CULTURE

10 Books Every (Informed) American Should Read

In 2019, the equivalency of knowledge and power is not just an adage, but a warning. However, an American public that stays defiantly informed can also turn knowledge into hope.

Author Isaac Asimov once said, "There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there has always been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge." In 2019, the equivalency of knowledge and power is not just an adage, but a warning. However, an American public that stays defiantly informed can also turn knowledge into hope.

Here are 10 books every (informed) American should read:

Travels with Charley: In Search of America by John Steinbeck

If you don't read the Steinbeck classics, The Grapes of Wrath and Of Mice and Men, you're doing yourself a disservice. But, if there's only one Steinbeck book you do make time for, make sure it's his autobiographical travel memoir of taking his lumbering RV and charismatic dog across America. He makes due with whatever conversation and company he finds, not driven by any great American ambition other than finding moments of connection in a diverse landscape.

Catch-22 by Joseph Heller

One of America's most loved authors, Heller's humor and biting observations capture the precarity of individualism in the face of war. The foundations of American cynicism and anti-war sentiment are encapsulated in the eponymous bureaucratic rule of Catch-22: "a man is considered insane if he willingly continues to fly dangerous combat missions, but if he makes a formal request to be removed from duty, he is proven sane and therefore ineligible to be relieved."

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

As much as the movie adaptations of Frankenstein's monster are icons in America cinema, the philosophical depths of the novel are sadly lost. Individuality and personal responsibility are two major burdens that neither creator nor creation are capable of managing well. There's also something to be said about the element of spectatorship that Shelley frames the novel with, as the story unfolds through a series of letters and switches narration like a mind-bending Black Mirror episode.

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Coates manages to capture both the history and enduring tension of race relations in modern America in what Toni Morrison calls "required reading." Written as a letter to his son, Coates' writing is an alchemy of memoir, oral history, and calls to action. He aims to explore how "Americans have built an empire on the idea of 'Rae,' a falsehood that damages us all but falls most heavily on the bodies of black women and men...What is it like to inhabit a black body and find a way to live in it?"

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams

This classic fantasy adventure isn't a political science essay or a philosophical treatise, but the payoff is just as strong–if not stronger. Alienation, otherness, nihilism, and, above all, personal resilience take Arthur Dent through the galaxy after his home (along with the rest of earth) is destroyed one casual morning.

Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card

In the same vein, this sci-fi novel is like Machiavelli's The Prince retold as a dystopian space saga. The value of individual innocence in the face of the greater good is challenged. The series explores the moral boundaries of powerful men using innocents as weapons in a war they can't understand.

Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay

Gray's book of essays explores the contradictions inherent in what we understand modern "feminism" to mean. Mixing humor with sharp observation, Gay targets issues as banal as choosing pink as her favorite color as well as timelessly complex matters such as domestic abuse and abortion.

Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

This one also gets named on every list of "books you need to read" because of its plain and eerie predictions of how dependent society will become on media for its opinions and worldview, as well as entertainment.

The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

If you can't read the entire canons of solipsism, emotional psychology, and the art of satire, you can absorb the whimsical explorations of The Little Prince. Put simply, a boy prince journeys from planet to planet, each populated by a single adult. His conversations with each one create "a heartfelt exposition of sadness and solitude." Originally written in French, it's universally poetic.

1984 by George Orwell

Knowing the references isn't enough with this classic; again, you have to read it for yourself in order to see dystopian America in your mind's eye. From the cognitive dissonance of war crimes to the contradictions of government propaganda, you need to come to your own conclusions about what an Orwellian future looks like.


Meg Hanson is a Brooklyn-based writer, teacher, and jaywalker. Find Meg at her website and on Twitter @megsoyung.

WORLD

Top 5 “Freest” Countries In the World

Where are the freest places to live in terms of individual rights, economic freedoms, and political protections?

From "Brexit" to Brazil's election of Jair Bolsonaro, from Donald Trump's controversial stances to historic protests in the streets of Paris, political upsets and cultural shifts across the world have altered what it means to be a modern citizen. Interpretations of "liberty" and personal freedom will always vary between cultures and governments' ideologies, but where are the freest places to live in terms of individual rights, economic freedoms, and political protections, including social tolerance?

Evaluations of various countries' personal freedom in 2018 gave acute focus on freedoms of speech and religion and social acceptance of immigrants and ethnic minorities. According to reports from The Legatum Prosperity Index and Freedom House, the North American region showed overall gains in personal and economic freedom, while living in the Middle East and North Africa still present struggles in terms of safety and individual rights. Meanwhile, Northern European countries maintained historically high standards of civil liberties and political rights, accounting for six of the top ten "freest" countries.

1. Norway

League of Students

This country of over 5 million citizens has consistently earned the top ranking in various assessments of personal liberty. Norway was the first Scandinavian country to legalize same-sex marriage, and men and women are guaranteed parity by law, from education and healthcare to social services and labor. Offering the 4th greatest access to education and healthy social capital, living in Norway combines economic freedoms with guaranteed freedoms of press and religion. In addition, residents enjoy arguably the safest and most secure protections against foreign threats and crime.

2. New Zealand

Culture Trip

New Zealand tops assessments of economic freedom in terms of social capital and business environment. Historically free of corruption, the Parliament's democratic elections represents its 4.7 million citizens in a multi-party system. In addition to protecting political freedom, the government prioritizes civil liberties for its citizens, particularly freedoms of free speech, press, and religion. For instance, same-sex marriage has been legal in Norway since 2009, and Parliament has been approximately 50% women since the 1980s.

3. Finland

Old Town pier in Helsinki, Finland Lonely Planet

With top rankings in education and governance, Finland also protects political freedom with multi-party elections and anti-corruption legislation. In terms of social parity, women enjoy a "high degree of equality" and traditional courtesy." In fact, in 1906 Finland became the first European country to extend suffrage to women. Due to ample civil liberties protections, Finland was described by Forbes as the "happiest country in the world," drawing a high number of immigrant residents among its population of 5.5 million.

4. Switzerland

Wanderable

As a country that relies on direct democracy, Switzerland extends political freedom to 8.4 million residents through regular public referendums and a governing coalition of four political parties. Switzerland also offers excellent access to education and economic freedom. Same-sex marriage has been legal since 2007, and Switzerland has been described as one of the best countries for immigrants, with younger generations displaying an open attitude towards immigration.

5. Denmark

Denmark protects economic freedoms with strong opportunities for social capital with open-market policies. The government historically protects freedoms of expression and association, guaranteeing freedoms of press and speech under its constitution. Denmark was the first country in the world to recognize same-sex unions in the form of registered partnership. In 2012, same-sex marriages were legalized. Additionally, in 2016 the US News and World Report named Denmark the "best country in the world for women," citing gender equality, income quality, safety, and progressiveness.

While the U.S was #17 in The Legatum Prosperity Index's rankings (and #58 according to Freedom House), "freedom" remains a moving target that changes its appearance with each era. While many Scandinavian countries have offered exemplary

personal freedom protections to its citizens, shifting politics are changing the legal landscape that defines "freedom." For instance, while Finland legalized same-sex marriage in 2017, the country is still working to abolish the dark shadow of 1970s discriminatory laws, including forced sterilization for transgender people applying for sex reassignment surgery. In Switzerland, security measures passed in 2017 endow the government with heightened powers of surveillance of suspected terrorists, which critics say unfairly target new waves of immigrants.

Other countries to make the top 10 include (in order of ranking): Sweden, the United Kingdom, Canada, Netherlands, and Ireland. But as modern trends of immigration and growing awareness of LGBTQIA issues have outlined, even the "freest" countries can still improve.

Meg Hanson is a Brooklyn-based writer, teacher, and jaywalker. Find Meg at her website and on Twitter @megsoyung.

ISSUES

The VA Refuses to Compensate Underpaid Student Vets

Countless vets were underpaid after a software glitch in the Department of Veteran Affairs.

On Wednesday the Department of Veteran Affairs told congressional staffers that it will not compensate veterans who were underpaid in their recent GI Bill benefits, despite the error in the department's own computer system.

For weeks, student veterans have reported missing or incorrect payments, either in excessive or diminished amounts, due to a problem in the department's software. The glitch stems from system changes under the new Forever GI Act, designed to afford veterans more financial stability to pursue their education. VA spokesman Terrence Hayes stated that "severe critical errors" occurred when they implemented new standards for calculating stipends owed to veterans.

Time

In response to these errors, the VA postponed using the new system until December 2019. Until then, they're deferring to the rates used in 2017, denying veterans a 1% increase in payments included in the Forever GI Act. In addition to delaying benefits, the VA also miscalculated housing allowances.

To those who were underpaid, the VA initially promised that they would issue retroactive payments. However, on Wednesday, officials told anonymous congressional staffers that they have no plans on issuing payments because doing so would require an all-encompassing audit of every education claim prior to December 2019, as many as 2 million claims, according to an aide.

Another aide told NBC News, "They are essentially going to ignore the law and say that that change only goes forward from December 2019."

Amidst the VA's refusal to comment and spokespersons' vague responses on the matter, it is unclear how many students have been underpaid or how much money is owed, but hundreds of thousands of veterans are thought to be affected. The department defends its actions with the claim that the audit required to reissue payments would only delay processing future claims, causing more veterans to suffer.

One of those veterans already feeling severe strain is Jane Wiley, 31, a former Marine who now serves as a reservist in the Air Force. Her husband is also a former marine, and they support two children while she attends Texas A&M; San Antonio. In October, she told NBC News that they had yet to receive their housing allowance through the GI Bill, despite filing all necessary paperwork. They were facing food and housing insecurity as a direct result.

Wiley lamented, "People are homeless and starving because they can't rely on getting their benefits. If it means making [VA] employees stay all night, then get it done because it's better than putting families in crisis." She added, "You can count on us to serve, but we can't count on the VA to make a deadline."

Under Secretary for Benefits Paul Lawrence is due to testify before the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs. Another key witness slated to appear resigned from the VA after news of underpaid veterans broke.

On Thursday, the VA denounced NBC News' original report as "misleading." Press Secretary Curt Cashour stated in an email sent to student veterans, "By the end of 2018, VA will install the current year uncapped DoD [basic allowance for housing] rates, and subsequently [monthly housing allowance] payments will follow this rate. For many students, this rate will be equal or higher than their current payments. Shortly after this update, VA will issue an additional payment to students who were underpaid for applicable terms."

How they'll define "applicable terms" in the new year is unclear, as it remains unspecified how long payments have been backed up or incorrect for how many veterans.

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The Hill

Meg Hanson is a Brooklyn-based writer, teacher, and jaywalker. Find Meg at her website and on Twitter @megsoyung.

POLITICS

Getting to Know You: The Third Amendment Explained

Why the only amendment never brought before the supreme court may be more important than you think

You'd be hard pressed to find someone living in the U.S.A. (and, perhaps in Russia) who could not tell you that the Second Amendment involved the right to bear arms. And, most people understand that something in the Bill of Rights protects them against unlawful search and seizure, even if they don't know that it's the Fourth Amendment that does so. But sandwiched in between these two celebrity amendments is the all-but-forgotten Third Amendment. Since its inclusion in the Bill of Rights (the first 10 amendments to the constitution), the Third Amendment has been the subject of a small handful of cases, and not one of them has gone before the Supreme Court. Here it is:

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CULTURE

The Dangers of Data in Education, Learner Profiles: The Good and The Bad

Has school data collection gone too far?

In today's educational climate, the marker of a school's success is determined by the success of its students, both during their time in school and beyond. While in the past, the idea that schooling should be catered to each individual pupil would have seemed ludicrous, many American schools today, both public and private, collect data on their students with goal of providing just that. By extensively monitoring data collected on their students, teachers and school administrators can see exactly where each individual student excels, as well as where students need work. Though it's not always the case, the use of data and the creation of learner profiles lends itself to the practice of academic tracking.

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CULTURE

Is Cursive Handwriting Disappearing from our Culture?

DIY: Do we need to teach kids cursive anymore or is it becoming a thing of the past?

It's been a long time since I was a grade school student (COUGH--late70searly80s--COUGH), but it boggles my mind how different classwork is today for our second-grade daughter. Techniques are so much better in terms of teaching kids' skills and strategies, instead of the rote "repetition and memorization" of my youth. I'm glad kids will never again know the tedium of pulling out a Big Chief tablet and taking dictation day-after-day-after-day. It's all in the name of competing in the global 21st-century economy, but there's one old school skill no longer taught (at least in my daughter's Brooklyn public school) that I have definite mixed feelings about. As she said to me the other day after I wrote something down for her, "Dad, I can't read this, it's in script." Or as we called it back at Kate Fratt Catholic, cursive.

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ISSUES

Should interns be paid?

What does an intern provide to a company and should they be paid for their work?

If you've ever searched for an internship, you know how rare it is to find one that's paid. Usually, the associated advertisements focus on how potential interns will benefit by working as part of the team at a top company, learning skills they'll use for the rest of their lives and networking with notable people.

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CULTURE

Spotlight on Katherine Karmen Trujillo of Libraries Without Borders

For these children in under-served communities, "A library could be anything" or everything.

In sixth grade, Katherine Karmen Trujillo competed in an academic decathlon with her school. With fourteen of her classmates, one coach, and photocopied pages from prep manuals their school couldn't afford, one of their team members placed in fourth. Though the performance was not very good, "we were so proud," she told me. "Meanwhile, in other schools, everyone placed first or second." But it wasn't because those students were necessarily smarter or harder-working than the students on Trujillo's team. They came from schools that could afford to have one coach per student and endless prep resources. "You could just feel the difference," she said.

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ISSUES

The true cost of college may be even more than you think

The cost of higher education has been steadily increasing over the past four decades and that's not changing

Universities and other advanced schools of learning seem to be raising their prices at an alarming rate. Higher education costs have ballooned over 538% since 1985. To put this in perspective, healthcare has increased more than 286% and the consumer price index has gone up 121%. That means education costs are over four times what they were thirty years ago.

No wonder people are complaining. But with these price increases come a greater quality and a better educational experience than what was to be had twenty or thirty years ago. Whether college is a better overall experience than before is individual and subjective.

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ISSUES

Is Affordable Health Care and Education Even possible?

Affordable health care and education is beginning to feel more and more like an unattainable luxury.

It is still a struggle for Americans to access affordable health care and education. Unfortunately, this is largely because companies are looking to profit rather than have tax money benefit the actual taxpayer.

There is no denying that business owners work hard for the money that they make. However, as more money is funneled into the pockets of the 1%, it means there is less available for health care and education assistance. Rather than improving the country by ensuring accessible health care and education for all, business owners are purchasing boats, second (or third) homes and luxury cars.

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