Nov 15

Russia and the West are Teaming Up to Combat ISIS. What Could Possibly Go Wrong?

So there’s been a lot of stuff happening over the past few weeks regarding ISIS, Russia, and the West, and I thought it might be helpful for myself if I wrote up a quick summary of it all, because honestly it’s fairly hard to keep track of. Realizing this, I figured you all might be interested in the summary too, along with my comments as a Political Science major with plans to one day work at the United Nations. Hopefully we can hash all this out together, because I won’t lie, this is an extremely complicated with issue with lots of gray areas (#PLAIssues).

First things first, it’s important to know where everyone stands. The U.S., as you’ve probably heard, is against ISIS and the Assad regime, and is therefore supporting anyone attacking those groups. This includes the Syrian and Yemini rebels, which have been fighting against both. In fact, most of the major players we’ll be talking about are against ISIS and Assad. The only exception is Russia, who is allied with Syria, and has been working to help end the civil war. This stance I found has been confusing for a lot of people, because honestly, who wants an ally whose country is falling apart and who every other country hates? Well, it depends on what you value in your allies. Being allied with Syria, for one thing, gives Russia a foothold in the Middle East, right next to America’s major ally/foothold, Israel. Being Assad’s ally in the regime’s hour of need also makes Syria rather beholden to Russia. If you only have one ally, and they’re as powerful as Russia, you basically have to do what they say, because you can’t risk losing their help or having them turn against you. So if President Putin so desired, he could basically make Assad his puppet, and Assad really couldn’t do anything about it. The very idea is both brilliant and terrible.

Anyway, because of Russia’s support of Assad, Putin sent in troops a month or so ago to “attack ISIS,” or so they said. What American intelligence told us was that they were really focusing on the groups that threatened Assad, like our friends the rebels. After all, ISIS is attacking everyone that doesn’t agree with it–including these rebels–while the rebels are directly moving against Assad. So it was actually in the regime and its allies’ interests to leave ISIS be until the rebel threat is taken care of, since ISIS would actually be helping them fight off the direct threat. The U.S. wasn’t so happy about this, and promptly sent a team of its own soldiers into Syria to combat ISIS, as well as bolster the rebel force. For a few tense days it looked like Russia and America were heading towards another quasi war.

Then ISIS shot down a Russian passenger plane, killing close to 300 people in one day. This is when Russia’s priorities appear to change, as Putin announced Russia would now aggressively target ISIS. Apparently they meant it this time, because they basically sent a whole air-armada over to the region to drop small bombs. It was an antiquated war tactic, but hey, whatever works. It should be noted that throughout this whole Russian ordeal, the West barely batted an eye.

…Then Paris was attacked and everyone flipped out. The entire Western front was angry, and now France was in the game, sending air strikes over to ISIS strongholds. Recently David Cameron has been plugging for military intervention from Britain against ISIS, and now with their ally France under attack, you can bet on him getting it. In fact, a lot of nations now seem ready to take up the cause, since obviously ISIS isn’t discriminating by country. Who could be next?

Can I just pause and ask why ISIS thought this would be a good idea? If you antagonize every major military in the world, stirring up the West and the East, you know you’re going to get messed up, right? I mean it seems like common sense.

Anyway, while obviously irritated that the West responded way more to the attack on France then the attack on their plane, Russia realized they had a common enemy, and are now teamed up with France. America is also in support of this union, although diplomats are reasonably nervous about what will happen after ISIS is taken care of (because let’s face it, ISIS is toast). President Obama has noted that Americans will not allow the dictator Assad to stay in power even after ISIS is out of the picture, and Russia has remained (suspiciously?) mute on the subject.

Finally, the most recent development: Turkey shooting down one of Russia’s military jets. It should be noted that these two countries have been having problems with each other recently. Turkey, for one thing, absolutely hates Assad–he’s a terrible neighbor, and all of Syria’s escaped refugees have now settled in Turkey to take cover. Ending the Syrian civil war and ousting Assad is very high on Turkey’s list of priorities, but Russia for a while seemed to be helping Assad. Russia has also been flying several military aircrafts over Turkish airspace, aggravating them further. So it doesn’t come as a complete surprise that this strike happened, although the Turk’s timing is quite awful honestly and they used weapons America had given them, which is irritating to the U.S. because now we’ve been roped into what was really a bad decision.

Russia was obviously upset, and has placed sanctions on trade with Turkey that will ultimately cost the country about $3 billion dollars. Putin described the attack as “a stab in the back,” committed by “accomplices of terrorists,” and implied that America could have stopped the attack through better communication (Note that Turkey isn’t in support of terrorists, but what do you expect everyone to think when you attack a country who has publicly made it their mission to combat said terrorists?). Interestingly though, Russia has now agreed to follow along with Western attack plans, which will be lead by the United States. This is great!… Right? Well for now, we know that ISIS is going down, and that is good. But whether this cooperation will lead to a new bond between Russia and the West or ultimately more conflict, remains to be seen.

Adam, Karla and Roth, Andrew. “Moscow is ready to coordinate with the West over strikes on Syria, Putin says.” Stars and Stripes. Stars and Stripes, 26 Nov. 2015. Web. 30 Nov., 2015.

Graham, Thomas E. “Russia’s Syria Surprise (And What America Should do About it).” The National Interest. Center for the National Interest, 15 Sept., 2015. Web. 30 Nov., 2015.

Nov 15


I’ve spent most of my life growing up in State College at this point, and Pittsburgh is one of the nearby cities I’ve visited most. I’ve been coming to Pittsburgh since I was eleven, but the point that it became most influential for me was when I was just finding my place in high school. Interestingly enough, the lessons Pittsburgh would have to teach me seemed to change with the city as it developed and revitalized itself, and each visit gave me something new to think about–usually something that I would take to heart for years to come. Now I’ve returned to Pittsburgh again, this time with the Presidential Leadership Academy, and learned even more invaluable lessons, each more beneficial than the last. I thought for my blog this week that I really wanted to go back and examine everything I’ve learned from my time at Pittsburgh–not just the things we did on this trip–and how it relates to the city’s recent resurgence.

So without further ado…

In my sophomore year of high school I joined a Presbyterian youth group. I didn’t belong to the church or really any sort of religion at all, but the club was all-inclusive and full of several of my friends, so I enjoyed it. During every spring break, this group of about fifty or so teenagers and ten adult mentors would drive down to Pittsburgh to do service in the community. We slept on the floor of a church in sleeping bags, getting up early in the mornings so we could go repaint the walls of a homeless shelter, or clean out an old building that was being repurposed, or make food for people who because of factors beyond their control had been forced out into the street. It was during this time–not long ago at all–that Pittsburgh was still recovering in many areas. But the main reason the city has recently been doing so well is because of the insane amount of volunteers who have devoted their time to making things better. I am proud to have done my part during those few years, as I am extremely proud and impressed by the people we met who work in the Braddock Carnegie Library. These people have spent countless hours on this project for very little pay, solely for the purpose of making their community better. As a person who participates in community service on a very frequent basis, I could recognize the expressions of quiet satisfaction the tour guides wore on their faces–not just because they were doing a fantastic job, but because they knew what they were doing was the right thing, and that it was helping people. Upon arriving to college, I assumed Pittsburgh had already taught me all it ever would about what it meant to serve a community, and indeed what I learned during those three spring trips was invaluable and remains extremely influential for me. But this trip to Braddock showed me that Pittsburgh, thankfully, wasn’t done with me yet.

Before this trip, all my educational experiences in Pittsburgh had involved recovery, rebuilding and recuperation. This weekend proved to go beyond that, becoming more than anything a lesson in innovation. Practically everywhere we went, speakers were encouraging us to try new things, to push ourselves out of our comfort zones, and of course showing us how much good could come from that. I think the lesson that perfectly summarized all of those innovative strategies was only mentioned in passing. At Deloitte, the presented us with the “Platinum Rule:” Treat others the way they want to be treated. It is the same concept as the Golden Rule, but this new one (new innovation you might say) recognizes the diversity in a population, that not everyone will want the same thing as you. This might be because of a person’s business chemistry, but it could also be because of their background, experiences, culture, or any other part of them that might be different than ours. I feel this concept is what lead to most–if not all–of the innovations we saw during our trip. Google listened to what it’s employees wanted, and created possibly the most innovative and creative corporate working space ever to help them get their best work done. Deloitte used the concept when examining people’s personalities, and adapted their leading and following styles in order to gel with their colleagues. And the workers at the Braddock Library used it when they examined the community to see what they could do to make the old library useful and valuable to the surrounding community.

So ultimately I feel that being a leader and an innovator has everything to do with looking outside of yourself and considering others and the world around you, and putting them first. That’s what Pittsburgh has taught me through it’s wonderful displays of service, community, and fellowship. I can’t wait to see what this city has in store for me on my next visit.

Nov 15

Violent Video Games and the Degradation of Empathy

The effect violent video games have on American culture has always been a very contested and sometimes uncomfortable topic, due to the sheer amount of people who play them regularly. While I am in fact one of those people who can and has played these games for hours on end, I would argue anything with such a huge sphere of influence–especially influence on youth–should be thoughtfully examined. That is what I aim to do for you this week.

At the moment, video games are making more money than all other forms of media combined. This includes console games, games for PC, and games for your phone. And each year the video game companies’ goal is to make even more money. Like any good business, one of the things they’re wont to do is repeat themselves when they come across a successful product, as this is much less risky than trying something new. One of the things these corporations have found over the past fifteen years is that graphic violence, especially first-person-shooter violence, make a lot of cash. The first breakthrough example of this was a little game called Call of Duty. Heard of it? It sold more copies the week of its release than any other video game ever. It’s 2010 sequel, Black Ops, still holds records for the massive chunk of change it raked in. Naturally, game companies all over the place began to copy its style, producing more and more “realistic” military-style first-person-shooter games.

The general widespread theory you often hear is that video games are responsible for the rise in violence in American youth. The NRA has even pointed the finger at video game corporations for causing the uptick in mass shootings–highly ironic, considering how gun companies profit immensely from the free advertising they receive in games like Call of Duty (Hallman).

Unfortunately for the NRA, video games do not cause violence. If anything, they are one small contributor in a laundry list of circumstances that might push someone to commit a violent crime (Jhally). What more and more research is showing instead, is that violent video games desensitize players to violence, and in this fashion degrade the empathy of their participants (Ivory, Kalyanaraman).

Think about it. In all these violent games, in order to be able to play for hours at a time, you ultimately have to stop being disgusted or horrified by the grotesque acts your avatars are committing. When the main task of the game is to commit violence, you don’t think twice about the effect that violence might have on real people, and players commit a number of horrendous acts they would never dream of committing in real life. But in order to do this, they essentially have to “switch off” their empathy for others, and view the (increasingly realistic) humans humans they need to kill as objects, rather than people. Additionally, when you play these games where violence–not negotiation or strategy–is so often the very first solution to any problem, and rewards the players by advancing them in the game and earning them points, it forwards the message that violence is an appropriate means of handling these sorts of challenges (Jhally). While this may not actually cause a player to then go out and commit violent acts, it has been shown to desensitize them to violence–and not just in video games. After playing violent video games, participants across the board were less likely to become anxious when faced with images of violence in real life, and less likely to intervene when violence was being committed in front of them (Nauert).

Another thing American video games have been known to do is glamorize the our military. Even though the vast majority of citizens who play video games will never join the military themselves, they still are able to make a pseudo connection with it through highly militarized games like Call of Duty, America’s Army, and Battlefield. The things is, these games are hardly anything at all like actual war. According to actual soldiers, they take a small snippet of time–one where lots of danger and action is going on–and reproduce it for hours and hours (Jhally). Video games also do not take into the account the effect war actually has on communities. Americans are very detached to militarized combat in this sense–we haven’t had any sort of attack on the homefront this century aside from Pearl Harbor and 9/11 (if you want to call the latter an act of war). We simply can’t imagine the sheer horror of violence committed against our own people, so we often don’t think as hard about inflicting it on others. The fact that video games continue to instill pride in American players while they vanquish “the enemy” for hours on end through their gaming console, isn’t helping things (Jhally).

In conclusion, I’d like to put forth the proposition that everyone take another look at the messages violent video games are sending, and ultimately search for ways to get the truth out. We might not be able to stop a multi-billion dollar industry from making its products, but we should at least try to find ways to counteract the negative effects. This could be through education, or any other number of means. But we need to address the issue somehow; otherwise, Americans are just going to keep becoming less empathetic and more desensitized towards violence.


Hallman, Rick. “NRA Blames ‘Corrupt’ Video Game Industry for Gun Violence.” The Huffington Post, 21 Dec., 2012. Web. 9 Nov., 2015.

Ivory, J.D. and Kalyanaraman S. “The Effects of Technological Advancement and Violent Content in Video Games on Players’ Feelings of Presence, Involvement, Physiological Arousal, and Aggression.” Journal of Communication, 2008. no. 57, (532-555).

Jhally, Sut. “Joystick Warriors.” MEF, 2013. Film. Nauert, Rick. “Video Games Desensitize to Real Violence.” Psych Central, 28 July, 2006. Web. 9 Nov., 2015.

Robinson, T. Callister, M., Clark, B., Phillips, J. “Violence sexuality and Gender Stereotyping: A content analysis of official video game websites.” Web Journal of Mass Communication Research, 2009. no. 13.

Oct 15

America Needs to Become Bilingual

If you look at nearly any industrialized country in the 21st century, you can see that the United States has clearly fallen behind in education. One of the main reasons for this is that we only require (and sometimes only make available) education in one language: English. In this entry I will try to prove that we’d all be better off learning multiple languages, like students do most everywhere else.

First of all, students who are bilingual or multilingual tend to be not only smarter, but healthier. Learning a language and being able to mentally switch back and forth between languages engages the brain in ways most people never consider. You see, in order for a bilingual person to draw on their knowledge of one language, they need to repress their knowledge of the other language. This means that more parts of the brain are active when speaking either language, and this type of executive control improves brain function and plasticity, and has been shown to slow cognitive decline (Bhattacharjee). That means diseases like Alzheimer’s and Dementia will occur slower and later in life for individuals who speak more than one language, and brain function before those diseases set in will be higher.

Bilingualism is also becoming increasingly important to a person’s career, and this is true for almost any line of work. Communication across cultures has become essential in fields like business (where you need to work with people manufacturing, buying, or selling your product in different countries), politics (where you need to use diplomacy with people from different nations) and medicine (where patients–especially in the U.S.–struggle to find proper medical care because they can’t understand their monolingual doctors). People who are bilingual end up making more money than monolingual people on average, and a recent study found that recruiters in Europe, Latin America, and Asia say that being bilingual is critical for success in today’s business environment (Andruss). And even if the job doesn’t necessarily require you to speak two languages, being bilingual shows you’ve worked hard at achieving a mastery of the language, and is one of the first things employers notice on a resume. It makes you stand out as a better and more flexible candidate for the job.

Furthermore, incorporating bilingual education into our current education system will actually make the entire system run smoother and more effectively. Because of No Child Left Behind and now Common Core, schools and teachers are judged on their effectiveness based on the results of standardized testing. If students don’t do well (i.e. they didn’t learn the required curriculum in time), the teacher is punished, but not the student. So not only are students forced to learn a regimented content which they often do not care about, they have no incentive to (Karp). Implementing a system of bilingual education would work towards solving a lot of these flaws in the system. For one, bilingual education requires a “safe” environment for learning. By that I mean one where the student feels at home and not afraid to answer incorrectly, as many students often are in the current system. We’ve been taught in America that a wrong answer equals failure, when really it’s just part of the learning process, and we shouldn’t be afraid of it (Malarz). Secondly, bilingual education encourages spontaneous learning and going off topic in order to keep students engaged with what’s being taught. Students are even allowed to design certain parts of the curriculum. This is because it’s been proven that students will learn better if they are learning about something that interests them, or that they can see themselves using in real life–giving them incentive to learn (Malarz). Much of the things we learn in Common Core are not interesting to students, and much of it we will never use again. Better to let us learn that things we need well than the things we don’t need poorly.

Finally, being bilingual can help bridge the gap between cultures. Just last summer, two public radio stations in Central Washington started a bilingual reporting program, i.e. reporting stories in both English and Spanish. They did this with the hope of increasing civic engagement and community awareness in monolingual Spanish and English speakers, and so far they have been quite successful (Price). I can attest to this idea of reaching out to others through language myself. As someone who speaks three languages and has travelled throughout many countries, I can recall specific times when I caused an expression of distress and confusion to turn into happy amusement when I spoke (or at least made a real effort) to speak in their native tongue. Being able to speak the language of a culture is a kind of proof that you care enough about that culture to learn about it, and makes you seem like much less of an outsider. I have no doubt that if we could all become bilingual, the world would become a healthier, more efficient, and overall a better and happier place to live.

Andruss, Paula. “How Being Bilingual Can Boost Your Career.” iSeek. Minnesota State Colleges and Universities, March 2008. Web. 26 Oct., 2015.

Bhattacharjee, Yudhijit. “Why Bilinguals are Smarter.” The New York Times. The New York Times Company, 17 March, 2012. Web. 26 Oct., 2015.

Karp, Stan. “The Problems With Common Core. Rethinking Schools. Rethinking Schools, 20 Sept., 2013. Web. 26 Oct., 2015.

Malarz, Lynn. “Bilingual Education: Effective Programing for Language Minority Students.” Curriculum Handbook. ASCD, 2015. Web. 5 Oct., 2015.

Price, Jenna. “Two Stations Bridge Culture Gap with Bilingual Reporting.” NPR Extra. NPR, 29 Aug., 2014. Web. 26 Oct., 2015.


Oct 15

The Gender Gap in Political Ambition

As many of you know, I’m double majoring in political science and women’s studies. These fields of study overlap quite often, but one of the most notable intersections which is researched consistently in both spheres is what political analysts call the “gender gap.” This term can be used in several different situations, but generally it refers to the difference between men and women in each context. Some of such contexts include the pay gap, the average level of education in men and women, the number of male vs female CEOs, the number of men vs women in the military and the positions they hold, voting patterns and political participation by sex, and the percent of women vs. men in government positions. What I want to call everyone’s attention to in this blog entry, is the gender gap in political ambition.

Feminists and political scientists alike both want to know the reason women make up 51% of the U.S. population, but only hold 20% of seats in the Senate, 18% of seats in the House, and make up only 10% of State Governors. What is it that is keep American women out of office?

It can’t just be that women aren’t electable–that’s no longer a valid claim in this century. Today, women tend to get elected more often than men… At least when they run. Women who run also receive more press coverage (Meeks) and are able to raise more money from individual donors (Crespin and Dietz).

So why are there so few in our government? New studies show that it may simply be that girls have less interest in running for political office–in other words, they lack the political ambition of men.

But it doesn’t start out this way. Caroline Heldman, associate professor of Political Science at Occidental College, said in in an interview for the 2012 film, Miss Representation, that when children are seven years old, boys and girls report wanting to become president in roughly equal numbers. But by the time they’re fifteen, the number of girls who say they would like to be president decreases dramatically as compared to the boys (Newsom).

A 2013 Study by Jennifer Lawless and Richard Fox examines this gender gap in detail on college campuses, and reveals that, when asked how often they had thought about running for office, undergraduate women were about 50% more likely than men to report they’d never thought about it, about 25% less likely than men to say that it had crossed their minds, and only half as likely as men to have thought about it multiple times.

But the question remains: Why? What is happening to women between the ages of seven and fifteen that are causing them to suddenly not be interested in political office. Fox and Lawless offer five reasons:

  1. Young men are more likely to be socialized by their parents to think about politics

as a career path. The same survey that asked undergraduates how many times they’d thought about running for office also found that women were less likely than men to discuss politics with their parents at home. Most importantly, women were less likely to be encouraged by either their father or mother to run for office, and more likely to be discouraged by both parents to run. Parental support is a key factor when it comes to pursuing any field not just politics. It comes as no surprise that this variable would be linked to political ambition.

2) Young men tend to be exposed to more political information than women. This exposure can occur through class or clubs in school, peer associations, and media habits (e.g. men are more likely to watch shows like The Daily Show or The Colbert Report. Fox and Lawless found that male undergraduates were significantly more likely to have taken a class in politics or which discussed politics. They were also more likely to have participated in political or student government or in college, and more likely to discuss politics with their friends.

3) Young men more likely to have played organized sports and perhaps for this reason seem to care about winning. I know this can seem like a stretch, but their has been several positive correlations made between playing a competitive sport in high school or college and attaining political office. And guess what? Women were about ⅔ as likely to have played a varsity or junior varsity sport than men.

4) Young women are less likely to receive encouragement to run for office–from anyone. We already talked about how women are less likely to be encouraged by their parents, but that is only the tip of the iceberg. Men are also significantly more likely to be encouraged to run for office by their grandparents, aunts and uncles, siblings, teachers, coaches, religious leaders, and their friends. This variable, by the way is extremely significant. If you look at people who currently hold office, you’d be extremely hard pressed to find a single one of them–male or female–that had not be encouraged to run for office. This encouragement plays a huge role in whether or not someone runs for office, and women are only receiving about ⅔ of what men are.

5) Young women are less likely than men to believe that they are qualified to run for office–even if they are just as qualified. This could be for any number of reasons. Of course, some of this stems from the fact that women don’t participate in as many political organizations, or take as many classes in politics. But when they do take those classes, I suspect it’s because of a lack of encouragement, as we suggested above.

So what can we do do close the gender gap? The first thing to consider is perhaps requiring students to take a politics class in high school. This would not just teach students about our political system–which is a good idea all in its own. It would also ensure that men and women enter college on a more even playing field when it comes to political knowledge. We also need to get women politically active early in life, because being involved in these political organizations is strongly linked to political activism later in life (Burns, Schlozman, and Verba). Finally, we have to encourage more girls to run for office. If someone has good idea, and you feel they’d make a strong candidate, tell them–it doesn’t matter what gender they are! Also, if that person had never been encouraged before, imagine the impact you’d be making on them. And who knows! Maybe they’ll be the next great world leader.


Burns, Nancy; Schlozman, Kay Lehman; and Verba, Sidney. “‘What Happened at Work Today?’: A Multistage Model of Gender, Employment, and Political Participation.” The Journal of Politics, vol. 61, no. 1 (29-53). The University of Chicago Press, Feb. 1999. Web. 19 Oct., 2015.

Crespin, Michael H. and Deitz, Janna L. “If You Can’t Join ‘Em, Beat ‘Em: The Gender Gap in Individual Donations to Congressional Candidates.” Political Research Quarterly, Vol. 63, No. 3 (581-593). Sage Publications Inc., Sept. 2010. Web. 19 Oct., 2015.

Fox, Richard L. and Lawless, Jennifer L. “Girls Just Wanna Not Run The Gender Gap in Young Americans’ Political Ambition.” School of Public Affairs. Women and Politics Institute, March 2013. Web. 19 Oct., 2015.

Meeks, Lindsay. “Is She ‘Man Enough’? Women Candidates, Executive Political Offices, and News Coverage.” Journal of Communication, vol. 62 (175-193). International Communication Association, 2012. Web. 19 Oct., 2015.

Newsom, Jennifer Siebel. “Miss Representation.” Girl’s Club Entertainment, 22 Jan., 2012. Film.

O’Brien, Meredith. “Stop Selling Sexism to Our Daughters!” Modern Mom. Mom, Inc., 2015. Web. 19 Oct., 2015.

Oct 15

The Correlation Between Democracy and Happiness

Over the past twenty years, a new trend in political science has emerged. More and more researchers are looking to find correlations between economic, political, or social institutions, and the emotional well being of the citizens living within them. One of the most investigated correlations is that of democracy and happiness. While not every study on this matter comes to the same conclusion, the majority of findings indicate a strong, positive correlation between democratic policy and a population’s level of happiness.

So what is it about democracy that makes it so happiness inducing? Because if we know what it is, we might be able to recreate the phenomenon and expand it so that even more people can be happy. This is the question I’m aiming to answer through a semester-long research project for my political quantifications course this fall. But as any good scientist knows, you have to be familiar with the work of your predecessors before you can begin your own research. So, here’s what those predecessors can tell us so far:

We’ll start with the work of Bruno S. Frey. Frey is one of the most published scientists in this field of study, and one of the first to examine the impact of direct democracy and federalism on happiness. Although Frey’s work is mainly centered around economics, he provides a detailed account of the positive correlation between direct democracy and federalism in an article he wrote with Alois Stutzer (Frey, Stutzer 2000), and later in a passage of his book, Happiness, A Revolution in Economics (2008). Frey and Stutzer examine data from a survey of attitudes taken in Switzerland, the only country aside from Liechtenstein where direct democracy is part of the local and national referenda. Their findings revealed that the quality of a direct democracy within each region of the country exhibited a strong, positive correlation with Swiss citizens’ level of life satisfaction.

Indeed, the functionality of a democracy seems to be a crucial factor when determining how influential it will be on happiness. As J.C. Ott writes, the size of government is less important to happiness than the quality of government (i.e., a well-run democracy is a better indicator of people’s happiness than the extent to which citizens have direct direct influence on their government.). This would explain why so many other democratic nations exhibit the same correlation between democracy and happiness as Switzerland, despite not having a national referendum by popular vote. And the quality of a democracy doesn’t just predict the level of happiness of a population; it also seems to have a direct correlation with lower levels of inequality regarding happiness (Ott 2011). In other words, a well-functioning democracy doesn’t just help make its citizens wholistically happier, it also tends to close the gap between classes, religions, and ethnicities when it comes to mutual levels of happiness.

Possibly the strongest evidence in support of this correlation comes from a study published in 2007, which found a strong link between democracy and happiness, even when all other confounding variables were controlled (Dorn, Fisher, et. al 2007). These findings appeared in contrast to previous studies, which had suggested that income was what had the real significant effect on individuals’ happiness. This would indeed make sense in the context of research involving democracies, as democratic countries tend to be wealthier and have a better distribution of wealth throughout the population. However, these researchers found that, over the twenty-eight countries they examined with data from the 1998 International Social Survey Programme, happiness levels in democracies stayed robust, even when variables like religion, language, and of course, income, were controlled (Dorn, Fischer, et. al 2007). Incidentally, these particular findings are also supported by Frey and Stutzer’s research, in which they observed household income to have a minimal effect on happiness, in contrast to the effect of direct democracy (Frey and Stutzer 2000).

One of the most interesting articles I came across in my research was written by Eric Weiner, in which he compiles studies suggesting that happiness may in fact be a prerequisite for a successful democracy. This implies that, in contrast to popular assumption, it is happiness which causes democracy to happen, rather than the other way around, (Weiner 2008). In any case, Weiner’s findings still result in a positive correlation between democracy and happiness, ultimately supporting the original theory.

As you can see, there’s a lot of research pointing to several different sources of happiness, and in some cases democracy. What I ultimately decided to do with my own research, was find out what specific traits of a government are good or bad for happiness. So as I collect data, I’ll be looking at more than just whether a country’s a democracy, and I’ll be controlling for more than just religion, language, and income. First of all, I’m going to make a note of how democratic each country I study is, based on the Freedom House scale (Freedom House). Is there a certain level of democracy where happiness plateaus, or does it just keep getting higher as democracy increases? Next, I’m going to be making a note of the type of democratic or autocratic regime of each country. Democracies can be Parliamentary, Presidential, and Semi-Presidential, while dictatorships can be Civilian, Military, or Royal. This will make is easier to see what specific features in each regime type contribute to happiness. I’ll also be looking at the time since a country’s last regime change, and seeing if that has an effect on happiness. And finally I’ll be looking at the gender of the participants. For some reason, this variable has never been studied before, though one would expect the happiness of women to actually have a higher correlation with democracy than men’s. This is seeing as women’s rights and overall equality tend to increase the more democratic a country becomes, whereas men typically start out with the large majority of rights to begin with.

I know political science is kind of an odd topic for a PLA blog, but I feel this research is important to improving society. After all, if we can pinpoint what it is about a government that makes most people happy, we may be able to model our own government off of those features, thereby making citizens happier around the world. As my research evolves, I’ll keep you guys posted about my findings!

Dorn,  Fischer, Kirchgässner, and Sousa-Poza. “Is it Culture or Democracy? The Impact of Democracy and Culture on Happiness.” Social Indicators Research, Vol. 82, No. 3 (July 2007): 505-526. Web. 17 Sept. 2015.

Freedom House. n.v. Freedom House, 2015. Web. 8 Oct. 2015.

Frey, Bruno S. “Happiness: A Revolution in Economics.” The MIT Press 2008: 177-198. JSTOR. Web. 17 Sept. 2015.

Frey, Bruno S. and Alois Stutzer. “Happiness, Economy, and Institutions.” The Economic Journal, Vol. 110, No. 466 (Oct. 2000): 918-938. JSTOR. Web. 17 Sept. 2015.

Ott, J. C. “Government and Happiness in 130 Countries: Good Governance Fosters Higher Level and More Equality of Happiness.” Social Indicators Research, Vol. 102, No. 1 (May 2011): 3-22. JSTOR. Web. 17 Sept. 2015.

Weiner, Eric. “Will Democracy Make You Happy?” Foreign Policy, No. 165 (Mar.-Apr. 2008): 57-59. JSTOR. Web. 17 Sept. 2015.

Oct 15

Strategies Behind the Success of Bilingual Education

In the United States, if a child enters the education system without being able to speak English well as their first language, there’s two types of programs they could be placed into. One is known as “English-Only,” in which students are pushed to focus solely on learning English as fast as possible, with no regard as to whether they keep their skills in their original language (and at they often do not). The second type of program is called “Bilingual Education.” In this teaching style, students are encouraged to learn and develop both their native tongue and English, thereby making them bilingual by the time they finish their education.

In countries with more successful education systems, there is only one of these options available to students. The better one: Bilingual Education.

After several surveys across schools in Canada, Mexico, China, Australia and New Zealand, and Western and Central Europe, students who have participated in bilingual language immersion programs have done just as well–if not better–than those in their country who only ever learned the dominant language (Krashen), and certainly fared much better than the students who went through the U.S.’ English-Only program. Here are just a few examples of this success:

In Norway, immigrant children in the bilingual ed program in grades four and five

performed better than controls in math, social sciences, and natural sciences, and their ability to use Norwegian had nearly become equal with that of a native speaker (Ozerk, 1994).

In the Netherlands, immigrant bilingual students outperformed controls in Dutch language, had fewer behavioral problems, and were interacting far more with native Dutch students (Appel, 1988).

In China, there is a full bilingual program for native Korean speakers who wish to learn Mandarin. After completing this program, more of these new Korean/Mandarin speakers were able to obtain higher education degrees than those who only spoke Mandarin (Lin, 1997).

In Sweden, native Finnish speakers in the bilingual program were able to outperform their classmates who only spoke Swedish by the third grade (Lofgren and Ouvinen-Bierstam, 1982).

So what are the strategies these countries are using? The

Association for Supervision and Curriculum Develop published an article for teachers outlying some of the most important components for the successful teaching of bilingual education. One of these components involves creating an “ideal” environment for language acquisition: a place that is non-threatening, and in which certain things throughout the room might prompt random conversation (spontaneous talking, as long as it’s in the language that the students are trying to learn, is highly encouraged) (Malarz). Both of these environmental factors are somewhat lacking in American classrooms, where children often report being afraid of giving the wrong answer, and are discouraged to talk about anything other than the topic at hand.

One of the most important things to remember when approaching bilingual teaching, the article reports, is the motivation of students. Students learn best when they want to learn–when they feel what they’re learning is useful to them and peaks their interest (Malarz). In these successful countries, students are often encouraged to choose topics to study for themselves (as long as it relates to the class, of course), so that they will have greater motivation and attention span when they go about their studies. Despite motivation being key, American students are often deprived of choice within a classroom. Most of the time we’re taught whatever is written in the school’s curriculum, which may or may not have anything to do with our own aspirations. As we all have experienced, this can lead a class being extremely boring, or even annoying when we can’t think of any way it will help us in life after taking it. In other words, it’s not an environment that’s very conducive to learning.

America still has a long way to go before we can rid ourselves of the

English-Only system and these old, ineffective methods of teaching. But other countries have done it, which means it is possible. We’ve done a lot with education reform here, but we can’t stop now. Not until we’re giving our public school students the best education we can. My PLA small group, which will spend the next two months drafting a policy to the Pennsylvania Congress in support of statewide bilingual education in elementary schools, aims to do just that.

Appel, R. 1988. The language education of immigrant workers’ children in The Netherlands. In T. Skutnabb-Kangas and J. Cummins (Eds.) Minority Education: From Shame to Struggle. Clevedon, UK: Multilingual Matters. pp. 57-78.

Krashen, Stephen. “Do Other Countries Do Bilingual Education?” UnzWatch. n.p., n.d. Web. 5 Oct., 2015.

Lin, J. 1997. Policies and practices of bilingual education for the minorities of China. Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development 18 (3): 193-205.

Lofgren, H. and Ouvinen-Birgerstam, P. 1982. A bilingual model for the teaching of immigrant children. Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development 3: 323-331.

Malarz, Lynn. “Bilingual Education: Effective Programing for Language Minority Students.” Curriculum Handbook. ASCD, 2015. Web. 5 Oct., 2015.

Ozerk, K. 1994. Subject matter acquisition and language development. In S. Ozerk (Ed.), University of Olso Pedagogiskforskningsinstitutt, report number 3, pp. 74-128.

Sep 15

Islam in America

As some of you know, I’ve been studying Arabic for the past year or so. Right now my teacher is a woman from Egypt, and this past week she invited my class to attend a service for Eid al-Adha in the HUB this past Thursday.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with Islamic holidays, Eid al-Adha literally means “Festival of Sacrifice.” The holiday centers around the story of Ibrahim, who was told by Allah to sacrifice his son, Ishmael, to prove his devotion to the almighty. Rather than listen to the devil, who tries to tempt him into disobeying God by suggesting he spare Ishmael, Ibrahim goes about preparing to sacrifice his son. However, just as he was about to kill Ishmael, God appeared and gave Ibrahim a lamb to slaughter instead. The story is meant to demonstrate how Ibrahim’s devotion to Allah past the hardest test, and was rewarded. The tale is told in a similar fashion in both Christianity and Judaism (Telegraph).

Traditionally, a lamb or goat is slaughtered on this holiday to recreate the scene, and Muslims stay home from work and school. Here in State College, over 650 Muslims from around and off campus gathered inside Alumni Hall and had a service, the likes of which most would only be able to witness on the inside of a Mosque (at least in America). Observing this event was a fantastic spiritual experience for me. I’m not a religious person, but you could feel the unity and sense of community in that room, even with many of the people having only met each other for the first time that day. People of all ages, dressed in all kinds of clothes walked inside as one group when the prayer call sounded. Women came up to each other smiling, kissing each other four times in greeting. Children worked to imitate their parents’ form while praying, and some passed around candy. I felt so welcome–much more than I’ve ever felt at a Christian service. It was a peaceful, comforting feeling.

So it made the experience I had the very next day that much more jarring.

I was doing some Arabic homework around a few of my friends. Arabic looks a lot different from English, so it often catches the eye of the people I’m working close to. This time it was a friend of mine who asked what I was writing. I told him and he immediately made a face. He then went to ask why I’d want to study such “barbaric,” “evil-sounding” language. I was somewhat shocked and feeling a bit defensive, but I still told him the truth: that I wanted to work in Arabic-speaking countries so I could help them create more functional governments and education systems, and to improve their issues surrounding human rights. At this my friend essentially told me that I was wasting my time; that it’d be easier for America to just use their military to scoop out every corrupt or weak government in the area and replace it with a democracy we put together for it. He “couldn’t understand” why America hadn’t done this yet. By the end of his spiel he had explained how he was worried that if the U.S. didn’t intervene with force, that the region might be beyond any help at all. He then implied that the only thing to do would be to nuke entire trouble-making countries.

I feel like I need to say that this boy is not a bad person. He’s one of the most kind-hearted, generous people I’ve ever met, and spends several hours each week volunteering around the community. So I was shaken to hear these opinions, because they are, quite bluntly, extremely uninformed and quite prejudiced. He suggested wiping out an entire country, but when I suggested we help in a nonviolent way by working to alleviate something like the refugee crisis in Europe, he claimed that America “didn’t have the means.” So we have the means to overthrow and create multiple governments in our image, but we don’t have the means to help people who risked their lives trying to get their families away from war, violence, and oppression (Note: we actually do have the means (Taub))C? Are our options as the most powerful and 7th richest country in the world (Tasch) really so limited that the only way we can make a difference in the war-torn Arabian Peninsula is to kill and displace more Arabs?

My friend is not the only one who feels that it is. The Arab American Institute found that, since 2010, American opinions of Arab-Americans had dropped from 43% to 36%. The favorability of Muslim-Americans has taken an even sharper nosedive, opinions dropping from 36% in 2010 to 27% in 2014 (Arab American Institute). This decline has mostly to do with the recent news about ISIS and the Syrian crisis in the news, among other stories (Siddiqui). However, it is extremely unfair to judge Arabs or Muslims as a whole based on the actions of these extremists. In fact, one of the main tenets of Islam is known as the Way of Peace, placing mercy and kindness above all other virtues (Mission Islam). It’s also good to remember that no one religion is worse than any others. Christians who accuse all Muslims of being evil, immoral, or barbaric would do well to remember how millions upon millions were slaughtered in the name of Christianity, resulting in more deaths than Islam has ever come close to. Many nations under Christianity during this deadly time period were also much younger and had extremely corrupt governments. In essence, they were in a very similar situation as the Arabian Peninsula is now.

What I told my friend after he finished his little tirade, was that while it might be appropriate to respond to a threat with force, there is never any reason to act as if the lives of those creating the threat don’t matter. What does it mean for us to be completely indifferent about wiping out an entire ethnicity? I don’t even want to think about it.

But what I do want to start thinking about are ways to get more people educated about Arab and Muslim culture; information that goes beyond the horror stories we see on the news, that shows the same peace and community I witnessed this past Thursday. We can’t settle to live with this single story of the Middle East and its people. America is better than that.


Arab American Institute. Arab American Institute, 29 July, 2014. Web. 28 Sept., 2015.

“Basic Principles of Islam.” Mission Islam. n.p., n.d. Web. 28 Sept. 2015.

Siddiqui, Sabrina. “Americans’ Attitudes Toward Muslims and Arabs Are Getting Worse, Poll Finds.” Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com, Inc., 29 July, 2014. Web. 28 Sept. 2015.

Tasch, Barbara. “The 23 Richest Countries in the World.” Business Insider. Business Insider Inc., 13 July, 2015. Web. 29 Sept, 2015.

Taub, Amanda. “Europe’s Refugee Crisis: Explained.” Vox. Vox Media, 5 Sept. 2015. Web. 21 Sept. 2015.

“What is Eid al-Adha?” The Telegraph. Telegraph Media Group Limited, 24 Sept. 2015. Web. 28 Sept. 2015.

Sep 15

Nationalist Fear vs. the Refugee Crisis

The refugee crisis is old news by now, although the story develops more every day. Already more than nineteen million people have been been forced to leave their country because of war, persecution, or oppression, and it’s estimated that everyday, 42,500 more join them. While Syria is the largest driver of this crisis (nearly a fifth of the country’s population has already fled), Syrians only make up about 34% of refugees. Older conflicts in Afghanistan and Somalia have displaced 2.59 million and 1.1 million people respectively, and dictatorial regimes in countries like Eritrea and Myanmar continue to contribute, among many others (Taub).

Not all, but a great deal of these refugees chose to take the newly opened route to Europe in order to escape. The journey is incredibly dangerous, particularly during the trip across the Mediterranean sea. Most refugees can only salvage defunct and dangerous boats or rafts, which often capsize or simply break apart during the journey. The danger of this was made worse when the United Kingdom cut funding for the Mare Nostrum search-and-rescue last fall, causing the Italian government to end the operation in November (Taub). It’s been replaced by a highly inferior program funded by the European Union, with no search-and-rescue mission, and it’s been estimated that over 2,500 people have died while crossing the sea this summer alone as a result. And this is not an accident. This is European policy meant to keep out refugees.

The reason we’re just starting to hear about all these refugees now is that for years, the European Union paid Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi’s government to intercept and redirect migrants who were heading to Europe (Carr). Until 2011 when Gadhafi was ousted, his regime kept refugees out of sight and out of mind, the logic being that as long as they were actually arriving in European countries, those European countries wouldn’t have to deal with them.

However, now these refugees are in Europe, and Europe is not handling it well. Most countries are trying to discourage or outright block refugees from entering. Hungary has recently built an razor-wire fence across its border with Serbia, and announced new laws that will make it a crime to damage or cross it (Henley). Hungary has also shut down train service to Germany in an effort to discourage refugees from using their country as a stepping stone to what is currently the only morally responsible nation in Europe, leaving thousands of refugee families stranded at Hungarian train stations. And now Austria has introduced checks along its borders to search for refugees trying to be smuggled in (Elgot). All of these efforts have been criticized as violating the European Union’s open border policy.

So where are all of these refugees going? As right now, many are ending up in so-called “camps” throughout Greece and Italy. The results have been disastrous. As Stathis Kyroussis from Doctors without Borders describes: “I have worked in many refugee camps before, in Yemen, Malawi, and Angola. But here on the island of Kos, this is the first time in my life that I have seen people so totally abandoned” (Medecin Sans Frontieres). The United States and the European Union have each donated a fair amount of money toward containing this crisis, but it still only comes to about half of what the United Nations estimates will be needed (Taub). This means that people continue to live in appalling conditions within these camps (Medecin Sans Frontieres).

The thing is, the way the European Union is supposed to work, is for the burden of refugees to be distributed equally. If a huge amount of refugees suddenly showed up in, say, Arizona, the United States wouldn’t leave that one state to fend for itself in trying to provide for them. Similarly, the EU should be working together to handle this crisis. Instead, they’re trying to push it off on each other. The United Kingdom wants France to stop sending it its refugees, just like France wants to stop receiving refugees from Italy. Italy, like Greece, wants the rest of Europe to take its refugees (Taub).

These rich Western countries (the U.S. included, because we’ve stayed way to silent, honestly) are trying to pretend that they don’t need to act, but that can’t last. The crisis is already upon us. We have the money and the means, all we have to do is get over this upswing of right-wing, nationalist fear, and realize that these are fellow human beings in need, with so much to contribute to our society. Let them in, and let them prosper and help our countries prosper. If we don’t, their blood is on our hands.


Carr, Matthew. “How Libya Kept Migrants Our of EU–At Any Cost.” The Week. The Week Ltd., 5 April, 2011. Web. 21 Sept. 2015.  

Elgot, Jessica. “Austria Defends Border Checks Amid Migration Crisis.” The Guardian. Guardian New and Media Limited, 31 Aug., 2015. Web. 21 Sept. 2015.

“Greece: No Welcome for Migrants and refugees landing in Greek Dodecanese Islands.” Medecins Sans Frontieres. Medecins Sans Frontieres, 18 June, 2015. Web. 21 Sept. 2015.

Henley, Jon. “Hungary Closes Serbian Border Crossing as Refugees Make for Austria on Foot.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media Limited. 4 Sept. 2015. Web. 21 Sept. 2015.

UNHCR. “Global Trends Forced Displacement in 2014.” The UN Refugee Academy, 2014. Web. 21 Sept. 2015.

Taub, Amanda. “Europe’s Refugee Crisis: Explained.” Vox. Vox Media, 5 Sept. 2015. Web. 21 Sept. 2015.

Sep 15

Courage is the Key to Great Leadership

What does it mean to be a great leader? As a new member of the Presidential Leadership Academy, this question has been rattling around in my brain for a few months now. Is it honesty? Intelligence? The ability to mediate a situation, or organizational skills? If you google “qualities of a great leader,” you’ll come across a virtual heap of different traits, a never ending parade of virtues which each seem to outweigh the last. It’s overwhelming, to be honest. Out of this mess, one clear question arises: Where do I start?

Aristotle had an idea about 2,300 years ago. “Courage,” he said, “is the first of human qualities, because it is the quality that guarantees the others.” In other words, any great trait or skill a person has will always remain hidden unless they have the courage to use it (Aristotle). You can’t be honest if you don’t have the courage to tell the truth. You can’t be innovative if you don’t have the courage to try new things. And these aren’t the only leadership qualities that would be affected. Confidence, decisiveness, and trust are just a few of the traits that suffer in the absence of courage.

Most of the theory going into this entry comes from a remarkable article by Bill Treasurer, whose title is the eponym of my own post’s. In it, Treasurer asserts that “all courageous acts represent one or more of three main types of courage.” We can look at them now to better understand how courage plays an innate role in practically every aspect of leadership.

Type 1: Try Courage. This, Treasurer says, is “the courage of initiation and action.” This is the type of courage you use by stepping up to the plate in a challenging situation; it’s even used when you decide to become a leader in the first place. It’s what’s invoked when you’re trying something new–perhaps pioneering new projects no one else has tried before either. Try courage involves being innovative, and not being dissuaded by the difficulties of fielding problems you aren’t used to having. This is the quality that drives all modernization and departure, and it’s a crucial for leaders in a world that’s developing as fast as ours.

Type 2: Trust Courage, or “the courage of confidence in others,” is the courage that allows a leader to delegate responsibilities to others without being paranoid that they will somehow muck it up (Treasurer). It’s the lack of fear needed to let go of control in certain situations. Perhaps most importantly, it means being open to new ideas and directions suggested by others. As Winston Churchill put it, “Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak; courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen.” The best leaders are good listeners. But to really be able to consider new ideas, leaders must have the courage to let go of control and trust that another person’s way of doing things may be better for the group (Churchill).

Type 3: Tell Courage. This type of courage is all about using your words, harking back to the first half of the aforementioned quote by Churchill. The courage of voice is essential when it becomes necessary to bring attention to an issue that is uncomfortable, but must be addressed. It’s also often useful when providing tough feedback, and especially when sharing an opinion you know will be unpopular (Treasurer). Most of the time it’s easier to stay silent about a problem, because making people dislike you is a very real fear which I think we can all relate to. However, every leader will come across situations where critical, uncomfortable discussion is essential to progress, and whether this happens can often be the difference between success and failure. In these cases, tell courage is of vital importance.

From these categories, we can derive even more qualities of a great leader. Not only do all superb leaders possess a great deal of courage, they also try more, trust more, and tell more than others.

Being brave is not easy or pleasant. Most of the time, it involves dealing with something distressing, frightful, or overwhelming. The good news is that everyone has the ability to be courageous. Fear, by all rights, is simply an invitation to courage, and as future leaders, we all have already accepted this invitation. Now it’s our turn to put that courage inside of people, helping them to develop as we try, trust, and tell our way to becoming a better leader.

Aristotle. “Aristotle Quotes.” Brainy Quote. Brainy Quote, 2015. Web. 13 Sept., 2015.

Churchill, Winston. “Winston Churchill Quotes.” Brainy Quote. Brainy Quote, 2015. Web. 13 Sept., 2015.

Treasurer, Bill. “Courage is the Key to Great Leadership.” Octane Magazine. Entrepreneurs’ Organization, 2015. Web. 13 Sept., 2015.

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