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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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February 09, 2008

'Doc' Howe and Michael Goldstein

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Comments

It's worth breaking down what the "solve poverty first" crowd is really talking about.

Usually, the main issues are: health care, nutrition, safety. Those aren't the only issues cited, but they're the main ones.

Within any high-poverty school, there are several kids who have good health care (via Medicaid) or good health itself; who eat 3 squares a day; and who live in low-crime areas.

Do these kids do better academically? I've never seen this studied. My experience: no.

Meanwhile, the achievement gap among MIDDLE CLASS black and Hispanic suburban dwellers is very high. How does Doc Howe explain that?

However, I strongly agree with Howe that Ed School teacher training should be brutally demanding and high-stress (like med school), and should be controlled by excellent schoolteachers, not typical Ed School profs far removed.

Or at least allow a bunch of Ed Schools to be run by excellent schoolteachers, and then the market (future teachers, and their employers) decide.

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