Thursday, August 20, 2009

The Best College in America?

Forbes recently announced that the "best" college in America is The U.S. Military Academy at West point. Emphasis on Military. For the uninformed, that's the University of Army.

The college rankings are based on five criteria: graduation rate (how good a college is at helping its students finish on time); the number of national and global awards won by students and faculty; students' satisfaction with their instructors; average debt upon graduation; and postgraduate vocational success as measured by a recent graduate's average salary and alumni achievement. (The ranking institute) "prize(s) the undergraduate experience and how well prepared students are for the real world rather than focusing on inputs such as acceptance rates and test scores." According to these criteria, the top five colleges are:

1. United States Military Academy; 2. Princeton University; 3. California Institute of Technology; 4. Williams College; 5. Harvard University.

What I'm wondering is, based on the criteria, why places 2-5 aren't held by the Air Force Academy, the Naval Academy, Coast Guard Academy, and Quantico. Those four must tie West Point for graduation rate and debt upon graduation. And, looking at those four who trail West Point, they have to be at the opposite extreme for debt. That they even came close is amazing. One would think, though, that Princeton, CIT, Williams, and Harvard must have made up ground in the preparation for the real world.

Now, I'm not one to knock the military academies. Well, OK, not to their faces. I didn't serve in the armed forces; I worked in a classroom of behaviorally challenged misfits in a school for two years, making $148 a month as "alternative service" after being drafted. The closest I got to the military was competing against Air Force in college duel track meets. But, I was thinking, wouldn't it be nice if the U.S. government had a 6th college that was highly competitive in admitting bright young folks, required a U.S. senator's recommendation, and paid the applicants' tuition on the condition that upon graduation, they would have to serve for five years in VISTA or the Peace Corps, or some equivalent? Imagine what that would mean: Sending our best and brightest into the world to work for peace rather than prepare for war. Let's face it, as long as we are turning out military officers, we need to find them work, something our government has been very good at for the past five decades, whether it is in our country's best interest or not.

Peace Corps volunteers have been among my heroes for many years. They live under extremely impoverished conditions, often in dangerous situations, and establish positive long-term relationships with people in developing countries, all for no thanks, and no pension. I'd love to see a July 4th parade led by returned Peace Corps volunteers. They are every bit as patriotic as our service men and women. It's time we honored their service to the country as well. (Yes, I know about the pot smoking, but my ex-military service friends report that they certainly would give the Peace Corps crowd a run for their marijuana money.)

Back to the "best" college thing. I'm hoping that some senator or congress(wo)man will get to work on introduction of a bill to establish the first United States Peace University. If it passes, I will be first in line to contribute to their endowment fund. We need some balance in perspective as to our role in the world. Instead of sending young people to die for our financial interests, let's send people forth beyond even what the Peace Corps and VISTA volunteers do, and establish long-term, high-level political ties for what the people of the world are more than ready for: A lasting peace.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Visit Kuala Lumpur: It's a Gas!

Needing to choose a destination to another country in order to correct a visa screwup by Kat's school, we decided on Kuala Lumpur. The capital of Malaysia is a comfortable two hour flight from Bangkok, so we hopped on an Air Asia airbus for a brief weekend stay. Upon arrival we immediately began making comparisons between "KL" and Bangkok. Despite being in neighboring countries, there were obvious differences.

First, it was possible to read every sign in Malaysia. Granted, we couldn't understand most of them, but Malay uses the same alphabet as we do in English. In fact, many English words have been adopted by Malay, probably due to British colonial influence. However, the Malaysians have converted them phonetically: teksi, immigresen, diskoun, ekspres, sentral. While we often struggle painfully to sound out each letter at a time in Thai script (provided we recognize one of their 44 letters), Malay is quite easy to pronounce.

In contrast to Bangkok's chaotic sprawl, KL is relatively compact. We easily walked throughout most of the city, which would be an impossibility in the Thai capital. Of course, Bangkok is about six times as large, but as big cities go (1.2 million), Kuala Lumpur was quite accessible by foot, monorail or bus. And, despite being closer to the equator, it is not as hot as Bangkok. Vehicular traffic was creampuff--one can actually cross the street there without fear of falling prey to waves of unpredictable traffic.

It is interesting that two countries that share a border can be so different; religion plays a huge part in determining cultural norms. While Thais always smile and avoid prolonged eye contact, Malays stare; Thai men jokingly flirt, Malay men leer; Thais greet with hands pressed together in a "wai"; Malays shake hands or simply nod; As Buddhists, Thais have no designated worship time or weekly holy days, Malays, as Muslims, follow a rigid prayer schedule; Kuala Lumpur has one major business area where skyscrapers reign, Bangkok's highrises are spread out indiscriminately across the cityscape; Thai food is much more flavorful and spicy than Malay cuisine.

While we appreciated the differences, we also enjoyed the similarities: Wandering through bustling street markets, riding the elevated trains, chatting with friendly shopkeepers, trying new dishes, and being greeted as we walked through residential areas. But then something wholly unexpected happened as we meandered through the delightful bazaars of Little India and Chinatown. As we perused the handicrafts and silks, I noticed a burning sensation in my eyes that gradually increased until the stinging elicited streams of tears. I noticed people walking hastily away with scarves and bandannas held over their mouths and noses. It didn't take long to know that we had encountered a rogue cloud of teargas. Teargas? In a market? We overheard people talking about a demonstration, but it wasn't to take place for another three hours. When we later happened upon the planned demonstration site, there were policemen everywhere, but no demonstrators. I asked about the teargas. One policeman grinned sheepishly and remarked that they had "tested" it earlier. "Well, it works!" I said to bursts of laughter.

Later, as we had lunch on a balcony overlooking one of the main mosques, 50 or so demonstrators grouped calmly beneath us with TV cameramen and news photographers recording the remarks of the leaders. It was a bizarre scene: Eating Chinese noodles, a Charlie Chaplin movie on the big screen, chanting demonstrators gathering outside, police helicopters circling overhead, interested bystanders--us included--watching, beers in hand. And then, the stinging sensation returned, sending everyone scurrying inside. It seemed to me to be an exaggerated overreaction to a rather benign gathering of people who didn't like something the government had recently done. But then, I was only a visitor. Relating the experience to colleagues who have lived in Malaysia, I learned that this was a typical response by the Malaysian authorities.

After a brief excursion in the opposite direction to check out Chinatown, we found ourselves too weary to walk back to the hotel, so we hailed a taxi (teksi). As we disembarked, we were once again met with what had become an all too familiar irritant. Weeping, we ran into the hotel and called it a day.

So, if you are ever up for an adventure to an interesting city, Kuala Lumpur just might be your kind of town. It may even bring tears to your eyes.