MWD48 - On Failing a Vision Test

Or why small changes are sometimes not enough

Welcome to Midweek DinnerThere’s a whole story behind that name, something about the way Wednesday creeps up on you, and you have to cobble together a meal out of whatever you can scrounge from the fridge. And yes, sometimes there is talk of food in this place. But mostly it’s about what I’ve been reading, in print and online; or what I’ve been thinking, in clarity and confusion; or what I am hoping, in fear and in joy. And you are always invited to join in.

—— The best conversations take place around the dinner table. — —

When I was in the 2nd grade, after a basic vision screening at school, I was sent home with a note urging my parents to get my eyes checked. They were surprised, as I had never complained of not being able to see, and they hadn’t noticed anything more notable than my tendency to knock over my milk glass at dinner. Turns out, I had a significant vision impairment. When people would see my new, extremely thick glasses, my parents would say, we just thought she was clumsy.

They weren’t wrong. I am clumsy. But I am also someone who cannot function like others do without corrective lenses. And that means I am someone who has, over the years, spent a lot of time in a dark room, sitting in a big chair with my face awkwardly pressed against a machine, as a doctor closes a flap over one of my eyes, tells me to look at a vision chart projected on the far wall, and asks my least favorite question:

Is one better? Or two?

Throughout my life, tests have been kind of my thing. Standardized, essay, short-answer, multiple-choice — whatever you throw at me, I’m likely to hit it. But this test? There is no right answer, and even if there was, I wouldn’t be able to see it.

What about now? Is two better? Or three?

Sometimes the answer is fairly easy: Both are equally bad. But most of the time, I simply don’t know. I cannot tell enough of a difference. So the doctor, patient as always, flips them again:

Two? or Three?

And at some point, I guess: Two? And we move on. After what seems like hours of arduous, minute choice-making, I’m fitted with new lenses, and I can read a vision chart with 20/20 accuracy.

Last week, I read a tweet from someone at a university out west. The writer, likely a thoughtful teacher with a heart for students, was asking for feedback on a more flexible model for college courses. His question centered around the idea that students should be allowed to choose their mode of delivery (hybrid, in-person, online) even after the pandemic. A desire to help students was evident; however, all I heard was

Is one better? Or two?

And maybe that option he was proposing would be better. If we’re comparing this totally blurry mess to a slightly less blurry mess, we’d all take option 2. But we’d know it was just one shift away from operating blind. We saw this in the varied responses to COVID as schools tried to adapt to this massively disruptive thing by changing as little as possible. And it worked fine, or it didn’t. It has been good enough, or almost.

A few schools took this opportunity to rethink the whole thing. It took bravery, creativity, and a lot of resources, but they knew their students would be better served by something custom made for the occasion. They did not try to shoehorn ‘normal’ into these strange, new circumstances.

Two? or Three?

As we keep thinking together about higher education — its costs and complications, its service and disservice to the people it is for — we have to understand that we have been blind. We are the parents who have failed to notice the 8-year-old with her face unreasonably close to her book and we are the 8-year-old who cannot see what she is missing.

If that first doctor had stopped at two, if he had decided that a little bit better was a big enough adjustment, I might not have noticed the change. It might not have been the disruption to my life that suddenly having coke-bottle glasses was. But I would still be unable to see.

A few weeks ago, I wrote about how we have built a system that actively harms students and their families on the path to college and for years after. I believe we can do better — radically, beautifully better. But we have to have vision, and we have to be willing to embrace significant disruption.

Let’s dream together. I have some ideas, but I want to hear from you. What would you include? What are we clinging to that we can release? If you could design a system of higher eduction (from application to graduation) for the most precious young person in your life, what would it look like?

Is one better? Or ten? What about one thousand?

linkety, linkety, whaddya thinkety?1

— The intersection of faith and history and science and bread here is right up my alley. Kendall Vanderslice and “Power in the Bread”

— There is so much goodness and hope inherent in this project to restore the American Chestnut, especially this:

It’s planting a tree you’ll never enjoy the shade of.

And that moment when author Kate Morgan describes the exact overlap of the maps of the former Chestnut forests and the coalfields of Appalachia? I cried a little. Read it all, friends: “The Demise and Potential Revival of the American Chestnut”

The Department of Unexpected Joy

I love games. Board games, card games, even video games sometimes. The latest love of my heart is perfect for a family game night: Taco Cat Goat Cheese Pizza. It’s loud and fast and physical and guaranteed to leave you laughing.

The Department of Not-Writing-Much

The latest Lexicon came from my friend, prolific word-wonder Beth Kephart, found in her latest memoir Wife|Daughter|Self released last week.

The Lexicon - Invidious

A really thoughtful graphic novel about the reality of being Japanese American in California in the days, weeks, and years after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Displacement from Kiku Hughes is an excellent introduction to this often overlooked piece of United States history.


Thanks as always for reading and thinking with me. Have comments, suggestions, or questions? Reply to this email, and I promise a response.


(I’m so sorry. I promise I’ll never do that again.)