Be careful about sending that link. You have no idea what lies beneath.

April 29, 2013 § 2 Comments

Be forewarned. Teachers, parents, and anyone inclined to send out links: What you send may not be what the reader sees.

A friend of mine recently placed a link on Facebook to a blog post by David Frum. Frum is a well known conservative and holds a prestigious fellowship at the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington think tank. From everything I know, he is a swell guy. Frum’s blog is hosted by the Daily Beast, a site which, according to its own self-description, “is dedicated to breaking news and sharp commentary.”

That’s misleading. From what I can tell, the Daily Beast is dedicated to everything. It has sections for politics, entertainment, art, books, business and more. The Daily Beast is also the home of Newsweek magazine, now available only in digital format. The Web site has, I think it’s fair to say, a veneer of respectability. At first glance, it would seem like a reasonable place to read about culture or news.

Frum’s post, the one I clicked to read, was on the Boston bombing. It was titled, “Tamer Tsarnaev’s Mosque Won’t Give Him an Islamic Funeral.”

I read the story and, as I scanned down the page, noticed that right below Frum’s biography was a section titled, “You Might Also Like.” One of the “You Might Also Like” stories was titled “Angelina on the Block” and included a picture of Angelina Jolie overborne by a horse burying its head into her barely concealed breasts. Briefly I was puzzled, and also disturbed by the freakish horse-Jolie affair; then I realized what was going on.

This section didn’t feature other posts by David Frum. It provided links, with thumbnail images, to other content on the Daily Beast and around the Web. In this section, the links and images change each time the page is refreshed. For example, when I refreshed the page again, I saw the same Jolie image along with a story titled, “Nipple Tattoos Increase in Popularity in U.K.” — I can’t tell: is that “breaking news” or “sharp commentary”? — which included a close-up of a woman’s chest with an arm and hand barely covering the most private areas.

The content doesn’t depend upon the reader’s browsing history or where the reader discovered the link to the original story. Even if you don’t care to read about the weirdness of Angelina Jolie, you cannot stop the links from materializing. You don’t even know they will surface because it’s arbitrary (or it is to the browser; I have no doubt that what appears designless is covertly governed by the hidden formulas of plutology).

I debated whether to show here what I saw at the Daily Beast, but I thought doing so would better enforce my point and awaken readers to a worrisome feature of surfing the web. It’s also an example of exactly what I wrote about on this blog, in a post that warned about virtual kidnapping.


This is what I saw upon arrival, after my first reading. You will see the “You Might Also Like” section below the post.

What I first saw after reading Frum's column.



I refreshed the page a few times to see what might pop up. Sometimes, as you see below, nothing objectionable materializes and it looks harmless:


daily beast appropriate scrnshot



But quite often, what showed up was a lurid story with a suggestive image or something related to the porn industry (see the screenshots), material that has no place at a respectable Web site and certainly not a site that purports to be about “breaking news” and “sharp commentary,” and which hosts authors like the well known conservative David Frum. Here is what I mean:


More sophisticated content from the Daily Beast: A story about the porn industry.


daily beast screenshot 5


There were other images of similar prurience.

Some will say it’s no big deal. “It’s not porn,” someone told me. I don’t know about technical definitions, but that question is beside the point because there is plenty to object to. Web sites are using third-party companies to fill “You Might Also Like” sections, and these companies ambush the reader with content ranging from the merely annoying to the suggestive to the vile. It is the surprise factor that most unsettles: even if the story and the link appear appropriate, even if the link appears on the Web site of a (historically) respectable news provider, the randomly generated nature of the “You Might Also Like” content means that the sender of the link has no idea what might intervene on the other end.

I know there will be eye-rolling and, from some, a shrug of the shoulders, as if I’m overreacting. But let me be clear: I realize that graphic imagery is nothing new; I realize that people can find material that is far worse than what the Daily Beast or like-minded sites purvey. My point is not that I’m shocked, shocked that raunchy material floats online. My point is to alert fellow educators, and parents, to what lurks.

Education, like everything else, exists increasingly online. Students go to Google, not the library. And teachers want to keep stride with the times. We want to keep students up to date and informed about major news stories and international affairs — such as what happened in Boston. So what can teachers do? Here are a few ideas that I and a few of my colleagues suggest:

  • Scrutinize the Web page to be certain it’s a reputable Web page. Try to ensure it comes from a historically trustworthy source. But know that even if that’s the case, you’re not necessarily in the clear. Even if you get that far, it’s also good to refresh the same page a few times to see if there is anything that emerges randomly, like in the “You Might Also Like” sections.
  • If you cannot be assured the Web page is appropriate, consider printing out the article you want to send and then scanning it to yourself. That way you have a PDF copy of only the article, and you can email it or post it to another  database without worrying about inappropriate links or advertising.
  • Copy and paste the article into the body of an email (if you want to avoid extra images and other material that sits on a page, try hitting the “Print” button that most sites have next to their stories. This print button usually brings up a window that provides a clean, text-only copy of the story or article). That way you have the text without any troublesome add-ons.
  • Ask yourself: do you really need to send a student to a Web site? Can you convey the same information in another manner? Remember that even if to you everything looks okay, the strange and predatory nature of advertising and marketing may transform the page without you intending it.
  • Communicate with parents. If you teach a subject that requires lots of outside reading (of magazines, newspapers, or journals, stuff that’s most easily accessed online), inform parents of the add-ons that Web sites now have. Enlist an extra set of eyes so that other responsible adults are watching what students read.
  • Email authors and editors of Web sites and urge them to uphold good taste and to monitor the links they allow next to otherwise decent stories. Let them know of the false security their sites convey. Good ol’ fashion activism might not move mountains, but it might persuade one good soul or two to join you in the pursuit to ennoble culture. I have already emailed David Frum letting him know my concerns.
  • Engage students in a discussion about ethical online behavior, about parameters for respectable media. In the best of the Ignatian tradition, call students to honor the dignity of the human person, invite them to resist temptation and seek “what is above, not of what is on earth.”

These steps of caution, I realize, cannot and will not prevent curious students from locating what they will, nor will they deter profit-seeking conglomerates from pushing sleaze. But they are at least a few small measures that educators and parents can take to avoid unintentionally involving young people with crude and corrupting material. While it imposes extra responsibility on teachers, Ignatian educators (all Catholic educators, for that matter) should embrace these duties wholeheartedly. We expect our students to be intentional, and so must we be. Moreover, we have taken it upon ourselves to offer an education rooted in cura personalis. It is our sacred mission to join with parents in safeguarding a student’s mind and soul, endeavoring to keep them, and us, more dignified than tawdry publications like the aptly named “Daily Beast.”

Posted by Matt Emerson.


What book or film impacted your life or altered how you see the world? What art left a lasting imprint on your soul?

April 29, 2013 § 6 Comments

Seeing with new eyes.

Seeing with new eyes.

Over the last two weeks I’ve been reflecting upon the book Unbroken, Laura Hillenbrand’s account of Olympic runner and WWII hero Louis Zamperini. It’s one of the best books I’ve ever read, so captivating that I feel like I temporarily developed a photographic memory.

I’m not sure this book changed, or will end up changing, my life. But it certainly has me thinking about World War II, bravery, and manhood. Am I capable of that kind of heroism? Am I called to give to my country in similar ways? What have I done, or what can I do, to inspire courage?

As I began to think about those questions, I became curious about what other books, or other works of film, television, art, or music impacted, transformed, or left a lasting imprint on others. A book, a movie, or piece of art that left someone gratefully altered.

Ignatian Educator readers, care to share? I’d like to compile a list of books, movies, and other contributions of culture that I can mine for myself and my students.  Please offer your selections in the comment section below.  Tell about what you saw or read and why it was so influential.


Posted by Matt Emerson.

The Boston bombers and the ‘digital river’

April 28, 2013 § Leave a comment

The most read essay on this young blog was one I wrote just two weeks ago titled, “How your child will be kidnapped.” I gave it a provocative name to capture attention and convey the seriousness of the subject matter. My subject was

one kind of virtual kidnapping that hasn’t gained much attention. It doesn’t involve any direct human contact; it doesn’t involve any dramatic arrest captured on camera. It’s not physical theft; it is soul theft. It is the trauma to a child’s psychology, self-image and worldview that comes from browsing the Internet. It is the result of roaming online unsupervised, without warnings about whom to run from or avoid.

Today in the New York Times, Thomas Friedman discusses basically the exact same phenomenon in the context of the Boston bombings. In his column titled “Judgment Not Included,” he writes:

“As for the role that Web sites apparently played in the ‘self-radicalization’ of the two Chechen brothers, it is yet another reminder that the Internet is a digital river that carries incredible sources of wisdom and hate along the same current. It’s all there together. And our kids and citizens usually interact with this flow nakedly, with no supervision.” Friedman calls for us to “build the internal software, the internal filters, into every citizen to sift out fact from fiction in this electronic torrent, which offers so much information that has never been touched by an editor, a censor or a libel lawyer.”

It’s a compelling column, and it adds a further point to my own: These Internet kidnappings not only the harm the captives; they have the capacity to radicalize them into a murderous menace to society. Read his full text here.


Posted by Matt Emerson.

Coachella and Me: Part II, Life on the inside

April 27, 2013 § 1 Comment

This is the second post on my recent weekend at Coachella Fest. For part one, see here.

My first impression, when we arrived on Friday, was of Halloween. People came in every style, the only rule apparently being not to wear too much. Tank tops, t-shirts, polo shirts, ripped shorts, plaid shorts, jean shorts, spandex, mandex, bathing suits, lingerie (seriously), jeans, flip-flops, sandals, Vans, tennis shoes, no shoes . . . long hair, short hair, unwashed hair, something-is-growing-in-it hair  . . . girls with flowers in their hair (innocent and sweet little arrangements, like Jenny wears in “Forrest Gump”), men donning Native American war bonnets . . . rings through noses, rings through ears, rings through belly buttons . . . tattoos, all over.

Shortly after entering the main gate, I saw one shirt that said, “Sex, Drugs, and Rap” and another that proclaimed, “I lost my virginity in the Sahara tent” (the Sahara tent is one of the rave tents at the concert).

Imagine, in other words, a reality show blending an American mall, a red light district, a costume store and “Kim and Chloe Take Miami,”  and you have something of the sartorial vibe. On Friday I wore a plain t-shirt and jeans and felt very normal and also very unjudged. In the variety and strangeness of style, in the recognition that everything goes, one notices a paradox: though gawking is natural, so is acceptance. Knowing that everything was tolerated made me pleasantly self-forgetful. It didn’t matter what I wore.

Reaching the concert grounds, in front of the stages, it seemed we had entered a neutral space, a kind of demilitarized zone where inhabitants, refugees from civilization, would be left alone so long as they didn’t get out of hand. Cops and concert workers were stationed here and there, but for the most part there was an obvious absence of authority. People milled and sauntered about with ease; they sat down wherever, slept wherever, danced wherever, did drugs wherever. A second paradox: people were not allowed to bring alcohol outside of the beer gardens, but if they wanted to smoke a joint, they could light up pretty much at will, so long as they found a space of darkness or a few people to give cover.

Enter at your own risk.

Enter at your own risk.

Over the course of the weekend, I don’t remember how many bands we saw, or all their names. For me, most of the music was forgettable, and my chief joy came from having fun with great people. My happiness was knowing they were happy, knowing that they were part of a revelry they had long looked forward to. Since I wasn’t too focused on the music, I had time to contemplate.

I realized that to really enjoy Coachella, to make the $350 worth it, you have to love, love music. But not just music. Loving music alone will not power you through the clamor and the frenzy and the long nights. You have to love the clamor and the frenzy and the long nights themselves. You have to love the smoke rising from the food vendors and the smoke rising from those smoking weed. You have to love the sense of stripping away that beckons at every corner. You have to enjoy everything that comprises the music “scene,” all its brilliance, all its strangeness, all its pathos, all its blurry combinations of the best and worst of humanity. You have to love that guy who falls to the grass, looking frighteningly cadaverous, only to be yanked to his feet seconds later, revived by friends who will not — yet — let the intoxicants win. You have to love that guitarist, the one on the right side of the stage, isolated and addled, who is not so much playing his guitar as attacking it, strangling it, demanding that it surrender the cry of sound which, for him and the assembled, promises eternity. You have to love the thrill of waiting; waiting among throngs, waiting with your arms and neck warming with sweat, waiting with your knees feeling brittle from long standing, waiting for the first sign of performance . . . perhaps a flicker of the lights, a movement behind the stage . . . You have to love not just particular bands, but bandness itself, song itself, the very idea of humans coming together to respond to that ancient, mysterious, and elusive god that unites Beethoven and the Beatles, Chopin and Jimmy Hendrix: the numen that captures our heartache, confirms our rage, utters our sadness, and magnifies our joy.

If I speak in religious terms, that’s because, for a great many people, Coachella is nothing short of a religious experience. One misinterprets Coachella to think of it only as a modern project, as the result of superficial iconoclasm or “kids these days.” Although this triduum of libertinism does occasionally feel like a fraternity party, the behaviors and attitudes at Coachella are more significant than mere undergraduate stupidity. Surveying the arms thrusting into the air, the convulsing of torsos, the ingesting of mind-altering substances, I saw a quintessentially human longing to be transported, to be elevated into something beyond, into something unclassifiable. I saw a hint of that desire that all of us feel from time to time, and which, theologically, points to something both beautiful and dark: that desire to live without constraint, to be unlimited in the pursuit of satisfaction.

But if Utopia charges me $9 for a warm beer, that’s not my version of paradise. Moreover, if there is anything particularly modern about Coachella it was its disorderedness. My Catholic and classically trained mind kept looking for meaning, for purpose, some kind of unifying philosophical expression in the sights and sounds. My mind searched for an overall something within the chaos. But I was not going to find it.

If we’re really going to get deep, Coachella Fest perfectly reflected the post-modern attack on any enduring themes, motifs, or frameworks of meaning. Weird contraptions sat on the concert grounds, one of which looked like the head of a bug and served, apparently, as a ride. An enormous inflatable snail crawled across the grass for reasons that no one seemed to know. One creative use of lights and images made it look like people were walking through a makeshift apartment. And one performance art piece called “The Coachella Power Station” was described by Luis Sinco of the Los Angeles Times this way: “Characters wearing industrial white jumpsuits and giant hippopotamus heads danced inside a small building beneath a pair of smoking stacks, pretending to work the station’s controls.”

I don't know either.

I don’t know either.

Like all post-modern efforts, the message Coachella Fest conveys is deconstructive of social order. The message is that there are no unchanging values or belief systems to which art or culture must give expression. There is no truth, or no truth that is not whatever you want it to be. Be whomever, or whatever, you want. Find meaning in things, or don’t. By Sunday night, I detected the thread that connected my observations: absent from everything I saw was purpose, some kind of ultimate and uplifting and meaningful purpose that could ennoble those walking the grounds. It was, instead, the opposite, a Woody Allen movie without the funny lines. Most of what I saw reflected a people conflicted, uncertain, fearful, and divided. If culture is the answer to the question, “What is the meaning of life?” Coachella Fest answered, “I have no clue.”

I came to Coachella with an open mind. I wanted to be converted. I wanted to be able to relate to my students, to be able to say, “I get it,” to not be a curmudgeon. But I found that I could not. Coachella Fest is an unhealthy environment, filled with toxic sights and sounds, both literal and metaphorical. It licenses behaviors that the overwhelming majority of civilized and virtuous people reject as unworthy of the human being. Modesty, purity, self-respect, temperance, hard work, respect for law: at Coachella, it all comes under powers of dissolution. Clothing options objectified; people did drugs casually and without consequence; some of the musical acts shouted obscenities and made light of people getting high; crowds acted like docile pets (one performer told the entire crowd to take off their shirts and throw them into the air, and a few seconds later, hundreds did).

As a teacher, I was appalled, and as (perhaps) a future parent, I was saddened. One can enjoy good music and not encounter these corrosive, demeaning side effects.

This is not to say it was all unenjoyable. Some of the bands — Vampire Weekend, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Of Monsters and Men — were very good. I enjoyed watching firsthand an event that energizes my community and gains worldwide fame. The coffee was good. I enjoyed the bike rides to the concert and the walks back home, chatting and laughing with wonderful people, the kind of people who give me hope that the worst elements of Coachella Fest will be, in the end, thoroughly repudiated.

Posted by Matt Emerson.

Coachella Fest and Me: Part I

April 25, 2013 § 3 Comments

I did not go in.

I did not go in.

When I told my students I was going to Coachella Fest, I might as well have said I was pregnant. Dropped jaws, wide eyes, looks of incomprehension. What? Mr. Emerson is going to Coachella? Some were amused, some were vaguely proud (a couple students who long ago appeared to have dismissed me as lame appeared slightly inspired with renewed hope), and some looked horrified. They let YOU in there? Rows of students furrowed their collective brow into an expression that said, “How can this be?

“Coachella Fest,” or simply “Coachella,” is the insider lingo for the classier sounding and more misleading official name of the event, Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival, which makes landfall every spring in Indio, CA, a town only a few minutes from where I teach and live. The full name includes “arts,” but people go there for art the way people go to museums for coffee. The hundreds of thousands of people who herd into the concert grounds do not come for art. They come for music. They come for transcendence. They come to see and be seen and participate in a version of freedom not usually available among those who do their bills and pay taxes.

And it’s huge. Over the course of two consecutive weekends, from Friday night to Sunday night, almost two-hundred bands perform on six different stages, representing all musical genres. On one stage might be hip-hop, on another, Indie rock, and on still another, something indefinable, a musician mixing genres and sounds into a melange of noise that sounds like it was produced by Jackson Pollock. This year’s lineup included the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Vampire Weekend, Dropkick Murphys, and many other bands with names like Infected Mushroom, How to Destroy Angels, the Airborne Toxic Event, the Postal Service, Trash Talk, Of Monsters and Men, Social Distortion, and Spiritualized. “What do those names mean?” you ask. Exactly.

I went to Coachella at the urging of good people and good friends, hoping to share their excitement for music and wanting, I admit, to see it for myself. I didn’t want to be lame. What was this event like? Why did students treat it like Pentecost? What drew the attention of international news outlets? It would, I thought, be an experiment, a way to apply the lessons of my own class to my own life.

The Single Story

In the course I teach, Senior Synthesis, we begin the semester by reading and then watching a TED talk by Nigerian author Chimamanda Adichie. The talk is about the “single story,” which Adichie defines as a one-dimensional, limiting viewpoint that we form about people, places, experiences, and many other human situations. It’s similar to a stereotype. She talked, for example, about how she formed single stories about literature because the only books she had as a child were British books. She didn’t know that people like her — people with her skin and hair — could exist in novels. When she came to study in the United States, her roommate thought Adichie listened to tribal music and didn’t speak English. Adichie had to inform her that English was the official language of Nigeria and that, rather than tribal music, she liked Mariah Carey. Her roommate, in other words, had carried a single story about Africa and Africans.

Adichie gives other examples, and the overall message is that single stories impair our understanding of ourselves and the world. They might contain some truth, but they are incomplete. The world is more complex than a single story. Our mission, then, is to be open to multiple stories, to confront our own ignorance and our own wish to see things through a self-fulfilling narrative.

The talk is excellent. Every year it becomes the most influential reading I assign. I assign it to invite students into a conversation about the limitations of our knowledge, about the ways it’s obscured or malformed. I assign it also to shake them up a bit, to get them wondering whether they have relied upon single stories about God, about religion, about the possibility of faith. It’s very effective, and it nicely clears a path for the rest of the course, which includes more explicit religious themes.

Did I have a single story of Coachella? Had I wrongly assumed it to be a gathering point for drifters and drugs? From stories of previous attendees, I imagined the whole rock star scene . . . clusters of small clouds drifting up from addled concertgoers concealing cigarettes and joints . . . strange fashion, few clothes, harrowing tattoos . . . and the generalized retreat from civilization that I associate with fraternity parties or Oakland Raiders fans. I assumed I’d be uncomfortable, unable to relax. I assumed the music wouldn’t be worth it.


Ah, food.

I knew, however, that I might have a single story. I was willing to let it shatter.

But I also wanted to go for another reason, a reason arising from my role as an Ignatian educator. In a key document about Jesuit education, the authors write:

Similarly, personal care and concern for the individual, which is a hallmark of Jesuit education, requires that the teacher become as conversant as possible with the life experience of the learner. Since human experience, always the starting point in an Ignatian pedagogy, never occurs in a vacuum, we must know as much as we can about the actual context within which teaching and learning take place. As teachers, therefore, we need to understand the world of the student, including the ways in which family, friends, peers, youth culture and mores as well as social pressures, school life, politics, economics, religion, media, art, music, and other realities impact that world and affect the student for better or worse.

-from Ignatian Pedagogy: A Practical Approach (para. 34)

Regardless of its reputation, our students embrace Coachella. They love music. In the days leading up to it, campus is charged with fresh energy. On the Friday of Coachella’s first weekend, the weekend when many students attend, they carry the excitement that precedes summer vacation. Some kind of liberation, they feel, awaits. Something amazing stirs. It’s not a concert, it’s a pilgrimage.

So I wanted to go to understand their context, to understand what fills them with such smiling anticipation. How could I talk about the journey to faith if I couldn’t relate to what they most cared about? I had heard so much secondhand, it was time to see it directly, lawlessness and all.

I would go to Coachella.

What would I find? Stay tuned for part II.

Posted by Matt Emerson.

Hollywood takes a page from Jesuit ed

April 24, 2013 § Leave a comment

Jesuit high schools host simple meals and find other ways to invite students to think about the poor and the marginalized.  I know many will dimiss this and find only desire for publicity, but I’d rather see this than no awareness whatsoever. And who knows: the Spirit is mysterious.

Parents, don’t let your children grow up to be…

April 24, 2013 § 1 Comment

I’m entering the last quarter of Tony Wagner’s book Creating Innovators: The Making of Young People Who Will Change the World, and one of the themes throughout the book is the importance of parenting. Innovation is not fostered solely by schools; it starts with how a child’s imagination and playfulness are shaped in the home. Based on his experience with innovators and discussions about their young life, Wagner says that innovative children are more likely to develop when they are encouraged to explore various interests and activities as they progress through childhood and into adolescence.

The parents of the people that Wagner profiles didn’t drive their children to specialize; they didn’t encourage them to be only a volleyball player or only a basketball player or only someone that plays video games. Kirk Phelps, one of the early designers of the iPhone, said, “They [his parents] didn’t care all that much about what I was interested in; they were far more interested in the process of my finding out what it was that I was interested in.” The father of Shanna Tellerman, the founder of Sim Ops Studios, a company that developed a web platform for 3D design, said, “We basically let Shanna show us where she wanted to go. We had a sense of trust that she’d figure out what she wanted to do and would be happier for having made her own decisions. We never said she can’t earn a living with art.” Brad Anderson, former CEO of Best Buy said, “Creative problem-solving comes from being engaged with what you are doing. What I want most for my kids is that they care about and are engaged in something that matters to them — that their life is authentic.”

This isn’t to say that specialization is bad or that a really talented athlete or musician should not or cannot focus on a particular instrument or sport. Dedication can develop hard work and loyalty. It can also lead to mastery, to that excellence that we detect in any great composition, be it in art, drama, or sport. Taking a buffet-style approach to life can lead to an overly selective mentality that diminishes persistence, loyalty, and persistence through struggle.

Moreover, children need leadership. They cannot make these decisions solely on their own. Parents, after all, are there to parent. Having said that, Wagner’s book confirms how unwise it can be to weave a child’s identity around one thing only. Students are not omniscient; they don’t always know what they want. In high school, priorities evolve. But I’ve known some parents the last few years, some who are very well meaning, who rearrange their lives around their son or daughter’s sport, and it’s not clear at all that the child prefers that (one former student hated volleyball but marched on through club teams because of her father’s will). Other parents deter their children from pursuing passions in the arts under the belief that those paths will not make money.

The more I watch parents do this, the more I cannot defend it. We have one life; we get one chance to do what we are born for. Why would we do anything else?

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