Success in Education

The first time that someone asked me if I wanted to go to college, I was in middle school. That someone was a teacher. I thought for a moment and answered “yes,” then went home that afternoon and told my parents. I remember them taking a bit of a deep breath, and then encouraging me. No one that I knew in my family at the time had graduated from college.

I went to bed that night and thought nothing else of it until somewhere around my sophomore year in high school, when things like advanced placement and honors classes began. Then the adventure was underway.

As I said in a recent podcast episode, I’m a case study in not knowing what you want to be when you grow up. My freshman year in college I was a music major. Then I dropped out altogether for a semester and went back to a different school as a communications major, eventually declaring theatre as a second major, and graduating with a psychology minor. Then I went to grad school for religious studies, and ended up working as a programmer, and eventually a manager of programmers. So, my higher education was a circuitous route through the humanities that eventually ended up with the acquisition of some hard technical skills much later (and which, incidentally, I acquired at an arts school). The thing is, though, that I could never have gotten where I’ve been professionally without that humanities education. The things that I learned in communication studies (being required, for example, to take two courses in listening), the things that I learned in theatre as a director, the leadership theory that I learned in grad school….have all served as a foundation beneath the technical skills that I’ve acquired later. Without them, I couldn’t have made sense of where in the world those technical skills fit in, to say nothing of being able to relate and communicate with the people (much smarter than I) that I lead every day.

Which sort of brings me to my point.

I read this column a few days ago about the most regretted and lowest paying degrees. As you might guess, the data that this report cites indicates that most people surveyed regret degrees in the humanities, because, as a rule, they pay less. I think the data is likely skewed, as the purpose of the column is clearly to focus on “return on investment,” approaching higher education as a business proposition. I’m not without sympathy to that, given the cost of a university degree. I believe, though, that we’re doing ourselves a dis-service to let the conversation end there.

If you read to the end of the column, you’ll see two words that really summarize the issue for me: “critical thinking.” The author reports, to his credit, opinions from “humanities specialists” that degrees in the humanities foster the critical thinking skills necessary to adapt to a wide variety of vocations, instead of being narrowly focused on a single field.

I can say without hesitation that the critical thinking skills that I learned in my humanities education, both undergrad and graduate, have been more important in my life than the technical skills that comprised a small sliver of my education. I can also say without hesitation that I would not grasp the technical skills at as meaningful a level without those critical thinking skills.

I also think that it only takes a casual look around our everyday lives, even a cursory glance at the headlines or a social media feed, to see a void of critical thinking skills. I would argue that the rampant conspiracy theories and hatred we feel toward each other as our nation collapses in on itself is the direct result of a lack of critical thinking skills. This deficiency, in turn, is the result of education being treated as a business model, in which the prioritized outcome of a degree is the income that it will allow you to earn. Higher education, however, is so much more than that. The academy is where people learn who they are, what their views on art, on religion, on politics, on relationships, on…everything…are. Without those fundamental belief structures in place, we’re just doing things. Rushing but getting nowhere. We’re just busy. We’re just making stuff up as we go.

Make stuff, earn money, repeat.

The end result is using those technical skills to make things without stopping to consider whether or not we should. Not all progress is progress. If we use income as our only barometer for success, and if that continues to lead to a decline in studying the humanities, our collective humanity may well be a casualty.

Toward Not Raging Against the Machine

I was introduced to the band Rage Against the Machine by a co-worker with whom I shared an office many, many years ago. They weren’t my kind of music, but I recognized why she would be into them. She was angry, and had reason to be. I remember thinking that there was much against which she felt rage.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about culture wars, although that’s become a bit of a cliche term. I imagine that you have, as well, because it’s sort of difficult not to. The one constant that I seem to find around me, from extended family conversations to (anti)-social media, to interactions with colleagues, is that everyone is angry. And, like my co-worker from so many years ago, they have reason to be. A lot of people have died over the last two years. A virus revealed just how much we all seem to only care about ourselves. Politics have thrown any sort of economic stability into question. An autocrat has launched a war of attrition.

Perhaps I’m guilty of rose-colored glasses, but when I was in seminary I spent a lot of time thinking that these are the sorts of events…and confluences of events…into the occasions of which the Church should rise. Regardless of denomination or disagreement in minutiae, we are presented with an opportunity to care for the sick, the bereaved, the wounded. Instead, we seem to be doing what everyone else is doing: screaming louder than the next person in order to be heard, defining ourselves by what we stand against instead of what we stand for, trying to force others into our mindset, and refusing to interact with them if they do not comply.

The Church is currently just as, and likely more, guilty than anyone else of not exercising basic common sense, not taking time to analyze statements to determine if they are truth or lies. Many in the Church have chosen allegiance to leaders over allegiance to God, channeling rage instead of attempting to walk in the light.

Instead of choosing to be confrontational, instead of fighting culture wars, the Church needs to choose a much more basic, yet profound, way of existing. A Biblical way of existing that’s explicitly laid out for us:

“He has shown you, O man, what is good;
And what does the Lord require of you
But to do justly,
To love mercy,
And to walk humbly with your God?”

Micah 6:8, NKJV

I’m thinking through this because I’m just as guilty as anyone else of anger. I too find myself raging: against the loss of what could have been, against a broken system, against all of things at which one can be angry. I’m just as guilty of letting that rage drive my decisions, and poison my interactions.

If I were to spend more time acting justly, loving mercy, and walking humbly with God, how would that impact those around me?

What if all of the Church were to do this?

Imagine how much better this could be.

A Review of “Thor: Love and Thunder”

I’ve been unpacking the realization that the MCU has been declining in quality lately. I don’t think that this is because of the quality of acting (most of the actors have been outstanding), or lack of aspiration. I can see the desire to fold in the many aspects of the comics history, and there is brilliance…even if it is a bit of a deus ex machina…to utilize the multiverse as a device to do so. And while films like Spider-Man and the most recent Dr. Strange have been exceptions, I’ve felt let down by most of the other films and series over the past few months. Moon Knight and Ms. Marvel both failed to achieve their potential. Eternals was the first Marvel film that I couldn’t bring myself to even finish it was so bad.

I had no respect for Ragnarok, but I also hoped…naively…that even Taika Waititi couldn’t destroy Thor worse than he had in that film. My hope proved it’s naiveté. Ragnarok did so much violence to the character and displayed such a blatant disrespect for the genre that, had I not been seeing it with a friend, I would have walked out. Love and Thunder continued that pattern.

What confuses me most about these travesties of films is, why would the powers that be for the MCU, who have shown such a dedication to quality, continuity, and good art up until this point, allow someone who obviously has no respect for the genre to write and direct? And to continue to write and direct one of their most popular characters, at that? Both of these films are taking a character that was developed in a deep and compelling way in previous films, and using that character to openly mock the storyline and the genre itself.

What disappoints me the most about these films is that Thor is one of my favorite characters, and we finally had the opportunity to see Jane Foster take on the mantle of Thor. We could have had a brilliant film about Jane, her struggles, her desire to be, and her growth into, a hero. Instead we have…whatever this film was.

In Ragnarok, Waititi casually and carelessly disregarded previous continuity. He broke Thor’s speech patterns, altered his character by stripping away his bravery and ethical code, and cast characters as gods that had been previously been considered only aliens, thus altering a fundamental foundation of the cinematic universe. Because the other directors and writers of the MCU are still committed to continuity, they had to work with the mess Waititi had left them (which is why so-called “fat Thor” was such a blight on the otherwise fantastic Infinity War and Endgame films). These fracture lines continue to weaken the other films in painful ways.

In Love and Thunder, the passionate dislike for the genre that is evident in the storytelling extends to a more general irreverence for everything, but particularly for religion. As much as Waititi obviously dislikes the genre, he seems to hate religion even more, and has presumed to re-write the characters here to fit his vendetta. There’s nothing worse than art with an agenda, and, as terrible a film as Ragnarok was, this makes Love and Thunder even worse. Essentially, the bulk of the film is so-called comedy with the intention of callously mocking absolutely everything.

The scenes that aren’t comedy are melodrama, over-the-top emotional events that aren’t earned. They throw the audience into a confused emotional spiral because there has been no lead-up, no explanation aside from a few lines thrown in as after-thoughts. It’s painful, emotional whiplash, and I suspect that the laughter I did hear in the audience was as much confusion as anything else, because it was difficult to track anything over these 2 hours.

I really wanted to like a move with a Guns N’ Roses soundtrack, and, if I’m to find anything positive in this mess, it’s that I have respect for scoring an action sequence to Slash’s guitar solo from “November Rain.” Soundtrack excellence notwithstanding, the action sequences were chaotic, and chaos seems to have been the goal.

Love and Thunder continues to perpetuate the damage done in Ragnarok, potentially to an un-recoverable point. The film doesn’t know what it wants to be, other than to be over-the-top at the expense of quality. Its purpose is to get a cheap laugh or tear at any cost. After seeing the (un-earned) death of a character we care about, we’re told in the end credits that “Thor will return.” I almost wish that weren’t the case at this point. I sincerely hope that, if he (or she) does, it will be with a different artistic direction, because that is all that will save this particular franchise.

If you haven’t seen Thor: Love and Thunder yet, save yourself the pain and read a synopsis. Believe me, that will be bad enough.

Image attribution: edenpictures under Creative Commons.

Full Circle – Losing a Pet

My family had a handful of pets as I grew up. I’ve written recently about a beloved dog, but we also had others. I grew up in a fairly rural area. I remember when our dog died, my father went to the tree line in our back yard, picked a spot, and dug a small grave for that beloved friend. I’m glad that we stood there…a small, graveside ceremony of sorts…laying to rest the pet that we had all loved so much. It provided some closure, which is important in the grief process.

I was thinking about this recently as I woke one Sunday morning to discover that my daughter’s hamster had died. His name was Pepper, and he was her first “real” pet (I say real because I don’t think we really count a Betta fish). His passing didn’t come as a surprise, necessarily…he had lived a good, long life, and hadn’t been doing well for a few days. Medicine from the vet didn’t seem to be helping. She took it hard…and saying that is a bit of an understatement. There was a day of grieving, and, I’m going to be honest, it hit me a bit harder than I thought it would. I loved that little guy. When our daughter would have him out to play, she would bring him up to me and he would brush his nose on mine. It was a family joke. His last evening with us, he did just that. As it turned out, it was one last time, perhaps a “goodbye.”

Our daughter picked out a box and we purchased it…a sort of tiny casket in which to lay him to rest. She painted a huge red heart on the top. The image of the box with that heart on it has stayed with me…a little animal’s life and a girl’s enormous love for him captured in one symbol. I told her later how proud I was of her for loving him so much, and for giving him such a great life.

That afternoon, we were in the yard together as a family. I had a shovel in hand. Just as my father had done decades ago, I dug a (much smaller) grave and my daughter laid her beloved hamster to rest there. As a family, we paid our respects.

As my life came to this surreal full circle…doing what my dad had done for me so long ago…I reflected on grief. I think we shun grief as a culture…almost as though we’re obsessed with eternal youth…and so we don’t engage it. It’s important to engage it, though, because that’s how we handle it in a healthy way. Grief is a difficult lesson to learn, because the only way to learn it is to experience it. We don’t want that, because we’re reacting to a state of being that is contrary to how we were designed to exist. Yet, deal with it we must.

My daughter handled it very well. She’s moved on now because we engaged the grief, and we worked toward some closure.

But it still hurt.

I’ll miss that little guy.

A Review of “Dr. Strange in the Multiverse of Madness”

These are different times.

As much as I love superhero mythologies and as much as I could talk about them forever, it seems out of step that it’s taking me this long to write a review about a movie that opened nearly a month ago. Before the world broke, I wrote about these films on opening weekend because we had scheduled everything else around seeing them. For the last two years, it’s been rare for me to sit in a theatre (the last time was Back Widow), and writing out my thoughts has seemed…less important. So, seeing this in person was a mark of returning normalcy. Given how late I am in writing this, though, I’m not going to avoid spoilers.

First off, let me say that there are some prerequisites for this film. If you’ve been following the Disney + series, and have seen Spider-Man: No Way Home, you should be good. In case you haven’t though, you should (in order) watch WandaVision, What If?, Loki, and Spider-Man. Otherwise, this might not make much sense to you, because the last time you saw Wanda Maximoff, she would not have been the villain.

Yes, you read that correctly.

What slapped me in the face for this movie is that everything that you thought you knew from the trailer is turned on its head in the first 15 minutes. Dr. Strange made some difficult decisions in order to defeat Thanos, and those choices introduced even more loss for Wanda. We saw her grief overtake her in WandaVision, walked through that grief with her, and when we last saw Wanda, she was growing into her own abilities by entertaining the Darkhold. Remember that Wanda is a Scarlet Witch, a wielder of chaos magic, and, as such, has become an incredibly powerful being almost overnight. Also remember that the Darkhold corrupts those who read it. Here we discover that she has learned of the multiverse, and is searching for a way to bring her children into the universe we know as canonical in the MCU (numbered 616). Moreso than when we left the end of WandaVision, we discover the Scarlet Witch quite literally mad with grief.

As an aside, I think a good deal of inspiration for this plot was taken from the Avengers: Disassembled story arc, if you’re familiar with the source material.

For the geeks among us, we also find that the MCU is differentiating heavily between sorcery and witchcraft. Wong confirms that a Scarlet Witch is a being of unspeakable power, who can re-write reality at will. In Avengers: Disassembled, Dr. Strange points out that Wanda, as a mutant, had an enormous amount of magical power thrust onto her without ever learning the discipline necessary to control it. Of course, we haven’t been able to have mutants in the MCU until now because lawyers, but it provides interesting context.

That said, what Marvel seems to be doing here is finding a creative way to bring in not only popular previous films (i.e.: other Spider-Man incarnations), but also to explain why we haven’t had mutants to begin with now that the legal walls in the real world seem to be coming down (hence, we see Charles Xavier in this film). There are simply different universes in the multiverse, and we now know that there can be potential incursions from one to the other due not only to the magic wielded in this movie, but also by the actions of Kang in the Loki series. I think the viewers stand to see a lot more variety due to this.

The visual effects in this movie are nothing short of spectacular, particularly the initial action sequence in which Dr. Strange is fighting a monster rampaging through the city, as well as later jumping between universes. Also, introducing Professor X and Mr. Fantastic into the MCU was accomplished so unexpectedly and almost with a backward wave that the viewer is left in a sort of stunned silence. I want to re-watch the movie now because I’m certain I missed something important here as I was processing what I had just seen.

What I found to be the most thought-provoking part of the story of this second installment of Dr. Strange is watching how other heroes interact with Stephen Strange. As he makes continued, apparently callous decisions in an effort to preserve countless lives across universes (similar to what we saw in Spider-Man: No Way Home), his actions have enormous consequences on his fellow heroes. While Peter Parker rejects this outright and fights to save as many people as he can in the previous film, Wanda turns inward, propelled by grief, holding Dr. Strange responsible for the death of Vision and the loss of her children, and lashing out with violence.

Speaking of violence, there’s a good deal of it in this movie…more than in previous Marvel films, which, while not enough to be off-putting, was enough that I noticed. I haven’t found Disney to be interested in gore in any way, but some scenes of this movie manage to get close.

There are definitely things that I dislike about the film, though, and one of them is the ending. Dr. Strange turns to dark magic, in fact to the Darkhold, using necromancy to win the battle in the end. And, while Wanda ultimately sees the error of her choices and chooses to sacrifice herself for the greater good as a hero, I’m concerned by watching heroes cross the line into dark choices and leaving the audience with the impression that this is a heroic decision. I found this part of the plot disappointing, as Dr. Strange defies the nature of a hero. I also feel like Wanda’s sacrifice happened so quickly that it’s almost missed. I didn’t truly unpack the emotional ramifications of that scene until days later, and, while few characters really die in the comics, I still grieve over the end of a tragic character we’ve grown to sympathize with so deeply.

Overall, I was impressed by Dr. Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, even though I wish the ending had been handled better. This takes the story in the only direction it could truly go as the MCU continues to reinvent itself after the Snap, and we see the character development here that keeps us returning to these movies. This is definitely a movie worth seeing, and I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Image attribution: Luka Zou under Creative Commons.