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Monday, June 16, 2014

Education, School and What they are Becoming

*Edit* Some of the links in this article have been added after it was published

According to The Lord's scriptures as defined by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, "The glory of God is intelligence, or, in other words, light and truth." (D&C 93:36)  God has given us a commandment to "seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom; seek learning, even by study and also by faith" (D&C 88:118) as well as to "study and learn, and become acquainted with all good books, and with languages, tongues, and people." (D&C 90:15)

So God expects us to learn, to get an education and gain as much knowledge as we can in this life.  What we have learned and become as people will be all that we can take with us when we die.  I'm going to use one more scripture and then get on to the point of this.  The Lord has even said "...if a person gains more knowledge and intelligence in this life through his diligence and obedience than another, he will have so much the advantage in the world to come." (D&C 130:19)

The reason I use these scriptures is that they illustrate the meat of what I want to get at.  We need to always be increasing our understanding of the truth about, well, everything.  Math, computer science, geology, language, psychology, chemistry, biology, the arts, nutrition, and a plethora of other subjects are all things we need to eventually come to comprehend fully; but even more importantly, we need to know the truth about it all.  If we are ever to reach our true potential as children of God, to become like Him, to know what He knows and be able to do things that He does, we need to know the truth about everything.

But this is where the problem lies in societies standards of learning today.  I have separated the words 'education' and 'school' in the title because I believe schools today are leaning further away from comprehension of true information and further towards filling our heads with static information for no other purpose than regurgitating it. Does this mean that all schools in any public or private schooling system involving a building is bad?  Good heavens no.  But what it does mean is that most the systems, public and private, are focusing too much on knowing and too little on application.  It takes the whole purpose of learning away.

Lets take a bit to remember what Hitler did to the school system in Austria.  Listen to this.  What this woman is describing is happening all over again in many societies today.  The government is taking far too much control over schools.  There is very little emphasis on learning and more emphasis on memorization.  Many elementary, middle and high schools, and even many colleges, are now treating their students like measuring sticks, statistics, lemmings to be controlled and indoctrinated, forced to agree with whatever the government and school officials see as acceptable.  With society's addiction to having all of life's answers spoon fed to them, there is far more push to read, memorize, regurgitate, repeat, over and over, without any meaning, pushing social interaction and real life application of the truth behind all this knowledge out the window.

Real human interaction is going down the tubes and a mostly inhuman approach to 'schooling' is now becoming more and more widely accepted as the new standards.  Do you know what happens when you take the humanity out of education?  In the first 14 days of school in 2014 there were at least 7 school shootings, and when you compare that to a total of 28 school shootings in 2013 all year, that gives you a better idea how well these schools are NOT doing at encouraging social and moral order.  Is this the fault of the schools?  Not entirely.  Many parents today just don't understand what it means to teach their children moral values.  Either that or they are so 'comfortable' in their own bad habits that they don't bother to teach their children to do any better.

I'm no expert on parenting, but I think it's safe to say, as a general rule of thumb, if parents aren't teaching good values in the home, it will carry over to all other aspects of life.  But that's not the end of it.  When school's punish the good kids for something as stupid as twirling a pencil, chewing a pop-tart into the shape of a gun, exposing a teacher who is abusing their students or any of these things, but at the same time allowing garbage like irresponsible teachers, punishing a kid for standing up to a bully, taking away parents rights to what values their children are taughtinviting students to question the validity of the holocaust and penalizing a teenager for getting evidence about being bullied, it's obvious that the level of bureaucracy behind these schools is suffocating human nature as it is meant to be.

This mom very clearly shows one of hundreds of examples of how far gone too many schools have become.  To illustrated this further, I'll refer to something I learned a while ago in a PC repair course.  RISC and CISC stand for Reduced and Complex Instruction Set Computing, respectively.

RISC would execute instructions for removing a dead light bulb like this.

Step 1: Open Hand.

Step 2: Proceed to move arm up until in contact with light bulb.

Step 3: Close hand around light bulb.

Step 4: Turn hand in a counter clockwise motion.

Step 5: Open hand

Step 6: Turn hand in a clockwise motion.

Step 7: Close hand

Step 8: Repeat steps 3-7 until light bulb is no longer in socket.

CISC would execute the same process like this.

Step 1:Raise hand until in contact with light bulb.

Step 2: Turn counter counter clockwise.

Step 3: Repeat step 2 until light bulb is no longer in socket.

What Common Core is doing is taking the concept behind RISC way too far.  It doesn't teach people the critical thinking skills vital for getting by in the real world.  It's spoon feeding information to people without teaching them to use their brains.  I realize many people feel very strongly about this subject so I'll end it there. But the point is the same.  Many school professionals are caring less and less about what education is supposed to be.

The dictionary defines the word educate as "1. To develop the innate capacities of, especially by schooling or instruction. 2. To provide with knowledge or training in a particular area or for a particular purpose..."

Notice that the first definition denotes school as the means to an end, developing innate capacities.  The whole purpose of school is supposed to be to help people develop skills and abilities and to put knowledge to good use, to use what is learned and truly understand how it applies to the world around us.  Education is supposed to be a way by which we understand the people and the world around us.  As long as schools and parents are treating education like a robotic process, this constitutes, to me, complete and total failure from both parties.

I went through the customary 12 years of public school and was fortunate enough to not be subjected to this mechanical process so unfairly enforced upon far too many people today.  For me there was no indoctrination of how I or anyone else should or shouldn't be allowed to view certain moral standards, no being forced to keep my religion quiet when an opportunity came to answer a question, no teachers enforcing policy over morality, no being punished for doing the right thing even if it made someone else uncomfortable.  I was not forced to stand and recite the pledge of allegiance, but not kept from doing it either.  If I ever had a question about class material my teachers would work with me as much as needed independently when they had time to help me truly understand it instead of just brushing me off and saying "Oh just read it again until you get it" or accusing me of not caring about the class or neglecting studies or saying "you would get it if you studied more."

I attended Colorado Mesa University (previously Mesa State College) for a year and got the same treatment there.  My professors made my education personal, useful and applicable to real life.  After I got married I couldn't afford to go back to any official public college so I educated myself in my chosen fields, music and web development. I poured over W3 Schools, TeamTreeHouse (subscription given to me as a birthday gift), web developer forums, and Youtube. My wife and I bought music theory books from a local college and other music stores and I studied them. I searched arduously for biographies of common practice composers and learned about their styles. I am subscribed to web design and development news letters that inform me of the industries latest updates, practices and technologies.

My main point in all of this?  Education is not nearly as much about learning as it is about comprehending truth. It's about making something of ourselves, interacting with others, sharing ideas, discovering together, exploring, exposing lies and living the truth.

Education goes so much deeper than just memorizing facts and information.  Please, educate yourself.  Do it however you want to.

But if your school isn't assisting in your education the way it was meant to be, it's no good to you.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Choices, not excuses. Self control, not self deception.

Politics, religion, parenting, FDA, NSA, human rights, health care and a plethora of other controversial issues today are so often sources contention, fear, anger, war, neglect, jealousy... the list goes on forever.  My aim with this post is to NAIL one thing that I believe needs to be admitted by all people everywhere in order for there to ever be a chance at peace in the human heart.  I refrain from saying peace on earth because whether or not there is peace on earth, the thing that matters so much more than world peace is peace in the human heart, regardless of our circumstances.  Now I understand that there are a number of important factors that make it much more difficult for some people to manage the choices they make than it is for others, disorders and diagnoses of conditions that limit, not eliminate, but significantly limit the amount of control someone has over their feelings.  But this article is to touch on those who are not significantly limited in their level of agency, their ability to choose right from wrong, who do not have chemical disorders that limit that kind of thing.

My wife always gets a little annoyed when I use movies to illustrate moral principles, but come on.  Spiderman, Harry Potter, The Fantastic 4 (1 and 2), Thor, Green Lantern, Rainman, Jon Q, Click,  the list goes on, and they all have really good messages behind the plots.  All these movies have so many fantastic parallels to real life moral absolutes and I'm much better at explaining anything to anyone using analogies than any other way.  I'm going to start this off by using a parallel from the Green Lantern movie.  For those who aren't familiar with the comics, the movie, or both I'll give a brief synopsis.

The movie is based around a Green Lantern corps made of beings from many different races all over the galaxy (or the universe, can't remember which, exactly) who wield the green light of Will using rings with the Green Lantern symbol on it.  The rings allow the bearers to form hard green light constructs of anything their heart desires, depending on the strength of their will power.  In DC Comic lore, it is considered to be the most powerful weapon in the universe.  There is also, however, another corps, the Yellow Lantern corps.  They wield the yellow light (with yellow rings) of fear and are able to form any hard yellow light construct they want depending on how much they can feed off of other people's fears.
Based on a Latter-Day Saint perspective on agency, the Green Lantern corps powers could be compared to Heavenly Father's plan, which is based on agency, and the Yellow Lantern corps power could be compared to Satan's plan, which is based on compulsion and fear.  The stronger the will power of the Green Lantern, the more powerful they are.  The more afraid they are, the weaker they get and the stronger the Yellow Lanterns get.  Comparatively, the less you are afraid and the more you exercise and strengthen your will power, the more control you have over yourself and the the less the adversary/devil has power over you.

I'm going to use one of my wife's favorite scriptures to illustrate this further.  It comes from 2 Nephi 2:14, "And because [we] are redeemed from the fall [we] have become free forever, knowing good from evil; to act for [ourselves] and not to be acted upon, save it be by the punishment of the law at the great and last day..."  In the movie, the yellow lanterns power grows when people succumb to fear and allow themselves to be acted upon.  In the same way, all people who fit the description I made at the beginning of this have the ability to overcome their fears, gain control over their beliefs, emotions, thoughts, words and actions and always act instead of being acted upon, or controlled by, well, anything.  People, circumstances, events, memories, habits the list goes on.

I am convinced that the single reason why there is not total world peace on earth today and, according to LDS doctrine, why there never will be until the earth is cleansed by the Savior and all the wicked are destroyed, is because the very fact that we are mortal means that every last one of us will always have moments of weakness where we allow ourselves to be acted upon instead of acting for ourselves. Just think about that for a bit.  When we allow ourselves to feel angry at someone for insulting, us, who has control of our mind, us or them?  When we fail at something and we feel worthless because of our perception of what failure means, what has control or our mind, us or the circumstance?  When a possession breaks or malfunctions, when the weather is bad, when that driver cuts us off in traffic or almost hits us, when we are lied to, what or who is in control, us or the situation or person?  I think the answer to these questions is obvious.  When we allow ourselves to have a bad attitude about anything or anyone, however trivial or monumental, we are giving up control of ourselves.

100%.

Totally.

Completely.

Willingly.

In those moments, we completely give up control. When we give up control, we choose to give up our ability to choose for that moment; And with addictions that choice ripples even further and robs us of our ability to choose down the road as well and allows the addiction to dictate what we think, believe and do rather than ourselves.

Okay, I wasn't even considering doing this in the beginning but I am going to now, because of how much it so DESPERATELY needs to be put out there.  I'm going to touch on two controversial issues on the front lines today;  And before anyone jumps to conclusions and says I'm being unrealistic with what follows, please read all the way to the disclaimer following the examples I use.  Please keep in mind I discuss these issues from an LDS perspective.

Situation number one.  Person 1 says they were born gay/lesbian, that they can't do anything about it, so they act on it and make all efforts mentally to try and snuff out any guilt they feel way deep down for doing the wrong thing.  Now, I'm as much of an expert of this type of thing as fire is cold, but as far as I know - and I have done a lot of reading about this subject matter - the scientific community has yet to come up with any determinate evidence that that being born that way is a real thing.  No one has found a homosexual gene, not one.  But I'm not saying it isn't possible for other reasons because, like I said, we have no determinate evidence.  But hear me out.  Based on the premise that this person is not born that way, I see only one reason why they would stuff out the reality that what they are doing is wrong.  Fear.  Fear of being wrong, fear of intense guilt, fear being rejected by others who base friendships on that particular sin, fear of the pain of change, even it is for the better, fear of confusion, fear of being uncomfortable in their own mind for heaven's sake.  All of these are completely legitimate fears.  Heck I'm afraid of change some times, afraid of confusion and more.  But the principle is the same.  If this individual could understand that they have more will power than they think they do, they could have so much more peace of mind, knowing that any weakness they have can be eliminated if the choose to act rather than be acted upon and oppressed by their own fear.  But, again, keep reading at least until the disclaimer.

Next subject. Person 2 was born into a family with a long history of alcoholism and anger management problems.  They were raised by a father who had a huge anger problem and was always drinking and the mother is never there, always finding a way to get out of the home for fear of the father going on one of his anger fits and hurting her.  Growing up, person 2 was always afraid of their father and learns from the his example to be angry all the time.  They are too fearful to direct this anger back at the father in an effort to get him to change so they direct the hurt, frustration and anger at the mother.  Take this situation or the reverse of it, having the mother being the one with the anger problem.  Either way, what I'm getting at with this one is this.  Even people who are programmed to act and think in a certain way by the way they were (or weren't) brought up, provided they still fit into the category I mentioned at the start, still have that ability to take control.  No, let me correct that.  They have all power to seize control of themselves, to say to their circumstances, in a manner of speaking,  "This is my body, my actions and my thoughts.  They are MINE.  I own my mind and I and I alone will determine what I do with it.  No one and nothing can take control of me.  One of the thing few things that no one can take from me is my right to choose who I am and who I become."

And they'd be absolutely, unequivocally correct.  In General Conference of October 1995 Elder Neal A. Maxwell said, in his talk "Swallowed Up in the Will of the Father", "One’s individual will thus remains uniquely his. God will not override it nor overwhelm it."  God has given us everything, EVERYTHING, in this world.  But the one thing that is truly and uniquely ours is our will.  No one, not even God Himself can take that from us or He would cease to be God.  We are totally responsible for how we choose to react, how we feel, what thoughts we entertain and act on, what and who we choose to believe and believe in and we have an obligation to take ownership of those things.

Many times we mistakenly assume that, in any number of situations, "I had no choice", "I had to do it", "There was no other option", "There's wasn't anything else I could do".  Okay, okay, if a biker gang had cornered me and said they were going to kill me right then and there and I had a weapon that would stop them, I most likely would use it.  I understand that there are some situations where there is only one option if you want to stay alive or something like that.  But notice those six words I just used, "if I want to stay alive".  If this biker gang had cornered me and it was truly my last moment, but I knew that I could die then and there with a clear conscience regarding my life as a whole, I would choose to die, because of the why, because of the end goal I had in making my choice.  If I want to indulge and be bad, then I had better choose to live a horrible life.  But if I want to be happy and be a good person and not be imprisoned by my own choices, I have better make good ones.

For those who are aching for the disclaimer, here it is.  Every choice we make is for a purpose, whether our motive/reason is to satisfy the natural mortal man, succumbing to our circumstances or other around us, or to choose the higher ground and choose to do what is right and keep control of ourselves, rather than to just take what seems like the easy way out.  But I will go as far as to admit that, many times, yes, it just looks dang near IMPOSSIBLE to make a different choice than the one we want to make.  So often seems impossible to overstate how difficult it is to choose to say something else or to choose a different thought, attitude, believe, desire, action, etc.  Wow does it ever seem impossible many times to make a different choice because our circumstances seem so intensely difficult and we feel enormous pressure from all sides and angles.

But, as has been said by prophets ancient and modern as well as many other religious and non-religious people through the ages, you'll never get anything in life that you can't handle. Let me amend that statement though.  You'll never get anything that you won't be able to handle the right way.  God (or life, if you're not religious) will never throw you something where you are not able to take command, seize control of yourself, and have one of the best natural moral highs of your life when it's all said and done, knowing that nothing in that situation took control of you, that you and you alone showed that you were charge and you just proved it beyond a shadow of a doubt.

A few quote's about will power that I to go into my last point:

William Penn said "'No man is fit to command another that cannot command himself."

Vince Lombardi said "I firmly believe that any man's finest hour, the greatest fulfillment of all that he holds dear, is that moment when he has worked his heart out in a good cause and lies exhausted on the field of battle - victorious."

Only in those moments, where we grit out teeth, squeeze out every last ounce of will power we have, block the entire world out if only for a split second, and make a choice to be a better person, even if it means suffering some pain, but come out on top, knowing that we didn't have anything left to give and that because of it, we are a better person and our conscience in 100% clear - only in those moments do we truly reach our potential for that moment.

To use a phrase from another movie, X-men: First Class, only when we have harnessed that level of focus that "lies somewhere between rage and serenity" and truly been the best we can, even with all the evil there is surrounding us, will we ever feel total and complete peace about ourselves and the world around us.  I think it's a small price to pay for that kind of peace.  I really don't think most people truly comprehend the power of self-control.  More people need to.

I hope with everything in me that I can be like that one day, and I trust that with God it will happen eventually, but until then I'm just like the rest of you reading this.  I'm prone to making mistakes every day, screwing up, doing the same dumb things over and over again, being so far off of reaching this ideal state of being I have been going on about here.  I succumb to fear all the time.  But I still know I CAN do better and it's entirely up to me to do that.  I will get there one day if I keep trying, if I never give up, and so can you!

To end, I'll use all that I've said to this point to go back to the original goal of this post, to NAIL one thing that I believe needs to be admitted by all people everywhere.  Everyone in this world who fits into the category I mentioned at the beginning needs to admit, boldly, assertively, and without shame, as the silver surfer said at the end of the Fantastic 4 movie,

"There is ALWAYS a choice".

Sunday, June 1, 2014

The Power of Music. Well, mainly Piano, but you’ll see why.

 "After silence, that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music." -Aldous Huxley

When my family bought a piano when I was about 8, my mom was pretty quick to find a piano teacher and get my brothers and I in piano lessons.  She is an absolutely fabulous violinist herself, she had a good sense of the value of musical education and she made sure I had that same sense ingrained in me.  I can never ever hope to be able to repay her for those hundreds - no, probably thousands - of dollars spent on lessons throughout my childhood.  No amount of money could ever repay her for the result from those lessons.  The only reason I stopped was because my teacher moved and I don't think that the guy she passed us on to wasn't very good at teaching.   Either way, by the time Karen Stoody moved away I had developed a love and understanding of music, especially piano, that I am confident will never diminish (although I did get pretty good at a few other instruments as well in high school).

Now.  On to why I am even writing about this.  The quote I used above in that picture is worth repeating again.  "After silence, that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music."  Aldous Huxley nailed it there.  I can say way more with page of music than I can say in an hour of spoken english or in a 5000 word blog post.  So my reason behind this post?  To illustrate the power of music, but more specifically, piano.

Why piano? I'll start off with the technical side of it. Learning to play piano forms connections in the brain that no other activity - heck, no other instrument - can.  There are certain types of movements your hands will make as well as a level of hand/eye/ear coordination required that I guarantee you can't get anywhere else.  There are things you will do with your hands in Mozart's Sonata in B flat Major K333, for example, that you must be able to have a near perfect balance and control between the left and right hands, the left being hand being as easily controlled as the right hand.  When both hands work together completely independently - as well as interdependently - both sides of the brain get used to thinking that way too.

I was once teaching a piano student about music theory and bare bones of the rules behind how music is composed who said something like, "Wow, so the notes aren't all just slapped on the page in random spots?"  I explained that there is a VERY detailed, organized and even highly mathematical clockwork to the theory behind how music works.

The beauty behind it, however, comes when you can learn all the 'rules' behind music composition and then take those rules and use them and manipulate them to form an infinite variety or melodies, harmonies, textures, moods, etc.  I think it would be similar to taking the equation on a line or curve in algebra and adding variables, powers, and such as well as and tweaking the constants to make the shape of the resulting graph into an infinite variety of shapes and behaviors.  

One of the biggest technical benefits of piano is that once you understand the theoretical side clearly, there is pretty much no limit to what you can create (click here to get an idea of just how many possibilities there are).

But what does this have to do with forming those connections in the brain that I mentioned earlier?  In the above picture, imagine there's a line drawn from 'MATHEMATICS' to 'IMAGINATION', from 'SEQUENCING' to 'RHYTHM', from 'ANALYSIS' to 'DAYDREAMING' and from 'LOGIC' to 'INTUITION'.  Drawing those lines, in a manner of speaking, is what piano does to the brain.  Every time you practice scales, chords, arpeggios and other technical exercises in all keys and forms, the constant and deliberate repetition of those exercises develops your level of mental control over distinct and separate muscle movements, dynamic levels, intonation and more between the two hands.  You need an objective approach to be able to interpret many different musical concepts at once, to dissect all the notes, rhythms, intonations, dynamics, tempos and all other technical information to fit it all into a piece of music.   However, you also need a more subjective approach to have a good sense of the mood and artistry you, or the composer of the piece, are trying to create.  What little ornamentations or unwritten nuances need to be emphasized in a given piece?

The more your mind is conditioned to this type of coordination and interdependent thinking, you will find yourself applying the same concepts, eventually without even realizing it, into other aspects of your life.  You will probably find yourself able to think much more quickly and efficiently but also more accurately, critically and constructively as well, taking into consideration each different part of a situation in deep detail but also seeing how all the parts fit together to make the whole more clearly than before.
For more information on this side of the subject matter, click here or here.

I said earlier that I would make this mainly about the power of piano, but, to be fair, I can't really do justice to the non-technical, mental, emotional side of music without considering all instruments.  I'm not going to make a list of them here because I have personally had life changing lessons taught and or reaffirmed in my mind and heart by music played by too many instruments mention here.  A very short list of the music that has significantly influenced my life in any way:


Mormon Tabernacle Choir's performances of The Impossible Dream (my favorite is the one with just the Choir) and This is The Christ.


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Beethoven - The Waldstein (1st movement and 3rd movement)

[edit - also added in 2015]
O Holy Night, the way my wife sings it.
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As Boyd K. Packer of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles said, "Those who choose, conduct, present, and accompany the music may influence the spirit of reverence in our meetings more than a speaker does" as well as "An organist who has the sensitivity to quietly play prelude music from the hymnbook tempers our feelings and causes us to go over in our minds the lyrics which teach the peaceable things of the kingdom. If we will listen, they are teaching the gospel, for the hymns of the Restoration are, in fact, a course in doctrine!".

The First Presidency has also said in the Preface of the Hymn Book, "Music has boundless powers for moving families toward greater spirituality and devotion to the gospel. Latter-day Saints should fill their homes with the sound of worthy music."

One of my favorite parts of one of my favorite movies, August Rush, also illustrates the power of music well.  The part I'll refer to is right after Wizard discovers how almost inhumanly gifted Evan is and they are just talking.

"Wizard: You know what's out there? A series of higher tones. It's arranged by nature. It's governed by the laws of physics, of the whole universe. It's an overtone, it's an energy, it's a wavelength.  And if you're not riding it, good Lord, you'll never hear it.

August: Where do you think it comes from? What I hear.

Wizard: I think it comes from all around you, really. I mean, it's -- Comes through us, some of us.  It's invisible, but -- But you feel it.

August: So only some of us can hear it?

Wizard: Only some of us are listening."

I echo that with all the enthusiasm I can summon here, ONLY SOME OF US  ARE [REALLY] LISTENING.  Music can change the heart and mind of anyone, many times whether they want it to or not.  It can be a powerful force that can change our very nature for the good, if we let it.  It can have a power over the human soul that can only come from God Himself, in all His genius design of what music is.

Before she moved, Karen gave me a little framed plaque or sign of sorts that simply has a staff with notes and clefs artistically designed as a border with a piano in the middle area and a quote that says "Long after the toys of childhood are forgotten, the gift of music will remain."  My brother Brian bought me a binder of Jon Schmidt piano sheet music for Christmas before I left for my two year mission for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. I remember as I realized what it was when I opened it, my dad, in response to the look on my face, said something along the lines of "speechless, for once!" (lol i admit he was justified in that comment).

I have treasured gifts like these to this day and have always thought of them as a reminder of what music really is to me,

A pure, constant, unchanging and unfailing source of food for the soul, love, and inspiration.