Category Archives: Education

The Wisdom of Famous Cartoon Characters

alex atkins bookshelf quotationsEveryone knows that cartoons and animated films of the Disney variety are for kids. However, they are written by adults and sometimes, tired of writing halfwitted jokes and inane conversation, they manage to sneak in a few life lessons along the way. And given the rapid-fire pace of dialogue in kiddie shows, you have to listen pretty closely to separate the wheat from the chaff. The hope is that some of this wisdom might make a lasting impression on the kids who are watching (and perhaps the adults watching with them) so they can learn from it. Here is some of the wisdom of famous cartoon and animated film characters.

Merida (Brave): “Our fate lives within us, you only have to be brave enough to see it.”

Aladdin (Aladdin): “Do not be fooled by its commonplace appearance. Like so many things, it is not what outside, but what is inside that counts.”

Alice (Alice in Wonderland): “I can’t go back to yesterday because I was a different person then.”

The Blue Fairy (Pinocchio): “Always let your conscience be your guide.”

Eeyore (Winnie the Pooh): “A little consideration, a little thought for others, makes all the difference.”

Snow White (Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs): “You’re never too old to  be young.”

Mulan (The Emperor of China): “The flower that blooms in adversity is the most rare and beautiful of them all.”

Stitch (Lilo & Stitch): “Ohana means family. Family means nobody gets left behind or forgotten.”

Zeus (Hercules): “A true hero is not measured by the size of his strength, but by the strength of his heart.”

Mewtwo (Pokemon): “I see now that the circumstances of one’s birth are irrelevant; it is what you do with the gift of life that determines who you are.”

Chef G (Ratatouille): “You must not let anyone define your limits because of where you come from. Your only limit is your soul.”

Rafiki (The Lion King): “Oh yes the past can hurt you, but you can either run from it or learn from it.”

Jack Skellington (The Nightmare Before Christmas): “Just because I cannot see it, doesn’t mean I can’t believe it.”

Master Shift (King Fu Panda): “Anything is possible when you have inner peace.”

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Read related posts: The Wisdom of a Grandmother
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The Wisdom of Yoda
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The Wisdom of Saint-Exupery
The Wisdom of Steven Wright
The Wisdom of Spock
The Wisdom of Elie Wiesel

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What is the Average Cost of a College Credit?

alex atkins bookshelf educationCollege students are some of the worst consumers in America, flipping the commonsense frugal strategy on its head: rather than “pay less for more” they “pay more for less.” It’s like prepaying for an elegant steak and wine dinner and then choosing a hot dog and chips for your meal. Expressed another way, college students (or more accurately, their parents) pay a very high price for an undergraduate education, while college students choose to take the minimal amount of courses, and often the least challenging courses to graduate. But the biggest waste of money occurs when college students — without parents to nag them about it — cut classes for whatever reason (hangover, went to bed at 4:00 am, the dog ate my homework, etc.). When you consider the average cost of a college credit, you might want to reconsider whether it makes sense to skip those classes.

The staff at Student Loan Hero used data from the Department of Education to calculate the average cost per college credit. There are significant differences of course between 4-year and 2-year schools, and whether the schools are public, private, or for- profit. Four-year colleges typically require 120 credits to earn an undergraduate degree. Thus, to earn a degree at a public school, tuition will cost $39,000; at a private school, the tuition adds up to a staggering $77,640. Here are the average cost per credit hour for colleges across these four sectors:

2-Year Public College: $135

4-Year Public College: $325

4-Year for Profit College: $647

4-Year Private College: $1,039

Average Cost of a College Credit: $594

So the next time you want to sleep in and skip morning classes, you may want to consider the actual hit to your pocketbook and decide if that is a wise use (or misuse) of your money.

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The Six Types of Courage

alex atkins bookshelf educationYou cannot imagine a more unlikely trio for an important life journey: an empty-headed scarecrow, a rusty tin woodman, and a cowardly lion. But those are Dorothy’s companions on the famous yellow brick road to the Land of Oz — from the imagination of L. Frank Baum. While Dorothy seeks to return home, the scarecrow wants a brain, the woodman longs for a heart, and the lion desires courage. When Dorothy accuses the lion of being a coward, he responds: “You’re right, I am a coward! I haven’t any courage at all. I even scare myself.” We can presume, that the Cowardly Lion seeks physical courage, that is, “acting intentionally in the face of risks, threats, or obstacles in the pursuit of morally worthy goals.” The classic example is the fireman who rushes into a burning house to save a helpless infant. In mythology and literature, the lion is traditionally a symbol of power, wisdom, confidence, bravery, and pride. Baum’s lion lacking courage, of course, is dramatically ironic. But despite what the Cowardly Lion believes, there is much more to courage than physical strength and bravado.

Dr. Lisa Dungate, PsyD, a parenting coach and child/family therapist, along with best friend Jennifer Armstrong, an award-winning author of historical fiction for children and teens, created Lion’s Whiskers, a fascinating blog that shares compelling stories and insight to help parents and their children to develop courage to meet the many challenges that life presents; they state: “We have found one of the best ways to inspire courage is through story — traditional stories, family stories, true stories from history — and by giving our children opportunities to practice courage every day.” [Incidentally, the title of the blog was inspired by a charming and instructive Ethiopian folk tale about a healer who teaches a woman how to be courageous.] Dungate and Armstrong provide a new insight into the understanding of courage. First, by definition: “Courage, very broadly, involves making a decision or taking action where a risk is involved — something actual or imagined to fear. Courage is the necessary force ensuring growth rather than retreat.” Second, by classification: they believe that there are six types of courage — and, taken together, are critical to deal with the inevitable slings and arrows of life. Briefly, here is their classification of courage:

Physical courage.  This is the courage most people think of first:  bravery at the risk of bodily harm or death.  It involves developing physical strength, resiliency, and awareness.

Social courage.  This type of courage is also very familiar to most of us as it involves the risk of social embarrassment or exclusion, unpopularity or rejection.  It also involves leadership.

Intellectual courage.  This speaks to our willingness to engage with challenging ideas, to question our thinking, and to the risk of making mistakes.  It means discerning and telling the truth.

Moral courage.  This involves doing the right thing, particularly when risks involve shame, opposition, or the disapproval of others.  Here we enter into ethics and integrity, the resolution to match word and action with values and ideals.  It is not about who we claim to be to our children and to others, but who we reveal ourselves to be through our words and actions.

Emotional courage.  This type of courage opens us to feeling the full spectrum of positive emotions, at the risk of encountering the negative ones.  It is strongly correlated with happiness.

Spiritual courage.  This fortifies us when we grapple with questions about faith, purpose, and meaning, either in a religious or nonreligious framework.

Courage is multifaceted, and as such, a sticky wicket for research. Dungate and Armstrong elaborate: “Courage remains a difficult construct to accurately and categorically define for social researchers, psychologists, theologians, and philosophers alike (Woodard & Pury, 2007; Goud, 2005).  [We] are in the process of conducting research to compile an accurate definition for courage for the Lion’s Whiskers blog.  At this point, we fully acknowledge that our perspective is wholly Western and we look forward to a more multicultural, and thus universal, definition of courage as we develop this blog.

The study they cite, Courage: Its Nature and Development (ResearchGate, March 2005), psychologist Nelson Goud identifies three dimensions of courage (fear, appropriate response, and a higher purpose) as well as three main themes in the developmental process for learning courage: 1. building confidence and self-trust; 2. perceiving a worthy purpose; and 3. managing fear. (Gould also cites research that suggests six different types of courage: physical, moral, civil, vital, psychological, and existential.) In terms of learning courage, Dungate and Armstrong believe that four more themes need to be added: 4. empowering decision-making; 5. intention and willing action; 6. opportunities to practice and persevere; and 7. ensuring a sense of belonging and self-worth.

Indeed, Dungate and Armstrong as the pied-pipers of courage, weave the strands of myths, fables, folklore, as well as true stories to form a sort of “courage cloak” to wrap around yourselves and your children, “to help you muster courage in the face of fear, to be an inspirational parent to your children, and foster the security and hope for your children’s future.” These are exactly the types of stories that the world needs now, particularly in America, where spineless, feckless politicians, that pull the levers behind the curtain, present dreadful role models. And these are the stories, passed on from generation to generation, that never get old.

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For further reading:
Penguin Dictionary of Symbols by Jean Chevalier


The Four Qualities of Empathy

alex atkins bookshelf quotationsOne of the central lessons of Harper Lee’s Pulitzer-Prize winning classic, To Kill A Mockingbird, is the importance of empathy. The most famous and memorable quotes occurs in chapter three, when Atticus Finch, a respected lawyer, is sharing an important life lesson with his daughter, Scout: “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view — until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” Finch is defining empathy — sharing how another person feels, identifying with the struggles of a fellow human being — through the metaphor of walking in another person’s skin. That particular image is, perhaps, a bit too gruesome. Of course, he could have easily said, “you never really understand someone until you walk in their shoes.” But we can all agree that Finch’s image is much more memorable in a “Silence of the Lambs” kind of way. Can you feel me?

Empathy is often confused with sympathy or compassion. However, Finch’s compelling imagery helps to understand the key difference between empathy and sympathy. As we have noted, feeling empathy is stepping inside someone else’s shoes — being them, understanding their emotions, feeling their distress, and seeing things from their perspective. Sympathy is feeling concern or sorrow for someone as you stand on the sidelines, watching them muddle along a rough patch in life. You do not step out of your shoes and step into theirs. Psychiatrist Neel Burton elaborates: “[Sympathy], unlike empathy, does not involve a shared perspective or shared emotions, and while the facial expressions of sympathy do convey caring and concern, they do not convey shared distress.” Compassion, on the other hand, is more transformative, leading to action. Burton continues: “Compassion is more engaged than simple empathy, and is associated with an active desire to alleviate the suffering of its object. With empathy, I share your emotions; with compassion I not only share your emotions but also elevate them into a universal and transcending experience. Compassion, which builds upon empathy, is one of the main motivators of altruism.” [emphasis added]

Brene Brown is an expert at walking in other people’s shoes. Brown, who is a research professor at the University of Houston, has spent the last two decades studying vulnerability, empathy, shame, and courage; she has written five books about her findings. One of her TED Talks, “The Power of Vulnerability” is one of the most viewed talks of all time. Brown defines empathy as “feeling with others” and believes that empathy is taught primarily by role modeling (specifically by parents, teachers, friends, and peers) and reading (eg, literature, history). To that list, legendary film critic Roger Ebert would add film; he wrote: “Movies are like a machine that generates empathy. It lets you understand a little bit more about different hopes, aspirations, dreams and fears. It helps us to identify with the people who are sharing this journey with us.” According to Brown, there are four qualities of empathy: 1. taking the perspective of another person; 2. suspending judgment; 3. recognizing emotion in others; and 4. communicating emotion.

SHARE THE LOVE: If you enjoyed this post, please help expand the Bookshelf community by sharing with a friend or with your readers. Cheers.

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For further reading: Braving the Wilderness: The Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone by Brene Brown
Heaven and Hell: The Psychology of the Emotions by Neel Burton


Write Your Obituary And Live Your Life Inspired by It

alex atkins bookshelf educationIf you are fortunate, you will have at least one high school or college professor who contributed immeasurably to your life. I can recall one college professor, Fr. P., a brilliant, witty Jesuit who taught one of the most popular classes on campus: Moral Philosophy. In all my years in the academe, he was the only professor to receive warm applause on the first day of class and a heartfelt and resounding standing ovation at the end of the semester — bringing him and eventually us to tears.

Although he was advanced in his age, his gray hair notwithstanding, he was a youthful as any undergraduate student. He was lively, engaged, and walked with a bounce in his step; and he was always smiling. He began the course with a dramatic moment: he placed on oversized off-white safari hat with a leather band on his head. The sight of this diminutive priest with a large hat, making him appear like some humanoid lamp, elicited hearty chuckles from the students. Despite his comical appearance, Fr. P. addressed us in a serious tone: “For the rest of the semester I will be your guide through the vast jungle of life. Although I have traveled through it many times, there are still many parts that are unknown. The paths we will walk on are generally narrow ones, carved out by the footsteps of many students that have preceded you. Yet, there are many paths that have not been thoroughly explored; moreover, there are many paths awaiting to be made…” Fr. P. explained that his role as a guide was not to know the answer to every question we asked, but to lead us the foundational knowledge and values that would help us ask the right questions and learn where and how to seek the right answers. He took off his hat, and our fascinating journey of discovery began.

One day, after a engaging discussion on mortality, he turned to the class and captivated us with this lesson: “I want each of you to write your obituary — and live your life inspired by it; if you do this correctly, you will never get lost.” Unfortunately, back then we were sophomores, wise fools, and not having enough wisdom and life experience, we thought that this was a routine homework assignment to be completed in an hour, crossed it off the day’s to-do list, and then promptly forgotten. But the truth is, that homework assignment has pleasantly haunted me throughout my life because it underscores one of life’s great truisms: you are your choices. It is that obituary that I wrote as a young man that has remained mostly unchanged decades later. Like a reliable compass, it has guided my life, through calm and tempest-tossed seas, to bring me to the steady shores that I now walk on. Now with the wisdom of age, I can appreciate the tremendous gift that Fr. P. gave each of us. Perhaps, this was the source of his warm smile: I am giving you something so precious, but it will take you years to find out how important it is, as you discover yourself and the world around you.

I suppose if Fr. P. were still teaching now, given that education has been transformed by the digital revolution, he might approach this exercise a little differently. Perhaps, today, he would say, “Write your word cloud, and live your life inspired by it. ” But no matter how you write it, as obituary or word cloud, it will be your guide through the jungle. And as Fr. P. promised, you will never get lost.

Class dismissed.

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What is the Purpose of Education?

alex atkins bookshelf educationNoam Chomsky, known as “the father of modern linguistics” and the “man without a pause” (for his social and political activism), has written over 100 books about linguistics, philosophy, history, politics, education, cognitive science, and modern culture. Remarkably, he taught at MIT for more than 60 years, but what really makes him stand out from other famous college professors was his generosity in sharing his insights with anyone who asked. If you emailed Chomsky, whether or not you were a colleague or student at MIT, he would respond to your email; and many times he made time to meet for an interview. He considered it his obligation as a teacher, although he felt that “obligation” was “too august” a word. In several interviews, Chomsky has discussed one of the most enduring questions in pedagogy: what is the purpose of education? The question is even more critical today, because as many critics of higher education note, a college degree burdens students with overwhelming financial debt that will impact them negatively for decades. Furthermore, the Trump administration is attempting to remove some of the safeguards that protect students or that make paying back that debt manageable. Here are excerpts from two interviews that Chomsky gave on the subject of education:

“We can ask ourselves what the purpose of an educational system is and of course there are sharp differences on this matter. There’s the traditional and interpretation that comes from the Enlightenment which holds that the highest goal in life is to inquire and create, to search the riches of the past, [to] try to internalize the parts of them that are significant to you [to] carry that quest for understanding further in your own way. The purpose of education from that point of view is just to help people determine how to learn on their own. It’s you the learner who is going to achieve in the course of education and it’s really up to you what you’ll master, where you go, how you use it, how you’ll go on to produce something new and exciting for yourself, maybe for others. That’s one concept of education.

The other concept is essentially indoctrination. People have the idea that from childhood, young people have to be placed into a framework in which they’ll follow orders, accept existing frameworks, and not challenge, and so on. And this is often quite explicit. So for example after the activism of the 1960s, there was great concern across much of the educated spectrum that young people were just getting too free and independent, that the country was becoming too democratic and so on, and in fact there’s an important study on what’s called the crisis of too much democracy, arguing that… certain institutions [that are] responsible for the indoctrination of the young… are not doing their job properly — so that’s schools, universities, churches. We have to change [these institutions] so that they carry out the job of indoctrination control more effectively. That’s actually coming from the liberal internationalist end of the spectrum of… the educated opinion. In fact since that time, there have been many measures taken to try to turn the educational system towards more control, more indoctrination, or vocational training — imposing a debt which traps students, young people into a life of conformity and so on. That’s the exact opposite of what I referred to as the tradition that comes out of the Enlightenment.

And there’s a constant struggle between those in the colleges and schools… Do you train for passing tests or do you train for creative inquiry pursuing interests that are aroused by a material that’s presented [that] you want to pursue either on your own or [in] cooperation with others.


There are two competing images about education during the Enlightenment. One of the them is like pouring water into a vessel, which happens to be a very leaky vessel. The other image comes from the founder of the modern educational system, Wilhelm von Humboldt [a German humanist and friend of Goethe and Schiller]; he said that education is like laying out a string, along which the student progresses in their own ways. There’s a structure to what the student is being introduced to, it’s not any random thing — and the students explore it and create in their own way… Humboldt argued, I think, very plausibly, that the core principle and requirement of a fulfilled human being is the ability to inquire and create constructively, independently, without external controls.”

There is a famous physicist at MIT [Water Lewin] who, when asked by students what is being covered in his class, responds: “It’s not important what we cover in the class; it’s important what you discover.”

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We Are Drowning in Information, While Starving for Wisdom

alex atkins bookshelf quotationsWe are drowning in information, while starving for wisdom. The world henceforth will be run by synthesizers, people able to put together the right information at the right time, think critically about it, and make important choices wisely.

From Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge by Edward Osborne Wilson, Pulitzer Prize winning author, biologist, and naturalist. He is considered “the father of sociobiology”, “the father of biodiversity”, as well as the leading authority on ants. The Ants, co-written with Bert Holldobler, is considered the definitive scientific study of ant behavior; it won a Pulitzer Prize in 1991. He taught at Harvard from 1956 to 1996.

The History of the World According to Student Bloopers

alex atkins bookshelf educationRichard Lederer, a life-long word lover and prolific author (more than 30 books on the English language), has been collecting unique and fascinating words for decades. He also enjoys collecting verbal bloopers and malapropisms, the innocent goofs and gaffes that most people make in their daily speech and writing, unaware that they are mangling the English language, as well as important facts. Lederer writes “One of the fringe benefits of being an English or History teacher is receiving the occasional jewel of a student blooper in an essay. I have pasted together the following history of the world from certifiably genuine student bloopers collected by teachers throughout the United States, from eighth grade through college level.” This history of the world according to student bloopers will elicit either a hearty laugh or utter shock (these students actually graduated?), depending on your perspective:

“The inhabitants of ancient Egypt were called mummies. They lived in the Sarah Dessert and traveled by Camelot. The climate of the Sarah is such that the inhabitants have to live elsewhere, so certain areas of the dessert are cultivated by irritation. The Egyptians built the Pyramids in the shape of a huge triangular cube. The Pramids are a range of mountains between France and Spain.

The Bible is full of interesting caricatures. In the first book of the Bible, Guinesses, Adam and Eve were created from an apple tree. One of their children, Cain, once asked, “Am I my brother’s son?” God asked Abraham to sacrifice Isaac on Mount Montezuma. Jacob, son of Isaac, stole his brother’s birth mark. Jacob was a patriarch who brought up his twelve sons to be patriarchs, but they did not take to it. One of Jacob’s sons, Joseph, gave refuse to the Israelites.

Pharaoh forced the Hebrew slaves to make bread without straw. Moses led them to the Red Sea, where they made unleavened bread, which is bread made without any ingredients. Afterwards, Moses went up on Mount Cyanide to get the ten commandments. David was a Hebrew king skilled at playing the liar. He fought with the Philatelists, a race of people who lived in Biblical times. Solomon, one of David’s sons, had 500 wives and 500 porcupines.

Without the Greeks we wouldn’t have history. The Greeks invented three kinds of columns–Corinthian, Doric, and Ironic. They also had myths. A myth is a female moth. One myth says that the mother of Achilles dipped him in the River Stynx until he became intolerable. Achilles appears in The Iliad, by Homer. Homer also wrote The Oddity, in which Penelope was the last hardship that Ulysses endured on his journey. Actually, Homer was not written by Homer but by another man of that name.

Socrates was a famous Greek teacher who went around giving people advice. They killed him. Socrates died from an overdose of wedlock.

The Renaissance was an age in which more individuals felt the value of their human being. Martin Luther was nailed to the church door at Wittenberg for selling papal indulgences. He died a horrible death, being excommunicated by a bull. It was the painter Donatello’s interest in the female nude that made him the father of the Renaissance. It was an age of great inventions and discoveries. Gutenberg invented the Bible. SirWalter Raleigh is a historical figure because he invented cigarettes. Another important invention was the circulation of blood. Sir Francis Drake circumcised the world with a 100-foot clipper.

Then came the Middle Ages. King Alfred conquered the Danes, King Arthur lived in the Age of Shivery, King Harold mustarded his troups before the Battle of Hastings, Joan of Arc was cannonized by Bernard Shaw, and victims of the Black Death grew boobs on their necks. Finally, Magna Carta provided that no free man should be hanged twice for the same offense.

During the RenaissanceAmerica began. Christo-pher Columbus was a great navigator who discovered America while cursing about the Atlantic. His ships were called the Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Fe. Later, the Pilgrims crossed the Ocean, and this was known as Pilgrims Progress.

George Washington married Martha Curtis and in due time became the Father of Our Country.Then the Constitution of the United States was adopted to secure domestic hostility. Under the Constitution the people enjoyed the right to keep bare arms.

Abraham Lincoln became America’s greatest Prec-edent. Lincoln’s mother died in infancy, and he was born in a log cabin which he built with his own hands. When Lincoln was President, he wore only a tall silk hat. He said, “In onion there is strength.” Abraham Lincoln wrote the Gettysburg Address while traveling from Washington to Gettysburg on the back of an envelope. On the night of April 14, 1865, Lincoln went to the theater and got shot in his seat by one of the actors in a moving picture show. The believed assinator was John Wilkes Booth, a supposingly insane actor. This ruined Booth’s career.

The sun never set on the British Empire because the British Empire is in the East and the sun sets in the West. Queen Victoria was the longest queen. She sat on a thorn for 63 years. Her reclining years and finally the end of her life were exemplatory of a great personality. Her death was the final event which ended her reign.

The nineteenth century was a time of many great inventions and thoughts. The invention of the steam boat caused a network of rivers to spring up. Cyrus McCormick invented the McCormick raper, which did the work of a hundred men. Samuel Morse invented a code of telepathy. Louis Pasteur invented a cure for rabbis. Charles Darwin was a naturalist who wrote the Organ of Species. Madman Curie discovered radium. And Karl Marx became one of the Marx brothers.

The First World War, caused by the assignation of the Arch-Duck by a surf, ushered in a new error in the anals of human history.”

Even if you enjoyed this historical narrative, don’t expect to see it on the History Channel or a Ken Burns documentary.

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An Eloquent Defense of a Liberal Arts Education

alex atkins bookshelf educationIt’s bad enough we live in the Age of Google when we are awash with too much information to process. Tidal waves of information wash up on our shores every day. To complicate matters, that information is now tainted by the Trumpian twisted notion of truth — each day the water is polluted with alternative facts, fake news, and spinglish (the deceptive language used by professional spin doctors). In short, the Truth is under assault — and as many pundits point out, we’re in really deep shit. So what can we do?

Enter Clayton S. Rose, a former professor at Harvard Business School and the 15th president of Bowdoin College (established in 1794 in Brunswick, Maine), to don a suit of armor and take arms against a sea of deception and distortion. In an essay for Time magazine titled “Why We Need the Liberal Arts Now More Than Ever,” Rose fiercely and eloquently defends a liberal arts education and the obligation to serve the common good:

“I couldn’t help pondering where we are today in the worlds of politics, of government and of the media — imperfect but essential institutions for a healthy democracy. We have evolved to a most distressing place — to a place in our society and world where intellectual engagement is too often mocked.

Facts are willfully ignored or conveniently dismissed. Data is curated or manipulated for short-term gain rather than to test or illuminate aspects of the truth. Hypocrisy runs rampant and character appears to no longer be a requirement for leadership. Instant gratification and personal aggrandizement are celebrated as virtues over the work of tackling hard problems that ultimately serve the public interest and common good.

This is decidedly a nonpartisan problem. We have evolved to this place over a long period, and there is more than enough blame to go around to all sides. Whatever one’s political and world views, we should all be alarmed. A system where skill, expertise, data, judgement, discourse, respect and character are in short supply is a system in trouble.

A liberal arts education can play an important role in correcting this problem. [A liberal arts curriculum should] create an environment where students can be intellectually fearless, where they can consider ideas and material that challenge their points of view, may run counter to deeply held beliefs, unsettles them or may make them uncomfortable. We do this to prepare our graduates to effectively tackle.. issues that polarize us today.

In a liberal arts setting, intellectual fearlessness is achieved through the development and enhancement of competence, community and character.

Competence comes through a rigorous education — one that builds and sharpens the skills of critical thinking and analysis; the ability to understand the political, social, natural, ethical, cultural and economic aspects of the world we inhabit; the ability to continue to learn; and the disposition to be intellectually nimble, to exercise judgment and to communicate effectively.

We don’t tell students what to think. We strive to teach them how to think, to give them the knowledge and skills to develop the courage to think for themselves and shape their own principles, perspectives, beliefs and solutions to problems.

We also provide students with seemingly endless ways to serve the common good — the notion that we have an obligation to something bigger than ourselves. This serves to strengthen our community and to make our students part of other communities, helping them better understand what binds each of us together.

We want our students to understand and celebrate their wonderfully diverse identities, experiences and backgrounds, while also enjoying and appreciating the deep bonds of being a part of our college community. Being part of a strong and diverse community requires an ability to talk honestly with one another about the real issues. That’s why we push our students to develop skills and an ability to engage in thoughtful and respectful ways with those who have varying perspectives, and with whom they may disagree — sometimes profoundly.

We also seek to promote character — principled lives, work and play that have integrity, an acknowledgment of the gifts we have been given and respect for others and ourselves. Liberal arts colleges are steeped in opportunities to engage intellectually and to reflect deeply across all disciplines about what character means, why it matters and how one might live it. And there are many chances over four years for students to actually engage in challenges that test and develop their character.

At this challenging moment in our society and world, it would be easy to despair. But I do not. I am optimistic because I know the power of competence, community and character. The liberal arts matter now more than ever.”

Amen, brother. Next challenge: can we just make a liberal arts education affordable for every young person in America?

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What Makes a Great Mentor?

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What Should you Teach Your kids Before They Leave Home?

Education Reform
Lifelong Learning with The Great Courses

Education or Indoctrination?

For further reading:

Why it is More Important to Have Close Friendships Than to Be Popular in High School

alex atkins bookshelf educationIt is the universal teenage lament: “I want to be popular” or “I want to be one of the cool kids.” How often have we seen this played out hundreds of times in movies, television shows, and songs. And if you are a parent: you have a front row seat of this drama unfolding before your very eyes. But research shows that being popular isn’t worth pursuing — that is, if you value your mental well being and self worth when you are older.

Rachel Narr, a clinical psychologist at the University of Virginia, and her colleagues, recently published the study “Close Friendship Strength and Broader Peer Group Desirability as Differential Predictors of Adult Mental Health” in the journal Child Development. The study analyzed 169 teenagers (15 years old) for a period of ten years. Each year they were assessed about their close friends and issues like social acceptance, self-worth, anxiety, and symptoms of depression. The researchers defined “high-quality friendships” as close friendships with a degree of attachment and support that allowed for intimate exchanges. “Popularity” meant the number of peers in the teenagers’ grade who ranked them as someone they would like to spend time with and was measured using nominations from all the teenagers in that grade.

So what did the study reveal? Joseph Allen, a co-author writes: “Our study affirms that forming strong close friendships is likely one of the most critical pieces of the teenage social experience. Being well-liked by a large group of people cannot take the place of forging deep, supportive friendships. And these experiences stay with us, over and above what happens later. As technology makes it increasingly easy to build a social network of superficial friends, focusing time and attention on cultivating close connections with a few individuals should be a priority.”

Specifically Narr and her team found that teenagers who prioritized close friendships at age 15 had lower social anxiety and symptoms of depression in addition to an increased sense of self-worth by the time they reached age 25 than their peers. Conversely, teens who were popular in high school had higher levels of social anxiety as young adults. Thus, seeking to be popular during high school produces short-term gains, at the expense of a healthy sense of self and mental well-being in young adulthood.

For the Google Generation, that is so focused on communicating over digital devices, developing close, intimate, and lasting friendships poses a bit of a challenge. In the last decade, many articles have been written by psychologists, educators, and teachers who recognize that teenagers are just not developing the right social skills and being comfortable interacting face to face. Sue Scheff, author of Shame Nation: The Global Epidemic of Online Hate, in an interview with Yahoo! News believes this study is a loud wake-up call for teachers and parents; she elaborates: “It’s a call for more inclusive, caring environments. Kids need more time to learn social skills and get along. Latest studies show 36 percent of girls before 17 will have a major bout with depression [and] anxiety, which is why we need to prioritize and remove the stigma of mental health.” Scheff also notes that the study highlights the different between a real friend and a “online” friend: ““When popularity fades, the so-called friendships with people who were merely there for the party or clique disappear, which can lead to loneliness, as well as depression and social anxiety.”

So what are teachers and parents to do? Scheff echoes the sentiments of many psychologists and educators who have written about this topic: teach teenagers empathy, beginning in elementary school. Scheff adds: “[Teens] today are 40% less empathetic than those of 30 years ago [found in UnSelfie by Michele Borba]. So the most important takeaway for every parent is that empathy is not soft and fluffy. Our kids are actually hard-wired for it, and this study — along with multitudes of overs — confirms that our kids’ mental health needs are in jeopardy. It’s time to rethink our parenting priorities.”

The message to parents, educators, and teenagers is clear: wean teenagers off digital devices and encourage face-to-face interactions, schedule weekly social activities, foster emotional and social intelligence, explore opportunities that foster empathy (including reading and watching films) — and most important of all: develop close, lasting friendships.

Read related posts: The Importance of Reading
Best Commencement Speeches: George Saunders
The Power of Literature
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The Wisdom of a Grandmother
Too Much Homework is Bad for Students

For further reading: Shame Nation: The Global Epidemic of Online Hate by Sue Scheff
UnSelfie by Michele Borba

Best Commencement Speeches: George Saunders

alex atkins bookshelf wisdomGeorge Saunders is an award-winning short-story author and a professor of creative writing at Syracuse University. A few years ago, Saunders delivered the convocation speech to the graduating class of 2013 at Syracuse University. Among the many honors he has received are the National Magazine Award, the O. Henry Award, The Story Prize, the PEN/Malamud Award, and the Folio Prize. Below are excerpts from his speech, titled “Congratulations, by the Way: Some Thoughts on Kindness,” delivered on July 31, 2013:

Down through the ages, a traditional form has evolved for this type of speech, which is: Some old fart, his best years behind him, who, over the course of his life, has made a series of dreadful mistakes (that would be me), gives heartfelt advice to a group of shining, energetic young people, with all of their best years ahead of them (that would be you)… Now, one useful thing you can do with an old person, in addition to borrowing money from them [is] ask: “Looking back, what do you regret?”

What I regret most in my life are failures of kindness.

Those moments when another human being was there, in front of me, suffering, and I responded . . . sensibly. Reservedly. Mildly. Or, to look at it from the other end of the telescope: Who, in your life, do you remember most fondly, with the most undeniable feelings of warmth? Those who were kindest to you, I bet. It’s a little facile, maybe, and certainly hard to implement, but I’d say, as a goal in life, you could do worse than: Try to be kinder.

Now, the million-dollar question: What’s our problem? Why aren’t we kinder?

Each of us is born with a series of built-in confusions that are probably somehow Darwinian. These are: (1) we’re central to the universe (that is, our personal story is the main and most interesting story, the only story, really); (2) we’re separate from the universe (there’s US and then, out there, all that other junk – dogs and swing-sets, and the State of Nebraska and low-hanging clouds and, you know, other people), and (3) we’re permanent (death is real, o.k., sure – for you, but not for me).

Now, we don’t really believe these things – intellectually we know better – but we believe them viscerally, and live by them, and they cause us to prioritize our own needs over the needs of others, even though what we really want, in our hearts, is to be less selfish, more aware of what’s actually happening in the present moment, more open, and more loving.

So, the second million-dollar question: How might we DO this? How might we become more loving, more open, less selfish, more present, less delusional, etc., etc?..

There are ways. You already know that because, in your life, there have been High Kindness periods and Low Kindness periods, and you know what inclined you toward the former and away from the latter. Education is good; immersing ourselves in a work of art: good; prayer is good; meditation’s good; a frank talk with a dear friend; establishing ourselves in some kind of spiritual tradition — recognizing that there have been countless really smart people before us who have asked these same questions and left behind answers for us.

Because kindness, it turns out, is hard — it starts out all rainbows and puppy dogs, and expands to include . . . well, everything.

One thing in our favor: some of this “becoming kinder” happens naturally, with age. It might be a simple matter of attrition: as we get older, we come to see how useless it is to be selfish — how illogical, really. We come to love other people and are thereby counter-instructed in our own centrality. We get our butts kicked by real life, and people come to our defense, and help us, and we learn that we’re not separate, and don’t want to be. We see people near and dear to us dropping away, and are gradually convinced that maybe we too will drop away (someday, a long time from now). Most people, as they age, become less selfish and more loving. I think this is true. The great Syracuse poet, Hayden Carruth, said, in a poem written near the end of his life, that he was “mostly Love, now.”

And so, a prediction, and my heartfelt wish for you: as you get older, your self will diminish and you will grow in love. YOU will gradually be replaced by LOVE. If you have kids, that will be a huge moment in your process of self-diminishment. You really won’t care what happens to YOU, as long as they benefit. That’s one reason your parents are so proud and happy today. One of their fondest dreams has come true: you have accomplished something difficult and tangible that has enlarged you as a person and will make your life better, from here on in, forever…

If we’re going to become kinder, that process has to include taking ourselves seriously — as doers, as accomplishers, as dreamers. We have to do that, to be our best selves.

Still, accomplishment is unreliable. “Succeeding,” whatever that might mean to you, is hard, and the need to do so constantly renews itself (success is like a mountain that keeps growing ahead of you as you hike it), and there’s the very real danger that “succeeding” will take up your whole life, while the big questions go untended…

[Since] your life is going to be a gradual process of becoming kinder and more loving: Hurry up. Speed it along. Start right now. There’s a confusion in each of us, a sickness, really: selfishness. But there’s also a cure. So be a good and proactive and even somewhat desperate patient on your own behalf — seek out the most efficacious anti-selfishness medicines, energetically, for the rest of your life.

Do all the other things, the ambitious things… but as you do, to the extent that you can, err in the direction of kindness. Do those things that incline you toward the big questions, and avoid the things that would reduce you and make you trivial. That luminous part of you that exists beyond personality — your soul, if you will — is as bright and shining as any that has ever been. Bright as Shakespeare’s, bright as Gandhi’s, bright as Mother Teresa’s. Clear away everything that keeps you separate from this secret luminous place. Believe it exists, come to know it better, nurture it, share its fruits tirelessly.

Read related post: Best Commencement Speeches: Khaled Hosseini
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For further reading:
Congratulations, by the Way: Some Thoughts on Kindness by George Saunders
Way More Than Luck by the editors of Chronicle Books (2015)

Teachers Should Develop a Sense of Humor

alex atkins bookshelf educationJosef Broder is Assistant Dean for Academic Affairs and a professor at the University of Georgia for more than two decades. He is the winner of several outstanding teacher awards. He is known for his great wit and sense of humor. In an essay titled “Creating and Environment for Teaching and Learning” Broder emphasizes the need to use humor in the classroom. He shares an anecdote about his young son who was asked what he wanted to be when he grew up. His son responded: “Dad, I want to be a professor and a comedian just like you!”

Broder reflects on the importance of humor as a teaching tool in the classroom: “I have always appreciated humor in the classroom, whether coincidental or intentional. However, those who want to introduce humor in their classroom should distinguish between delivering humor and developing a sense of humor. I think a key element of effective teaching is for teachers to develop a sense of humor that goes beyond telling an occasional joke… By a sense of humor, I mean a state of mind that recognizes the limitations of ourselves and our knowledge. Humor is relief from dogma, which students find to be tedious. Humor and irony can be powerful teaching tools when used to challenge, and present, conflicting points of view.” Moreover, Broder believes that teachers who use humor are more believable, more human, and more approachable. Because Broder does have a great sense of humor, shares his top ten list of the most common questions and comments he has heard during his teaching career.

  1. I can’t be in class tomorrow. Will you be talking about anything important?
  2. Is this score on my exam the number wrong or the number right?
  3. I got the exact same answer as my classmate, but she got a higher grade.
  4. I can’t be in class tomorrow. I have to register for classes.
  5. Is this going to be on the test.
  6. I knew the material. I just couldn’t give it back to you on the exam.
  7. Do we have to take the final exam?
  8. Can we drop a grade?
  9. Do you grade on a curve?
  10. Do we have to buy the book?

Read related posts: How to Get the Most Out of College?
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Education or Indoctrination?
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For further reading: Extraordinary Teachers: The Essence of Excellent Teaching by Fred Stephenson

What is the Difference Between a College and a University?

alex atkins bookshelf wordsIn the United States, postsecondary institutions call themselves colleges or universities — and sometimes they exist in the same city or state. For example, in Boston, you can attend Boston College or Boston University; in Georgia, you can attend Georgia College or University of Georgia. Both colleges and universities can be public or private. So what’s the difference? Why do some call themselves “college” and others “university”? The short answer is that there is very little difference between the two — the terms can be used interchangeably. Most higher education institutions use the term that simply honors their tradition, which is, of course, sacred ground for academics. Consequently, there is nothing to stop colleges from changing their names to universities or vice versa; for example, in early 2017, Lynchburg College officially changed its name to University of Lynchburg.

Interestingly, in America, the generic term for higher education is “college”; so students go to college. In Great Britain, Canada, and Australia, the generic term is “university”; thus, students go to university. In terms of etymology, both terms are almost identical: university is derived from the Latin universitas, meaning society or community; it is a shortened form of the term universitas magistrorum et scholarium (translated, community of masters and scholars). Similarly, college is based on the Latin collegium meaning “community or society.” 

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For further reading:

What Does It Mean to Be a Well-Educated Person?

alex atkins bookshelf educationToo often today, we hear someone described as being “well-educated.” The adjective is tossed about quite liberally — but ponder it for a moment: what does that really mean? Perhaps it means that such a person attended to a respected university, right? Don’t be fooled: attending a prestigious university does not really assure a great education — if the student did not challenge him or herself, took frivolous classes (eg, Invented Languages: Klingon and Beyond, Zombies in Popular Media, How to Watch Television — you get the picture), and barely graduated due to poor grades. “What does it mean to be a well-educated?” is indeed an important and thought-provoking question; naturally it deserves a thoughtful answer.

Enter Marelisa Fabrega, a Jesuit-educated lawyer who founded the blog “Daring to Live Fully: Live the Length and Width of Your Life.” One night, Fabrega was ruminating on that very question: what does it mean to be an educated person? Her initial response was the one most of us have when we hear the phrase: perhaps it means someone attended a good college and earned advanced degrees; or perhaps it means the person is very well prepared for their career; or perhaps it means that the person is very well read. Fabrega’s next step was to review what others had written — one of those was a list of ten characteristics of a well educated person developed by Harvard University:

  1. The ability to define problems without a guide.
  2. The ability to ask hard questions which challenge prevailing assumptions.
  3. The ability to quickly assimilate needed data from masses of irrelevant information.
  4. The ability to work in teams without guidance.
  5. The ability to work absolutely alone.
  6. The ability to persuade others that your course is the right one.
  7. The ability to conceptualize and reorganize information into new patterns.
  8. The ability to discuss ideas with an eye toward application.
  9. The ability to think inductively, deductively and dialectically.
  10. The ability to attack problems heuristically (learning by trial-and-error)

Princeton University, on the other hand, believes there are 12 characteristics of a well-educated person:

  1. The ability to think, speak, and write clearly.
  2. The ability to reason critically and systematically.
  3. The ability to conceptualize and solve problems.
  4. The ability to think independently.
  5. The ability to take initiative and work independently.
  6. The ability to work in cooperation with others and learn collaboratively.
  7. The ability to judge what it means to understand something thoroughly.
  8. The ability to distinguish the important from the trivial, the enduring from the ephemeral.
  9. Familiarity with the different modes of thought (including quantitative, historical, scientific, and aesthetic.)
  10. Depth of knowledge in a particular field.
  11. The ability to see connections among disciplines, ideas and cultures.
  12. The ability to pursue life long learning.

A hallmark of Jesuit education is to never simply accept the status quo. Jesuit education encourages a student to dig a little deeper for the truth. And that’s exactly what Fabrega did. She reflected deeply on the question and came up with 50 characteristics of a well-educated person that considers not only academics, but emotional and social intelligence:

An educated person….

1. has the ability to think clearly and independently.
2. has good judgment.
3. knows how to learn.
4. knows how to acquire desired skills by identifying and utilizing available resources, deconstructing the process required for learning a particular skill, and experimenting with potential approaches.
5. has the ability to take initiative and work alone.
6. has the ability to communicate thoughts and ideas in writing, clearly and concisely.
7. has the ability to speak clearly.
8. has the ability to reason analytically and critically.
9. has the ability to think inductively and deductively.
10. questions assumptions.
11. doesn’t blindly accept what they are told; they go see for themselves. They can discern truth from error, regardless of the source.
12. knows how to distinguish between relevant and irrelevant information (between the important and the trivial).
13. knows how to make productive use of knowledge; they know where to get the knowledge that they need, and they have the ability to organize that knowledge into a plan of action that is directed to a definite end.
14. understands human nature and has the ability to establish, maintain, and improve lasting relationships.
15. knows how to establish rapport with others; they know how get others to trust and respect them.
16. knows how to cooperate and collaborate effectively with others.
17. knows how to resolve conflicts with others.
18. knows how to persuade others.
19. has the ability to conceptualize and solve problems.
20. knows how to make decisions.
21. has the ability to see connections among disciplines, ideas and cultures.
22. is able to cross disciplinary boundaries and explore problems and their solutions from multiple perspectives.
23. is someone who has been educated holistically: creatively, culturally, spiritually, morally, physically, technologically, and intellectually.
24. has a broad liberal-arts education. They have a good overview of the following subjects: the natural sciences; the social sciences; history; geography; literature; philosophy; and theology.
25. has depth of knowledge—that is, specialized knowledge–in a particular field.
26. has achieved victory over themselves; they know how to withstand discomfort in the short term in order to achieve important goals in the long term.
27. has the capacity to endure and persevere.
28. is self-aware; they know how to perceive and manage their own internal states and emotions.
29. knows where and how to focus their attention.
30. has ethical values and has integrity.
31. has the ability and the discipline to do what is right.
32. is well-read and has cultural sophistication.
33. has equal esteem for everyone, without regard to gender, race, religion, country of origin, and so on.
34. understands their obligation to leave the world a little better than they found it.
35. is capable of doing new things; they have the ability to generate ideas and turn them into reality. is innovative.
36. is one whose natural curiosity has been awakened with the purpose of satisfying that curiosity.
37. has the ability to identify needed behaviors and traits and turn them into habits.
38. has the ability to identify harmful behaviors and traits—including thinking habits that are not serving them well—and the ability to modify them.
39. has the ability to keep their life in proper balance.
40. has the flexibility to admit when they’re wrong.
41. has quantitative literacy; they know how to use arithmetic, algebra, geometry, and statistics to solve problems.
42. can speak at least one language other than their own.
43. has financial literacy; they have the knowledge necessary to make sound financial decisions.
44. is adaptable and knows how to deal with change.
45. knows how to handle ambiguity.
46. has the ability to explore alternative viewpoints.
47. has aesthetic appreciation; they can sing and dance well, play at least one musical instrument, and can appreciate architecture, great art, and other expressions of creative genius.
48. has developed the personal philosophy that will allow them to be happy and successful.
49. has the ability and the discipline to constantly improve.
50. has the ability to pursue lifelong learning.

With this comprehensive list that sets the bar for a “well-educated person,” Fabrega asks us to think twice before bestowing that important adjective on an individual — particularly when students might attend college, but do not really learn.

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The Library as Open Door to Wonder and Achievement

alex atkins bookshelf quotationsI received the fundamentals of my education in school, but that was not enough. My real education, the superstructure, the details, the true architecture, I got out of the public library. For an impoverished child whose family could not afford to buy books, the library was the open door to wonder and achievement, and I can never be sufficiently grateful that I had the wit to charge through that door and make the most of it. Now, when I read constantly about the way in which library funds are being cut and cut, I can only think that the door is closing and that American society has found one more way to destroy itself.

From I. Asimov: A Memoir by Isaac Asimov (1920-1992), prolific science fiction writer (he wrote more than 506 books and more than 90,000 letters during his lifetime), best known for his Foundation, Galactic Empire, and Robot series of novels.

Ten Tips for Writing Clearly

alex atkins bookshelf wordsIn his recently published book, Do I Make Myself Clear?: Why Writing Well Matters, legendary British author and editor Sir Harold Evans argues that clarity and concision are the greatest virtues of a writer. And he should know — he has impeccable credentials. Not only did he write two best-selling history books, The American Century and They Made America, Evans was also the editor of many highly respected publications, like the Sunday Times, US News and World Report, The Week, Conde Nast Traveler, the New York Daily News, The Atlantic Monthly, and Reuters. And if that wasn’t enough, he was also president and publisher of Random House for several years. Based on seven decades of experience, Evans presents a chapter titled “Ten Shortcuts to Making Yourself Clear.” “[Keep] ten shortcuts [with all due respect, perhaps “tips” or “rules” would be more appropriate here] in mind when you write and edit,” Evans advises, “[the ten tips] are mainly intended to help a writer convert meaning, and stages of meaning; help an editor engage with piles of dross to produce concise, direct English any reasonably literate person can understand; and help a reader unravel spaghetti… I weighted the ten injections for conciseness and clarity, rather than literary effect, because windiness is the prevailing affliction.” Here are the ten tips or rules:

1. Get moving: avoid passive voice; cast sentences in the active voice.

2. Be specific: eschew abstract words in favor of specific words.

3. Ration adjectives, raze adverbs: ask yourself: is the adjective really necessary to define the subject of the sentence? Does the adverb really enhance the verb or adjective?

4. Cut the fat, check the figures: avoid verbosity; write as concisely as possible.

5. Organize for clarity: use parallel structure to put things that belong together.

6. Be positive: write assertive sentences; even a negative should be expressed in a positive form.

7. Don’t be a bore: eschew monotony by implementing different sentence structures.

8. Put people first: make sentence bear directly on the reader.

9. The pesky prepositions: use prepositions appropriately — they are the workhorses that link nouns; they tell us when, where, why, and how.

10. Down with monologophobia (fear of using the same word twice in a sentence or successive sentences): do not develop other nouns when a pronoun will work just fine.

Best Writing Advice from Famous Writers
The Best Advice for Writers
Best Advice for Writers: P.D. James
Best Books for Writers

For further reading: Do I Make Myself Clear?: Why Writing Well Matters, by Harold Evans 

The Importance of Reading

alex atkins bookshelf literatureWhen we read we get to step into the shoes of another human being. In that journey of a mile — or perhaps hundreds of miles if you consider the great epics — comes greater understanding, empathy, and the humility that comes from the realization that you don’t know everything (and you shouldn’t have to; besides no one likes a no-it-all). In short, we read to understand ourselves and our fellow man in the hope that we can become better human beings. But don’t take my word for it, here are some of the world’s greatest thinkers and writers on the importance of reading:

Socrates: Employ your time in improving yourself by other men’s writing so that you shall come easily by what others have labored hard for.

Aldous Huxley: Every man who knows who to read has it in his power to magnify himself, to multiply the ways in which he exists, to make his life full, significant, and interesting.

T.S. Eliot: Someone once said, “The dead writers are remote from us because we know so much more than they did.” Precisely, and they are that which we know.

Henry David Thoreau: A truly good book teaches me better than to read it. I must soon lay it down, and commence living on its hint… What I began by reading, I must finish by acting.

William Ellery Channing: It is chiefly through books that we enjoy the intercourse with superior minds… In the best books, great men talk to us, give us their most precious thoughts, and pour their soul into ours. God be thanked for books.

William Faulkner: [Man] is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance. The poet’s, the writer’s, duty is to write about these things. It is his privilege to help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past. The poet’s voice need not merely be the record of man, it can be one of the props, the pillars to help him endure and prevail.

Emily Dickinson:
He ate and drank the precious words,
His spirit grew robust;
He knew no more that he was poor,
Nor that his frame was dust.
He danced along the dingy days,
And this bequest of wings
Was but a book. What liberty
A loosened spirit brings!

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For further reading: The Delights of Reading by Otto Bettmann

Best Commencement Speeches: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

alex atkins bookshelf wisdomChimamanda Negozi Adichie (born 1977) is a novelist and short story writer, born in Enugu, Nigeria. She is a recipient of the MacArthur Genius Grant (2008). She is best known for her first novel, Puple Hibiscus, published in 2006. Her TED Talk, “The Danger of a Single Story” (October 2009), about the underrepresentation of cultural differences, is one of the top ten most viewed TED Talks of all time.

Below is an excerpt from her commencement speech to Kalamazoo College (Kalamazoo, Michigan) in 2009:

I’ve noticed that people who give commencement addresses are usually people who are supposed to have it all figured out. I’m afraid I haven’t. And so instead of giving you the secret formula to a perfect life – which I really wish I had because I certainly need it myself – I’d like to end with some random suggestions I have accumulated at the grand age of almost 32.

Suggestion 1: Please think about what you want to value.
Now, money is of course very important and can change the world for the better, but now that you have that diploma, think about creating a society, an organization, a company that values the things that you want to value rather than the things that you are supposed to value.

Suggestion 2: Read books.
Books are still the best ways to truly come close to understanding complexity in our very complex world. When we read… we become alive in bodies not our own. It seems to me that we live in a world where is has become increasingly important to try and live in bodies not our own, to embrace empathy, to constantly be reminded that we share, with everybody in every part of the world, a common and equal humanity.

Suggestion 3: Please remember that there is never a single story about anything.
Please try as much as you can to have as many stories about the world as you can.

Suggestion 4: Please think about how little you know.
Leave room in your mind to revise opinions, to avoid smugness… I hope that your diploma will remind you of what you still don’t know.

Suggestion 5: Please leave room for hope and for fear.
I’ve often imagined that fiction and faith are very alike – faith in God, faith in humanism, faith in the power of goodness. To write fiction is to jump into this journey not knowing where it will end but wanting to go on the journey anyway. To write fiction is to start a long walk knowing you will trip and fall down but still keen to take the walk… It seems to me that this is not a bad way to look at the rest of your life. You will trip many times. Don’t be surprised when you fall. Maybe even lounge in the dirt for a little while. And then, get up!

Congratulations again. I wish you a life filled with meaning and with laughter. Thank you.

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For further reading: The World Is Waiting For You by Tara Grove and Isable Ostrer

The Power of Literature

alex atkins bookshelf literatureInside stories lies transformational power,
Power that moves the invisible us,
Power that stirs our emotions,
To experience the experiences of others;
Stories allow us to imagine and live momentarily the lives of others.
And thereafter set a different course and perspective for the life we seek to live.
   Emmanuel Reed Manirakiza (c.1993-2012) in a speech to the
African Leadership Academy held in South Africa in September of 2010.

This is an insightful and profound testimony about the power of literature, why literature endures, and why we read. But what makes these words so memorable and compelling is that they were not written by an academic, an accomplished author or playwright, but by a young man, a Rwandan refugee, who experienced first-hand the darkest side of humanity, seething with intolerance, hatred, and cruelty. Through an unlikely conjunction of events, perseverance and faith, Emmanuel managed to escape its evil clutches. As a young boy (6 years old) he witnessed the vicious slaughter of his extended family — his aunts, uncles, cousins; his father was stoned to death and he lost his mother and sister to cholera. For years, they lived as feral children, foraging for food in the Congo, the weeks and months punctuated by a seemingly endless cycle of fleeing and hiding until the war ended in 2001.

Fortunately for Emmanuel, an Anglican bishop took an interest in him and placed him at Sonrise School, founded for orphans of the genocide, and it was there that this frightened but tenacious boy (now age 9) blossomed as a student, a provider (earning money to support his sisters), as a community leader (helping others develop a trade, tutoring, mentoring), as a writer (writing for a newspaper and public performances of his poetry), and as an English teacher. Emmanuel’s scarred skin and the bullet fragments lodged in his calf were a constant reminder of the brutality that helped forge his character: “Perhaps because I was old enough to distinguish a boil scar from a bullet scar. It is also these haunting memories that remind me time and again that I have a responsibility to fight against evil and divisionism. Such ideology caused terror and brought tragedy that ruined my life and fellow Rwandan citizens’ life. It cannot be repeated.”

Despite the world he was born into, Emmanuel never considered himself a helpless victim. Quite the opposite, he was graced with a maturity and self-awareness to discover the one inescapable truth in life that separates achievement and failure, hope and despair, life and death: in the words of Jean Paul Sartre, “we are our choices.” Emmanuel lived by a motto: “tough times make tough minds”; however even a brave, determined, and resilient young boy had moments of doubt — but he persevered because he believed in himself and his choices. In his diary, during some of the darkest days of his life, he records his struggles with the turmoil that exists in his world and within his soul: “Emmanuel, do not allow yourself to fall into the trap of justifying why you can’t climb the ladder of success. You owe no one an explanation why you will not achieve your goals. Your success or failure in life largely depends on you and what you are doing with life today but not what life had done to you in the past. Though you’re to look for God and others for comfort and instructions, you alone are responsible for your choices and you hold the key to your future. Do not let the world define how far you can travel and how much you can achieve. The speed by which you run is set by the speedometer of your mind.” With the kind help of teachers and mentors, Emmanuel allowed the wisdom and insights of literature into his heart and into his life, a glimpse of the vast canvas of life and humanity not obscured by the shadows at its edges.

Tragically, Emmanuel life’s was cut short by a swimming accident; he drowned on July 15, 2012 in Kigali. He had just learned how to swim and enjoyed it immensely.

Knowing something about this remarkable young man, and rereading his words about literatures’s transformational power, one cannot help but feel humbled by the teachings of an extraordinary human being who severed the shackles of his past, to crawl through the pitch-black night of evil and hatred to reach daybreak, filled with the light of love and kindness. How extraordinary that he was able to look past man at his worst, transcend his suffering and sacrifice, and use the lens of literature to see man at his best; to renounce hatred and intolerance and have the courage to live and love with an open heart. Despite all the violence and brutality that he experienced, Emmanuel believed in the intrinsic goodness of man. And for all that was taken from him, he gave back so generously, so selflessly. Indeed, Emmanuel’s story is a powerful reminder that stories can heal and transform — and here’s the rub — if we let them.

The world will never know how much more Emmanuel could have contributed to the world; however this much is clear: his words (thanks to Andrew Powell’s blog) will continue to resonate, illuminate and inspire us to live our lives more authentically, more courageously, more responsibly, more generously. He challenges us to battle hatred and intolerance, and use our talents and skills to contribute to the world to help — and not hurt — one another. And it is important to share and reflect on this story; by doing so we honor him, his family, his teachers and mentors, and what he believed in. Like all great stories, Emmanuel’s story is fragile — it must be treasured, it must be remembered, and preserved so that it may speak to future generations. Emmanuel came to appreciate what any student of literature knows: that when we stop reading and sharing, when we stop reflecting and learning from these stories we will forget where we came from and who we really are; we sever the delicate thread that binds all of mankind.

One has to wonder: why was Emmanuel taken so early? Perhaps he was too pure, too innocent, too good for this world. His time, however short, was full of purpose and meaning; he touched so many lives so deeply, bringing illumination through his good nature, acts of kindness, and mature wisdom. Divine Providence must have looked upon this angelic child — who had suffered enough, sacrificed enough, and given enough — and knew that it was time for him to slip the surly bonds of earth to return to his eternal home, to be reunited with his family, leaving behind the struggle and the strife of human existence.

Related posts: William Faulkner on the Writer’s Duty
Universal Human Values
The Poem I Turn To
Why Read Dickens?

The Benefits of Reading
50 Books That Will Change Your Life
The Books that Shaped America

For further reading:

What Becomes of High School Valedictorians?

alex atkins bookshelf educationMost every high school student dreams of being the valedictorian of his or her class. To the adolescent mind, it is the equivalent on winning the Oscar and the obligatory acceptance speech (OMG! the whole world is watching!) The long held assumption is that the valedictorian represents the best of the best students, speaking on behalf of the entire graduating class. The valedictorian is supposed to dazzle the audiences with his or her brilliance, insights, and aspirations for the future. What will members of the class accomplish? How will they make an impact on the world? But if you have sat on those uncomfortable metal chairs, under the hot sun, and listened to enough of these speeches, have you ever wondered what really became of those eloquent valedictorian so full of hope and promise?

That question inspired Karen Arnold, an associate professor at the Lynch School of Education, Boston College, to find out. She tracked 81 high school valedictorians from graduation and beyond to see what they accomplished. So what did she learn? Arnold found that although valedictorians were academically successful, they did not blaze any new trails to change or run the world. The majority of valedictorians went to college (95%), maintained a respectable GPA in college (average 3.6), and 60% went on to graduate school, and then they settle into rather ordinary, comfortable jobs. Arnold elaborates: “Even though most are strong occupational achievers, the great majority of former high school valedictorians do not appear headed for the very top of adult achievement arenas… Valedictorians aren’t likely to be the future’s visionaries… they typically settle into the system instead of shaking it up.” [emphasis added] So what is the explanation for this rather counterintuitive situation?

Arnold believes there are two reasons why valedictorians don’t become true innovators or disruptors in the real world. First, valedictorians are not necessarily smart, but they are hard-working, pragmatic, and have a higher tendency to conform. Think of the opposite of Herman Melville’s famous scrivener, Bartleby. Arnold adds “Essentially, [schools] are rewarding conformity and the willingness to go along with the system.” Not surprisingly, the subjects in the studies considered themselves “careerists,” that is to say, more interested in earning good grades rather than actually learning. Warning — tiger parents may not want to read beyond this point. It is also important to note that academic grades do not necessarily reflect intelligence, but rather self-discipline, conscientiousness, and compliance with rules. Shawn Achor, a professor of psychology at Harvard and an expert on positive psychology, demonstrated that college grades do not predict success after college any better than the roll of the dice. Measuring income as a metric for success, he found that over 700 millionaires in America only achieved an average college GPA of 2.9. Who says C+ work doesn’t get rewarded? Try justifying that to tiger parents when they are spending a quarter of a million dollars on your undergrad education! Incidentally, Achor believes that the conventional wisdom (“work hard to be successful, and when you are successful, you will find happiness”) is completely wrong — happiness fuels success, not the other way around.

The second reason that most valedictorians don’t rise to the top of the real world, is that they are generalists — they are not necessarily passionate or experts about one specific topic. Arnold elaborates: “They’re extremely well rounded and successful, personally and professionally, but they’ve never been devoted to a single area in which they put all their passion. That is not usually a recipe for eminence.” Being a generalist has its rewards, of course; however it does not necessarily lead to expertise — something that is highly rewarded in the real world — and the exact opposite of what is rewarded in high school.

Eric Barker, author of Barking Up the Wrong Tree: The Surprising Science Behind Why Everything You Know About Success is (Mostly Wrong) concludes that conformists and generalists cannot live up to the assumed lofty expectations of a valedictorian. In short, the belief that the valedictorian will be the most successful person of his class is simply a myth. In fact, most likely, the valedictorian will struggle without the rules and structure of the academe. Barker writes: “School has clear rules. Life often doesn’t. When there’s no clear path to follow, academic high achievers break down… Following the rules doesn’t create success; it just eliminates extremes — both good and bad. While this is usually good and all but eliminates downside risk, it also frequently eliminates earthshaking accomplishments. It’s like putting a governor on your engine that stops the car from going over fifty-five; you’re far less likely to get into a lethal crash, but you won’t be setting any land speed records either.”

So if you are in high school and were not selected to be a valedictorian, take a deep breath, relax. Everything will be fine. Understand that a valedictorian is not a euphemism for “most likely to succeed” but rather “most likely to conform and settle into a quiet life.” And it doesn’t hurt to have the song “Little Boxes” by Malvina Reynolds (AKA as the theme song to Weeds on Showtime) playing in the background. Rejoice in your “nonvaledictorianess;” proclaim to yourself — and your parents — “be hopeful; the real success is yet to come… “

For further reading: Is Reading Essential for
Books Recommended by Successful People
50 Books That Will Change Your Life
The Books That Shaped America
The Books that Influence Us
What to Read Next

For further reading: Barking Up the Wrong Tree: The Surprising Science Behind Why Everything You Know About Success is (Mostly Wrong) by Eric Barker
The Happiness Advantage: The Seven Principles of Positive Psychology That Fuel Success and Performance at Work by Shawn Achor

Is Reading Essential for Success?

alex atkins bookshelf booksIn a recent interview for Time magazine, Bill Gates was asked “Do you think reading has been essential to your success, and is it to others?” Gates responded: “Absolutely. You don’t really start getting old until you stop learning. Every book teaches me something new or helps me see things differently. I was lucky to have parents who encouraged me to read. Reading fuels a sense of curiosity about the world, which I think helped drive me forward in my career and in the world that I do now with my foundation.”

Read related posts: Why Reading is Critical to the Writer
Why Read Dickens?
The Power of Literature
The Benefits of Reading
50 Books That Will Change Your Life
The Books that Shaped America
The Books that Most People Begin Reading but Don’t Finish

For further reading: Time magazine, June 5, 2017 issue.

Weird Wikipedia Articles

alex atkins bookshelf triviaWikipedia is no ordinary encyclopedia. Each month, more than 500 million unique visitors visit Wikipedia to read its more than 40 million articles written in more than 250 languages. The English version grows at a rate of 800 new articles each day. Compared to any written reference work, Wikipedia’s breadth is simply astonishing. But if you spend enough time browsing through this massive encyclopedia, you will come across some rather unusual or weird articles. Wikipedia even has a page that lists all of their “unusual articles” with this note: “There are over five million articles in the English Wikipedia. These are the ones that Wikipedians have identified as being a bit unusual. These articles are verifiable, valuable contributions to the encyclopedia, but are a bit odd, whimsical, or something you would not expect to find in Encyclopedia Britannica. We should take special care to meet the highest standards of an encyclopedia with these articles lest they make Wikipedia appear idiosyncratic.” Here are some of the weirdest articles on Wikipedia:

Algoe, New York (a fictional town)

Antiqua-Fraktur dispute (a typographical dispute in Germany in late 1800s)

Argelico “Argel” Fucks  (real name of a retired Brazilian soccer player)

Death by coconut (falling coconuts that kill people)

Dord (a ghost word; i.e., a meaningless word included in a dictionary by mistake)

Euthanasia coaster (a steel roller coaster designed to kill its passengers)

David Charles Hahm (radioactive Boy Scout)

How many angels can dance on the head of a pin? (a theological and philosophical debate) 

Hubert Blaine Wolfeschlegelsteinhausenbergerdorff, Sr. (longest surname in the world)

Hypoalgesic effect of swearing (swearing helps reduce sensation of pain)

People who have lived in airports (six people who have lived in airports for more than a month)

Project Steve (a list of over 1,300 scientists named “Steve” that support evolution)

Robert Shields (left a diary that recorded his life, written in five minute intervals)

Sex in space (the challenges of humans having sex in space)

Spite house (similar to a spite fence, a house built to annoy neighbors)

Toilet paper orientation (over vs. under)

Toilet-related injuries and death (people have died while using the Valsalva maneuver, the forceful attempt to expel feces from the rectum during a bowel movement)

Vladimir Demikhov (surgically created the first two-headed dog)

Waffle House Index (an informal metric used by FEMA to determine effect of a storm and scale of assistance required for disaster recovery)

Read related posts: Wikipedia by the Numbers
How Many Pages Would it Take to Print Wikipedia?
How Many Articles on Wikipedia?

Serendipitous Knowledge
Best English Dictionary
How Long Does it Take to Read a Million Words?

For further reading:

Feeling Down? How to Cure the Blues

alex atkins bookshelf cultureEver have one of those days when you are feeling down, feeling blue — and you want to snap out of it, but you don’t know what to do? Before you reach for age-old, but risky quick remedies like alcohol or drugs, you should turn to the most powerful and effective pharmaceutical — your brain. According to Alex Korb, a neuroscience researcher at the University of California, Los Angeles and author of The Upward Spiral: Using Neuroscience to Reverse the Course of Depression, One Small Change at a Time, thinking the right thoughts is the best medicine for curing the blues. Here are five things you can do to harness the healing and uplifting power of the miraculous human brain — and unlike alcohol and drugs, they are absolutely free:

1. Ask yourself one important questions: who or what are you grateful for? Korb notes that feelings of pride and its opposite — shame and guilt — actually activate the same neural circuits in the brain (specifically, the amygdala, dorsomedial prefrontal cortex, insula, and nucleus accumbent if you want to get technical). The antidote is to shift your thinking from shame or guilt to gratitude. Korb states that gratitude and thinking positively activates the parts of the brain that produce the feel-good neurotransmitters dopamine and serotonin. Korb adds: “It’s not finding gratitude that matters most; it’s remembering to look in the first place. Remembering to be grateful is a form of emotional intelligence. One study found that it actually affected neuron density in both the ventromedial and lateral prefrontal cortex. These density changes suggest that as emotional intelligence increases, the neurons in these areas become more efficient. With higher emotional intelligence, it simply takes less effort to be grateful.”

2. It is important not to suppress your emotions, but rather actively identify and label your emotions. Simply labeling an emotion in a word or two helps us to reduce that emotion. Leadership coach David Rock, author of Your Brain at Work: Strategies for Overcoming Distraction, Regaining Focus, and Working Smarter All Day Long, elaborates: “To reduce arousal, you need to use just a few words to describe an emotion, and ideally use symbolic language, which means using indirect metaphors, metrics, and simplifications of your experience. This requires you to activate your prefrontal cortex, which reduces the arousal in the limbic system”

3. Make a decision about something in your life — a goal, an event, a personal or work-related situation. The decision does not have to be a perfect solution, it just has to be “good enough.” In short, making a decision boosts levels of dopamine, producing pleasure. “Making decisions includes creating intentions and setting goals — all three are part of the same neural circuitry and engage the prefrontal cortex in a positive way, reducing worry and anxiety,” states Korb. “Making decisions also helps overcome striatum activity, which usually pulls you toward negative impulses and routines. Finally, making decisions changes your perception of the world — finding solutions to your problems and calming the limbic system.”

4. Don’t hesitate to ask for a hug. Studies show that emotional pain is experienced just as if it were physical pain in your brain; that is to say, when a couple breaks up, for example, that emotional pain is equivalent to the pain of a broken arm. The antidote to that pain is oxytocin — obtained through touching and hugs. Korb explains: “One of the primary ways to release oxytocin is through touching. Obviously, it’s not always appropriate to touch most people [in a workplace context], but small touches like handshakes and pats on the back are usually okay… In addition, holding hands with someone can help comfort you and your brain through painful situations… A hug, especially a long one, releases a neurotransmitter and hormone oxytocin, which reduces the reactivity of the amygdala.” The ultimate touching experience is a massage, which boasts serotonin and dopamine, as well as decreasing stress hormones.

5. Reminisce and get nostalgic. The literal meaning of nostalgia is the suffering caused by the yearning to return to a person’s place of origin. In 2006, psychologist Tim Wildschut, Constantine Sedikides (University of Southampton), and Jamie Arndt (University of Missouri) conducted a fascinating study focused on nostalgia. Even though nostalgic events, that define the meaning of a person’s life, contain negative elements (emotional pain, disappointments, etc.), people tend to filter them out and focus on a narrative that reflects a positive or triumphant outcome. Wildschut and his colleagues found that nostalgia strengthens social bonds, increases positive self-regard, and generates good feelings.

Read related posts: How to Be Happy
15 Things You Should Give Up to Be Happy
Experiencing Happiness in Life
The Difference Between a Happy Life and a Meaningful Life

The Paradox of the American Dream
The Wisdom of the Ancient Greeks

For further reading: The Upward Spiral: Using Neuroscience to Reverse the Course of Depression, One Small Change at a Time by Alex Korb
Your Brain at Work: Strategies for Overcoming Distraction, Regaining Focus, and Working Smarter All Day Long
by David Rock
Emotional Intelligence by Travis Bradberry
The Whole Brain Business Book: Unlocking the Power of Whole Brain Thinking in Organizations, Teams, and Individuals by Ned Herrmann
How the Mind Works by Steven Pinker

The Human Brain Book by Rita Carter
Brain: The Complete Mind: How it Develops, How it Works, and How to Keep it Sharp by Michael Sweeney

Click to access Nostalgia%20JPSP.pdf


Is There Really a Life-size Replica of Noah’s Ark in the U.S.?

alex atkins bookshelf cultureSubscribing to the belief that “if you build it, they will come” Answers in Genesis, a Young Earth creationism group built a life-size replica of Noah’s Ark, called the Ark Encounter, as a place where the faithful can gather to reaffirm their belief that the Bible is literally true, while unceremoniously tossing science (particularly, the theory evolution) overboard. And let’s not forget the business side of religion — where there is faith, there is profit.

The historically-themed attraction, located in the landlocked city of Williamstown, Kentucky, was built over five years (from 2011 to 2016); it officially opened on July 7, 2016. The ark contains three decks filled with 132 “teaching” exhibits, 8 passengers — Noah and his family (Genesis 7:13 indicates that “[into the ark] entered Noah, and Shem, and Ham, and Japheth, the sons of Noah, and Noah’s wife, and the three wives of his sons with them”), animal models (dinosaurs co-exist with early man and animals), and colorful dioramas (including one that states that the world is only 6,000 years old). Docents will explain that the ark was built according to the dimensions and descriptions found in the Bible’s Genesis chapters. The interior, however, is another story. Since Genesis leaves out any specific description, the design of the ark’s interior is complete conjecture — it was built according to what the builders imagined it would look like. And yes, with more than 120,000 square feet of cargo space, they firly believe that there was room for two of every animal (or in creationist terms, “animal kinds”), and enough food for all the humans and animals.

Of course, no historically-accurate ark would be complete without a pricey gift shop, a restaurant (Emzara’s Kitchen), two movie theaters, and several areas for staged photo ops. Just outside the ark is a massive pond, the Ararat Ridge Zoo (petting zoo), a first-century Middle Eastern village, and a jaw-dropping zipline (the Eagle’s Nest Aerial Adventure), presumably a replica of the zipline that Noah and his family used for recreation while sailing around the world in a floating zoo. Conveniently located nearby is the Creation Museum, featuring 75,000 square feet of exhibits that “bring the pages of the Bible to life” and where pages of Charles Darwin’s Origins of the Species are burned to provide warmth for visiting guests.

Whether you believe the story of Noah’s Ark and the worldwide flood described in Genesis 6 to be literally true or a profound allegory (or Mashal), one cannot deny that the replica of the ark, standing seven stories high and the length of 1.5 football fields, is a stunning marvel of craftsmanship (built, ironically, by a team of very talented Amish carpenters) and engineering to behold. After all, it has been Intelligently Designed! The stewards of the ark proudly proclaim that the ark is the largest timber-frame structure in the world. Each evening the ark glows against the night sky as it is illuminated by brilliant spotlights in the color of the rainbow, evoking of the Noahic covenant (Genesis 9:12-17 — “everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth”). For Christian fundamentalists, seeing truly is believing. However, for science advocate Bill Nye, the Ark Encounter is creating a generation of scientifically illiterate children and discouraging critical thinking. During his tour soon after the Ark Encounter opened, Nye observed, “On the third deck, every single science exhibit is absolutely wrong… It’s all very troubling. You have hundreds of school kids there who have already been indoctrinated and who have been brainwashed.”

If climbing aboard Noah’s Ark in Williamstown doesn’t float your boat, you can visit two other full-size replicas on the other side of the globe. You can make a stop in Dordrecht, Netherlands to visit Johan’s Ark or travel all the way to Ma Wan Island, Hong Kong, China to visit Noah’s Ark Theme Park. Of the three replicas, the Ark Encounter is the largest.

Here is a view of the Noah’s ark, located in the U.S., by the numbers.

Cost: over $100 million dollars
Size: height – 51 feet; length – 510 feet; width – 85 feet
Decks: 3, each 18 feet high
Interior space: 120,000 square feet

Amount of wood used: 3.1 million feet
Mount of metal plates and bolts: 95 tons
Admission: Adults – $40; Senior – $31; Child (up to age 12) – $28
Size of parking lot: 4,000 spaces
Cost to park: $10-15

Size of site: 800 acres
Craftsmen employed: 1,000
Estimated visitors in first year: 2 million
Seasonal jobs: 300-400

Read related posts: What was the First Bible Printed in the United States?
What is a Thumb Bible?
How Many Books Exist in the World?

The Most Expensive American Book
Most Expensive Books Sold in 2012
Most Expensive Book in the World
Rarest Book in American Literature

For further reading: Searching for Adam: Genesis and the Truth About Man’s Origin by Terry Mortensen (2016)
Undeniable: Evolution and the Science of Creation by Bill Nye (2015)
The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution by Richard Dawkins (2010)
Inherit the Wind: The Powerful Drama of the Greatest Courtroom Clash of the Century by Jerome Lawrence (2003)’s_Ark_replicas_and_derivatives

Literature as Divine Revelation

catkins-bookshelf-literature“[L]iterature was my first intellectual love. [At age] 12, I saw my equally aged inamorata reading Pickwick Papers, how I borrowed the book from her, and then ungratefully divided my affection between her and Dickens. I save fourteen cents, bought David Copperfield, read every word of its eight hundred pages, and ranked it, for a time, next to the Bible and the Imitation of Christ. Literature became an almost divine revelation, a miraculous multiplication of the world and life.”

From the preface to Interpretations of Life: A Survey of Contemporary Literature, by Will and Ariel Durant (1970). The two historians are best known for their 11-volume magnum opus, The Story of Civilization (published between 1935 and 1975), were awarded the Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction in 1968. In their 80s, they turned their attention to literature, focusing not only on the authors’ works, but on their lives; Will writes: “In almost all these studies I have found the author himself more interesting than any character in his books, and his career more instructive than the imaginary world by which he revealed or cloaked himself.”

Read related posts: Why Study Literature?
Why Read Dickens?
The Power of Literature
The Benefits of Reading
50 Books That Will Change Your Life
The Books that Shaped America

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