There and Back Again: Adventures of Teaching The Hobbit

Last semester at Veritas Christi Hybrid Academy, in my 7th and 8th Literature & Composition class I’ve been teaching The Hobbit. There have been multiple times that my own knowledge of Tolkien’s world has been put to shame by students who are quickly becoming experts in Middle-earth lore!

I used this as an opportunity to introduce the concept of summarizing, so each day of class would open with a review of the reading assignment they finished. Then the students would take a few minutes to write a one sentence summary of the chapter they read. I found that they enjoyed reading their sentences out loud afterwards; it motivated them to do their best and they were able to see how each person’s summary varied.

They also had a lot of fun with Tolkien’s language, from the rhyming of his poems to the alliterations scattered throughout the text. It was satisfying for me to hear them begging to read “just one more verse” from a poem. With all my literature classes, I am encouraging the students to get engaged with the text by reading out loud. In many cases, it helps the reader pick up on the nuances of the language. Instead of me telling them the effect of a certain literary device, reading the text out loud themselves, they can experience it themselves.

I also used The Hobbit to reinforce the concepts of plot and conflict. The students really enjoyed listing all the possible conflicts in each chapter. It was a good opportunity to discuss what conflict is, as many of their answers differed and we had to try to decide which ones were most accurate.

It was fun to tie this book in with their Medieval History class by showing how Tolkien used the language and stories of the Angl0-Saxons and Norse as inspiration.

We ended our reading with a Hobbit party at school. In art class, the students made centerpieces inspired by The Hobbit, such as a model of the Lonely Mountain or Bilbo’s sword and ring. We also worked on a poster board display together that gave an overview of Tolkien’s life, explained his use of Anglo-Saxon rings, highlighted literary devices in the story, described the story’s characters, and explored the connection between The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings. We also had some Hobbit themed food, such as cram, apple cider, pickles, and trail mix. During lunch, the students were split into two teams and given a number of riddles to solve. I made up little paper bags of candy as prizes for the team who got the most riddles right.

I was really happy with this reading choice because it got all the kids engaged and it gave them a positive reading experience. We’re slowly working into more literary analysis, but one of my priorities is to show the students that reading can be enjoyable. This was my second time reading through The Hobbit and I was struck by the depth of character development. Although the plot lacks the complexity and vastness of Lord of the Rings, it is an excellent story in its own way. Bilbo’s growth was compelling and fascinating to observe. The challenges faced by the dwarves, from agreeing to let Bilbo come to listening to his plan to escape the Elves, was also really interesting to notice as a reader. In a way, Bilbo and the dwarves had the opposite development; Bilbo gained bravery, and the dwarves gained humility. The Hobbit is far less intimidating of a read than Lord of the Rings, yet it explores many of the same themes. It even inspired me to consider developing a literature course based around the “Inklings,” writing club founded by C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. I think The Hobbit could be an excellent introduction to some of these authors’ more complex works.

Reflections on Paradise Lost

Despite being a voracious reader, I’ve always been intimidated by Medieval and Renaissance literature. So I had somehow gotten this far in my life without reading Paradise Lost. But in preparation for teaching a British Literature class this fall, I decided it was time to overcome my fear.

In the Christian Guide to the Classics series, I discovered that Leland Ryken had written a guide for Paradise Lost which I found invaluable during my reading. It broke the text up into manageable sections and provided a summary of the plot that helped me follow along. Additionally, the questions and ideas that Ryken explored made the book more fascinating and thought-provoking to consider.

Rather than summarizing the text or trying to make some sort of persuasive argument, which I am not knowledgable enough to do, I will just share some of the aspects of the text that I find most interesting.

First, the examination of Paradise Lost as both an epic and anti-epic. The opening lines,

Of Man’s first disobedience and the fruit
Of that forbidden tree whose mortal taste
Brought death into the world and all our woe
With loss of Eden till one greater Man
Restore us and regain the blissful seat
Sing Heav’nly Muse…


are reminiscent of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, though of course Milton is making a reference to the Holy Spirit’s inspiration, rather than the inspiration of pagan Muses. The grand scope of the story fits well into the epic genre, for what could be more epic than the creation and redemption of the world? In the historical context, it is fascinating to think about Milton reading the original Greek epics and being inspired to write the first Christian epic. It is a perfect example of how artists throughout time have interacted with each other and built upon the work that has been done before them. Although it is clear that Paradise Lost can be considered an epic, it does have some significant deviations from the classical understanding of an epic. Odysseus is considered a hero and his story is an epic because of the great challenges he overcomes through his own strength and ability. He is a charismatic individual who is able to prevail, even against the anger of the gods, due to his intelligence, strength, and skill. Although Athena plays an important role in his success, Homer is clearly celebrating Odysseus himself. So in the style of The Odyssey, one might expect Paradise Lost to open with the story of an heroic protagonist. Instead we are introduced to Satan and his followers just after they have been caste down to Hell. In the next few books, Satan appears to be a heroic leader; he has the resolve and appeal needed to persuade the other demons of his plan, and then carry it out. However, as the story develops we begin to see that it isn’t about Satan, he becomes the malevolent, and eventually pitiful, antagonist. One might think that Adam then is the rightful hero of the story, but that doesn’t fit into the epic definition either. Adam is far from the victorious hero overcoming the challenges of nature and his foes. Instead, he is the reason why Paradise is lost—and he is completely powerless to regain it. Milton was obviously inspired by the classical epics, but rather than glorifying the sheer strength of humanity, he reverses the pagan archetype. The story is not about man’s ability, but God’s grace. In a way that reverses our human expectations of heroism, we eventually realize that Christ is the true hero of this story. Milton gives this away in the opening lines, “till one greater Man/Restore us and regain the blissful seat,” but then it takes the rest of the books to circle back to this theme and see how it is accomplished. Unlike the epics before it, this is not a humanistic paean but an exploration of God’s sovereignty and mercy to His fallen creatures.

The second theme, which I briefly mentioned above, is the development and appeal of Satan’s character. The first books of Paradise Lost take place in Hell, where Satan begins to conspire with the other demons to continue their rebellion against God. Satan’s persuasive speeches make a compelling case for his plight, and it is easy for the reader to become sympathetic. I think Milton’s goal with developing Satan’s character so thoroughly was to demonstrate the dangerous appeal of evil. However, one has to ask if Milton was too successful at this task. It becomes problematic when Satan’s arguments against God’s authority become rational and understandable to even a Christian. From an artistic perspective, it is fascinating to study how well Milton created this character, such that readers to this day are captivated by this fallen angel.

In contrast to Satan’s appealing character, we have the uninspiring paradisiacal dynamic of Adam and Eve. Although in terms of literary development, the scenes of Adam and Eve before the Fall are certainly beautiful and well-written, they lack the emotional appeal of other sections in the text. It seems that a portrayal of Paradise should captivate our imagination, but instead the scenes seemed flat and without interest. The relationship between Adam and Eve was not particularly inspiring—their conversations and interaction seemed stilted and forced. I was struck by the difference between how Satan appears to the reader, particularly in the first few books, and how we are introduced to Adam and Eve. I am not sure if this discrepancy is due to how the work is written, and that Milton could have done a better job at describing life in Paradise. But how could we expect a fallen man to come close to depicting something so far beyond our experience? And perhaps the fault is not to be found in the author, but the audience. I wonder if scenes of perfection bore us because we are fallen and our minds gravitate towards that which speaks to the darkness in our own hearts.

Lastly, a broader theme to consider is Milton’s artistic license and its implication for Christian artists. Milton took great liberties with the Biblical text in order to write Paradise Lost. He developed a sympathetic Satan who has captured the imagination of readers to this very day. He felt the freedom to imagine scenes in Heaven between the Godhead. He chose to use a traditionally secular genre to portray the Biblical story of creation. And should we consider all of these artistic choices acceptable as Christians? While it is ideal from an artistic perspective to create a sympathetic antagonist, is it wise to make the arguments of Satan so emotionally appealing? And is it artistic license or presumption to imagine dialogue between members of the Godhead? Is this creating an idol in words, just as we are forbidden to make idols in other artistic mediums? How much freedom does a Christian have when expanding upon Biblical texts? What is the right way for Christians to interact with the secular culture and art forms? What ought we to reject and what can be redeemed? I don’t have an answer to any of these questions, but I keep pondering them. While there is no definitive answer for all Christian artists, I think it is our responsibility to recognize the impact of our art and seriously consider these topics.

I still feel like I’ve only touched the surface of this text, and I plan to return to it at least a few more times in my lifetime. It reminds me of The Odyssey in that I only began to really appreciate Homer’s work after studying and rereading it over the course of several years. While these works seem daunting and take much effort to understand, I have found them to be some of the most rewarding pieces of literature.

A New Journey

For the past few years my blog has been a reflection of what my life is about at any given point. From my old blog filled with pet pictures to this site where I’ve written on topics ranging from philosophy to Doctor Who (as a side point, I would argue that those two subjects aren’t really that different), my blog has evolved with my interests.

So I decided it was appropriate to write about my newest foray into a completely different area…

A few weeks ago (actually, a month today, to be exact) I was having lunch with a friend when I began experiencing some very severe allergic reactions. Having had no prior problems with food allergies, I had no idea what was happening. It is a bit terrifying when your throat begins to constrict and suddenly you have a really hard time breathing.  Thankfully the symptoms eventually subsided, but for the next few days I was pretty nervous about consuming anything, since I had no idea what triggered it.

I called my family’s physician to set up an appointment. Apparently since I had not been entered into their database, I’d have to go through a longer registration process, and the doctor wouldn’t be able to see me for a month. This was incredibly frustrating. I had a severe and potentially life-threatening allergic reaction to an unknown food—and I’d have to deal with it for a month. I was also skeptical as to the doctor’s ability to actually diagnose my problem. I didn’t want to simply be given an inhaler or epi pen and told to “deal with it.” So the more I thought about it, the less I wanted to wait a month to figure it out. Thanks to social media, I was also trying to get some advice and suggestions from friends who had gone through similar health issues. A friend recommended a holistic doctor to me. So I googled this doctor, found her website, and was pretty interested by what I saw. On a Tuesday I called the office and explained my allergy problem. The receptionist said, “well, it looks like she can get you in on Thursday.” I was like, “whoa, you mean this Thursday? As in, 2 days from now?” After hearing that there’d be a 30 day wait for the other doctor, this was certainly a pleasant surprise.

I’ll make a long story short by saying that this holistic doctor has been amazing. I feel like going to her has been one of the best decisions I’ve made. I went away from the first appointment feeling a bit overwhelmed because I’m so accustomed to not worrying about my health. It has just been something I take for granted while I focus on everything else in my life. But I realized that having the food allergy reaction was maybe God’s way of telling me that my wellness is really important too…and something that I can’t ignore any longer.

What is it that I am doing, exactly? Well…I am currently on Day 26 of a 28 day detox diet. It is intended to “reset” the digestive process by eating clean and supplementing with probiotics and vitamins.

So I am trying to keep focused on how this experience is good for my life, overall. It is making me appreciate the struggle of people with health problems! It is making me realize that health isn’t something that should be neglected. It is making me understand how the decisions we make today about our health will impact our future—in a good or bad way.

I decided that this journey would be a lot more fun if I documented my escapades. I’d like to keep track of all the recipes I try so that I can learn from my experience. If I had been born a few years earlier, I would have started a recipe book. But instead I decided to start a blog! It is easier to keep all my food pictures and recipes separate from the rest of my blog topics, so I am actually starting a new blog. So, check out my new food blog,!


A Brief Update

The last couple months have been pretty busy as I finished up my Gadfly of Serenity paper for the MPCA/ACA conference that took place in early October. The conference was really interesting and the presentation of my paper went well! The version here on my site is the full essay, I had to do some heavy editing to get it condensed for the 20 minutes of time allotted for me during the panel.  And in the absence of a proper blog post, I’ll just give a quick update as to what I’m doing now.

I am currently developing an economics curriculum for Schoolhouse Teachers, an online resource for homeschool families. The course is scheduled to begin in November and run for 6 months. I am excited to be doing such a large economics project!

I’ve also resurrected the Rockford Mises Circle of a few years ago. If you live in the Rockford area and are interested in getting together with other libertarians/voluntaryists, send me a message and I’ll give you more details. We meet once a month, I spend 20-25 minutes talking about Austrian economic theory, then a friend of mine shares some practical ideas about living out the philosophy of liberty, and we just chat about whatever for the rest of the evening.

I also stay busy with some tutoring, editing, and consulting at Rockford ID Shop. Next week I’ll start doing some web consulting/marketing for someone.

But lest you think I do nothing but work…I’ve somehow found time to finally watch all the Batman movies, both Captain America movies, and some episodes from Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. And I’ve been keeping up with Doctor Who, season 8. My weakness is definitely sci-fi TV! : ) I’ve also enjoyed reading some good fiction recently, such as, Lord of the Flies, Starship Troopers, Sister Carrie, and East of Eden. Last week I went to a Gray Havens concert with some friends, and next Tuesday I am going to see Bastille!!! If you know me at all, you know that Bastille is one of my top 5 favorite bands, so I am very excited to see them in concert!

And that’s it for now. Now that my essay is done, I hope to get back to doing more blogging, but it might be a little while before my schedule slows down enough for that.


Shepherd Book: Gadfly of Serenity

I’ve had a lot of projects going on the past few months, so I haven’t had the time to write new posts. This weekend I am going to Indianapolis to the MPCA/ACA (Midwest Popular Culture Association/Midwest American Culture Association) to present a paper on the influence of Socrates and Kierkegaard in the Firefly character, Shepherd Book. I just uploaded the final manuscript to my portfolio, here. 

So while it is a bit more academic than my usual posts, it will perhaps make up for my absence here recently!

Report on Meeting with Transform Rockford

When Mike Schablaske, the executive director at Transform Rockford, saw my recent posts through Twitter, he put me in touch with the group which had written the Shared Value statements. The team, Jay Sandine, David Sidney and Blake Musser, were very accommodating and willing to discuss my concerns. Although Jay was unable to make it, I met with David and Blake last week to talk about the questions I had raised. Before I get into the details, I just want to make a disclaimer. Although David and Blake are involved with Transform Rockford, not all the opinions they expressed represent the views of the entire organization. I think their values are a good indicator of what others probably hold to, but this is not necessarily the case.

One of the first topics we discussed was the “Unity” value statement, which says we will “place the greater good of all parts of our region and its transformation ahead of self or organizational interests.” David and Blake said this was a statement which had gone through several stages. They originally used the word “consensus,” but since this word had some politically charged connotations, they went with “unity.” I explained my libertarian background and said that this word is usually quite troubling to those with an individualistic or libertarian perspective. After sharing what this word means to me, I asked them to elaborate on why they chose the word. They spoke about how there have been failed efforts to revitalize Rockford, and these projects come to a halt primarily through division and disagreement. If someone doesn’t like a single aspect of a project, they often withdraw all support—and in some cases they create a parallel organization that does the same thing a little differently. This situation was something Transform Rockford wanted to avoid. They want people to stay involved even if they don’t agree 100% with everything being done within the group. They likened it to a family, where different members might argue about what restaurant to eat at, but they will all eventually compromise and choose one place—instead of each person going off to eat alone at their preferred restaurant. This reminded me of how we all make choices all the time about what is most important to us. We ask ourselves questions like, “is it more important to me that I not compromise on this issue, or is it more important that I maintain a good relationship with this person?” Being part of society does require some give and take…but I think it is important to remember that each of us choose how much to give and how much to take. We each have our own levels of compromise, we value our beliefs and interpersonal relationships differently, so our choices will be unique. We can say that yes, we will place the interests of our community over our own interests, but each person will interpret that differently. It can range from not interfering with community projects to full-fledged socialism. If no one is trying to interpret and enforce this for each individual, then I can understand the reasoning for such a value statement. 

After I made a comment about how I did not see anything in the Shared Values to balance out this statement which focused on the individual’s responsibility to the community, David and Blake pointed out that they saw the flip side of unity in the statement about inclusion. This statement says we will “cultivate and support an environment that fully engages our community’s differences and diversity to ensure that individuals and organizations are heard, valued and supported.” As a libertarian, I think this statement could be much stronger—it lacks a full commitment to individual rights—but it is at least an attempt to counter the community emphasis found in other value statements. 

We also talked about the “how” of Transform Rockford’s vision; I wanted to know how they thought that the vision statements might be carried out. This is primarily because I am concerned about the use of government to enforce decisions made by Transform Rockford. In Walter Block fashion, I brought up the hypothetical situation of a stubborn Rockford resident who, for apparently irrational reasons, hates the idea of Transform Rockford and does everything they can to stop the organization from moving forward. Blake and David said they would do, essentially, nothing. They emphasized that Transform Rockford is not about enforcing an agenda, but its goal is to “change the way we have conversations.” So in this case, Transform Rockford might try to understand why this person is opposed to the projects suggested, and if there are ways to accommodate this person’s preferences, they would do so. We discussed private property rights, and the situation of someone along the Riverfront refusing to cooperate with plans to rebuild that area. If they have specific reasons for their opposition (such as the resulting higher tax rates), then Transform Rockford would try to work through those issues and give the person motivation to participate. But if that was not possible, then they would revamp their plans to avoid using this person’s property. Blake and David suggested that the use of eminent domain would be highly unlikely and only considered in the most extreme circumstances. 

I brought up the question of why Transform Rockford held so many visioning sessions to come to a conclusion that seemed obvious from the start. There were a couple responses to this. Firstly, Blake confirmed what I suspected—that the act of discovering and saying what we want the future to look like is a powerful tool for motivation. While some people might intuitively know what our ideal city would be, vocalizing these dreams is an important step towards realizing the goals. Secondly, this is a bottom-up approach which is consistent with the values of Transform Rockford. Rather than bringing in some “experts” to determine what Rockford needs to be, they went to the people of the city. Also, I asked about the problem of causation—how are we going to change Rockford if we don’t know how we got here in the first place. Blake and David said that this was, for the most part, encapsulated in the act of asking people what they want. For example, maybe there is someone who can’t get a job and they want a future Rockford with employment opportunity. When asked why they’re unable to find employment, you will find what caused their current situation. This goes back to a theme I heard through the entire conversation—Transform Rockford is about listening to individuals and helping them achieve their goals. Some people may have no idea where to start in improving their lives, but Transform Rockford wants to give them the support and tools they need. It is not about telling people what to do, but rather about listening to what people want to do and then helping them achieve their ends. 

The last issue we discussed was the recent WTVO Channel 17 segment on the book, Toxic Charity, which was placed on the Transform Rockford reading list. This book criticizes faith-based charities for creating dependency. WTVO applied this to the recent controversy over the Rockford Rescue Mission’s proposed expansion. There were a few points of interest that came out in my conversation with Blake about this. Firstly, there is no official “reading list” from Transform Rockford. Different members have passed around titles of various books that are relevant to what they’re discussing, but there is no set reading list for anyone in Transform Rockford. I think the WTVO report was misleading in its wording in the report. Secondly, this book was recommended simply because of the subject—not because it is the final word. Blake said that Transform Rockford is trying to encourage conversations and discussions about charity and poverty in the community. This book wasn’t touted as the answer to everything, but simply, “here’s a different take, maybe we can learn something from it.” Blake brought up the question of how to handle the chronically poor—those who will always be homeless and going from charity to charity for a handout. He mentioned the city of Boston and how they’ve responded to this situation by providing homes for these folks so that they are not on the streets. This approach allows some charities to focus on feeding those who are only homeless for the short-term, and others then focus on providing for the chronically poor who have been taken off the streets. There is no anti-faith based charity agenda, but simply the acknowledgement that each organization can do better and that perhaps we can be more effective by having better coordination between charities. And thirdly, it is undeniable that Transform Rockford has welcomed religious leaders into the group. In fact, in each of the leader teams for the vision statements there will be a representative from the private business sector, someone from the public sector, and a leader from a non-profit or religious organization. There have been suggestions that Transform Rockford has an agenda to subvert religion in the Rockford area, but from what has happened so far, there is no reason to think this. My guess is that the report from WTVO is far more charged and controversial than anything said by members of Transform Rockford. If that is the case, the issue should be taken up with WTVO and not with Transform Rockford.

Near the end of the conversation with Blake and David, I admitted that I am quite skeptical as to if the grand mission of Transform Rockford will stay this way. I find it hard to believe that the organization will not revert to old top-down methods of change using government force. I find it hard to believe that the idealistic shared values will actually impact the way our community interacts. How long will it be before Transform Rockford stops listening to the people and starts dictating what we are to do? But then I was reminded that that is precisely the reason why there are people like me. Considering that I have continued to question Transform Rockford, I doubt that I would stop doing so if they began veering in the wrong direction. So while I am not sure of the overall success of Transform Rockford, it would be foolish to simply ignore the group because of my skepticism. I assured David and Blake that I will be ever vigilant in my watchfulness over Transform Rockford. And to the Rockford community, if we are carefully guarding our rights, it will be much more difficult for any organization to take away our liberties. Let’s not stop here—we should all be watching, thinking, and speaking out in defense of liberty. 

Highlights from Mises University 2014

For new readers, Mises U is a week-long summer economics program hosted by the Mises Institute in Auburn, Alabama. The conference covers theoretical and applied economics, with lectures covering topics such as epistemology, entrepreneurship, comparative economic systems, political economy, and the history of economic ideas. To see the schedule and recorded lectures, visit this page.

This was my third year at Mises U. I attended in 2010 and 2011, then went to the AERC (formerly ASC) for the past two years, and decided it was time for Mises U again. I remember seeing posts about Mises U 2013 last summer and just feeling like I was missing an amazing experience. So I resolved to be there in 2014, so I would not have another year of regret. And in the official econ terminology, I definitely felt a psychic profit! : ) I wanted to share some of my thoughts on Mises U, so I’ll first discuss some of the things I learned and the intellectual benefits, and then finish by just talking about what it was like to attend Mises U.

Firstly…there is nothing that compares to Mises University in its depth and scope of economic teaching. There is no other place where you can spend a week sitting under the teaching of the best Austrian economists in the world. There is no other place where you can complete 37 class hours in such a wide field of economic theory and application. It is the most intellectually stimulating event in the world. I will qualify that by noting that it is a subjective statement, and so I must concede that others might find different events more stimulating, but I am very confident that for myself, this is the very best in the world.

For the first day and a half, all the students attend the same classes. This ensures that everyone has heard the fundamental concepts of Austrian economics and know the underlying principles of everything else. In the terminology of classical education, I would consider this to be the “grammar” stage of economics. For the next few days, there are concurrent sessions, and this allows students to focus in on topics of particular interest. For example, I love David Gordon and his teaching on praxeology, so I attended his lecture on Apriorism and Positivism in the Social Sciences…a topic that is somewhat obscure, but of interest to some. My roommate is studying energy economics, so she went to the classes that dealt with this area. I think this corresponds, at least partially, to the dialectic stage of classical education. And then the oral exams at the end of the week line up nicely with the rhetorical stage. Having just attended a conference on classical education, I guess it is no surprise that I would see an overlap!

I found it interesting that of the three years of attending, this was the first year I took really good notes. I think it is because of all the MOOC classes I’ve taken recently, I have developed better note-taking habits…and this turned out to be very useful as I’ll later explain! Despite having heard some of this material before, I learned so much, even from the basic lectures. There were concepts that I had just not grasped in previous years that suddenly made sense now. I had gone into it knowing I would certainly learn a lot, but I guess I did not realize how much I would gain, even in areas that I thought I knew pretty well. So it was a good reminder that we are truly never done learning!

While I recommend you listen to all the lectures from Mises U, I suspect that’s rather unrealistic for most people, so I’ll share a few of my top recommendations.

Tom Woods on The Four Things the State is Not 

Tom Woods deftly and humorously does away with common myths of the state. He demonstrates that there is really no reason why we should want the state to exist. So if you sometimes think, or hear, things like, “but the state is just doing the best it can,” or “the state is here to solve our problems,”…you need to listen to this lecture.

Guido Hulsmann on The Cultural Consequences of Fiat Money (at the 1:20:00 mark)  

Guido Hulsmann uses economic principles to show the disastrous effects of fiat money inflation. I found this intriguing because he does not start with value judgements (“this is bad” or “this is good”) but refers only to praxeological and economic concepts to explain how fiat currency changes the culture. He answers questions like, “why don’t people save up for a house instead of borrowing money?”  and explains why it is that our society does not not—and will not—easily abandon our fiat monetary system.

Timothy Terrell on Common Objections to Capitalism 

Timothy Terrell debunks many myths about the free market and capitalistic system. These myths include things like, capitalism exploits the poor, capitalism doesn’t make you happy, or capitalism doesn’t support the arts or science. It is just a very clear and compelling case for why the free market is the best economic system for achieving wealth, equality, and cultural advancements.

Secondly, I will share some pictures and just talk about the experience of Mises U overall. It was, frankly, just amazing. As my friends know, I had some misgivings about it because I would be staying in a dorm room, with a roommate, and would have a lot more social interaction with the other students. As an introvert, this was slightly terrifying, though it didn’t stop me from going, thankfully! My roommate was incredibly nice, and we got along very well. While the evenings at the dorm did get a little crazy sometimes, it wasn’t anything like the nightmare I had imagined, and I really did enjoy hanging out with the other attendees. Along with my roommate, there were a few other girls that I got to know throughout the week, and since there are so few girls interested in economics, I was really happy to know I am not alone : )

I also got to experience Bob Murphy’s famous karaoke on Thursday night. It had been pretty hyped up (with a promo poster and everything), and it was funny because I remember in 2010 when he made an off-hand comment about having done karaoke the night before. It was like being able to say, “I knew Bob Murphy back when he was just a famous economist…” haha.

A few faithful Firefly fans finally were able to watch a couple episodes one evening (this was after about 2 hours of technical difficulties, discussions of what movie to watch, and talking through the show) and I was pretty happy about that. There’s nothing like Firefly for a group of libertarians, haha! Another night we watched V for Vendetta, which was my first time seeing it.

On Thursday night there was a written prelim exam for the Mündlich Prüfung, an optional oral exam. Having not studied at all, I figured I would just take the exam for fun, but that there was no chance I’d pass. I didn’t pass in 2010 and 2011 when I did actually study, so I was not expecting anything more. But on Friday morning when the list of students who passed was released, I discovered that I had somehow passed. I spent the rest of the day trying not to panic about the impending oral exam. I take any kind of exam or test way too seriously, so I probably could have done without some of the panicking, but at least it did give me the extra boost of adrenaline to stay awake and alert through every remaining lecture. I was very grateful for the copious notes I had taken, because without that I would have no place to start with studying for the orals. On Friday night I participated in (or rather, commanded over, as my control freak tendencies got the best of me) a study group with a few other students. Using my notes, we made a list of concepts and terms to cover, and then spent several hours asking each other questions. It was a very good experience because it forced me to do more work than I would have otherwise. I would not have necessarily memorized the qualities of a common medium of exchange or memorized the assumptions of the perfect competition model, so regardless of anything else, it was a great learning experience. I also really enjoyed being able to study with others. I am so used to being on my own—which works most of the time, but isn’t ideal for practicing for an oral exam—that I just liked being able to hang out with other people while studying.

While the late-night studying was necessary, it did leave us a little sleep-deprived on Saturday morning. When I am unusually tired, I become more emotional, so I spent the day trying not cry over the thought that it was the last day at Mises U. Anyways…I took the oral exam. It was pretty intense and definitely revealed some areas where I need to study more, since there were some concepts I was unsure about. However, I walked away knowing that I had truly done my best, and I was happy with that.

Later that evening the awards and certificates were handed out, and I discovered that I had passed the  Mündlich Prüfung. After having overanalyzed my orals, I figured that I had definitely not passed, so this was an unexpected announcement!

There were about 150 students at Mises U, and 64 of those students had taken the prelim written exam. 28 students passed the prelim. And out of those, 12-15 students passed the Mündlich Prüfung. There were 6 who went on to the next round to vie for first, second, and third place. The winners were Summer Fellows who have obviously studied all of this much more intensively, so I figure that if I apply for a fellowship another year, I’ll try for the  Mündlich Prüfung again, but for right now I am really happy to have passed…it was a really great accomplishment to wrap up Mises U 2014!

Some pictures now…






Needed a picture with the new Mises sign. The girl to my left was my roommate : )





A collage of photos from David Gordon’s lecture on praxeology


Tom Woods and Andrew Widener at chess. I think chess is the game of Austrian economists.



Emily, Megan, and me chilling with Rothbard

Emily, Megan, and me chilling with Rothbard


group photo

Mises University 2014

For those of you not aware of this…I am in Auburn, Alabama this week attending the Mises Institute’s Mises U. So far it has been just incredible, I am enjoying every moment of it. To follow the official posts, please visit the Mises blog. As time allows I am posting to my Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter, so you can check it out there as well. I am excited to share more details next week, but the schedule is pretty intense and I can’t make any guarantees about additional posts this week. Just listen to the lectures and and follow along online! : )

Concerns about the Vision Statements

In my last post I discussed the issues I have with the Shared Values of Transform Rockford. The leadership of Transform Rockford was very responsive to these concerns and when I get back from Mises University, we will be meeting so that they can better answer these questions. I’ll definitely be writing another post to update you on that situation. However, that post was really just a lead-in to my response about the Vision Rally itself. I have three primary aspects of concern with the vision statement and related statements announced at the Vision Rally.

I think it is easy for those who have been in Rockford for some years to become cynical about the possibility of change. But while cynicism will not contribute anything meaningful to the discussion, there is the need for rational and objective consideration. When I step back from the Vision Statement and look at it more critically, I see a series of statements that basically describe a utopia. Simply writing down what our dream city would look like doesn’t seem compelling. And as I commented after participating in a visioning session, the unique perspectives of the individuals are lost when all the ideas are merged. For example, my own statement had to do with promoting basic individual rights. I don’t see that idea reflected anywhere in this finished vision statement. Considering that the concept of libertarianism was drowned out by the end of the visioning session, I had no expectation it would somehow show up at the end of the process, but it was still a bit disappointing. The vision statements were so broad and generic that I was left wondering why it was necessary to get so much community input. If the vision statement and the rally itself was simply a diplomatic move to get people engaged, then it worked. But if the intention was to create a thoughtful platform for moving forward, I found the vision statements sadly lacking.

I am not saying that I was cynically watching the Vision Rally—I did get excited about it, but mostly because it was good to see so many people gathered together being excited about something. I mean, how often does that happen in Rockford? If we get together, isn’t it usually to protest or complain? But I honestly didn’t get any kind of thrill from the whole vision idea. It didn’t shake my world, it didn’t challenge my preconceptions, it didn’t necessarily inspire me onwards. It was simply the saying out loud of everything we have all thought before. The act of announcing these statements in a public context was interesting, but the content itself wasn’t overly impressive.

My next concern has to do with causation. It does very little good to say we want to get on the top 25 cities list without identifying why we got on the worst 25 cities list. What went wrong? What caused the situation we know now? Why did this happen? What are the factors involved with the high crime rate, high unemployment, and general depression of the region? What failed to work and to cause these things, and what measures possibly contributed to the decline? Hope for the future is meaningless without a deep understanding how we found ourselves in this situation. 

I do recognize that identifying causation would be controversial and problematic. There are many different interpretations of the mess we’re in right now, and everyone has their own opinion on it. It would not be an easy issue for Transform Rockford to tackle, and I honestly don’t even know where one would begin with trying to align the community on the why of our situation. But aside from the practical questions, I think that this discussion would be necessary to a solid plan for the future. I don’t know how it would happen, but I do think it is essential to successfully improving our community.  

This last objection is the one that troubles me the most. In the discussions from and about Transform Rockford, there seems to be an implicit assumption that a better future for Rockford can simply be engineered. It is as if we get enough people to attend the rally, if there are enough people planning and coordinating, if there are enough willing volunteers, then we can reach the ideal set forth. It reminds me of the Keynesian economists using metaphors of engines to describe the economy…if there are enough knowledgable technicians to “tweak” and “adjust” the engine, then we make it run beautifully. Speaking of the Keynesian and Chicago schools of economics, Christopher Westley writes,

“To both schools, the human person is a cog in an economic machine that must be coerced to act in ways that make their systems work.” (Mises Daily) 

And talking about John Maynard Keynes himself, Shawn Ritenour explains,   

“Keynes took the human out of “human action” and reduced the economic system to a machine. Man became a mere social unit, merely reacting to changed conditions according to economic instincts. Keynes’s focus on the management of economic aggregates fed the hubris of modern economists by justifying their role as the keepers of the keys to the economic kingdom.” (Mises Institute) 

But the economy, and society itself, isn’t a machine to be maintained, it is a complex ecosystem that cannot be controlled by any person or group.  Lew Rockwell writes,

“It is the conviction of the liberal intellectual tradition dating back to the Middle Ages that society contains within itself the capacity for internal self-management.” (Mises Institute)

We do not need the government to get itself cleaned up so that it can solve all of our city’s problems. We do not need to weed out corruption and implement a more efficient way for the government to work in Rockford. I offer Lew Rockwell’s words again,

“As lovers of liberty, it is essential that we constantly warn about the dangers presented by the state. But it is also our job to constantly say, in as many ways as we can, that it does not have to be this way. The state is not the foundation of society, it is not the source of our security, it does not bring about prosperity, and it does not protect us.” (Mises Institute)

Society will run itself, as we’ve seen through the ages. In the example of money, a government simply did not decree a common medium of exchange one day because they saw the inefficiency of barter. Money—a common medium of exchange—developed spontaneously in the market. The government wasn’t needed to create, control, or regulate the currency. In fact, the government’s intervention in the money supply has only led to harm over the centuries. 

So, moving from the abstract back to Transform Rockford, I am concerned with the implied need for anyone to “do” something in order to improve our community. It isn’t a matter of doing more—it is a matter of doing less, and simply letting society create spontaneous and free order. 

I realize it could be argued that Transform Rockford has said nothing about using the government to achieve these ends. But I think it is implied in much of the material. For example, one of the impact statements on Funding and Alignment states, “our local government and non-profits are impactful, properly supported and aligned with the community vision.” This definitely suggests that government will be used as part of the solution. And since the government is such an intrinsic part of society now that unless someone explicitly states that something will be done outside the purview of the state, you can assume that government will be involved. If a community wanted to explore non-government options, or wanted to remove the government from controlling it, this would take intention and purpose. I have seen nothing from Transform Rockford to make me think that voluntary solutions will be explored. Lastly, Transform Rockford would probably not hesitate to use government in order to enforce its changes. But the moment Transform Rockford uses “legal” force to make a person or a group of people do what they want, they have become an apparatus of the state.

In conclusion, I agree that there is a desperate need for change in the Rockford area. But Transform Rockford seems to lack the philosophical grounding to make a coherent and substantial difference. We are thinking beings with a worldview that drives our actions—whether we recognize it or not. Without intentionally developing and stating a position on the role of the government and the role of the individual, I am afraid Transform Rockford is in a position to be used for further state intervention—rather than encouraging the freedom necessary for true prosperity and growth. 

Shared Values: Upholding Virtue or Undermining Freedom?

downtown rkfd

Downtown Rockford after the Vision Rally

I intended this to be a post specifically about the Vision Rally, but I realized that I have not yet written much about the Shared Values and decided that topic deserved its own post.

Transform Rockford has developed a list of nine statements that sum up the values which the movement holds to and promotes.  Here is the list:

Update: I had incorrectly stated there were seven. There are actually nine of these value statements. I copied this text from the Transform Rockford site and apparently missed the first two, inclusion and caring. 

– Inclusion: Cultivate and support an environment that fully engages our community’s differences and diversity to ensure that individuals and organizations are heard, valued and supported.

– Caring: Show concern for the welfare of each person and foster a community culture that thinks and acts as one interactive and interdependent region.

– Respect: Embrace the knowledge and experiences of others by being attentive, listening well, and celebrate diversity as a strength and source of shared learning.

– Transparency: Foster an open process for maximum participant input and access to all information to enhance understanding and community ownership.

– Trustworthiness: Strive for integrity and reliable communication. Become committed to the highest levels of honesty and truthfulness.

– Unity: Place the greater good of all parts of our region and its transformation ahead of self or organizational interests.

– Ideation: Balance our brainstorming and decision- making process with all points of view and measurable information.

– Responsibility: Pursue excellence and accountability of self and others by not shifting blame or taking improper credit. Participate to the fullest of our ability.

– Interconnectedness: Won’t compromise any jurisdiction’s or organization’s identity or decision authority, but rather look to partner and integrate shared values, goals and philosophies.

After thinking through each of these very carefully, I determined that I could support most of these values. But there are a couple of them that concern me, so I will share my objections here.

The first one that bothers me is unity, wherein we should, “place the greater good of all parts of our region and its transformation ahead of self or organizational interests.” I am concerned by the idea that we ought to place the interest of the collective over the interest of the individual. I think this shows some confusion about what it means to have self interest. We all act to achieve our own personal ends. This is the human action axiom. And, as Hans-Hermann Hoppe pointed out in Economic Science and the Austrian Method, this axiom is irrefutable. If a person argues against this axiom, they are acting to achieve an end, which in this case would be the refutation of this statement as an axiom. So there is no way to avoid self-interest. It defines us human beings. However, self interest does not necessarily equal selfish behavior. Take the case of a philanthropist. This person receives satisfaction from knowing they have helped others. They place a high value on charity towards others. So they act, by giving away money, to achieve their end of feeling satisfied that they have helped someone else. In the case of Transform Rockford, many people are involved because they want to make a difference in the community. They want to leave the world a better place. That is their end, or their goal. So they are involved with Transform Rockford to pursue their own personal goal. It is the beauty of voluntary interaction that our self-centered goals become directed outward towards benefiting the rest of the world. 

Additionally, the wording of this statement is so ambiguous, it could easily be used for less than desirable goals. There is potential for this statement to be used by a communist movement to justify the denial of individual rights. I am in no way equating Transform Rockford with a communist movement, but the implications of this statement, if taken to the extreme, would be nothing less than communism. As Lenin famously said, “a few eggs must be broken to make an omelet.” There is no contrasting statement of individual rights in the Shared Values to help safeguard against this development, which leaves me quite concerned. 

The other concept that I am not sure about is interconnectedness, which means we “won’t compromise any jurisdiction’s or organization’s identity or decision authority, but rather look to partner and integrate shared values, goals and philosophies.” Again, this sounds great, but how would this actually work out? What happens when two organizations claim to have ultimate decision authority over the same group of people? What about when groups have inherently contradictory goals and philosophies? How will two organizations be integrated when their goals point in the opposite directions? And if you begin removing the contradictions until you get down to the fundamental shared values (because we can always reduce it to, “we are human beings,” or “we all want to be happy”), then there will be difference between anyone and any individual’s or group’s own identity will be lost. This whole sentence is full of logically problematic statements. 

So those are the two Shared Values which most concern me and I can basically get behind the rest of them. But I am also troubled by what is lacking in the Shared Values. There is no commitment to individual rights. The issues I have with the two value statements above could be resolved by affirming the individual’s right to life, liberty, and property. However, that could be a whole blog post in and of itself.

My last point about the Shared Values is that alignment with them is voluntary. As long as it stays that way, I have no problem with the idea of Shared Values. After the Vision Rally on Wednesday, I filled out a volunteer card. I was specifically interested in being on one of the “red teams” which gets to critique and challenge the drafts presented by each group. That sounds like the perfect thing for me. to do. Anyways, as I was filling it out, there was a checkbox for me to state if I agreed with the Shared Values. I thought about it for a few seconds and then skipped it, with a sense of relief. No one came up to me and said, “check that box, or else you’ll be arrested!” No one forced me to agree at gunpoint. Now, if I am not allowed to volunteer for Transform Rockford because I can’t fully support all the Shared Values, that’s fine. Any organization has the right to determine who can be involved. But Transform Rockford can’t come knocking at my door and demand that I sign my name to the Shared Values. So, as long as everything about Transform Rockford is voluntary, I will not object to the movement as a whole. There are aspects which concern me, but if participation is voluntary, I can raise no objections to the fundamental concept of Transform Rockford. 

In my next post I’ll get down to actually talking about my reaction to the Vision Rally and the information shared at that event.