Archive for the ‘Teaching’ Category

Dr. Everett Slavens

Monday, June 5th, 2017

I had the honor of speaking Saturday in Arkadelphia at the memorial service for one of my college professors, Dr. Everett Slavens. Here are my remarks:

The older I get, the more I realize how blessed I was as a boy.

I grew up in a college town. Not only was it a college town, it was this town — Arkadelphia — a place small enough for everyone to know and care for each other.

I took it for granted as a boy, but because of the existence of two four-year institutions of higher education, the Arkadelphia in which I was raised in the 1960s and 1970s was far different from other towns its size in south Arkansas.

What’s now Ouachita Baptist University began developing the wooded hills near the Ouachita River in the late 1950s for faculty housing. My family moved into that neighborhood when I was just a year old, and Ouachita Hills was the only neighborhood I knew growing up. Most of those in the neighborhood were faculty members at Ouachita with a few Reddies from what’s now Henderson State University sprinkled in.

My mother and father were Ouachita graduates, yet we were different from our neighbors since my parents ran a business downtown rather than being employed at Ouachita or Henderson. Our family friends included a noted composer, a talented playwright, a famous basketball coach, a well-known football coach, writers, philosophers, theologians and even the state’s lieutenant governor.

You couldn’t get that in a Malvern or a Camden.

It was just a short walk to the Ouachita River and Mill Creek, where I could wade and throw rocks. There was a pond across the street to fish in and an old barn to hide in. Ouachita had cattle and horses in the pasture across the street from our house in those days. So even though we were inside the city limits, it was like living in the country, albeit a country filled with highly educated, articulate and interesting people.

Dr. Everett Slavens was a piece of the tapestry of my blessed boyhood. He was an integral part of a special place at a special time.

In a story published shortly after his death last month, Dr. Randall Wight, a current Ouachita faculty member, described him as “a profile in courage, a figure of lore.”

Dr. Wight went on to say: “He arranged his life so that nobody felt sorry for him. For generations of students and colleagues, his name conjures a Ouachita not lost in the mists of time.”

One of the things that characterized those talented men and women on the Ouachita faculty was a sharp wit and a brilliant sense of humor. Dr. Slavens’ wit was razor sharp.

Yes, Everett Slavens was blind, but indeed we never felt sorry for him because he didn’t feel sorry for himself. His blindness, in fact, was not something I really noticed as Dr. Slavens would walk through our neighborhood.

At least I didn’t pay much attention to it until my freshman year at Ouachita when both Johnny Wink and Tom Auffenberg — two other witty members of the Ouachita faculty — somehow convinced gullible new students that Dr. Slavens really could see.

“It’s all an act,” Auffenberg would state flatly. “Watch how easily he makes his way around campus. No one truly without sight could do that.”

One Ouachita professor might pull my leg.

But two?

Surely both Wink and Auffenberg wouldn’t both joke about such a thing.

And surely Dr. Slavens wouldn’t be in on the joke, refusing to provide a straight answer to anyone with the courage to ask.

My doubts increased one warm spring afternoon on the first floor of the former World War II-era barracks that only Ouachita could pass off as a classroom building. My friend Wayne Fawcett from Cabot — now the public school superintendent at Paris — decided he would show up to answer the roll and then quietly climb out the window so he could be at Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs that afternoon in time to take advantage of a hot tip on the third race.

With Wayne halfway out the window, Dr. Slavens tilted his head in that direction and said: “Mr. Fawcett, if you need to leave, you’re free to use the door.”

Embarrassed, Wayne sat back down in his seat and never missed class for the remainder of the semester.

I understand that type of thing happened more than once through the years.

What a teacher he was, this man who refused to let blindness be an obstacle.

I might have been a communications major, but all of my electives were in history and political science. It was an all-star cast of historians at Ouachita in those days — Cole, Coulter, Granade, Auffenberg, Slavens. In baseball, that would be known as depth on the mound. Schools five to 10 times the size of Ouachita couldn’t claim such depth in their departments. I soaked up every opportunity to hear their lectures. And I’m a better person because I did so.

As one of Everett Slavens’ former students, I’m here today to tell you that Johnny Wink and Tom Auffenberg were right. He could see.

Here’s what Dr. Slavens could see:

He could see the potential in his students, many of whom came from small towns in Arkansas, Texas and Louisiana and had never really been exposed to the wider world around them.

He could see that opening up these new worlds to them would improve their lives in the decades ahead.

He could see that forcing them to defend their positions and rely on facts rather than emotions would make the world of work an easier place for them to navigate.

He could see that he was truly making a difference in their lives.

With each passing year, we lose more and more of those men and women who were so influential in the first 22 years of my life, the years I spent in Arkadelphia.

I’ll always appreciate what they did for me and thousands of others.

Well done, Dr. Slavens.

Well done, good and faithful servant.

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Teaching Arkansas history

Thursday, March 3rd, 2011

A bill to put teeth into the law requiring public schools to teach our children Arkansas history failed to clear the Senate Education Committee on Wednesday at the state Capitol.

It’s not a surprise.

But it’s a crying shame.

As you might expect, the usual cast had problems with the bill, which is sponsored by one of my favorite legislators, Sen. Mary Anne Salmon of North Little Rock.

The Arkansas Association of Educational Administrators opposed the bill.

The Arkansas School Boards Association opposed the bill.

Even Tom Kimbrell, who heads the Arkansas Department of Education, stepped up to express concerns.

It’s always easy to find reasons not to do something.

“There are too many requirements already.”

“We’re too busy.”

Etc. Etc.

If you’ve spent much time in either the House Education Committee or the Senate Education Committee through the years, you know the drill.

I listened to the testimony on this bill on the same day two other things occurred — I learned that Chef Lee Richardson of Little Rock’s Capital Hotel had indeed won the Food & Wine magazine competition for best chef in the Midwest (even though Arkansas isn’t a Midwestern state; blame the magazine’s New York editors for not knowing), and I was handed the inaugural issue of Arkansauce, the state’s new food journal that’s published by the Special Collections Department of the University of Arkansas Libraries in Fayetteville.

Go back and read the post I did last week that was titled “Learning To Love Ourselves.” In it, I noted that while his cooking is indeed world class, Chef Lee’s real gift to our state is that he began to make us appreciate the things we already had due to his intense focus on local foods and local producers.

Meanwhile, in the introduction I wrote as the guest editor of Arkansauce, I said: “Unlike our boastful Texas neighbors, we quietly prepare great barbecue and other foods, enjoy eating it and then move on with our lives. Because the natives don’t brag, Arkansas food has never received the national recognition it deserves. In addition to the modesty of the natives, a reason for the lack of national recognition might be that people from outside the state have a hard time figuring Arkansas out. … The thing all parts of Arkansas have in common is that her people, while never boastful, are proud.”

Proud, yes.

Yet too many of us still carry the burden of that infamous Arkansas inferiority complex.

I feel strongly that teaching this state’s story (warts and all) to the children in our public schools — most of whom will remain in Arkansas and raise their families here — is among the most important things we can do.

Other states — think Texas — do a far better job of it than we do.

During the 2009 legislative session, Sen. Salmon sponsored a bill creating the Legislative Task Force On Arkansas History. She was the co-chairman of that task force along with Rep. Rick Saunders of Hot Springs.

There are some schools that do a good job of teaching Arkansas history. A lot of them do a poor job. The irony is that we now have more quality materials on Arkansas history than ever before.

The task force, which worked for more than a year, included representatives of state agencies, teachers and parents.

A 1997 law calls for 15 hours of annual instruction in state history for kindergarten through the fourth grade, 30 hours in the fifth and sixth grades and a one-semester history class for high school students.

The problem is that the law doesn’t have teeth and is too often ignored.

The bill that failed Wednesday would have required schools to document the time teachers spend on Arkansas history instruction and would have required high school seniors to pass an Arkansas history competency exam.

Ron Harder of the Arkansas School Boards Association said schools should focus on things such as math, literacy and science because “pride in the state will be derived by job opportunities and economic opportunities.”

I must beg to differ with his overall premise.

Are our schools in the business of simply teaching children to obtain jobs?

Or should our schools instead try to teach children — hopefully supplementing what’s learned at home, in church and in extracurricular activities — how to live a well-rounded, satisfying life?

I admit to an inherent bias. I come from a liberal arts background. I went to a liberal arts college. I majored in communications and minored in political science and history. I now work for our state’s 11 private colleges and universities.

Still, I believe all of us should be concerned by movements in our education system to get away from preparing the whole person.

Are we really educating or are we simply doing job training?

Bill Gates spoke Monday afternoon in Washington to the annual winter meeting of the National Governors Association. His comments troubled me. Inside Higher Ed reported the speech this way: “During a sprawling talk in which he emphasized the importance of using data-based metrics to figure out how to increase educational attainment while bringing down costs in both K-12 and higher ed, Gates said that when the governors are deciding how to allocate precious tax dollars, they might consider the disparity between how much the state subsidizes certain programs and how much those programs contribute to job creation in the state.”

Here’s how Gates put it: “In the college area, everybody should have a sense of which of the colleges — both community and four-year institutions — are doing very well. You can even break that down by the departments. It’s actually very interesting when you take higher ed and think of it in that way. The amount of subsidization is not that well-correlated to the areas that actually create jobs in the state, that create income for the state.

“Now, in the past it felt fine to just say, ‘OK, we’re going to be generous with this sector.’ But in this era, to break down and really say, ‘What are the categories that help fill jobs and drive that state economy in the future?’ — you’ll find that it’s not across the board in terms of everything that the state subsidizes.”

So is Gates striking out at the humanities?

Inside Higher Ed said in its story: “Defenders of the liberal arts, especially at public universities, have struggled to come up with a way to prove definitively what many of them believe: that liberal education is crucial to job creation. Vocational programs, whose curriculums are oriented toward teaching specific skills to feed demand in specific industries, are generally able to show their value in more tangible ways than are liberal arts programs, which tend to rely on the faith that their curriculums confer the sort of critical thinking skills that are transferable across different industries and might even give birth to new ones.

“Unfortunately, that kind of value is harder to quantify — and harder to commodify politically. Gates was, after all, talking to a roomful of politicians whose chances at re-election might turn on their ability to show job growth in the short term.”

I’ll conclude with the comments of Carol Geary Schneider, president of the American Association of Colleges and Universities: “It’s my understanding that the Gates Foundation wants to prepare students for work, life and citizenship. But Gates’ remarks seem to shave off two-thirds of that vision while emphasizing a view of work-related learning that is much too narrow and unsettlingly dated. His call to focus on specific fields and departments, rather than the whole institutions, implies a sharp dividing line between general education and specific majors that is, in fact, a relic from before the Cold War.”

I fully realize that I’ve wandered from discussing K-12 education in Arkansas to talking about higher ed. I hope you get my point.

In an era when technology changes so rapidly, those who are simply learning specific job skills will find they constantly need retraining.

Those who have learned to think critically, however, will be able to make transitions more smoothly. And understanding our past is a key part of being able to think critically.

Yesterday’s defeat of Sen. Salmon’s bill was a victory for those who want to simply prepare children to obtain jobs rather than attempting to prepare them to live rich lives.

I’m sad to say that the vote didn’t surprise me in the least. Maybe it wasn’t intended, but here’s the message that was sent to our children: “Arkansas’ fascinating history and culture aren’t important. We have a standardized math test coming up.”

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Kane

Wednesday, July 15th, 2009

You likely have heard by now that the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette is losing one of its finest writers.

I will miss reading Kane Webb’s articles and columns now that he is leaving full-time newspaper work to teach at Little Rock’s Catholic High School for Boys. But the readers’ loss is my family’s gain.

You see, I have a son who will be a junior at Catholic High. And Kane will be teaching a number of classes for juniors.

I have another son at Holy Souls who hopefully will be entering Catholic High in two years. I imagine Kane will also have a chance to teach him.

Kane is the first one to admit he has changed jobs quite a bit in his career. But I have a feeling that he will be at Catholic High for a long time. He’s a graduate of the school, you see. Those who have not attended Catholic High or had a son there cannot truly understand the intense brotherhood that is the school’s hallmark. Heck, I’m a Baptist who attended the public schools and loved it. But I married a Catholic and have two Catholic sons.

I have come to fully understand the feelings of loyalty of the part of those who attend Catholic High.

I’m reminded of Bear Bryant’s line when asked why he was leaving Texas A&M to coach at his alma mater, Alabama: “Momma called.”

When Steve Straessle offered a job to Kane, it was “Momma calling.”

I hope Kane will have time to still do free-lance writing. I’ve accompanied him on the Delta barbecue tour and the Delta tamale tour. There still should be tours for fried chicken, catfish and plate lunches.

And then there’s that grandest of all ideas — the Southern independent bookstore tour — with stops in Blytheville, Memphis, Oxford, Greenville, Greenwood and elsewhere. That’s not to mention the boudin tour in south Louisiana.

Perhaps Kane could even join those of us who are blogging with something along the lines of “Inside Catholic High.” I’m not sure what Father Tribou would have thought of this technology, though. Heck, he never caught onto the idea of air conditioning.

As the sign in the hall at Catholic High says: “If you think it’s hot in here. . . God.”

One thing is certain — when you begin hiring people like Kane Webb, it’s evident that Steve Straessle isn’t simply resting on Father Tribou’s laurels.

Congratulations, Kane. And go Rockets.

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