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  • Simon Blackburn: An Unbeautiful Mind
    Polkinghorne holds the belief that unless some things last forever, everything is futile, a "meaningless empire of accident." This would wipe the smile off the face of many scientists. For science is not good about "forever." It paints a different picture of the world in which we find ourselves. Science teaches that the cosmos is some fifteen billion years old, almost unimaginably huge, and governed by natural laws that will compel its extinction in some billions more years, although long before that the Earth and the solar system will have been destroyed by the heat death of the sun. Human beings occupy an infinitesimally small fraction of space and time, on the edge of one galaxy among a hundred thousand million or so galaxies. We evolved only because of a number of cosmic accidents, including the extinction of the dinosaurs some sixty-five million years ago. Nature shows us no particular favors: we get parasites and diseases and we die, and we are not all that nice to each other. True, we are moderately clever, but our efforts to use our intelligence to make things better for ourselves quite often backfire, and they may do so spectacularly in the near future, from some combination of manmade military, environmental, or genetic disasters.
  • Roger Scruton: The West and the Rest
    "It is thanks to Western prosperity, Western legal systems, Western forms of banking, and Western communications that human initiatives now reach so easily across frontiers to affect the lives and aspirations of people all over the globe. However, Western civilization depends on an idea of citizenship that is not global at all, but rooted in territorial jurisdiction and national loyalty. By contrast, Islam, which has been until recently remote from the Western world and without the ability to project its message, is founded on an ideal of godliness which is entirely global in its significance, and which regards territorial jurisdiction and national loyalty as compromises with no intrinsic legitimacy of their own. Although there have been attempts to manufacture nationalisms both appropriate to the Islamic temperament and conducive to a legitimate political order, they have fragmented under the impact of sectarian or tribal allegiances, usually giving way to military dictatorship or one-man, one-family, or one-party tyranny. Islam itself remains, in the hearts of those who live under these tyrannies, a permanent call to a higher life, and a reminder that power and corruption will rule in this world until the reign established by the Prophet is restored."
  • Adam Smith: Wealth of Nations 1776
    The difference of natural talents in different men is, in reality, much less than we are aware of; and the very different genius which appears to distinguish men of different professions, when grown up to maturity, is not upon many occasions so much the cause as the effect of the division of labour. The difference between the most dissimilar characters, between a philosopher and a common street porter, for example, seems to arise not so much from nature as from habit, custom, and education. When they came into the world, and for the first six or eight years of their existence, they were perhaps very much alike, and neither their parents nor playfellows could perceive any remarkable difference. About that age, or soon after, they come to be employed in very different occupations. The difference of talents comes then to be taken notice of, and widens by degrees, till at last the vanity of the philosopher is willing to acknowledge scarce any resemblance. But without the disposition to truck, barter, and exchange, every man must have procured to himself every necessary and conveniency of life which he wanted. All must have had the same duties to perform, and the same work to do, and there could have been no such difference of employment as could alone give occasion to any great difference of talents.
  • Kishore Mahbubani: Freedom
    But freedom does not only solve problems; it can also cause them. The United States has undertaken a massive social experiment, tearing down social institution after social institution that restrained the individual. The results have been disastrous. Since 1960 the U.S. population has increased 41 percent while violent crime has risen by 560 percent, single-mother births by 419 percent, divorce rates by 300 percent and the percentage of children living in single-parent homes by 300 percent. This is massive social decay. Many a society shudders at the prospects of this happening on its shores. But instead of traveling overseas with humility, Americans confidently preach the virtues of unfettered individual freedom, blithely ignoring the visible social consequences.
  • Harold Pinter: Nobel Lecture
    There are no hard distinctions between what is real and what is unreal, nor between what is true and what is false. A thing is not necessarily either true or false; it can be both true and false.
  • Charles Darwin: The Descent of Man
    As man advances in civilization, and small tribes are united into larger communities, the simplest reason would tell each individual that he ought to extend his social instincts and sympathies to all the members of the same nation, though personally unknown to him. This point being once reached, there is only an artificial barrier to prevent his sympathies extending to the men of all nations and races.
  • Earnest Becker: The Denial of Death
    We have to go the way of the grasshopper even though it takes longer.
  • Johnson, Samuel: Rambler # 121 May 14, 1751
    "To learn is the proper business of youth; and whether we increase our knowledge by books or by conversation, we are equally indebted to foreign assistance."
  • Murray Rothbard: Education Free and Compulsory
    It is evident that the common enthusiasm for equality is, in the fundamental sense, anti-human. It tends to repress the flowering of individual personality and diversity, and civilization itself; it is a drive toward savage uniformity. Since abilities and interests are naturally diverse, a drive toward making people equal in all or most respects is necessarily a leveling downward. It is a drive against development of talent, genius, variety, and reasoning power. Since it negates the very principles of human life and human growth, the creed of equality and uniformity is a creed of death and destruction.
  • J. M. Cameron: Review of Becker's Denial of Death
    Life, for Becker, is a desperate business, in which a steady heroism before the terrors of existence is in general the only thing to be commended.
  • Mark Lilla: The Politics of God
    In the end, though, what happens on the opposite shore will not be up to us. We have little reason to expect societies in the grip of a powerful political theology to follow our unusual path, which was opened up by a unique crisis within Christian civilization. This does not mean that those societies necessarily lack the wherewithal to create a decent and workable political order; it does mean that they will have to find the theological resources within their own traditions to make it happen. "Our challenge is different. We have made a choice that is at once simpler and harder: we have chosen to limit our politics to protecting individuals from the worst harms they can inflict on one another, to securing fundamental liberties and providing for their basic welfare, while leaving their spiritual destinies in their own hands. We have wagered that it is wiser to beware the forces unleashed by the Bible’s messianic promise than to try exploiting them for the public good. We have chosen to keep our politics unilluminated by divine revelation. All we have is our own lucidity, which we must train on a world where faith still inflames the minds of men. NYTimes Magaziine, 8/19/2007
  • Richard Fields: The Land of Opportunity
    Immigration to the United States is not a problem. It is a phenomenon. The only way the United States can stop this phenomenon is by destroying the capitalist economy that draws immigrants here. We need to move in the direction of more open immigration, not in the direction of militarized borders fit only for a police state. Though it's been obscured by layers of cynical campaign rhetoric, the issue of immigration comes down to whether we want to restrict individual liberty to native-born Americans or offer it to everyone. If freedom works for us — and it does — what possible moral reason do we have to offer it to those born in San Diego, and deny it to those born inches away in Tijuana?
  • Edward O. Wilson: Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge, 1998
    On the surface it would seem, and was so reported by the media, that the Rwandan catastrophe was ethnic rivalry run amok. That is true only in part. There was a deeper cause, rooted in environment and demography. Between 1950 and 1994 the population of Rwanda, favored by better health care and temporarily improved food supply, more than tripled, from 2.5 million to 8.5 million. In 1992 the country had the highest growth rate in the world, an average of 8 children per woman. Parturition began early, and generation times were short. But although total food production increased dramatically during this period, it was soon overbalanced by population growth. The average farm size dwindled as plots were divided from one generation to the next. Per capita grain production fell by half from 1960 to the early 1990s. Water was so overdrawn that hydrologists declared Rwanda one of the world's twenty-seven water-scarce countries. The teenage soldiers of the Hutu and Tutsi then set out to solve the population problem in the most direct possible way. Rwanda is a microcosm of the world. War and civil strife have many causes, most not related directly to environmental stress. But in general, overpopulation and the consequent dwindling of available resources are tinder that people pile up around themselves. The mounting anxiety and hardship are translated into enmity, and enmity into moral aggression. Scapegoats are identified, sometimes other political or ethic groups, sometimes neighboring tribes. The tinder continues to grow, awaiting the odd assassination, territorial incursion, atrocity, or other provocative incident to set it off. Rwanda is the most populated country in Africa. Burundi, its war torn neighbor, is second. Haiti and El Salvador, two of the chronically most troubled nations of the Western Hemisphere, are also among the most densely populated, exceeded only by five tiny island countries of the Caribbean. They are also arguable the most environmentally degraded.
  • Murray Rothbard: Rights of Animals
    There is, in fact, rough justice in the common quip that "we will recognize the rights of animals whenever they petition for them." The fact that animals can obviously not petition for their "rights" is part of their nature, and part of the reason why they are clearly not equivalent to, and do not possess the rights of, human beings. And if it be protested that babies can't petition either, the reply of course is that babies are future human adults, whereas animals obviously are not.
  • Dr. Kenneth R. Miller:
    When asked, “What do you say as a scientist about the soul?” Dr. Miller's answer is always the same: “As a scientist, I have nothing to say about the soul. It’s not a scientific idea.” Dr. Mller, a Roman Catholic and biologist at Brown University is the author of, “Finding Darwin’s God” (Harper, 1999)
  • Richard Rorty:
    "...if we can work together, we can make ourselves into whatever we are clever and courageous enough to imagine ourselves becoming.”
  • Richard J. Herrnstein:
    "It is easy to lie with statistics, but it's a lot easier to lie without them."
  • Michael Slackman: Quiet Revolution in Algeria
    In Algiers there is a whole class of young men referred to as hittistes — the word is a combination of French and Arabic for people who hold up walls.
  • Albert Einstein:
    Common sense is nothing more than a deposit of prejudices laid down by the mind before you reach age 18.
  • Neil Postman:
    "Children are the living messages we send to a time we will not see."


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February 09, 2008

'Doc' Howe and Michael Goldstein

'Doc' Howe, President Lyndon Johnson's U.S. commissioner of education, in a Phi Delta Kappa interview with Mark Goldberg in October of 2000, said that, "You test kids who have poor lives and inadequate schooling, flunk them, and say they didn't meet the standards. You must first improve their lives and schooling and then give the test."

Now who would disagree with Howe's words? Certainly not David Berliner, Alfie Kohn, Jonathan Kozol, perhaps Ted Sizer and Deborah Meier, to mention just a few of the countless progressive educators who are out there thinking first of the kids.

In fact, at first blush we would probably all agree. For how can you teach a child to read who hasn't had enough to eat? And what about the preschooler who has seen his Mom taken from him during the night and who has that mostly on his mind when he arrives at school?

And then there are the homework assignments, always having to be done in the same room with the big screen television set that is never turned off, or even down? Who is going to win that competition?

And then there are the children who get to school in the morning, well almost at 7:30 and almost on time, but they're still half asleep because bedtime was midnight and the alarm went off at 5:30 in order to make the hour long subway and bus ride to school. Are they going to be listening to their teacher?

So is there any sense in teaching, let alone testing kids, whose lives are seriously deficient in proper food and shelter, and the no less important rest and quiet, and most of all, whose lives are mostly without close contacts with caring adults?

The liberal (and yes common sense) response is to say, "let's not blame the kids for their failure in the classroom, let's direct more resources towards improving their lives outside of the classroom," or in Doc Howe's words, "first improve their lives and schooling and then give them the tests."

And what's wrong with this response? Why aren't we all pushing along with Jonathan Kozol to direct increased resources to our impoverished inner city and rural school communities?

Well this sort of response acquired a name, the war on poverty, and it began some 44 years ago, when then President Lyndon Johnson declared his War on Poverty in his first state of the union speech on January 8, 1964.

Johnson's war created programs such as Head Start, food stamps, work study, Medicare and Medicaid, all of which still exist today. But the poverty rate, the percentage of those falling below a government determined poverty threshold, after an initial reduction due to these programs, has remained steady since then, right up until today, fluctuating between 11 and 15% of the population.

Would another series of anti-poverty programs, comparable in weight and substance to Head Start, food stamps, Medicare et al. bring about another 5% reduction in the poverty level? We'll probably never know because neither republican nor democratic politicians, with the exception of John Edwards who is now out of the presidential race, have any interest in doing one.

Therefore, it's probably just not going to happen, that kids lives are going to be improved outside of school before we get them in school. We get them in school the way they come to us and we have to take them that way and teach and test them.

There are those who have accepted this state of affairs and have decided to go ahead and teach and test regardless of the gaping inadequacies of kids' lives outside of school. These individuals have been properly recognized by Abigail and Stephan Thernstrom in their book, No Excuses: Closing the Racial Gap in Learning, their "no excuses" meaning that the excuses kids bring to school with them, no less than guns and knives, must be left at the door before coming in.

I think, for example, of the MATCH School, a Commonwealth Charter School in Boston. I sent Doc Howe's not unreasonable statement to the founder of the school, Michael Goldstein. Here is what Goldstein said in response:

"If teachers believe that kids' 'overall lives' must be improved (and this never comes to pass), it undermines the idea of teachers taking responsibility for driving big gains in student learning.  [And instead of being accountable, we have teachers saying] "Well of course my students continue to be bad readers, even after a year of my teaching them, for nobody has improved their lives!" 

He's right. You have to go ahead with what you have, and most important take responsibility for what you do with what you have. Now I say that realizing with some trepidation that my position comes dangerously close to that of Donald Rumsfeld, who in December of 2004, in response to a question from a member of the Tennessee National Guard, said, "You go to war with the Army you have. [Even if] they're not the Army you might want or wish to have at a later time."

But of course the analogy to the war situation doesn't hold. For yes, we could have adequately armed our combat vehicles. But no, we can't by our government programs diminish, let alone do away with, the poverty in people's lives. For this poverty is one of human, not so much material, inadequacy. Afterall we are the world's wealthiest country.

So yes, we have to do as Michael Goldstein does at the MATCH School. We have to teach our kids, whether or not they've had a good night at home before walking into our classrooms, and we have to hold them accountable for their learning, or not learning, while they are there.

For otherwise we are abandoning them to be members of another failed generation, the second or third since Johnson's War on Poverty in 1964, not to mention all those undocumented generations of impoverished kids that came before. 

January 30, 2008

China trade with the United States

Do you remember MAD, or mutually assured destruction, that feared, possible, but successfully avoided hot outcome to the Cold War waged during some 40 years between the US and the Soviet Union? In this month's Atlantic James Fallows writing about the present somewhat "warmer" cold war between the new super powers, China and the US, describes the existence of what might be another kind of mutually assured destruction, this time not nuclear but economic.

According to Fallows and others no longer do the atomic bomb holdings of the new rivals, although no less present, place them, and the world, at great risk of nuclear holocaust, but in this new rivalry the unstable trade relationships between the two place not only them but the entire world at great risk of a devastating  economic downturn if that "stable" instability were to come to a sudden end. To Fallows such seems not unlikely and he raises what he calls the 1.4 trillion dollar question.

What is the unstable and possibly precarious trade relationship between the two trading partners? On the one side the dollar holdings of China are growing at the rate of $1 billion a day, now totaling $1.4 trillion. That's $1 billion that are not needed for meeting current obligations and can be set aside for any purpose that the government wishes.

On on the other side is the burgeoning trade imbalance of the US, currently growing at the rate of more than $2 billion a day (about a third of that representing the trade imbalance with China) and betraying an economy that continues to consume more that it produces, a situation according to Fallows that is not tenable over the long run.

Why is the trade imbalance with China a threat to the US? Because China may use its surplus dollars, no longer to support the US consumer by purchasing US Treasuries, but begin to "unload" them, and thereby weaken the dollar even further in the world currency exchange markets.

China may, for example, buy Euros or gold instead of Treasuries and US stocks. Or surprising everyone and probably most of all itself, it may even invest its surplus billions in its own people, providing its imprisoned citizens, for the first time in the Communist era, some of the basics elsewhere taken for granted, such as heated classrooms, adequate housing, clean air and water, and by doing so significantly lessening the demand for the dollar.

Fallows points to a recent paper by Eswar Prasad of Cornell in which the economist writes: "The important question to ask about the U.S.–China relationship is whether it has enough flexibility to withstand and recover from large shocks, either internal or external.”

In response to Prasad I would say that the US, not the relationship, does have enough flexibility to withstand a large shock to the value of the dollar. The trade imbalance with China is not the whole of that imbalance. It represents about one third of the total, and in any case does not possess the destructive force, if it were set free, of a flight of nuclear armed intercontinental missiles.

But China may not be flexible enough to withstand the loss of trade with the US. China is probably much more at risk than we are, and this inequality of risk is probably what most of all protects us. We are a golden goose for China and China won't do anything to lose us.  Furthermore from our side of the relationship there is even less risk that we abandon our spendthrift habits and begin to save, reducing our need for China imports.

My general response to the questions that Fallows raise is that the two economies are not comparable, they are apples and oranges, that which Fallows doesn't sufficiently take into account. Furthermore, he doesn't recognize that our economic trajectories are at widely different points in their histories, and to talk about them intelligently one needs to separate them.

Fallows makes the same mistake that we made throughout the Cold War. He is assuming a kind of economic parity between the US and China. There is no such parity.

That the Soviet Union was no less a superpower than the US, as was often repeated during the Cold War, was in fact never the case. We only realized this, and to our great chagrin, at the moment of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Only then did we understand that in respect to the size and reach of its economy the Soviet Union was never a superpower at all. Only their stocks of nuclear armed intercontinental missiles made them a threat to our nation.

The economies of the US and China, described in respect to PPP or puchasing power parity, or in any other manner, are vastly different in size and reach. China's per capita GNP in PPP (2005) of $1,740 makes it number 108 in the world, the USA's $43,740 per capita GNP makes it number 6. And what is appropriate for the one in respect to economic strategies is probably not appropriate to the other. China's 50% savings rate and our 0 or negative rate may be just fine, given our differences and where we are in our respective trajectories.

Also the US with less than 5% of the world population accounts for some 33% of the global GDP, and China with 21% of the world population accounts for just 4% of global GDP. This alone ought to push us to think differently in regard to what is good for each of the two nations.

So what is the answer to Fallows' 1.4 trillion dollar question? The value of the dollar may not even depend on what China does, whether it buys Euros with its dollars, nor on our spending and saving habits, no matter how deplorable they may seem to the descendants of Ben Franklin.

The value of the dollar stems from the value of our economy, still the most valuable economy in the world. Our golden goose is the creation of new wealth, and those responsible for that new wealth, the innovators and entrepreneurs. We might worry when our entrepreneurs begin to leave us for China. So far that is not happening, rather the reverse is still happening, with China entrepreneurs coming and being made here.

It is true as Fallows makes clear that the Chinese are subsidizing rich Americans by investing their excess dollars in our economy, and it does stand to reason that this won't continue indefinitely.  But Fallows doesn't introduce a realistic time frame, doesn't point to anything out there on a near horizon that might be coming along. And in time, which he doesn't imply we don't have, much can change to resolve the situation, and most likely without a major dollar collapse and/or economic downturn.

One tries to envision what would happen if the Chinese begin to unload their dollar assets. One easily sees that this would be disastrous for their economy, highly dependent upon our purchase of their goods. But for us, probably nothing much would happen.

With China's exit other countries would probably step in and take up the slack.  The emerging economies of Africa and South America would like nothing better than to have the same access to our markets that China has now. The principal result would be that we would see fewer of the Made in China labels on our consumer goods.

The answer to Fallows' further question, "are we playing them for suckers—or are they playing us," is, neither the one or the other. We are profiting, both of us, from the existing relationship as unequal as it is, and only when either one of us decides that the relationship is no longer profitable will it come to an end, most likely bringing greater after shocks to China than to us...

January 29, 2008

The 24 Hour School Day

We read in today's Los Angeles Times these words of Andy Warhaftig, an English teacher in that city:

"This is a crucial time for the district. Debates rage over the mandates of No Child Left Behind and how much testing and teaching-to-tests we should do. Charter schools -- some good, some bad -- are siphoning off students and resources. High schools are subdividing into Small Learning Communities, a model that's produced mixed results elsewhere, without adequate planning or funding. Most students don't pass Algebra I the first time, yet Algebra II will become a graduation requirement in a few years, likely increasing the already abysmal dropout rate."

About how many inner city school districts might we have said the same thing? Probably all of them. For these are issues confronting every inner city school district in the nation. And up until now no one seems to have the answers.

The irony is that these and other issues have arisen from what were supposed to be the answers to earlier issues or problems, NCLB (the answer to low minority achievement), Charter Schools (to failing district schools), Small Learning Communities (to huge, impersonal middle and high school learning environments), Algebra II (to low expectations, when no algebra at all, or algebra I was all that poor and minority students might expect to encounter in high school).

Why have what were supposed to be the solutions to the earlier problems become the new problems?  Perhaps because we were afraid to take the big steps, to make the really fundamental changes, with the result that our timid and tentative steps were (and are) never substantial enough to bring about real reform.

And we go on in this fashion, bungling ahead with our hesitant reform efforts, really going nowhere at all.  (see Tyack, David, and Cuban, Larry. Tinkering Toward Utopia: a century of public school reform. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1995)

Take the longer school day as a case in point, a current and popular reform effort. One can agree with these reformers that children, especially at risk kids from poor and minority families, need to have more supervised hours in school during the day.

So what might we do to bring this about? We first need to persuade the principal and the teachers that such is vital to raising student achievement. Then we need to persuade the state legislators, or other funding sources, to put up a few million dollars to lengthen by a few hours the school day in perhaps a dozen now "failing" elementary and middle schools throughout the state.

And we may very well bring this about. In Massachusetts it has already been done. But our goal is, of course, much more than this. We want to extend the extended day to all struggling elementary and middle schools throughout the state, that which represents a generation-long project, at least, given the additional monies that would be needed. And there's probably not much chance that our money sources would stay with us throughout the reform effort, leading to another failed reform.

Furthermore, even if the additional monies could be found, there is no hard evidence that the additional 2 or 3 hours in school, while probably beneficial, especially in as much as some of the extracurricular activities eliminated by NCLB would be reinstated, —there is no evidence that the extra time in school would do much to raise the children's academic achievement in any significant fashion.

There is another irony here in that the model of a much longer school day, one that might have worked, is out there, currently in place. The model exists among all those poor and otherwise disadvantaged middle school children admitted to elite private schools where the school day is not just a few hours longer but the full 24 hour day long.

And the model exists in what I call "nativity" or "epiphany" schools, those few Massachusetts church connected private schools whose student bodies are all poor, severely disadvantaged middle school aged kids who are given full scholarships and are carefully supervised throughout most of their waking hours, only going home to sleep, and if they have one, to spend a few moments with their single parent care giver.

These two models work well for the kids. The kids are clearly achieving, both while in school and later in the colleges that most of them will attend. Why? Because these models do not represent incremental and therefore insufficient reform efforts, but are instead complete changes in children's lives, revolutions if you like of what the kids' lives had been up until then.

But of course they are costly and so far we prefer, or are obliged, to spend our wealth on defense and entitlements, and comfortable security for our old, but not for providing rich opportunities for our young.

What would a real reform of this nature cost? Take the present total of some 50 million students enrolled in our nation's public schools. Assume that somewhere between a third and a fourth of them, about 15 million, would qualify for full tuition support in the sort of school I mention above.

At a per pupil cost of $25,000 (which I admit, may be low—the full cost to the Academy of a single student at Phillip's Exeter is nearly $65,000) this would mean an annual budget amount of $375 billion, significantly less than the cost of Social Security or defense, and while a bit less than Medicare a bit more than Medicaid, welfare, and the interest on the national debt.

But this money would be money for prevention. By that I mean that such expenditures in the present would lower entitlement and other social costs in the future. We would end up paying significantly less for the costs to society of failed lives because there would be many fewer of the latter.

Unlike social security, unlike the armament industry whose costs will continue to grow, unless something else is fundamentally altered in our society, these full day tuition costs would be made up in good part from no longer needed portions of Medicare, unemployment and welfare, education and training costs.

Is it lack of vision, imagination, courage that keeps us from undertaking real educational reform? Is it something else? Must we always wait for things to happen to us, rather than making things happen?

January 28, 2008


The word is disconnect. The word that is being used to understand what happened on the night of December 28 at the, now museum, farm house home of Robert Frost in Ripton, Vermont.

Some 28 teens and young twenties, men and women, boys and girls, spent the night in the farm house drinking, and while doing so trashing the Homer Noble Farm where Frost himself used to reside during his stay at the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference.

At Middlebury Union High School that many of the party going teens attended "administrators and teachers are [still] talking about disconnection."

Gary Margolis, Associate Professor of English and American Literatures at nearby Middlebury College, admitting that it was not uncommon that high school students party, was bothered, however, by the "disconnect." By the fact that these kids grew up around here and [ought to have known] "that the place is somehow special."

Jay Parini, Professor of English and Creative Writing and author of Robert Frost: A Life, commented, "There are many ways this could be used as a teaching opportunity to talk to the nation about the value of poetry."

Gary Margolis added, "I would hope they would build in more than that. I would hope there would be an educational component, an opportunity for them to learn about this place they were just in, a place unique to where they live. And maybe they would have to write a poem about it."

Now there is certainly a disconnect between the kids and Robert Frost. But there is no less a disconnect between the literature professors and the kids. Do they really believe the things they say? "A teaching opportunity to talk to the nation about the value of poetry?!" "An educational component, an opportunity for them to learn about his place... have to write a poem about it?!"

In my experience we march our kids through our museums (not to mention our classrooms) believing (?) that some of the depth and beauty of the museum contents will somehow reach them, rub off on them, whereas if you've ever been a part of this charade you will know that the museum contents and the kids are world's apart and will remain that way certainly throughout the length of the visit. Disconnect.

What happened at the Homer Noble Farm may for a day or two be, as Parini and Margolis propose, an opportunity to talk about the value of Frost's poetry, perhaps an occasion to have the kids write a poem or two of their own. But shortly thereafter the disconnect between what the kids, at least most of them, are doing and thinking while in school, and what we think we are doing to them, with them, for them, will go on.

Things may be learned in school, but most often not those things at the top of our wish lists for our kids, things like civil behavior and responsible citizenship, respect for one's surroundings, respect for the past, appreciation of art and literature and music, the value of sacrifice and hard work and all such.

All such things learned, in fact the content of the most important lessons life has to offer, stem much more from example and experience than from the classroom. In the present instance perhaps a closeness to the poet, perhaps the living example of Robert Frost himself, might have spared the farm house from the teen onslaught during a night of drinking and partying. We will never know.

The disconnect, however, is all about us. Adults are disconnected from their children. Children are disconnected from the places they live. I give you the example of Kenya today, the daily images that strike us on the front pages of our newspapers, the bodies of children and adults, the teenagers at war with other teens, pictured on the front page of the New York Times shooting at one another with bows and arrows.


In Kenya the disconnect between the teens and the place where they have lived all their lives is no less pronounced than that between the Ripton, Vt teens and the Robert Frost farm house and heritage, both within their own community.

For the Kenyan teens live in the Rift Valley, that several thousand mile stretch of land running from the Red Sea in the north, down through central Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania, all the way to Mozambique in the south. The valley, an infinitely greater and more precious heritage than the farmhouse, was very possibly the birthplace of our species. Fossil finds here during the past 50 years have pointed to our common origin in Africa.

The disconnect? Kenyan teens ought to have known that they were descendants of the very first humans, that they were close cousins of the teens who were the targets of their arrows, that the clan differences between them, the reason why the killings were taking place at all, were in fact of little or no significance.

Furthermore, had they ever been told that their ancestors were also our ancestors, and that all of us are members of one single species, cousins sharing a common biological heritage?

Of course they didn't know this. They hadn't learned this in school (although they may very well have been told it), no more than the Ripton, Vt. teens had learned that Robert Frost's poems were their heritage, and that the poet could have been no less precious to them as he is to us, someone from whom they might have gained insights of real importance to their own lives.

What did they gain from a night of drinking and carousing? What did the Kenyan teens gain from the bow and arrow shootout with their peers?

But perhaps things had to happen the way they did. The disconnect may really boil down to that between the young and the old. For are we really surprised by the behavior of the Ripton and Kenyan teens? Probably not.

January 27, 2008

Civilization's Fault Lines

Where today do we find the most pronounced "fault lines" in our still highly fragile world wide civilization? Some would say in the rapacious practices of our international corporations. Others would say in a continuing neglect of the biosphere, that which could result in an environmental deterioration substantial enough to threaten our very survival as a species.

And there are certainly many other fault lines that one could readily name. But I would say the most dangerous of them all is that resulting from our failure to provide too many of our impoverished and disadvantaged youth with a proper education followed up by our no less significant failure to provide them with decent employment opportunities once they have left school.

What has happened in place of the education and job opportunities that should have been provided? What has happened and is still happening is that large numbers of jobless young people throughout the world, not just in the underdeveloped countries, are readily falling prey to recruiters of all kinds offering employment and purpose to what had been up until then jobless and purposeless lives.

And these recruiters are everywhere. They are the neo-Nazis in the former "republics" of the Soviet Union, the extremist Shiv Sena party recruiters throughout India's third largest province, Maharashtra, and in particular in Bombay, the city that Shiv Sena would have us call Mumbai.

They are the Taliban and Al Qaeda recruiters in the wild northwest provinces of Pakistan, in Saudi Arabia, and throughout the Middle East, and they are the failed politicians in so many failed African states, themselves recruiters who enlist unsuspecting youth members of their own clans into their failed causes.

First world or developed countries are no less free of these people who would use young men, and young women to their own ends. They are the Al Qaeda and other terrorist cells in the suburbs of London, Paris, and other European cities that promise heavenly bliss in exchange for the sacrifice of the lives of their recruits.

And they are the gangs of Los Angeles, Chicago, New York, and other Western cities that provide more than minimum wages as well as "prestigious" positions in the gang hierarchy to unemployed youth who agree to participate in their criminal activities.

The world wide presence of tens of millions of unemployed youth, mostly young men, remains an inexhaustible source of live bodies for carrying out the antisocial and antidemocratic schemes of growing numbers of religious fanatics and hard core criminals.

This is the fault line that most of all makes any talk, let alone realization, of a world wide civilization with accompanying democratic values such a problematic undertaking. This is the fault line on which the Americans in Iraq continue to stumble and fall.

We will probably see more and more, as in Britain, of what are called Asbos, or Anti-Social Behaviour Orders, which are a special set of rules that unemployed and "misbehaving" youth are expected to follow. I say, good luck, to the governments who adopt this plan for virtue cannot be taught, let alone mandated.

What about those in society who do want to hold things together, promote civilized behavior in the young, protect us from breaking down along the fault line of youth unemployment? Individuals, private organizations, the governments of nations, for example. What are they doing, if anything, to diminish the large numbers of unemployed young men?

So far little or nothing, although there is much talk. Instead we continue to devote more and more of our resources to fighting the terrorist and other criminal gangs that result from our world-wide failure to take substantial preventive action in the lives of at risk youth. The gangs (think Hamas and Hezbollah) provide purpose and positions for the young in our stead.

January 25, 2008

Benjamin Barber on Hyperconsumerism

Benjamin Barber in a recent article in the Huffington Post makes these comments about our "hyperconsumerism."

"...the infantilization of adults as impetuous shoppers and the undermining of democracy by a privatized commercial ideology,"

"Shoppers are staying away from the mall and refusing to buy all those goods they don't need, and the economy's going down the tubes!"

"...exuberant spending is what is inflating the trade deficit, wrecking the dollar, draining savings, and allowing foreign investors to buy up America -- not to speak of corrupting American morals."

"How do we create a prosperous economy that does not depend on Americans buying not only more than they can afford, but far more than they need or want!?"

Now Mr. Barber seems to take for granted that what he calls "hyperconsumerism" is bad. This unquestioned assumption on his part assumes that at some point on a continuum people begin to buy what they don't need, becoming by so doing victims of a "privatized, commercial ideology."

Now, I challenge you, try to draw that line between the purchases you need and the ones you don't need. And we are all different in this regard. That line can't be drawn. I long ago reached a point in my purchase of books where I might have said I didn't need to buy another book. Just as my son probably didn't need his new BMW in addition to his Ford Explorer.

And yet my life would have been less without the additional books, as my son's without the BMW. Why should we make our lives less for a questionable end? By not buying what we do not need, if we could and we can't determine that, would we somehow be better for it? Would our lives somehow be "more?" A dubious conclusion at the least.

My own life experiences tell me that men's lives together are most of all structured on the exchange of goods and services. To take away these exchanges, or just reduce them in the manner that Barber would have us do, creates failed societies, such as that of the fallen communist regimes of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union.

I lived in the Soviet Union during the last years of the Empire under Mikhail Gorbachev. While I was there no one ever accused the Soviet citizens of hyperconsumerism. For, as everyone knows, the state run factories had created a situation where there was little or nothing to buy.

Actually there were also state run "commercial" outlets called Berioskas, where foreign credit card holders could purchase Western goods (they didn't need) and continue their hyperconsumerism while paying sales taxes to the Soviet government.

The Soviet Union probably never intended to become an underconsuming society. It's just that the socks, cars, and electric appliances etc. that they produced in their state run factories were such that nobody wanted them. But there was never any talk about the super benefits of underconsumption in the Soviet Union.

One might think that the environment might have profited from the greatly reduced purchasing power of the nearly 200 million Soviet citizens. Of course it didn't. The former Soviet Union, and now Russia, remains one of the most polluted areas of the earth. While Americans who over consume, victims as Barber would have us of the dominant commercial ideology, are at the same time creating a cleaner environment, cleaner air, cleaner water, more trees, and such, all to leave to their overconsuming children.

Barber says that overconsumption is making "infants" of us all, "undermining" our democracy. Does he mean by that that we would be better citizens if we consumed less? A very doubtful proposition.

People didn't and don't come to this country by the millions, by the tens of millions, in order to become good citizens. They come here to work, and by means of what they earn, to consume. That is America. (Love it or leave it.)

In my experience the best citizens have always come from the ranks of those who own things, such as homes and cars. There is nothing like ownership to create responsibility. And without taking on responsibility people will never be good citizens.

Furthermore, to own a home, to care for it, to maintain it, means an endless series of purchases, and happily in America these purchases are easily made. Unlike in the former Soviet Union where light bulbs, string, and paper clips, not to mention well- stocked super markets, were no where to be found.

So I would say Vive our Hyperconsumerism. And I would say again there is no line to be drawn between our wants and our needs. Even our morals, in particular our caring for others as well as our caring for ourselves, probably stem most of all, if not entirely, from the endless exchange of goods and services that we carry on with our fellows everywhere.

January 16, 2008

Supply and demand in the non-profit world

Those of us who have been to college and taken Economics 101 are familiar with the supply and demand curve. If you're not, here it is again.


The demand curve illustrates the variation of a demand Q in relation to the variation of a price P.  The supply curve illustrates a variation of supply according to a variation of price P. The intersection of the demand curve D and the supply curve S represents the equilibrium price Pe where a quantity Qe of commodities will be sold.

What might we learn if we applied this market thinking regarding supply and demand to the non-profit world, and in particular to our public schools? Demand might then become the demand on the part of students for education. Supply would be the knowledge that the teachers brought with them into the classroom.

Learning would take place at the point where the students' demand for met the teachers' supply of knowledge.

But what actually happens in our schools? Those of you who have visited our public schools, especially the troubled inner city schools serving largely poor and minority student populations, will readily admit that the “demand” for education on the part of the students is almost non-existent. The students are clearly not present in school to learn, or in other words, to have their demand met by the supply of education that the school is there to provide.

What about the supply? Well, if there is little or no demand we don't know, do we? We don't know much about the supply. Teachers may be, or may have been at one time, well supplied with enough learning to meet the demand, but years of close contact with non-demanding students will have sent that supply into deep storage, perhaps never to reappear.

In the supply and demand curve the price is all important. High prices will lower demand, and vice versa. At the point where the two curves meet the price will be right and the purchase will be made. 

In our schools, however, the price is always too high. And the students are rarely ready to pay the high price represented by the hard work it will take in order to learn. As a result there is little exchange and the teachers remain pretty much without a market for their goods. The two curves never meet.

The single most important question in regard to our schools, and in particular in regard to those that are failing, is how to increase the students' demand for learning. How do we motivate them? Up until now only the single teacher, here and there throughout the nation's hundreds of thousands of schools, seems to know how to do this. And up until now he or she hasn't known how to pass this particularly valuable skill on to others.

At this very moment the entire country, while following the directives of the No Child Left Behind Law, seems to be using standardized tests to raise the students' “demand” for knowledge. This of course is not what's happening. And although the jury is still out regarding the effectiveness of the Law there is ample anecdotal evidence that this “fix” is not fixing anything at all.

We might extend what we have said up until now to the non-profit world in general. In the for profit world goods, cars and televisions etc., things that people want, are constantly being produced, and demand is meeting supply.

In the not for profit world, on the other hand, what is being supplied is not what people want, but rather what some people, often government employees, think that people should want, things such as education, healthcare, jobs, and homes.

But what's the difference? Don't people want education, good health, jobs and homes? And if so, why doesn't demand and supply work in this world also? Well, these goods, education, healthcare, jobs, etc., for their production and full realization, depend no less, perhaps even more, on the consumer than on the producer.

We can build schools and hospitals, provide teachers and doctors. We can create businesses and provide jobs. We can build new homes. But we cannot give someone an education or good health. Both are both things that people have to do by and large for themselves.

Also we can provide a job and a new home. But doing the job satisfactorily and maintaining the home is something else again, something that people have to do largely for themselves, and so far we haven't been very good at motivating them to do this for themselves.

This is why the demand and supply curve breaks down in the non-profit world. The "rub" is that we go on pretending that it doesn't break down, that the analogy holds, that education and healthcare can be provided like cars and televisions. They can't.

The not for profit world is really a supply side world. There is no demand in this world unless we create this demand, that which we don't yet know how to do. There is only a supply of help, a great supply to be sure for we are the richest country in the world.

A lot of help is what we've been providing in Iraq, and in other troubled places in the world, not to mention in our own impoverished inner cities. We have most often failed in our endeavors because, while giving away the store, we haven't yet been able to arouse in the recipients a demand on their part for what we have to give, be it algebra, history, safe neighborhoods, or democracy.

Two final comments. One, give me a motivated learner and I can teach. If that motivation is not there, if it is not aroused by what I do, I will never teach him a thing.

And two, a last word in regard to standardized tests. Tests shouldn't have the kind of importance they now have. For if they have that importance it's really only because nothing else of an academic nature is going on in the school. If the kids were demanding to learn about math and history tests would be of little or no importance, to them or to us.

January 15, 2008

The Civil Rights Project co-Founder

The other day while rereading my own archives I stumbled on a "Politic" interview with Gary Orfield from 2003 and I was shocked by the number of illconsidered statements made by this highly respected civil rights worker while answering the questions put to him by the Yale students.

Gary Orfield is no longer at the Harvard Graduate School of Education where he was at the time of the interview. He is now at the Graduate School of Education and Information Studies at UCLA where he continues to head The Civil Rights Project that he founded with Christopher Edley in 1996.

All I could think of while reading his responses to the interviewers was that if his thinking, as represented by his statements in this interview, represents the level of thought of the Civil Rights Project in general it's no wonder that the productions of the Project have had so little influence on the on-going struggle for civil rights in our country.

I'll show you what I mean. In response to the first question, "what can be the role of education in mitigating racial inequalities," Orfield had this to say: "The American educational system is all we have. We do not have any [other] kind of social support system in the U.S."

Wow I thought to myself, what would the hundreds of thousands of people working in private non profits throughout the country supporting minority families in our inner cities, as well as in our impoverished rural communities, not to mention the similar numbers of people working in hundreds of federal anti-poverty programs surviving from the sixties, say to this?

No social support system in the U.S.? Perhaps he made this dramatic, highly exaggerated statement to draw attention to the fact there is never enough "social support," whether in society or in one's own family. But why put down the hundreds of thousands of people doing good work in order to make his point?

Further on in his answer to the same question he makes this no less responsible statement that "access to post-secondary education is absolutely critical for any pretense of diminishing inequality." In my opinion he is not only misdirecting the lives of hundreds of thousands of our young people but also giving the wrong message to those within our educational establishment who are already wrongly convinced (probably for reasons of their own job security) that college education should be made available to all. In my opinion it's not so much it shouldn't, it can't.

It is one thing to make the opportunity for higher education available to all. For in fact we still believe in equality of opportunity, and there is still much to be done in this civil rights area in way of multiplying the opportunities available to young people.

But it is another thing entirely to brainwash that "all" into believing that their lives are failures without a college education. For only by lowering achievement benchmarks to ridiculously low levels, as we've done in our high schools,  could college education be made "available to all." And why would anyone want to do that?

A college education worthy of the name will always be available only to some. Conservatives will admit this. Liberals will try to make you believe it isn't so, because they, and I, would like to believe it isn't so. It is.

We know at first hand that too many of those who are pushed onto college will drop out, and that too many of these (although not a Bill Gates and a Steve Jobs) will start life under the stigma of a failed college experience. If they hadn't been pushed onto college they might have done something else, of much more benefit to themselves and to their country.

Still while answering the same question Orfield tells us that education, while formally equal, "is profoundly unequal in racial and economic terms, and it [therefore] reinforces the racial problems we face today."

And he goes on to say that [the] "situation has relatively little to do with the amount of money to spend and everything to do with the social structure in communities and schools."

But then while answering the next question, seemingly oblivious of what he has just said, he says this: [While advocating preschool] "we are not providing any kind of universal access or quality preschool. Smaller class sizes with good teachers at the elementary level especially in high poverty schools really does make a difference that seems to be lasting."

O.K., but quality preschool, smaller class sizes, and better trained teachers cost money, big money. So is this the underlying message of the Civil Rights project? Not too different from that of Jonathan Kozol. Things are bad and they won't get better unless we spend a lot more on our schools, according to Orfield the only "social support" system we have. These sorts of answers didn't encourage me to go rereading the remainder of the interview.

But I did anyway, and Orfield does go on to say some pretty true and important things especially about the richness and depth of experiences that multiracial environments can provide all of us.

Here, for example, in answer to the question, What are the encouraging signs? he says this:

"One of the encouraging signs is that the United States is undergoing a demographic transformation that is just gigantic and irreversible. We can see this in the state of California. The encouraging signs are that young people's attitudes are continually positive about these issues. We have been studying interracial classrooms around the country where they still exist, where re-segregation has not taken place, and we are finding very positive and comparable attitudes among blacks, whites, Latinos, and Asians about interracial experiences. They want them, they value them, and they believe they are transformative.

"We are studying law schools like Harvard and Michigan, and medical schools and other graduate institutions. A lot of people want a multiracial experience and, when they experience it, they find it is very positive for them. We are finding an emergence of multiracial neighborhoods and schools in rural areas, which may have a very different dynamic than biracial transition.

"Regarding Asian teenagers, they are growing up in the most integrated setting of any population probably in the history of the country, which is extremely encouraging. What role are they going to play in the future and in penetrating the tri-racial dynamic in this country of blacks, whites and Latinos? They are going to be a very powerful 10 percent of the population in this century. Are they going to be a bridge of some sort between races or will their racial status evolve into that of whites?..."

January 14, 2008

Middle Ground

The liberal, or as Hillary would say, progressive/conservative fault line is no less with us today than it was nearly seventy years ago, when I was a student in elementary school and returning home at night when I would hear my father berate Franklin Delano Roosevelt's newly minted progressive social policies intended to alleviate the plight of Americans hit hard by the depression.

Today the progressive/conservative fault line is world wide. In France and Germany, we are told that students are being forced to undergo "a dangerous indoctrination." They are being raised on a "diet of prejudice and bias, taught that [conservative] economic principles such as capitalism, free markets, and entrepreneurship are savage, unhealthy, and immoral."

Free markets, these students are led to believe, are most of all supported by reactionary, conservative governments, such as that of the United States. Planned, highly regulated economies with "liberal" and extensive social safety nets, such as those of France and Germany, are much to be preferred.

The irony is that the victors of the Cold War have not fully shed the influence of the former Soviet Union. Even in the United States the presidential candidate, John Edwards, no less than the Soviet apparatchik then and the teachers in the French and German schools now, sees the American capitalist as exploiting the working man for the benefit of the super rich.

Elsewhere in the world, and especially in the Far East, which perhaps holds the future of civilization in its grasp, the free market is still alive and well. We learn, for example, that in India, that democracy of over one billion souls, Tata Motors has just made the world's cheapest car, thereby bringing the family car to families up until now without. Probably not something the Indian government, or any government would ever have done.

Vive l'entrepreneur!

But even here, when people so obviously benefit, the liberal/conservative fault line is no less in evidence. There are plenty of those who, knowing what's best for the rest of us, loudly decry the additional pollution, the additional traffic congestion, the continuing neglect of mass transit systems, that the Tata people's car promises.

But more numerous, certainly, are those who will quietly celebrate the placing of the car well within the economic reach of millions of Indian citizens. In this case, as in many others, the liberals would free the roads, the conservatives the people.

But of course the right is not entirely on either side. In fact, when will our politicians get it, that there is only one place to be, that there is no either/or, liberal or conservative, only a middle ground from which a cost/benefit analysis will usually determine which action to take, while, in this instance, being sure that the benefits to the individual of owning a car, no less than the costs to all of us of additional cars on the road, are not ignored.

January 04, 2008

Three Easy Pieces

The Achievement Gap

Achievement always comes with a "gap." There will always be those who achieve, thus leaving behind, sometimes way behind, those who do not.
Why is it that in regard to the achievement of some youngsters in school, we speak of the gap between their achievement and the lesser or even non achievement of their classmates? Why has this become such a hot button topic and problem?
In fact, there are achievement gaps everywhere you look, and most of them are accepted as being quite normal.
Take chess players, basketball players, runners, nuclear physicists, microbiologists, in fact most everyone who in some one occupation achieves at a level that others cannot match.
Furthermore, who ever would go to great efforts to overcome the gap between the achievement of particular individuals in their one specialty area, and the much lesser, probably non achievement of everyone else in that same area? No one has ever tried to help me lessen the achievement gap, say that between me and Luciano Pavarotti, or me and Gary Kasparov.

No Child Left Behind

In respect to being "left behind," well I've been left behind by practically everyone of my generation in one or more respects. A single school reunion is always enough to convince me of that. In fact, it's rare for me to ever see myself as not having been left behind.
So why the "no child left behind" mantra of the professional school people? Don't we just create thereby unsolvable problems for ourselves? For there will always be those who are left behind, in fact most of us.

The School Dropout

The "school dropout" is also of our own creation. Unnecessary. There was no reason to stigmatize in this manner children who decided that school wasn't for them. Does anyone really believe that school is for everyone? Those whose livelihood comes from the schools, the school administrators, teachers, and school board members may act, even believe that all children should be in school, but does that make it so?
Along with the "achievement gap" and the "no child left behind" we ought to banish from our discussions about kids and schools the "school dropout."
The school dropout is a problem only because we have for some reason laid down the law that all youngsters have to remain in school for some number of years. Why? Were we afraid that they might become free thinking individuals and start a business, or career, simply travel, get a job, write a poem or paint a picture?