Miracle over Mother Nature

Though few Americans recognize the name of Tetsuya “Ted” Fujita, many are familiar with the eponymous rating system he developed to measure damaging wind speeds.

The EF (Enhanced Fujita) Scale used in the U.S. since 2007 is applied to rate tornado intensity based on the damage inflicted on human-built structures and vegetation. The only federal agency authorized to provide an official EF Scale rating is the National Weather Service.

The rating process is an analytical and numerical one, involving assessment of eight degrees of damage to 28 indicators. After observation and calculation, the NWS determined that the tornado that tore through Jonesboro on Saturday packed EF-3 level wind force (136-165 mph).

There are some 1,200 tornadoes tracked each year, but this one was different.

For starters, despite a destructive six minutes on the ground, carving a path through Jonesboro’s major retail area and several clustered subdivisions—hurling automobiles and flattening large commercial structures—not a single life in the town of 75,000 was lost. Most of the 22 injuries reported were minor.

When the funnel finally dissipated amid the farm fields east of Brookland, some 458 homes were destroyed, along with large sections of the mall and numerous other businesses.

Another critical difference is that this tornado unfolded live on KAIT, with meteorologists Ryan Vaughan (working remotely, on the phone) and Zach Holder (in-studio and on-camera) collaborating in coverage and warning residents in real time.

Those precious minutes proved priceless for families and employees. With business shutdowns associated with coronavirus “Slow the Spread” policies, one of Mother Nature’s most deadly phenomena found the people of Jonesboro generally absent from normal weekend shopping centers, and prepared and protected in their safe spots at home.

Saturday’s event also has to be one of the best-documented tornado disasters ever, and should wind up being a remarkably instructive case study rich with ultra-valuable lessons for other communities, news media outlets and weather forecasters and analysts.

In a makeshift re-creation using my two computer monitors and smartphone, I synced up the full KAIT televised broadcast, the Jonesboro Radio Group’s audio, and a Google map aerial path video showing the NWS damage markers.

It’s eerie to turn back the clock and relive those six frantic minutes in actual time.

Two KAIT weather-cams capture the tornado as it first descends from the ominous wall cloud on the south side of town and then follow it live (with the exception of a momentary camera switch) until it reaches the Farville curve north of the city.

Throughout the broadcast, Holder is literally pointing to specific places on the large screen image as the mammoth tornado is seen throwing up huge chunks of debris and igniting multiple power flash explosions.

Simultaneously, radio broadcaster Trey Stafford is repeatedly declaring a tornado emergency, and naming off streets, locations, highways, landmarks in danger.

“This is crossing over Red Wolf [Boulevard] right now,” Vaughan says, just before the debris-circled funnel churns through the mall, wiping out Best Buy and ripping the roof off Barnes and Noble.

As the tornado moves past the airport and into residential areas on the video, despair creeps into the broadcasters’s voices. Most people are home in this pandemic, and the debris being lofted now represents houses, not mostly empty business retail buildings.

Veteran radio personality Stafford’s voice—a fixture on local morning drive time for decades—breaks just a bit.

“I’m just sick at my stomach right now,” he says haltingly, speaking for anyone seeing it live. “It’s just hard to watch this happening in our town.”

All those covering the tornado, from the television meteorologists to the radio reporters to the stormchasers on the ground, expected severe injuries and loss of life. There seemed to be simply too much destruction, too much debris hurtling too fast through the air, for too long.

But residents at the subdivisions in harm’s way, watching on television or on Facebook live or listening to the radio (or getting frantic calls and texts from others who were), benefited from several crucial minutes of advance notice.

Following the tornado on video, you don’t see what was happening at businesses and in homes as the broadcasters pleaded for audiences to take cover.

People were listening. Thousands all at once were making those ticking seconds of warning count by hurrying to their safe spots. A store employee was able to usher a young family outside the front door into the store’s safe room. A couple of scared roommates had time to scamper down the street to a grandmother’s storm shelter.

Such stories are legion, and they all showcase the vital role local news media can play in times of lethal community threats. Stafford, Vaughan and Holder were supported by many other reporters, technicians and experts, and collectively the execution of their efforts helped the people of Jonesboro safeguard themselves.

Communities come together during tornado aftermaths, and Jonesboro is no exception.

The distinguishing teachable moment here is how Jonesboro’s community came together in those brief but lifesaving minutes before and during the tornado.

It should be the talk of the state, and the nation, during storm season and beyond.

Fear not

The old legend—that there are 365 different appearances of the phrase “Fear not” in the Bible, one for each day of the year—doesn’t really stand up to scrutiny regarding technical translations across time and language.

But the gist of the matter is that we humans tend to suffer from a fundamental fright reflex, particularly when confronted with something unknown or overwhelming.

A consoling truth is that overcoming fear is hardwired into our national DNA. Our country was founded amid a time of great fearfulness.

In late 1776, the most relevant document was no longer the one which eloquently begins, “We hold these truths to be self-evident …” Less than six months after Congress adopted the Declaration of Independence, the red-white-and-blue fanfare and spirit of liberty was barely a memory amid the blackness of war-torn despair.

The newly christened United States of America was facing its first crisis, and a pamphlet out of Philadelphia would introduce a new and enduring opening phrase that would recharge the revolutionary cause for soldiers and patriots everywhere.

“These are the times that try men’s souls,” Thomas Paine’s essay began.

He went on to declare that while “the summer soldier and the sunshine patriot” will shrink from service in the time of panic and confusion at hand, those that stood by their duty deserved the “love and thanks” of all.

General Washington ordered the pamphlet read aloud to his battle-weary, beaten-down, barely-fed-and-clothed troops just before Christmas. Two days later the re-energized Continental army crossed the Delaware and captured 1,000 Hessian mercenaries, without losing a single American life.

Ten years later, Washington’s worry was not for his army in combat, but the people in peacetime as they battled with the unanticipated challenges of self-government and discords mounted.

“No day was ever more clouded than the present,” he wrote in November 1786. “We are fast verging to anarchy and confusion.”

A few weeks later, Washington expressed his bewilderment about disorders among the states, asking rhetorically, who could have foreseen or predicted them?

Timeless words with timely import. Confusion and anarchy no longer seem like disconnected concepts from centuries ago; uncertain fear of both lives in today’s apprehensions.

Nobody could have predicted that every large crowd-attracting event would be canceled. That schools would be closed. That we would be advised to gather in groups of 10 or fewer.

The series of unimaginables probably isn’t over yet. But just as with the accomplishments at our founding and every other soul-trying time since, the path to success requires stepping over fears.

Thankfully, this historic pattern has produced an inordinate supply of inspiring commentary. One of the treasures of my library is aptly named The Treasure Chest. It’s a self-styled anthology of “memorable words of wisdom and inspiration.”

Forty-one subjects—ranging from achievement and beauty and education to joy and opportunity and work—are listed in the contents, with several pages of quotations from great thinkers and writers dedicated to each topic.

I pull this book down frequently to let the voices of sages long past return to life in my mind, and recent events have drawn my eyes to several appropriate sections.

Under the subject of courage, some passages leapt from the page.

“Courage is resistance to fear; not absence of it.”— Mark Twain

Nearby, coincidentally enough, an old Italian motto: “It is better to live one day as a lion than 100 years as a sheep.”

A page over, and this prominent excerpt: “Courage and cowardice are antithetical … . Courage faces fear and thereby masters it; cowardice represses fear and is thereby mastered by it. We must continually build dikes of courage to hold back the flood of fear.”— Martin Luther King, Jr.

In the determination section, William Blake is quoted: “Great things are done when men and mountains meet.”

Flipping through, my fingers pause at the hope subject page, where the words of Harriet Beecher Stowe are anchored near the lower margin: “The longest day must have its close—the gloomiest night will wear on to a morning.”

Here, too, is found a favorite poet at her best:

“Hope” is the thing with

feathers—

That perches in the soul—

And sings the tune without

the words—

And never stops—at all.

— Emily Dickinson

Finally, nestled among the pages of the community chapter, a point of revelatory punctuation arrives.

“There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal.”— C. S. Lewis

Extraordinary moments unmask otherwise ordinary routines and roles because there is extraordinary capacity within our souls, in times that try them, for enormous virtue.

In Jonesboro, the leading arts organization is hosting daytime arts camps for the children of health-care workers while schools are out. A downtown landlord has told struggling restaurant tenants to not pay rent and instead pay their employees.

Every community is witness to its own miracles, all wrought by mere mortals.

“I thank God, that I fear not,” Paine wrote near the end of his American Crisis pamphlet, saying he could see the way out of the current situation, “by perseverance and fortitude.”

Words to remember, principles to guide, history to honor.

Debates in disarray

Having recently belly-laughed through a national tour production of The Play That Goes Wrong, I don’t think the Democratic National Committee planners could have produced a more hilarious debate series if they had tried.

In the play, a hapless, rag-tag cast comically encounters everything that can go awry on a live stage: forgotten lines, misplaced props, pranks, pratfalls, set malfunctions and more.

In the DNC televised debates, misnamed “moderators” who ask gotcha-type questions in a flawed format reduce what might normally be intelligent, thoughtful candidates to frenzied panderers in a fiasco full of sound-bite, shout-down antics.

It’s doubtful any of the presidential hopefuls hurling jabs and braggadocio in South Carolina on Tuesday could deliver oratory on par with the legendary Lincoln-Douglas debates. But even Lincoln and Douglas might have looked like boobs had they been limited to 75-second responses.

Only in TV-land is one minute and 15 seconds “a long time,” as one of the CBS moderators reminded the panel after several candidates (or contestants, as Mike Bloomberg called the group in a rattled moment) went over their time.

It’s a little longer than two 30-second commercials, true, and just a little shorter than a typical feature story on the evening news.

But in the regular world, 1:15 is a ridiculously short time to explain anything of significance to anybody with the expectation of enabling a well-considered decision.

For conservatives who would label some of the furthest-left progressive ideas laughable, the Democratic debates have devolved into downright sidesplitting spectacle.

The facial expressions. The finger-wagging. The sound and fury, signifying nothing in the way of statesmanship. Indeed, several Bard quotes spring to mind as appropriate in assessing the idiocy of a measly minute-and-a-quarter to mutter anything meaningful on serious subjects and matters:

The empty vessel makes the loudest sound. Such a short time elevates volume over substance, and the debates have subsequently become one of the few televised programs in which the commercials don’t seem louder.

Wisely, and slow. They stumble that run fast. There’s precious little time for wisdom in a rat-race of words, and haste makes for mistakes, such as when Joe Biden misspoke on Tuesday, wrongly claiming that 150 million Americans had been killed by guns since 2007.

Talking isn’t doing … words are not deeds. Watching the candidates watch the timer, you can almost see them trying to check off campaign talking points from a mental list. Brief mentions of good ideas and successful programs—among long-winded accusations and anti-Trump warnings—were the little candles that shone bright in the wearisome debates, leaving viewers longing for more.

I would challenge you to a battle of wits, but I see you are unarmed! OK, that quote is falsely attributed to Shakespeare. But too much brevity evidently suffocates the soul of wit; the lost art of eloquent insults remains lost among debaters.

Words without thoughts never to heaven go. The 75-second restraint renders thinking to second-class status behind speaking, with the result of lowering rather than raising the level of discourse.

Instead of anybody’s best foot being put forward, it gets put squarely in their mouths or in a pile of crap. A forum that should be a conduit of ideas becomes merely a confluence of chatter.

The viewing and voting audience gets chaos, not clarity. Desperation, not deliberation. Asininity, not articulation. None of which is the stuff capable of engaging minds, much less changing or convincing them.

Tuesday’s debate was either amusing or embarrassing, depending on political stripe, but in no way informative. That’s a true travesty, because everyone onstage had important things to say that voters needed to hear.

People need to listen to Sanders explain his math, and Bloomberg talk more about NYC’s charter schools, and Biden bring his experience into context. Steyer tossed a slavery reparations grenade into the mix, but had no time to reconcile that idea’s many troubling aspects.

From Klochubar’s practical policy ideas to Warren’s strong passions to Buttigieg’s astute analyses, the debate format consistently deprived the public of coherent dialogue.

Perhaps the League of Women Voters could be persuaded to sponsor the debates again, and bring back some nonpartisan common-sense parameters. A trio of basic ideas that would be transformative:

  1. Ask obvious big-issue questions to all candidates at once. The luck or un-luck of a crackpot question currently creates arbitrary and unnecessary distractions. Use polls to determine the issues most Americans—not moderators—want to hear candidates expound on.
  2. Give candidates seven minutes to respond. A normal speaking pace is 130 words per minute, so that would allow candidates the length of an op-ed column to address each important issue’s background, their personal beliefs about it, and their ideas on tackling it should they be elected president.
  3. Only have one mic live, for the person whose turn it is to answer. Candidates talking over each other has been a problem since at least 2012, when one of the Obama-Romney debates featured 122 interruptions in 90 minutes. So let the sole live mic belong to the candidate talking, and be strict about cutting it off if he or she runs over.

A lifesaving idea

Two years ago in Texas, we saw one of the worst-case church-shooting scenarios when a gunman slaughtered 26 people in a sanctuary where no one else was armed.

On Sunday we saw probably the best-case church-shooting scenario in Texas when a volunteer security team member shot and killed a gunman six seconds after his attack began.

Undoubtedly the change in Texas law between the two shootings—which permits congregants to carry guns in church—completely changed the outcome in Sunday’s incident. Nevertheless, that law is still essentially a reactive measure. It cannot and does not proactively prevent an attack; it simply enables people in church to better protect themselves if an attack occurs.

Which is exactly what happened. But even in Sunday’s best-case outcome, two innocent people still died. Neutralizing a murderous man with a gun in less than six seconds is about as good as anyone can hope for (police didn’t arrive for two minutes), but it was still enough time for a couple of trigger pulls.

The larger legislative question is what can be done to actually prevent such a mass-shooting scenario at all.

We will probably never know precisely what motivated the shooter to do what he did. What we do know is that the gunman, like most other mass shooters, had previously exhibited signs of mental illness. He also falls into the roughly 25 percent of mass shooters officially diagnosed as mentally ill.

Psychiatrists, psychologists and other mental health professionals are quick to cry foul and “false narrative” when discussions linking mental health and gun violence arise. It’s true that most people with mental illnesses will never shoot anyone. Neither will most people without mental illness.

That fact reinforces the notion that it’s fruitless to focus on most people, which is a huge amount of folks, and instead dial in on the much smaller number of those like Sunday’s shooter—who was not only well-known to be mentally troubled but also frequently in trouble with the law over violent activity, sometimes involving firearms.

That guy should have been involuntarily institutionalized years ago. And that’s the problem: Our mental health system isn’t set up to forcibly separate deranged people with dangerous disorders from general society.

The mental health community rightly worries about stereotypes and stigmas; historically, prejudice toward people struggling with mental illness has been unwarranted, and fostered unjust biases and discrimination. It’s a fine and delicate line to differentiate between harmless and dangerous mental disorders, but it’s still a line. The difficulty associated with the task of identifying the two shouldn’t mean we don’t even try.

Especially since in some cases it’s easy and obvious. The shooter on Sunday is a prime example.

Senseless and inexplicable mass shootings are nothing like the typical crime that comes to mind when we think of lawbreaking and criminal justice. Most normal crimes make very good sense, and their purposes are easily explained: a robber wants money, a burglar wants loot, a jealous husband wants vengeance, a car thief wants wheels, and so on.

Because those same outcomes can be achieved through legal means, normal criminals can be deterred or turned from their lawless ways and still get what they want. They can fear punishment more than they value criminal gains. They can work to earn money or buy a car rather than stealing it.

But for a person battling demons, as Sunday’s shooter was described by himself and those close to him, the voices in his head can become beyond the reach of deterrence, reason and alternatives.

A person for whom a normal day might be setting fires around town using oil-soaked tampons, or illegally toting a shotgun around on a bicycle while trespassing and taking pictures at a refinery, needs more than help–he needs protection from himself. Society also needs protection from him.

Sunday’s shooter left a legacy of arrests and convictions from coast to coast, including California, Nevada, Arizona, Texas, Oklahoma and New Jersey. His charges over the past 20 years (most of his adult life) include assault with a deadly weapon, battery, theft, unlawful gun possession, arson and domestic violence. His wives, sister, family and others knew he was mentally unstable.

Had there been a program in place to involuntarily commit that guy to a mental institution after his first violent weapons charge as a public threat, it would have been a no-brainer decision—and ultimately a lifesaving one for both him and his victims.

This isn’t about “bringing back the asylums.” It isn’t about looking backward at all. It’s about effectively confronting a modern reality, while also addressing valid concerns about mental health stereotyping.

Mental illness by itself falls way below any “predictive” threshold for criminality. The only time involuntary commitment should come into consideration is when mental illness becomes coupled with documented violent behavior, especially involving guns.

We can continue trying to keep all the nation’s firearms away from the few violent mentally ill people, and we will continue to fail.

Or we can start keeping those individuals away from society. And oftentimes, since many mass shooters also commit suicide, the lives saved would include their own.

Wrong education direction

Home to the nation’s largest school district, New York City is often influential on educational matters and thinking. Big mistake.

In the latest Census Bureau report, NYC’s education spending level at $25,199 per pupil exceeds the national average by 89 percent. When it comes to throwing money at students, the Big Apple has no peers. It spends more on teacher salaries and benefits than the total per-pupil expenditure of 44 other states.

When it comes to fourth-graders’ reading, however, there’s a tremendous disconnect between dollars and effect.

NYC isn’t anywhere near first in the nation in the latest National Assessment of Educational Progress reading proficiency scores. And even though big cities get graded on a curve, NYC isn’t anywhere near the top of that 27-city list, either. One out of four Big Apple fourth-graders can’t read proficiently at grade level.

Incredibly, despite our challenges in poverty and rurality, the average Arkie fourth-grader’s reading score was higher than the average New York City dweller’s. And Arkansas spends only $9,967 per pupil—60 percent less than NYC.

The normal value expectation would be that the more money spent would be tied somewhat to more performance output. That’s often been the education claim, anyway. But while NYC spends more than double on its students, their reading scores aren’t any better than ours. Indeed, the nation’s highest-spending school system’s fourth-graders get outscored by 46 states (and significantly so by 35 states).

With that kind of disparity between education investment and student literacy return, one might think NYC would be trying to figure out how to learn from other states and districts that spend a lot less and score a lot higher.

But no. NYC is hanging its hopes on implementation this year of a Culturally Responsive-Sustaining Education framework. The definition of CR-SE is overpopulated with all the latest “progressive” education jargon: The framework is designed to help create learning environments that “affirm racial identities,” “elevate historically marginalized voices” and “empower students as agents of social change,” among other things.

It references a “complex system of biases” that creates inequity and disadvantage based on “linguistic background, gender, skin color” and other characteristics or “identity markers.” CR-SE purports to promote and perpetuate “cultures, languages and ways of knowing that have been devalued, suppressed, and imperiled by years of educational, social, political, economic neglect and other forms of oppression.”

The CR-SE definition concludes (in appropriate eduspeak generality) with a commitment to “improving learning results” and “achieving dramatic gains in student outcomes.”

Not a word about teaching kids to read.

In the framework’s entire 64-page outline publication, which features guideline sections for students, teachers, school and district leaders, families and community members, and policymakers, the word “reading” appears only twice in text (both in one example of teaching method) and three times in bibliography titles.

No one reading this mishmash would think there was any problem with student reading scores, and certainly no emphasis on correcting the deficiency of education’s premier gateway skill.

On the contrary, the general attitude seems to downplay literacy, at least as traditionally understood, as one of the various forms of cultural oppression. One Staten Island high school teacher readily admitted to a Wall Street Journal reporter that she’d be fine if students graduated without ever being exposed to Shakespeare.

The list of phrases whose genesis can be traced back to the Bard is exceedingly long; the silliness of such a statement is that students already are and will continue to be exposed to Shakespeare. The question is whether they will be well-taught enough to know it.

And while there is merit to the basic notion of expanding the offering of classroom books and authors in terms of race and gender, that’s a meaningless gesture if students can’t read them.

Adoption of CR-SE required additional teacher training and professional development, of course, to teach teachers how to help students “see themselves in their lessons.”

In tandem with the CR-SE initiative, the NYC district was presented with a report from the city’s School Diversity Advisory Group called “Making the Grade: The Path to Real Integration and Equity for NYC Public School Students.”

Again, below-average literacy scores figure invisibly: in 118 pages, the word “reading” appears only three times. The report introduces 5Rs of Real Integration (as opposed to a fake variety, presumably): Race and Enrollment, Resources, Relationships, Restorative Justice, and Representation.

If the term “Restorative Justice” gave you pause, there’s a meaning clarification a couple of pages later: “Restore justice by interrupting the school-to-prison pipeline through community-building and appropriate responses to conflict.”

Conflict reached record proportions in NYC schools last year, which reported 17,991 violent and disruptive incidents, including 8,894 assaults, 3,073 weapons violations and 3,524 sexual offenses. With the highest incident rate in the state, the district is almost a prep school for prison.

There’s much to learn from watching NYC’s system, namely what not to do. Focusing on non-learning excuses inherently pulls attention from teaching fundamentals. That’s the wrong direction to correct stagnant test scores and stubborn violence.

A better direction: the opposite.

False educational god

If you haven’t read “My Pedagogic Creed,” you don’t know Dewey.

John Dewey (not to be confused with no-relation Melvil, who devised the library classification system) is universally recognized as one of the fathers of modern education. What history is more fully revealing him to be, however, is the sire of universal schooling’s greatest failing and bastard offspring: chronic illiteracy.

In the 4,076 words Dewey devoted in 1897 to his declared educational beliefs (each of the 73 paragraphs begins with “I believe”), the word “reading” appears only three times in two sentences—and in one it is negatively described: “I believe that we violate the child’s nature … by introducing the child too abruptly to a number of special studies, of reading, writing, geography, etc., out of relation to this social life.”

The word “social,” conversely, appears about 55 times.

It also serves as the principal pedagogical anchor to which teaching is tethered: “I believe, therefore, that the true centre of correlation of the school subjects is not science, nor literature, nor history, nor geography, but the child’s own social activities.”

A year later, in 1898, Dewey’s anti-literacy philosophy took a more frontal-assault approach in his essay “The Primary-Education Fetish.”

“There is … a false educational god whose idolaters are legion, and whose cult influences the entire educational system,” he wrote.

What was this unworthy golden calf and who were its classroom blasphemers? Language studies and elementary school English teachers.

The idea that “learning to read in early school life” was important foundationally, he suggested, was a “perversion” since young minds would struggle with the language nuances and rhetorical devices that make great literature great.

Besides, he also asserted, young eyes aren’t ready for the close-up detail reading requires. “The oculist tells us,” he wrote, “that the vision of the child is essentially that of the savage.”

Finally, learning to read at a young age reduced it to a mechanical action that lacks relevance to a child’s interests.

The legacy of Dewey’s dismissal of early reading as irrelevant drudgery is catalogued in the annual Kids Count Data Book and–just as he wished–two-thirds of America’s fourth-graders can’t read at grade level.

Significant problems arise today regarding continuing fidelity to Dewey’s “progressive” thinking about education.

First, the passage of time changes things, and what might have been progressive 100 years ago can actually become regressive today. Indeed, that was Dewey’s main argument against what he called “high literacy” in the first place.

He prefaces his entire premise on the claim that as American society had changed, it rendered traditional teaching methodology ineffective. He acknowledged that focusing the first three years of schooling on reading had been historically productive.

“It does not follow, however, that because this course was once wise it is so any longer. … [T]he fact that this mode of education was adapted to past conditions is in itself a reason why it should no longer hold supreme sway,” he wrote. What were those past conditions? The relative isolation of rural communities, in which the main distinction between the educated and uneducated person was the ability to read and write.

Dewey freely admitted that where such conditions still existed (and in 1898, there were many), his ideas had no meaning. But using old education methods in newer, more connected, more densely populated, more industrial environments would leave individual students “stultified, if not disintegrated; and the course of progress is blocked.”

“It is in education, if anywhere, that the claims of the present should be controlling,” he declared definitively.

Our present is now nearly 20 years into the 21st century, and it looks as different from Dewey’s 1898 America as his time did from the epoch of the Constitutional Convention.

So many assumptions he took for granted regarding general society, social structure, family constructs, community mores and morality, gender attitudes, race relations, et al., are themselves now relics of a former time. The fetish has now come full-circle: There is social overdose today, and literacy starvation.

By Dewey’s well-reasoned conclusion—that a revolution has taken place in “the relation which the intellectual activities bear to the ordinary practical occupations of life”—our education problems in 2019 can’t possibly be solved by the methods of his “bygone days.”

The over-saturation of information for children today, especially those in disadvantaged circumstances, creates its own intellectual poverty, not unlike that which Dewey himself said required early reading skills.

“If any escape existed from the poverty of the intellectual environment, or any road to a richer and wider mental life,” he wrote, “the exit was through the gateway of books.”

By books, Dewey meant classic humanities literature containing timeless principles and ideas, not the under-thought pulp churned out today that simply adds to the clutter.

Progressive thinking today would mean a turn away from the Old Education of Dewey’s then-modern dreams. He could not have envisioned the steady march of civilization producing so much more drug abuse and violent crime, so many more broken homes, so much less active parenting.

Without the gateway skill of reading, young schoolchildren can and do suffer insurmountable setbacks.

The false god whose cult needs undoing is Dewey.

Hometown reminiscence

Just days after saying hello and goodbye to old and often faraway classmates at my Walnut Ridge High School reunion, I was confronted with another farewell ripe with reminiscences.

“Bland family to sell The Times Dispatch,” was the headline in my hometown’s weekly newspaper.

The TD, as it’s nicknamed locally, is the quintessential community chronicle. For most people in Lawrence County for decades (almost 10 of them) it carried the distinguishing moniker of simply and ubiquitously being called “the paper.”

I first appeared in the paper as a kid, because The TD faithfully featured local school and sports coverage. Thus every manner of student news—from field trips, spelling bees and science-fair finalists to honor-roll mentions, clubs and athletes—was reported, and often photographed.

The TD also published local high school newspaper editions, and one of my first columns (perhaps the first) appeared in the Walnut Ridge High School publication The Cat’s Dispatch.

In local newspapers, the publishing family is often synonymous with the institution, and there was no truer example of this than the Blands, several of which I am most fortunate to have known professionally and personally.

The late James Bland Jr. (“Jim”) made my first journalistic byline a reality when he hired me as a part-time feature writer and reporter not long after I graduated college.

His late wife, Virginia, gathered social and society news for the “People” pages of the paper, perhaps the most scoured and scrutinized section, since it carried short family blurbs from every county precinct.

His son, John, went out on a limb a few years later and gave me my first weekly column-writing opportunity.

For the Bland family, the paper blurred all lines: It was their job, their business and their life. Across the generations, they were both part of the community and apart from it, as the voice of goings-on and the bearer of all news good, bad and ugly.

It was undoubtedly a labor of love, which it needed to be since it was a laborious vocation that eschewed regular hours but required immutable deadline routine. The news, as often as not, happened at night. And, ready or not, the paper’s weekly press time didn’t waver.

My time in The TD newsroom was inspiring in many ways, not least because it opened my eyes to the trust relationship at the heart of every successful weekly newspaper.

Readers weren’t simply customers, and they didn’t view the 50-cent publication in their hands each week as merely a purchase.

One observation by a longtime community journalist likened local small-town newspaper readers to stockholders; there’s almost an implied contract or covenant between them and the paper, and I saw it live and in person at an impressionable age.

People came in to The TD office to submit news, to buy ads and to pick up copies of that week’s edition–not transactionally, but relationally. They knew the Blands not only as operators of the paper, but also as neighbors and fellow church-goers, as civic club members and local shoppers and diners.

All these years later, I’m sure the same dynamic still plays out daily, right there on the same corner.

At the same time, there’s always been something subtly bigger than life about the local paper because it embodies a key national concept in a very Main Street sort of way.

Freedom of speech and of the press is found in the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights. The instrument maximizing that freedom in smaller places was historically the weekly newspaper, which created a performance standard and expectation above that of other normal commercial establishments in town.

Most of what small community residents touch has little direct connection with the U.S. Constitution. But the local newspaper is ordained as an entity of light to protect democracy at the grass-roots level.

Done well, community journalism is a powerful force for good in small towns. The paper connects, informs, educates and empowers local folks. It encourages, promotes and facilitates local commerce.

It’s a forum for public debate, a watchdog with boots on the ground (good luck ever finding an Internet journalist at the local courthouse), and a sole spotlight on the more rural outposts dotting low-population-density counties.

It’s frequently the face, spirit and soul of a small city, county or community.

Local papers are expected to tell it like it is, and at The TD, the publisher’s column was appropriately named “Frankly Speaking.”

In the final edition of that commentary, John and his sister Beth expressed profound gratitude to both readers and staff.

A Bland has been at the helm of The TD since 1921, and there’s a bittersweetness to seeing that 98-year era come to an end.

But all farewells are double-edged. Every goodbye makes us pause, think, appreciate.

To paraphrase A.A. Milne from Winnie the Pooh, how lucky we are to have something that makes saying goodbye so hard.

This goodbye, thankfully, is also followed by an immediate hello to the new owner of The TD, Paxton Media Group, who will be taking up and continuing the life’s work of a fine family.

Godspeed.