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Quotations

  • 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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September 2007

September 22, 2007

Charles Darwin, Right On Species Origin, Wrong About Us?

Charles Darwin’s words at the very end of the concluding chapter of The Origin of Species, regarding all life forms, are well known and, at least by the scientific community, widely accepted as being the truth about how life forms have multiplied over hundreds of millions of years to reach the present time when they probably number in the tens of millions of distinct forms or species.

“There is grandeur," he says, "in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.”

There are other words of Darwin, perhaps less well known and certainly not as widely accepted, even by the scientific community, that have been instead widely and tragically resisted, tragically because the resistance has meant an endless series of wars and the accompanying suffering and body counts.

"As man advances in civilization," he writes in the 4th. chapter of Part 1 of the Descent of Man, "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.”

Why the resistance to this insight? What has prevented and still prevents us from extending our sympathies to the men of all nations and races? For in fact the One World idea, which is Darwin's idea no less than the Origin of Species, is still without the powerful draw of the family, the tribe, and the nation.

Today the nation (actually all 192 of them, the current roster of the United Nations) puts up the greatest resistance to our world being one. Any hope that this might not always be so stems from the fact that over time the earliest political units, the family and the tribe, are warring less and cooperating more, and have mostly accepted, although not aways willingly, to become parts of the larger community or nation.

Hope is still that the nations of the world will eventually be willing and cooperating parts of a much larger world community.

For Darwin is no less right about the seemingly different peoples of the earth being more properly integral parts of a single world wide community than he was about the origin of the tens of millions of species presently inhabiting the earth. As he says only "artificial barriers," mostly those of language, culture, and race, prevent the peoples of the world from coming together right now.

Under the skin of the seven billion individuals now inhabiting the earth, in their cells and within the nuclei of the cells, within the spiraling helices of DNA molecules constituted into 23 pairs of chromosomes, the seven billion individuals are 99.5% identical.

Our living together, our living together at peace, may only be a function of how much we look upon one another as being the same, or alternatively how much significance we give to our differences, the one leading to cooperation, the other in extreme instances of our differences, as in Africa and the Middle East, to disputes and ultimately to war.

In our country, up until now, the "one worlders," for example, Woodrow Wilson in the 1920s, Wendell Wilkie in the 1940s, both of whom knew at first hand the devastation brought about by wars between nations, have not been able to bring our country along with them.

Rather up until now the race has been mostly to the "real worlders," to the likes of Ronald Reagan and Henry Kissinger et al., for whom our security lay much more in the mostly material strength of our single nation than in our moral strength, in our belonging and adhering to international and one world treaties and organizations. Will things change? Will Darwin here also be proven to be right? One would like to believe so.

September 16, 2007

“Who is the vice president of America?”

As a postscript to my previous Blog this piece will concern the all out attempt, as reported in today’s NYTimes (September 16, 2007) of the Newton School, a pre-K through 8th. grade school in Newark, NJ. to raise its test scores from their most recent abysmal levels. This effort will be led by the Newark Teachers Union in collaboration with the Seton Hall College of Education.

The story is just one of the hundreds, perhaps thousands, of almost identical stories of failing inner city schools all trying, under the gun of NCLB, to raise the achievement of their mostly poor and minority students, and so far with little or no success.

However, it is not this particular one, nor the thousands of other similar reform efforts that interest me. Rather it was the visit to Newton of Newark’s Mayor, Cory A. Booker, and here I cite the Times reporter’s account of his visit:

The Newton faculty members had planned to introduce the “new Newton” to students during a schoolwide assembly in the afternoon. But it was postponed after Mayor Cory A. Booker stopped by as part of a tour of some of the city’s 77 public schools. Mr. Booker bounded from room to room, dispensing $1 bills to students who had mastered New Jersey history (what is the capital?) and politics (who is the governor?).

Then Mr. Booker came up with a stumper, worthy of $5.

“Who is the vice president of America?” the mayor asked a fifth-grade class. “Come on, I know some people want to forget...”

“George Bush?” guessed one boy.

“George Washington?” said another.

“George Washington Carver?” a third chimed in.

Though the mayor prodded the eager students, no one could name the vice president. Finally, Mr. Booker put his money away.

“All right,” he said. “You have a lot to do this school year.”

Now Cory A. Booker is one impressive guy. A B.A. from Stanford where he played football and made the All-Pacific Ten Academic team, a year at Oxford on a Rhodes scholarship, a J.D. degree from Yale Law School in 1997.

Since 1998 Booker has lived in inner city Newark, the last six years in Brick Towers, a notorious public housing project in Newark’s Central Ward. At present he occupies the top unit in a three-story rental on Hawthorne Avenue on Newark's south side, an area described as "a drug- and gang-plagued neighborhood of boarded-up houses and empty lots."

So what might you have expected from the Mayor in the way of observations and comments during his visit to the Newton School? Certainly not what the reporter describes. Questions like what is the capital of NJ, who is the governor, who is the vice president of the U.S., and with dollar awards for the correct answers.

For this man, whose own education was the very best that our country can provide, there was only this parting comment following the kids' failure to come up with the right answers to his questions, “All right, you have a lot to do this school year.”

Not that any of this makes any difference in the lives of these kids, these words or any other words from this Mayor. But to tell the kids that such things as knowing the names of state capitals and governors, and probably kings and rivers, is what education is all about, well that may be a misdemeanor if said only once, but surely a crime if said repeatedly.

The Mayor should have talked with the kids about what they did know, because education is, or should be, all about doing something with what you know or what you have. These kids, like all kids are alive and have all sorts of knowledge and all sorts of interests and it is with these that the school ought to begin.

The Mayor might have asked them about things important to them, about the adults in their lives, about the people and actions that they admired, about what they wanted to do with their lives, about what they wanted from the school, all things that concern the kids themselves. Instead of sending them away with the impression that the name of the vice president of the United States was all that important.

September 15, 2007

What kids don't know is less important than what they do.

Michael Deshaies in this week’s National Review on line brings to our attention the Intercollegiate Studies Institute report on civic literacy in higher education. See also the article in USA Today by Tracey Wong Briggs.

The report was based on an analysis of the answers given (or not given) to some 60 multiple-choice questions (Take the Test) about America’s history, government, free-market economics, and foreign relations. 14,000 randomly chosen freshmen and seniors on 50 college and university campuses took the test.

Of interest (?) was the fact that scores were hardly different on average for the freshmen and seniors taking the test, 52% and 53% respectively. Nor were there significant differences among the colleges, although the least prestigious schools, Rhodes College in Tennessee, Colorado State, and a few others, showed greater gains from the freshman to the senior year than did the most prestigious schools, such as Brown, Georgetown and Yale, where senior scores were even lower than those of the freshmen.

What should we conclude from this, if anything? Deshaies says that it is shocking that seniors at the most elite universities know less even than the (when they were) freshmen.

Deshaies: “This shocking phenomenon we describe as negative learning. Considering that a university education can cost almost $200,000 and an undergraduate, on average, leaves campus nearly $20,000 in debt, students and parents are entitled to more.”

This study, of course, isn’t the first time that we're told how little our high school graduates know about their own country. That was Diane Ravitch’s and Chester Finn’s message in their 1989 book, “What Do Our 17-Year-Olds Know?” Innumerable other but similar assessments of what our students don’t know have been made before and since. Regularly and predictably these assessments of what many see as the effectiveness (ineffectiveness) of our public schools have led consistently to major national reform efforts, most recently the No Child Left Behind law.

Deshaies says it’s obvious what must be done. We will need a major new reform of the now ineffectual teaching in our schools and colleges of American history and government. He says, that, "one way to improve instruction is to develop academic centers of excellence on campuses to revitalize the teaching of American history, political science, and economics.” (Deshaies himself is the communications director at one of these centers, the Jack Miller Center for the Teaching of America’s Founding Principles.)

Again and again the American public is informed just how little our students know, and how little they have learned, even while in college, of our country’s history and government institutions. Nothing seems to change. We get up and live the same day all over again, just as Phil Connors in the movie, Groundhog Day.

Are we testing the wrong things, and/or teaching things that can’t be taught or that kids have no interest in learning? The test takers usually don't even ask these questions. Shouldn't they?

In fact, is it of any importance that more than half of the seniors in the study could not identify the correct century when the first American colony was established at Jamestown, that fewer than that recognized that the line, "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal," was from the Declaration of Independence, that nearly half of all college seniors, did not know that the Federalist Papers were written in support of the ratification of the U.S. Constitution, and finally, that fewer than half of these same seniors could identify the Baath party as the main source of Saddam Hussein's political support?

Deborah Meier and Florence Miller reviewed, “What Do Our 17-Year-Olds Know?” in The Nation of January 9, 1988. They write, “When Jean Piaget noted that 6-year-olds gave surprisingly ignorant answers to his simple questions, he didn't rush into print with the information. How interesting, he thought. The answers I expected are not self-evident. Thus began a life's work of examining children's ignorance.”

Meier and Miller say that, Ravitch’s and Finn’s view of ignorance is all to familiar and probably fruitless, in that “they miss the vital connection between knowing and not knowing, and because they do so, not knowing is [becomes] failure, or bad schooling--a case in need of a remedy, a cause for alarm, a reason to rush into print.”

And in fact that’s what most educators conclude when they see the results of these general tests of "essential" knowledge, that the schools are bad, that which is sufficient cause for alarm (the Nation at Risk) and cry out for remedy (No Child Left Behind).

However, after experiencing this nonevent for the nth. time isn’t it time that we came to a different conclusion? Meier and Miller are right to say that the ignorance we uncover is perhaps more interesting in itself than in what it may imply about the effectiveness of our schools and school programs. But they don't go to say or to show why that ignorance is interesting.

Here’s what I think. What kids know at any given point in time, unless it’s what they’ve learned for a test and the point in time is the eve of that test, reflects much more their own interests, friends, their family environment, and most of all their out-of-school activities, what they do with their own time, for only when, as John Dewey told us, kids fully engage themselves in the activity do they learn. And only in that way does what they learn become a part of their general knowledge.

How many high school seniors or college freshmen do you know who are actively engaged in, say, reading the Federalist Papers? I first read them and remembered them when as a college graduate and new teacher I needed them for something that I was interested in. Isn't that the way we all learn?

As much as we stress the importance of possessing knowledge of America, its history and its institutions, for our becoming, and being, responsible and participating citizens of the Republic, it’s not an importance that we can simply pass on by our words. How often have you made a child feel the importance of something that is important to you simply by your words?

I try doing this all the time with my grandson, and of course it doesn’t work. Just the other day I had been talking about and having him listen to some of my music. Why did I do this? I knew better. In any case at the end of the day my grandson still preferred Kanye West’s “Stronger” to Schubert’s Notturno Adagio In e Flat.

In this sense much teaching is like preaching. Telling kids the way things are and then expecting them to assimilate (your version) of the way things are. The preacher tells his parishioners the way things are and then expects them to change their lives accordingly. It doesn’t work. I’m sure that for many high school students, and college freshmen, the Declaration of Independence, the Federalist Papers, and many other essential pieces of our country’s history, that these “important” topics are more like Schubert’s Notturno than West’s Stronger.

So what is to be done? Well one thing let’s try to test kids on what they know, because with that we can help them. To find out what they don’t know is no help to them or to us. Certainly no one is going to try after the fact of the test failure to make American history and government subjects of high priority during their remaining years of college. An effort of that kind is test prep and is of no lasting value to anyone.

So what is to be done? Yes, find out what they know. Determine what those 14000 college students have learned during their high school and college years, and estimate how much of that learning, probably very little, did come from their classes. We will probably find out that what they had learned most well came from the situations and circumstances over which the school and college authorities had little or no control. Probably no one "taught" them most of the things they know.

Finally, instead of putting students down as being mostly ignorant of so many important bits of our past we might begin to treat them with respect, as knowledgeable people in their own right, as knowing, and knowing how to do, things that are important to them.

September 13, 2007

Yes, Roger, "Freedom is a Funny Thing."

In an op ed piece in today's NYTimes, The Ottoman Swede, Roger Cohen says this about freedom:

"Freedom is a funny thing. Life without it is misery. But a glance at the Soviet Union or Yugoslavia or now Iraq is a sufficient reminder that distinct peoples forcefully gathered into a dictatorial state will react in the first instance to liberty by trying to get free of each other rather than trying to imagine a liberal democracy."

Of course Cohen is thinking of any one of the innumerable instances of "distinct peoples forcefully gathered into a dictatorial state," Chechnyans and Russians, Serbs and Kosovars, Greek and Turkish Cypriots, Iraki Sunnis and Shia. But in each of these instances the member pairs are not comparable. There is a real disconnect between them. The new found liberty, although welcomed by the one, represents for the other the loss of its previously dominant political power.

So in the case of each one of these pairs it's not so much their trying to get free of one another as the one trying to fully realize the newly acquired freedom and the other trying to retain its favored and dominant position.

Are there recent instances of the situation that Cohen describes? That is, two groups formerly under one dictatorial power and then, being free of that power, trying to get free of one another? Perhaps Cyprus? Perhaps Lebanon? Although in each of these instances the freedom obtained through independence was not freedom from a dictatorial power, but from the liberal democracies, England and France.

Perhaps the case of present day Belgium is a better example, although here also we are without the preceding "dictatorial power" in full. In Belgium the efforts of the Flamands to free themselves of the Wallons seems like a reasonable goal, certainly not one that will lead to widespread pain and suffering as in all the above instances.

But Cohen is right, that "freedom is a funny thing." Too bad that our president never realized just how "funny" it was. There is "freedom to" and "freedom from." The latter usually preceding the former. In the Middle East the tribes are so taken up with "freedom from" that they have not yet considered what they might and could do with "freedom to."

September 11, 2007

Bush, Sarkozy, and a Newly Belligerent Russia

On August 27 of this year Nicholas Sarkozy, France's new president, delivered a major speech outlining his views on international relations. In particular he had important observations to make regarding America's probably biggest international headache not directly related to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, that of Russia's new found belligerency, something which has been clearly taking shape on the international scene since Putin replaced Yeltsin as Russia's president on December 31, 1999.

It is readily apparent that Putin's and Russia's positions regarding both Iran and Kosovo stand in direct opposition to those of the United States. Yet up until now there has been no meaningful response on the part of President Bush to Putin's anti-Americanism. Putin is allowed to continue merrily on his way, creating a KGB led power center to the East of Europe oblivious to the interests of the United States.

Most of all our President refuses to see President Putin for what he really is, still continues to disregard the Russian President's words and actions, and instead goes on "looking into Putin's eyes and seeing his soul," most recently while boating with Putin at Bush senior's Kennebunkport home in Maine.

In regard to both Iran's nuclear ambitions and Kosovo's fledgling independence President Bush continues to rely on the Security Council for blocking the ambitions of the one and facilitating the realization of the other. However in both instances this is not happening and instead Bush's friend Putin has made it abundantly clear that Russia will not permit meaningful U.N. sanctions being applied to Iran nor will it abandon its long term support for its linguistic cousin and almost neighbor, Serbia, by getting behind a Bush supported U.N. resolution in favor of independence for Kosovo.

Enter Nicholas Sarkozy, the new president of France. Does he get it in regard to the true motivations and interests of Russia? I think he does. I know that Bush doesn't.

What does Sarkozy have to say about the Russia of Putin? And what is Sarkozy's advice regarding Iran's nuclear ambitions, and Kosovo's independence?

Here I cite the relevant passages from Sarkozy's August 27th. talk. First of all, he has this to say about Russia:

"La Russie impose son retour sur la scène mondiale en jouant avec une certaine brutalité de ses atouts, notamment pétroliers et gaziers, alors que le monde, l'Europe en particulier, espèrent d'elle une contribution importante et positive au règlement des problèmes de notre temps que son statut retrouvé justifie."

The single phrase "une certaine brutalité de ses atouts" says it well. For Sarkozy there is "no looking into the eyes of the man and seeing his soul." Sarkozy's message is understated but nevertheless clear. And when one thinks of the Russia of Putin "brutalité" does seem the right word. Think of Chechnya, of the assassination of the Russian journalist, Anna Politkovskaya. It puts Putin on notice that France will be looking for significant positive changes in Russia's relations to Europe and the world.

Sarkozy's words in regard to Iran's nuclear ambitions are no less noteworthy. Here is  what he says about what he calls the world's fourth major crisis (the first three being Islam's confrontation with the West, how to integrate into the world order the emerging giants of China, India, and Brazil, and how to meet the now global risks to climate and health and the exploding worldwide demand for energy):

"Quatrième crise, au confluent des trois autres  : l'Iran. La France maintient avec ses dirigeants un dialogue sans complaisance, qui s'est avéré utile en plusieurs occasions. Elle a pris l'initiative, avec l'Allemagne et le Royaume-Uni, d'une négociation où l'Europe joue un rôle central, rejointe par les Etats-Unis, la Russie et la Chine. Les paramètres en sont connus ; je n'y reviens pas, sinon pour réaffirmer qu'un Iran doté de l'arme nucléaire est pour moi inacceptable, et souligner l'entière détermination de la France dans la démarche actuelle alliant sanctions croissantes mais aussi ouverture si l'Iran fait le choix de respecter ses obligations."

In particular, "un Iran doté de l'arme nucléaire est pour [Sarkozy] inacceptable." He's putting the Mullahs on notice. He doesn't say unacceptable to the U.N. Security Council, but that Iran's nuclear armaments would be unacceptable to the country France.

The he goes on to say: "Cette démarche [sanctions, but that won't be limited to the actions of the Security Council] est la seule qui puisse nous permettre d'échapper à une alternative catastrophique  : la bombe iranienne ou le bombardement de l'Iran. Cette quatrième crise est sans doute la plus grave qui pèse aujourd'hui sur l'ordre international."

Particularly remarkable is his, "la bombe iranienne ou le bombardement de l'Iran." This is what Bush must be thinking but not daring to say, given his disastrous performance up until now in Iraq.

"Le peuple iranien [Sarkozy concludes his remarks on Iran] qui est un grand peuple et mérite le respect, n'aspire ni à l'isolement, ni à la confrontation. La France n'épargnera aucun effort pour convaincre l'Iran qu'il aurait beaucoup à gagner en s'engageant dans une négociation sérieuse avec les Européens, les Américains, les Chinois et les Russes."

Sarkozy's remarks in regard to Kosovo are not directed at Putin's Russia. Evidently he still believes that Europe (he doesn't mention the Security Council) will be able to solve this crisis, and that Russia will consequently not have a part to play.

"Le Kosovo offre une autre illustration de cette complémentarité puisque l'Union et l'OTAN, sous mandat de l'ONU, y coopèrent étroitement. Cette coopération revêtira une importance cruciale au cours des prochains mois. A l'initiative de la France, le Groupe de Contact poursuit ses efforts pour renouer le dialogue entre Serbes et Kosovars."

Finally, Sarkozy leaves Jaques Chirac far behind and moves clearly and happily toward a renewal of ties with America. Although this step doesn't come at the most auspicious time, given that our country still has an incompetent man and bungling President at the helm, Sarkozy's words do promise better relations between our two countries in the future.

"Je suis de ceux qui pensent que l'amitié entre les Etats-Unis et la France est aussi importante aujourd'hui qu'elle l'a été au cours des deux siècles passés. Alliés ne veut pas dire alignés et je me sens parfaitement libre d'exprimer nos accords comme nos désaccords, sans complaisance ni tabou."

A final footnote to the above. In today's International Herald Tribune John Vinocur makes it clear just how much Putin by his words and actions is bent on undermining the strength of America's position in the world. And that while Sarkozy understands this Bush seems to not want to admit it, and is, by his omission, allowing Russia a free ride in its new found belligerence, a belligerence that is fueled by an anti-Americanism recalling that of Soviet Union in years past. It was Vinocur's piece that got me thinking about Sarkozy and Russia and all the rest.

September 10, 2007

Evolutionary Precedent for the No Excuses School

We read, in a recent Atlantic article by Olivia Judson, that Sam Bowles, the economist turned evolutionary biologist, has shown that groups of supercooperative, altruistic humans could indeed have wiped out groups of less united folk.

Bowles's analysis "suggests that individuals who could not conform, or who were disruptive, would have weakened the whole group; any group that failed to drive out such people, or kill them, would have been more likely to be overwhelmed in battle. Conversely, people who fit in—sharing the food they found, joining in hunting, helping to defend the group, and so on—would have given their group a collective advantage, and thus themselves an individual evolutionary advantage."

I thought of the No Excuses school, where students have to conform to the values of the group or not be allowed to remain in the group. Here in Bowles work we find evolutionary precedent for the No Excuses learning environment. The so-called No Excuses schools, such as the MATCH School, Academy of the Pacific Rim, Roxbury Prep, and a number of others, all Commonwealth Charter Schools in Boston, seem to have achieved a definite "collective advantage," at least as measured by results on standardized tests, over other Boston public schools with similar student bodies in regard to economic and ethnic background. Is it because in these schools the disruptive individual is not allowed to remain in the group?

It's a fact that too many of our schools have allowed the disruptive individual to remain in the classroom and thereby more or less undermine the real learning that might otherwise have gone on. Why is this so? In the name of what do we go on sacrificing the best interests of the group to the "worst" interests of the disruptive individual?

In this regard see two recent letters appearing in Ed Week in response to a Commentary piece by Jonathan Kozol. While explaining the flight of the young teacher from the inner city school Kozol seemed to ignore the effect of the disruptive student attributing the teacher's flight solely to the influence of No Child Left Behind.

Perhaps this situation, as incomprehensible as it is in many respects, results from  our refusal to turn anyone away from our public school classrooms, seeing this all tolerant and all inclusive attitude as representing a kind of higher morality than one where only those individuals, willing and ready to fully accept the learning conditions of the classroom and school, are allowed in.

For the moment too many otherwise intelligent and thoughtful educators don't see our undisciplined school environments as a threat to our very survival whereas evolutionary precedent is suggesting that is exactly what they may be.

the Petraeus Strategy

In an op ed piece in today's Wall Street Journal Senators McCain and Lieberman    have this to say:

"The recent National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq was unequivocal on this point: 'Changing the mission of Coalition forces from a primarily counterinsurgency and stabilization role' -- the Petraeus strategy -- 'to a primary combat support role for Iraqi forces and counterterrorist operations" -- which most congressional Democrats have been pressing for -- "would erode security gains achieved thus far.'"

Am I alone in not having a clue as to the difference between the Petraeus strategy and that of the congressional Democrats?

September 07, 2007

The digital brain

In a recent article in the Boston Globe Mary Anne Wolf says that, "the reading brain is slowly becoming endangered - the unforeseen consequences of the transition to a digital epoch that is affecting every aspect of our lives, including the intellectual development of each new reader."

Why is the "reading brain" becoming endangered? I live in the digital world, as much or more than anybody, and I don't read any less now than when I was a college student over fifty years ago. I may even read more, because the digital world makes more texts readily available, not to mention the reading that goes into just navigating one's path through this new world....