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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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November 2007

November 30, 2007

Analysis of the Y chromosome

At Annapolis this week President Bush spoke with Palestinian President Abbas and Prime Minister Olmert of Israel. But, alas! he had little or nothing to say about the sticky issues that for nearly 50 years have kept the two sides from reaching a two state solution, that which everyone agrees is the only solution.

Indeed, Olmert, now back in Israel, and as a follow-up to Annapolis, has been telling his countrymen that Israel's very survival as a viable state depends on there also being a viable Palestinian state. I wonder if he wonders why Bush didn't have more to say about all this. I do.

Everyone knows what a peace agreement depends upon. For one, the Palestinian refugees must be permitted to return, although most likely to Palestine, and not to Israel proper. Then Jerusalem must become the capital of both peoples. Finally, Israel must surrender Israeli land to the Palestinians as compensation for any Israeli settlements in the West Bank that are allowed to survive.

During the conference President Bush was eerily silent in regard to all three, although he did side with the Israelis regarding the refugees not being allowed to return to their homes in Israel. Why didn't he do more? Shouldn't he have pushed Olmert to in turn push his countrymen to do what had to be done? Why didn't he?

In fact, Bush's almost complete silence at the Conference in regard to the concessions the Israelis would have to make, if they would ever have peace, makes one wonder if the Israeli Washington lobby isn't indeed all powerful.

In fact, the Annapolis Conference was hardly necessary. For we heard on day one about the only decision that would be made by the attendees. Olmert and Abbas would agree to resume thepeace talks that had been stalled for the past seven years. And they would pledge that during these talks they would reach an agreement on the creation of a Palestinian state by the end of 2008. They could have announced all that without the trip Annapolis.

Do you believe that what has been pledged will happen? I don't. And in any case, why wait a year? Everyone knows what has to be done, and it could be done today.

What does keep the two state settlement from happening? The answer is two-fold, history and religion, not enough of the one, and too much of the other. A history going back only a few thousand years, and two all powerful, totalitarian religions, curtailing the freedom of action of these peoples in the present.

Both are huge obstacles in the paths of these peoples otherwise highly suited to becoming friends, neighbors, and trading partners, that which they probably were at an earlier time in their pasts.

If in fact they were to go back a bit further into their pasts and obtain additional knowledge of their very similar histories, they would see that they were really one people, and that the so-called differences between them were all historical fabrications, not fundamental to who and what they were and are.

I take as an illustration of what I mean the following passage from an article in the New York Times by Nicholas Wade,
Scientists Rough Out Humanity's 50,000-Year-Old Story. 

"Analysis of the Y chromosome has already yielded interesting results. Dr. Ariella Oppenheim of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem said she had found considerable similarity between Jews and Israeli and Palestinian Arabs, as if the Y chromosomes of both groups had been drawn from a common population that began to expand 7,800 years ago."

And this, of course, is not a single isolated example. For we are constantly learning how much we all, not just the Palestinians and Israelis, are one people. Yet there are those among us who don't want to hear this and prefer to go on killing one another, in the name of what? Their recent past? And at the very time when their deep past is telling them to make peace.

November 20, 2007

Arnold Kling on Race, IQ and Education

Liberals struggle with the idea that "inequality in the distribution of wealth, prestige, and educational attainment is, in part, a consequence of unequal distribution of the intellectual capacity needed for high levels of functioning."

Conservatives are more apt to accept the idea, a kind of original sin, and move on to things that lie more within the realm of what they can affect by their actions. They would probably say that one cannot deny the "unequal distribution of intellectual capacity," any more than one can deny the unequal distribution of athletic, chess, and musical abilities.

Conservatives might even say that abilities of the latter sort clearly do coordinate with racial and ethnic groupings. And furthermore, they might say, that if in fact Blacks, are better endowed with musical ability than native Americans, it wouldn't be a problem. For musical ability is not yet up there with cognitive capacity. Not to have it does not yet diminish us. Also our civilization does not (yet) give its highest rewards to more than a few musicians, athletes and chess players.

Intellectual capacity, however, coordinated with ethnic and/or racial groupings, would and should and probably does bother all of us, because our civilization most rewards across the board nearly all the individuals so endowed. The liberals are correct. It's not easy just to accept this and move on. For wouldn't it mean for those not so endowed the presence of an unbreakable glass ceiling severely limiting their life chances?

Arnold Kling in a TCS Daily article of 11/20/07, confronts the whole problem directly and lists four approaches for dealing with the difficult question concerning a possible linkage between race and innate cognitive ability.

His first approach, "segregationism," the view that IQ or cognitive ability differences across races justify segregation by race, he rejects out of hand. They don't, of course, that is, justify any separation by race.

Stephen Ceci, whom Kling cites at the top of his TCS Daily article, in a piece, Intelligence: Knowns and Unknowns, from the American Psychologist, of February of 1996, in which he and others, all members of a Task Force established by the Board of Scientific Affairs of the American Psychological Association, were responding to Charles Murray's Bell Curve, makes it clear, not how much we know about the linkage between IQ and race, but about how much we don't know. (See below* for the principal conclusions of the Task Force.)

Kling also rejects the second of his four approaches, "denialism," the refusal to even admit that such differences might exist. Of the two remaining approaches he rejects the first, "compensationism," or affirmative action, that which would give preference to individuals based on their belonging to a racial group. This is the favorite approach of liberals, and perhaps even some conservatives.

Kling's favorite approach, number four, is what he calls "individualism,"meaning just that, "treating everyone as an individual." This makes sense, he says,

"because the variation in cognitive ability within racial groups is quite large. There are people of all races in all percentiles of the IQ distribution. Racial indicators are not very useful as predictors of any individual's IQ."

But, he reminds us, "individualism is difficult to practice in a world with strong ethnic group-identity."

Following a long illustrative example of FQ, or fishing quotient, in the place of IQ, Kling at the end of his piece moves on to educational policy. Education is of course the domain where unsettling questions concerning racial and ethnic groupings and innate cognitive abilities are most troubling.

Educators struggle with these questions on a daily basis. When the remedial algebra class is made up of all Black students is it segregationism or individualism that is at play?

According to Kling, neither.

"Education policy in the United States is based on a combination of denialism and compensationism. We throw the same instruction techniques at everyone. When we notice different outcomes by race, we look to compensate by using affirmative action."

Whereas educational policy, Kling affirms, ought to be based on "individualism."

I agree, as does most of my writing on this Blog during the past 12 months. His conclusion could very well have been my own.

"Overall," he says, "to do education properly, we need to take into account individual differences of ability. I do not think we should pay attention to race. Too much of our education policy seems to be driven by the opposite--we focus on outcomes in terms of race and leave the individual children behind."

                     ————————————————————————————————

*The following passages are taken from Intelligence: Knowns and Unknowns

"It is customary to conclude surveys like this one with a summary of what has been established. Indeed, much is now known about intelligence. A near-century of research, most of it based on psychometric methods, has produced an impressive body of findings. Although we have tried to do justice to those findings in this report, it seems appropriate to conclude on a different note. In this contentious arena, our most useful role may be to remind our readers that many of the critical questions about intelligence are still unanswered. Here are a few of those questions:

1. Differences in genetic endowment contribute substantially to individual differences in (psychometric) intelligence, but the pathway by which genes produce their effects is still unknown. The impact of genetic differences appears to increase with age, but we do not know why.

2. Environmental factors also contribute substantially to the development of intelligence, but we do not clearly understand what those factors are or how they
work. Attendance at school is certainly important, for example, but we do not know what aspects of schooling are critical.

3. The role of nutrition in intelligence remains obscure. Severe childhood malnutrition has clear negative effects, but the hypothesis that particular “micro-
nutrients” may affect intelligence in otherwise adequately-fed populations has not yet been convincingly demonstrated.

4. There are significant correlations between measures of information-processing speed and psychometric intelligence, but the overall pattern of these findings yields no easy theoretical interpretation.

5. Mean scores on intelligence tests are rising steadily. They have gone up a full standard deviation in the last 50 years or so, and the rate of gain may be increasing.
No one is sure why these gains are happening or what they mean.

6. The differential between the mean intelligence test scores of Blacks and Whites (about one standard deviation, although it may be diminishing) does not result from
any obvious biases in test construction and administration, nor does it simply reflect differences in socioeconomic status. Explanations based on factors of caste and culture may be appropriate, but so far have little direct empirical support. There is certainly no such support for a genetic interpretation. At present, no one knows what causes this differential.

7. It is widely agreed that standardized tests do not sample all forms of intelligence. Obvious examples in- clude creativity, wisdom, practical sense, and social sensitivity; there are surely others. Despite the importance of these abilities we know very little about them: how they develop, what factors influence that development, how they are related to more traditional measures. In a field where so many issues are unresolved and so many questions unanswered, the confident tone that has characterized most of the debate on these topics is clearly out of place. The study of intelligence does not need politicized assertions and recriminations; it needs self-restraint, reflection, and a great deal more research.
The questions that remain are socially as well as scientifically important. There is no reason to think them unanswerable, but finding the answers will require a shared and sustained effort as well as the commitment of substantial scientific resources. Just such a commitment is what we strongly recommend."

From the Task Force established by the Board of Scientific Affairs of the American Psychological Association in order to respond to Charles Murray's Bell Curve.

November 19, 2007

The NEA's "To Read or Not To Read" ought not to have been written

Washington, DC -- Today, the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) announces the release of To Read or Not To Read: A Question of National Consequence, "a new and comprehensive analysis of reading patterns in the United States."

"To Read or Not To Read gathers statistics from more than 40 studies on the reading habits and skills of children, teenagers, and adults. The compendium reveals recent declines in voluntary reading and test scores alike, exposing trends that have severe consequences for American society."

According the authors the data, without question or ambiguity, prompt three unsettling conclusions:

• Americans are spending less time reading.
• Reading comprehension skills are eroding.
• These declines have serious civic, social, cultural, and economic implications.

Now, really, why did it take even one study, let alone the forty of which this report speaks, to come to the conclusion that Americans are spending less time reading? Wasn't it always inevitable that the amount of time given to reading would drop off precipitously with first the advent of film, then television, and now the internet?

Where was time for reading going to be found given the amount of time that we know people were giving to the latter three activities? I assume that the authors themselves are readers, should we then presume that too much reading has resulted in their loss of common sense? Perhaps they should read less, and get out there where people are and understand better what people are doing (instead of what they're not doing).

For how else could the authors have failed to see, that what they are at great pains to conclude by their investigations, just had to be. Common sense ought to have told them well prior to their possessing the results of the surveys and reports, that if one does more of one thing one has no choice but to do less of the other. It can't be any other way.

Their second conclusion is even more inane. "As one reads less one's reading comprehension skills erode." Duh... 

In fact, that may not even be true. It will depend on the meaning one gives to "reading comprehensive skills." My grandson navigates the internet by following (reading) signs and directions. And he does it much quicker than I do because of the amount of time he gives to that sort of thing. If it takes him longer to read, say Dickens, which it does, not to mention Shakespeare, because of his not having read much literature, so what.

My grandson's ability to read great works of literature didn't erode because of the time he spend navigating, and reading, on myriad internet sites. He never even had the skills to read literature that only come from reading literature. If the authors of the great works of literature some day do interest him he will have absolutely no trouble, given all the comparable skills he has learned, acquiring whatever skills are necessary to quickly get up to speed in reading these authors. But until he has that interest it's not important that he does.

The third conclusion, that "these declines have serious civic, social, cultural, and economic implications," is pure opinion. This smacks of being out of touch with the real world. By 'serious' I suppose the writer means unfavorable, perhaps destructive, and such can't possibly be shown to be true.

I could just as well say that the time people spend watching films and television, plus surfing on the internet, has serious, this time, however, meaning constructive and positive civic, social, cultural, and economic implications. How is one to determine whether viewing more, and reading less, has destructive or constructive implications?  One can't.

And in fact aren't our civic lives much more positively impacted by our television and internet browsing than by, say, our reading of poetry and novels? One might readily defend the position that the latter are mostly detrimental to any civic involvement at all.

Now the organization coming to all these serious conclusions is the National Endowment for the Arts. And me? What am I, not a National Endowment. How can this be, that the National Endowment doesn't know what it is talking about and I do? Am I missing something essential in regard to all this? You tell me.

November 17, 2007

Sarkozy in a moment of calm speaks about education

At this very moment (Saturday, November 17, 2007) Nicholas Sarkozy is in the long awaited fight for his political life. The "syndicats" that in France control the train, bus, and metro transportation sector, and therefore the working lives of millions of French people, are striking, and no one knows when and how it will all end. Will it be with a victory for the unions, or for the new government of Sarkozy, who has promised (as have the leaders of the syndicates that they) that he won't back down?

But on September 4th of this year Sarkozy had education on his mind. This was just over two months ago, when things were quiet. No strikes yet, although rumblings were felt, and everyone knew that the big troubles were to come. But at this time before the storm the politicians were free and at leisure to make speeches saying pretty much whatever they wanted about whatever subject that interested them, knowing that until they talked about jobs and the economy their opponents were probably not listening anyway.

For his part, Sarkozy, taking advantage of the moment of calm, talked about education and chose to do so in the form of "une lettre aux enseignants," in which he summarized his "own," (or those of his advisors) beliefs about education.

For the most part the letter was boiler plate, full of non controversial, well worn clichés about education, probably not even of Sarkozy's own devising but written for him by a team of educators. What was interesting to me was the fact that what he was saying could with very few changes have been said (and probably is being said) about our own kids, teachers, and schools.

I thought to myself, has the Western world finally reached agreement as to what the education of the young should be about?

Sarkozy's letter to the teachers is long, some 23 pages and 6000 words, and I won't attempt to summarize it. If you read French you can read it here. Its length probably means that just a few of the teachers, whose politics are probably well to the left of Sarkozy's, have even read it.

Instead, I'd like to highlight just one point that Sarkozy makes, a true statement, I believe, about education, one that provides the grounds for the 100 year plus and still going conflict among our own endless line of educational reformers, the conflict between two valid but contradictory impulses in regard to what we should stress in the education of our young.

On the one hand we want to enable each child to find his/her own way, realize his/her potential. On the other hand we want to instill in the child, in the always admirable effort to promote and further our own civilization, our own values, our own ideas of what is just, true and beautiful. And there's the rub, finding the middle ground between the two. The reformers too often go to one side or the other.

Isn't it obvious that each child has his/her own way of being, thinking, feeling, and that he/she must be given the opportunity of expressing that way, almost whatever it may be? ("Chaque enfant, chaque adolescent a sa manière à lui d'être, de penser, de sentir. Il doit pouvoir l'exprimer.") But at the same time the same child must take, and make his/her own, a good amount of the extraordinary repository of skills and knowledge that the past has brought right up into the present. ("Mais il doit aussi apprendre.")

Still today our educational reformers seem to be on one side or the other, the progressive, child centered, or the conservative academic subject matter centered movements. I think of Deborah Meier and Diane Ravitch. (See their "Bridging Differences," the Blog name implying their finally coming together, which they should, because in fact they're both right.)

For too long our solutions to the seeming dilemma of what and how we should teach, such as the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, have favored one side (the child) or the other (the subject matter), and as a result have mostly had little positive effect on the school lives of our children.

November 14, 2007

Principled Positions and Undocumented People


In respect to granting drivers' licenses to illegal immigrants, Eliot Spitzer, the governor of New York, initially took a 'principled position,' something which politicians almost never do. And we know why they don't. For principled positions are either too complicated to be understood by the electorate, or they are minority positions and hence without much support among the electorate, or they are too apt themselves to arouse no less principled opposition positions. Immediate and overwhelming opposition to Mr. Spitzer's proposal to grant drivers' licenses to illegal immigrants would come from all three.

The governor had unveiled his position in September, when he announced that the New York Department of Motor Vehicles would begin issuing drivers' licenses without regard to immigration status. At the time he said he wanted to bring illegal immigrants 'out of the shadows.' He later described this as a "principle position."

Then during a recent democratic presidential candidate debate Hillary Clinton was asked what she thought of the governor's initiative. She was pushed, unreasonably I think, by Tim Russert ("Do you support the governor's plan?") to answer yes or no. She said she understood the governor's position, and that given the fact of some 3 million illegal immigrants in New York alone, she understood why it made sense to the governor (and to her?) to have them driving legally.

I find myself agreeing with Hillary, that, given the failure of Congress to take up and pass an immigration reform measure, the governor's position is not unreasonable, and in fact certainly understandable. Hillary by seeming to take the governor's side was almost onto a principled position of her own. Given the opposition that she must have known was out there what she said in support of the governor almost showed some courage.  Did we get a glimpse thereby of what Hillary could be when not overly attentive to the moods and swings of the electorate?

Today the governor's own initiative fell apart. Evidently the opposition to his plan, led by Lou Dobbs et al., was overwhelming. Why! a driver's license is a privilege! Extending privileges to illegal immigrants, no way!

People seem to forget that our country was founded and settled by "illegal immigrants,"and that for hundreds of years we erected no barriers to those who gave up all to come here. The immigrants to our shores have always been this country's greatest strength. Why is it any different now? Why do we need to keep them out?

Today also Hillary took back the little courage she almost showed at the candidates' debate. In her own words to the press:

"I support Governor Spitzer's decision today to withdraw his proposal. As president, I will not support driver's licenses for undocumented people and will press for comprehensive immigration reform that deals with all of the issues around illegal immigration including border security and fixing our broken system."

Other than to call them "undocumented people" no word in her words about the immigrants themselves. Have you ever met one of these "undocumented people?" I have, and do you know what, they're people, no different from you and me.

I take that back. They are different. They're younger, and they still believe in the American dream. They still believe that here in America they can make something of themselves, contributing to the strength and prosperity of the country while doing so. This really wasn't about drivers' licenses.

Cross Border Comparisons Among Students

We learn, not for the first time, from an article in today's New York Times, that the  highest-performing students in math and science are from Singapore, Taiwan, South Korea, Hong Kong and Japan. Another achievement gap. American students, we are told, lag far behind. The clear implication is that we need to improve our own performance in order to successfully compete in tomorrow's world.

A couple of things to say about this. First, this particular finding is not new. In the sixties Japan (the author of the so-called economic miracle), and then later, in the seventies and eighties, the Asian "tigers," showed us what their work forces, that is, the graduates of their schools, were able to accomplish in regard to the exceptionally rapid growth in size and strength of their national economies.

Second, we hardly needed the international comparisons. The brilliant performance of the Asian-Americans among our own student populations had been telling us the same thing for a long time. Asian-American students are already, at Berkeley, or are rapidly becoming, at MIT and Harvard, by their high scores on standardized tests, the largest single ethnic group of students at our top colleges and universities.

Third, and this is the sort of thing that no one ever says publicly, Asian kids may just be better at math and science. O.K., this is not necessarily true. It may not be an innate superiority, but something from the environment in which they have grown up, the parental influence, the work ethic etc., not primarily something in their genes. So better may mean better prepared, but how many of us really believe this?

We want to believe the opposite, that all kids can achieve at the level of the Asian tigers. We want to believe in the "proficiency myth," that proficiency in anything will follow effort and hard work. We want to believe that algebra, say, can be learned by all. We want to believe that only externalities, — poverty, the home environment, the classroom teacher, the class size and classroom discipline etc., are holding our students back, keeping them from achieving at the level of the tigers.

We could have made a much more meaningful comparison, our Asians against theirs. Wouldn't it be interesting to see if our Asian students do better than those of Hong Kong, South Korea, Singapore, and Taiwan? For if so wouldn't that mean that our way of life, our educational system are more effective, if not better, than theirs? I don't know if this comparison has ever been made.

Two final thoughts about all this. One, why do we go on comparing diverse or heterogeneous student bodies, such as those of the typical American suburban high school, with the homogeneous student populations of Singapore or Taiwan? Isn't this apples and oranges? Diversity means among other things diverse gifts and talents, and to measure any single one of them, such as math aptitude and or math achievement, among a diverse population will inevitably lead to lower test scores overall. Didn't we know this?

And two, achievement (and ability?) across ethnic and racial boundaries is not equal. The best distance runners are East African. The best chess players are, or at least were, Russian. The best musicians are now Black and Latino, whereas they perhaps were French and German? The best physicists and mathematicians are Indian, Jewish, Chinese, French, and German? The best basketball players are Black. And so on. Why are we afraid to say things like this?   

Isn't it obvious by now (wasn't it always?) that innate ability is not equally distributed? And there's nothing wrong with this, just as there's nothing wrong with children in the same family having different abilities and natural talents. To go on expecting American students to match or better the achievement of students of other countries is to go on adhering to the proficiency myth. And in any case it's just not going to happen that our diverse student bodies are ever going to lead the pack in regard to achievement.

If our country is truly exceptional it must be because it has within it the whole world. We are a country of immigrants. (The anti-immigrant forces among us are shooting themseves and us in the foot.) Within our country are representatives of all racial and ethnic groups. We really don't need to resort to international comparisons. The unequal levels of achievement, the achievement gaps, are all here among us. We don't have to look for them elsewhere.