2019
December
10
Tuesday

On tap for today’s Monitor Daily: Answers from the new report on FBI’s Trump investigationstrains in NATO, college education and the search for meaning, language lessons from French Jews and Muslims, and emojis for West Africa.

But first, truly electrifying news. The Tennessee Aquarium has a display that uses an electric eel to light up a Christmas tree. The lights flicker when it sends out an extra big jolt. There have been other Christmas-lighting electric eels in the past from Tokyo and Vancouver to Sandy, Utah. But none of them has managed to garner the attention that Miguel Wattson is generating down in Chattanooga. Everyone is reporting on the eel, er, knifefish. Maybe it’s the name: Wattson is spelled W-A-T-T-S-O-N. Or maybe it’s because he roars. Sensors in the water monitor the eel’s electrical discharges and deliver the big ones to a set of speakers.

But I think the biggest reason for his popularity is because he tweets. Miguel isn’t the aquarium’s first animal on Twitter. Chattanooga Chuck did it for years around Groundhog Day. But eel tweets are particularly charged: like SKA-TOW and ZING!!!!!! Once in a while staffers will throw in a bad pun or weak joke, like “I’m not slippery; I’m frictionally challenged.” For the most part, though, Miguel keeps it real. And there’s something particularly soothing these days about a Twitter feed where the biggest zingers amount to BUZZ!!! and SKA-TOW!!!

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The Explainer

1. Did FBI try to take down Trump? Three questions about DOJ’s report

President Trump has alleged for years that the FBI’s investigation into ties between his campaign and Russia was politically motivated. The 434-page report examines the origins of the probe – and recommends reforms.

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More than three years after the FBI launched a covert investigation into whether the Trump campaign colluded with Russia, the Department of Justice has some answers.

At issue is whether the FBI adhered to its own policies and protocols, and whether those policies and protocols are adequate. Inspector General Michael Horowitz found that, according to the FBI’s threshold, a friendly government’s firsthand account of possible collusion was sufficient to predicate the investigation.

But the report also identifies a pattern of errors and omissions, some in contravention of the FBI’s own policies, that led top decision-makers to act based on uncorroborated, inaccurate, or incomplete information.

Asked directly in an interview with ABC News whether he believes the FBI improperly targeted the Trump campaign, FBI Director Christopher Wray said, “I do not.”

President Donald Trump, who appointed Mr. Wray, blasted him on Twitter this morning: “I don’t know what report current Director of the FBI Christopher Wray was reading, but it sure wasn’t the one given to me.”

Here are answers to three questions about the report.

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Did FBI try to take down Trump? Three questions about DOJ’s report

More than three years after the FBI launched a covert investigation into whether the Trump campaign colluded with Russia, the Department of Justice has some answers.

The inspector general’s 434-page report, which relies on more than 1 million documents and upwards of 170 interviews with over 100 witnesses, covers a period between July 2016 and June 2017. During this period, the FBI investigated four Trump campaign associates: Michael Flynn, Paul Manafort, Carter Page, and George Papadopoulos.

Two main issues are examined: whether the FBI adhered to its own policies and protocols, and whether those policies and protocols are sufficient, particularly in the case of such a sensitive investigation involving a presidential candidate. In particular, the report examines the process for obtaining Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) warrants.

Inspector General Michael Horowitz found that, according to the FBI’s low threshold, a friendly government’s firsthand account of possible collusion was sufficient to predicate the initial investigation. “This information provided the FBI with an articulable factual basis that, if true, reasonably indicated activity constituting either a federal crime or a threat to national security, or both, may have occurred or may be occurring.”

However, the report also identifies a pattern of errors and omissions, some in contravention of the FBI’s own policies, that led top decision-makers to take action based on uncorroborated, inaccurate, or incomplete information. Here are three questions about the report (all quotations below are from the Horowitz report, unless otherwise noted).

Was the FBI’s investigation of the Trump campaign politically motivated?

The formal documentation opening each of the four investigations in August 2016 was approved by Peter Strzok, whom a previous report found to have exchanged text messages with an FBI colleague that “included statements of hostility toward then candidate Trump and statements of support for then candidate Hillary Clinton.”

However, the inspector general found that the decisions to open the investigations were reached by consensus and included FBI decision-makers above Mr. Strzok. Mr. Horowitz concludes: “We did not find documentary or testimonial evidence that political bias or improper motivation influenced the decisions to open the four individual investigations” or “the FBI’s decision to seek FISA authority on Carter Page,” an adviser to the Trump campaign.

The report also determined, however, that the FBI omitted information about the political motivations of former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele and his reports, known as the Steele dossier, upon which the FISA warrant for Mr. Page was “substantially” based.

A month after the initial FISA order was issued in October 2016, the FBI learned that Mr. Steele was “desperate that Donald Trump not get elected and was passionate about him not being the U.S. President.” However, the FBI did not reveal this during three subsequent FISA warrant renewals, and relied on Mr. Steele’s largely uncorroborated allegations despite speculating and later confirming that his assignment was politically motivated.

To what extent did the FBI rely on the Steele dossier?

The FBI had considered requesting a FISA warrant for Carter Page as early as August 2016, but shelved the idea because it didn’t have enough evidence to “support probable cause that Mr. Page was an agent of a foreign power.” The day it received Mr. Steele’s election reporting on Sept. 19, 2016, they initiated the process for obtaining a FISA warrant, which was granted a month later.

A key aspect of the FISA warrant application – “Page’s alleged coordination with the Russian government on 2016 U.S. presidential election activities” – “relied entirely” on Mr. Steele’s reports without any corroborating information. The decision to do so, with a footnote indicating FBI “speculation” that Mr. Steele’s assignment was politically motivated, was approved at the highest levels, including by then-Director James Comey. By early 2017, FBI team members learned that the firm which hired Mr. Steele, Fusion GPS, had been engaged by the Democratic National Committee to investigate Mr. Trump’s Russia ties.

The first FISA warrant overstated the case for Mr. Steele’s credibility, and as more information about his work and its political origins came to light during the course of the year, this was largely omitted from subsequent FISA warrant renewals.

This information included concerns expressed by people who knew Mr. Steele or his work and raised questions about his judgment. Also, that the key source upon whom Mr. Steele’s election reporting relied – whom the FBI met and deemed credible – “rais[ed] significant questions about the reliability of allegations included in the FISA applications.” And the FBI failed “to provide accurate and complete information” about Mr. Page’s prior relationship with another U.S. intelligence agency, to whom he had disclosed his contacts with a Russian intelligence officer – contacts which the FBI cited in the original FISA warrant application.

In total, the Horowitz report identifies at least 17 “significant errors or omissions” in the applications for a FISA warrant on Mr. Page, and criticizes the FBI for “serious performance failures” regarding the FISA applications.    

Did the report uncover any systemic problems beyond this specific case?

Yes. The inspector general concluded that “given the extensive compliance failures we identified in this review, we believe that additional OIG [Office of the Inspector General] oversight work is required to assess the FBI’s compliance with Department and FBI FISA-related policies that seek to protect the civil liberties of U.S. persons.” It added: “Accordingly, we have today initiated an OIG audit that will further examine the FBI’s compliance with the Woods Procedures in FISA applications that target U.S. persons in both counterintelligence and counterterrorism investigations.”

After reviewing the report, FBI Director Christopher Wray wrote that while the “investigation and related investigations of certain individuals were opened in 2016 for an authorized purpose and with adequate factual predication,” the FBI “accepts the Report’s findings and embraces the need for thoughtful, meaningful remedial action.” He is ordering more than 40 corrective steps to modify the FISA process to include more stringent verifications.

Asked directly in an interview with ABC News whether he believes the FBI improperly targeted the Trump campaign, Mr. Wray said, “I do not.”

President Trump, who appointed Mr. Wray after firing Mr. Comey, blasted him on Twitter this morning: “I don’t know what report current Director of the FBI Christopher Wray was reading, but it sure wasn’t the one given to me. With that kind of attitude, he will never be able to fix the FBI, which is badly broken despite having some of the greatest men & women working there!”

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Patterns

Tracing global connections

2. Post summit, a NATO in search of common purpose

A shared vision of mission and grounds for united action is central to any alliance. Now 70 years old, NATO is straining under members’ differing agendas and individual interests.

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The significance of last week’s fractious NATO summit was to focus minds on the daunting questions NATO faces if it is to survive. Put simply: What is NATO for? What shared security concerns and potential threats now bind its member states?

Even before the summit, NATO’s internal rifts had been made manifest by two major challenges: the war in Syria and Iran’s efforts to produce a nuclear weapon.

NATO allies balked at major joint action on Syria, with Russia ultimately tilting the balance in favor of President Bashar al-Assad. Then NATO member Turkey, with a green light from President Donald Trump, occupied northern Syria and attacked the U.S.-allied Kurds – without consulting with other members. On Iran, despite the opposition of NATO’s European states, Mr. Trump withdrew from a 2015 international agreement to limit its nuclear program.

The summit’s final communiqué held specific references to the challenges: “Russia’s aggressive actions … terrorism … instability beyond our borders … cyber and hybrid threats.” There was even a reference to “China’s growing influence.”

Another provision addressed the potentially greater challenge: moving from an agreed agenda to restoring a sense of common purpose and action. It spoke of “a forward-looking reflection process” to “strengthen NATO’s political dimension, including consultation.”

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Post summit, a NATO in search of common purpose

There were times during last week’s openly fractious NATO summit that suggested the transatlantic alliance needed not more summitry, but intensive family therapy. And that its 70th -anniversary get-together might end not with the traditional upbeat communiqué, but with what lifestyle-guru Gwyneth Paltrow described, upon splitting with her then-husband, as an act of “conscious decoupling.”

That could still happen, despite the fact that the closed-door meetings were actually less contentious than in recent years, and the communique did duly appear. There’s still every chance that the security bond between the U.S. and Europe will progressively weaken, and that European states will build up their military capacity and security policies more independently.

Yet the main significance of the summit was to focus minds on the daunting questions NATO will have to answer if it is to survive in its current form for another seven years, let alone another 70.

Put simply: What is NATO for? What common interests, what shared security concerns and potential threats, now bind its member states?

The questions aren’t new. But political tensions within the alliance, put on public view with the instances of overt insult and ridicule among a number of last week’s summit participants, have made them unavoidable.

When the mission was clear

For NATO’s first four decades, its mission was clear: to bind the United States and the democracies of Western Europe in mutual defense against the Soviet Union. After the dissolution of the USSR, it moved to adapt its role to a post-Cold War Europe. In the late 1990s, with the U.S. and Britain taking the political lead, it deployed its air power during the war in Kosovo. It also began integrating formerly Soviet-dominated states in Eastern Europe. In response to the Sept. 11 Al Qaeda terror strikes in the U.S., the alliance for the first time formally invoked Article 5 of its charter – the commitment that an attack on one member would be deemed as an attack on all of them.

But the world in which NATO operates has been changing dramatically, with especially jarring effects over the past few years.

The U.S. now shares the superpower stage not with the Soviet Union but China. Russia, though nowhere near that league in economic terms, has reasserted itself: invading neighboring Ukraine and annexing Crimea, and establishing a first, post-Soviet foothold in the Middle East by intervening in Syria. In the Middle East, itself, Iran has been extending its military and political reach into Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon.

And crucially, the U.S. has pivoted its geopolitical focus away from Europe toward China. That process began under President Barack Obama, but has greatly accelerated under President Donald Trump. He has described the alliance as “obsolete” and accused many of its European members of ripping off Washington by not paying more of the costs of defense.

Even before last week’s summit, NATO’s internal rifts had been made manifest by two major security challenges: the war in Syria and Iran’s efforts to produce a nuclear weapon.

From the outset of the Syrian civil war, the NATO allies balked at the idea of major joint action, with Russia ultimately stepping in to tilt the balance in favor of President Bashar al-Assad. Then, earlier this year, one NATO member, Turkey, with a green light from President Trump, occupied northern Syria and attacked the U.S.-allied Kurds – without notifying, much less consulting with, other members of the alliance.

On Iran, despite the opposition of NATO’s European states, Mr. Trump unilaterally withdrew from a 2015 international agreement aimed at limiting its nuclear program.

In the run-up to the summit, French President Emmanuel Macron suggested the alliance was “brain dead” – ironically leading Mr. Trump to dress him down publicly, defending an alliance he himself had suggested was past its sell-by date.

Still, President Macron insisted he’d been right to speak up, if only in order to deliver a wake-up call.

It appears to have been heard. Amid the boilerplate text of the final communiqué, there were specific references to the new array of challenges facing member states: “Russia’s aggressive actions … terrorism … instability beyond our borders … cyber and hybrid threats.” There was even a reference to “China’s growing influence,” described as presenting “both opportunities and challenges that we need to address together.”

But another provision implicitly recognized that drawing up such a list was a long way from creating a commitment to shared action. It spoke of “a forward-looking reflection process” in order to “strengthen NATO’s political dimension, including consultation” among its member states.

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A deeper look

3. Designing life: How college courses in coping are booming

Higher education of an earlier era focused on contemplation of character, values, and how to live a good life. But today’s shift to achievement as the goal has students seeking more meaning.

Jacob Turcotte/Staff

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Adults of any age might ask themselves the big life questions about what matters, how to be happy, and what to do next. But for a notoriously stressed-out generation of college students, the intense need for guidance is resulting in a groundswell of courses nationwide that focus on helping young people learn how to approach life better.

A 2018 report found that more than 60% of college students said they had experienced “overwhelming anxiety” within the past year; the rates of depression among young people have doubled in the past decade. Many university administrators say that student mental health is among their most pressing concerns.

Some administrators suggest that helicopter parenting has left children unable to function independently. But others say that Gen Z is facing unique challenges thanks to an economic, political, and technological world fundamentally different from even a decade ago.

Julia Lang of Tulane University says that students realize reflection and brainstorming are important. But they’ve never had the opportunity to focus on these skills, or, really, themselves. “From kindergarten you go to first grade. From high school you go to college. They’ve never had the platform to take a step off that ladder and look at it.”

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Designing life: How college courses in coping are booming

On a recent weekday in a classroom at Smith College, a dozen or so undergraduates hunch over circular tables, scribbling intently. Their teacher strolls around the room, past sticker-covered laptops and water bottles, looking down at the laser-focused students.

“I want you to get really, really detailed,” she says.   

They write.

“OK,” she says a few moments later, and the students sigh. Not enough time. “Now I want you to check in with your partner.”

There is some awkward shifting of chairs. And then, quietly, they begin to read off their worksheets.

“I just – I don’t know how to fit in all my goals in my weekly schedule.”

“Where do I want to live? What do I want to do?”

“I feel pulled in multiple directions at once.”

“Family is really important to me. Wherever I end up, I want to be near them. But that’s limiting, you know?”

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
A student at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts, fills out a “compass” worksheet during a workshop called Getting Unstuck. The exercise is intended to help students design their lives and become less anxious about the future.

Stacie Hagenbaugh, director of Smith’s Lazarus Center for Career Development, moves quietly around the room. This is the fifth time she has taught the Getting Unstuck When You Don’t Know What’s Next workshop, a new course that has been gaining attention across campus. So she is not surprised by what she’s hearing. 

“Students often get really overwhelmed by all the possibilities,” she says. “There’s so much – the clutter in their heads gets in the way.”

The goal of Getting Unstuck is to help students focus, and to fill what many are increasingly pointing out as a gaping hole in modern college education – a lack of attention to those big life questions about what matters, how to be happy, and what to do next. It is one of a number of similar initiatives that Ms. Hagenbaugh has helped launch on campus over the past three years. 

She is far from alone in her work. Over the past few years, there has been a groundswell of courses nationwide that focus on how to help a notoriously stressed-out generation of college students learn how to approach life better. These initiatives are at big state schools and Ivy League universities; at art schools and business schools; through massive open online courses, or MOOCs; and over podcasts.

And students have responded in huge numbers. At Yale University, when psychology professor Laurie Santos offered a new course last year called Psychology and the Good Life, some 1,200 students – nearly a quarter of the undergraduate population – enrolled. It is now considered the most popular course in the school’s history. At Stanford University, the Designing Your Life class taught by Silicon Valley veterans Dave Evans and Bill Burnett became so popular that it evolved into the Stanford Life Design Lab, which runs undergraduate courses, trainings for other universities, and retreats for professionals across the country. Mr. Evans and Mr. Burnett’s 2016 book, “Designing Your Life,” stemming from the course quickly became a New York Times bestseller. And when Emiliana Simon-Thomas, the science director of the University of California, Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center, recently released her Science of Happiness course on the edX platform, more than 600,000 people enrolled.

“I think we’re at a tipping point with universities,” says Julia Lang, assistant director for career education at Tulane University’s Taylor Center for Social Innovation and Design Thinking. “How are universities remaining relevant? How are we creating students who are prepared to become change agents in society?” 

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Smith College students interact in the workshop on their futures, which is designed to help them think through questions about how to be happy and lead a meaningful life.

To help answer these questions, Ms. Lang began a life design course for a few students in 2016. Since then it has grown exponentially across the university; today it has more than two dozen sections taking place everywhere from the career center to the athletics department.

“College students are filled with so much information, but nobody has taken the time to ask them who they are and what do they care about and what sort of life do you want to build,” Ms. Lang says. “There is a huge need.”

Behind Gen Z student stress

The intensity of that need is, perhaps, found in some of the statistics about the mental health of this generation of students. A 2018 report from the American College Health Association found that more than 60% of college students said they had experienced “overwhelming anxiety” within the past year; the rates of depression among young people have doubled in the past decade. Talk to university administrators, and many say that student mental health is among their most pressing concerns.

There are many explanations for this apparent rising stress level among undergraduates. Some administrators suggest that a generation of helicopter parents has left children unable to function independently. 

“Students are coming to college with parents who have been so closely attending to every move,” says Julie Lythcott-Haims, a former dean of students at Stanford who wrote the book “How to Raise an Adult.” “When they’re outside the house, they are with parents. When they’re inside the house, they are with parents. They are never alone. I think we are going to learn years hence that the constant observation and tethering will really weaken them.”

But others say that this generation of college students – often called Gen Z, or sometimes iGen – is facing its own unique set of challenges thanks to an economic, political, and technological world fundamentally different from even a decade ago, adding to young people’s apprehension.

According to Pew Research Center, faith in government in the United States is at a historic low, with only 17% of the American public saying they trust lawmakers in Washington. Only 21% of college students say they have confidence in the news media, according to a 2018 report by the Panetta Institute for Public Policy. And although social media use has skyrocketed, with Pew research finding that 95% of teens have access to smartphones and 45% say they are online “almost constantly,” nearly 50% say they feel overwhelmed by the drama contained in what they read on their devices.  

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Stacie Hagenbaugh (center), director of the Lazarus Center for Career Development at Smith College who teaches the Getting Unstuck workshop, offers suggestions to big life questions students post on the wall.

 

All of this comes on top of unprecedented student loan debt – a cause of worry “often” or “somewhat often” for 65% of college students, according to the Panetta Institute report. Add a rapidly changing job landscape, and it’s no surprise college students have anxiety, many administrators say.

“We’re definitely seeing a shift with students who are feeling more overwhelmed and anxious about what they’re going to be doing next,” says Ms. Hagenbaugh. “It is a rapidly changing professional environment. The students who are first years will likely graduate and walk into a job that didn’t exist when they started. It feels overwhelming.”

“Wicked problems”

Many of the life courses that have sprung up on campuses are deliberately geared toward addressing this sort of unknown future. They are built around “design thinking,” a problem-solving approach popular in the tech world that has moved into the mainstream in the past few years.

“It’s a process that’s all about wrestling with ambiguity,” says Kathy Davies, managing director of Stanford’s Life Design Lab. “It’s all about what we call ‘wicked problems’ – problems that don’t have a solution, that can’t be solved with money. And that’s life, right?”

Design thinking – and life design, when design thinking is applied to oneself – focuses on brainstorming (think flow journals and list-making), innovating, and prototyping, which is tech jargon for experimenting. There’s an emphasis on trying things out and having “small failures” – early, quick lessons that help steer one to a better path.

“If you sum it all up, it’s about getting curious,” says Ms. Davies. “What do I care about enough to invest time and energy in? It’s about trying things. About reflecting, doing it again, and being able to connect the dots.” 

For many students, getting away from a culture of executing tasks is emotionally groundbreaking. Researchers at California State University, Dominguez Hills found that participants in designing-life programs had less career anxiety, increased hope and resilience, and a better ability to create options for themselves than before they started.

“There is a real cognitive shift around exploration, risk-taking, and the ability to control one’s destiny in the face of real change,” Ms. Davies says.

This was certainly true for Julia Sagaser. As she started her senior year at Smith, she felt overwhelmed.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
“I came to learn that a path ... doesn't have to be a linear one, with concrete steps,” says Julia Sagaser, a senior at Smith College who has taken the Getting Unstuck workshop.

She had already switched majors once during college – from pre-med to film and media studies – but she still felt she was in the wrong field. A grueling combination of internships, schoolwork, and extracurricular projects had left her exhausted. She was scheduled to graduate in December, but she had no idea what she was going to do then, or even what she would do over the upcoming summer.

“I was really trying to reassess,” she says. “But I wasn’t sure what to do.”

Tasks toward self-knowledge

She emailed the career center and asked about the Getting Unstuck workshop, which she had been hearing about around school. Soon, Ms. Sagaser was filling out a worksheet, in the shape of a compass, titled “The Big Picture.” She listed her dreams, what was important to her, and what she had learned from past work and academic experiences. At the same time, she began designing experiments that could “test out” future life paths, whether that meant interviewing professionals already in a particular field or shadowing someone at a job. She started a Pinterest board with images she found inspiring for her life. And she began to envision an internship project that fit in with her broader life goals – whether that meant working in nature or being close to her parents in Maine. 

Slowly, she says, the anxiety level began to lower. She found an organization doing the sort of work she found interesting – the Wells Reserve at Laudholm in York County, Maine – and convinced people there to allow her to intern for the summer. There, she began a research and film project. 

While Ms. Sagaser still doesn’t know what she is planning to do after graduation, she says she isn’t as worried about it. She keeps an oversized copy of her Getting Unstuck compass pinned to her dorm room wall.

“I came to learn that a path doesn’t have to already be carved out for you, and it doesn’t have to be a linear one, with concrete steps,” she says. “Once I discovered that those cookie-cutter paths are few and far between, and when they do exist they’re really illusions, that felt better. Because everyone is in the same place. It’s not like anyone is the weirdo who doesn’t have it all figured out.”

Not knowing is OK

Mr. Evans began the Designing Your Life course in part to help more people have this revelation. He says the seeds for his work began in the early 1970s when he was an undergraduate at Stanford and went to the career center for help.

“They said, ‘What do you want to do?’” he recalls. “And I said, ‘Right. What do I want to do?’ They said, ‘No, that’s not how this works.’” Now, Mr. Evans says, we might not expect students to know exactly what they want to do, but “we keep asking, ‘What’s your passion? What’s your passion?’”

Which, he and others say, is a ridiculous question for college students.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
At the end of the class on designing their futures, students post questions about their futures on the wall. Then faculty members and fellow students wrestle with solutions to the problems.

“Passion comes after trying something out in the real world,” says Ms. Lang of Tulane University. “How is a student supposed to know what they’re passionate about when most of their life they’ve been in school?”

In 2000, Mr. Evans began teaching a course at the University of California, Berkeley called Finding Your Vocation (aka Is Your Calling Calling?) with the goal of offering an alternative way for students to start exploring what they might want to do in their adult lives. What he intended to be a one-semester seminar evolved into years of teaching, with more and more students eager to take the class. In 2007, he and Mr. Burnett decided to try out a version of the course for design students at Stanford – an initiative that has expanded into the sweeping life design movement.

“[Poet] Mary Oliver said it – ‘what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?’” Mr. Evans says. “That question matters to people. The zeitgeist of wisdom addressing that question is not working for people. What we are suggesting is working for people.”

And that, he says, is because his course, and the many iterations of it across the country, is about designing a life, not picking a career.

“It’s not just designing your job,” he says. “It’s love, play, work, and help. ... A well-lived and joyful life is the goal we are trying to help people attain.”

Long ago, a focus on living well

Some skeptics might suggest that universities do not need to be in the business of fostering joy. But historians point out that a few generations past, higher learning was all about the meaning of life.

“The missions of schools in this country when they were first founded was about how to live well,” says Emily Esfahani Smith, author of “The Power of Meaning: Finding Fulfillment in a World Obsessed With Happiness.” With overtly religious missions, she says, schools were intentionally focused on “how to live a good life.”

And to help students do that, universities based their curricula on the great books – those foundational texts of Western civilization in which philosophers contemplated big life questions. Professors unabashedly taught “duty” and “character” without fear of charges of paternalism or cultural colonialism. (It’s worth pointing out that both students and professors were primarily white men from relatively privileged, homogeneous backgrounds, some university administrators say.) But as Ms. Smith writes in her book, secular humanism soon pushed religious mission out of the academy. Political correctness and specialization further reduced universitywide conversations about morals and values, she says.

The result is a higher education system that focuses on “achievement for the sake of achievement,” Ms. Smith says.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
“It's great to have these questions. I need to think more about them. This is a start,” says Peri Navarro, a senior at Smith College, on lessons learned in the Getting Unstuck workshop.

Others agree.

“Academia, as a sector of society, really does rest on individualistic, competitive cultural values,” says Ms. Simon-Thomas of Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center. “It’s the scarcity orientation – there’s only this much money, there are only this many seats, only so many people who can be successful. When we find ourselves trying to navigate various decisions where scarcity is the overarching framework, people veer toward self-interest.”

Yet a lot of research shows that following self-interest – whether it’s buying a new car, working for a promotion, or holing up in a dorm room to ace a test – tends to make people feel lousy.

Exploring ideas like this was a focus of Ms. Santos’ class at Yale. In the course, she spoke regularly about the difference between what people think will make them happy and what actually leads to true happiness. “So many of our intuitions are wrong,” she says.   

Ms. Santos recently launched a podcast, “The Happiness Lab,” that delves into these misconceptions. Episodes focus on the “unhappy millionaire,” for example, exploring how, after a certain point, money does not improve happiness.

Time and space to think

But at the same time, there is research showing which actions do improve happiness, Ms. Santos says. Taking time for social connection is one. So is practicing gratitude. 

One reason her class was so popular, she suspects, is that she delved into these concrete practices, giving her students assignments – in other words, time – to try them out. “It wasn’t supposed to be another psychology class,” she says.

Indeed, the time and space to practice good life habits, Ms. Lang says, are key parts of the courses she and others teach at Tulane. Many students, she says, realize that reflection and brainstorming are important, but with schedules that have been overprescribed since they were in elementary school, they’ve never had the opportunity to focus on these skills, or, really, themselves.  

“They are at this crucial point in their development,” Ms. Lang says. “They still have a lot on their shoulders, from other people’s expectation. Every year has been another tick on the belt. From kindergarten you go to first grade. From high school you go to college. They’ve never had the platform to take a step off that ladder and look at it.”

In her classes she asks students to do various reflection exercises, such as thinking about the three most powerful adults who affected their lives as children, and then exploring how those people approached work and home. She asks students to come up with three potential life pathways, and talk to fellow classmates about how they might test those ideas.

“We give students the opportunity to pause,” she says.

As the Getting Unstuck workshop nears its end, Ms. Hagenbaugh asks her students to change all of their problem statements into “How might I” questions. 

“What’s a piece of the puzzle that you can work towards?” she asks.

Then she instructs them to write those queries on large sheets of paper she has left in the middle of their tables.

Peri Navarro, a senior, grabs a green marker. “How might I motivate more to focus on what matters?” she writes.

Ms. Hagenbaugh gives the students some time, and then tells them to attach their sheets to the walls of the classroom. She encourages them to walk around and read other people’s questions, and to fill in suggestions.

Ms. Navarro walks slowly. She came to the Getting Unstuck workshop with some big questions, about where she wants to live, what she wants to do, whether she should go to graduate school, and how to incorporate environmentalism into her next steps.

When the workshop ends, she still seems deep in thought. “It’s great to have these questions,” she says. “I need to think more about them. This is a start.”

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4. Why French Jews, Muslims are learning each other’s language

Shared experience and conversation can help overcome the sort of misunderstandings fueling Islamophobia and anti-Semitism in France.

Gonzalo Fuentes/Reuters
People attend a national gathering to protest the rise of anti-Semitic attacks in the Place de la République in Paris on Feb. 19, 2019. The sign reads, "Antisemitism, Islamophobia, racism – not in our name."

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France’s Jewish and Muslim communities have a long and complicated history. And tense relations between them have once again come to the fore in recent weeks. But grassroots initiatives like Parler en Paix (Speak in Peace) are working to build bridges between them and emphasize a desire within the French public for tolerance and unification.

In the Parler en Paix initiative, students from diverse backgrounds study both Arabic and Hebrew to promote language learning as well as cultural understanding. Another group, nonprofit Langage de Femmes (Language of Women) encourages women from different religious and cultural backgrounds to attend its regular social gatherings, film club, and even a trip to Auschwitz.

Co-founders Samia Essabaa and Suzanne Nakache say that the initial obstacle for women joining the organization is overcoming their personal prejudices.

“The first thing I hear from some [Jewish] members is ‘Muslims don’t like us,” said Ms. Nakache, who grew up in a Jewish community in Algeria. “Then on the other side, there will be women who are in Holocaust denial who go to Auschwitz with us and leave completely changed.”

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Why French Jews, Muslims are learning each other’s language

It’s 7 p.m. on a Tuesday and the temperature is just above freezing – the perfect setting for a bowl of hot soup on the couch after a long day at work. But some 60 students have instead chosen to be here, at the Lycée Diderot high school, learning Arabic.

“Jamila … Jameeeeela,” says teacher Eugénie Paris, moving around the classroom as her beginner students bury their heads in notebooks as they try to spell out the word for “beautiful” in Arabic script.

In a little over an hour, the students from the four levels meet in one room to share drinks and food, before switching classrooms and languages – this time learning Hebrew.

The language double bill is part of the Parler en Paix (Speak in Peace) initiative – to promote language learning as well as cultural understanding. It’s something that resonates with the diverse group of students who have registered for the year – young and old, Jewish and Muslim, Catholic and atheist.

Grassroots initiatives like Parler en Paix are working to repair relations between France’s Jewish and Muslim communities, which have been challenged by France’s debate on laïcité – “secularism” – which has once again come to the fore in recent weeks. In October, a Muslim woman was asked by a politician at a regional assembly meeting to remove her veil while accompanying her child on a school outing. And in early November, Paris and Toulouse held anti-Islamophobia protests to call for an end to anti-Islamic sentiment. Meanwhile, recent studies show that anti-Semitic acts are on the rise in France.

And yet there is a sense among French people that relations between the country’s Jewish and Muslim communities are markedly more peaceful than what is portrayed in the media. Many feel that the term laïcité has gained too much prominence in political debate. Efforts like Parler en Paix emphasize a desire within the French public for tolerance and unification; to find common ground – be it through language learning, cultural events, or trips abroad.

“There’s been a real competition between the two stakeholders [Jewish and Muslim] for their representation towards the state … to address underground issues that weren’t being talked about.” says Amel Boubekeur, a visiting fellow in the Middle East and North Africa program at the European Council on Foreign Relations. “But if you’re talking about the average French person, within family circles, at work or school, things aren’t so bad. It’s not a problem of daily socialization.”

Laïcite and Jewish-Muslim relations

France’s Jewish and Muslim communities have a long and complicated history that can be traced back to North Africa more than a century ago. Their relationship often involved legal status – in 1870, the approximately 40,000 Jews in Algeria were granted French citizenship while their Muslim neighbors were not. Through World War I and the Algerian War, the relationship between Jews and Muslims remained complex, flip-floppin​g between cordial relations and intermittent violence.

“French Jews and Muslims have a long history of co-existence despite tensions,” says Ethan Katz, a history professor at UC Berkeley and author of “The Burdens of Brotherhood: Jews and Muslims from North Africa to France.” “Historically, Jews and Muslims have tried at different times to negotiate their different identities … and the perception of what it means to be French, for both themselves and others, while maintaining their Jewish and Muslim identities.”

Complicating matters further have been France’s laws on laïcité. Initially enshrined in a 1905 law to separate church and state, it has morphed through the years, influencing laws and legislation, and powering debate. Most notably, it fueled a 2004 law banning conspicuous religious symbols in the public sphere, including Jewish kippas, the Muslim veil, and Catholic crosses.

But many say France’s laïcité unfairly targets the country’s Muslim population. The 2004 law has been at the root of controversies involving wearing the hijab or burkini on French beaches or the full-face veil (burqa) while driving. And in late October, French senators voted to ban veiled women from accompanying their children on school field trips.

Critics have connected the bans to a climate that fosters xenophobia and anti-Semitism too. The number of anti-Semitic acts in France rose by 74% in 2018, according to police figures. And a study conducted for the book “L’an prochain à Jérusalem” (“Next Year in Jerusalem”) showed that the majority of French Jews who immigrated to Israel in recent years were overwhelmingly motivated by a feeling of insecurity.

“We have to get back to French history,” says Ms. Boubekeur. “Does laïcité mean that the state is protecting religion or that it should be taken out of the public sphere?”

Building bridges

While the political climate may increasingly pit the Jewish and Muslim communities against one another, there is a desire for healing from a large swath of society. That’s a major reason why nonprofits are working to unite Jewish and Muslim communities – and keeping politics out of it. Parler en Paix identifies itself as nonpolitical, and says that remaining neutral allows for a more diverse group of students.

“We see people from very different backgrounds that would probably never have met if there was a political angle,” says Nicolas Bontemps, the president of Parler en Paix. “It’s the opposite of what happens at more activist organizations.”

French nonprofit Langage de Femmes (Language of Women) also stays away from politics, while encouraging women from different religious and cultural backgrounds to join their organization, which holds regular social gatherings, a film club, and a trip to Auschwitz.

Co-founders Samia Essabaa and Suzanne Nakache say that the initial obstacle for women joining the organization is overcoming their personal prejudices.

“The first thing I hear from some [Jewish] members is ‘Muslims don’t like us,” said Ms. Nakache, who grew up in a Jewish community in Algeria, during a November meeting of Anglophone journalists in Paris. “Then on the other side, there will be women who are in Holocaust denial who go to Auschwitz with us and leave completely changed.”

Ms. Essabaa, who is also a high school teacher, says that working with women is a particularly powerful way of reaching more people. “It’s not enough to work with young people,” she says. “You need to work with the mothers so that they can transmit their knowledge to their children.”

“A respect for others”

Both Parler en Paix and Langage de Femmes put an importance on social connection. At Langage de Femmes, members regularly attend an open forum where they can meet one another and ask questions about other religions or cultures in a nonjudgmental setting.

And at Parler en Paix, the dinner break midway through the Arab-Hebrew classes is a chance for students to exchange with open, like-minded people. They argue that the atmosphere here is a microcosm of what they experience in their daily lives and not what is presented in the media.

“I grew up with many Jewish people, in an environment of tolerance,” says Sonia I., who is Muslim, and did not want to give her last name. “But all we hear these days about [Jewish-Muslim relations] are negative things.”

“I have a very diverse friend group,” says Aurelien Bonneil, a university student who describes himself as nonreligious. He says the classes have helped him gain a better understanding of both Jewish and Muslim cultures. “I wish we could move on from talking about religion and how no one gets along.”

For some, a more universal understanding of laïcité could repair relations. Others say a redefinition of the word is in order. Unlike in the U.S., which allows and even encourages individual expression, some say that the French version of secularism calls for people to hide their religion, effectively effacing their identity and fostering resentment.

“Does it really shock people to see a woman wearing a headscarf, or a nun wearing a cross?” asks Abderrahmane Jebbari, who teaches Arabic for Parler en Paix. “We say that France is united by universal values … but it’s just as bad to force someone to wear something as it is to force them to take it off. That’s not what laïcité should be. It should be a respect for others.”

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5. Drawing West Africa, one emoji at a time

What isn’t there an emoji for? A lot, it turns out – if you don’t come from the culture where most “official” emojis are made. So one student set out to change that.

@creativorian
For one year, Ivoirian graphic design student O’Plérou Grebet created a new emoji each day, all of them depicting daily life in West Africa – including cellphone kiosks (upper left) and hibiscus juice (upper right). Today, his collection of nearly 400 emojis is available via his app, Zouzoukwa.

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If you’re in Ivory Coast, how do you say “I told you so”?

Well, there are as many ways as the country has languages – a couple dozen, at least. But you could also just point to your left eye. It’s the kind of simple, common gesture that seems practically made for emojis. 

And today, it is an emoji, thanks to a young man named O’Plérou Grebet. On Jan. 1, 2018, when he was a student, Mr. Grebet resolved to draw a distinctly West African emoji a day and post them on Instagram.

What began as a fun project quickly took off, helped along, he thinks, by West Africans’ desire to see themselves reflected back in the tiny images that have become a second language to phone users around the world. 

“The goal was to share African culture in a colorful and different way,” he says. “I didn’t have any idea that people would like it so much.”

Today, his images are available in an app – from his favorite grilled plantains to the silver dome of an Ivoirian basilica, the world's largest church.

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Drawing West Africa, one emoji at a time

It started with a New Year’s resolution fit for the 21st century.

On Jan. 1, 2018, Ivoirian graphic design student O’Plérou Grebet vowed to create an emoji a day for 365 days – each of them depicting some element of life in Ivory Coast or West Africa more generally.  

He named his project Zouzoukwa, meaning “picture” in Bété, his mother tongue, and began posting his creations to his Instagram, @creativorian.

Scouring his own life for inspiration, Mr. Grebet started with his favorite snacks – like the grilled plantains wrapped in paper he bought from street vendors and the tiny plastic sacks of tart, sweet purple hibiscus juice he used to buy on his way to school. Then came the comb for his Afro and the zig-zaggy green and white jersey of the Nigerian national soccer team. He drew bags of hair extensions, kiosks selling cellphone airtime (“the best place to learn all the neighborhood affairs,” he wrote in the caption), and the silver dome of the Basilica of Our Lady of Peace, an Ivoirian church certified by Guinness World Records as the largest in the world.

“The goal was to share African culture in a colorful and different way,” he says. “I didn’t have any idea that people would like it so much.”

But the project took off, helped along, Mr. Grebet thinks, by West Africans’ desire to see themselves reflected back in the tiny, intricate images that had become like a second language to his generation. Despite the growing number of skin colors, professions, foods, and other types of emojis on their phones, after all, it was still clear the usual set of emojis was created by and for people who didn’t look like them.

“People like to see the elements of their own daily life in their phone,” he says. “And it’s funny to have expressions that really correspond with the ones you use yourself.”

Take Zouzoukwa #78, a cartoon face pointing to his left eye, an expression that in Ivory Coast means “I told you so.”

“An emoticon that our African parents are going to love,” quipped one commenter.

By the time Mr. Grebet finished his emoji challenge in December 2018, the project had taken on a life of its own. His creations were winning graphic design prizes, and French TV channel Canal+ had enlisted him to create special emojis to use on social media during the 2018 World Cup.

An advertising agency sent him a MacBook to use to make his designs, and in January 2019, one year after the project first premiered, it became an app. Now, users can embed Zouzoukwa images as “stickers” in their text message or WhatsApp conversations.

By October of this year, the same month Mr. Grebet graduated with a degree in digital arts and images from the Institute of Sciences and Communication Techniques in Abidjan, the Zouzoukwa app had been downloaded more than 100,000 times. Next, Mr. Grebet says he would like to submit some of his designs to Unicode Consortium, the gatekeepers for the “official” set of emojis that comes standard on most smartphones.

And then “I want to extend the project,” he says. “Travel to other countries, immerse myself in their cultures, and then transform them into emojis.”

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The Monitor's View

Ukraine’s real power against Russia

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For all the fear of Russia these days, its leader, President Vladimir Putin, did not seem so fearsome during his first talks with the new president of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelenskiy. In fact, the power dynamic between them on Tuesday was surprisingly in Ukraine’s favor.

One reason may be that Mr. Putin is realizing power is more than missiles, cyberwarfare, or targeted assassinations. It also lies in making Russia an attractive place for its young people to work and start families. On that source of power, he is failing as a leader.

Nearly half of all young Russians under 24 would like to move abroad – a sharp increase from five years ago. In Ukraine, by contrast, wages are rising and, with a revived democracy under Mr. Zelenskiy, migration abroad could be in decline.

These contrasting trends explain why Ukraine is on track to be a full member of the European Union (and perhaps NATO) while Mr. Putin tries any lever of power to stop its neighbor from drifting toward the West and embracing democratic values. The more he overreaches abroad, the more he loses youth at home.

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Ukraine’s real power against Russia

For all the fear of Russia these days – in election meddling or the rollout of new weapons – its leader, President Vladimir Putin, did not seem so fearsome during his first talks with the new president of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelenskiy. In fact, the power dynamic between them on Tuesday was surprisingly in Ukraine’s favor. Mr. Putin made concessions that would ease the hot conflict in eastern Ukraine. He also pledged to hold talks again in four months.

One reason may be that Mr. Putin is realizing power is more than missiles, cyberwarfare, or targeted assassinations. It also lies in making Russia an attractive place for its young people to work and start families. On that source of power, he is failing as a leader. And perhaps he knows it.

Nearly half of all young Russians under 24 would like to move abroad – a sharp increase from five years ago, according to the latest polls. In addition, real incomes in Russia have declined for six years as pro-democracy protests have increased. The population is also dropping.

In Ukraine, by contrast, wages are rising and, with a revived democracy under Mr. Zelenskiy, migration abroad could be in decline. The country’s reform process was just given a stamp of approval by the International Monetary Fund with a $5.5 billion loan. Despite ongoing battles with oligarchs and a culture of corruption, young people feel some hope. “We fought Russia with nothing [in 2014]; we built an army from scratch,” says Economy Minister Tymofiy Mylovanov. “The only little thing left is to start believing in ourselves.”

These contrasting trends explain why Ukraine is on track to be a full member of the European Union (and perhaps NATO) while Mr. Putin tries any lever of power to stop its neighbor from drifting toward the West and embracing democratic values. The more he overreaches abroad, the more he loses youth at home.

This point is made in a new book, “The Return of the Russian Leviathan,” by Sergei Medvedev, a professor of social science at Moscow’s Higher School of Economics. The war in Ukraine and the taking of Crimea in 2014, he writes, are good examples of Russia acting upon its fears and myths of being encircled by enemies. The fears have become self-fulling prophesies.

“Today Russia does not need geopolitical myths that lead us to war and mobilization, but a program of national demobilization and a lowering of the temperature of hatred and confrontation with the West,” he writes. “The Cold War is over; it’s time to build our house and bring up our children, not send them to the slaughterhouse.”

Ukraine is hardly out of Russia’s influence yet. But as its people embrace democratic ideals and equal opportunity to flourish – the ideals of the EU – the more it can win the struggle in its Russian-speaking eastern regions. The power of attraction is greater than the force of arms.

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A Christian Science Perspective

About this feature

Each weekday, the Monitor includes one clearly labeled religious article offering spiritual insight on contemporary issues, including the news. The publication – in its various forms – is produced for anyone who cares about the progress of the human endeavor around the world and seeks news reported with compassion, intelligence, and an essentially constructive lens. For many, that caring has religious roots. For many, it does not. The Monitor has always embraced both audiences. The Monitor is owned by a church – The First Church of Christ, Scientist, in Boston – whose founder was concerned with both the state of the world and the quality of available news.

Letting go of unhelpful labels

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Letting our thoughts and actions toward others reflect God’s love, rather than disdain or disgust, benefits us and those around us, too.

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Letting go of unhelpful labels

Today's Christian Science Perspective audio edition
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Now that the winter is coming where I live, all that remains along the footpaths of town gardens are bushy clumps tangled in leaves. Tags lying in the dirt give clues: mint, narcissus, flowering kale. I appreciate the time someone took to care for and identify these beauties.

Unfortunately, not all labeling is a positive thing. We see too much of the opposite in the world around us – hurtful and degrading labels put on individuals. When indulged in, negative labeling can poison the atmosphere, whether at a workplace, within a family, in national politics, or elsewhere.

In my own efforts to avoid labeling others in unkind ways, I’ve been greatly helped by my study of Christian Science, which brings out that God, divine Love and Spirit, has created all of us in the very image of the Divine. God sees us forever stamped, in a sense, as His beloved spiritual children. Our common Father-Mother God, the infinitely good cause and creator, could never assign bad labels to us. The opening chapter of the Bible reads, “And God saw every thing that he had made, and, behold, it was very good” (Genesis 1:31).

Being “very good,” then, is the unchanging standard of true being. In fact, the Bible makes it clear that God is perfect, so as God’s image our true nature is spiritual perfection. And when we sincerely pray to conform our thoughts, motives, and expectations to this spiritual reality – and to see others in this light – this fosters forgiveness and the healing of negative character traits.

This point was brought home by Christ Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son. It’s a story of two brothers. The younger one demands his inheritance up front and leaves home with it, while the older son stays home and continues to work for his father. The younger son ends up squandering the money and becomes destitute. In desperation, he repents of his erring ways and returns home to confess his sins to his father.

The young son is so sincere in his regret that he intends to ask to be accepted back as a servant rather than a son. The father, however, filled with compassion and joy at his son’s return, immediately forgives him and showers him with gifts and a feast. The tale is rich with spiritual lessons about the nature of God’s mercy and love.

What happens with the older son expands the lesson even further. When he hears about the celebration going on in his younger brother’s honor, he is seized with anger. He complains to his father that he’s never been rewarded in such a fashion despite all his years of loyalty.

We might say he is consumed by jealousy and self-righteousness. He has labeled his brother as profligate and undeserving. But the father’s response to his eldest son rings with love: “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours” (Luke 15:31, English Standard Version).

This parable’s message is timeless. We need to look upon others with love, not with disdain, and let our actions reflect the love God expresses throughout creation. This benefits everyone involved. It helps break the stubborn chain of limited, materialistic thinking that would paralyze progress and healing.

Mary Baker Eddy, who founded the healing, Christian denomination of Christian Science, wrote a poem titled “Love,” one verse of which reads:

If thou the bending reed wouldst break
     By thought or word unkind,
Pray that his spirit you partake,
     Who loved and healed mankind:
Seek holy thoughts and heavenly strain,
That make men one in love remain.
(“Poems,” p. 6)

What the world greatly needs is the pure spiritual charity that looks upon every individual as compassionately as Jesus did and responds to their need as our heavenly Father does: with mercy, forgiveness, and healing love. We can accept the divine standard as our standard, mentally perceiving any bad behavior as separate from someone’s true, spiritual identity as God’s child. That is, we can address the bad behavior while also affirming and accepting the potential everyone has for redemption and moral progress.

Then we see more and more that it is everyone’s true nature to love and be loved and to reflect God. And we actively let our light shine in a way that can help illumine a pathway forward for those needing to see that same truth for themselves.

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Viewfinder

New face of leadership

Vesa Moilanen/Lehtikuva/AP
From left, Minister of Education Li Andersson, Minister of Interior Maria Ohisalo, Prime Minister Sanna Marin, and Minister of Finance Katri Kulmuni during press conference of the new Finnish government in Helsinki on Dec. 10, 2019. Finland’s parliament chose Sanna Marin as the country's new prime minister, making the 34-year-old the world’s youngest sitting head of government.
( The illustrations in today's Monitor Daily are by Jacob Turcotte. )
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In Our Next Issue

( December 11th, 2019 )

That’s a wrap for today. Join us tomorrow when we look at the implications of the U.S.-Canada-Mexico trade deal poised for a ratification vote in Congress.

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