Why I Teach For America

Many Americans accept educational inequality as an unsolvable, self-perpetuating economic quandary. Children in low-income areas (most of them children of color) receive substandard education, find substandard jobs, follow substandard career paths, and live in low-income areas where their children follow the same substandard pattern. And that’s if they attain jobs and careers at all. Children in these areas are many times more likely to go to jail or die an early death than their (mostly white) counterparts in middle- and high-income areas. While this entrapping financial spiral is tragic, the greatest travesty lies beyond economics: education and learning are essential, not only to a successful career, but also (and more importantly) to a complete, satisfying, happy life.

My own passion for learning and insatiable curiosity have given me such a life. In high school, I applied for an Idaho Public Television internship in the Idaho Capitol. Covering committee hearings and floor debates sparked my intense interest in politics and rhetoric that continues to this day. Three years later, I left on a two-year church mission to Taiwan, curious about the world and hoping desperately to find faith in God. My doubts only increased, but despite this challenge, I returned with a deep understanding of a new language and culture, and with the confident assurance that I could sacrifice personal wants and dedicate myself to a single cause from sunup to sundown, seven days a week. Two years ago, spurred on by my love of political rhetoric and a desire to stretch myself, I applied for and accepted the position of Editor-in-Chief with The BYU Political Review. Frantic editing and all-night publishing sessions before monthly deadlines became stepping-stones for some of my most meaningful conversations and deepest friendships.

Through these experiences, it has consistently been my parents and my teachers who inspire and challenge me to learn and grow.

Last year, as I was approaching graduation and still entirely unsure of what I wanted to do in life, I heard about Teach For America. At the time, I was mildly attached to the idea of law school—that great catchall for vaguely ambitious students with undergraduate degrees as useless as mine. While studying for the LSAT, I discovered that two good friends of mine—both brilliant, ambitious, and capable—were applying to Teach For America. I read the flyers, met with the recruiter, and perused the website.

Teach For America (TFA) takes a two-pronged approach at addressing educational inequality in America. The first step is to recruit a critical source of ambitious, altruistic, energetic, accomplished individuals (most of them recent college graduates) with a strong record of leadership experience. TFA coaches these individuals (called Corps Members) through an intensive summer training program and helps to place them in low-income area schools throughout the country. Once placed, these Corps Members teach for a minimum of two years.

The second step is the natural result of the first. Affected by their experience with TFA and in teaching, many Corps Members continue to work in the field of education. Others go on to work as lawyers, doctors, politicians, scientists, etc., but, changed by their experiences, Corps Members promote positive and effective social and political reform aimed at eliminating educational inequality regardless of their profession.

Inspired, I cancelled my LSAT registration and began my application within a few days. I joined Teach For America because it represents the best and most effective opportunity I have to instill in others the same passion and love of learning that has brought me so much joy. I joined so I could teach.


Give ’em What They Want

Someone asked me recently why so many of my posts deal with religion. It’s a fair question, considering religion comes last in my tagline.

When I began blogging more frequently, I had actually envisioned spending quite a bit more time discussing East Asian politics, Chinese history and literature, Sino-American relations, and other China-related topics that my education gives me somewhat more authority to discuss. I’m no foreign policy expert, and my Chinese isn’t at the point where I peruse PRC white papers over breakfast, but I thought with my penchant for things Chinese and my mild ability to relate international affairs to practical living, maybe my readers would find it worthwhile.

To my dismay, however, my few posts on Chinese culture and sayings are among my least popular posts. Even recent and flippant posts like “Weiner’s Weiner” have received more all-time hits than “Pulling Shoots to Help Them Grow“, which is still one of my favorite posts.

Judging by my stats page, what readers really want are abrasive rants on religion. My posts on religion receive many, many more on-site views, comments, and syndicated views than posts on any other subject. And the more I stray from dispassionate reasoning and toward impassioned raving, the more hits and feedback I receive.

So why do I write about religion so frequently? Here’s half the answer:

STIRFRIES hits per day. The arrows indicate new posts (red for religious posts and green for other posts).


And here’s the other half: I was taught to pray before I learned to ride a bicycle. I know more religious songs than most people know secular ones. I graduated from a 4-year religious seminary and attended a religious university where part of my general education was regular classes in scripture and doctrine. I spent two years as a missionary in Taiwan, where I was taught to feel guilty if I thought about anything BUT religion. And all told, I have spent over a year of my life inside a church building—and that’s excluding classrooms at BYU, all of which are dedicated to God and most of which are used for religious observance on Sundays.

Since I was a child—and until only very recently—my social and family life has revolved around religion. Doubting Thomas and perpetual critic that I am, I have spent thousands of hours considering the role of religion in my life, in society, in human history, its benefits, its drawbacks, its consequences, its veracity.

Religion is what I know. More specifically, doubting religion is what I know. If a few hundred hours of study and a piece of paper that says I know Chinese language, literature, and culture qualify me to comment on Sino-American anything, then a lifetime of theological study, indoctrination, and private criticism give me the right to say a few words about religion.

Weiner’s Weiner

In case anyone missed it, I was right. It WAS Weiner’s weiner after all.

This afternoon, Rep. Anthony Weiner (of recent weiner fame) finally admitted that it really was his weiner in the tweeted photo.

In a statement, Mr. Weiner said, “To be clear, the picture was of me and I sent it. I am deeply sorry for the pain this has caused my wife Huma and our family, and my constituents, my friends, supporters and staff.”

Apparently realizing that denying this incident only made it worse, he also indicated that this is not the only lewd photo he has shared with women on the internet. He denies any extramarital affairs, but multiple women have claimed to have received dozens, if not hundreds, of texts, photos, and even phone calls from Mr. Weiner.

Am I surprised? No.

Should you be surprised? No.

Should this be news? Sure.

Ironically, his constituency (slightly more conservative than most of their neighbors) might be one of the few in New York City where extramarital sexting DOESN’T increase his street cred–and, by extension, his electability. He’s been in office since 1999 and is up for re-election in 2012. We’ll see if it matters.

That MIGHT Just Be My Weiner

Rep. Anthony Weiner

All he had to do was say ‘no’.

Instead, Rep. Anthony Weiner indicated that he cannot say “with certitude” whether the bulging underpants in the lewd photo sent from his Twitter account are actually his.

Which is to say that the photo is most certainly of Mr. Weiner—and also that Mr. Weiner is an idiot.

Does the weiner in question belong to Mr. Weiner?

The photo (which you can see here if you don’t mind looking at men in underpants) was sent to Gennette Cordova, a 21-year-old college student in Seattle. It’s a top-down shot taken from about shoulder height and only shows an obviously aroused man in gray underwear.

Either Mr. Weiner has taken a photo like this or he hasn’t. That he says he can’t tell “with certitude” whether it’s a photo of him is politician for “I have taken photos of myself in exactly that position.”

So the photo is definitely of him. Otherwise, there is absolutely no reason not to deny it.

Did Mr. Weiner send the photo, or was his account hacked?

Mr. Weiner joked about his account being hacked and has since insisted that he’s looking into the incident privately, calling the incident “a prank”.

Again, Mr. Weiner is lying (poorly). In order for someone to hack his twitter account, someone relatively close to him would need to find the picture on his personal device (laptop/camera/phone/whatever) and either upload it from there or steal the file and upload it from somewhere else. If this were the case, Mr. Weiner would have been immediately outraged that someone (presumably on his staff) would illegally rifle through personal files and publicly embarrass him to this extent. The possibility that this could be a career-ending embarrassment alone should have sent him into a fury. That it did not, and that he is treating it like a private prank, should be evidence enough that he made a stupid mistake, got caught, and is doing an amusingly poor job of covering it up.

I’m entertained to no end. But it could be worse. Instead of Anthony’s weiner, we could be reading about Barney’s frank.

Protesting at the Statue of Liberty

Mostly because she is awesome (and only partly because she is a compulsive planner), my girlfriend managed to snag tickets to the crown of the Statue of Liberty back in December. Of course, purchasing tickets to the crown has to be done 6 months before you you actually want to visit, so it was a miracle when we got up Saturday morning to warm weather and sunny skies.

Climbing to the top of the crown in the cramped metal staircase was an interesting ordeal by itself, but it was well worth the while. Amaris and I got to spend about 20 minutes in the crown with nobody but the park ranger to keep us company.

And he was actually decent company. Next to his little metal chair, he kept a book of old photographs of the statue. Most interesting were those pictures of protests back before they cut down on the number of visitors.

I thought I’d reproduce some of those stories and pictures here for your entertainment:

August 23, 2001

French stuntman Thierry Devaux tries to land on the statue and bungee jump from the flame. Instead, he gets caught and has to wait for police to rescue him.

December 26, 1971

Members of Vietnam Veterans Against the War barricade themselves for 2 days inside the crown of the Statue of Liberty, hanging out banners and signs protesting the war.

November 5, 2000

Tito Kayak, a Puerto Rican environmental activist, and a group of Puerto Ricans hang flags from the Statue of Liberty (and then hang out on the crown, enjoying the view).

揠苗助长: Pulling Shoots to Help Them Grow

A man from Song was concerned by his sprouts’ lack of growth and, hoping to encourage them, began pulling them up one by one. When he finished, he returned to his family looking weary and said, “Today has been exhausting! I have been helping the sprouts grow!” His family hastened to go and see it, but the small sprouts had withered.

Few in China are not helping shoots to grow. Those who feel it is useless give it up and quit weeding the sprouts. But as for the one who tries to help them grow by pulling them up, not only is it useless, but it also harms the sprouts.

-from the Book of Mencius, Gongsun Chou, Part I. This (liberal) translation from the classical Chinese is my own.

Takeaway lesson of the day: The phrase “pulling spouts to help them grow” is a moderately common idiom in modern standard Chinese. Most recognize its meaning without knowing the original story above. I’ve posted this today for my friends and colleagues who often ask me about China’s “progress”. Will China democratize? Will China address accusations of human rights abuse? As Mencius aptly states, there are few in China who are not helping the sprouts of progress to grow. However, aggressive domestic reform and overzealous, hypocritical international badgering by western nations is akin to the man from Song pulling his sprouts out of the ground in an attempt to make them grow faster. Radical change in a nation that prides itself in 5,000+ years of relative cultural stability will not take place over night. To be sure, China is changing; the waves of political, social, and cultural reform that began in the early 20th century continue to spread to this day. But do not be so anxious to call for an American-style political revolution in a region where even short-lived dynasties have endured longer than the United States.

The Death of Religion

At a glance, the United States appears to be a stronghold of religion and a bastion of Christian morality, but it is increasingly clear that religion is a dying art in American politics. Secularism is quickly becoming the standard against which legal and political decisions are being measured. Religious Americans are fighting against a rising tide.

According to Gallup, the number of Americans who believe that “religion can answer all or most of today’s problems” has declined by 35% in the past 50 years. Similarly, the number of Americans who believe that “religion is largely old-fashioned and out of date” has risen 300% to nearly 1 in 3.

Current political events bear witness to this trend. While religious sentiment is still popular throughout the nation, legal proceedings demonstrate increasingly less concern for religious arguments. California’s Proposition 8, which passed on a wave of religious fervor, was quickly found unconstitutional after an improvised defense team (none of the state officials named in the lawsuit were willing to defend the Proposition) was unable to convince Justice Walker of a rational, legal basis for discrimination between heterosexual and homosexual couples. Such debates on hot button moral issues like gay marriage and abortion are but microcosms of the great American dilemma: should religion play a role in legislation?

Technically, religion has never played a role in legislation. Formally, we recognize that church and state should be kept separate. But practically, religion has everything to do with how Americans think and vote. A 2004-2005 Gallup poll demonstrated clearly that although particular religious affiliation had very little bearing on Americans’ views regarding moral issues like abortion, the more frequently respondents attended any church, the more likely they were to take hardline conservative stances. Whether consciously or subconsciously, Americans’ religiosity is directly related to their voting patterns on controversial moral and social issues.

But what implications does the decline of religion hold for both parties’ platforms and the long-term direction of American legislation? According to a more recent Gallup poll (this one concluded only last month), 47% of Republicans can be considered “highly religious whites,” compared with only 19% of Democrats. Thus, if current trends continue and religion becomes increasingly unimportant in American sociopolitical decision-making, the Republican Party’s religious base of ardent social conservatives will continue to dwindle. Consequently, the Republican Party will need to continue its shift toward a more morally liberal platform or risk losing supporters. America’s progressively lackluster attitude toward religion is most evident and (for Republicans) most dangerous among younger voters. In 2008, surveys of the 18-36 age group produced the slimmest margin between respondents that believe religion can answer today’s problems (44%) and those who believe religion to be old-fashioned and out of date (36%). When compared to the strong 60%-19% split among those 55 and older, it is apparent that unless religious Americans are successful in inciting a massive “return to God” among the youth, American legislation will continue to become increasingly unconcerned with private moral issues so zealously defended by religious conservatives. Perhaps Republican talking heads have already recognized this trend’s potentially devastating effects. Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin’s “Restoring Honor” rally, which was aimed at turning Americans “back to God,” addressed America’s increasingly secular feel head-on.

With regard to its political clout, religion is on the chopping block, and America seems poised to swing. How voters respond to perceived attacks on traditional social values in November may well be an indicator of how long religion can remain a power player in American politics. Do we stand at the beginning of a new period of religious revivalism, or are conservative cries of “Return to God!” the last gasping breath of a sick and dying patient?

[This article was originally published in November 2010 issue of The BYU Political Review.]