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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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May 2007

May 31, 2007

Liberal, Conservative. Two sides of the same coin.

In his op ed piece in today’s Washington Post George Will would make the case that the basis of today’s dominant political argument lies in the tension existing between the poles (and goals) of freedom and equality — conservatives being more allied with freedom, liberals with equality, or at least equality of opportunity if not outcomes.

Would that this were so! That a genuine and mature difference of political opinion animated the conflict between those on either side, left or right, of the center.

What is more probably the case is this: Those who have most to gain by being allowed greater independence and greater freedom of action will be on the right. Those who have most to gain by a greater dependence on government actions and programs for their own livelihood and security will be on the left.

In other words for most people the ages old and still fascinating argument between freedom and equality is now, and perhaps always was, only “livelihood deep.” The lottery winner who may very well have been a passionate government employee the day before will the day after become a passionate promoter of the free market. The fallen owner of a failed business, or the president of a savings and loan association, undone by his own policy of sub-prime loans, will both become zealous takers of government bailouts.

It may very well be true as Will says that the most powerful group of liberals are the public employees, those whose livelihood comes directly from the government. Accordingly, if we follow this same reasoning, the most powerful single group of conservatives would be those most removed from government entitlements, in particular entrepreneurs and the owners of small businesses.

But from saying that it’s a far cry to saying that the ones are passionate supporters of equality and the others of freedom. The arguments that thinkers like George Will make, for freedom on the one side and equality on the other, are not what drives the union members nor the business owners to support respectively, say, the liberal and conservative candidates. Again, their being on the side of one or the other follows much more from whence comes their livelihood.

Reason, that is, reasonable arguments on one side or the other, has never been what drives most men, although thinkers (and I too) would like this to be so. That it’s not so is not a secret. Not a generation has passed by that one writer or another has not bewailed the fact that most men’s actions do not spring from a well considered and well reasoned analysis of the situation.

Al Gore’s recent book, Assault on Reason, reveals the superficiality of his own thinking when he writes as if he had made an important discovery, this being the superficiality and unreasonableness of our leaders in Washington. Would that Al were right and that these times were exceptional and that we had only to return to a prior time or golden age in our history when our leaders’ actions and words were based on a well reasoned and persuasive analysis of the situation.

George Will himself, of course, is on the side of freedom. He is one of those who does not look to government for the solution. However, I think he overstates the case, in this case, his case against liberals. “Liberalism,” he says, “increasingly seeks to deliver equality in the form of equal dependence of more and more people for more and more things on government.”

The duality that Will highlights, that of freedom vs. equality, conservative vs. liberal, is neat and memorable, and continues to lend itself to endless although mostly sophomoric discussion. But a kinder and gentler view of the difference between liberal and conservative thought, and a more believable and just view of liberalism than that of Will, would be the following.

First of all freedom and equality concerns are not what most separates liberals and conservatives (assuming that true liberals and true conservatives do in fact exist). Liberals that I have known, Arthur Schlesinger and John Kenneth Galbraith, for example, would defend freedom no less than equality, and conservatives, William Buckley and George Will himself, would certainly place themselves very much in the camp of equality in regard to many current issues.

What separates these men is far more subtle than George Will’s freedom/equality tension or opposition. What separates them is the degree to which they would restrain, the one, freedom, and the degree to which they would promote the other, equality.

This is a difference of degree only. And in many situations they would probably find themselves defending the same position, such as the civil rights of Blacks and other minorities (making more government necessary), and school choice programs represented by magnet and charter schools (bringing about more freedom).

George Will makes liberals, who in his estimation are mostly looking for government solutions, thereby less admirable, than conservatives who, according to Will, look much more to individuals and individual initiatives for solutions. This is an unfair oversimplification and distortion of what is in fact a fully legitimate opposition between group and individual responsibilities. Both are necessary. Liberal and conservative positions are like all true oppositions two sides of the same coin. That which forces most of us to be in the center.

May 27, 2007

What Have We Done

I read this in today’s NYTimes:

“Many militias and terrorist groups are just waiting for the Americans to leave,” said Salim Abdullah, the spokesman for the Iraqi Accordance Front,... "This does not mean the presence of American troops in Baghdad is our favorite option,” he said. “People in the street say the United States is part of the chaos here and they could have made it better and safer. Still, we need America to make the country more stable and not leave Iraq in the trouble, which they, themselves, have caused.”

It’s Salim’s last sentence that’s the shocker, when he says, apparently in all seriousness:   “we need America to make the country more stable and not leave Iraq in the trouble, which they, [the Americans] themselves, have caused.”

In other words we have created the trouble and now we have to stay to eliminate the trouble we have created. How do we do that? Maybe a bad marriage of our own creation can be made better by our staying, but the country, Iraq, will be better by our staying? We're in our fourth year of believing this with a total absence of evidence for that belief. Our being there creates the trouble. Our continuing to be there will somehow do away with the trouble? I don’t think so.

Unbelievable, isn’t it, first Vietnam, and now Iraq. We have shot ourselves in both feet, and at this time we can hardly walk. In both instances we have created situations for which there is no solution other than our walking away (if our feet would allow it) and thereby making a bad situation, of our creation, even worse. Unbelievable that we have done this to ourselves. What horrible chain of reasoning adopted by our leaders enabled this to happen?

Then further on in the same article I read this:

“The conditions that need to be achieved before a major troop reduction, General Odierno said, are a reduction in insurgent and militia attacks and an improved ability by Iraqi security forces to protect noncombatants.”

Now haven’t we heard this before, probably each year, since the President’s “Mission Accomplished” speech on the USS Abraham Lincoln, in May of 2003? What has led General Odierno to believe that anything we have done during the now four years since the President’s ill-chosen words on the Carrier deck has led to anything but an increase in insurgent attacks? What has led the General to believe that the ability of the Iraqi security forces to protect noncombatants is improving? Perhaps he is new to Iraq?

He must be, for I see no other explanation for the continual folly of his and others' pronouncements, than the fact that our military personnel is constantly changing and that with the arrival of each new contingent in Iraq comes the belief that with our help the security conditions can be improved and the responsibility for the country’s security can eventually be placed in Iraqi hands.

But those with the long view, many journalists among others, realize that with the passage of each year the only significant changes taking place in Iraq are in the numbers of the dead and wounded and the numbers of those fleeing the country. What have we done?

May 21, 2007

Let's not turn them away.

Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney in response to the recent compromise deal reached by the U.S. Senate on immigration made this statement: "I strongly oppose today's [immigration] bill.... Any legislation that allows illegal immigrants to stay in the country indefinitely, as the new 'Z-Visa' does, is a form of amnesty. That is unfair to the millions of people who have applied to legally immigrate to the U.S."

Romney, and the others who speak as he does, are dead wrong. Immigrants, all immigrants, are what this country is all about. Our country's present strength and high standard of living stem in large part from the successive waves of immigrants, including the hundreds of thousands of black Africans who came here, "€œlegally?"€ in the 17th. and 18th centuries.

Immigrants have always been a major factor in our country's cultural and economic growth and resulting economic and cultural prosperity. And they still are. If you have any doubts about this you need only go to Silicon Valley and confirm that the majority of the technology companies there, in no small part the drivers of our economy, are headed by Chinese and Indian immigrants.

OK, you may respond. But Romney is only talking about illegal immigrants. I would answer that illegal immigrants may be the very best kind. For they, unlike someone'€™s mother-in-law, or half brother or second cousin, who all had legal access to the country, who were "€œentitled" under the old system, the "illegals" are prepared to pay any price just to get here. Don'€™t we want people like that? Shouldn't we welcome them? And shouldn'€™t we help them to help themselves become Americans like ourselves?

Was what we have meant to be just for ourselves? I don't think so.

It is clearly evident that once here the so-called illegals are especially dedicated to the task of making a go of it, and much more so, I believe, than the large numbers of those who are already here and have given up on their chances.

For no one can doubt the immigrants' desire to improve their lives. If our own poor, of which we are told there are now tens of millions, had this same desire we might see more of them lifting themselves out of poverty.

Because we have placed so many obstacles to their coming here the illegals have had to have shown what they are made of, and they have shown toughness and courage, resourcefulness and entrepreneurship, all qualities that we want to see in our new citizens. Romney and others of like mind would tell these people that we don'€™t want them? We do want them.

Immigrants, and perhaps especially the illegals, whose time here is threatened by demagogues in public offices, want their children to do well in school and are prepared to make whatever sacrifices will be necessary to that end. If you have any doubts about this look at the life stories of the many immigrant children who were first or nearly first in their high school graduating classes last year, in Boston where I live, but certainly in many other cities with large immigrant school populations as well.

These people, these so-called illegals, are a precious resource, and we would turn them away? Those who want to come here, whatever the cost, may very well be the  single most important "natural" resource we possess.

Unlike the Governor I'€™m encouraged by the passage of the Senate bill. It's a start, although it makes too many concessions to the forces of darkness (read Harry Reid's reservations). The immigrants, and especially the large numbers of them coming from East and South East Asia, from Central and South America, and across the border from Mexico, bring light along with them (in this regard see David Brooks' op ed piece).

And whatever happened to:

  "Give me your tired, your poor,
  Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
  The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
  Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
  I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"

                                         from The New Colossus
                                                  by Emma Lazarus

May 14, 2007

Equality and Difference

Those who write about education, and the schools, rarely address the principal problem that parents, teachers, and all those who spend much time with children, must confront on a daily basis. On the one hand the teachers and the others have learned to believe that all children, no less than all men, are equal and are deserving of equal treatment. On the other hand their experience with children has convinced them that no two children are exactly alike and that consequently no two children must be treated in the same manner.

This seeming paradox accounts for the widely different statements that people make about education and the schools. There are those who say categorically that the Common School is a failure. They are of the opinion that the neglect of the differences between children has meant that too many children have been left out.

Then there are those, just as many or even more, who attribute to the Common School and its graduates the predominant leadership role that this country has achieved during the past 150 years. For them promoting equality, or at least equal treatment has meant equal opportunity for all regardless of ethnic, class, or racial origin. No one's chance of being one day president of the company or president of the country will be diminished by a common school environment where all are equal.

Thus there are, as it were, two poles, that of equality and that of difference.

Those drawn to the equality pole would not track children. They would have every child enrolled in an academic program leading to college. There is a "what's best," and this "what's best" ought to be what's best for all.

Those drawn to the difference pole would separate the children from one another at various points along their way through school, having some leave for work, some  go into vocational programs, some do advanced placement work, some even go on at an early age, 15 or 16, to college, and so on.

If children came in different colors, colors that meant college, no college, the trades, etc. things would be easy, but they don't (although for a long time the color black was considered to mean no college, even no school). The colors of children don't now relate (and never have related!) to how and what they will best and most usefully learn, although there are still today those who may use ethnic origin for this illegitimate discriminatory purpose.

Now what does the classroom teacher do with all those "equal" children no two of whom ever learn in exactly the same way? It's a big problem and it sends young teachers fleeing the classroom in large numbers after only a year or two on the job. The problem has not yet been solved.

The politicians have mostly come down on the side of equality, NCLB being their bungled attempt to make the underachievers equal to the achievers. Of course it can't be done, given the differences, the fact that children, although equal, are not all, or at all alike.

So what is to be done? First of all we should, I think, understand differently, if not play down the place of "equality" in our thinking about the schools. Change "equality" to equality of opportunity, or "equal treatment," and certainly give everyone equal respect.

But in our schools, and in our legislative bodies we should much more "play up" the differences among us. For they are real. And ultimately it's by our differences that we will make something of our lives, not by what makes us all the same, not by what we all share equally, even those qualities that make us all human.

Title One plays, rightly, to the differences, as does the Westinghouse now Intel Science Talent Search program, as do all those great teachers who see and support each child's different and unique learning style.

NCLB would have been more acceptable if it had not been presented as something applied across the board equally. If there hadn't been an achievement gap there would have been no NCLB, so why then wasn't NCLB, like Title One, directed to those most at risk and most in need of extra help?

Well, I know why. We weren't, and are still not ready to abandon the facade of equality that we insist upon in our schools. At best we may reach some of the large number of kids at the top of the Bell curve. But in reality we probably won't. In reality we lose most kids to the extent that what we teach is addressed to all of them equally. To repeat, they are not equal in how they learn.

The lesson to be drawn from all this? Pay more attention to differences in our schools, and more attention to equality everywhere else, especially in our lives in common with others like and different from ourselves.

May 10, 2007

Health Care and Education

Atul Gawande in an op ed piece in today’s NYTimes says that the “The American health insurance system is a slow-creeping ruin, damaging people and increasingly the employers that hire us.” There are many who say something quite similar about the American system of public school education, perhaps not a “slow-creeping ruin,” but, for too many young people just starting out in life, clearly a failure.

The irony is that no two national issues are more on the minds of our politicians than education and health care. Irony because, in spite of constant attention, or at least lip service, given to both, the inadequacies of both are no less present today than they were over a generation ago when all the talk began.

Perhaps no two issues, when it comes to judging the worth of our American civilization, are more important. How are people cared for when they are sick (and when they are well)? And how do the young acquire the requisite skills and knowledge they will need to find a job and earn a living wage? When there are large numbers of Americans who are left out in one or both respects this negatively impacts the lives of us all.

Of the two clearly health care takes up a much larger slice of our economy, this year that slice being some 2 trillion plus dollars or 16% of our 13 trillion dollar gross national product. Educational expenditures in the United States are less than half that amount. Expenditures on K-12 education are about one half of that, or about 4% of GDP.

The spending difference stems from the fact that the need for health care is obviously no less with us when we are old than when we are young, health care and health maintenance becoming more and more important as we age. Education, on the other hand, is mostly with us when we are young, in the first quarter of our lives, becoming (alas!) less and less important as we age.

And interesting thought experiment would be to consider the result if the expenditures were reversed. It may be that the very best health maintenance program would be more education and not more hospital visits.

The present 4 to 1 ratio between health and education expenditures is at present the way things are not necessarily the way things should be. Our schools in their mission statements clearly articulate the importance of life long learning for their graduates, but our society does little or nothing to encourage and make such learning a reality. As a  result most people see their learning as being limited to their years in school and ending for the most part with the end of school. Again, alas!

Perhaps the greatest flaw in our educational system, is the fact that we think of education primarily as schooling, and confine it to the first quarter of our lives. Whereas this is the time when school and classroom learning are probably least effective. This is the time when children, who are learning as they breathe, all the time, and probably learn much more out of school than within the school and classroom walls.

Those of us who have taught both children and adults know how much more motivated and attentive than the children are the adults in our classes, how much more they enjoy and profit from the lesson.

I believe that it is by relegating education, a.k.a. schooling, to the early years that we do the most harm, for in so doing we try to pack into those years everything a child of Rousseau, Jefferson, Dewey and Einstein, among many others, needs to know.

And it doesn’t work. That's much too much. And the readiness is by and large not there. We are not turning out those who are well versed in words and numbers, let alone capable of assuming responsible and productive roles in society.

You don't believe me? You need only to speak with the deans and professors in our community colleges, with all those who do the hiring, with the military recruiters, with the police departments in our large cities, and others such, to know it doesn't work. Too many of the kids who begin high school don’t finish. Too many of the kids who finish high school don’t finish college. Too many kids who have spent as many as 13 years in school end up by having very little to show for it.*

What to do? I think the answer is clear. Make schooling, or rather education, like health care, make it life long. But how? First of all we can stop trying to put everything into the first 13 years. And we can also take more into account what the kids are really learning as they grow up, what's present, and a big part of their lives during their school years.

We should no longer pretend that children's learning stems mostly from what we do, or try to do, with or to them in the school and classroom. For if you've been close to young children you will know that it doesn't. Rather than "what did you do in school today," ask, "what did you do today?" That way you might get closer to where they are.

Most of all we can stop trying to transform children into the kind of thinking and responsible and caring and imaginative and entrepreneurial etc. adults that we would like them to me (the kind of adults we'd like to be ourselves). And instead we could make sure that they pick up a few useful skills at the very beginning of their journey, a journey that for the most part takes place, even when young and materially dependent on us, outside of our reach and ken.

Our much more modest goals during the school years should be once again reading, writing, and arithmetic. And our greatest challenge should still be to get them to believe that these skills are important for them to possess.

Finally, in the larger society out there, we should talk less about school, and more about education, and we should provide more opportunities for education. We should talk as if education were much more something that began following the completion of the first 13 years of schooling, than something that ended at that moment in time. For education, no less than health care, ought to be with us throughout the length of our lives.

* See Tough Choices, Tough Times on the number of kids who don't finish high school and college.

May 05, 2007

Inputs and Outcomes, Part 1

Whereas the history of education ought to be the history of outcomes, that is the story of the graduates and what their schooling has helped them to accomplish, instead it’s overwhelmingly the history of inputs, or the educational theories and reform ideas of the experts. We hear so much about what the school would do to its students, not so much, if anything, about what the school has actually done for them.

Well, that’s not quite altogether true. There are well documented outcomes in the form of test scores and graduation rates, but that’s probably as far as we go in determining the results of schooling. Furthermore, since the schools do not primarily see themselves in terms of test scores and dropout rates (others do), we have the present clash between the schools and the No Child Left Behind Law which does see test scores as the only reliable measure of success or failure.

In fact, there’s probably no area of human activity where input so dominates output as education.* Think of an agriculture where all the talk were of fertilizers, and not of corn or soybeans, or think of manufacturing where the assembly line became more important that the product at the end of that line. Well that’s what’s happened in our schools. The assembly line is all important. What the graduate, or the dropout, knows, what he has become thanks to his schooling, no one knows.

The history of education is a fascinating account of the history of educational ideas, both in regard to what should be taught and how it should be taught. We read Plato, Aquinas, Rousseau, Dewey, and more recently John Holt, Neil Postman and E. D. Hirsch and countless others, and we come away thoroughly enraptured by what education according to these wise men is all about.

We find ourselves participating in this fascinating history. We may join the progressive or the traditional school of thought. We will certainly become passionate over one or more of the many reform movements, such as school choice, merit pay, the longer school day.

But when all is said and done the child, and what the child is learning is nowhere to be reckoned with. I do believe that this situation of placing the cart before the horse came about when children were removed from the daily presence of grown-ups, in the shop, office, or on the field, and placed in school buildings by themselves with just a teacher or guardian. What they were now learning was no longer going on around them. Not a great situation in which to learn, as anyone who has ever tried to learn a foreign language in a typical public school classroom will know.

We throw all our very best thinking about education, of which there is no  end, at our kids and they invariably react in one of three ways. The few follow orders and do what they’re told, becoming pets of the teachers.

The many are indifferent to what we throw at them, to our theories and philosophies and the resulting quarrels that rage among us as to this or that way of teaching, say, reading or mathematics, and they simply put up with school, and with us, and endure, while really reserving the best of themselves to activities and experiences that have little or no connection to the subject matters of their classes, such as popular culture, friends, and jobs.

The remaining few are probably the most interesting ones. They step out of the way of what we throw at them, but don't make a huge fuss about it. They will react in as many different ways as there are numbers of them. It is from them probably that the country will draw its inventors, entrepreneurs, leaders and other talents. But what they are and what they achieve will have little relationship to the things that their schools would have them do. For they learn pretty much outside of the organized activities of the classroom.

To make it even clearer what I mean by our inattention to outcomes here I give you the mission statement of the typical American public school, the outcomes that the school would obtain for its students:

Our mission is “to produce responsible, self-sufficient citizens who possess the self-esteem, initiative, skills, and wisdom to continue individual growth, pursue knowledge, develop aesthetic sensibilities, and value cultural diversity.”

And they would accomplish this by “providing intellectually challenging educational programs that celebrate change but affirm tradition and promote excellence through an active partnership with the community, a comprehensive and responsive curriculum, and a dedicated and knowledgeable staff.”

No mention is made of higher test scores or graduation rates. Instead the school is set up to produce (turn out) accomplished and productive citizens as well as life-long learners,

Yes, I know, you ask, and I ask, why doesn’t the school have as its primary mission things that are valuable, more valuable than high test scores, things such as fluency in a second language, the ability to manipulate mathematical symbols on up and through the calculus, enough knowledge of history, whatever history it be, to pass an oral examination in the subject, and also things such as the ability to lay pipe and electric circuits, play an instrument of music, be a member of a sports team, be a leader of others.

There is no end of valuable things that kids might learn, all things that could then be subject to external measures, a kind of quality control, no less important in school than in the factory. They would have to do a lot more with a lot less. Learning is a life long venture and you have to begin with this or that.

So, what is to be done? Well we could begin by getting a real answer to our question, “what did you do in school today?” This answer would force us to align, perhaps for the first time ever (or at least since the education of our young was separated from the work of adults), our inputs, our educational philosophies, with what the kids are actually doing and learning. The progressive, traditional, and reform laden inputs would rapidly disappear as the reality of whatr the kids were learning took the forground.

Kids, no less than the rest of us, learn (and here’s where Dewey is still right), by doing. How much of what goes on in school is Dewey's kind of “doing?”

Well the answer has to be not much because they are learning so little in the allotted time. It takes a whole year to master the times table?! Two whole years to learn how to ask directions in a foreign language?! Twelve whole school years to acquire just the bare rudiments of the country’s history?!

If we looked more at outcomes, if we seriously began to determine just what the kids are leaning in school, and how much of what they are learning results from our inputs, and how much results from things that kids do and of which which we are mostly ignorant well wouldn't that be the strong wind that sets everything right.

I remember attending a story reading class in a progressive elementary school in Boston. All I heard about from the teacher before the class was what a great story it was and that this was not the first time that she had read it out loud to her students. I heard from her nothing abaout her students. Actually I knew the story and I liked it. It was about that young Frenchman who strung a cord between the Twin Towers and walked across it.

But before the reading I saw nothing of the teacher’s appreciation of the story in the faces of the children. Were they excited about hearing it again? What was the story for them? They were mostly well behaved, but was anything really happening in their hearts and minds. They showed little reaction, sat quietly for the most part, fooled around a bit with their neighbors.

This is another example of adult input. What was the output? What was happening to the children? All the class time was given over to listening to a “great story.” Probably much if not most of children’s literature is one more example of adult input. Has anyone ever actually measured the outcome of children's literature on children? I know it works with adults. Does anyone have an inkling if the children have grown therefrom?

When one has looked at student outcomes, when one has taken the measure of what school has accomplished, the results have not been good. I think of the book I read some years back about what our seventeen year olds, our high school or almost high school graduates, didn’t know. The book made it clear that welve years of schooling had done little or nothing for their knowledge of history, and much else.

Then there are the community colleges. The outcome here is that only one in five students, and in some colleges even fewer, will stay and graduate in two years. Shouldn't we be talking more about this outcome?

In today’s NYTimes we learn that our soldiers in Iraq, large numbers of them, are ethically un-principled. For instance, "fewer than half of the marines and a little more than half of the soldiers said they would report a member of their unit for killing or wounding an innocent civilian. More than 40 percent support the idea of torture in some cases, and 10 percent reported personally abusing Iraqi civilians…” Now these soldiers are graduates of our high schools, probably in many instances of high schools with mission statements similar to the one above, “to produce responsible, self-sufficient citizens..."

If you ask a kid what he did in school today, you’ll hear, if you hear anything at all, what the teacher did. What the kid did remains usually out of the asker’s, be it parent, older sibling, or other adult, ken. Just think what it might mean if the question to the kid was answered by in fact what the kid had done in school? They you would be seeing real outcomes of work in school, not as now another statement of teacher input.

Why is it that most of our discussions about education are all about inputs and hardly ever about outputs? There are probably two principal reasons for this situation. First of all we don’t talk the kids’ language, and we don’t talk it because we haven’t taken the trouble to learn it. Instead we force the child to talk ours and as a result, since kids are smart at knowing what we want, he talks our language of inputs.

Then second, educational outputs are only visible over long periods of time (other of course than test scores which now predominate our talk of outcomes). Furthermore, how on earth could these outcomes be measured? Could the school ever point to this or that student and say that he or she has acquired any or all of the admirable outcomes of our mission statement? I don’t think so. This is the sort of thing that can only be said, if at all, at the time of a person’s death.

Finally it should be stressed that schooling at best will do little or nothing to eliminate man’s imperfections —quick to anger, slothful, ungenerous — let alone provide him with the skills and knowledge necessary to continue to grow in goodness and wisdom throughout his life time. Our schools need to assume much more modest outcomes, such as I described above, outcomes that have some chance of being realized in school.

*This statement may be incorrect. Arnold Kling in a recent TCS article, The Real Solution to Poverty, points out that we are always addressing the problem of poverty in terms of input, in particular by "centralized, planned solutions," such as President Johnson's anti-poverty program of the 1960s. And in spite of these repeated centralized plananed solutions the problem of poverty is still very much with us. Kling wonders why government and think tank bureaucrats and experts continue to  believe in such failed intiatives. He says it's because they focus only on intentions. "If a program," he says, "is intended to reduce poverty, then it is an anti-poverty program. [That of course is not enough.] Instead, I believe that anyone who sincerely wants to do something about poverty needs to focus on outcomes."
I would say that anyone who sincerely wants to reform our system of education needs also to focus on outcomes.

May 01, 2007

Stop Paying Attention to the Middle East

In a recent article in Prospect Magazine Edward Luttwak has some interesting things to say about the West’s bête noire, or better, black beast, the Middle East. Is he right? If he is why are we presently sinking so much of our wealth and sacrificing so many of our people in that area of the world?

Luttwak would persuade us that the whole world and in particular the United States would benefit if the Middle East were simply ignored, removed from its now nearly 100 year long position on the front burner of the world’s trouble spots.

Here follows a summary of what he has to say. To read Luttwak himself, click Here.

First is the Arab-Israeli conflict. There are those who, like the late King Hussein of Jordan, and now his son, Abdullah, constantly promote a “five minutes to midnight” catastrophism. The King was always warning us that the Arab-Israeli conflict was about to explode, involve the whole world, “unless…”

But of course the explosion never took place. In fact, “the dead from Jewish-Palestinian fighting since 1921 amount to fewer than 100,000—about as many as are killed in a season of conflict in Darfur.” Luttwak says that “strategically, the Arab-Israeli conflict has been almost irrelevant since the end of the cold war.”

Then there is the oil. What has been the impact of the Arab-Israeli conflict and of the Middle East conflicts in general on oil prices? Only in 1973, following the Yom Kippur/Ramadan War, was the impact even felt when the Saudis declared embargoes and cut production, but that was the first and only time the “oil weapon" was wielded.

“For decades now,”Luttwak writes, “the largest Arab oil producers have publicly foresworn any linkage between politics and pricing, and an embargo would be a disaster for their oil-revenue dependent economies.”

Furthermore, he says, “the relationship between turmoil in the middle east and oil prices is far from straightforward. During the period, 1981-1999, when Iran and Iraq fought an eight-year war within view of oil and gas installations, when the Gulf war came and went, when the first Palestinian intifadah raged—oil prices, adjusted for inflation, actually fell.”

Today global dependence on middle eastern oil is declining, that region producing 30% of the world’s crude oil supply at the present time as compared to almost 40 per cent in 1974-75. In 2005 17 per cent of American oil imports came from the Gulf, compared to 28 per cent in 1975.

Even if the Israelis and Palestinians could settle their differences,”it would do little or nothing to calm the other conflicts in the middle east from Algeria to Iraq, or to stop Muslim-Hindu violence in Kashmir, Muslim-Christian violence in Indonesia and the Philippines, Muslim-Buddhist violence in Thailand, Muslim-animist violence in Sudan, Muslim-Igbo violence in Nigeria, Muslim-Muscovite violence in Chechnya, or the different varieties of inter-Muslim violence between traditionalists and Islamists, and between Sunnis and Shia,” let alone push the Islamists to abandon their particularly severe hostility towards the West.

Just as mistaken as the importance given the Arab-Israeli conflict is what Luttwak calls the “Mussolini syndrome.” Serious people, including British and French military leaders, accepted on their face Mussolini's claims to great power status because “they believed that he had serious armed forces at his command”….only to later discover that “his forces quickly crumbled in combat,” and that “it could not be otherwise, because most Italian soldiers were unwilling conscripts from the one-mule peasantry of the south or the almost equally miserable sharecropping villages of the north.”

The same mistaken Mussolini syndrome is now applied by the so-called middle east experts to the countries of the Middle East. “They persistently attribute real military strength to backward societies whose populations can sustain excellent insurgencies but not modern military forces.”

First of all in the 1960s there was the supposed strength of Nasser’s military. The strength, of course, wasn’t there as the war of 1973 demonstrated.

Then in 1990 it was the turn of Iraq to be hugely overestimated as a military power. Whereas it took the allies just two weeks of precision bombing to paralyse Saddam's entire war machine, so that it scarcely tried to resist the allies’ ground offensive when it did come. Saddam's army was the usual middle eastern façade without fighting substance.

Now it’s in Iran’s turn to be subject to the Mussolini syndrome. For example we are given awed descriptions of the Pasdaran revolutionary guards, those same guards who fought only one war, against Iraq, and lost. Now we are warned by the experts that Iran, if thwarted in its nuclear intentions by the West will unleash a devastating reign of terror on us all.

But 30 years of “death to American” has produced little in the way of international terrorism. As for the claim that the Iranians are united in their pursuit of a nuclear bomb, or in anything else, the truth is that of “Iran's population of 70m or so, 51 per cent are ethnically Persian, 24 per cent are Turks, with other minorities comprising the remaining quarter. Many of Iran's 16-17m Turks are in revolt against Persian cultural imperialism; its 5-6m Kurds have started a serious insurgency; the Arab minority detonates bombs in Ahvaz; and Baluch tribesmen attack gendarmes and revolutionary guards.”

After the Arab-Israeli conflict, the oil, and the Mussolini syndrome, perhaps the greatest error repeated by middle east experts of all persuasions, by Arabophiles and Arabophobes alike, is “the very odd belief that these ancient nations are highly malleable.” Whereas “it is not hard to defeat Arab armies, it is mostly useless.” For although force can destroy dangerous weapons "it cannot bring about desired behavioral changes.”

The experts also make the opposite mistake. They keep arguing that if only this or that concession were made, if only their "soft" policies were followed through to the end and respect shown, real behavioral changes would result. Hostility would cease and a warm Mediterranean amity would emerge.

But the real condition of these lands and peoples is something else. Their scientific and technological and cultural backwardness generates a constantly renewed sense of humiliation and of civilisational defeat. It is this that fully explains the ubiquity of Muslim violence embodying Muslim resistance to policies of the West, be these concessions or the force of men and arms.

“The operational mistake that middle east experts keep making is the failure to recognise that backward societies must be left alone…. With neither invasions nor friendly engagements, the peoples of the middle east should finally be allowed to have their own history—the one thing that middle east experts of all stripes seem determined to deny them.”

“We devote far too much attention to the middle east, a mostly stagnant region where almost nothing is created in science or the arts—excluding Israel, per capita patent production of countries in the Middle East is one fifth that of sub-Saharan Africa. The people of the middle east (only about five per cent of the world's population) are remarkably unproductive, with a high proportion not in the labour force at all.”

“The middle east was once the world's most advanced region, but these days its biggest industries are extravagant consumption and the venting of resentment….”

“Unless compelled by immediate danger, we should therefore focus on the old and new lands of creation in Europe and America, in India and east Asia—places where hard-working populations are looking ahead instead of dreaming of the past.”