George Washington Carver: his life and importance

Black history is an integral piece of American history that is sometimes overlooked. In honor of Black History Month, I want to explore the life of one courageous black innovator: George Washington Carver, a poor Missouri farm boy born into slavery who was later adopted by German-American immigrants. Although his life was often full of difficulty, young George was determined to succeed.

As an infant, Carver suffered from a severe bout of whooping cough which left him too weak to farm, so he instead threw himself into his studies. He was an intelligent boy with an inquiring mind, and after he graduated high school, he was accepted by mail to Highland College in Kansas. Later, in person, he was rejected simply for being black. Still determined to pursue his studies, Carver attended Iowa State Agricultural College, becoming the first black student. He earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in agricultural science and later taught at his alma mater.

While teaching in Alabama, George Washington Carver spent long periods of time studying various practical uses for peanuts and soybeans. These crops were cheap to grow and easily available to anyone. Carver developed 300 uses for the peanut, including various dyes, glues, ink, cream, and Worcestershire sauce. He also discovered 100 uses for the sweet potato and, when weevils wiped out Southern cotton, Carver helped farmers begin to cultivate and sell these versatile crops.

Carver was recognized by Great Britain’s Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures, and Commerce in 1916, and he received the Spingarn Medal given by the NAACP in 1923. Simpson College in Iowa even awarded him an honorary doctorate. Carver was visited by foreign dignitaries such as Gandhi and the prince of Sweden, and he partnered with Henry Ford to create synthetic rubber. Even after his untimely death in 1943, Carver continued to be honored, and in 1990, he became the first black American to be elected to the National Inventors Hall of Fame.

George Washington Carver inspires me because of his passion for education, his persistence through difficulties, and his determination to help people using his knowledge. Despite being born poor and black in an era when African-Americans were not treated equally, Carver didn’t let these obstacles stop him from achieving his goals. He sometimes had to travel ten miles to go to a high school that would accept black students, and several times he had to rent his own rooms in order to attend. In spite of this, he was determined to complete his studies.

Not content to simply obtain a lot of knowledge and skills to move himself up in the world, Carver wanted to help others. He spent years studying peanuts, soybeans, and sweet potatoes, looking for practical ways these plants could be useful to people, often people who didn’t have much money. He was incredibly giving of his time and his knowledge to assist people.

George Washington Carver is not a historical figure who usually gets much attention. There are many African-Americans whose accomplishments render them history changers in a more attention-grabbing way, such as Martin Luther King, Jr., Maya Angelou, and Muhammad Ali. These individuals have also done a lot of good for our country and our society. However, there is little doubt of the impact that George Washington Carver has had on America. He not only made cheaper, better products available to the general public, but he also helped farmers in the South transition from cotton to other plants during a tumultuous crop-growing period. Carver has inspired and will continue to inspire many students to persevere in their studies, to not adapt a victim mentality despite personal circumstances, and to serve others using their talents and skills.

Is America Racist?

America is undeniably one of the least racist countries in the world. However, this doesn’t mean we have a stellar record when it comes to race-related issues. Every time a black person is shot by police or a Muslim mosque is defaced, everyone clamors to remind us that, “America is racist!” But is this really the case? I crunched the numbers looking for the truth, and what I found might surprise you.

First, we must define what we mean by racism. For the purpose of my investigation, I defined racism as an institutional bias toward one ethnic group, although I also looked at gender. I determined that the best measure of institutional racism would be to look at an average American job, paid an average American salary, in an average American town, and determine whether the racial breakdown of job holders was skewed in a way that no data could account for. This would seem to indicate racist hiring or firing practices. Also, to simplify our search, we will center our research on black and white statistics.

America is a very large country both in area and in population. Its regions are very different in ethnic makeup, crime rates, and most popular jobs, so taking data from the nation at large is an inefficient way to find answers. It also doesn’t allow us to control for certain variables that I’ll call cultural variables: the values and incentives instilled by certain ethnic groups into their children. Since we needed to have a good representation of the demographics of America without all the messy regional divides, I went looking for the perfectly “American” city.

By looking at the demographics of America as a whole and comparing them to individual cities, I was able to find the closest possible match. After comparing data of race percentages, workforce involvement, and even the average per capita salary, I determined that Oklahoma City, OK, was the closest to being a mini America statistically.

To get a good idea of what this mini America is like, I looked deep into the data available on crime and police. Believe it or not, the percentage of police officers in Oklahoma City compared to the total population almost perfectly mirrors the percentage of police in the nation at large. Oklahoma City’s rate of reported crime incidents is higher than the state at large at 4,722 crimes for every 100,000 people. America’s national rate is 2,870 crimes per 100,000 people. The national crime rate has not been as high as Oklahoma City’s current rate since 1997.

In a city that is, in almost every other way, statistically identical to the entire nation, why is the crime rate so high? The answer may lie in an unexpected place: abortion levels. The only other major statistical difference between Oklahoma City and the United States is the percent of pregnancies that end in abortion. Oklahoma City’s rate is just over 8%, while the nation’s is more than double this at almost 17%. The abortion laws in Oklahoma state that it is illegal to purposefully terminate a pregnancy unless the life or health of the mother is at stake.

While it may be a divisive subject, there is strong evidence that abortion helps deter crime. The women most likely to seek abortions – poor, often black, teenage mothers – are the very women whose children, if born, are at the greatest risk of becoming criminals. This is not to say whether or not abortion is acceptable from a moral perspective. I am just stating facts. Oklahoma’s abortion rate is nearly half of the United States’ and its crime rate is more than double. Because of this statistical aberration, we can control for the seemingly high crime spike.

Now that we have the seemingly perfect statistical representation of America, we need to find the perfect statistical representation of the average American job. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 80% of all jobs are in the service sector, which narrows the field quite a bit. Also, as reported by the Social Security Administration, the average yearly salary for an American worker is $48,098.63.

Using this information, as well as keeping in mind that the job in question needed to have reliably available data, I chose to use the job of police officer for my research. According to the Oklahoma City Police Department website, police annual salaries range from $43,388.64 for a new recruit to $52,972.56 for an officer, putting the salary nearly right at the national average. Also, because police officers are hired and work for the government, there is plenty of reliable data on demographics and ethnic breakdown.

The Oklahoma City police department consists of roughly 1,000 officers, broken down by race as follows: 85.5% white, 4.7% Hispanic, 6.7% black, and 0.8% Asian. Compare these percentages with the totals for each race in the entire city’s population: 62.7% white, 17.2% Hispanic, 15.1% black, and 4% Asian. As we can see, there is a big aberration in the data.

For Asians, there is a -3.2% difference between total population and police force percentage. For blacks, that number rises to -8.4%. For Hispanics, there is a -12.5% difference, and for whites, the difference is a staggering +22.8%. The fact that these differences exist is not surprising and does not necessarily indicate racism. However, the amount of the aberration between police force and total population can help us determine whether or not institutional racism, as defined above, exists.

One further variable to control for is what I have called the cultural variable: the values and aspirations ingrained into children of certain ethnic groups by their ethnic culture or parents. For example, let’s look at the race breakdown of each sector of the workforce nationwide. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the total percentages for each sector are as follows:

Management, professional, and related: 37.9%.

Sales and office: 23.3%.

Service: 17.9%.

Production, transportation, and material moving: 11.9%.

Natural resources, construction, and maintenance: 9%.

The racial breakdown for whites is nearly identical to the total (not surprising, since whites make up the majority of both the population and the workforce):

Management, professional, and related: 38.7%, or +0.8.

Sales and office: 23.3%, or 0 (no positive or negative percentage points from the total).

Service: 16.6%, or -1.3.

Production, transportation, and material moving: 11.7%, or -0.2.

Natural resources, construction, and maintenance: 9.8%, or +0.8.

The racial breakdown for blacks:

Management, professional, and related: 29.5%, or -8.4.

Sales and office: 24.6%, or +1.3.

Service: 25.5%, or +7.6.

Production, transportation, and material moving: 14.8%, or +2.9.

Natural resources, construction, and maintenance: 5.6%, or -3.4.

The racial breakdown for Hispanics:

Management, professional, and related: 20.6%, or -17.3.

Sales and office: 21.3%, or -2.

Service: 26.3%, or +8.4.

Production, transportation, and material moving: 16.9%, or +5.

Natural resources, construction, and maintenance: 14.9%, or +5.9.

And the racial breakdown for Asians:

Management, professional, and related: 48.5%, or +10.6.

Sales and office: 20.3%, or -3.

Service: 18.4%, or +0.5.

Production, transportation, and material moving: 9.3%, or -2.6.

Natural resources, construction, and maintenance: 3.6%, or -5.4.

From these data, we can conclude that the most likely race to be found in management is Asian, in sales and office is black, in service is Hispanic, in production and transportation is Hispanic, and in natural resources and construction is Hispanic. As such, whites are no more or less likely, on average, to go into any given sector compared to other races.

If we isolate the service sector from the others, the BLS reports that women are more likely than men to go into service-related jobs in every race. However, the makeup of the police force is only 12% female, indicating that not many women are encouraged to become police officers. Thus, the data for service sector jobs is unnaturally skewed towards women and does not necessarily provide an accurate rule for estimating fair hiring and firing practices.

We can also see that Asians are encouraged to go into management and deterred from natural resources and construction. There is no significant difference from the total percentage for service jobs. Hispanics are on the whole incredibly unlikely to go into management jobs and much likelier to participate in service. Blacks are similarly unlikely to be found in management and likely to be found in service, although the differences from the mean are not as stark.

Many of these racial differences are due to cultural values. For instance, Asians are highly encouraged to go into professional fields, often math, science, and business. This explains why they are so disproportionately overrepresented in management. Blacks are encouraged to go into sales and service, and are more likely than whites not to hold a high school diploma or GED. This leads to overrepresentation in the food service subindustry and the relative scarcity of blacks in management. It is important to note that a high school diploma or GED is required to become a police officer. Also notable is the fact that, among adult men, blacks are the least likely to participate in the workforce.

As of June 2012, 80% of the workforce were either white or Hispanic (many sources note that those reported as Hispanic are often of other races or mixed race), and 12% were black. Of these, only 5% of whites did not hold even a high school diploma, while 13% of blacks did not hold a diploma or GED. Thus, 76% of the workforce are whites that are eligible to become police officers, while only 10% of the workforce are blacks that are eligible.

Now let’s go back to the actual percentages of the Oklahoma City police department and compare these to those members of each race that participate in the workforce and are eligible to become police officers.

White (OKC police dept.): 85.5%, or 999 (0.03% of total whites in labor pool)

White (OKC labor pool %): 76%, or 330,647

Black (OKC police dept.): 6.7%, or 78 (0.01% of total blacks in labor pool)

Black (OKC labor pool %): 10%, or 43,506

These numbers are much closer than the total racial percentages of Oklahoma City would predict. In fact, there may actually be a small bias against white hires. The difference between the numbers (when controlled for population, unemployment, age, and cultural variables) is so small as to be virtually nonexistent. Thus we can safely conclude that there is no institutional racism in the Oklahoma City police department.

There is not enough data in existence to deny institutional racism outright, nor have I tried to do so. However, the data I found clearly contradicts the premise of racism in the most representative job in America, in the most representative city of America. So it is fairly safe to extrapolate this finding in general to the country at large. America is not racist.

The Secret Hope of Dystopia

Reports from various news sources, including the Atlantic and the New York Times, have commented on the spike in sales of dystopian literature following the 2016 presidential election. This is a common trend in election years, no matter which political party is voted into office. Dystopia also flourishes right after major crises and government scandals.

Some of the most famous and bestselling dystopian novels include 1984, by George Orwell, Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley, It Can’t Happen Here, by Sinclair Lewis, and The Winter of Our Discontent, by John Steinbeck. These books all see skyrocketing Google searches and a rise through the Amazon ranks during election years. Whichever party lost buys up all the dystopian books it can get its hands on in the weeks following the election.

What is dystopia? At its root, dystopia suggests that there is some fundamental problem in the world which will lead to serious consequences if not addressed. Typically, books in this genre depict a bleak future in which totalitarian governments have taken control and corrupted the basic ethics of society. In Brave New World, Huxley introduces us to a culture where excessive pleasure-seeking has caused its inhabitants to cease feeling strong emotions, either positive or negative. The theme of desensitization is prevalent in many other dystopian books as well.

Dystopian literature reached its peak in the 1950’s, when the threat of nuclear war and communism struck terror into the hearts of the Western world. Literature reflects the ideas, hopes, and fears, of its time, so it isn’t surprising that so many authors felt helpless and hopeless against the larger-than-life threat of the atomic bomb. More recently, dystopia has made a comeback, often as part of the young adult genre. Many popular YA franchises are set against a dystopian, post-apocalyptic, totalitarian society, such as The Hunger Games, the Divergent series, and The Maze Runner.

The spike in dystopia geared towards youth is somewhat telling of this generation’s collective depression for the future. Most of today’s teenagers and young adults have grown up in the wake of the 2008-9 financial crisis that rocked America and much of Europe. They have grown up with little and are now highly skeptical of government interests and capitalism, and this skepticism and fear for the future is reflected in the types of stories that do so well among the younger demographic.

Dystopia may be depressing and bleak, but its presence as such a solid force in literature should be a cause for hope. The fact that authors are free to criticize their government and to warn of the perils of whatever belief system seems dangerous to them is a sign that such totalitarian rule has not arrived. Regardless of whether you are one of the people celebrating Donald Trump’s victory or buying up all the dystopian literature you can get your hands on, hopefully you can see the secret hope of dystopia and gain confidence for the future.

My Pick of the Week: February 20-25

This week’s pick is The Westing Game, by Ellen Raskin.

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While written mainly for children, this book has a lot to share with adults as well. It is about a rich and eccentric man’s death, and the game he makes his heirs play in order to determine which of them will inherit his fortune. Ellen Raskin creates some of the most interesting and three-dimensional characters in all of children’s literature.

Books and Reading in Don Quixote

Don Quixote is an often misunderstood book. While many modern readers see it as a goofy story about a madman who thinks he is a knight, in reality the book goes so much deeper than this. In the book, Don Quixote is a older gentleman of the lower middle class in Spain who goes mad after reading extensively in a popular genre of the day: books of chivalry. Today most of these books have been relegated to obscurity, which makes it difficult for the modern reader to understand some of the humor Cervantes masterfully wove into the story.

“Books of chivalry” in Cervantes’ day were fantastical stories full of flowery, melodramatic writing that tended to celebrate folk tales and fiction stories about knights and their ladies. In Don Quixote, Cervantes exaggerated this extravagant language to show its absurdity. While on his first journey, Don Quixote composed a letter to his courtly love, Dulcinea, which included the befuddling phrase, “The ability to reason the un-reason which has afflicted by reason saps my ability to reason, so that I complain with good reason of your infinite loveliness.” As the narrator, Cervantes then noted that it was a sentence which “even Aristotle couldn’t have comprehended if he’d come back to life just for that purpose.”

Don Quixote was a scathing social commentary of its day, similar to The Simpsons in the 1990’s or Deadpool more recently. As a literary work, it never took itself seriously or allowed itself to delve too deeply into an elusive “meaning of life.” Instead, Cervantes celebrated the absurdity and madness of life through the eyes of the buffoonish Don Quixote, who he seemed to believe might be the most clear-sighted of all the characters in his book: “When life itself seems lunatic, who knows where madness lies? Perhaps to be too practical is madness. To surrender dreams — this may be madness. Too much sanity may be madness — and maddest of all: to see life as it is, and not as it should be!”

Almost all of the characters in Don Quixote were readers, including the commoners who might not have been able to read if the book were realistically set. In one scene, the curate, the innkeeper, and the barber, who were friends of Don Quixote, went through his library and burned the books they considered most harmful to his mind. As they did this, they discussed the merits and potential dangers of each one on their friend’s already distressed mental state, showing that they had read most of them. However, these characters, although supposedly sane, were portrayed by Cervantes as dense, not fully grasping what each of the books was really about.

Another reading character was that of Cardenio, the hopeless romantic who lived on berries in the mountains and suffered from lapses of insanity because of the loss of his true love. If Don Quixote served as social commentary for the ideas of the time, Cardenio represented the ideal hero in most of the “books of chivalry” of the time. When the reader was first introduced to Cardenio, he had been living in the mountains for some time, barely able to live in his state of emotional distress. With the help of Don Quixote and his loyal squire Sancho Panza, Cardenio was eventually reunited with the woman of his affection, and all ended happily. It was a story within the greater story, satirizing the popular literature of Cervantes’ time period and demonstrating how ridiculous it was.

Don Quixote remains some of the most biting social satire of all time, even hundreds of years after it was written. It comments on many trends of the time that modern readers are unfamiliar with, particularly the popular “books of chivalry.” In its pages, Cervantes seems to show his readers how absurd life really is, and that only by accepting life’s pettiness can we ever be truly happy.

Jane Austen and the Strong Female Character

Many non-readers of Jane Austen imagine her books to be filled to the brim with the sort of fluffy rubbish that is a dime a dozen nowadays. This is not the case. Austen’s books may mostly fall under the category of romance, but they are worlds away from the sappy and sentimental.

Jane Austen was raised in the Georgian Era in England, steeped in the cultural norms of the time. Her books contain important commentary and criticisms of this strict society. In this way, Austen was a woman ahead of her time. Her female characters seem to share this social consciousness also.

Much of the literature of Austen’s time was sentimental, with the female characters portrayed as weak-kneed, indecisive, and maybe even ditzy. However, if we take a look at the earliest pages of Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, and even the less-read treasure Mansfield Park, we can see a very different kind of female character in romance.

There has been a recent push for what is termed the “strong female character” in literature. Authors are encouraged to write women and girls as swashbuckling heroes who both save and kill people. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this strategy, but Jane Austen chose to take a different tack when approaching her female characters: she gave them brains.

If we were to analyze the main characters of Austen’s several novels according to the Meyers-Briggs personality typing instrument, we would likely find most if not all of them to be INTJ. Introverted, intuiting, thinking, and judging; these women think with their brains, not their hearts. Austen valued the intellectualism of her female characters and wrote her male characters to value it also.

Another character quality Austen seemed to admire was good common sense. In fact, Sense and Sensibility is about the divide between sense (logic, thinking, and common sense) and sensibility (passion, impulse, and rashness). She portrays as heroines those characters who reason instead of rush.

This tradition of intellectual, culture-defying female characters was carried on by such authors as Louisa May Alcott and Sylvia Plath, but Jane Austen was truly a torchbearer for this trend. Sadly, in recent years many authors have lost this side of the female character. Most of the so-called “strong female characters” of modern literature (particularly young adult fiction) are merely cardboard cutouts of each other that do not truly portray the rich inner lives and minds of these young women. Worst of all, most romance books nowadays contain the same sappy stuff as other writers of Jane Austen’s time.

Dante Alighieri: his life

Dante Alighieri was born in Italy to Alighiero di Bellincione, a politically inactive and low-status man with ties to the Guelphs. The Guelphs supported the papacy, and had been fighting against the Ghibellines, a group which supported the Holy Roman Emperor. Dante’s mother, Bella, died when he was ten years old, and his father quickly took another wife who gave birth to Dante’s half-brother and sister.

At the age of twelve, Dante’s father betrothed him to Gemma di Manetto Donati, the daughter of a very powerful man. However, Dante was in love with another girl named Beatrice, who appeared in several of his works as an angelic figure. Dante dutifully married Gemma and the couple had four children together, but it is clear from his work that he never stopped loving Beatrice. At 18, Dante studied under Brunetto Latini, whom he later places in hell in his Divine Comedy.

As a result of the ongoing political conflict between the Guelphs and the Ghibellines, Dante was exiled from Florence for two years. Later, the exile would be lifted if Dante agreed to pay a fine. Dante would not pay the fine, so his sentence was extended and he remained in exile for the rest of his life. Dante had been a small-scale poet during his years as a politician in Florence, but during his exile he devoted his life to his poetry. It was during this time that he wrote The Divine Comedy, for which he is most remembered. After Dante finished this masterpiece, he was invited to be a diplomat for Ravenna by its prince. However, he died of malaria soon after.

My Pick of the Week: February 13-18

My pick of the week is a collection of Robert Frost’s poems.

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Frost has been called the most American of poets, with his down-to-earth style that is reminiscent of dialogue. Most of his poems deal with themes of nature, farm life, and community. A few of my favorites are “The Road Not Taken”, “The Fear”, “Mending Wall”, and “To the Thawing Wind”.

C. S. Lewis: his life and importance

Clive Staples Lewis was born in Belfast, Ireland on November 29, 1898 to Albert and Flora Lewis. He had one older brother, Warren, who he nicknamed “Warnie” when he was young. As a toddler, Lewis hated the name Clive and decided he wanted to be called Jack. He was known to his friends as Jack for the rest of his life.

Jack and Warnie were both avid readers as children, and together they created an imaginary world called Boxen, complete with a detailed history and political situation. Their mother died when Jack was ten years old, which had a profound effect on the entire family. Their father sent them away to boarding school, which Jack hated.

It was during his high school years that young Lewis became an atheist. Although he had been raised in a Christian home, his mother’s death and his troubles at school convinced him that God either did not exist, or else was cruel. One of his favorite tutors was profoundly atheist, and this also influenced his philosophy and education.

At the outbreak of World War I, Lewis joined the British army and was sent home after an injury. He became friends with another young man during his service, who made Lewis promise to look after his mother if he was killed. Lewis promised, and when his young friend died, he moved in with his mother, Janie Moore. He looked after her until her death.

When he was sufficiently recovered from the war, Lewis attended Oxford University and graduated with a degree in literature and classical philosophy. In 1925, he was awarded a teaching position at Magdalen College. It was in teaching here that he met a group of like-minded professors and writers, including his good friend J. R. R. Tolkien, and they formed a writing group called the Inklings. Lewis had an intense conversion experience as a result of the gentle influence of these men, especially Tolkien, and he became a Christian again.

Lewis wrote several works on Christianity, the most famous of which are The Screwtape Letters and Mere Christianity. He also wrote a science fiction trilogy which dealt with themes of sin and temptation from a Christian worldview. During the 1950’s, he published his seven most acclaimed works, the children’s series The Chronicles of Narnia. These books were a sort of allegorical reinterpretation of the Bible in a way that made sense to children.

During this time, Lewis accepted a teaching position at Cambridge and married American divorcee Joy Gresham, who had two children from her previous marriage. At first it was a marriage of convenience, so Joy could remain in England, but it blossomed into a deep and long-lasting romance. Four years later, when Joy died of cancer, Lewis mourned her and overcame his grief through his writing. He shared his thoughts on death and mourning in his book A Grief Observed.

In 1963, Lewis resigned from his position at Cambridge for health reasons. He passed away peacefully in his sleep on November 22, 1963.