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The Kansas Weather and the Rest of the News

The neighborhood tornado sirens went off Sunday evening, which seemed odd given the light rain and even lighter winds we noticed outside the window, but we nonetheless did the Kansas thing and turned on the old-fashioned AM radio and checked the newfangled internet radar. Kansas is our favorite of the 49 very fine states we’ve visited, and we urge you to pay it a visit sometime, but you do have to be careful about the weather around here.
Kansas gets hotter than Hades in the summer, colder than the proverbial well digger’s ass in the winter, and the few in-between weeks of spring and fall are either eerily perfect or downright scary. On the good days you can drive around with the top down and watch a spectacular prairie sunset of shot gold, maroon and violet, dazzling silver, emerald and fawn, with the earth’s whole amplitude and nature’s multiform power consigned for once to colors — as Walt Whitman once memorably described it — but on the bad days Mother Nature is a mean old bitch old around here. Kansas goes through droughts when the Arkansas and Little Arkansas Rivers slow to a trickle, and such rainy seasons that both rivers would have overflowed their banks and flooded our Riverside house if the damned know-it-alls at the City and County Halls hadn’t defied local anti-government opinion and dug the Big Ditch on the west side of town. Every spring, and to a lesser extent every fall, the state also gets lightning strikes and medicine-ball sized hail and ferociously high winds and car-window-shattering barometric pressure drops and torrential flash-flooding rains and Wizard of Oz-sized tornadoes that can quite literally kill you, and on several occasions we can well recall each of them have come quite close to killing us.
The Kansas weather hasn’t killed us yet, however, and we like to think the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche was right when he said “That which does not kill us makes stronger.” Life on the prairie can be harsh, but so can life be anywhere you might go, so maybe the weather has something to with Kansas being able to stumble along as well as it has since it righteously entered the Union as a Free State.
Despite the tornado sirens we only got a brief heavy rain and moderates winds on Sunday, although the unlucky neighborhoods to the west did get some hail that will probably involve an insurance claim or two, and that’s the way a lot of the media scares always seem to work out. Barring bad weather we’ll try to get back to the rest of the news today, and we’ll try not to be alarmist like some of the meteorologists around here, but we’ll also keep in mind just how bad things sometimes get.

— Bud Norman

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Rotten to the Common Core

For all the dire economic news and reports of political dysfunction, the most disturbing story of the past week was about the decision to replace literature with bureaucratic mumbo-jumbo in the nation’s schools.
Something called the Common Core State Standards in English, which has been embraced by 46 states, requires that 50 percent of all the required reading in elementary schools and 70 percent in high schools be non-fiction. Suggestions for the new assignments include Alexis de Tocqueville’s “Democracy in America,” an excellent and surprising recommendation, but also such dry governmental fare as the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco’s “FedViews” and the General Service Administration’s “Executive Order 13423: Strengthening Federal Environmental, Energy, and Transportation Management.” The educrats responsible for the diktat insist that it’s no big deal, except to the extent it will better prepare the youngster to take their rightful places in society, but we are not reassured.
Any federal “one-size-fits-all” plan for education is destined to fail. What’s needed in a rural Kansas classroom might not be suited to the children in a crumbling inner-city school back east, and within either group the educational needs and capabilities of the individual students will vary even more widely. Each of the 46 states that have signed on to the new standards would do better to allow their school districts to decide what’s best for their charges, and the districts should leave the matter to every school, where the principals should in turn leave the matter to the discretion of the teachers whenever possible. If at any point in this process anyone concludes that the teachers aren’t capable of making the best decisions, they should reconsider their hiring standard for teachers.
There are several things about this particular plan, though, that are especially galling. It’s partly a very personal distaste, as literature afforded us the few enjoyable and genuinely enlightening moments of our desultory schooling, but it’s also an affront to our political, cultural, and educational sensibilities.
How very frightening, for instance, is the assumption that all functioning citizens of the brave new world of the American future will be required to slog through the turgid and deliberately incomprehensible prose of bureaucratic regulations. This assumption is likely correct, alas, but all the more reason that young people should instead be reading Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World” to be properly forewarned about the sterile society they’re about to inherit. Perhaps the point of the new standards is to shield the children from such subversive material. Without sufficient regulation some old-fashioned English teacher in flyover country might expose his students to Walt Whitman’s admonition to “Resist much, obey little,” and there’s no telling where that might lead.
Neither do we care for the inevitable cultural effects of this plan. The communication skills of the young people we encounter today are barely sufficient for “tweets” and text messages, and further evidence of the country’s increasing illiteracy abound. We note from the Washington Post’s account of the controversy that the man who played a key role in foisting the new standards on the country was unable to get through a speech at the New York State Education Building without resorting to an expletive that the more genteel editors of the paper felt obliged to delete. Holding up the jargon-laden soporifics of the General Services Administration as a model of well-written English will not better the situation at all.
In addition to teaching people to coherently and more elegantly express a thought, literature from sources other than the Government Printing Office also helps people formulate an idea. Those seeking any insight into human behavior, man’s relationship with God, the history of civilizations, or anything else that might be useful to a sentient being as he avails himself of whatever’s left of his freedom would do better to check with Mark Twain, Robertson Davies, Joseph Conrad, or a number of other dead white men than the GSA. Great literature fires the imagination and prompts one to ponder all the possibilities, which is precisely why it has lost favor with the generations raised on our empty-headed pop culture, but the country should expect its schools to remedy such cultural dysfunctions rather than acquiesce to them.
The proponents of these new standards will no doubt argue that anyone who can master the complexities of executive orders and bureaucratic reports should then be able to cope with mere literature, but deciphering the archaic language of William Shakespeare is more challenging and yields a better understanding of a vast world far more complex than anything dealt with by the Bureau of Weights of Measures.
Great literature is also a link to the past, with all its accumulated wisdom and warnings, and one wonders if the new standards are meant to create a break from that past and allow those who would impose their one-size-fits-all solutions on a new and more meticulously planned society. This distinct possibility is perhaps the most troubling aspect of the plan. Economic and political problems come and go, but when a culture goes it’s gone.

— Bud Norman