Praxis: What I Wish Existed When I Was Younger

I have a love/hate feeling towards my time in college. I met some of the most amazing people and had some great times, and the networking with faculty and students put me directly on the path I am on today. I love my life, and I don’t think it would exist in this form if I had not gone to Horry-Georgetown Technical College and College of Charleston so many years ago. But, I feel like I was sold a lemon in a lot of ways. The information I gained from being an Econ student wasn’t worth the $65,000 of debt and took more years of my life than it should have. In order to graduate I was forced to take a variety of general ed courses that have created almost no value for me, the worst offender is the foreign language requirement. I had to take four semesters of the same foreign language, which is basically a waste of time. You can’t learn enough in four classes to be anywhere near fluent, or even remember the basics of the language a couple of years later. I wish when I was in college there was an alternative.

Luckily, I believe things are improving. With free programs like Coursera and Khan Academy you can feel out subjects, and even get mastery in them, without spending any money. And, of course, programs like Praxis are leading the way in providing a true college alternative. When you enroll in college you are told it is a bundle of goods that will provide you with life experience, networking opportunities, and the skills you need to get a good job, but colleges are failing students in getting the skills necessary to get a job. Praxis actually provides training and an education so that students can prove their worth and be given some freedom to explore their passions.

As a military vet I think Praxis would have been perfect for me. I started college at the age of 23, much later than most of my peers, and I really only went to college because that is what you are supposed to do. If something like Praxis existed when I ended my service it would have been incredibly appealing to me. I hope Praxis can reach out to veterans when they get out of the military, I think many of them would be ideal candidates. They tend to have some life experience and maturity, as well as discipline to get work done. They also won’t be in a rush to the classroom again, it is sometimes tough to become a student again after 4 years of working for a paycheck and going on adventures. Besides, they won’t have much to lose. It is unlikely they will be dependent on parents for support, they have an easy college fall back if Praxis doesn’t work for them due to the GI Bill, and soldiers tend to have a high risk tolerance for travel and new experiences.

The world is getting better and institutions are being forced to evolve. It is a slow process, particularly for any industry that the government has so many tentacles in, but it is inevitable. The internet changed everything and we are just starting to see the effects. Education, from Kindergarten through College, is beginning to undergo a revolution. It is creative destruction, and may be painful for many who are entrenched in the old way, but it will be beneficial to individuals, society, and our species as a whole.

If you are interested in learning more about Praxis just check out their webpage at www.discoverpraxis.com where you can find testimonials, blog posts with their values, podcasts with their founder, etc.

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Military Lessons

In some ways the military and college are very similar. In both cases (at least for me), the lessons I learned and benefits that I’ve brought with me after leaving have very little to do with the specific skills I was taught. Sure, I am a decent shot with a rifle or machine gun and I know how to navigate with a compass, but the real world benefit I got from those skills pale in comparison to the lessons I learned from my leaders and peers. The real benefit from the military (and college) is being around different people, having challenging conversations, and being put into a mentor/mentee situation. Here are the lessons I learned from some of my military leaders:

  • Drill Sergeant Koehnig was my first real leader in the military. Unlike my other two drill sergeants he took a personal interest in the troops and got to know us as individuals. On more than one occasion he pulled me and Private Amrine aside and would take us on walks through the woods when we were in the field. He would impart a little bit of wisdom on us and ask us our plans for the future. I don’t remember the details of most of these sessions but one particular lesson did stick with me. He basically said, “During your life you are going to have a lot of leaders, good and bad, and there is something you can learn from each of them. Take the attributes from the good leaders in your life, try to be like them, and use the bad leaders to show you what you don’t want to become. Both good and bad can be inspiration for improvement”.
  • Sergeant Baker was, by far, the most influential mentor I have ever had in my life. It is not possible to sum up all his lessons in specific stories. As my team leader in Afghanistan he was responsible for my personal and professional development and health, and he took that very seriously, but he didn’t take the military hierarchy seriously. He challenged authority when he thought the mission plan was bad, he asked us to call him Vinnie instead of Sergeant (something I never got good at), and he demonstrated often that being the biggest or strongest guy doesn’t mean you are the best fighter. He challenged me to evaluate my views on religion and the way I was raised, and he encouraged me to leave the military as a better person than I came in. He wanted his soldiers to be reading and educating himself, and when heartbreak or family problems hit any one of us he was supportive. He was also hated wasting time and would take his team out regularly to train in some advanced lessons for our martial art instead of bullshitting around the barracks waiting for Battalion to release us for the day. Out of everyone I served with I owe Vinnie the most for helping me become the person I am today. I’m sure we don’t agree on things much these days, I rarely do with my military brothers, but I don’t think that will stop us from sharing a beer someday.
  • Staff Sergeant Pearson is the opposite of Vinnie and one of those people who showed me what I didn’t want to be. He seemed to care more about his image than his troops. He had big muscles (that he would order his soldiers to feel) and talked as loud as possible, but I’m still not sure what skills he brought to the table. I did my best to avoid Pearson as much as possible.
  • Staff Sergeant Shearin was not a leader of mine for long but his silent strength always impressed me. He had the most combat experience of anyone in our unit before going to Afghanistan and his calmness in stressful situations acted as a foundation for all the younger soldiers. He was an example of what I wanted to be.
  • Sergeant First Class Barry was my platoon leader and one of the most impressive people I have ever met. Through example he showed that leaders don’t need to be loud or in your face, they can be calm and quiet. In fact, that is a better way to be a leader. When SFC Barry spoke, everyone listened. He also protected his troops from the bullshit that poured from the upper levels of the military. If Battalion had some bullshit detail for us he would do all he could to get us clear of it. Also, he helped protect me from greater punishment when I got in legal trouble with the Military Police. I know that if he hadn’t stood behind me when I went before our upper leadership for punishment things would have been a lot worse for me.
  • First Sergeant Hawley was the leader of my company when we went to Afghanistan and afterwards he moved me from my combat platoon to help in Operations. This may have been a move because I wasn’t particularly compatible with the combat role, or maybe he truly saw some potential in me. It doesn’t really matter what the reason was, he ended up being a mentor to me as I began to transition out of military life. It was pretty obvious that I wouldn’t be re-enlisting and Hawley encouraged me to take classes and hone my non-combat skills. He gave me opportunities to be a leader and sent me to military programs where I could shine. I am forever thankful for the opportunities he provided.

From Waving Flags to Burning Them

**This is the first post in a multi-part series about what and why I identify or believe certain things. Ideally I will get one or two up per week.**

 

I guess the best place to start is my move away from Republican conservatism. It isn’t the most exciting thing to me at this point but it was the first domino to fall in my life. Libertarianism was my flirtation with the unknown, my pursuit of answers to questions that I had no answers to, it was a search for truth when one of the foundations of my youth showed cracks and began to crumble. After politics I began to question everything else, nothing was forbidden. Religion, sexuality, lifestyles, etc. were all open to analysis, dissection, and destruction if warranted. And really, I have George W. Bush to thank for it all.

September 11, 2001 affected us all in one way or another. For me, it lead to war. I walked into a recruiters office the morning of 9/11, the second tower had been hit but had not fallen yet. The initial hypothesis that the crash was an accident soon was overshadowed by reports of “terrorism”, a word that up until that point was something that brought to mind deserts far away from the safety of the US. The recruiters assured me this would not be war, I think they thought the idea of combat would scare me off, but I was there because I wanted to fight. I knew I was smart, school was easy for me, but I didn’t know if I had balls. I also thought war was something that the US needed, I grew up hearing about how united the country during the Cold War, we were a nation that needed an enemy or we would turn on ourselves. Better to face a backwards and inhumane “other” then be at each other’s throats. Besides, the casualties would be strangers to us. People that didn’t have the blessing of Christ on their holy nation.

With nervousness and excitement I went through Basic Training and Advanced Individual Training to be an Infantry Paratrooper. Despite my high test scores I opted for the Infantry. The training was easy, it was obviously a mind game more than anything. The Drills weren’t going to hurt us or anything, screaming eventually ends and you can only do so many push-ups before your body gives out. Yep, it sucked but it wasn’t difficult. The body molds quickly and the Infantry training was mostly memorization and becoming comfortable in the woods and/or with a firearm in your hand. Any attempt at molding me into a drone or brain-washing wasn’t really effective, partly thanks to one of my Drills who took me and another guy aside regularly to encourage us to think for ourselves and read books (books were technically contraband).

I arrived at my unit and we quickly deployed to Afghanistan. We hopped around from fire base to fire base conducting searches, setting up ambushes, and basically doing the things infantrymen do. It was really days of boredom broken up by minutes of excitement and it all is kind of a blur. While we were in Kandahar a change occurred that woke me out of the drone like slumber I had entered during the deployment, we declared war on Iraq.

Even at that time I couldn’t for the life of me figure out why that happened. Accusations of WMD’s and moral arguments for rescuing the Iraqi people from a dictator didn’t really make sense. The world was filled with WMD’s and dictators, surely there was bigger and more dangerous foes out there if the US was going to use that as a standard for intervention. As it would turn out I would end up in Iraq less than a year later.

I did what was asked on my Iraqi deployment but the seed was planted for me to question the motives and authority of the government, as well as the moral superiority of the GOP. It was enough to eliminate any prospect of re-enlisting (though I did do one year as a National Guardsman in South Carolina). I had to find another political option but wasn’t ready to even consider the Democratic Party, I was still too religious and they were all baby-killing atheist traitors.

This exploration was going on during my first year in college and I was taking a basic Political Science course. My professor said there were four basic political party philosophies: Liberals believed you should be free in the bedroom but not the boardroom, Republicans believed you should be free in the boardroom but not the bedroom, Libertarians believed that you should be free in both the boardroom and the bedroom, and Statists believed that you should not be free in either. Libertarians seemed the most in line with my current thoughts. He also mentioned that Reason Magazine was the official magazine of the Libertarian Party (I don’t think that is actually true) so I picked up a copy at Barnes & Noble, liked it, and eventually subscribed.

There were three things that Reason brought to my attention but I can’t really remember the order. First, they did a run-down of all the politicians running for President in 2008 and mentioned that in a good world Ron Paul would win. Second, they had some sort of memoir for Milton Friedman, this was my introduction to economics and I purchased “Capitalism and Freedom” because of the article. Third, they had an article about why you should be allowed to sell your own organs, this article shifted my entire way of thinking about self-ownership and the proper role of government, it was the beginning of me thinking like a libertarian.

The next few years involved jumping in head first. I volunteered for Ron Paul’s campaign and I devoured any piece of economic or libertarian political literature I could find. Milton Friedman, Hayek, Ayn Rand, David Friedman, and eventually Rothbard. By time I reached my junior year of college all it took was reading David Friedman’s “The Machinery of Freedom” and an IHS seminar and I was a full blown anarchist. My anarchy was grounded almost primarily in economics and the endless pursuit of efficiency though, I had little love or time for morality.

As I graduated college and entered the workforce in DC my hatred for the state grew but an emptiness was inside me. I needed something positive, some love, art, happiness, and community to add light to the darkness. Working for SFL helped a lot, I was able to converse with a variety of people and travel the country, and they sent me to Porcfest. Porcfest was my first opportunity to see some anarchy in action, the small voluntary community operated as much as possible without a state and served as some inspiration. I was skeptical of it growing beyond a small community in a short period of time though, it seemed that just because something works on a small tribe-level that doesn’t necessarily mean it will work on a city or state level. What good is being morally or philosophically “right” if it had no practical application in human affairs? Was anarchy nothing more than an interesting ivory-tower thought experiment? At the time I wasn’t sure, then came Burning Man.

For unrelated reasons I found myself in the basic dust of the Nevada desert under the hot August sun. Around me ran debauchery and love in every creative form. Humans exploring art, community, and many illegal substances seemed to interact like a designed and living organism, but there really was no designer. The infrastructure provided by the organizers was minimal, basically just some street signs and porta-potties, but you could find volunteers providing medical care, Rangers to provide help, bars to get boozes, massage parlors, live music, tea, art performances, classes being put on by college professors, food, and basically anything you would expect from a 70,000 person city like Black Rock City.

Part temporary intentional community and part everything else, Burning Man provided me with another example of how anarchy might play out if adopted on a larger scale. Certainly there were problems, particularly the economics of a gift economy that seems like it could collapse if it lasted more than a week in such a resource deprived environment. How long can “gifting” last when people had to drive hours to bring in more food, water, and supplies to repair structures? Still, here was anarchy with the capitalism or consumerism. While the economics seemed unsustainable the experience opened the doors to the community and love that anarchy can provide. This was a community of people who wanted no state enforcement of building codes, drug laws, or health codes, but having a reputation for being a dick, speeding more than 5mph and kicking up dust, or mooching off the community could lead you to being an outcast. That rarely happened though because everyone involved wanted it to work, by travelling from far and wide to the Playa they explicitly agreed to the principles of Burning Man.

A life changing week in the dust shifted what I believed was possible in this world, and shifted my means of accomplishing change. Before I didn’t think political action was effective but I saw no alternative. After Burning Man I saw politics as not only as ineffective but a waste of my time and energy. Surely, I would be happier and more effective if I lived the life I wanted instead of voting to get someone in office who might give me permission to be happy and free. I decided to just do what made me happy and abide by my own moral code, “don’t harm”.

Opening the door to new experiences and actively pursuing those experiences means I crossed paths with people unlike me. It was like a fog had lifted over my perception, I began to recognize the struggles faced by minorities and those whose cultures have faced generations of systematic oppression. I began to see that the government is not the only oppressor, and for some people the state can rightly be called a savior and protector. Before I had only seen libertarians and anarchists who fought solely the state. In fact, many people seemed to argue that libertarianism ONLY speaks about a person’s relationship with the government, that the philosophy of liberty has nothing to say about racism or misogyny.

If that is the case then libertarianism is doomed just from a practical standpoint. Progressives and Conservatives provide a complete world view, they not only say the proper role of government but they try to explore the best way to live. People are not going to jump behind a philosophy that remains neutral on a significant part of the human experience. A lot of people like to argue that we are somehow living during the end of liberty, that the state is so massive and powerful that every resource must be mobilized to fight it. I just don’t see that as accurate.

We are living in the freest time in human history. Things are better now than they have ever been. Sure, there are problems, and maybe the US is not holding the torch of freedom high anymore, but things are still on a good path. Even “tyrannical” programs like the NSA are facing greater scrutiny and the country seems weary of foreign entanglements. Not to mention the vast expansion of liberty as the dominoes of prohibition fall at the same time as marriage equality continues to spread. You can’t say that we are living in the worst time for freedom when people have more bodily autonomy and to associate than ever.

But, I don’t think libertarianism is limited to the individual’s relationship with the state. I think embracing liberty as an economic principle, moral guidance, and simply because it provides the best life for the most number of people can provide support in dealing with non-government issues as well. The purist form of liberty is anarchy, it is the rejection of man’s dominion over another, no “ifs, ands, or buts”. It is to say that we are responsible for our own actions and reject the use of coercion. And I believe it should be pursued as much as possible. We all will slip and fall, we are humans after-all, but freedom is something worth pursuing for practical and philosophical reasons. It makes life better for others and, for me at least, the exercise of liberty makes one healthier and happier.