Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Mini University 2011: Days 1 and 2

Here I am once again at Mini University, and I'm having such a lovely time that I flat out forgot to do my blog post yesterday. So, we'll play a bit of catch-up today, and then I'll be on track for the rest of the week ... assuming I can pry myself away from Irish Lion puffballs, Laughing Planet burritos and Village Deli fries.

So, this is the 40th anniversary of Mini University, and the same 400 people have been coming that whole time. It's almost impossible to get into Mini U, and once you do, you come every year until you die. Three years ago, somebody died, and I got in. Last year, I was able to write in Jessica as my "+1." Sixty years from now, when they give the award to the person who's been coming the longest, I'm sooo going to win.

Unfortunately, the high level of loyalty means that Jess and I are the only attendees younger than 40, and we're among just a handful of students younger than 65. Translation: We have to pick our Mini U sessions very carefully, because we don't want to get stuck in a health-care seminar about reducing our stroke risk or in a tech seminar about Twitter that features confused questions about the tubes that connect the Internets.

So far, we're doing pretty well. I started my day yesterday with a lecture on the search for Earth-like planets in the Milky Way galaxy. We talked about five methods used for detecting planets, and then she shared the results: There are 70 million Earth-like planets in our galaxy alone (not to mention the zillions of other galaxies), and about 1 million of those are in the "sweet spot" in terms of distance from their suns. Statistically speaking, there's no way we're alone here.

My next session yesterday was called "The Political Future of the Death Penalty in America," and it was fascinating. The biggest takeaway: Our current death-penalty system is broken, but no one will take responsibility for fixing it. Those in favor of the death penalty don't want to change it because they perceive reform as "chipping away" at death-penalty statutes. Those who oppose the death penalty don't want to fix it because the more broken it is, the easier it is to make it disappear altogether. No comment.

Next up: "Great American Trials." The key takeaway here: We tend to become captivated by trials that help us address larger issues in our society (e.g., addressing racial tensions via the O.J. Simpson case).

This morning, Jess and I arrived at the Union with mere seconds to spare, Starbucks lattes in hand, and started another full day of learning.

First on my schedule was a fascinating class, "Mexican Immigration to the United States: Rhetoric and Reality." We learned that almost everything politicians claim about immigration is patently false. The reality: Undocumented workers from Mexico actually pay more in taxes than do U.S. citizens in proportion to the government services they use. (They pay sales taxes through purchases, property taxes via their rental rates and income taxes, often via fake Social Security numbers.)

Undocumented Mexican workers are also five times less likely to commit a crime than U.S. citizens. Conservative pundits have been trotting around a statistic that illegal immigrants comprise 25 percent of the federal prison population. That's true, but it's also misleading. Federal prisoners make up only 6 percent of the total prison population, which is primarily controlled by states. And, most of the federal prisoners they're talking about are in prison for immigration violations, not because they committed some other crime. We used to just deport them. Now we stick them in prison and label them criminals.

Another fact: Undocumented workers actually create jobs in the U.S. (beyond the jobs they fill) by buying goods and services and by enabling industries that wouldn't exist without them (especially agriculture). They are doing jobs that Americans aren't willing to do, especially because the U.S. population in general is more highly skilled these days.

Even if these things are true, why don't the Mexican workers just come to the country through legal means? Our immigration quota is so low that the U.S. is just now processing Mexican immigration applications from 1993 -- 18 years ago. If you were struggling to feed your family, would you fill out a bunch of forms and happily wait two decades?

Obviously, this was a fascinating session, and it was nice to get the facts rather than a pile of political rhetoric. As somebody in the class suggested, this professor should testify in Congress.

My afternoon classes were less eventful. A session on the new Indiana Festival Theatre was just a guided tour of the organization's brochure, and we never really got to the meat of the presentation in "Counted Out: Same-Sex Relations and Americans' Definitions of Family."

Coming up later this week are two Shakespeare classes, a lecture by professor David Baker on great jazz singers, and a session about WikiLeaks and its implications for the journalism profession. And, of course, some FarmBloomington fries, Mad Mushroom cheese sticks, and something yummy from Trojan Horse.

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