Sunday, June 29, 2014

Commons Sense

We were off on one of our walks, a familiar circuit for the wife and me actually, in as much as we've walked it time and time again over the past seventeen years or so. We came upon this sign near the entrance to the park and something about the sign just got me thinking.  It was one of those images, maybe not so obviously, but nevertheless posing the question 'what is wrong with this picture?' 

There was the fact that the lettering was hand drawn for one. My wife observed that it put off some of the same basic vibe as when Calvin and Hobbes hang out a 'No Girlz Aloud!' sign on one of their very exclusive clubhouse tree forts. That was surely some of the problem, but not the whole of it. (I'm actually kind of fond of Calvin.) But crudely written there was the same message much more professionally rendered in a much more official and polished seeming piece of metal street signage just a bit further down the path, the message being that the park was for the use of Holliston Residents Only.

I don't much like that picture either.

I suppose I can understand the sentiment behind the signage. Lake Winthrop and the parks that give access to it are certainly resources to be cherished and preserved and protected. They are worth that public effort and expense. Maybe that's where the problem comes in. Maybe because there is some considerable amount of public effort involved in preserving and protecting these resources we come to think of them as public property —the town's property. And property is a term we tend to understand in terms of exclusion. 

I think that is a mistake when it comes to regarding our public realm, our natural resources, our common wealth. Sometimes what you value in this life is a function, not of what you sell or choose to own and secure for yourself, but rather a matter of what you offer —what you share —like a blessing. I believe this is true for individuals and their gifts. I believe it is true for communities as well.

A while back I responded to the survey about Holliston's open spaces and I think I started to say the same thing there. I recalled that I first fell in love with Holliston standing at the edge of Lake Winthrop at Stoddard Park on a winter morning. Mist rising from the water. My wife and I had just started thinking we wanted to live with our two small children somewhere removed from city life, but not from a sense of community, a place with a sense of openness, woods to walk in, waters to swim. I'd come to Stoddard as an architect looking to respond to the town's request for proposals. They looked to make improvements to the park's facilities and gave us prospective respondents a tour of the site. I came home that night telling my wife I thought I'd really found something. I never got the design job, we did find a home for our family though.

I know what a resource the woods and waters of Holliston have been to me personally over the years. I know I'm not alone in that appreciation. It's because of those experiences, walking the woods alone with my thoughts or swimming the lake side by side with my loved ones, watching the lone heron take flight —it's because I so value those moments that I find myself so ill at ease with any signal to anyone that they should not share in them as well. 

I know there are some practical arguments to be had on a subject like this. And I've not even begun to address them here. I don't mean to insult the signs or those who placed them. I just mean to suggest another mindset when it comes to how we regard our natural resources here in town. They are indeed a wealth worth our efforts to preserve and protect, but they are our common wealth, gifts and blessings and like any such we better honor them in the sharing. We can and should protect and conserve our woods and waters here in Holliston. We simply shouldn't pretend we merely own them.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

The opposite of excellence

I'll harken once more to what is a standing premise of mine, that is that I don't know what I am talking about.  I don't believe I am ready to argue for a specific policy or reform just now. But it's graduation season, the time for caps and gowns and commencement speeches. The President was in the area last week attending such a ceremony. So it is that the ideas and actualities of education in this day and age got turning in my cranial rock tumbler and got stuck upon a word: excellence.

"Excellence in education" —words that combine neatly on the tongue. It's a banner sentiment that flies on just about everybody's flag pole. Who on earth could ever be against excellence in education? Even question the notion? But, as is my wont, when I hear that turn of phrase I unpack the meaning in each of the words and I find myself asking "well... excelling who?" When politicians talk about education these days, one of the values they claim to see in schooling is the equipment it offers the "average American" to "get ahead." I start thinking of the down side of grading on a curve.

I might be a little glib and, as I said, I am not sure how this speculation leads to practical policy, but to get serious for a moment I wonder if there is something of spiritual importance I might be scratching at here. I've seen a lot of opinion on the sky rocketing costs of education as of late. There was the recent failed attempt in Congress to offer student debt relief. Could it be that one of the contributing factors to the dollar values going haywire is that we've mistaken the actual value of education, of information, of knowledge and wisdom? This could be another of those problem instances, like healthcare and housing, where we tell ourselves we want for a freedom from want, but always needing just a little bit more than the next guy.

I remember a while back when the movie "Finding Superman" was all the rage for the reform minded. "Schools should be run like businesses" was the signature slogan coming out of that one, that banner sentiment of excellence. I recall how saddened I was by the case study families that were shown in that film, all of them so desperate for their children to have better educations, better worlds, better than they had. But the dream wasn't about bettering the world at hand, the communities they lived in; the dream was of escape from the life and the environment that they knew. Who or what did they want to excel or escape? Their own neighborhoods. Themselves.

I guess I question the wisdom of this model.

I'll close with this anecdote, I came across it years ago browsing in a bookstore. I don't recall the book or the author, only that I was scanning through the pages and I came upon this story of a Native American, the noted elder of some tribe in the Southwest as I recall, who had learned a great deal about the Gospel courtesy of proselytizing missionaries who had tried and tried to convert him, promising heaven and eternal salvation. On his death bed he'd been offered once more and his reply was that, although this Jesus they told him of seemed wise and good and the promise of this place heaven seemed nice, his ancestors who'd gone before him, the many without salvation, would be too lonely for him. Thanks, he said, really, but no thanks.

I think of that old dying man so politely declining the sweet offer of salvation as maybe the better model, or at least a sane voice of caution in our world of always excellence. Getting ahead shouldn't always be our goal. As individuals —as citizens, we must also have some sense of belonging, not of what we own, but what we are a part of that we must nurture and better as a whole.

The word "vocation" comes to mind —literally the notion of a calling. I wonder if that's what I am talking about, the idea that we, all of us, should think of our education and the work we do, the citizenship we bring and the society we make as our answer to a calling. There's that old project about ever forming "a more perfect union" —maybe that's the call. And it's in that sense that perfection is the opposite of excellence.