Archive for February, 2013

I work at a medium-sized state university in the U.S. I also went to school here ten years ago.

A friend of mine at work recently lent me a copy he found of our university’s academic catalog from 1903. That’s 110 years ago! It’s fun to take a peak at what college life looked like back then.

Here are some some specific instructions for what to bring the dorms:

Students are required to provide themselves with the following articles:
One pillow, four pillow slips, four sheets for three-quarter bed, two bed spreads, one pair of blankets, one comforter, four towels, two math towels, six table napkins, one knife, fork, and teaspoon. Students are advised, but not required to provide rugs for their rooms.

How much did food cost in the cafeteria?

The dining hall is open to both young men and young women students, and meals are serverd at 15 cents each to regular boarders. A transient rate of twenty cents is also provided.

In today’s dollars, that would be close to $4 for lunch.

Touting the library:

The library of the University, including six departmental libraries, now contains over 3900 bound volumes and a large number of pamphlets.

Love those pamphlets; and 3900 volumes? I checked and they now have about 2 million.

How much did it cost?

No student who shall have been a resident of the state for one year next preceding his admission shall be required to pay any fees for his tuition in the University, except in a professional department or for extra studies. The fees for non-residents are fixed by the Regents are: For the University, $7.50 for each semester, or $15,00 for the scholastic year. The costs of books, stationary and other materials required to be furnished by the student, varies from $5.00 to $15.00 a year, according to the course of study taken.

My goodness. Free for in-state students, and only $15 a year otherwise. Oh, plus maybe $10 for books. I looked up the inflation tables. If adjusted for the value of the dollar, college should cost about $400 a year now, plus another $230 for books. In actuality, it’s about $6000 at this institution, plus $800 for books. The textbooks are at double the rate of inflation, but tuition is at 15 times. Yikes.

Finally, I looked up my degree: Bachelor of Music. What did a person study back then?

I won’t copy the table here, but it’s four semesters of French, four semesters of German, eight semesters of piano and music theory, and six semesters of English lit. That’s a heck a lot of foreign language, and a lot of non-music reading and writing. It was more of a music-flavored liberal arts degree. Today, only graduate students are required to have just one other language under their belt at all. I took classes on arranging, conducting, analysis, and history that were not available back then. Also, like many conservatories still are today, private music lessons were to be taken on the side and were not formal for-credit “classes” like they are at most institutions today.


One of our local university president’s recently wrote the following in a community update email:

It’s been said that: “Behind every brilliant performance were countless hours of practice and preparation.” I believe this is true of people and of institutions.

I agree with this statement too.

However, it is my belief that modern marketing can be largely classified as an elaborate attempt at a shortcut – a clever detour around the “countless hours of practice and preparation”.

Sell a product through a dazzling advertisement, rather than through a good reputation, satisfied customers spanning years, and word of mouth. Get students to come to college by offering them pictures and videos of their future selves lounging in cushy new dorms, barely studying with coeds, and occasionally dressed in lab coats holding a pipette and looking very serious. “I can live easy, have fun, and pop out the other side looking like a legit adult!”. This is in contrast to people coming to your school because their parents went there, because it’s the place just down the street or down the highway an hour – the logical local choice. Your parents and many of the other people you look up to went there. They’ve largely succeeded. You could do the same, with people who are now 50 as your model instead of some imaginary successful 22-year-old hipster.

We get fooled by this stuff because we’ve seen it seem to work a few times. Kids like Justin Bieber are made into bazillion-dollar stars with seemingly minimal effort. Shortcut. The business world has been gaga for years now over popular tech startups by recent grads in hoodies, throwing hundreds of millions of dollars at projects like Tumblr, Pandora, Foursquare, you name it, despite the fact that they have yet to make a single dime in profit. Shortcut. Shortcut. Guitar sales are through the roof this past decade, but the number of people who can actually play them worth squat is barely up. Buying a nice axe functioned as a shortcut for them – a shortcut to nowhere.

My exhortation is that we (as an educational institution, but this goes for anyone else too) should play to our strengths – amplifying the things we do well. Don’t pretend we do stuff we can’t deliver on. Break down obstacles for people participating. Be humble and then be awesome.

For someone selling a piece of software: Make it really easy for people to use and make it work so when anyone asks you if they should buy it to, it’s no-brainer. Don’t show people how fan-flippin’-tastic it is and then when they actually hand over all their clams, they find out basic stuff doesn’t even work at all. (Exchange Server and iPhone Mail, I’m talkin’ to you!)

For someone administrating a university: Beef up the strong programs. Get even more people to come to them by funding more grad student stipends. Go to great lengths to keep the best teachers. Find out ways to make college cheaper so your students are not shackled in so many chains of debt. Subsidize cheap apartments perhaps instead of making expensive housing (new dorm and meal plans) mandatory for incoming students. Don’t spend millions of dollars to keep an athletics program floundering in the highest-tier league. Don’t cut it – just adjust it. Play closer to home. Say no to ESPN and the bright lights. They have their reward already.

Every day you are going to be faced with the option to take a shortcut in something. And you are going to have someone swearing that you should take it because it seemed to work for so-and-so. You have to have the backbone to say no to the shortcuts. It will suck in the short term but being patient virtually always pay off in the long. Take the shortcut and you may be hot tomorrow, but with no foundation things are unlikely to look the same as you progress into the future. (Exhibit A: Lance Armstrong).

Now I’m trying to figure out what shortcuts I’m always taking without much thought – likely many more than I care to admit.

One of the things my wife and I immediately noticed when we visited Ethiopia last year was how tightly integrated everyone’s daily lives where. Everyone worked all day, every day, but it wasn’t what we would call “work” in the west. The cook at our guest house was there 24/7 but on an average day would only spend a couple hours in the kitchen. The rest of the time was spent talking with friends, reading, playing games, or watching dubbed Arabic soap operas. The guard was there 24/7 too, but he wasn’t expected to do anything except open the gate a few times a day. He spent much of the day studying an English textbook. Our driver made about $5.00 a day whether he drove us around non-stop for fourteen hours or just picked us up for one quick trip. Where was he the rest of the time? Swinging by to talk with his mother, visiting some friends at a nearby shop, fixing another car in the garage. What ev’. The social worker at our orphanage often worked late, but was sometimes gone for long stretches during the day doing… not sure. None of this was strange there.


Everywhere we went, men and women worked outside the home, but they often had their children with them. Women kept shop while their toddlers played on the floor. Men worked construction or in offices from early in the morning to late in the evening, but took frequent breaks to have coffee with friends. Everyone was working all the time, but as far as I could tell, they were rarely paid by the hour. Their work was highly entangled with their family life. Leisure time and labor time overlapped. You worked with friends and hung out with friends and it wasn’t often clear when one started and another stopped. From what I understand, this is largely the norm for much of Africa, although it manifests itself a bit differently in every culture.

Mains describes some of this in his book:

From an Ethiopian perspective, the absurdity of the Western contrast between work and leisure is that it divides activities into the categories of productive and nonproductive without regard for their implications for constructing social relationships. The concept of surplus labor presumes that labor may be quantified in terms of time and categorized as necessary or surplus. In the Ethiopian case, work is not always conceived of in this manner. In urban Ethiopia, working positions one within relations of power and exchange in a manner that produces identity. This work may last two hours or eight, and the implications for identity are the same. One IS a shoeshine or one IS a teacher. In Ethiopia the government working is the paragon of this dynamic. The government worker receives a salary that depends not on the number of days or hours worked, but on his position. He is thought not to produce, but to mediate between individuals. .

-Daniel Mains, Hope is Cut: Youth, Unemployment, and the Future in Urban Ethiopia, p.84

He goes on to explain several ways these social relationships are key to this way of life functioning. For example, everywhere along busy streets there are vendors selling produce, repairing bicycles, etc. Technically they are all squatters and not allowed by the government, but they actually serve an important function for the shop owners they set up in front of. They provide security and also allow the shop owner to duck out for an hour to go to church or run an errand. In exchange, the shop keeper chases the police off if they give the street vendor trouble. To maintain their loyalty, both will often buy coffee or small meals for each other from day-to-day too.

I think about how different most of these jobs are to mine. I work for the State government here and I must work exactly 2080 hours every calendar year. Not one hour more and not one hour less. The money is all allocated a year ahead of time. We punch time cards. We are either 100% percent working, sit down, shut up, work, no personal calls. OR we are off. Don’t work. Don’t even answer your email ’cause we can’t pay you overtime. Go play. NOW. Play hard. OK. Now come back to the office. Ready, set, work! Don’t mix work and family, etc. Don’t talk about politics at work. That’s the rule. Also, don’t talk about work at home, it’s top secret.

It’s so compartmentalized here in the west and the attitude bleeds over into some strange beliefs, such as the fact that extremely hard-working homeschooling stay-at-home moms are considered “unemployed” and in some circles ridiculed for their “lack of productivity”. Hogwash. It’s more likely that the guy in the office is the one producing absolutely nothing, but he does technically get paid for it. At least, that’s what his W-2 tax form says so it must be true.

It seems that Africans tend look at all this with great puzzlement. After spending some time there, it makes me a bit puzzled too.


I am trying out my new shakey skills with Ge’ez script here. Since I don’t know enough Amharic yet, it will be in transliterated English!


Transliteration: Learning Ge’ez script has been fun. I have always wanted to learn another language and another system of writing. Still, the amount of information available on it in English is rather thin. For example, why are there three characters for the ‘h’ sound? I think that one type is only used at the beginning of a word and others are used in the middle, but I have not been able to confirm this. Also, despite having a similar Semetic root to Hebrew and Arabic, it is not written from right to left but rather left to right just like Latin. It seems that Ge’ez is to Amharic what Latin is to modern Italian. In reading through my Ethiopian liturgy book, I found many of the words to be the same. That is all for now. Signing out!

In studying Ethiopia lately, both histories and recent sociological studies, I came across something that really caught my attention after reading so many of Leithart’s recent research posts on giving and gratitude.

In the 2012 study I mentioned earlier where anthropologist Daniel Mains lived in Ethiopia for about 2 years and documented to daily lives and finances of about 30 young men, he found that virtually every cent they made was immediately given out to friends and family in the form of purchased meals, coffee, or small cash gifts. Investing in relationships with ones friends and family was considered by many to be the chief end of having money in the first place. Saving the money (accumulating capital) was almost unthinkable for most of the people he spoke with. Even young aspiring businessmen, when they needed a substantial amount of money for a new venture or to buy inventory for a shop, were able to get all the cash they needed from their carefully cultivated network of friends and relatives who were all willing to lend at short notice.
Stashing earned money away and NOT gifting it was seen as greedy and anti-social.

Now perhaps this dynamic is all old news to someone who studies various African cultures, but it was new to me and it seems rather foreign to our mentality here in the west. Especially in Protestant circles, I think saving money (accumulating wealth) is seen as an incredibly WISE (even Godly) thing to do. But, for all their other problems, these tight communities in Africa are often sustained by the opposite notion.

In contrast, the author cites a fascinating study among palm farmers in Kenya that converted to Islam. Here is the relevant excerpt.

The history of anthropology in Africa is rich with studies documenting the difficulty of accumulating wealth without undermining the social support on which that accumulation is based. David Parkin’s (1972) study of Giriama of Kenya has become a classic analysis of the balance between social relationships and material accumulation. Parking argued that Giriama palm growers who wished to accumulate material wealth were faced with a challenging problem. To accumulate capital, palm growers had to distance themselves from community expectations that they would redistribute their wealth in the form of feasts involving large amounts of meant and palm wine. At the same time, access to land depended on social support. For palm growers to accumulate material wealth, they had to avoid redistributing their wealth while maintaining the social ties necessary to ensure their access to land. In Parkin’s study, conversion to Islam enabled farmers to solve this problem. Islam prevented men from drinking palm wine and eating meat slaughtered by non-Muslims and allowed them to be more selective about their engagement in relations of reciprocity. Therefore religion provided a justification for refraining from expending one’s wealth on shared consumption without being exposed to accusations of selfishness.

-Daniel Mains, Hope is Cut: Youth, Unemployment, and the Future in Urban Ethiopia, p.115

Wow. My visceral reaction to reading this is to think “Good grief! What better reason to throw a party RIGHT NOW!” Islam gave these capitalists the tools they needed to effectively shut down the party and accumulate material goods. It seems that some variations of Christian culture have also been utilized to do the same thing. I am increasingly skeptical that this is always such a great and wonderful thing. We have accumulated piles of property, but we are more lonely than ever. It makes me wonder if the reason our communities have such weak bonds is our lack of generosity.

I’ve been reading a book published just last year by Daniel Mains titled Hope is Cut: Youth, Unemployment, and the Future in Urban Ethiopia. Mains spent the better part of 2 years living in Jimma and documenting the lives about about 30 young men as they lived from day to day, tried to find work, hung out with friends, etc. He tracked their finances and eavesdropped on many conversations to figured out what made them tick and what cultural forces were driving their situations and what their motivations and challenges were. The book is an academic piece of anthropology and so it wasn’t a thrilling page-turner. Mains also spends most of the time laying out the facts and explaining the situation, not drawing conclusions. That is what a proper study if this kind should do. Still, I found many of his anecdotes fascinating, both as I try to understand Ethiopian culture specifically, the state of Africa more generally, and make connections with how life is shaping up in the United States as well.

The unemployment rate in urban Ethiopia is a rather staggering 50%. We in the west freak out about rates of 10%. Still, I think many of the forces at work in Africa are the same ones we are experiencing here. We are still propped up by piles of cash and property so we don’t see how similar our situations are. One common theme is the false hope of education. Today we have a growing crisis of young people who have accumulated huge amounts of debt going to college only to find that no job can be found afterwards except something in retail or food service. How many coffee baristas have graduate degrees these days? A lot! In Ethiopia too, education has been heavily invested in this past century. It’s been portrayed as a savior of sorts – the thing that will rescue our children from the backwards rural countryside. Nearly all the men in Mains’s study had completed high school and even some college. They were dramatically more educated than their parents. Yay! But there were no jobs for them. There is a glut of graduates but only a handful of modern well-paying work. BUT, they have been conditioned their whole life to expect something better. They don’t want to work as a barista making $0.50 a day. They can’t go back to the coffee plantation either since they moved to the city. What is to be done? It’s similar to how we told all our children in the West that they could grow up and be astronauts. Now they feel trapped and unsatisfied working in a cubical as a junior accountant. The same thing happened in rapidly modernized Africa: The kids were told they could get a meaningful job working for some government service ministry. A few did, but a huge chunk were left with nothing but a diploma and no prospects. For many of the young men interviewd (typically in their late twenties and early thirties), moving out of the country was seen as one of the only viable options to get un-stuck.

Still, at least in Ethiopia, everywhere he went he still found that people were optimistic about education. He points out that this can’t be sustained in other places.

The powerful faith in the value of education that I encountered in Jimma may be contrasted with other studies that describe increasing cynicism toward schooling as education fails to produce tangible economic benefits. For example, in a study among the Manu people of Papua New Guinea, Demerath (2003) found that most students were highly critical of education, rebelled against teachers and authority, and valued school primarily for its role in creating social relationships with peers. Despite the struggles that secondary school graduates faced in finding work, in urban Ethiopia the belief in the value of education was still quite strong at the time of my research.

-Daniel Mains, Hope is Cut: Youth, Unemployment, and the Future in Urban Ethiopia, p.73

Just as with our public schools here, “teaching to the test” is a big problem.

The long-standing obsession of students with the Ethiopian School Leaving Certificate Examination (ESLCE) demonstrates that education leads to work not because it provides skills but because it provides a certificate and official credentials. Essentially, the ESLCE was the test that determined whether one’s twelve years of schooling were wasted time or the first step toward government employment. During my experience teaching English in an Ethiopian secondary school as a Peace Corps volunteer, students with little speaking ability could easily conjugate English verbs in the present perfect tense. This was a reflection of students’ prioritization of preparing for the grammar portion of the ESLCE over learning English communication skills. For most students the process of education was about preparing for a test that would eventually provide them with access to government employment.


In Ethiopia failing one’s matriculation exam closed off all possibilities for a successful future, but migration enabled opportunity and success that could eventually be brought home.


There was a song on the radio a lot from a few years back called “Boston” where a young woman dreams of moving away from dead-end California and starting over fresh in New England. “I gotta get out of this town!”  to get ahead is a thought that often passes through young people’s minds. In Ethiopia, relocation is seen as providing similar ways of getting unstuck, thought the focus was often on maturing to becoming a provider and sending money back home rather that some sort of isolated sense of self-fullfilment. The connection to family and friends is still very strong there. You don’t strike out on your own to be on your own, but so you can come back around in a better situation than you left earlier. Most of the young men in Main’s study desperately WANTED to become providers instead of dependents but were discouraged that taking a low-wage job wouldn’t do enough to change that. They still couldn’t get married unless things changed more dramatically.

It seems that in the west, young men in their thirties have an easier time staying home and playing XBox in the evenings and making a few booty calls to their lady acquaintances on the weekend. We’ve made it pretty comfortable for folks to stay in their non-adult limbo state. Their frustration is numbed by a plethora of digital entertainment options available as well as (seemingly) consequence-free sex. It also helps that food can be had for cheap. In the capital-poor nations in Africa and Asia though, this frustration is thick in some places, driving young men (in Pakistan for example) to join the Taliban to try and get unstuck.

What is the solution to all of this? The author mentions that westerners who endeavour to study Africa often end up in a very cynical state. I can see how it would be easy to arrive there! People analyzing the west don’t have it much better if they try to see long-term. Secularists often have nowhere to turn to in the end except nihilism. Bill Gates and his foundation spend billions of dollars aiding Africa, but their stated underlying goal is population control. They have no eschatology so there is no ultimate end except the establishment of some sort of sustainable infertility.

I don’t believe that can save us. I believe that only Christ can save us. The answer to this and every other terribly complex problem is the Gospel. What does that look like on the ground? That’s our task to realize. One life lived would only see the tip of the iceberg.

Ouch. Two whole weeks since I last posted. Why? I’ve had a rather terrible flu which was followed up by a nasty head cold. I’ve missed several days of work and been all-around miserable. I don’t get sick often, but when I do I’m always surprised to discover how not only physical activity is difficult, but thinking as well. You would think that confined to bed I could at least read a book or two. Nope. Nadda. It’s so depressing.

I think I understand just a little better how Michael Spencer stopped writing so abruptly a few years ago when he got cancer. I mean, he wrote every single day for 10 years. It meant so much to him. How could he just sit in his bed for three months and watch TV? He only ever wrote one more short post after his cancer flared up and then he was pushing daisies. Now I don’t wonder. I didn’t have it near as bad and I got zero written. Granted, I was trying to keep up with the kid’s violin and homework and some house chores with what strength I could muster, but still. I’m so glad that is over. Thanks to my wife for putting up with me!

I’ve written three short posts for my coffee blog over here. More to come soon on this site.

Everyone you meet looks like someone else you know if you’ve been sufficiently around the block. Travel expands your categories – lets you dice and divide more finely – closer to the truth. Good education does the same when it demands that you do the slicing finer each day instead of just placing everything in categories for you lest you be misled by the “enemy”. Shortcuts. These sorts of intellectual shortcuts work too, but only for one generation. Your acolytes are on board but they really don’t know why. They’ve done their homework, but only the assignments you gave them. Their children, when exposed to legitimate challenges, will enter a dark night of the soul and they are unlikely to come out the other side of it with your orthodoxy intact. The much more difficult alternative is to teach yours students to think, but this is an even scarier proposition than the propaganda option. Now they are GUARANTEED to evolve your precious orthodoxy in ways you don’t except – some of which you will certainly drive you crazy. Hope is trusting it will one day be even better than yours, not worse. Who can believe such a thing? Someone who trusts in the Lord.