A diet of cream

happy cowsIncreasingly as a society, we’re going backwards in one way. Think of it this way: Most children learn to read with 1. Picture books, 2.Simple stories with pictures, and 3.Chapter books. In that order. Now, however, through the determined measures of marketers influencing news, we’re going backwards along that continuum. We’re moving from text to pictures. Everywhere.

Marketers have figured out that they can grab our attention more easily with pictures and visual illustrations. They like to imagine, I suspect, that we’ll delve deeper into a subject. But that doesn’t often happen. Instead, they are feeding our nationally laziness, our predilection to gather news through pictures, sound bites, headlines and “quick reads.”

No one “reads long” anymore, they contend. That may be true. But that begs an important question: Should we read long? And shouldn’t institutions of higher learning lead the way?

By presenting news in such an easy-to-digest manner, we are dumbing down our ability to understand complex issues. The New York Times was historically called “the Grey Lady,” a reference to her once text-filled pages. Now her pages are filled with pictures. (Think kindergartners and their picture books.)

The problem arises when people create their opinions and make decisions — political, philosophical, or otherwise — based on limited information, on books, authors and writers they agree with and, even worse, on sensational — and sometimes hysterical — headlines.

Take Flight 370.

The mysterious disappearance of the plane is a case in point. One need read only the dramatic headlines flashed across CNN’s cluttered website to follow the story. The problem, however, is that really understanding the story — or any story — takes more than sound bites and headlines.

Flight 370 is a pretty straightforward story, but what about our obligation to understand a story as complex as the recent Russian takeover of Crimea? Knowing the history, the backstory, the players, and understanding the political and social landscape are all critical to a full understanding of the story.

Yet we are losing our abilities — and perhaps most egregious, the media is beginning to limit our access to full stories because they don’t “sell.”

Today, marketers in the news business measure their “success” by hits to a website. They can dig down and analyze how long an individual stays with a story or how many times they revisit it. From these statistics, they take the cream and leave the milk behind. Based on their findings, no one likes milk when they can have cream.

But cream alone makes us fat and lazy. In an intellectual sense, we’re leaving behind what makes us healthy mentally, socially, politically and educationally. The media is failing us by giving us less and less deep reading, by following the conventional wisdom that people only “read short.”

Reading deep, though, is essential for a vigorous social fabric, and especially and intelligent society. The oft-quoted President James Madison summed it up better than anyone: “Knowledge will forever govern ignorance; and a people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.”

Without arming ourselves thus, we cannot function effectively as members of society. We certainly can’t function at a high or productive level. We can’t, for instance, fully understand the issue of fracking without serious study and debate. Or climate change. Or health care. These are not one-off stories, any more than a political debate about abortion or military incursions or lost planes is a one-off.

Yet the media treats them as such, cultivating our interests only by satisfying our most limited minds — reducing complex issues to their simplest terms and allowing us the luxury (like a diet of cream) of what is easiest and most appealing to form our opinions.

war-to-peace-conference-graphic-655x393This week on JMU’s campus, we were treated to an extraordinary event: Intelligence and the Transition from War to Peace — a multidisciplinary exploration of the decision making process during the Bosnian War. The conference was sparked by the release of CIA documents surrounding the intelligence gathering that took place during the crisis and leading up to the Dayton Peace Accords on Bosnia.

Speakers included Dr. Timothy Walton of JMU’s Intelligence Analysis faculty who was a CIA analyst during the conflict. And Dr. Bob De Graaff of the Netherlands Defense Academy and University of Utrecht and Dr. Cees Wiebes, the retired National Coordinator for Counterterrorism in the Netherlands, who traveled to Harrisonburg to offer their deeply-researched perspectives on the war. And Jan Lodal, an expert on intelligence who has served four American presidents.  All the presenters — including a group of undergraduate students — had thought long and hard on their topics, so their responses to the released documents carried special weight.

The conference, if nothing else, demonstrated the lengths that any educated person must go — is required to go — to reach reasoned conclusions. It is not easy. Such understanding is not cream. It is milk, cream, the blending of both and the consideration of myriad ingredients.

But this is the responsibility of those in higher education.

Until we move away from our sound bite/headline mentality, we won’t make progress; instead, we will stall as a society.

Academics are often disparaged for perseverating on minutia.  Studying, for instance, flatulence in cows might be a little too esoteric, however, on balance studying something deeply is far better than a “quick read.” If educated people, and universities in particular, buy into the notion that “reading short” is an accepted method for learning, we are sunk. We’ve got to read long. We’ve got to study. And as a university, we need to promote it, not feed the opposite.

Without such deep thought, critical reasoning and pondering, we’ll become like children blithely skipping through the news, growing fat and unhealthy on a diet of cream and failing to see the sinkholes of misunderstanding that will eventually swallow us up.

So sell me shoes and chocolate with your “quick reads,” but leave the rest of the media to writers and thinkers who are willing to delve and study and get to the heart of the stories that touch of us all.

Pain and glory in Ukraine

Since 1992, more than 2,740 Peace Corps volunteers have served in Ukraine. One volunteer was JMU’s Pete Isaac (’05). When his service was up in December 2013, Pete left behind a country in turmoil and people he came to love and understand. As the world watches Ukraine struggle, Pete offers a unique perspective on the conflict…

Glory to Ukraine (Слава Україні)

by Pete Isaac (’05)

Pete with his host mother on his induction day

Pete with his host mother at his swearing in

Ukraine is a very special place for me. I was lucky enough to serve as a Peace Corps Volunteer in the city of Zaporizhzhia in the southeast portion. Reflection has been hard, however, as just before I left the country on December 1st, 2013, the country was dealt a huge blow at the hands of its president. In late November, then-president, Viktor Yanukovych, made an eleventh hour decision to back out of an agreement to join the European Union. This action, for all intents and purposes, serves as the catalyst for what will be etched in Ukrainian history books as a victory of the people.

When I applied to become a Peace Corps Volunteer, I had no idea where I would be placed. Honestly, to me it did not matter. Location wasn’t the point; service was. Fast forward to my arrival in Ukraine on March 23, 2011. Here, I found myself in a large room, full of people I didn’t know, snow on the ground, and a plate of beet salad topped with mayonnaise and cheese in front of me. The first words out of my mouth were, “So this is what we get to look forward to for two years…”

Like many of my fellow volunteers, we had amazing experiences in what many now consider our second home. As we integrated into our communities, we began to form relationships. We made valiant efforts to learn the local language (which was not always Russian or Ukrainian). We learned where to find the best tomatoes and other fresh produce. We learned which public taxis would take us where we needed to go. We overcame the fear of buying our first train ticket on our own. Some even mastered the local post office (trust me…this deserves a badge of honor). We became parts of our communities, we began to refer to these cities, villages, and towns as home.

This is the Ukraine I remember: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UfjKHjsaQKI  (The original song and video are from two other Peace Corps Ukraine Volunteers.)

Sometimes, the conversations would turn toward a feeling by some Ukrainians that their situation “is what it is.” That there was always going to be economic disparity, corruption was going to run rampant throughout the country top to bottom, any ideas they had would simply be scoffed at, that nothing they did could possibly lead to a change for the better. To sit and hear that come from educated adults and youth is an emotional pain I did not know existed. This is the mindset I and other volunteers set out to change.

Humans are naturally resistant to change. Try this experiment to get an idea of what I mean: Ask a friend, loved one, coworker to raise their hand like they are about to give you a high five. Next, say nothing, and take your hand and push against it. Did he or she push back without you saying to do so? If yes, natural resistance to change. If no…you just gave the strangest high-five ever, congratulations!

Imagine trying to change a mindset that has become woven into a society through the generations. Now imagine the feeling that sets in when you see a group of people collectively stand up to a political regime that has consistently lied to, stolen from, and manipulated the population all while amassing incredible personal wealth while the national economy falls deeper in debt. Enough was enough, and many Ukrainians took to the scene of the 2004 Orange Revolution, Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square), to hold peaceful protests voicing their displeasure with the decision.

As the protests grew in number, the pressure built on the president to act. The democratic thing to do would have been to listen to the concerns of the people and figure out some way to compromise. Instead, the peaceful protests were met with violence. On November 30, an order was given to violently clear Maidan (one of my favorite places in Kyiv). A peaceful encampment was met with batons, fists, and boots. Men, women, and journalists were beaten…savagely. This only caused more people to show up at the protests. Protests spread throughout the country.

See more pictures of Ukraine at BusinessInsider: http://www.businessinsider.com/ukraine-protest-pictures-2014-2

See more pictures from Ukraine at Business Insider: http://www.businessinsider.com/ukraine-protest-pictures-2014-2

January 16, 2014 was essentially the tipping point. On this day, parliamentary procedure was thrown to the side and 16 laws were passed to end protests. Among them included police immunity for acts committed dispersing protesters and 7 year prison terms for speaking negatively about a politician. These laws were all passed in less than five minutes using a hand vote that was not even counted. The papers were quickly handed to the president, who in turn quickly signed them. THIS is when it became a revolution in Ukraine. People were essentially stripped of human rights, a dictatorship was created, protesters began disappearing, and people began to die.

This video literally brought tears to my eyes: http://youtu.be/HpgYu2p9CE4

Yes, things can escalate quickly, and they did. I have often told my friends and family about just how resilient Ukrainians are, and in the past few months they showed it to the world. Now, there is a new parliament with elections scheduled for May 25th and a fugitive president on the run. Peace Corps is an apolitical organization that does not get involved with politics, so to see the rest of the world show the support it did for the Ukrainian people was amazing!

There really is no better explanation than right here: http://youtu.be/Hvds2AIiWLA (two weeks ago, this had less than 5,000 views…needless to say, that has changed)

This is not over yet, there is a lot of work to be done. Like I said, people are naturally resistant to change…yet change is inevitable when people are passionate and driven by more than greed. I can’t help but smile in the past few days when I break news to my parents about what is happening and I like to think that, along with the over 2000 other volunteers to serve there, I may have somehow helped. Not sure how, but it sure is nice to think!

Ukraine has a call-response chant that is commonly heard. The past three months have brought new meaning to “Слава Україні! Героям Слава!” (Slava Ukraini! Heroyam Slava) or “Glory to Ukraine! Glory to her heroes!” Glory indeed…

440 Angelinas

UnknownTo have a friend, you have to be a friend.

I think that’s what President John F. Kennedy was thinking — on a macro level, of course — when he stroked the executive order that created the United States Peace Corps back in 1961. Friendship, whether on a personal or global scale, is a powerful thing. He must have hoped that by sending young, eager and energetic Americans out into the world, he might change it for the better. Today — 52 years and 210,000 Americans later — Peace Corps volunteers are still making friends and helping in 139 countries. That’s a lot of friendships

Last week a press release crossed my desk telling me about Angelina Loverde (’11) who left last month to begin a 27-month stint in China. Along with 146 other Peace Corps volunteers currently serving in China, Angelina will be learning Mandarin Chinese and getting acclimated to the culture during the next few months while living with a host family. Then she’ll begin teaching English to university students. The 2011 graduate in International Relations with a minor in Asian studies was a member of the International Learning Community while she was a student at JMU. She spent her childhood in Thailand where her father — a Peace Corps volunteer himself then — met her mother. Angelina graduated from the American School in Switzerland.

In addition to her international experience, Angelina has also interned or worked in the office of Senator Dick Durbin, the U.S. Department of State, the U.S. Embassy and the White House.

The press release about Angelina also noted: “More than 440 JMU graduates have served in the Peace Corps since 1961.”

I wondered about those other “Angelinas” who decided to take two years out of their lives to live far away from home — often in less than comfortable conditions to make friends for the U.S.

Back in 1967, Angelina’s counterpart would have been Louise Schullery Cox (’67). In a story in Montpelier, the precursor to Madison magazine, I learned that Louise grew so close to a friend in Sierra Leone, her host country, that the woman named her infant after her. Obviously, Louise, the elementary education graduate of Madison College, became a friend to the mother of Louise of Sierra Leone.

More recently, “Angelina” was Michael Waidmann (’10). In September 2010, Michael traveled as a business volunteer to Ethiopia. The College of Business graduate with a degree in marketing helped rebuild nine classrooms in a local school. According to a story on the Peace Corps website about Michael, more than 1,500 elementary-age students share only 11 classrooms “made primarily of mud and eucalyptus branches.”

Quoted in the story, Michael said: “In a country where education is the only means to a better life, the reality of the primary school is heartbreaking….By adding cement flooring, a brick exterior, and one extra classroom, the spread of disease will be drastically reduced, rats will be kept outside, flooding will be prevented, and the classroom held under a tree can move to a proper school environment.”

Another JMU “Angelina” is James Rodriguez. Born to parents who immigrated from El Salvador, James graduated from JMU with a degree in International Affairs and Spanish. He spent his two years in Drohobych, Ukraine where he “taught English to tenth and eleventh grade students,” according to the Peace Corps website.

There are many more. Hundreds more, in fact. Like Meme McKee (’99) who served in Nicaragua and Erica Bleeg (’96), a JMU faculty member, who served in Benin.

All giving two years to form lasting friendships and change lives. In our JMU vernacular, that’s “being the change,” living a meaningful life and putting it on the line with time and talents to make a difference. Making friends by being friends — like Angelina, Louise, Michael, James, Meme and Erica.

What is perhaps most encouraging, though, is that since 1961 — when the Peace Corps had few counterparts — humanitarian NGOs and international help-giving organizations have proliferated, and hundreds more JMU graduates have served there as well, which means that along with the 44o Peace Corps “Angelinas,” there are hundreds more eager JMU friends all trying to change the world.

One friend at a time.

We’d love to hear from more JMU Peace Corps “Angelinas.” If you were one or know one, let us know in a comment or an email to Bethechange@jmu.edu

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