Saturday, July 9, 2011

About Schmidt

One of the ironies of our entertainment culture is that Hollywood keeps turning out movies which powerfully illustrate the utter absurdity, emptiness, and meaninglessness of modern secular life even as they persist in endorsing that very life.

The irony occurred to me again the other night while watching About Schmidt, a film starring Jack Nicholson who portrays a 66 year-old recently retired insurance salesman named Warren Schmidt who realizes at the end of the film that everything about his life is pointless (there is a small moment of redemption at the end to keep the viewer from running out to the nearest high bridge). For me, the climactic scene was when he acknowledges to himself that when he and those who knew him are all dead nothing he did in his life will have mattered.

I'm not a movie aficionado, but it seems to me that films addressing, intentionally or otherwise, the existential vacuum that is modern secular life get made a lot. Films such as American Beauty, Synecdoche, A Serious Man, About Schmidt, or almost any Woody Allen film all raise the question and none of them, in my opinion, offers a persuasive answer: In a world without God, what's the significance of our lives? What does anything we do really mean? About Schmidt opens with those questions (at his retirement dinner) and ends with the realization that our lives don't mean a thing.

(Those who saw the film might object that the bond he forges with Ndugu puts meaning into his life, but personally I don't see that as anything more than a superficial anodyne in the overall pattern of his life).

Why would we be the sort of creatures capable of asking these questions, of experiencing this angst about life's purpose, if there really is no answer to them? Why would nature evolve us to need something that's unattainable, to need meaning? Perhaps our existential yearning for meaningfulness runs so deep because meaningfulness is possible, but genuine meaning is only possible if death does not end our existence. If death is the end then nothing matters and everything is ultimately empty. If it isn't the end then it's possible that everything matters and matters forever.

Naturalism, atheism, and materialism all lead to hopelessness and absurdity. They're worldviews that entail nihilism, which is one reason why so many find it impossible to live consistently with their belief in a godless world.

Rescuing Financially Imperiled Schools

Remember how teachers were saying last spring that the Wisconsin legislators and Governor Scott Walker were going to devastate kids' education by curbing teachers' right to collective bargaining? Well, Byron York at The Washington Examiner finds that, at least for one Wisconsin public school, what the legislature and Walker did has been a blessing:
The Kaukauna School District, in the Fox River Valley of Wisconsin near Appleton, has about 4,200 students and about 400 employees. It has struggled in recent times and this year faced a deficit of $400,000. But after the law went into effect, at 12:01 a.m. Wednesday, school officials put in place new policies they estimate will turn that $400,000 deficit into a $1.5 million surplus. And it's all because of the very provisions that union leaders predicted would be disastrous.

In the past, teachers and other staff at Kaukauna were required to pay 10 percent of the cost of their health insurance coverage and none of their pension costs. Now, they'll pay 12.6 percent of the cost of their coverage (still well below rates in much of the private sector) and also contribute 5.8 percent of salary to their pensions. The changes will save the school board an estimated $1.2 million this year, according to board President Todd Arnoldussen.
But that's only part of the story. Under previous bargaining agreements the district was forced to purchase insurance from a company, WEA Trust, created by the teachers union. This year that insurance vendor had informed the district that premiums were going up:
Now, the collective bargaining agreement is gone, and the school district is free to shop around for coverage. And all of a sudden, WEA Trust has changed its position. "With these changes, the schools could go out for bids, and lo and behold, WEA Trust said, 'We can match the lowest bid,'" says Republican state Rep. Jim Steineke, who represents the area and supports the Walker changes. At least for the moment, Kaukauna is staying with WEA Trust, but saving substantial amounts of money.
There's more:
Then there are work rules. "In the collective bargaining agreement, high school teachers only had to teach five periods a day, out of seven," says Arnoldussen. "Now, they're going to teach six." In addition, the collective bargaining agreement specified that teachers had to be in the school 37 1/2 hours a week. Now, it will be 40 hours.

The changes mean Kaukauna can reduce the size of its classes -- from 31 students to 26 students in high school and from 26 students to 23 students in elementary school. In addition, there will be more teacher time for one-on-one sessions with troubled students. Those changes would not have been possible without the much-maligned changes in collective bargaining.

Teachers' salaries will stay "relatively the same," Arnoldussen says, except for higher pension and health care payments.....[T]he money saved will be used to hire a few more teachers and institute merit pay.
None of the predictions of educational disaster that would follow having the public trough yanked away from public employees unions have yet come to pass, and in at least one school district so far, the kids are obvious beneficiaries.

Actually, it was pretty obvious all along to everyone but union leaders and their lackeys in the Wisconsin media and legislature that that would be the case.