Activity Above All: The Politics Of Chess

Although I am by no means a masterful chess player, once upon a time I was the third-best chess player in my elementary school if I am out of practice these days [1].  Even to this day, though, I enjoy watching chess games and thinking of solutions to various positions or figuring out the best move by thinking a few moves in advance.  Today, though, I would like to discuss one of the phenomena one notices if one sees the posts of chessmasters on Twitter or other social media, and that is the fact that chessmasters are by and large a very conservative lot.  Longtime chess champion Garry Kasparov, for example, makes tweets against the cronyism of Putin’s Russia and profits as a strategy-teaching consultant on MasterClass.  Other examples could be multiplied to demonstrate that chessmasters tend to be a rather pro-market lot by and large that would be considered highly conservative in terms of their political worldview.  Is there something about the game that would encourage this sort of worldview?

As a matter of fact, there is.  When one is sitting across a table from someone else, nothing matters but the moves one makes on the board.  Everyone starts out with the same sixteen pieces in the same places, opposite each other.  One might argue that the white pieces have a slight advantage over the black in having initiative, but this advantage is slight and there are a number of gambits and defenses that allow black to capitalize on any blunder that white makes, and many tournaments have players play white and black an equal number of times to equalize any sort of bias one would have by playing white over black in any particular game.  There are chess champions of all kinds of backgrounds, among both men and women, and it is easy to see why when one looks at chess that people who play the game are encouraged to hold a worldview that is strongly conservative.

There are several reasons for this.  First, we have noted that chess provides a highly egalitarian environment.  The only advantages a player has, over the course of a tournament especially, is the advantage between their ears.  Money cannot buy one extra pieces.  One cannot appeal to government to get extra time or extra space on the board.  Everything is fair and equal, and there are no advantages to the beautiful over the ugly, to men over women, or to the rich over the poor.  No one cares where you come from or from what culture or ethnicity you belong to when you make your move.  All that is cared about is whether you make the right move and achieve the best result possible.  When one spends one’s time and makes a living (as it is possible to do) in such an environment, there are a great many consequences, and among those is the consequence that one takes the egalitarian nature and the unimportance of privilege much more seriously than most people do.

There are additional issues too.  No one can blame a poor chess result on the actions of one’s parents or the problems one has suffered in one’s family history or one’s personal background.  Everyone has agency, everyone has fair resources, and everyone is responsible for the moves they make or the lines they fail to see but pay the price for.  In such a highly competitive and highly fair world, there is little tolerance that people have for whining or complaining.  Everyone is fully responsible and accountable for their game and making the best of it.  That sense of responsibility accepted for oneself because of the game one plays tends to make people who engaged in such a field rather intolerant of those who do not accept responsibility in other, less stressful, walks of life.  Likewise, those people who would want to argue about structural inequalities and injustice tend not to want to prove themselves over and over again over a chessboard, since their inability to take responsibility and improve themselves marks them as poor chess players who are simply not going to succeed at the game.

Are there any lessons for this?  For one, we have to examine our strengths and determine what sort of game best suits us.  We should put ourselves in the position where we can make the best of the resources we are given.  If we have adequate self-knowledge, we should be able to know what advantages we have relative to other people and therefore what niches we can serve in the world that allow us to have the best advantage.  Those who choose to develop mastery of chess are making a statement that they neither consider their own privilege to be worthwhile nor do they whine about the privilege that other people have.  They are rather making a firm statement that they trust their smarts and their strategic and tactical brilliance more than they regard the advantages that can be gained through gaming systems or taking advantage of the injustices and biases of the wider world, a choice of considerable bravery and integrity.  Those who gravitate to fair games show themselves to be just people, and that sense of justice ought to be appreciated even in a world as crooked as ours is.

[1] See, for example:

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Why Aren’t They In The Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame: The Replacements

Few bands have ever screwed up the chance at stardom in rock and roll as thoroughly and completely as The Replacements did.  From botching a chance to turn revival touring into a new beginning to showing up at performances drunk and playing cover songs instead of their own material at concerts, The Replacements were legendary for their shambolic behavior towards paying fans.  Yet there was another side to their career as well.  Paul Westerberg and the rest of the band wrote some amazing songs and were a source of inspiration for many more successful and less self-destructive alternative bands and singers.  At times, the band could be almost touching in their concern for the sensitive fans of Skyway, my own favorite song from the band, in the face of the rough and rowdy fans of the band’s material that the Replacements had an ambivalent relationship to.  Perhaps the best last word to the complicated legacy of The Replacements comes from Not In The Hall Of Fame, which says of them:  “Many a Rock Star likely grew up with dreams of becoming one. In the case of the Replacements, we wonder if they dreamed about how to screw it up [1].”

The Influence Of The Replacements

Despite their own signal lack of success themselves, which we will get to shortly, The Replacements were a powerful influence on other bands.  Bands like Dashboard Confessional have recorded their songs.  Others, like Johnny Reznik of the Goo Goo Dolls, and Gaslight Anthem, have acknowledged their obvious debt of inspiration to Westerberg and the rest of the band.  Still other bands, like They Might Be Giants, have expressed their inspiration in song just as the Replacements expressed the inspiration of Big Star, another similarly doomed power pop/rock act, in their own song “Alex Chilton.”  Their songs are regularly used in connection with films, especially films that explore the 1980’s, with one of their songs serving as the inspiration for the movie “Can’t Hardly Wait” and other songs being used in movies as diverse as Hot Tub Time Machine and Jerry McGuire, Airheads, and Adventureland [2].  One can say what one will about the band’s behavior as a live act, but the band’s music has lived on and been appreciated by many and both at the time and up to now those who were willing to dig into the band’s discography have found much to appreciate even if the band hasn’t made it easy on others to like them.

Why The Replacements Belong In The Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame

While it would have been much easier for people to champion them for the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame had they not been so resolutely self-destructive as a band, there is no question that the band had a career and a body of work that is worth the highest regard. Beginning as a punky band that had an audience of rough and hardcore fans, moving through a period of increasingly reflective albums full of dissatisfaction and aching and longing and ending with a couple of abortive attempts for mainstream success that led to a single #1 on the rock and alternative charts that almost hit the top half of the Hot 100, “I’ll Be You [3],” the band still has some songs that are well remembered and well regarded, and these songs include:  “I Will Dare,” “Bastards Of Young,” “Kiss Me On The Bus,” “Can’t Hardly Wait,” “Alex Chilton,” “Skyway,” “I’ll Be You,” “Achin’ To Be,” and “Merry Go Round.”  Does all of this make for a band worth inducting into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame?  It’s not like bands with no hits haven’t been inducted before, as long as they have been sufficiently inspirational, and that is certainly the case here.  I wouldn’t induct this band to hear the surviving members perform live, not unless they were committed to making a good show, but would it be sweet to listen to this band’s music in Cleveland?  Absolutely.  Were they a great band that inspired other great bands after them and opened for still other great bands?  Absolutely.

Why The Replacements Aren’t In The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame

The reasons aren’t too complicated.  The band had no hits, and they alienated a lot of people with confusing music videos that hindered their mass appeal, self-destructive drug and alcohol use that included terrible live performances.  While these behaviors are all pretty classic rock & roll behaviors, they do not make it easy for everyone to be a fan, which is sometimes the point.

Verdict:  Put them in, perhaps with Husker Dü, Big Star, or one of the bands they inspired like the Goo Goo Dolls, all of which would be worthy for induction.




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Book Review: One Blood

One Blood:  Parting Words To The Church On Race, by John M. Perkins

[Note:  This book was provided free of charge by Moody Publishers.  All thoughts and opinions are my own.]

When reading a book like this, I feel somewhat torn between wanting to be clear about what I find problematic about this book and a desire to express my general agreement with the author’s desire that believers should look beyond ethnicity and treat all believers as one blood in the way that the Bible commands.  Race and politics are thorny issues in the contemporary world and quite frequently this Appalachian-born, Southern-raised white man is put in the position of reviewing books that deal in complicated and not entirely satisfactory ways with the issue of race [1].  This book is satisfying if uncomfortable for me to read when the author is talking about his own experience and giving generally sound biblical exegesis about the issue of ethnicity within the Bible, but the book uses some dubious sources (like the Washington Post) and has an unacceptable moment when the author praises a white victim of South African black terrorism for apologizing to the terrorist because of fictive white guilt, something which is entirely unacceptable behavior.  If I have more positive than negative views of this book, the negative aspect is not entirely absent either.

This short book of a bit under 200 pages is divided into nine chapters along with various other materials, including four examples of churches that live out the ideal of racial reconciliation promoted by the author–Mosaic Church of Little Rock, Fellowship Church of Monrovia, California, Water of Life Community Church of Fontana, California, and Epiphany Fellowship of Philadelphia.  The author begins by stating that the church should look like the idealistic image of the early church with its clear focus on interethnic harmony (1) along with a statement that humanity is one race composed of one blood and redeemed by one savior (2).  The author offers a heartfelt lament for our broken past (3) and encourages Americans (especially white Americans) to seek the healing balm of confession for past wrongs (4).  Then the author looks at the issue of forgiveness (5) for past wrongs as well as the need to tear down the wall of segregation that makes religion the most segregated part of American life (6).  The author then moves towards his conclusion with a discussion of the need for courage in addressing the issue of race (7), the need to use prayer as weapons instead of violence (8), and the need for love to overcome fear and hatred (9).  The book has an afterword by the lead singer of Switchfoot to appeal to the thoughtful mainstream Christian audience this book is aimed at.

It is my belief that the author considerably overstates the importance of matters of ethnicity in terms of the Gospel of the Kingdom.  That said, this is frequently an understated issue, and since the book as a whole targets the author’s thoughts on race/ethnicity and its tortured history in the United States and other places within Christendom, that overemphasis is to be expected.  Ultimately, I think that the Church as a whole would be a lot better if we were able to acknowledge our fraught past and seek to do better in the future in terms of seeing other people not as members of various identity groups but as human beings created in the image and likeness of God and in need of repentance and reconciliation with God and others over their sins.  If we disagree on what are the best sources and best ways to find that reconciliation, I suppose it is more important to agree on the same desired end of a just Church and a just society than to agree on the right route to that, which will likely be very different depending on one’s starting point.  If too much of this book feels like blacksplaining, hopefully it encourages a less violent attitude among that side of the contemporary problem.

[1] See, for example:

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Book Review: One Nation Under God

One Nation Under God:  His Rule Over Our Country, by Tony Evans

[Note:  This book was provided free of charge by Moody Publishers.  All thoughts and opinions are my own.]

I must admit that I was unfamiliar with the author’s writing, not least that this book was part of a large series that deals with the question of different levels of government and a sound biblical view of them [1].  This short book is a good introduction, I think, to the author’s work, and I was curious enough about the author’s other books that I will definitely seek to read more of them if they are available.  The author himself is the founder of an urban-based national ministry and serves as a pastor in Dallas, Texas, and this book manages to avoid many of the unfortunate dichotomies that hinders the adoption of more socially-minded practices among morally conservative denominations and churches because the social gospel is (largely correctly) associated with an embrace of immorality while this book’s embrace of justice comes with a healthy dose of respect and regard for the laws of God as well as the OT prophets, which is a message I can definitely approve of.

This slim volume, almost pocket-sized, is about 100 pages in length and contains four chapters between an introduction and conclusion.  The author moves from why a nation needs God (1) to a look at the relationship between God and government (2) that shows that government has limited functions and serves the interests of God (not the other way around).  After this the author looks at the connection between a nation and freedom (3) and demonstrates that without righteousness there will be no freedom from a variety of social ills.  Finally, the author discusses the need for biblical justice (4), and unlike a great many writers who attempt this sort of discussion, he appears to have a good idea about what is involved in biblical justice.  After the conclusion the author discusses the Urban Alternative in an appendix as a way of encouraging help for his goals at social renewal.  Throughout the volume the author talks about his own life and his own experience and shows himself to possess at least some grasp of the Jubilee and the relationship of the Sabbath (in its expansive form) and liberty and justice, issues of considerable interest to me as a writer and speaker, and thankfully of the author here as well.

The author, in general, manages to combine a sound reading of the Bible that demonstrates the interests of God in providing as much liberty as people can properly handle with his own experiences as a black man involved in the ministry.  His understanding of many levels of government and his desire to encourage self-government among his readers is demonstrative of a thoughtful way of breaking through the false dilemmas between different kinds of Christianity that exist in the United States.  The author’s boldness in looking at the message of the Hebrew prophets through the point of view of contemporary America leads him to demand a complicated and widespread turning to God unless we are willing to accept that God has cause to judge us for our disobedience to Him as a nation.  The author speaks of collective sins and looks to reconciliation not only between man and God but between Americans and others, especially (not surprisingly) when it comes to matters of ethnicity.  Perhaps strangely, given the author’s biblical focus, is his desire to partner with public schools as an agent of positive social change, especially given the negative and ungodly social change that public schools have been so instrumental in pushing over recent decades.

[1] See, for example:

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Every Man His Own Businessman

It started out innocently enough.  I was minding my own business, drinking sweet tea and reading a book on the textual criticism of the writings of Jane Austen [1] while sitting at the bar of a local restaurant when a stranger wished to speak to me.  Being at least moderately friendly to strangers, I exchanged some information with him and spoke with him about a business opportunity he wished to communicate [2].  Over the course of a couple more meetings and the reading of a book he loaned me, it became obvious that something else was going on here, something of a decidedly sinister nature, namely, an effort at recruitment into a multi-level marketing scheme, which the person claimed to be nearly done with so that he could leave his job at Intel and make a good living off of his downline involved in some sort of monthly purchasing system that was dependent on drop shipping with various companies.  In the course of my dealings, I was polite but also deeply attuned to the sort of pitch that was being made.

Such an experience is not likely to be an uncommon one.  Since childhood at least I have been involved in or at least surrounded by people who had something they wanted to sell.  Whether it was selling candy, donuts, or various other snacks as a child for one fundraiser after another, or selling cherries for one’s congregations or helping a friend sell program guides at a bowl game for her synagogue, or dealing with people who are involved in various marketing of essential oils and other products, having friends and roommates involved in buying products at estate sales and reselling them, or even my involvement in the world of book publishing as a prolific reviewer of books, I am used to being around people who have something they want to sell me.  I don’t think that is illegitimate, but much depends on whether or not I am interested in buying it.  While I have never considered myself to be a particularly skilled salesman, I do not believe that those who have that skill are necessarily wrong in using their gifts of persuasion at encouraging commercial transactions that are mutually beneficial.  Moreover, if there is something I want or need, I do not consider it improper to buy from someone simply because they want to sell it–I have no personal hostility to capitalism and fair and free markets in that sort, even if I do not consider myself to be an obvious market for most of what people want to sell.

Nevertheless, I do consider there being something essentially problematic about multi-level marketing, and I think it is worthwhile to explain why.  One of my problems is simply one of mathematics.  Multi-level marketing schemes depend on there being many more people in one’s downline whose spending helps to subsidize one’s own desire to escape the rat race and leave one’s 9-to-5.  That said, there are only so many people who can make a living in this fashion.  If it takes 75 or more people to replace a good income for someone, then it takes 5,625 for those people to make a living, and 421,875 people in the next level for those in the third level to replace their livings, and 31,640,625 people for those in the fourth level to replace their income.  There are simply not enough people at that point for even the fourth, much less the fifth, level of any MLM scheme to make a living in that fashion.  If you think of all the various pyramid schemes that are popular, one can understand that thanks to the design of the system, there are only so many people who can make a living with the requirement of $35 a month of purchasing of something if one’s motivation is to leave one’s job and travel the world off of the sales that one has made to other people.  It takes a lot of suckers for you to live off of the residual income of their commitment.  I don’t plan on being one of those suckers.

It is little surprise given the mathematics of the matter that MLM schemes have such an ugly reputation.  There are the frequent meetings and the purchasing or borrowing of books to psyche oneself up in the self-delusion that is doing something for other people even when the whole appeal is to do the best for oneself.  The fact that the pitch to people to be involved is income replacement despite the low odds of that happening based on the sheer numbers involved suggests that there is something illegitimate about the scheme as a whole, for that which was above board could be admitted at the outset.  For example, if someone was selling a loyalty membership where someone had to purchase a certain amount of books that reasonably priced based on there being a mass market, every month, I would without a doubt happily join such a program in the knowledge that I would be spending enough on books anyway to make it worth my while.  The main pitch would be to spend a bit less on something that I was spending money on anyway.  The same would apply to a service that allowed for less expensive eating at restaurants or the purchasing of my favorite snack items or lunch items for food at work.  I am already spending money on these things, and I would be motivated to spend a bit less to buy what I was already spending money on as a result of being in a larger group rather than an individual consumer.  That is an appeal that would work on me, and that is one I could with a high degree of confidence encourage others in as well.

After all, if one’s primary goal is savings on what one is already spending while also receiving some benefit from referral bonsues with others, there is nothing illegitimate going on here, no pitching of a greed-based appeal to random strangers one meets around, but rather something that a great many people would likely be interested in doing because the joining together into a larger group with a shared interest in eating out or buying certain snacks or reading books would itself serve the interests of spending less money that one was going to spend already based on one’s current patterns of behavior, with no need for frequent meetings to practice pitches or engage in cult-like manipulations to consider oneself to be a stellar salesman, or tactics that blame people for a lack of self-motivation because they are unable or unwilling to find enough suckers to live well themselves.  If you find a particular plan that helps provide you with products that you already like, and you know enough like-minded people that you can earn something because you connected these people to something you all genuinely enjoy, there is no need to feel guilt about being a node because one’s motivations were not only for one’s own self-interest.  If something has to be sold based on a motivation to greed, what you are selling is not something anyone should be interested in buying.  Otherwise, a praiseworthy motivation could easily be found that did not require self-deception and a mercenarial interest in the people one met in order to keep going.


[2] See, for example:

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Audiobook Review: Thomas Jefferson And The Tripoli Pirates

Thomas Jefferson And The Tripoli Pirates:  The Forgotten War That Changed American History, by Brian Kilmeade and Don Yaeger

As someone who is familiar with the author’s writing and very interested in piracy [1], this audiobook was definitely of interest to me.  Admittedly, despite my interest in piracy, I must say that the Tripoli conflict was not something I was familiar with except for a couple of the more memorable moments of it like Decatur’s raid on the USS Philadelphia to prevent it from being used against the Americans.  There is no question, though, that the authors are wishing to view this conflict between the United States and militant Islamic states as relevant for contemporary times, and even those who have different political worldviews from the author would do well to pay attention to the point the authors are making about the need for America to be willing to use force against those who would seek to prey on American trading interests and disrespect the United States as well as demand tribute for temporary peace.  This is a book that speaks out strongly against the appeasement aspects of American diplomacy that have been present from the beginning of the American republic.

In terms of its contents, this book covers in a chronological fashion the beginning of America’s problem with the Barbary pirates during the time of the Articles of Confederation.  At the beginning there is a great deal of focus on the Dey of Algiers, who held many American merchantmen captive and demanded an exorbitant ransom for them, while the later part of the book focuses on the war with Tunis.  The story is pretty compelling, even though blockade duty does not sound that interesting.  Suffice it to say that there were enough ship actions, enough political wrangling back home, and even enough intriguing diplomatic and military matters, including a dramatic Marine-led raid on Derne whose success was spoiled by a treacherous diplomat who betrayed the American war effort in exchange for another temporary peace.  Anyone listening to this tape or reading the book would come to the idea that the authors have a pretty strong stance against Muslim demands and a rather ferocious belief in America’s need to protect its dignity abroad.  Likewise, the authors make it clear that the problems the United States has with militant Islam are by no means new ones but are problems that have gone on since the beginning of the American republic.

There are some parts of this book that are rather eerily relevant.  Without discussing the Arab Spring or the problems with Libyan Islamists or other contemporary terrorists or the Somali pirates, this book makes it plain that the authors view the Tripoli War and the early problems the USA had with the Barbary states (including Morocco) were problems that have contemporary resonance.  The authors manage to turn Thomas Jefferson–by no means a warrior president–into a bold and daring leader, seeking to show a more bumptious side to Jeffersonian democracy than one is used to reading.  Whether or not this is an accurate or fair-minded view, it certainly is a striking one.  The authors give some very colorful descriptions of life in captivity for captured sailors and merchant mariners as well as some vivid accounts of what it was like to engage in blockade duty for an impatient republic who switched out commanders every year or two in the midst of active operations, which does not seem like the best way to manage a war effort.  Whether or not you appreciate this work will depend in large part on your views of contemporary political Islam and its malign effect on geopolitics.

[1] See, for example:


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Book Review: Patriot Pirates

Patriot Pirates:  The Privateer War For Freedom And Fortune In The American Revolution, by Robert H. Patton

This book is a surprisingly poignant one for a variety of reasons.  Although the United States has long dealt with civilian involvement in military matters in various fashions [1], the fate of the privateer has been a rather lonely one in history.  Few people write books glorifying the bravery of privateers, and no one knows how many died in ship-to-ship combat with the British or wasting away in prison hulks in New York’s harbor or in Britain.  While the concern of impressment in 1812 and of blockade runners in the Civil War is something that is known at least by those who are casually aware of the naval history of those wars, the fate of privateers in the American Revolution is not a topic that has drawn a great deal of interest by many writers, some of whom are actively apologetic when writing about the matter.  This book, though, does a good job at taking an area of history that is obscure and often neglected and shining a light on it that makes it easier to comprehend even if it ends up being far darker than one might think initially.

This book has an intriguing and somewhat unconventional design that corresponds with its somewhat unconventional subject matter.  Namely, the book consists of twelve chapters that look at the war more or less chronologically from the time before active war actually began but where New England’s penchant for combining anti-imperial protests and smuggling efforts were combined in the early 1770’s.  This chronological story of America’s efforts at privateering, the more or less willing partners they found in France, Spain, the Netherlands and their imperial possessions in the Caribbean, and the lure of patriotism and profit in the behavior of many famous and obscure founding fathers are intercut by twelve vignettes looking at a small piece of the war in a particular place and time, like Machias, Maine in 1775 or Penobscot, Maine in 1779 or Newfoundland in 1780, and so on.  We see accounts of diplomats trying to engage in skullduggery, of complaints and divisions within the revolutionaries as well as the European nations they were dealing with, and we have poignant accounts of relatively ordinary people caught between the desire to live safely and in peace with the irresistible lure of profits from blockade running, piracy, and slave trading, all of which served to corrupt the legal order of the United States itself as well as the other nations they were involved with.

Indeed, this was a particularly poignant book for a variety of reasons.  It puts stories and information behind the massive losses suffered by the seafaring communities of New England during the Revolutionary War years.  It shows the general unfaithfulness of Congress towards its debts of honor and financial remuneration to its own diplomats (like Silas Deane), its own soldiers and officers (like Nathaniel Greene), and to foreign idealists (like de Beaumarchais) who had loaned to the American cause.  The author does a good job as well looking at the opaque nature of privateering in that the people funding operations often did so indirectly or through shell companies to avoid the criticism that would come from ordinary people complaining about the mixture of public and private business at the highest levels of government.  Indeed, this book is a particularly cynical one when it looks at the behavior of all the parties involved, all of whom were seeking to grab their main chance in the uncertainties of war, and most of whom ended up worse off because of death (including at least one likely murder) or being disabled or imprisoned or suffering loss by dealing with unfaithful people who did not fulfill their side of the bargain.

[1] See, for example:

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Is Your Child Ready For Kindergarten?

For some people, the title of this particular entry may seem as a bit of a joke.  How can you be ready for kindergarten?  When I was growing up, I had no preschool or head start of any kind and entered kindergarten with nothing but the preparation I had received at home from my family, and fortunately that was enough that intellectually speaking, at least, the grade was no problem at all.  To put it very mildly, I did not grow up in an area [1] that was or is renowned as a source of intellectuals, and the fact that I was able to read entering school was viewed with a mixture of incredulity as well as mild frustration by those involved in my education who realized much to their chagrin that they would not be able to hold my attention by trying to encourage the learning of individual letters as was the case with many of my classmates.  Clearly, as far as reading was concerned, I was more than ready for kindergarten, perhaps a bit too ready.  Nevertheless, is there such a thing as needing to be ready for kindergarten?  Is this really a thing?

Indeed, today one of the more intriguing sources of occasional humor and thought-provoking questions about education, a private Christian academy in Yamhill County, Oregon, sent a checklist for parents of four and five year old children asking these parents if their children were ready for kindergarten.  So yes, it is a thing.  What sort of readiness is expected of children entering kindergarten these days?  Well, as might be imagined, this readiness consists of a few areas:  physical development, emotional maturity, social development, language and literacy, and numeracy and scientific reasoning.  I can safely say without any exaggeration that I do not believe anyone was concerned with my numeracy as a four and five year old, whether in my family or in school or anywhere else for that matter.  Nor am I sure that these concerns are clearly articulated by many public school systems, as it is quite possible that the average early elementary school teacher might have trouble understanding the concept of numeracy or being able to articulate the skill to any profound degree.  Nevertheless, I must admit I find it somewhat humorous that there are expectations of at least one school in rural Oregon that children master a certain degree of skills before entering school.

What are some of the specific skills within these categories?  Well, under physical development there is some expectation of both large muscle as well as small muscle control (including painting and working on puzzles) as well as some knowledge of personal safety and hygiene skills and practices as well as respecting the personal space of oneself and others.  In terms of emotional maturity, these entering kindergarten students are expected to be curious and eager to learn, imaginative, be free of separation anxiety with parents, develop flexibility in thinking and behavior without being upset at transitions, having an ability to focus for five minutes, being able to control their words and behavior as well as follow simple rules and routines and be able to express their needs and wants and basic feelings.  In terms of social development they are expected to recognize their own feelings and show some empathy for others, be cooperative with adults and engage with other children, use their inside voice and have some degree of self-confidence in their skills as well as a sense of belonging with family and larger groups.  In terms of language and literacy there is the expectation of being able to identify letters of the alphabet and produce correct sounds, understand narrative structure, being able to write their first name correctly or almost correctly, being able to follow at least two-step directions and understand and use a wide variety of vocabulary for a wide variety of purposes, and even understand the smaller sounds and letters of words.  Finally, there is an expectation of understanding scientific reason and numbers that include addition and subtraction using objects up to five in number, correctly using comparative language as well as simple shapes and directionality, and even basic set theory and counting up to twenty as well as the ability to sort groups based on attributes.

I’m not sure if I was prepared for all of these things entering school.  Some of these tasks, like speaking with my inside voice, remain challenges even at my relatively advanced stage of development.  It is clear that in order for a children to be prepared in this sense that there must be a sense of intentionality about the behavior of children before their entrance into school.  I am not sure of the extent that many parents engage with their children in an intellectual way, or sometimes even with regards to developing empathy, when children are in preschool age.  In many schooling systems, what is expected out of these young people entering school is something that may take a year or more to accomplish of formal schooling.  It is easy to see, though, that any school should want their entering students to have such a high level of developmental mastery, because a school with clever and emotionally mature and curious students is certainly a great deal more enjoyable to teach than would be the case with children who have little knowledge and less interest in the world around them, or the ability to sort and characterize objects and people thoughtfully and responsibility, a task that remains problematic sometimes even for adults in positions of social authority.

All of this discussion about the skills someone would need to be ready for school invites a rather obvious question:  what is the purpose of school?  If a child is capable of basic literacy and knowledge of math and reasoning, and is emotionally mature and capable of empathy as well as a basic understanding of the world and the people and things in it, and can write or draw with some degree of competence, then all school is doing is encouraging the further development of someone who has all the raw material to be able to learn anything there is to learn given enough time and persistence and curiosity.  We should surely all like to have such children in our lives, to teach them in class, and to engage with them wherever we would happen to come across them.  The larger question, though, is how can we encourage such qualities in others without having them ourselves?  If we struggle with empathy or with sound understanding of numbers and categories and if we lack curiosity with the world and an ability to engage with others without being upset, how can we teach such qualities to little ones in the first place, so that they may be ready to enter school?

[1] See, for example:

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Book Review: Andrew Jackson And The Miracle Of New Orleans

Andrew Jackson And The Miracle Of New Orleans:  The Battle That Shaped America’s Destiny, by Brian Kilmeade and Don Yaeger

This is the third book I have encountered from the author (the third of which I am almost finished listening to on audiobook) [1], and they all share some general similarities.  For one, all of the works have been about the early history of the American Republic, and have dealt with courage and daring in ways that are clearly meant to be relevant to the contemporary period.  By and large, this is a good book and a book that is easy to appreciate as someone who is interested in the life and times of Andrew Jackson [2].  The most irritating part of this book, though, is its maps.  Particularly speaking, there are maps in this book that claim through their boundaries that Texas had been a part of the Louisiana Purchase (which was not true), and had been given up by the Adams-Onis treaty of 1819 and then re-annexed in 1845, which helped prompt the Mexican-American War.  Now, these maps do not include a commentary, but they do buttress a misguided view of American diplomatic history that remains popular today for Southerners, suggesting a darker political side to this book that is not explored in the text itself.

The contents of this book run about 250 pages and take up thirteen chapters after a brief prologue that gives some of the biography of Andrew Jackson.  The first few chapters of the book provide some context of the War of 1812 for readers who are not familiar with it, looking at the way that freedoms were at risk from high-handed British actions on the high seas (1), the lackluster American performance at the beginning of the War of 1812 with failed invasions of Canada (2), and the makings of Andrew Jackson as an effective general through his prosecution of the Creek Wars and as an effective political leader in Tennessee (3).  A discussion of Jackson’s brutal and decisive victory against the Creeks (4) precedes a narrative of the British invasion plans of 1814 (5).  At this point the narrative moves to a discussion of Jackson’s successful moves on Mobile and Pensacola (6) and the British choice to target New Orleans after failing in their previous attempts to roll up the American south (7).  Three chapters cover the loss of Lake Borgne by the overmatched American flotilla (8), the slow process of assembling both armies below New Orleans (9), and the first battle of New Orleans, an indecisive night attack by Jackson that blunted British initiative and cost many British lives (10).  The rest of the book looks at the more famous Second Battle of New Orleans and the American establishment of sound defensive lines (11), the decisive defensive victory by Jackson’s army (12), and the withdrawal of British forces and the acknowledgment of peace (13), followed by an epilogue, acknowledgments, notes, suggestions for further reading, and topical index.

There is a lot to appreciate and enjoy about this book.  The authors clearly have a firm grasp of writing compelling narratives, Andrew Jackson makes for great and colorful copy, and the arrogance of the British leadership in particular receives a gruesome and appropriate judgment.  This book may strike non-American readers as a bit more bumptious than some might be comfortable with, but the authors deserve a great deal of credit for their attention to diplomatic history and their placement of the Battle of New Orleans in a context that extends from the nervous and tentative beginnings of America’s history as an independent republic to the more self-confident attitude that the United States had following the battle, where the defensive victory of a motley crew of mismatched American troops over the cream of Wellington’s army inspired Americans with a great deal of martial pride and made Andrew Jackson an important figure not only in military history but also American politics.

[1] See, for example:

[2] See, for example:

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Book Review: The Battle Of New Orleans

The Battle Of New Orleans:  Andrew Jackson And America’s First Military Victory, by Robert V. Remini

By and large I found this to be a deeply thoughtful and detailed and enjoyable read in the genre of military history of the early American Republic.  The one real problem I have with this book is one of framing.  The author considered Great Britain to have been the one real enemy of the United States and lamented the hostility between the United States and France during Adams’ administration, which makes him a decidedly Anglophobic historian.  Additionally, the author seems to be a bit of a homer for Andrew Jackson (himself a deeply controversial man [1]), and this book expresses the unfortunate belief that New Orleans was the first military victory of the United States, which is untrue on all kinds of levels, whether one looks at America’s colonial warfare alongside Great Britain, America’s striking victories in the American Revolution, or the previous victories in the War of 1812, on land as well as on sea.  Beyond these faults of framing, though, and they are likely to be pervasive in the author’s writing, the book as a whole is an enjoyable narrative of a victory by a complex, polyglot force over military professionals who profoundly underestimated their opponents.

The book itself is about 200 pages long or so and begins with a narrative that sets the context for New Orleans in Jackson’s successful moves on Mobile and Pensacola after winning the Creek War (1), before looking at the state of New Orleans on the eve of the battle (2).  After this the author looks at the beginning of the invasion (3) and Jackson’s indecisive night attack that blunted the British initiative (4).  A thoughtful discussion of a little-remembered artillery duel (5) precedes a discussion of the final preparations for a battle everyone knew was coming (6).  After this the author spends a significant portion of time discussing the main engagement on January 8th that led to the death of many soldiers and general officers among the British expeditionary force (7) before discussing the final assault that failed to break Jackson’s defenses (8).  The book then closes with a discussion of the repercussions of New Orleans for the confidence of the young republic and the reputation Jackson gained as a result of his famous victory.  After this there are notes, a bibliography, and an index that provide some additional sources and commentary for the interested reader.

There are at least a few notable qualities of this book.  For one, the author appears to be greatly fond of Jacksonian democracy, and so he tries to whitewash the racism that Jackson and the 19th century Democratic party is so (rightly) associated with.  He also appears to have a strong agenda in pointing to the capacity of the United States to form a cohesive identity out of disparate elements, and the complex bedlam of ethnicities and cultures in New Orleans certainly allows him the chance to show the heroism and canny pragmatism of Jackson and the other men of Tennessee and Kentucky, pirates like the Lafitte brothers, and other vagabonds and exiles that made up New Orleans’ population.  Remini tends to be a historian who is hostile to the New England WASPs of which I claim a fair amount of my own ancestry and background and one wonders if this is history or merely some kind of cheerleading for populism in elegant and narrative disguise.  This book is a classic example of a work which can be greatly enjoyed by a reader but whose perspective makes it impossible to trust the author’s integrity in the purpose of his writing and in the larger ideological aims he appears to be aiming unsuccessfully at.

[1] See, for example:

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