Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Five Years of School Uniforms

After writing my post on our five-year experience with a charter school, I realized that there was yet another difference between our charter and our local standard public schools: uniforms. Students that attend our charter must wear an approved school uniform.

This topic has been heavily debated, often with a great deal of heat. After five years of dealing with the uniform policy, I generally consider it to be beneficial. But I'm not passionate about it. There are pros and cons either way. It seems more a matter of preference than a solid social good.

It might help if I described our school's policy. K-8 students can wear khaki or dark blue pants (girls may wear skirts), and red, white, or blue shirts. All of these must be solid colors with no overt patterns. High school students have a few more options, but only a few. Precise styles are not dictated, but there are some general rules that ensure a certain degree of modesty.

This policy is actually quite flexible. It isn't like some schools I have visited that have extremely rigid uniforming rules. Our charter's parents can obtain the clothing wherever they like, as long as it meets guidelines. The school offers clothing with the school logo, but its use is completely optional. Parent volunteers run a uniform clothing exchange during back-to-school nights and progress conferences.

It is neither difficult nor expensive to outfit a child in proper attire for our school. The prescribed styles of clothing are broadly available. Moreover, the clothes can easily be used outside of school without appearing out of the ordinary. Parents seem to generally favor the policy and few students have major issues with it; although, there will always be a handful of students that push the limits of any clothing policy.

The clear benefits I see from our school's uniform policy include an improved learning environment, an added sense of belonging, and the ease with which students can be located during field work. I don't miss seeing the slut, grunge, diva, and playboy styles that are regularly visible in our local standard public schools.

The main drawback to the policy, as far as I understand it, is the complaint that uniforming robs the student of individuality. That argument probably holds more water with respect to stricter uniforming policies. I don't really notice this problem at our school. The policy is flexible enough to allow for a fairly wide range of non-distracting displays of individuality.

Another complaint is boredom with the available styles. I guess I'm rather unsympathetic to this lament. It seems pretty low on the list of priorities when considering what's really important regarding the education of my child.

Should every school move to uniforming? No, I would not agree with that. I would prefer a model with many more charter schools, each offering its own clothing policy and learning style. Parents that want a charter education for their child could then select a school that has policies to their liking.

In other words, I think it would be great if we had a more diverse education market that allowed parents to find a situation that they felt best met the needs of their child and their family. Let the market sort it out instead of trying to force a one-size-fits-all policy on everyone.

So, I am moderately in favor of school uniforms, while lacking the desire to force a blanket policy on everyone. I am more in favor of different schools offering differing clothing and grooming policies that they feel best meet the needs of their students and the students' families. More options, not fewer.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Night of the Plastic Apple

"Dad," my daughter said one night after we finished dinner, "will you help me with my apple puzzle?"

I stopped in mid step on my way to the task I anticipated doing that evening. It was at least a little bit urgent. If it didn't happen that night I wasn't sure it would get done on time.

I glanced at my daughter looking hopefully at me, and then at the clear plastic bag in her hand that contained a number of red transparent bits of plastic. This was not something that had to be done that night. If it were homework or something like that....

As I looked up into my daughter's face, prepared to deliver the rejection as softly as I could, all of the lessons, talks, admonitions, MormonAds, parenting articles, etc. to which I had ever been exposed pressed themselves into the forefront of my consciousness. "Sure," I heard myself saying.

Moments later I sat next to my daughter with a jumble of red plastic arrayed on a TV tray. I glanced at the instructions. "How hard can this be?" I thought to myself. There were only 44 pieces. I figured that I'd spend 15-20 minutes with my daughter and then be off to my own project.

We discovered the first five pieces without too much difficulty. I smiled as my daughter snapped them into place. Pieces six and seven were more challenging. We looked at the illustrations on the instructions, but none of the pieces looked quite right.

After a few minutes I sensed that this 44-piece puzzle was more challenging that I had assumed. "Where did you get this?" I queried. My daughter reminded me that she had received it at the extended family Christmas gift exchange. If she had had the puzzle for 3½ months, why did it need to be completed that night? "Besides," I groused to myself, "who gives this kind of thing to a kid her age?"

But my daughter seemed to be enjoying herself. Bit by bit we came closer to finishing the first half of the apple. 21 of the pieces had an identical twin, so constructing the second half was a simple matter of building the first half in reverse.

The second half was much easier, but not nearly as easy as I had supposed. Eventually we quit looking at the illustrations on the instructions and confined ourselves to looking for pieces that appeared to match the necessary shape and end connectors.

Finally my daughter snapped the final piece of the puzzle into place. Her face glowed. She jumped up and gave me a (too) tight hug, before running off to show her apple to other family members.

I looked up at the clock. About and hour and a half had passed. "Am I really that bad at puzzles?" I thought to myself. True, I have never been very good at 3D puzzles, but this thing had only 44 pieces. The evening was gone. It was almost time to gather the family for our nightly devotional and bedtime routine.

My project would not get done that night. But as my daughter cheerily bounced back into the family room with the completed puzzle in her hand, I knew that it was all worth it. After all, she will never be this age again. And I'm sure that someday I will miss the days when she was willing to come to me to ask for my help with a toy.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Scout Leaders Becoming Disillusioned

I have discussed with a variety of people the topic of my recent post about the BSA's proposal to drop its ban on homosexual members for youth only, while maintaining the ban for adult leaders. I am concerned about an attitude of disillusionment that seems to be quite common among long time scouting volunteers with whom I have interacted.

These people have often given untold hours of service year after year—the kind of service you can't buy at any price. They have served willingly, doing everything from the lowliest grunt work to planning and executing major events. Frankly, if the entire network of scouting professionals shut down tomorrow, these volunteers would keep the program functioning.

As a friend of mine is fond of noting, there is a difference between scouting and the business of scouting. These people are scouting; the embodiment of its values and principles. The program would die without them, regardless of how many people work in the business arm of scouting.

But they are feeling worn down. Many seem resigned to the decline of the organization that they have loved and served for so long. They are especially disheartened by the BSA's willingness to back down on what it has long claimed was a vital tenet of the program. This seems like betrayal of core scouting values (like loyalty and bravery) that these volunteers thought could never be compromised.

These people do not see altering the membership policy as cosmetic surgery that will remove a blemish. They see it as a heart transplant that will change the very nature of the program, turning it into something unrecognizable to them.

I was at a large scout camping event over the weekend, where I rubbed shoulders with a goodly number of adult volunteers. Many are wondering whether they are doing any good. They have been willing to fight the good fight and have been willing to weather persecution. But what they see as betrayal from within has really taken the wind out of their sails.

One friend has served in many different BSA training programs and has run various events. I was surprised when he wondered out loud whether it was time to hang it all up. He and his wife have provided invaluable service for many years. Their sons have volunteered along with them and have spent summers working on scout camp staffs. Still, my friend wonders whether it's time to apply himself to some other effort that will have greater integrity.

Ouch. Boy Scouts are supposed to be models of integrity. But it looks to these volunteers as if the BSA has lost its claim to that virtue. This sentiment is strong enough to cause at least some dedicated volunteers to question whether they should scale back their service or even end their association with the BSA.

When I wrote my first post on this topic in January, I took a somewhat favorable view of completely dropping the BSA's current policy against gay members. My thinking is colored by the fact that I have a dear friend that has struggled with same-sex attraction his whole life, but that also was a tremendous BSA volunteer for years. He is still willing to help with challenging support tasks when asked. Why should he be excluded from scouting? We need more people with his qualities.

I now admit that there were many factors I did not consider when I wrote my first post. The BSA cannot operate without a strong corps of dedicated adult volunteers that are willing to work hard at their own expense. Diminishing or completely losing the support of these people would seriously harm the program and its ability to serve youth.

Perhaps, as I suggested in my previous post on this matter, the damage has already been done. If so, it may not matter much how the vote on the proposal turns out next month. At any rate, I hope that voting members of the national council seriously consider the impact the vote will have on the spectrum of volunteers that are the backbone for the organization.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

No Gay Scout Leaders, but Gay Scouts?

In a January post and a February post I discussed the recent attempt made by the Boy Scouts of America executive board to drop the organization's long held policy against allowing homosexual members. That proposal ultimately failed, but the board said it would offer a new proposal at the organization's national council meeting that begins May 20.

In the interim, the BSA sent out a survey about the current membership policy to over one million scouting families, volunteers, donors, and interested parties (see CNN 3/13/13 article) and tallied the results. Some criticized the survey as being designed to drive to a predetermined result. The BSA has so far offered only a weak response to this charge.

After analyzing the results of the survey, the executive board has now proposed lifting the ban on homosexual membership for youth members under 18, while maintaining the current policy for adult leaders (see Fox News 4/19/13 article). This proposal was designed to account for the fact that it was the only potential change of the current policy upon which there was broad consensus among survey respondents.

As a scouting leader I have received and reviewed the actual text of the proposal that will be voted on next month. The proposal would indeed drop any requirements regarding sexual orientation from the BSA membership policy for youth members under 18, while maintaining the current policy of denying membership to adults that are openly homosexual.

The policy expressly states that any kind of sexual activity among youth members, heterosexual or homosexual, is incompatible with the values of scouting. So youth that engage in homosexual or heterosexual activity would be subject to disciplinary action, perhaps even revocation of membership.

The materials I received accompanying the proposal went into some detail about the survey.
  • Most respondents (61%) favored keeping the ban, while a much smaller minority (34%) favored dropping the ban.
  • Most teens in the program disagree with the current policy.
  • Younger parents were less opposed to changing the current policy than were older parents.
  • Most chartered organizations (72%) wanted to keep the current policy.
  • Big business donors were generally in favor of dropping the ban, but most major donors (51%) favored keeping the ban, while a smaller number (33%) would like the ban dropped.
  • Most councils (51%) want to keep the current policy, while others (38.5%) would like it changed. Some major councils remained neutral because they could not ascertain the position of their major sponsoring organization (see below).
  • Most regions (75%) favor no change to the policy.
  • An overwhelming majority of all groups felt that it would be wrong to deny a boy advancement to the Eagle Scout rank solely based on his sexual orientation.
  • Analysts estimate that dropping the ban wholesale would result in a membership loss of 100,000-350,000 members, while only picking up 10,000-20,000 new members. They believe that adopting the new proposal would result in a few thousand defections.
  • The position of LDS Church, the "BSA's largest chartered organization" is "unknown at this time." The church says it will take the time it needs to fully study the proposal (see KSL article) and has previously said that no one should assume that they know the church's position on the matter.
Implied in the materials I received is the notion that attitudes regarding homosexuality are rapidly evolving to greater acceptance, and that, while adults in the scouting family are significantly behind the general public in this regard, their attitudes can be expected to morph accordingly as the old duffers die off. It seems that BSA administrators are saying that the proposal to completely drop the ban came just a few years too early.

A question and answer sheet addressed some concerns, while seeming to dodge or ignore others. On the question of what would become of a homosexual youth that turns 18 and wishes to become an adult scout leader, the fact sheet simply states that all adult volunteers will have to comply with the membership policy. In other words, membership would be denied.

Critics of the proposal bring up several concerns, including the slippery slope argument. As soon as a homosexual adult that has been a model scout as a youth wishes to become an adult leader, there will be fresh pressure to change the policy for adults. "How can they say that I was a great Eagle Scout and senior patrol leader, but that I would be an unacceptable assistant scoutmaster?" he will ask.

Family Research Council President Tony Perkins argues that the proposed policy is incoherent (see Christian Post 4/21/13 article). The scouts, he says, would be sending the message that "homosexuality is morally acceptable until a boy turns 18…"

Perkins has a point, but proponents of the change explain that youth are in a developmental state where their sexual identities are not well formed. They should not be punished for experiencing feelings of same-sex attraction if they remain chaste.

More ominously,
"Perkins also warns that the resolution would make BSA vulnerable to lawsuits because it would no longer uphold its argument that considering homosexual conduct as immoral is a core value, which helped BSA win in the U.S. Supreme Court."
This makes the slippery slope argument seem more real. It appears that the policy change would deliberately invite challenges to the remaining adult membership restriction, with the likely result being that the rule would ultimately be dropped. (The statements I received anticipate no change in current legal defense methods even if the policy is changed.) If you can't get through the front door, try the back. Proponents of changing the ban have offered no rebuttal to this charge, as far as I can tell.

The compromise proposal would satisfy almost nobody that is passionate about this topic. One side sees it as inadequate, while the other side sees it as a weasely retreat from basic principles. Neither side sees it as a successful Solomonic decision.

Gay rights activists could easily turn Perkins' statement around, saying that the BSA would be sending a message that discrimination against homosexuals is morally wrong until a boy turns 18. Then it is not only acceptable, it is imperative. A homosexual youth operating under a cloud of impending disapproval would in essence be a second class citizen in the organization.

Many scouting leaders with whom I have discussed this matter feel that changing the policy would be a fundamental violation of scouting principles. After having insisted for so long that the current policy is an essential part of scouting virtues, dropping it now in the face of financial challenges would send the message that the principles espoused by the BSA are for sale. Seeing the organization crumble to a shadow of its current stature while standing firm would be preferable to many of these volunteers.

Both sides could easily say that the current policy is either wrong and has always been wrong, or it is right and has always been right. How can it be half wrong and half right at the same time?

One scouting friend opines that it really doesn't matter what the BSA does at this point; the damage to the scouting brand has been done. After standing so steadfast for so long, just entertaining the idea of dropping the ban demonstrated that anything the scouts claim is a bedrock principle is actually up for grabs. After all, what is the value of a principle if one dumps it as soon as serious sacrifices are required? "It will take a generation or more to rebuild the brand, if that is even possible at this point," says my friend.

From my vantage point, it is difficult to see how adopting the new proposal could turn out well for the BSA. Gay rights activists will not stop their crusade until the BSA fully accepts their agenda. Conservative churches that sponsor many scouting units will not accept the most salient parts of that agenda in the foreseeable future. This impasse will ensure perpetual controversy that will feed the media for years to come.

I have no idea how the 1,400 member national council will vote next month. No doubt the media will closely watch and heavily report on the outcome. Regardless of how the vote goes, the BSA is in for a long round of withering pressure. It seems that this will only further drive down declining membership enrollment. I suspect that in a few years the BSA will be a very different entity than it is today. Likely smaller and even less popular.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Our Charter School Experience: Five Years On

Five years ago we embarked on a new adventure in our children's education by sending our three younger children to a new charter school (see 12/07 post). We have only one child remaining in the charter as we approach the completion of our fifth season with the school. The other two have returned to traditional public schools.

Over the years I have learned much about how schools work, what is good, and what is not. I now believe that the choice between sending a child to a charter or a standard school depends on a complex package of factors whose makeup is individual to each family and even to each child.

I hasten to add that more education choices are available, including home schooling and unschooling. But to be honest, my wife and I aren't willing to commit the necessary energy to these pursuits. I commend those that do. We are similarly unwilling to commit sufficient resources to private schooling, and we haven't felt that online schooling is the right fit for our younger children at present; although, we know families that employ this option.

So we are sticking with charter and traditional public schools for now. While not wishing to give short shrift to other valid options, I will limit my comments to the systems with which I have real experience.

I have occasionally written about our experiences at the charter school:
The charter school seems to work much like a regular public school in many respects. This is to be expected, since charter schools are public schools. Everything the near monopolistic school districts do affects charters as surely as everything a dog does affects its tail.

Charter schools (as well as home schooling and online schooling) move the traditional Prussian education model to a different venue and staff. Some rightfully question the validity of this antiquated model in meeting the needs of the modern employment economy.

Our charter is different from standard schools in some respects. The parents elect parents to the all volunteer board. The longest term of service is three years. No professional educrats here. Since the teachers are not union members, the board has much greater flexibility in dealing with staff problems. But the board still makes unpopular decisions and is sometimes subject to groupthink.

Another significant difference is the level of parental involvement. Our charter actively solicits and uses parents as subject experts, safety monitors, and field work chaperons. The expeditionary learning model upon which our charter is based uses a lot of out-of-classroom learning. This would be cost prohibitive if buses were the main mode of transportation. As it is, parents that volunteer to provide transportation bear the costs themselves. This is a significant, but willingly accepted cost transfer.

Sometimes this system doesn't work out. Our daughter recently went on field work to several sites as part of her study of the Transcontinental Railroad. The neighboring class was unable to go along because the teacher was unsuccessful in recruiting enough parents to drive.

Many parents at the charter enjoy being actively involved in their child's education. They not only get to see what is happening at the school; they get to influence it. More than a few have explained that they felt marginalized and treated like lower life forms when volunteering at traditional schools. Some are downright angry about it, saying that the standard school system is happy with slaves, but that the last thing it wants is parents that actually effect changes in programs and curriculum.

Volunteerism has its dark side as well. One friend has been so responsive to volunteer demands this year that he is burned out. He looks forward to the end of the school year more than his kids do. My wife was roped into filling a volunteer administrative role she had not sought. This has often overwhelmed her due to several family demands that have arisen over this past year. She has gotten to the point that she despises this extra burden.

Our charter splits students into pods of mixed grades. This allows students to be more effectively grouped with those at their same learning level, advance according to their individual capacities and initiative, mentor younger students, and be mentored by older students. I see this feature as generally positive.

Perhaps the main reason that the oldest of our three charter students (child #3) returned to the standard school was the lack of a parental feedback loop. The learning model employed treats children as self responsible and accountable students. We would all love our children to rise to this goal. But in reality, Mom and Dad were often left out of the loop. We frequently discovered deficiencies only when it was too late in the term to take any corrective action.

This year the charter added an online system to keep parents informed and to track volunteer work. Its usage has improved throughout the school year. But for our son this system came three years too late. The standard schools have had such systems for years. Still, I must admit that his school's online system doesn't consistently prevent our son, who is bright enough to do chemistry and advanced math, from failing to turn in work.

We moved the second of our charter students (child #4) back into the standard system this school year because he had come to hate his school by the end of last year. He basically shut down for the last few weeks of the year and accomplished nothing.

Moving child #4 to the standard school did not resolve his problems. Early this school year he ended up spending three months in an outpatient program that addressed mental and behavioral problems. After much close observation he was diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome (AS). The school has been very accommodating since his return. He is getting the help he needs and is doing much better.

I can't really say whether our son would have had this kind of outcome at the charter. But the charter had come to represent something very negative to him, mainly due to his own issues. Moving him was the right symbolic step for mental health reasons. Our son, however, still maintains friendships from his charter days.

The commute is the main drawback to the charter for our family. The half-hour round trip made more sense when we had three children at the school. Carpooling allows us to make the trip only once on most days. My wife has not-so-secretly hoped to move our daughter (child #5) to the local elementary school that is within walking distance from our home, where many of our daughter's neighborhood friends attend.

Our daughter seems quite disinterested in this prospect. "Why would I want to do that?" she asks. Although she struggles in some classes (while being capable of better work), she very much likes the charter school. She envisions herself graduating from the high school that is being built on campus. She would be in the first class to have attended all K-12 grades at our charter.

Since our charter draws from a broad area, our kids have developed friendships with children that live many miles away. This necessitates lengthy commutes for play dates and birthday parties. Our son with AS philosophically opines that the types of relationships developed in the magnate charter and in the local public schools are different, but that each model has its benefits.

When we decided to take our children to the charter, some friends expressed concerns that charters would drain the high quality students and volunteer parents away from traditional schools, leaving these schools with only the dregs. This always struck me as a strange fear rooted in the backward idea that the child was created for the benefit of the institution. The feared demise hasn't happened. In fact, a recent study found that the presence of charters actually improves performance at standard schools (see DNews 3/14/2013 article).

If anything, our charter has a greater percentage of students with challenges than do our local standard schools. Many parents with kids at the charter fled traditional schools because their kids were failing in those systems. That's why we moved child #3 to the charter in the first place. Our charter does amazing work with these students, but it's no panacea. It takes its toll on teachers and fellow students.

Our charter lacks many extras that are found in our local standard schools. While it has superior band and elementary music programs, no foreign languages, choir, competitive academics, or niche interests such as ballroom dancing, sculpting, and jewelry making are offered.

Our family is not much into sports. Besides, these athletic programs spend much money on few students. So the lack of sports programs seems like a plus to us. Besides, plenty of competition leagues exist to satisfy this demand. But the lack of foreign languages pains us, since we believe pursuit of such to be of great educational value, and finding useful freelance classes for children is tough.

So the charter is working acceptably for our youngest child, although, we would prefer to avoid the commute and we wish foreign languages were offered. The traditional high school seems to best meet the needs of child #3 at present. The charter might still work fine for child #4, but the traditional junior high is functioning acceptably for him right now.

With only one child left at the charter, I'm not sure how much longer our charter adventure will last. Maybe until our youngest graduates, which is still many years away. Our charter journey could end sooner if my wife gets her wish.

Would a charter be the best option for your child? That's difficult to say. Charter schools differ dramatically from each other. You need to gather a lot of information about the charters you might want to use and then compare with your local traditional schools to see which situation is most likely to best meet your child's and your family's needs. I certainly wouldn't trust anyone that offers a blanket statement suggesting that one way is always better than the other.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

I Hope They Only Come In Threes

My wife and I were recently on our way to the temple. We had known that the tires on our car were, um, well seasoned. We hoped to put off that purchase for a few more months. But, BLAM!, one tire blew out. I was going at a pretty good clip at the time, so the rim was damaged.

"Oh, come on," I was thinking. "Can't we get a break? I mean, we're on our way to the temple. We're trying to do the right thing here."

After changing the tire (which was thankfully facilitated by a friend that happened by wearing work clothes—yes, thanks for that blessing), we noted that the beautiful never-been-used spare was low on air. We took the car to a tire dealership, which was not far away. (OK, the fact that we were close to the tire place and it was during business hours was another blessing. Thanks.)

Given the state of affairs, we ended up buying four new tires, a new rim, and an alignment job. (Indeed, the tires we wanted 'happened' to be on sale, so there's another blessing.) We left the car to be repaired and took another vehicle to the temple. Upon retrieving the car a few hours later, we had a hefty bill (despite the discount) that we hadn't expected to pay this month. But the car is safer now. (Yes, thanks for that.)

The next day as I was doing yard work (that I detest doing—I'm not much of a yard care guy), my wife came out and informed me that the new kitchen faucet I had installed a few weeks back was leaking under the sink. I discovered that the leak was inside of the inaccessible portion of the unit. I uninstalled the unit and took it back to the hardware store. Since it was relatively new, they replaced it. I went home and installed the new faucet. No leak. No additional expense in money (Thanks for that), but there went an hour and a half I had expected to use differently.

A short time later my wife informed me that the clothes dryer had quit working. I surveyed the problem and determined that replacing the defective part would cost nearly half the price of a new dryer. My wife reminded me that the unit had been causing discolorations on white articles of clothing. That sealed it. It was time for a new dryer.

We did some online research and found a unit we wanted at a price we could accept. Unfortunately no one in town had one in stock. So we tried a different model. Same story. Finally we found a less featured model for a closeout price. There was one left in stock, so we bought it. (Thanks for that deal; although, we hadn't expected this expense.) We later ran to the store and fetched it home. (Thanks that I have a vehicle that could handle chores like that.)

I was thankful that we were replacing a dryer and not a washing machine because dryers are far lighter than washing machines. After getting the new dryer upstairs and unboxed, I realized that I would have to remove the washing machine to exchange the old and new dryer machines. (Our wash room is tiny—a compromise we accepted for getting it on the main floor.)

After battling with the heavy washing machine to get it out of the way, I was able install the new dryer without too much difficulty. Getting the washing machine back in place was much more challenging. Then I reattached the hoses. It was late and we needed to get to bed. I left the old dryer in the living room.

As I was getting ready to leave the following morning, I realized that I had forgotten to turn the water supply to the washing machine back on. I quickly did that before leaving. My wife later informed me that she had turned off the wash room spigots because there was a leak and water was everywhere. I sent her to the store for a new hose.

After getting home from work I had my son help me deliver the old dryer to its destination. Then I set to work installing the new hose on the washing machine. No go. The faucet itself was leaking. I turned off the house water supply and tried dismantling the faucet to change the rubber grommets. I got one piece off and fashioned a grommet from a larger one. (Why don't I ever have the right materials for home maintenance jobs?) It still leaked. Moreover, it was corroded enough that I was unable to further disassemble or remove the old spigot. It was soldered to the pipe, not threaded.

I know when I'm beat. This kind of plumbing is beyond my ability. I turned to my wife and asked her to hire a plumber to replace the faucets in the wash room. She did so the next day. The job went quickly, but there went another chunk of money we hadn't expected to spend this month.

Of course, inconveniences and unexpected burdens on resources are the common lot of all humans. And none of the little problems I have mentioned are really that important in the grand scheme of things. But, honestly, do several of them have to gang up on us all at once? Or perhaps this is a sampling of God's sense of humor? Or maybe I've done something to warrant the compressed timing of these minor trials?

Uncle, I say. Uncle, already! Whatever I've done wrong to warrant all of this frustration and expense inside half a week, I'm ready to humble myself and repent. Just let me know what I need to do. Again, I know when I'm beat. I'm hoping that the old superstition about trials coming in groups of three is true. Oh, wait. I count four. I guess it's not true.

I know that we are commanded to thank to the Lord in ALL things (see 1 Thessalonians 5:18, Mosiah 26:19, and D&C 59:21). And I do see blessings in this chain of events. But I would be fibbing if I said that I found it easy to be thankful for all things in this story.

At least, from my current perspective. Maybe someday ....

Monday, April 15, 2013

The Drug Addict Next Door

They were a nice young couple with small children. I was called to serve as their home teacher. They were trying to live their faith. The husband was congenial and hard working. The wife was dealing with the kinds of things that most mothers of young children deal with. But I sensed that she harbored some kind of underlying pain. It was never mentioned to me and I didn't pry.

I would be surprised years later to hear those that had known the wife during her school days describe her energetic vivaciousness and leadership skills. I would never have guessed it from my interactions with her. Her friends and family talked about how much she had changed since her school days.

One of our children occasionally played with one of their children. So it was not uncommon for our wives to visit each others' homes. After a few years the family moved up the hill to a nicer home. We still occasionally had some interaction because our children continued to hang out together from time to time.

We were surprised when the wife of this family came to my wife begging our forgiveness. She admitted to rifling through our medicine cabinet in search of prescription painkillers while visiting our home.

Our friend's story of prescription drug addiction is repeated frequently throughout the country and especially in Utah (see CDC report). The story unfolds when patients are legitimately prescribed strong painkillers to deal with the immediate aftermath of surgery or injury. Some end up with strong addictions to these medications.

 It is not unusual for a painkiller prescription to include many more dosages than necessary. For example, my wife was recently prescribed a huge bottle of Lortab (which contains an addictive opiate derivative) for post surgery pain control. After taking two doses my wife reverted to over-the-counter acetaminophen because she disliked the way the drug made her feel.

Most people that receive prescriptions for painkillers don't become addicted. They take the drug only as long as needed or maybe a bit longer, and then they put the bottle away and often forget about it. Then one day the drug goes missing from their cabinet following a friend's visit. Or maybe they give the leftover drug to a friend or family member that claims to need it.

That recipient may be among the 5-10% of people that are predisposed to drug addiction. This WebMD article explains that these drugs "stimulate the areas of the brain that perceive pleasure. This results in the initial euphoria or sense of well being...."
"As an addiction-susceptible person uses opioids again and again, the reward system begins to wrongly learn these drugs are as essential to survival as food or water. Experts believe that the nerve cells of the brain actually undergo a change."
Eventually addicts can reach a point where they feel that they will literally die without the drug. With perceived survival at stake, addicts will often let everything else in life—job, family, friends, even food—slide to a lower priority. Sometimes the drug that they feel is necessary for their survival ends up killing them instead.

Our friend was one of the lucky ones. Or so we thought. Unlike many that find themselves trapped in prescription drug addiction, she finally got help. Her apology to us was part of her therapy. We were glad she was getting the help she needed.

But addictions can be very persistent. WebMD notes that "Even after breaking free from physical dependence through a detox program, most people with opioid addiction relapse." In the prime of her life our friend departed this life following an unintentional overdose, widowing her husband and leaving her children motherless.

Governments and health organizations have implemented prevention measures as awareness of prescription drug abuse has increased. Tracking systems make it more difficult for addicts to game the system to get prescriptions from multiple practitioners and vendors.

A police detective recently told me that the resulting difficulty in obtaining prescription drugs is causing increasing numbers of addicts to turn to cheap illicit heroin instead. "We are arresting soccer moms and businessmen buying dope. We've never seen anything like this before," he said.

You might be surprised to discover that you may have enabled an addict. After all, prescription drug addicts get their hits via their own prescriptions only 17.3% of the time. They occasionally steal (4.8%) or buy (11.4%) the drugs from friends or relatives. Most of the time (55%) a friend or relative congenially gives them the drugs.

Of course, you wouldn't have the drugs to give away if your original prescription contained fewer doses. Doctors clearly prescribe too many painkillers. This CDC report states that "Enough prescription painkillers were prescribed in 2010 to medicate every American adult around-the-clock for a month."

But doctors prescribe the number of doses they do for your convenience and theirs. They don't want to be bugged if you run out after three days and need more. They also want to save you extra insurance co-pays and trips to the pharmacy.

Although doctors know about prescription drug abuse, no feedback mechanism exists that would let them know when a prescription they have written has gone to an addict or has been used in an overdose case. (The pills have usually been separated from prescribing info by then anyway.) Doctors know that over-prescription is an industry problem but they have no way of personalizing it to see how their own prescription patterns contribute to real life problems.

A family practice doctor told me that his job nowadays boils down to two things: 1) give the patient a pill, or 2) send the patient to a specialist. "That's what I get paid to do by the [insurance company owned] corporation," he said. His nurse's main job, he glumly noted, was to make sure that he spent less than 8½ minutes with each patient. Is it any wonder that harried doctors don't take time to tightly tailor prescriptions?

I believe that the medical industry could do much more to prevent undesired cases of prescription drug abuse. After all, most prescription drug addicts never wanted to end up that way. (You will never be able to stop those that DO want to end up that way from getting the drugs they want.) This is clearly an area that is open to innovation.

Hopefully it's wise innovation. Too many people are prone to whining for the government to solve every problem. Unfortunately, the government-centric approach to problem solving usually translates into making life more difficult for those with legitimate needs without significantly improving problems among those that don't, while rewarding politically connected cronies along the way.

In the meantime, there are some simple common sense measures we can take in our own homes to reduce opportunities for prescription drug abuse and for the enabling of such. I shouldn't have to spell these out. Think about it and take care of your own home.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

When a Missionary Returns Early

I was impressed as I watched as our 21-year-old son take copious notes of general conference last October. The previous week he had spoken in our ward Sacrament meeting prior to serving as a full time proselyting missionary for our church. This young man, who had never been fond of public speaking, had addressed the congregation powerfully and with deep spiritual conviction, amazing many that had known him his whole life.

Frankly, it was a miracle that these events ever occurred. For several years our son had struggled with a mystifying array of chronic balance and nausea problems that had impinged on every facet of his life. As he was in the process of applying to serve as a church service missionary, he had a second tonsillectomy. His symptoms miraculously abated to a large degree; although, the doctor said that the surgery could not have helped that much.

Our bishop consulted with the church's missionary department and our son soon began preparations to serve a regular two-year proselyting mission; something he had previously thought impossible. He received his call to North Carolina as his younger brother prepared to depart for his mission overseas. The prospect of funding two missionaries at the same time was somewhat daunting, but we were thrilled.

Unfortunately, the mission to which our son was called required its male missionaries to ride bicycles. While our son no longer had severe dizziness problems, his balance was inadequate for cycling. (Strangely, proper medical documentation for this condition had accompanied our son's missionary application.) A few weeks after corresponding with the mission president about this matter, our son received a new call to Pennsylvania. He spoke with me privately and said that he had the odd impression that he would not end up serving there.

The change in our son's call meant that he and his brother would not be in the MTC at the same time. But on a beautifully sunny day, for the second time in 10 weeks, we dropped a son off at the MTC and drove away. It was strange going from five to three kids at home in such a short period of time.

This is the MTC calling...
We were surprised when our son called about a week later from the MTC to inform us that he had again been experiencing some dizziness and nausea problems. He had gone to the infirmary and they had sent him to an ear-nose-throat specialist, who had ordered tests.

We waited. Then one night shortly before our son was to head to Pennsylvania, we received a call from a counselor in the MTC mission presidency. Our son's physical problems had worsened. The tests had revealed a problem that required neurological treatment, for which our son would need to return home.

When our son got on the phone, he insisted that we wait to pick him up until two days later, despite his physical discomfort. He didn't want to miss the visit of an apostle the following day. Our stake president then called and arranged for us to bring our son directly from the MTC to meet with him.

Back home again
None of the bustle of drop-off day was present when we arrived at the MTC to fetch our son on a cool autumn morning. A member of the MTC mission presidency chatted with us briefly. Our son arrived in the lobby with two members of his district. They exchanged earnest embraces and well wishes before we loaded the luggage in our car and departed. Miraculously, our son that was overseas began emailing during the drive home. I handed my phone to our son, who exchanged hopeful messages with his brother for a few minutes.

Our stake president was very upbeat. He extended an honorable release to our son, explaining that our son would again be set apart as a missionary once his treatment rendered him able to serve. Our stake president offered advice for getting rapid medical help so that our son could return to his mission as soon as possible. We all left his office with this same hope.

Knowing that secrecy breeds many rumors, I asked that the bishopric publicly inform ward members of our son's situation. My wife also announced my son's situation in Relief Society meeting. Ward members have been magnanimous and supportive since then.

Complex diagnosis
Getting competent medical treatment proved to be a challenge. But thanks to my wife's tenacity, our son was soon examined and tested by a specialist that pinpointed the problem. He explained that our son has had a permanent neurological condition since birth that causes overactive stress perception.

This causes our son's body (not his mind) greatly heightened fight-or-flight response. He is continually being riddled with adrenalin; although, his mind is calm. This results in a broad array of physical problems, including the balance and nausea issues previously mentioned, chronic concentration problems, the propensity to easily catch common viruses, and a host of other issues that unpredictably present themselves. But we now better understand a number of lifelong behavior patterns.

We now realize that our son might have gone undiagnosed had he not gone to the MTC. Although his time there was short, he had some tremendous spiritual experiences that deeply enriched his life. He was the go-to guy in his district on gospel doctrine matters. He learned much and enjoyed playing volleyball with his district members.

No going back
But our hopes of our son returning to his mission have waned. Three months after our son returned from the MTC, he finally unpacked his luggage. The more we understand about his condition, the more we realize that it is unlikely he will ever again reach the point that the missionary department will consider him capable of serving a full time proselyting mission.

There is no medical treatment for our son's condition, which is technically permanent type of disability. All that can be done is to employ treatment commonly used for certain anxiety disorders and similar mental illnesses. This is mainly accomplished through therapy, such as mindfulness-based cognitive therapy. Medication is not used, since our son's condition does not respond to drugs commonly used to treat anxiety disorders.

The past few months have been challenging for our son. Through therapy he is slowly making progress. But social settings are extremely difficult for him, particularly those involving larger groups of people. He explains that it is as if each person is perceived as a potential threat, requiring him to pay close attention to each individual. It wears him out and causes negative physical responses. The larger the group, the worse it is.

Our son is a smart man. He knows this is irrational, but that makes no difference to his body. He does better in group settings if his back is against a wall, he has an escape route, and all of the others present are within his scope of vision.

This has made it very difficult for our son to attend church meetings consistently. He explains that he gets very little out of the meetings at present because his body is going nuts while he's in the meetings. But he goes as much as possible because he knows that blessings come from being in the right place at the right time. He also knows he needs socialization. Sitting around the house, unable to work or go to school leads to boredom and depression.

Despite previous marvelous temple experiences, our son has not attended the temple for months because he doesn't perceive a reasonably acceptable escape route. You can, of course, leave a temple session. But it is frowned on. He wouldn't feel right going into a session with such a tenuous grasp on whether he will have to run out or not.

Small gains
When our son began therapy he was told that his symptoms would likely get worse. They did. He had hoped to do some school, but for many weeks he simply couldn't concentrate. That has improved in recent weeks and he has started taking online classes. He thinks he may be able to try to physically attend university classes in a month or so.

As prescribed, our son does regular physical exercise. Bit by bit he is also confronting situations that have caused physical anxiety responses in the past. He once loved swimming and even participated in lifeguard training. Then a few years ago I saw him experience strong anxiety symptoms while trying to swim 100 yards. Swimming has been difficult for him ever since then. But he went swimming last week and did just fine.

The therapy should over time allow our son to cope with most common life situations. But normalcy in many settings will never come naturally to him. Handling these situations with apparent normalcy will likely require much effort and extract a significant toll.

Although our son was preparing last year to serve a church service mission, he is not yet at a point where he could consider doing so. He is still in the baby steps phase. Only time will tell whether he will ever be able to do this kind of volunteer work.

Social stigma
As I mentioned above, members of our ward have been very understanding. Many actively pray for our son. One evening a young man in our neighborhood brought a plate of cookies and spent time chatting with our son. A couple of years earlier he had returned from his mission after eight months of service due to medical problems. He understood and was able to relate with our son.

Still, it is difficult to explain our son's condition to friends and family. It's a somewhat befuddling issue that we and our son are still trying to understand well. When I tell people that I have Multiple Sclerosis, they might not know exactly what it is, but they have some idea of how it affects people's lives. It takes so long to even begin to explain our son's condition that there usually isn't time to do so in most social settings.

Many people mean well and would like to help. But they can't wrap their heads around our son's disability and they have no idea how they can be of service. Quite frankly, we often don't know either, despite knowing more about our son's case than anyone besides him and his doctor. We would invite people to visit him more often, but that may produce more problems than it solves.

Shame and inferiority
After hearing a recent radio report regarding a study about LDS missionaries that return early, I chatted with my son about his experience. I was unsuccessful in finding information online about the study other than an ad for an April 9 presentation. But the radio reporter said the study revealed that for early returned missionaries:
  • Feelings of shame are common, but are most closely tied to their parents' response.
  • Most feel that they never get a chance to tell their story without being prejudged.
  • Many feel that they have failed an important rite of passage and seek some other way to achieve this distinction.
  • Most feel pressured to return to their mission, regardless of whether the want to and/or are able to or not.
My son said that he had never sensed any shame from our family after returning from his mission. Rather, he expressed gratitude for the love we have exhibited. For this I am grateful. I am very proud of my son and I love him very much. Although he was unable to complete his mission, the fact that he prepared himself to go is a great accomplishment of itself. I admire him for facing his current challenges.

Regarding being prejudged, my son said that he has been dealing with this for several years now, given that he did not leave for his mission at the minimum age. Most of his church acquaintances are aware that he went through a period where he struggled with spirituality and with the church during his teen years. He feels that most church members—even those that mean well—see him as inferior.

The church used to go to great lengths to help young missionaries that went home due to problems return to the mission field. That is no longer the case. Church leaders discovered that this policy hindered the work too much and didn't very often end up helping the young people involved. So missionaries that return early for whatever reason nowadays are unlikely to be returned to the field unless it is going to be a quick turnaround.

It seems that it doesn't matter why a young LDS man fails to serve or to complete a full time proselyting mission; the social stigma remains. For example, many feel that the stigma associated with being honorably excused from missionary service is almost as great as it is for unworthiness.

Rite of passage
My son understands the rite of passage issue. But for now his disability leaves him too dependent to even consider undertaking any such adventure. So he feels that he can't speak to the matter just yet.

Pressure to return
There is no doubt that my son has felt pressure to return to his mission. At first, much of that pressure came from himself. As stated, we at first were working toward helping our son return to the mission field until we began to understand that this wasn't going to happen. Leaders also applied friendly pressure at first, but are now focused more on how they can best help him deal with his condition. Some ward members and family members still occasionally apply pressure. Although they mean well, they don't have enough understanding of the situation to act more appropriately.

No glory
I'm not sure what can be done about the social stigma mentioned above. I think that attitudes have relaxed from what they were years ago. But it is a fact that young LDS men that do not complete a full time proselyting mission for whatever reason are considered to be in a lesser class than those that do. With the recent lowering of the minimum missionary age for young women, I wonder if a similar social perception will develop over time for young ladies (although church leaders insist that their service is completely optional).

I recall coming home from my mission, reporting in high council and Sacrament meetings, having a big party, and generally being welcomed with great honor and recognition. In our stake, those that complete their missions are awarded a plaque that has hung in the stake offices during their absence.

None of that happens for early returning missionaries. Their return often goes publicly unmentioned by church leaders and family. There is no recognition for the service they have done. No reports in church meetings. No glory. No honor.

I'm not sure how the church could go about remedying this problem. Doing too much could unnecessarily foster more early returns. But there certainly must be ways that a church—a community of disciples of Christ—can provide a better social environment for those that do return early from their missions.

Where did you serve?
My son admits that social situations among other church members his age are difficult, especially when the topic of where the various young men served their missions arises. It is understandable that returned missionaries want to talk about their missions. The 10% of their young lives they have spent doing full time missionary service has significantly contributed to their identities.

But it's kind of a non sequitur to respond to the inevitable "Where did you go on your mission?" and "Did you go on a mission?" questions with, "I was going to Pennsylvania but I got sick in the MTC." The looks on people's faces and their body language usually says, "Move this guy to the inferior class." There is a tendency for young ladies to immediately drop such guys from their list of those to whom they would give the time of day, so the dating scene can be tough.

Everyone has problems
Of course, it does no good to whine about social realities. Each person deals with their own set of challenges. Some are more publicly visible and others less so. This just happens to be our son's lot in life. As has been said many times, the man is defined not by the challenges he faces but by how he faces his challenges. I hope for, pray for, and actively work for my son to deal with his challenges in a way that results in eternal happiness.

But I would still be interested to know what others think of the issue of early returned missionaries. I suspect that with the lowering of minimum missionary ages we may see an increase of these cases as more callow young men and women are tested by the rigors of full time missionary service.

What, if anything, should the church do? What can and/or should ordinary members of the church do?

Monday, April 08, 2013

Cursive, Anyone?

The only time I use cursive writing anymore is when I sign my name. In fact, I have rarely otherwise written in cursive since I was in junior high school, a very long time ago. I can readily read cursive, but writing it simply takes too long.

I took to writing in block letters decades ago, both for speed and legibility. With the proliferation of electronic devices, I later took to typing for the same reason. I can type so much faster than I can write. And it's so much easier to read. Besides, manipulating and sharing text is far easier in electronic format than with any kind of writing on paper.

My older children learned to write cursive. Not that they do so. They merely perfunctorily learned to do it as required by the school curriculum of the era. But my adult son informs me that he can't read cursive without great effort. Is this a problem? He can't read many handwritten documents of yore. But he doesn't see this as a big issue, given the rate with which these are being digitized into common typeface.

It has been reported that the Utah school board has voted unanimously "to recommend that handwriting and cursive be taught in schools." If approved, the board "would require instruction in cursive by the third grade." Supporters of the initiative claim to have "some real important, research-based information that cursive handwriting does help" improve "students' reading and spelling skills."

Let's stipulate that the supporters are correct that teaching students to write cursive has beneficial side effects. But at the same time, let's be honest about the fact that cursive is dying. Decreasing numbers of American adults actively write in cursive. That number will continue to decline no matter how much we force school children to learn the art.

Cursive writing was developed mainly for speed back in the day of the inkwell and quill pen. Improved writing implements and papers rendered moot many of the convenience advantages of cursive decades ago. Many students can now write just as rapidly and as legibly using block letters as they can using cursive.

While cursive might be useful for improving reading and spelling skills, similar arguments can be made in favor of teaching students Latin. We know that understanding Latin can help students grasp etymology, improve English skills, and understand math better. But society has obviously determined that these benefits simply aren't sufficient to warrant the general teaching of Latin. The language is just too irrelevant to most people's daily lives.

The same can be said of cursive writing. The relevance of the art to daily life is diminishing with each passing moment. For that reason, many school children that are coerced into writing in cursive will never do so once they escape the juvenile confines of our compulsory education system.

Consider yet another argument against teaching cursive in schools. Philip Ball writes:
"There’s something deeply peculiar about the way we teach children to play the violin. It’s a very difficult skill for them to master—getting their fingers under control, holding the bow properly, learning how to move it over the strings without scratching and slipping. But just as they are finally getting there, are beginning to feel confident, to hit the right notes, to sound a bit like the musicians they hear, we break the news to them: we’ve taught them to play left-handed, but now it’s time to do it like grown-ups do, the other way around.
"Alright, I’m fibbing. Of course we don’t teach violin that way. We wouldn’t do anything so absurd for something as important as learning an instrument, would we? No—but that’s how we teach children to write."
The moment our school children are beginning to gain rudimentary mastery over their writing skills, we destroy their progress by plunging them into a whole different methodology. For what purpose do we impose this torment? Tradition? To prove to the kids what the all-powerful state can force them to do? Or perhaps just for the sake of drudgery under the false perception that it is good for them?

"Well," some good intentioned anachronists will say, "at least they will be able to read cursive and understand historical documents." Sure. Tell that to my oldest son. He's a very smart man. He can get most historical documents in which he is interested in regular type. Why should he go to the effort of trying to decipher some ancient person's loopy handwriting—a form that only existed due to the technological shortcomings of the time?

With this kind of reasoning, one can argue that all construction apprentices should learn to master lath and plaster construction, that all automobile mechanics should become proficient at repairing Model-T Fords, and that rock climbers should certify using 1950s equipment. Valuable things could be learned from each of these endeavors, but that learning would not warrant the general teaching of these skills.

A few people might choose to become proficient in historic techniques. Some will choose to learn Latin. Some will choose to learn how to build historic dwellings. Some will learn to read ancient script. Interested experts will arise in a broad variety of historic fields. But that is hardly a reason to force everyone to learn these skills.

Perhaps you like writing in cursive, but why should you force your love of this historic skill on everyone else?

The effort to teach cursive writing to all students in this age is like standing beside a mighty river demanding that the tide stop. The stream of real life will push on heedless of our silly interventions designed to prepare our children for the jobs of yesterday. We can save ourselves (and our kids) much unnecessary frustration by stepping into the real world and dumping this cursed love of cursive.

Wednesday, April 03, 2013

Mormons and the Law of Consecration, part 4 (conclusion)

In this series I have been discussing why early Mormon Utopian economic experiments failed. Having previously outlined why communal experiments collapsed, I explained in part 3 why the less onerous stewardship system didn't work either.

The conclusion I took from an article by Orson Scott Card was that all of the various Utopian systems devised by early Mormons suffered from insufficiently providing for "God-given agency." I agree with Scott's assertion that:
"To the degree that plans for economic fairness, for having “no poor among us” and “all things in common,” interfere with freedom to select among good and worthy alternatives, then to that degree they cannot be the Law of Consecration."
I believe that expansive agency is essential to becoming more like God. It allows individuals to exceed what previously was thought to be impossible. Author Charles Murray contends, "Freedom regularly makes ridiculous anyone who thinks he has figured out the limits of what is possible."

The question then is how is the Law of Consecration to be lived? What kind of system adequately honors individual agency while also observing scriptural and prophetic commandments as well as covenants regarding consecration?

It may help to understand what the law of consecration is and what it is not. It is not uncommon in Mormon circles to hear the law of consecration equated with early attempts to live that law. I believe this harms our understanding of the law and the covenant to live that law.

Like many Mormons I grew up with the understanding that tithing was an inferior law that church members were to observe until such a time that the law of consecration was restored in its fullness; an event that apparently would occur when the saints were sufficiently righteous and unselfish.

I was taught that the communal systems of early Mormons were the more perfect way. As stated in my previous posts in this series, I now understand that these economic systems were inherently flawed. The systems required coercion. They stifled human ingenuity and healthy individualism.

No one will arrive in the celestial kingdom without freely choosing to become celestial in every way, including economically. Coercion is not part of the plan. With free choice comes variety, which leads to overall better productivity and better stewardship. While it allows for suboptimal behavior, it also leads to accountability.

It is true that the law of tithing is incumbent on every church member. Consecration, on the other hand, is a covenant made in the holy temple. As explained in the booklet Preparing to Enter the Holy Temple, in the temple we "covenant with the Lord to devote our time, talents, and means to His kingdom."

But this does not man that tithing is a lesser law. After all, the Lord calls it "a standing law unto them forever" (D&C 199:4). Tithing is part of living the covenant of consecration. In this article Orson Scott Card contends that paying a full tithe along with fulfilling our church callings to the best of our abilities is essentially equivalent with living the law of consecration.

But that's not the whole story. In earlier articles Card discusses other facets of consecration. In The King Benjamin Society he writes about the importance of freely caring for others, even when they do not seem to deserve our aid. In Already Consecrated he explores what consecration means. (Pay particular attention to the words in bold type.) He writes:
"Consecration is not some past practice that will be restored, or some future law that will someday be given. We already live the law, we Latter-day Saints. It sets us apart from all other people. Nobody else takes part in the life of their church the way we do.
"And yet we also see that it costs us nothing. All our time, talents, and goods came to us as a trust from God. We improve them as best we can, and use them to serve others in his name, and as directed by the stewards set over us."
LDS bishops today generally refrain from digging into members' personal finances unless a member is coming to them for economic help. But that doesn't mean that church members are not by covenant accountable to their bishops for their personal stewardships, including their private finances.

Years ago I heard Elder Monte J. Brough of the Seventy tell about the time his family bought a new Suburban SUV. A week later his friend, who was the ward scoutmaster came and asked if he could use the new SUV to take the Boy Scouts to summer camp. He told his friend no.

A few days later, however, Brother Brough's bishop approached him and asked the same question. He gave his bishop the keys to the new vehicle. His friend was somewhat hurt by the fact that Bro. Brough would entrust the SUV to the bishop (who he contended was a worse driver) but not to a close friend with whom he presumably shared a great deal of trust.

Bro. Brough explained to his scoutmaster friend that the way he saw it, the bishop held the priesthood keys to ask any member of his ward to put their covenant of consecration on the line at any moment for the building up of the Lord's kingdom on earth, but that the scoutmaster didn't hold such keys.

The way the law of consecration works in the church nowadays, we are given a great deal of personal flexibility, depending on our capacities and interests. My octogenarian mom is no less committed than she was three decades ago, but she simply can't do as much as she used to. Billionaire Jon Huntsman, Sr. has the means to build cancer institutes and donate corporate aircraft to church leaders; things that the average church member will never be able to do. But neither is it expected of them.

We are individually accountable to the Lord and to his servants for our various stewardships. Having enough flexibility to enable individual agency means that we can choose to be insufficiently committed to the covenants we have made. The social consequences for doing so won't be nearly as problematic nowadays as was wearing a new pair of store bought pants in Orderville during the height of its communal experiment. But deep down we all have some idea of where we sit with the Lord. At any rate, the Lord will not be fooled.

In other words, we already have an economic system today that enables fully living the law of consecration. It enables all kinds of other variations as well. But the economic choices of our neighbors impact us far less than would be the case in the collectivist experiments of yore. No one is required to "run faster than he has strength," yet "it is expedient that [each] should be diligent" (Mosiah 4:27). Where we are at on that continuum at any given moment is between each individual and the Lord.

Maybe this personal way of being consecrated is actually more difficult than living within the narrow constraints of either the communal or stewardship orders. But it is far closer to the real law of consecration than were those systems.

But what of Enoch's society? Did they not achieve a community where they had all things common and there were no poor among them? Isn't this what we strive for?

Yes, yes, and yes. But it is important to note that Enoch's society consisted of completely willing and united participants. They became a separate group. They cared for their own poor, but not for the poor of the whole world. In fact, the record suggests that they were often at war with the outside world. We would consider this to be severe social stratification today. Imagine the negative media coverage that would ensue.

We also have no idea know how Enoch's system of having all things common worked. Did young people just entering the job market automatically get handed to them everything that the skilled workers of their parents' generation had? What kind of market variety existed in the city? There may be a good reason that we don't have this information. Maybe we're supposed to figure out how to apply the law of consecration to our own cultural situations.

One way "having all things common" can happen in our current era is described in the story told by Elder Brough (above) and by the Card in his article about tithing. We pay our tithes and offerings, serve faithfully in chruch callings, reach out to help others where we can, and occasionally respond to extraordinary needs.

What about having no poor among us? I do not live in a wealthy ward by Wasatch Front standards. And yet we have no poor among us that are not adequately cared for. We also regularly participate in projects to help the poor outside of our ward boundaries. While other wards and units in other parts of the world may not be able to say this, even Enoch's society had boundaries, and we are members of our given ward/branch for a reason.

Instead of waiting for perfect conditions or trying to re-enact the details of Enoch's society, we are called to personally live the law of consecration here and now in the circumstances in which we currently find ourselves. We are called to bring to pass much righteousness of our own free will (D&C 58:26-29) instead of waiting for some central authority to direct us.

Echoing what I said earlier, this may actually be more difficult than living in a centrally planned society. But, unlike those systems, it has the benefit of actually being able to work.

Monday, April 01, 2013

Mormons and the Law of Consecration, Part 3

I admitted in the first two parts of this series that I had problems with the way early Mormons attempted to implement the law of consecration. In part 2 I discussed the Orderville pants rebellion to outline why communal systems fail.

But not all LDS attempts at living the law of consecration were essentially communal in nature. The other main model employed was the stewardship system. Each person was to consecrate their property to the bishop. The bishop would then grant them a stewardship equivalent to what was felt to be adequate to meet the person's needs and righteous wants. The steward held title to these properties and was accountable to the bishop for his stewardship. He was able to enjoy the proceeds of his productive work.

Most participants received the properties they had consecrated back as a stewardship. The system was designed to put the excess contributions of the wealthy at the bishop's disposal to bolster the stewardships of those that had too little to sustain themselves.

Unlike the communal system, differences in holdings were entirely acceptable, based on individual needs, skills, and righteous wants. The system sought to reduce the freeloading and lack of initiative inherent in communal systems.

However, the stewardship system still proved unworkable. Mormon writer Orson Scott Card explains why in this article.
"First, it supposes a freeholder economy — either you farm, in which case you receive your land, tools, and seed from the bishop; or you practice a trade or keep a shop, in which case you receive building, tools, and inventory from the bishop.
"Second, while the Church could organize or fund projects that everyone knows are needed — roads, irrigation, hospitals, infrastructure repairs — there are projects highly unsuitable for local bishops or the Church as a whole to decide on.
"Third, there is no place in Joseph Smith’s freeholder economy for people who work in sales, in management, or as employees on an assembly line. Nor is there a place for artists or entrepreneurs.
"Artists don’t work well here, and not just because excellence requires hard practice to such an extent that you cannot possibly support yourself in a day job.
"The problem with artists and entrepreneurs is that bishops, by the nature of the office, are singularly ill-suited to identifying and investing in either.
"A bishop in Joseph Smith’s system has a sacred trust. He must dispose of the community’s surpluses with as little risk as possible.
"And what does the bishop do when somebody comes to him with a project that sounds risky? How can he lay the widow’s mite on the line for a startup project?
"Entrepreneurship is horribly risky, and yet no progress is made without it."
In short, the freeholder economy is simply too limited to address the complexities of real life. Scott also notes that central planning is incapable of magnifying the capacities of human ingenuity, which I believe to be the greatest natural resource in existence. This deficiency isn't just because the bishop was a back country merchant. It would still be the case if the central planners constituted a group of the world's smartest people, due to the nature of the system.

As for the sameness enforced in communal systems like Orderville, Scott says, "Sameness is not fairness. In fact, relentless sameness is torment. It’s as good a definition of hell as I can think of." He provides some real world examples of the need for variety and the unfairness of enforced sameness.

But how do you develop a system of consecration that fosters the maximization of human ingenuity for the enhancement of self sufficiency and for the benefit of others that doesn't involve communal or central planning systems?

Blasting the never ending Utopian abhorrence of money, Scott asserts that "money is not evil." In effect, "it counts as a vote. ... It allows large groups of people to make decisions together without actually having to hold a meeting or an election." With money, the "bishop doesn’t have to decide whether a project is worth the risk, or whether a particular artist’s work has value. Instead, individual people vote with their money."

The laws of economics exist and are as inviolable as the law of gravity or the second law of thermodynamics. This does not stop people from attempting to devise systems and policies that ignore economic laws. It happens everyday when opportunists seek to exploit the people's general ignorance of economic laws.

"But" Scott asks, "can money really coexist with the Law of Consecration?" He answers, "Obviously it can — because the Saints are living that law, and we live in a money economy."

At the end of his article Scott addresses the crux of why early Mormon attempts at living the law of consecration failed. These experiments, he says, "crashed against that reef of choice. They didn’t fail because the people were sinful. They failed because they didn’t allow sufficiently for God-given agency."

Given that these experiments sought to violate economic law, Scott's conclusion resonates much better with me than the stock explanation of human sinfulness. The simple fact is that mortals will always be imperfect. They will always be sinful. In fact, the whole message of Christianity is that the Atonement of Christ can compensate for the eternal effects of the sinfulness that impacts all humans.

Earthly economic systems that require perfect people are destined to fail. Mormon doctrine teaches that God usually functions within the scope of natural laws. Since early Mormon Utopian economic experiments violated natural economic laws and/or required perfect people, they could not have succeeded. Nor would they succeed if attempted today. The problem didn't lie with the people. Fundamental elements of the systems were flawed.

I believe this conclusion can be reached without denying the prophetic calling of those that promoted these systems in good faith. They were the first to admit their humanness and fallibility. It may also be true that God had goals other than economic success in mind when these systems were attempted.

In the next part of this series I will explore what the law of consecration really means. This will necessarily require separating the doctrine from early attempts to live the law.