Time, six head coaches have been fired. Another two were let go in the middle of the season. That’s 25% of all head coaches in the League – a high turnover rate for any profession.
Here in our hometown of Denver, Vance Joseph got the boot and it was no surprise. Our beloved Broncos finished with a second consecutive losing season; the first time that’s happened since 1972. Sportswriters, fans, and anyone with a mouth on ESPN were calling for his head weeks ago. Outrage poured forth from the stands while insults cascaded upon Joseph’s head as he roamed the sideline.
This is still just a game, right?
Look, I love football as much as the next guy (with season tickets, to boot) but let’s face it: in the grand scheme of life, the NFL and its attendant drama count for very little. It got me thinking: what if similar outrage and attention were directed at poor-performing school districts? What if local news stations started giving over/unders on whether Superintendent Smith’s contract would be renewed next year? What if school test scores were followed like a team’s playoff chances?
I know. I should wake up and smell the coffee. But what really drives this obsession with sports? I think it’s the competition. I think people love football because it’s where a new idea (or player, scheme, coach) is immediately tried and tested. The gridiron is where something thought up in the mind can be executed in reality, in front of millions of fans. You are weighed in the balance and found…
When I get together with my instructors to plan a new retreat or operation, we’re like kids drawing up plays in the dirt. How can we outwit, out-think, or overpower the opposition to get to the end zone? We do this because we constantly want to up our game and that of our students. We want new ways to challenge and improve them. We want them to do something we’ve never seen before. We want them to do something they never thought they could do. The joy in their eyes when this happens is the most rewarding part of our job.
Yet to do this, we need freedom of thought and action. We need energy, passion, and skill. Do any of these descriptions fit your local school district? Probably not. It’s the same thing every year: same schedules, same classes, same books, same tests, same assignments, same teachers, same results, same arguments over why there’s never any improvement.
Maybe now I understand why ESPN doesn’t cover school board meetings. The closest thing to it is the draft, but at least with that there’s some excitement for the future.
Yet with every new year, hope springs eternal, so give a thought in 2019 to what might be possible when we allow ourselves to draw up some plays in the dirt. Statue of Liberty, anyone?
As a wise philosopher from the Bronx once said: “predictions are hard, especially about the future.” I was reminded of this while reading an outstanding book by Brian McCullough called How the Internet Happened. If you want a good, concise history of the tech business, buy this book. It starts with Netscape’s IPO in 1995 and ends with present-day Smartphones. In between it covers everything from Microsoft’s browser wars, the dotcom bust, the rise of Google and paid search, PayPal and ecommerce, Facebook, and much more.
It catalogs two decades of incredible, unforeseen change. No one, and I mean no one, could have predicted where it would all lead. Too many twists and turns took place – some planned, most not – to create opportunity, innovation, and wealth.
I compared this with our own line of work (education) and thought: twenty years ago you could have predicted exactly where we’d be today. The classrooms of 2018 are essentially the same as the classrooms of 1995…and 1985…and 1975. This is pathetic. If there’s one field that should be on the cutting edge of innovation, it’s education.
No secret why that is, of course. The public school system is organized to benefit adults, not children. Yet if education could make the same breakthroughs as Silicon Valley routinely does, here would be my five predictions as to what the school of 2028 would look like.
First, the teaching staff would not be public employees – they would all be private contractors. I think this is inevitable anyway, given the fact that it’s too expensive to hire public employees anymore. The pension and benefit costs are crushing state budgets across the country. The Wall Street Journal recently reported that Joyce Carmine, the Superintendent of Park Forest Public Schools in Illinois, retired in 2017 with an annual salary of $398,000. This entitles her to a $300,000 pension every year for the rest of her life – courtesy of the Illinois taxpayer.
I wonder what her neighbors in Park Forest think about footing the bill for that, given that the median income in that community is $44,000. How much longer will people in the private sector tolerate working into their 70s to support people in the public sector retiring in their 50s?
The replacement of public employees with private contractors not only makes good economic sense, but they would also be free of the regulations that choke government personnel decisions. Public school teachers are nearly impossible to fire, are paid on the basis of time served rather than results delivered, and cannot be rewarded for superior effort. Is it any wonder the good ones leave and the bad ones stay?
Second, say goodbye to the current school schedule. The public school of 2028 would be open year-round. No more spring, summer, fall, or Christmas breaks. Other than Memorial Day, Fourth of July, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s, there would be no other days off.
But don’t worry – your kids wouldn’t be in school all the time, because the third change in the school of the future would be to adopt a block system for classes. This means kids would take only one class a month. All day, every day, for that month, your child learns nothing but biology. And since our teachers are all private contractors now, parents can choose whoever they want. Maybe it’s a retired biotech specialist who teaches three weeks of standard biology and then takes her class into the lab for the last week so they can map out genomes.
If parents wanted their kids in school the whole year, fine. But everyone needs a vacation, right? That brings me to the fourth change: take vacation whenever you want. Right now that’s only in the summertime, but who wants to go to Disneyland in July? Why not go in October or February when the crowds are lighter? With the block system, all classes wrap up at the end of the month, so if you want to work through the summer because Dad’s company won’t let him take a vacation until November, you can do that.
And to really get maximum impact, classes need to be smaller, which means there would be more of them. That means maximizing the floor space in each school. To do that, our final change would get rid of the things you don’t really need in school: gyms, libraries, and cafeterias. Yes, I know this sounds radical, but we’ve got to be honest about what’s most important – teaching. I loved PE as much as the next guy, but it’s not essential. Break a sweat on your own time. Go for a run after school or play a pickup basketball game at the park. School is not for that.
But surely libraries are necessary? Well, how many kids have you seen in a school library outside of class? Most of them avoid it like the plague, and these days if they really want to read a book, they can do it at the public library or on Kindle.
And cafeterias? Granted, the free meals for at-risk kids are sometimes the only decent ones they get, but why does a cafeteria need to deliver this? Why not provide a food station somewhere with fruit, chips, wrapped sandwiches, etc. that they can get during a break and bring back to the classroom? That’s right – eat in the classroom. We routinely do this with our students and have never had a problem. In fact, I think they prefer to eat while they work.
So there it is: the school of 2028. Somebody should try it somewhere and see how it works. You could even name it after Yogi Berra.
Division. Red v. Blue. American Tribalism. There has been a lot of talk lately about political partisanship in the United States. Publications as diverse as the Washington Times and the New Yorker have even suggested that America is on the brink of another civil war.
Sometimes I think political columnists and “pundits” (one of my least favorite words – time to put it to rest) have way too much time on their hands. I guess they have to keep the pot boiling, and their subscription rates rising, by offering outlandish theories they only discuss among themselves.
None of the issues we face today are as stark as the immorality and illegality of one human being owning another. The contradiction slavery posed to our most cherished ideals was obvious to everyone with even an ounce of empathy. Those who supported the institution used all manner of political, religious, biological, and economic arguments to justify its existence, but I suspect that even they, in their heart of hearts, knew it was evil.
So we’re not that bad off. And since then we’ve had 150 years of common history to further cement our sense of nationhood. If nothing else, the white headstones at Arlington National Cemetery should do more than anything to remind us that no one cared about blue or red when laying these patriots in their graves. Unless, that is, the blue signifies their loyalty and the red the color of the blood they shed.
At issue today is really just a garden-variety disagreement over the role of government in the lives of its citizens. Some want more government activity, some less – nothing new there. FDR convinced a majority of Americans to support the former; Ronald Reagan convinced a majority of Americans to try the latter. Back and forth the pendulum swings.
What might be different now is how politics has seeped into areas where it was previously unwelcome, or just unheard of. Who would have ever thought we would argue over the weather? Were the California wildfires caused by global warming or bad forest management? Disagreement reigns even there.
I bring this up because our company’s vision is to accomplish the one thing George Washington wished he had done before he died: create a national school where America’s youth, regardless of background, could be sent to “acquire knowledge in the principles of politics and good government.” I think by “politics” he meant civics, and what he had in mind was a civilian version of West Point – a place where the best and brightest could live and work together while learning what America stood for and how self-government could be maintained.
At its heart, it is an attempt to promote national unity and strengthen the fabric of our country. That is what Mile High Education Services is really about. We don’t gloss over the dark pages of our history or paper over its differences, but we always start with the Constitution’s preamble: “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union…” Note the wording – at once idealistic and pragmatic. Since perfection in human nature is impossible, we can only ever strive for something more perfect than what we are now.
What worries me about today’s climate, especially the example it sets for our youth, is the tendency for people to dig in their heels and not give up an inch of ground – over anything. If you have to defend everything, you protect nothing. Knowing which battles to fight is an important skill, maybe the most important.
One of the units we teach is built around a book written by William Shirer called The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. It’s the best history of Nazi Germany I know of. But Shirer also wrote another, lesser-known, book called The Collapse of the Third Republic. It’s an analysis of how France fell to the Germans in 1940. Having explained what made Hitler and the Nazis tick, Shirer wanted to find out why they were able to achieve in six weeks what their fathers had failed to do in four years – conquer France. It was not inevitable, or even likely. Together with the British, French forces outnumbered the Germans. They had better artillery and tanks, and actually had more combat aircraft available on the day they surrendered than on the day they were attacked.
So what happened? Shirer points the usual fingers at poor leadership, tactics, and decision-making, but then he goes a step further and says it was the decay in French society that was truly to blame. Not decay as we normally think of it – a society going soft from self-indulgence and hedonism. Those exist in every society. Shirer suggests that what weakened France was a lack of national unity. This didn’t happen overnight. It was the cumulative effect of sixty years of bitter and usually bloodless fights over nearly everything: Republicanism versus Monarchism, Church versus State, Army versus Government, Countryside versus City. Frenchmen could have survived any one of these dilemmas, but not all of them. In the end, says Shirer:
"They seemed to dwell more and more in two separate, hostile worlds, divided not only politically but by their fundamental attitudes toward morals and religion. There was no tolerance, no breadth of understanding, which might have led toward reconciliation in the interest of national unity. One more imposing layer was added to the wall which had been raised between the two Frances by the Revolution and which had been built up ever higher, layer by layer, by the successive crises of the June Days, the Second of December, the Commune, the Sixteenth of May, and Boulangism."
When the time came to meet a real threat – Adolf Hitler and his legions – the French had no appetite for the struggle. In fact, the day the Germans invaded, France didn’t even have a government, and its army had no field commander.
The battle was over before it even started.
Okay – time to plan for our next retreat. We have two groups lined up from Detroit and Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. In addition to logistics like hotel and travel reservations, I need to decide what subject we’ll teach. Generally it’s whatever dominates the news that week. Since new sanctions against Iran are coming into effect, I’m leaning toward that.
A popular saying has it that “the problem with the younger generation is that they haven’t read the minutes to the last meeting.” Not our kids. One of the things we’re really good at is teaching them how to absorb information faster. We do this by taking a subject and reducing it to a few main ideas. In the case of our Iran unit, the main idea is to identify the difference between Shi’a and Sunni Islam. This is a big one in the Middle East; one of the many fault lines that bisects that troubled region and provides the fuel for much of its conflict.
I came across a fact the other day that astonished me. It is believed that Hizbollah – the proxy guerrilla force in southern Lebanon financed by Iran – has 100,000 rockets there, all poised to attack Israel. This is an incredible amount of firepower and very destabilizing. Revolutionary Guard forces have been active in Iraq and Syria, and Iranian proxies are also fighting in Yemen.
Since Iran will remain a thorn in our foreign policy side for some time, the kids will spend the first day of the retreat working through this lesson plan. It’s important for them to understand the background of U.S.-Iran relations and why they have been so bad for so long, because that informs the decisions we make now. It will also inform the decisions these kids will make in twenty or thirty years. Where do we go from here? What happens if Iran gets the Bomb? How should we react to that and to Iranian efforts to spread their influence in Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria?
For possible answers to these questions, we will teach two more units that week: Appeasement and the Vietnam War. The former addresses the infamous policy to appease Adolf Hitler in the 1930s. This was the classic justification used to fight another enemy at another time in Vietnam. We’ll teach that unit on the last day of the retreat to show our students how the wrong lessons of history can be applied too. It is the exception to the old saying that “those who don’t know their history are doomed to repeat it.” The men who led us into Vietnam knew their history all right, but supported a doomed policy anyway.
The lessons of Neville Chamberlain’s sellout at Munich in 1938 are clear and true enough. Appeasing Adolf Hitler by giving him German-inhabited sections of Czechoslovakia was a terrible idea. And not just in hindsight. Winston Churchill most famously condemned it at the time when he said, “His Majesty’s Government had to choose between war and shame. It chose shame. It will get war.”
So it’s important to stand up to aggression, sure – but what about Vietnam? Every President from Eisenhower to Nixon used appeasement as the justification to fight Communism there, but Ho Chi Minh was not Adolf Hitler and South Vietnam was not Czechoslovakia. To oppose one and defend the other was not synonymous.
Our students will learn all this too, and the field exercise on Thursday will have a scenario in which they must surveil our Iranian “agents” downtown to determine their intent. All I can say is that it will have something to do with money laundering and circumventing financial sanctions to acquire prohibited nuclear technology. The kids will need to bring their A game for this because it will require them to do A LOT of research and connect A LOT of dots.
But by the end of the week they will be semi-experts on Iran, presented with the question (if not the answer) of how to deal with that country in the future. Should Iranian aggression be met with military force, as if the ayatollahs were Nazis bent on conquest? Or should we assume we’re in a new cold war and counter Tehran’s influence through political and economic means?
That’s the decision the younger generation will have to make.
When you were a kid, did anyone ever tell you, “If you’re going to act like a child, I’ll treat you like one”? This is one of the oldest tricks in the book to get kids to behave. There is some truth to it though. The more responsibility you get, the more you grow into the role. If everyone treats you like a child, how do you grow up?
I didn’t really feel like an adult until I was 20 years old. I was in college and needed a job that made better money than washing dishes or cutting grass. At the time, I think the minimum wage in Colorado was five or six bucks an hour, but I needed something that paid more.
I found it in Alaska, where the minimum wage was higher ($7.50 an hour) and you worked crazy overtime. The salmon season just happened to run from late June to late August – a perfect fit for school. The work was decidedly unglamorous: I spent three summers pitching fish from a boat hold, then gutting and cleaning it inside a factory. Occasionally I would drive a forklift or shovel ice out of the icehouse. The longest week I ever worked was 100 hours, but I earned $1,000 for it – good money in those days (and not bad still). On break we would go out on the dock and watch the bald eagles fly by, see moose foraging for food, or watch the Northern Lights. Honestly, one of the best times of my life.
In fact, had I known about it sooner, I would have gone up there in high school. This is a tender age, to be sure, but you grow up fast with grizzled dock foremen yelling at you to pull your head out your rectal orifice, or short-tempered fishermen looking over your shoulder to make sure you weighed their catch right. That was their livelihood after all, and if you screwed up a tare weight or marked a tote wrong, they lost money.
It was a business, and a rough-and-tumble one. I loved it. I was being treated like an adult; held accountable if I made a mistake, rewarded if I did well. This is the essence of self-respect. It’s why people enjoy their work, however mundane it is. You are meeting your responsibilities. There is great satisfaction in that.
I bring this up because after working with at-risk kids in Denver high schools for six years, I felt this was a big piece missing from their lives: the dignity and satisfaction of a job well done. This is not something school can provide. I guess a student can work hard on a paper or a class project and get an A, but it’s not the same thing as surviving and thriving in the real world.
So how about this for a solution – let kids graduate high school after their sophomore year. If they are not college-bound, let them enter the job market at 16. Most of them are itching to do so anyway because they view school as a waste of time. And given how many schools fail to teach reading, writing, or math, it is a waste of their time. Why keep them in a failure factory for another two years? Let them graduate and move on. It will be better for them, their teachers, and the school districts.
For those who are college-bound, let them take concurrent enrollment classes as juniors and seniors so they have a couple years of college under their belt and won’t have to pay for four years at a university. And for those wanting to join the military, let them spend at least a year preparing for it by joining a Junior ROTC program so they can improve their ASVAB and physical fitness scores.
Why stay with K-12? Make it K-10 instead. Treat these kids like adults and they may start acting like one. Plus, they get two years of their life back to work and prosper. And who knows – they might even like Alaska.
Everyone remembers their favorite teacher, right? I sure remember mine - Mr. Murphy. Actually, all of you have had Mr. Murphy, or Ms. Murphy if you prefer, as a teacher at some point in your life. You remember his immutable law: whatever can go wrong, will.
As part of our Education Retreat, we offer two field exercises: the Leadership Reaction Course and the National Security Course. The latter is really a combination Surveillance Mission/National Security Lesson/Writing Exercise/Critical Thinking Test.
I know, strange combination. But here’s how it works. It starts at the hotel where we hold the Retreat. The FBI field office sends down agents to teach an hour-long surveillance class to the kids. The purpose of this is to “put their heads on a swivel,” i.e. – teach them situational awareness. They learn how to mark their targets, perform routine surveillance like leapfrogging and parallel tracking, establish a communications plan, etc. Just keeping all these moving parts together is an excellent test of organizational skills.
Next, we present them with a national security scenario; usually whatever is dominating news headlines that week. The first time we did this, Russian interference in the 2016 election was all anybody could talk about. So the classroom instruction before this exercise provided background on Russia-U.S. relations and why they are so strained. We took them all the way back to the Cold War and the standoff between the Communist and non-Communist world. This was all news to them. So was Communism; what it meant in theory and practice and why America spent the better part of 50 years opposing it.
Finally, it was time to go into the field. Our instructors helped the kids to prepare a mission plan, which included getting familiar with the layout of downtown Denver and the street names, rally points in case anybody got lost, a communications plan, and coordinating the flow of information between the surveillance team and the cryptography team back at the hotel, which was responsible for breaking the Russian code and deciphering their messages. We had a drone too, which could pick up the targets and follow them in case the surveillance team got burned.
Once briefed, the kids were off to the light rail station. They took the train downtown and got into position. I let my actors, who were posing as Russian intelligence officers, know that we were ready to go “Oscar Mike”.
Murphy struck his first blow within minutes. The surveillance team immediately got made and the “Russian IOs” dropped them like third period French. This was to be expected. Teenagers running around downtown Denver on a school day are an uncommon sight among the hundreds of adults heading to lunch from work. Nonetheless, we had a back-up plan – the drone.
Murphy struck again. Being the clever Russians they were, our actors dropped this coverage too by dodging into a parking garage and coming out the other side. So much for Plan B.
Plan C? Our wily cryptographers, who had broken the code back at the “Opcenter”, were able to pass along part of the Russian plan. They had found out where these intel officers were going: to 1600 Broadway to meet with their American contact.
This is the address of the Wells Fargo Building. Ordinarily this would be an outstanding piece of intel. But when it was passed by text to one of the team leaders, he put it into Google Maps, which told him 1600 Broadway was…the Brown Palace Hotel across the street.
And this is where Murphy really had fun, because all the kids descended on this hotel – named after Molly Brown, Titanic survivor – looking for our two Russians. A student had noticed that one of them was bald and wearing a black suit, so the kids spent the next hour following every bald guy in a dark suit who left the Brown Palace.
Meanwhile, the actors had finished their role-playing by taking the elevator to the second floor of the Wells Fargo Building. Once there, I told them to stand down. They went to the Starbucks in the lobby and were sipping coffee while the surveillance teams chased their tails across the street.
Finally, I called an ENDEX (End of Exercise). Everybody went back to the hotel to begin the second part of the assignment: putting everything they had learned into a written report for the FBI Director. They had to sift through the intelligence reports, the decoded messages, and the surveillance mission debrief, separate fact from fiction, and come to a conclusion. What, in the end, did they think the Russians were up to?
And here Murphy once more reared his ugly head, because the whole point of sending the actors to 1600 Broadway was that the second floor of this building contains the offices of the Colorado Secretary of State. Since none of the surveillance teams made it that far, it was a moot point, but even if they had, I asked all sixteen students – bright, intelligent, accomplished kids – why this might be significant. Russian agents meeting with a contact in the Secretary of State’s office – didn’t that ring any bells with them?
It did not. None of them knew that the Secretary of State was the office responsible for carrying out and monitoring elections. No one had done any research into the building’s tenants to see why it was the Russians’ final destination.
Using a bit of imagination and bringing facts to their logical conclusion is the essence of critical thinking. You can’t do this in a classroom. There must be some confusion – “friction” we used to call it in the military – which the kids must overcome. Much like real life, no?
Oh, and Murphy’s last laugh? We crashed our drone into the Wells Fargo Building. Totaled it.
Every year our Board of Directors chooses a focus of effort for our fundraising and education activities. Last year it was rural districts in Colorado that have switched to a four-day school week due to lack of funding. This year we are very excited to announce that Mile High Education Services will be expanding its program nationally. Each board member got to choose a state or city in need and we settled on three: Detroit, Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, and rural Mississippi. I chose Detroit.
For a Colorado native who has never been to Detroit, this may seem an odd choice. But here’s why I made it. First, and most obviously – the city is struggling. On July 18, 2013, it submitted the largest municipal bankruptcy filing in American history. It left bankruptcy protection on December 11, 2014, but most of the financing it received or renegotiated in the intervening period went to fund pensions for its municipal employees.
That’s fine if you’re a municipal employee, but what about the rest of Detroit’s citizens? How will they be able to manage a comeback when their kids attend a district that, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, routinely ranks last in academic achievement?
As luck would have it, making big gains with at-risk youth in a short period of time is our specialty. We are planning to bring 16 Detroit high school students to Denver for our weeklong Education Retreat, probably during their spring break. Three of these days will be spent in the classroom with intensive small-group literacy instruction. The other two will be in the field working on critical thinking exercises. You hear about critical thinking all the time, but what does it actually mean?
For us, it means learning to improvise and solve practical problems. We do these in the field because you really can’t learn them in the classroom. To that end, we take our students to the Air Force Academy’s Leadership Reaction Course. This is a walled outdoor compound consisting of ten obstacles that students must negotiate in teams of four. Most have a tactical military objective; i.e. – you are trapped behind enemy lines and must make your way across this blown-out bridge using these two planks and this rope. Go! Then the kids are on their own to find a way across. This is the best part of my job. I love watching them in action and seeing the wheels turn inside their minds as they figure things out.
Which brings me back to Detroit. How can the city get back on its feet? The goal of our retreats is ultimately to give students enough confidence in their abilities and judgment so they can solve their own problems.
These days STEM and Common Core are all the rage, but these strike me as fads. Take the trend (practically an obsession) to teach kids coding. As any tech entrepreneur will tell you, one of the first things they do if they have any serious coding work is farm it out to developers in India or Ukraine who can do the job for less money. This is the problem with too much of the curriculum in public education: it is often designed by people who have no experience in the competitive marketplace. They see headline-grabbing companies like Amazon and Tesla and assume that the future lays in online commerce and electric cars – hence the emphasis on coding and robotics.
Yet most businesses are built on much more prosaic innovations. Many of those were discovered in Detroit, such as E-Coating. Ever heard of it? It was a brilliant idea developed by some technicians at Ford Motor Company in the 1950s. Ford had been receiving complaints from its dealerships about cars rusting out too quickly. The problem was in the assembly line. The frames were sprayed by hand and the paint wasn’t getting in to all the nooks and crannies. As these cars endured punishing Michigan winters, the salt and sand put down on the roads would work into these untreated surfaces and they would rust. Cars just a few years old would look like junked-out antiques.
The solution? Some Ford technicians came up with the idea of E-Coating. They took a car frame, attached a positive battery cable to it, and dipped it into a vat of paint that had a negative charge to it. The negatively-charged paint electrons were instantly attracted to the positively-charged steel electrons. The paint covered every millimeter of the car’s surface and better protected it from rust. The customers were happy and so were the dealerships.
The name of these innovators is lost to history. Chances are they had no more than a high school education. They might have had a STEM class, but my hunch is that the idea came to one of them on a bleak winter day when his car wouldn’t start. He called his neighbor over to give him a jump, fastened the cables to his dead battery, and – Eureka!
This is what our field exercises are designed to do: give the future innovators of Detroit as many Eureka moments as they can handle. Help us put this plan into action by donating through our website at https://www.milehighed.org/donate.html.