The Power to Choose a School

In light of a recent conference and the upcoming Supreme Court case (read AEI’s take), I’ve decided it’s high time to write a little summary of my understanding of and case for school choice. I open with my inspiration for this interest, but if you’re just interested in the meat of the issue, feel free to jump ahead to the “Why Choose?” and “Who Chooses?” sections. Happy reading! 

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Close to Home

My debut in economic research has been centered around two causes very near and dear to my heart: school choice and easing regulations on craft breweries. (Ok, I may be joking a little on the last one.)

Due to moving around as a kid, I’ve also become an unofficial school expert by attending seven different schools prior to college–a mix of public, religious private, and secular college prep–and have tutored and taught in multiple schools myself. Simply put, I love schools and everything they symbolize. Within their sacred walls, we first taste the ever-harvested banquet of literature, music, art, science, music, history, math, and the whole spread of ideas. How can you not be passionate about that?

Furthermore, take a moment to call to mind the most influential people in your life. Chances are, a teacher (or seven) made your list. All this is to say that the importance of a good education cannot be overstated.

Finally, I don’t think that our current public school system is doing an acceptable job at this incredible task. And 79% of Americans agree with me. This isn’t to say that the other options–homeschooling and private schools– are automatically better, but we don’t direct our tax dollars to fund them. In my opinion, public schools should be held to the highest standards as our entire nation backs them with hard-earned dollars. And I very firmly believe that all children should be given the opportunity of a good education, regardless of if their family can afford homeschooling and private institutions or not.

What is School Choice?

This is precisely where the idea of school choice comes in. It’s been my experience that this contentious issue is still misunderstood:

School choice means that the tax dollars originally paid by parents, which will be distributed back to them in the form of public education, should be allowed to be spent on their child’s education at the school they see as best fitting their child’s needs.

Wealthy families can already exercise “school choice” since they can afford to pay for both their child’s seat in public schools (through their tax dollars) as well as the private tuition at a different institution. But this leaves many families unable to access these educational organizations and automatically creates an early rift between the socioeconomic groups. The policy mechanisms of school choice– vouchers, tax credit scholarships, and charter schools— are designed to allow the public tax dollars to follow the children, based upon each family’s choice of educational institution. In a diverse and expanding society such as ours, it is essential that we respect the agency of families to choose how to best educate their children.

Understanding school choice, and specifically charter schools, could not be more relevant (especially since Betsy DeVos has recently been confirmed as Secretary of Education). It could also set you apart– a recent Gallup poll revealed that only 50% of respondents were actually aware of what charter schools are. It is fitting that we begin with the definition (taken from Uncommon Schools):

“A charter school is an independently run public school granted greater flexibility in its operations, in return for greater accountability for performance. The ‘charter’ establishing each school is a performance contract detailing the school’s mission, program, students served, performance goals, and methods of assessment.”

Why Choose?

There are three reasons that I believe school choice, in all forms, is a great thing for our states and our nation. They can be summed up in three words: care, competition, and community. By care, I mean to emphasize that low-income families will be newly empowered to chose their child’s school and thus have an incentive to care after their education more than ever.  Through competition, I am confident that the schools will increasingly become better since no families are forced to attend them, but rather have a choice between more options. Finally, school choice fosters community. As I pointed out in my introduction, the current system of public vs. private schools results in an early and arguably detrimental separation of socioeconomic classes. It means that you’re more likely to learn, play sports, and go over to the houses of friends who are no different from yourself.

All three of these good things currently exist within families and schools, no doubt, but school choice significantly enables the families of your community to choose according to their deepest concern for their children.

Who Chooses?

My latest research with the Institute for Economic Inquiry delves into the “demand-side” of this issue, focusing on just charter schools. I ask: What local organizations, informal institutions, and socioeconomic characteristics do districts that are open charters have in common?

To study this question, I gathered data on every school district in the nation and compiled an estimation equation to display the impact of each important factor on how open a district is to charters, as measured by the number of charter schools and number of students attending charters within that district. You are happily invited to read last semester’s version of the working paper, but for brevity’s sake, here are my main takeaways:

  • Charters are significantly more likely in districts with these types of families:
    • Impoverished
    • Highly educated
    • Urban
    • Highly diverse
  • The proportion of church adherence within a district (a proxy for informal institutions, i.e. religious belief) has a negligible effect on the openness of the district to charters.
  • Districts with a high percentage of the population employed in the educational, health care, or social work services (a rough proxy for the strength of local teachers’ unions) are strongly and significantly opposed to charters.

I once heard a speaker say (pretty positive it was Arthur Brooks… but don’t quote me on this) that the social sciences exist to prove to us what we already know. For how good the empirical evidence is, the main argument in favor of school choice is one of the heart. The power of a great school isn’t that it will fix all the problems of our world, but that it has the potential to change hearts as well as minds.

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“That Which is Not Seen” (Part II)

This short essay finishes my present reflections on the role of the family in the realm of political economy. For Part I of this duo, inspired by Bastiat’s famous essay by the title, “Ce qu’on voit et ce qu’on ne voit pas,” I invite you to begin here. Otherwise, read on, dear reader!


I have been blessed with incredible professors who give me interesting things to read (if you think this might be you… yes, it’s you). I am also blessed with this thing called the Internet, which provides an unimaginably huge garden of information through which I can discover more interesting things to read. The following thoughts are largely based upon a few of these readings: North’s work on institutions, Hayek’s writings on knowledge, Dr. Morse’s book Love and Economics (thank you, Acton), and a healthy dash of Josef Pieper, Adam Smith, and C.S. Lewis (surprising, I’m sure).

Permit me to begin with a speedy lesson on institutional economics.

We go about our daily business within the framework of our society’s formal and informal institutions. One side is labeled formal, since it is embodied primarily in our rule of law. The complimentary side of institutions are called informal, and they refer to the cultural, religious, and societal norms that also shape our behaviors. These both can be thought of as the “rules of the game,” and one of the many things that they provide is the incentive structure for our actions. For example, you may be more willing to invest in experimentation and invention if you know that your idea can be protected by patent law, which enables you to reap the rewards from your successful risk-taking.

Who plays this game? You and I, to be sure, and mainly through the organizations we are a part of (think civil society). These organizations are the political (parties and councils), economic (firms and unions), and educational (schools and training) bodies that were founded in order to fulfill specific purposes within our community.

North (1993) writes, “It is the admixture of formal rules, informal norms, and enforcement characteristics that shapes economic performance” (VII). Taking enforcement as given, is there a relationship between these formal rules and informal norms? North and many others (notably going back to Smith) acknowledge this fact: Formal institutions are underpinned by the informal institutions of a society. There is much accumulated evidence (see here and here) to show that these two must fit together, otherwise the desired rule of law (one that unleashes economic prosperity) will not “stick.” In the spirit of this casual stream of consciousness, it might be fun to consider everyday examples:

  • Just because it was legal for me to watch PG-13 movies at the age of 13 did not, in fact, mean that my mother’s rules were the same, and I had to abide by her rules or suffer dreadful consequences. (And now my bookishness is beginning to make sense…)
  •  Although it would be legal to host a business meeting in a tree-house, it simply isn’t done. (A terribly inconvenient truth.)
  • There are many “forbidden fruits” in Christianity, Judaism, and Islam that are still legally and socially acceptable in our society. Nevertheless, myriads of religious individuals continue to submit to the restrictions placed by their beliefs.

If informal institutions are truly the underlying determinant of formal institutions, upon which rests the fate of economic prosperity, then it becomes important that some of us specialize in shifting our gaze toward the informal institutions of culture and religion. Religious belief and cultural norms are often accepted as givens in economic analysis, but today I propose that this is no longer a valid or necessary assumption.

Enter, family.

Just as the rule of law is the embodiment of our formal institutions, the family is the manifestation of our informal institutions since religious and cultural beliefs are passed down within the sacred space of the home. To wander this small kingdom is to indeed wade into rich and deep waters, so I just want to focus on one thing that the family–above all–safeguards throughout generations: human dignity.

In this, there is no substitute for the role of the family. Organizations and institutions can treat a human being with dignity, and of course the best ones do, but they cannot possibly nourish human beings with the deep knowledge of their inherent dignity, moment to moment, like our family members do. Love and Economics contains a passage in which Morse reminds us of this hidden teaching, glimpsing into the rich love of the mother for her little one:

“People do things they do not fully understand, acting upon knowledge they truly possess but cannot fully express… [The mother] might tell you she folded laundry and did dishes. But she probably will not remember that she rewarded every little noise her baby made, by smiling at the baby, or imitating the baby’s sound, or having an imaginary conversation with him. Far more is going on between a normal mother and child than we would ever imagine…” (17).

If you are familiar with Hayek at all, the first sentence may have reminded you of his “The Use of Knowledge in Society.” His main idea there, loosely paralleling the religious doctrine of human dignity, is that every single human being possesses an unique, irreplaceable knowledge of our world, equipping each to identify the best choice in surrounding situations better than anyone else. Above all, the knowledge and perspective that each of us stewards–mental models as North refers to them–have been extraordinarily shaped by our family. The understanding of our dignity or worth, and consequently that of others, can only be fully instilled by a mother and father who take it upon themselves to live out the greatness of their dignity as husband and wife and mother and father each day. And we know that dignity is the basis of institutions that support economic freedom and prosperity.

What might this mean in our current situation, when the decline of the family is hard, cold fact? In his foreword to Leisure the Basis of Culture, Fr. James Schall pulls us in with a striking sentence: “When a culture is in the process of denying its own roots, it becomes most important to know what these roots are.” This is my next task.

Morse travels back to the pioneers of political economy and posits that Adam Smith, and the subsequent family tree of classical liberal thinkers, held the rational assumption of close familial relationships when describing the workings of the free market with terms like “the invisible hand” and “spontaneous order.” Such close quarters with our kin inevitably grows mutual sympathy, the term Adam Smith uses in The Theory of Moral Sentiments to describe the way that we learn to test our perceptions against the imagined or real praise or blame of others, thus cultivating our moral sentiments. The strength and prosperity of the market operating under formal institutions was rooted in this shaping of virtue.

I invite you to read “The American Family Today” at Pew Research (or just look around) to see that tightly-knit families are no longer a safe assumption in the United States. The covenantal bonds of family are rapidly dissolving all around us.

Before proceeding, however, far be it from me to claim that families will ever be perfect. For, far be it from imperfect humans to bind ourselves perfectly in covenant. Fortunately love doesn’t need perfect. It just needs patience, kindness, and all the rest. Though imperfect, the family is the single institution within which human beings are freely bound together for the purpose of love. It is the only place in the world where “do this” equates almost directly to “this is truly in your best interest.”

If families are no longer in place to perform their fundamental role in shaping moral sentiments and religious and cultural beliefs, what will happen to our formal institutions? (Or better yet: What is happening?) Speaking from her experiences as an adoptive parent, Dr. Morse points out that we are seeing a growing number of children who have never learned of their inherent dignity (and that of others), whether parental neglect, over-spoiling, or attachment disorder is to blame. My good friend C.S. Lewis vividly paints this picture better than any other:

“In a sort of ghastly simplicity we remove the organ and demand the function. We make men without chests and expect from them virtue and enterprise. We taught at honor and are shocked to find traitors in our midst” (The Abolition of Man).

If we are left only to operate under our formal institutions, we are saying that there is no prior reality, in fact, we are shifting our identity from mother and father to worker and citizen. The agora can either serve as a strong force for building community or a vulgar replacement for it; without dignity, all the power lies in the “rules of the game.”

We inherently ache to covenant ourselves to one another because it will fulfill us, and in no small way, remind us that we are more than our production and consumption capabilities. Depending on our covenants, our contracts will either make or break us.

But, materialism only robs us of our joy if we give it permission, and a healthy family is the best counterbalance to the world of labor, scarce resources, and efficiency. As Chesterton reminds us:

“Of all modern notions, the worst is this: that domesticity is dull. Inside the home, they say, is dead decorum and routine; outside is adventure and variety. But the truth is that the home is the only place of liberty, the only spot on earth where a man can alter arrangements suddenly, make an experiment or indulge in a whim. The home is not the one tame place in a world of adventure; it is the one wild place in a world of rules and set tasks.”

“That Which Is Not Seen” (Part 1)

I had told myself that I would not write (save the nightly journal of course) until I had completed my weeks of vigorous GRE prep (hey there, un-missed pal of high school math). But… give a girl a delayed flight home from Texas, and she’ll take an essay. Prudence did convince me to divide this train of thought into halves, however, and so here lies part one.

It is the tale of two Frenchmen and a common feature in the mirrors their writings held up to society. The contemporary American continuation of this motif will likely follow in a few days. If you are interested in history, economics, politics, America, love, or the French– read on!


Ce qu’on voit et ce qu’on ne voit pas (Frédéric Bastiat)

In 1850, the French economist Bastiat penned a famous essay with the above title: “That which is seen and that which is not seen.” By way of straightforward reflection, he explicates many foundational (though admittedly counter-intuitive) economic lessons. See The Broken Window for a taste of this famous dish. However, the theme of each parable is simple, hinging upon his opening argument:

Between a good and a bad economist this constitutes the whole difference – the one takes account of the visible effect; the other takes account both of the effects which are seen, and also of those which it is necessary to foresee. Now this difference is enormous, for it almost always happens that when the immediate consequence is favourable, the ultimate consequences are fatal, and the converse. Hence it follows that the bad economist pursues a small present good, which will be followed by a great evil to come, while the true economist pursues a great good to come, – at the risk of a small present evil… It is only in the long run that it learns to take account of the others. (emphasis added)

Such foresight, in my humble opinion, convicts a lot of policies that we have today: from welfare reform to environmental policy to education debates. But that’s not what I found so compelling about Bastiat’s lesson. I think that there is a deeper “that which is not seen” that we are currently ignoring to our peril. In fact, I think it can truthfully be said that this economic lesson–small present sacrifices for a greater future good–is only a phantom of the original lesson. It lies beyond the orb of economics and contracts, rather, it is the bedrock of our society.

We call it covenant.

And here, I switch to another Frenchman who had deliberately studied our nation ten years prior. His name is Alexis de Tocqueville, and his Democracy in America explores the fruitful garden of political, social, and familial associations that make our familiar (even “taken for granted”) national identity what it is. His insight is compelling:

In Europe almost all the disturbances of society arise from the irregularities of domestic life… But when the American retires from the turmoil of public life to the bosom of his family, he finds in it the image of order and of peace. There his pleasures are simple and natural, his joys are innocent and calm; and as he finds that an orderly life is the surest path to happiness, he accustoms himself without difficulty to moderate his opinions as well as his tastes. Whilst the European endeavors to forget his domestic troubles by agitating society, the American derives from his own home that love of order which he afterwards carries with him into public affairs. (emphasis added)

This “that which is not seen” is the family, whose sacred cathedral is the visible home. In that space, costs infused with love become benefits and the familial covenant is carried out in daily acts of mercy.

This, of course, is sweeping verbiage for doing the dishes even when it’s not my turn, making you soup when you’re sick, and carrying home armfuls of farmers market flowers “just because.” This daily exchange of love-labors for a more perfect home is the foundation and fulfillment of the true economist who takes all persons into account and “pursues a great good to come” in the contractual realm.

I have a little theory that the greatest purpose of economic trade is to enable this somehow more fully human trade to take place.

Yet, here’s the rub: when we forget that our identity is first found as sisters, brothers, brides, husbands, and children, then we carry that same disordered priority list into the public square. Something tells me that this is what a little nun in India had in mind when she once said:

The poverty of being unwanted, unloved and uncared for is the greatest poverty. We must start in our own homes to remedy this kind of poverty.

Kristin Collins on Genuine Love

Be forewarned that this is going to be a sentimental read 🙂

Sometimes we discover deep wisdom in the great books by great men and women; such are the blessings of tried-and-true tradition, or the “democracy of the dead” as Chesterton called it. But certain other times, we are lucky enough (and listen well enough) to find it over coffee and berry pancakes with our best friend. Kristin Collins is my best friend, and a few mornings ago, she (unknowingly) reminded me what genuine love means.

And because I wouldn’t be her BFF4EVER if I didn’t try to publicly embarrass her: when you fail at baking but taste sweet success in a food fight

I had to put the “genuine” in front of “love” because there is so much muddiness amidst the conflicting narratives we’re told these days. Genuine love does last forever, but only because it is a binding, daily decision (ah did someone say covenant?). Genuine love does inspire you to do great things (I mean look at this), but only because doing great things is a side-effect of wanting to make another person happy. Genuine love does mean becoming thoroughly vulnerable, but only because at the end of the day, you are two friends that see the same truth.

So in everyday life, genuine love looks a lot like being patient. Like holding yourself and those you love to the highest standard, but having mercy 70×7 times because no one is perfect.

It is relentless, when you ask your best friend (almost every night she’s home) if she wants to have a sleepover, even when she has rarely been able to the past seven years. It is embracing a sinner while denouncing a sin. It is sharing our small moments, because the present is the fullest gift we can give.

The bottom line is this: you are loved not because of what you do but because of who you are. Only then can we finally understand mercy– the over-abundant and unconditional form of love. The opposite delusion arises with the help of our falsely individualistic culture that removes us from the one place where we can best know ourselves– within our families. When the circumstances leave us with no answer for who we are, we are left to assign our worth to what we do. Unable to understand our personhood within the context of our family– think about how little brothers may always bring out our adventurous side and mothers, a passionate desire to be more hospitable– we are left jumping from place to place, dizzy since there is so much to  do and become distracted by.

This is why is is crucially important not to get caught up on a branch while trying to climb the tree. Work, business, and productivity are important things, but they are not the main thing (boy did I learn that the hard way this past semester). My dear Kristin reminded me that the real question I should be trying to answer is did you love?

The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.


Additional reading: The Lesson that Took Me 20 Years to Learn

Ode to Lake Zorinsky

Seven Miles of Trail Poetry  

The first meadow-thought surprises me: I wish they made perfume sweet as the warm, honeyed grass.

Half a mile down the rolling route, my limbs compromise on a rhythm (and it reminds me of that swing dance that midsummers night, too long ago).

Soft, a lilac flower! Who put you there, my favorite love-symbol? (He makes all things new).

And still the rhythm keeps: mile two.

Oh pale yellow flutter-fly– you mustn’t remind me of family summer suppers. I see now that the familiar pattern of dad with the grill, mom with the garden vegetables, and sister with the silverware is a carefully-ordered (ancient) dance.

There is a big city christened “Capitol” calling my name; quickly I am trying to put these girlish things behind me (opportunity cost is just another word for sacrifice, after all.)

Mile four announces itself en español (pienso en ti, la casa de Olga) and oh are my cheeks flushed– how quickly the pines breathe their cool breath on my forehead.

Sometimes we are given an answer!

Lest I become too elated with this rambunctious round of Nature, it seems the lake has lapped above its banks and almost tricked me into a wetter trip (if that friend was here, we’d splash right through.)

Now squirreling through traffic on the bridge, I chuckle realizing how even Nature herself has shepherded me back to my flock.

“It is not good for man to be alone.”

A little bobbing blonde head appears around the fresh turn, and I smile at the little one (oh, and three more!) before greeting his parents with full eyes.

Look at what you made.

After passing, my gaze rises upwards to offer thanks, just in time to wonder at how silently a storm cloud just passed over us. Never just a fact of nature, my mind and body compose a poem through the seventh mile.

More family.

I am running and laughing, the twin toddlers follow me laughing and running, and our guardian angels bless the Lord.

That peace! My trained mind can’t help considering why precisely a good dose of Nature is a healing salve– ah, wait! It is a child’s story.

The glory of Nature is to call each of us her younglings (what are years or experience to her?)

Grasses tickle us, trees shield us, water tricks us, and father sun nourishes and cleanses everyone under his burning gaze. Come nightfall, mother moon will sooth and watch our rising, dreaming chests.

We are never alone.

We are never far from Home.

Walt Whitman on Miracles

Oh God beyond all praising, we worship you today!

As I sleepily sit in a white rental minivan with my dad at the helm, zooming through the streets of Paradise Valley back to the airport, nothing seems short of a miracle. A mere three days of family Easter vacation in this desert oasis have reminded me that first things come first, and a first thing is to grab the person closest to you and give them a hug.

For me, the second thing is to share the wonderful things that strike me in the things that I read. I love poetry because it attunes our minds to the melody of the everyday. It sings from the order of leathery airplane seat rows, juxtaposed to the reckless glory of dawn unable to be held back by a thin airplane pane, the extra squeeze in a brother’s hug before we depart to our respective terminals towards our respective homes, and the unexpectedly cheery grin of the flight attendant as he dispenses breakfast cookies, lemon waters, coffees, and the occasional cocktail (oh what a mystery at 6am.) As Alain de Botton declares in The Art of Travel (a jolly brilliant book on which I frequently bubble over with mirth by quoting passages to my poor traveling companions):

Journeys are the midwives of thought. Few places are more conducive to internal conversations than moving planes, ships, or trains. There is an almost quaint correlation between what is before our eyes and the thoughts we are able to have in our heads: large thoughts at times requiring large views, and new thoughts, new places (pg. 54.)

And believe me, with the mind of an economics major, I mean to grasp and share this point in all its practicality. We know we’ve found the truth when it changes something. It begins to make all things new. So what do these mini-miracles mean for the way we go about our everyday lives? It’s pretty simple: our concrete reactions. Life sweeps us up in a new dance each morning (I’m pretty sure this is the reason that music, rhythms, and poems resonate so soundly with us.) A real gem for your Easter morning:
Miracles
By: Walt Whitman

Why, who makes much of a miracle?

As to me I know of nothing else but miracles,

Whether I walk the streets of Manhattan,

Or dart my sight over the roofs of houses toward the sky,

Or wade with naked feet along the beach just in the edge of the water,

Or stand under trees in the woods,

Or talk by day with any one I love, or sleep in the bed at night with any one I love,

Or sit at table at dinner with the rest,

Or look at strangers opposite me riding in the car,

Or watch honey-bees busy around the hive of a summer forenoon,

Or animals feeding in the fields,

Or birds, or the wonderfulness of insects in the air,

Or the wonderfulness of the sundown, or of stars shining so quiet and bright,

Or the exquisite delicate thin curve of the new moon in spring;

These with the rest, one and all, are to me miracles,

The whole referring, yet each distinct and in its place.

 

To me every hour of the light and dark is a miracle,

Every cubic inch of space is a miracle,

Every square yard of the surface of the earth is spread with the same,

Every foot of the interior swarms with the same.

 

To me the sea is a continual miracle,

The fishes that swim—the rocks—the motion of the waves—the ships with men in them,

What stranger miracles are there?

Ronald Reagan on Heroes

Heroes may not be braver than anyone else. They’re just braver 5 minutes longer.
― Ronald Reagan

I’d classify this quote as sheer genius for two reasons. (Well actually three, if you count the fact that I’m a huge fan of Ronald Reagan to begin with). The foremost is that it recognizes that we all have the capacity for heroism. That deep-down ardor for kleos aphthiton, enduring glory, was designed as part of our humanity. I think that our prevailing fear of failure, or even worse, dull complacency, causes us to set our sights much too low, much too often. There is a reason why it is good for us to surround ourselves with extraordinary people, why athletes often prepare for a game by envisioning themselves performing their best, or why we know to encourage young kids to read and draw. Running parallel to its pleasure, the power of the imagination is that it can transform abstract hero-worship in our mind into an understanding in our hearts that we are capable and have the obligation to act heroically. The second point is worthy of daily consideration: heroes are made in the small moments. The five minutes. If you do not adhere faithfully to your principles in the little things, how can you reasonably expect yourself to be faithful in the bigger, more public matters?

Inspired by the above quotation, I’d like to conclude this weekly passage with a tidy essay I recently penned on the two political leads whom I admire the most. Not only do both Walker and Sasse exhibit heroism, but they also inspire heroic action in others.


 

Two political leaders that I hold in high esteem are Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and Nebraskan Senator Ben Sasse. Both men fight for the free market and family values that are the bedrock of our great American society, though my particular admiration is sparked by how they do so. Walker is courageous and straightforward, and those virtues were demonstrated as he stood firm about making Wisconsin a right-to-work state and emerging victorious from the recall election by a greater margin than his original win. Second, he has the mind of a principled business leader, as he lowered taxes, reduced regulation, and cut funding to Planned Parenthood. My esteem of Senator Sasse arises because he has the well-rounded attributes of a great historian and communicator. Knowledge of history is necessary for understanding why our founding principles are worthy of conservation, and his scholarliness is evident in his speeches through his easy references to Tocqueville’s notion of voluntary association, Burke’s conservative principles, Madison’s view on limited government, and even Aristotle on friendship. His real wisdom is the way he presents these timeless truths with compassion and humor. An argument may be valid, but it must also be understood to be great. Lastly, exhibiting the difference between meaningful quotes and sound-bytes, Sasse once articulated the meaning of America in the best way I’ve heard:

Limited government is not an end in itself. Limited government is a way to constrain the things that could displace those institutions and those transmission opportunities that define what is fully meaningful in human life.

Happy Birthday, USA!

My family has a wonderful birthday tradition where we take turns going around the dinner table to speak about why we are thankful for the birthday boy/girl. Today, it looks like it’s my turn to talk about America.

There is a reason that I sit here today in front of my laptop, trying to scribble this out. There is a reason that the stretches of highways are populated with more families than usual today, trying to gather in celebration. There is a reason that so many people want to uproot and move to the United States, trying to forge a better life for their young children. There is a reason that we all can go on a drive and pass cheerful Little League games, mirror-like corporate office buildings, fresh farm stands selling sweet corn, vibrant art museums, libraries, malls, concert venues, hiking paths…the list goes on, trying to figure out how we ought to pursue happiness. There is a reason that, over the ages, countless men and women have looked death in the face and decided that yes, this is a sacrifice I will make, trying to protect my country. That reason is so colossal, so historical, and so profound that no words exist to fully grasp it’s essence. I’m stuck with the next-best option:

America is great.

She was built upon the firm foundation of God-given values, she is served and preserved for posterity by her faithful children, and she joins states, peoples, and families to become better in unity. America is not perfect, but greatness commands both respect and love. It can (and should) be a tough love sometimes, like when we speak up to caution her against something that we believe is not good for her. Or when we look at her actions and have the humility to say, hey, that was a mistake. But such an opinion is secondary, it flows from our hearts that beat knowing that America has done more for us than we could ever hope to repay. And for that we are truly grateful. As her happy children we will do our duty to repay, to preserve, and better her with each coming day. Happy birthday, USA!

Little brother Sam stole my outfit ;)
Little brother Sam stole my outfit 😉

Living Abroad Brought Me Home

When we observe how some people know how to manage their experiences—their insignificant, everyday experiences—so that they become an arable soil that bears fruit three times a year, while others—and how many there are!—are driven through surging waves of destiny, the most multifarious currents of the times and the nations, and yet always remain on top, bobbing like a cork, then we are in the end tempted to divide mankind into a minority (a minimality) of those who know how to make much of little, and a majority of those who know how to make little of much. —Nietzsche

Travel is like love, mostly because it’s a heightened state of awareness, in which we are mindful, receptive, undimmed by familiarity and ready to be transformed. That is why the best trips, like the best love affairs, never really end. — Pico Iyer

It has been a full week since I kissed my studying and service semester in La República Dominicana adios, flew smoothly through a 10-hour travel day, and crossed the threshold of my good old Wisconsin home for the first time in five months. I had told myself earlier that I would resist the urge to pen one of those “How Studying Abroad Changed My Life For Ever & Ever” posts, since the Internet (or at least just my Facebook feed) is overly indulged with them; all preaching essentially the same “carpe diem” thing. Yes, you should go study abroad! Your life will never be the same (obviously)!

But these next few paragraphs will be about something quite distinct: how spending five months in a beautiful yet developing country turned out to be just what I needed. Because I didn’t find what I needed there.

The central question that made itself at home in the depths of my mind throughout the entire five months was “why am I here?” And before I am misunderstood, I must emphasize that Encuentro Dominicano was an incredible opportunity that I continue to be 100% indebted to for revealing to me the beauty of service and community. Even more, these past few months could be viewed as a rapid succession of thrilling adventures, in which the Comunidad 19 accomplished feats we had scarcely previously imagined, while doing our part to leave our temporary home better than we found it. I was inexplicably drawn to the service-learning program in La República Dominicana, but it continually bothered me that I could not quite put my finger on why I was there.

Seeking out the answer relentlessly, I stumbled upon the “little” reasons. I was here to learn the patient art of living in community with 15 to-be-friends; I was here to be an older sister to Caoli and Carelin, my siblings in the campo; I was here to belt out “Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes” with the bright smiles of our Haitian school and teach them the English words for their favorite animals while a cuddly 2-year old was cradled at my hip; I was here to revel in the glamour of the open, glittering sea and to fail miserably at salsa dancing.

But by the time I had about three-fourths of the semester under my belt, I found in myself a desire that shocked me beyond belief, truly. Clara Elizabeth Jace just wanted to go home. This was astonishing because up until this summer, when someone would ask me where home is or where I am from, I took pride in explaining that I have moved a lot in my life and don’t really feel right calling just one place home. I was the independent, free-spirited wild child who wanted to discover and possess every aspect of life, intimately. And we all know that those kind of people are bitten by wanderlust and were made to explore the wide world rather than end each God-given day by watching Netflix at home in their suffocatingly comfortable beds. What was wrong with me? I became haunted by this aching desire to return home in order to carry out my unfinished business, business that was nothing more than a resolution to be a better person, both professionally and personally, to those who were ordained to remain in my life for longer than just five months. I especially couldn’t wait to start being a better daughter and older sister after relearning the value of family through the campo immersions. There is no denying the marvelous natural beauty of the Dominican Republic and of Misión ILAC (please believe me that some of my favorite nights were going on jogs around their tropical plant-enveloped trail) and it’s friendly culture. But while I was happy, my restlessness kept my thoughts turned homeward.

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Living abroad taught me how to be thankful.  I had this intellectual sense of thankfulness before, where I knew instinctively that I needed to practice thankfulness in order to be happy, but it was only habituated for the obvious things– I was thankful when I had a major victory in school, pushed my limits on those evening runs, or enjoyed a fabulous night on the town with friends. When not only those things (which did actually appear in their Dominican form), but the general order and cleanliness I was accustomed to in the United States, every single one of my friends, and most of my material possessions were stripped away for those five months, I had to discover newer, “smaller” things to be thankful for. My list (yep, actually a note on my phone): the lull of the fans, yuca, the rocking chairs, the spiral staircases to reach the rooftop terraces, plantains, la bandera, the characters of the campo, Sunday mass in Spanish, the comunidad and our awesome teachers/friends, familiar books, bachata and merengue dancing, the powerful sun, childhood songs I had nearly forgotten, technology such as Skype and handwritten letters, spontaneous adventures due to the gauguas…the list is extensive while not nearly exhaustive. Currently resting on my peaceful back porch in the States, it may be said that my thankfulness count has increased exponentially. I notice the birds, plants, and whistling wind as if I were encountering them for the first time. We truly aren’t aware of how good we have it here.

Living abroad taught me how to understand beauty. And that is absolutely, inextricably linked to practicing thankfulness. My individual aesthetic ascribes beauty to a certain sophisticated elegance, for example, on the rainy days my heart wanders back towards the seductive wisdom, history and art of the museums in Rome, the lofty cathedrals of sacred Israel, and the rolling French countryside in which I picnicked on white wine and fresh bread last summer, surrounded by my family and friends. Though the Dominican Republic undeniably possesses an intriguing history and abundance of culture, our service-learning program revealed a novel kind of beauty to me. In particular, I was returned back to the basics. Though I was admittedly out of my comfort-zone in the simplicity of the campo, I only had to raise my eyes to admire the sublime mountain range that watches over the houses. Though the road was not paved and we didn’t have running water, I soon began to see the beauty in the careful manner in which my campo mom, Olga, thoroughly cleaned her house every day. Though there were no books to be found, I saw how the kindness and piety that was displayed by countless members of the community is purer than any worldly knowledge. I could continue on with precious pearls of experiences, but let it suffice to say that the gift of simplicity revealed itself to me. All the while, I still did not lose sight of my more learned loves and made it my personal mission to leave Carelin and Caoli with their own petite, classical library.

Living abroad taught me what home is. With my renewed understanding of thankfulness and beauty, I could not wait to rush back and behold the familiar as if it were magical once again, to treat my family and neighborhood like we were a real community. Though far away from our homes proper, our experience had been saturated with experiences of community and family. I have long held that one ought to practice the ability to cultivate a home wherever one is planted, no matter how transiently. I had not legitimately put that belief into practice until taking up residence in the Dominican Republic for those months, and I now realize the poverty of that view. What makes home “home” is that it’s irreplaceable, unable to be replicated. Sure, enough time might suffice to reconcile the disparity between strangeness and familiarity, but the object of the majority of travel is to return home. With new eyes, a rejuvenated perspective, and a new treasure chest of memories and friendships, yes, but nevertheless to return home. I profess that never have I been more enchanted with my home, more thankful for my country, or more in love with my family. I have my thrilling, difficult, interesting, uncomfortable, crazy and refreshing semester abroad to thank for that. Living abroad brought me home.

When we observe how some people know how to manage their experiences—their insignificant, everyday experiences—so that they become an arable soil that bears fruit three times a year, while others—and how many there are!—are driven through surging waves of destiny, the most multifarious currents of the times and the nations, and yet always remain on top, bobbing like a cork, then we are in the end tempted to divide mankind into a minority (a minimality) of those who know how to make much of little, and a majority of those who know how to make little of much. —Nietzsche

You’ll Be In My Heart

There is no stress, no anxiety, just this feeling of fullness. Perhaps that’s when you know you did something right.

“We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give.”

-Winston Churchill

Early yesterday morning, we had to kiss the Mississippi ground goodbye and embark on our 14-hr road trip back to good old Omaha.  I’d been dreading my return to the real world – throngs of emails, midterm grades, tedious assignments, the general organization required for living –  but I wakened today in my own bed with this prevailing sense of peace.  Instead of hurriedly checking my phone, I silently gazed out my window at early Autumn’s display of green and gold. There is no stress, no anxiety, just this feeling of fullness. Perhaps that’s when you know you did something right.

The pleasant aftermath of my service trip has reminded me of three important lessons:

1. Don’t worry about tomorrow.

It’s actually kind of embarrassing to think about how many times we have heard this, and still we continue to fritter away our time-allotment worrying and planning and stressing and talking about stressing and complaining about worrying… It takes a dramatic change of routine to break out of that vicious cycle. I attribute this newfound sense of peace in the present to the leaving behind of our cellphones for the entire week during our service trip. Hopefully you’ve heard it before, but just in case I will emphasize it again – life is much fuller when we don’t attempt to fill it with meaningless distractions. That week we did something different and uncomfortable, because we trusted that it would toughen us up for the better. We were reckless youth, but we were reckless with our kindness, openness, and joy, gambling that our time would be well spent in the service of others. We rebelled against the norm by staying up into the early hours of the morning – reflecting on our service, playing games, and baking cakes. We didn’t worry about what the next day had in store, because we knew we had more than enough in front of us, right then and there.

2. Reading will shape you into a more empathetic, understanding, and insightful being.

Oh, how I wish I could somehow fully convince the sweet kiddos that I tutored and hung out with this past week to take that truth to heart. As time goes on, I’ve witnessed more and more the incredibly forceful effect that good (also bad) books have on lives. I mean, how great is it that you can get an insight into someone’s head and have a shared experience, without ever having met them? Whether we like it or not, new understandings impact us. Literature give us a clue to the thought well thought, the word well said, and the deed well done. It is then up to us to make those noble thoughts, words, and actions our own; we must edify our lives into heroic poetry. I wish I could tell the kids that spending a summer day reading in a tree, and then consequently not being able to help but go out and hunt for the excitement you just got a glimpse of, is ten times more thrilling at the end of the day than curbing boredom by watching show after show on TV or the computer. Everything in moderation, of course, but I noticed a severe lack of enthusiasm for reading amongst the teachers and students, which I would dearly like to remedy. My suggestion? Read a good book. Think about that book, then talk about that book, then write about that book. I promise, you won’t be able to stop, and your life will be all the better for it.

3. Humble yourself.

There is an unparalleled power and beauty in the rawness of the human soul.

We nine of the “Calhoun Clique” have something real neat. We left our phones and our façades at home. We have a shared week-long experience that no one else will ever be able to replicate or to understand. And I tell myself, hold onto that feeling. But the truth is, I’ve felt like this before, and it put down roots. This past week gave birth to a peace that significantly deepened and heartened the stately tree of serenity that was already alive in my soul. It brought a renewed clarity to my life, improving upon the particular perspectives I had previously held and also forging new ones. Teaching ourselves to search out the beauty in the people and places we run across is a lifelong task, but I do know that we all grew by leaps and bounds in that area during this past week. I look back and think, how did I not know the beauty in the innocence and simplicity of waking up next to my new pals each new day? It is in the gift of a sleepy “good morning” to the occupant of the neighboring air mattress, while handing them that much-needed cup of black coffee. How did I not know the beauty in the wildly distracted student who could never sit still? It is in the gift of her endearing trust in me, as I later learn she is a foster child, yearning for care and comfort. How did I not know the beauty in nine wearied voices singing in unison on the last leg of our trip, just so that we may give each other one last precious, enduring memory? It is in the gift of the relationships that only open, exposed human souls can give one another. We left our comfort-zone to become humbled by each other, and in return we found uplifting peace.

The task now before us is to become a channel of peace for others.