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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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December 07, 2007

No Such Thing as Moral or Spiritual Progress

The contemporary British philosopher, Roger Scruton, writes in Why I Became a Conservative:

"Edmund Burke persuaded me that societies are not and cannot be organized according to a plan or a goal, that there is no direction to history, and no such thing as moral or spiritual progress."

I think he's wrong about the first, partially right about the second, and completely right about the third thing he says.

Societies are forever being organized according to a plan or a goal, even if not always successfully. For it's true that the best laid plans (witness the totalitarian fascist and communist states of the past century) often come to naught, the goals of the planners abandoned.

But the U.S. Constitution was a "plan" and this plan, after more than 200 years, is still very much a plan we follow. Also the goal of securing for all our citizens certain inalienable rights, including life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, is no less our goal today than it was in 1787.

I'm not sure what Scruton means when he says there's no direction to history. Perhaps this is just another way of saying there is no goal, that history is not going anywhere?

But this country's history is the history of our reaching, or still trying to reach, one goal after another, be it civil rights for African Americans, equality for women, health care and education for all. So given these goals, and our having reached some of them, isn't there plenty of direction to our history?

But if he means by direction to history, progress, well then things are no longer so simple and straight forward. The word itself, progress, or the idea of progress, has not yet been defined to everyone's satisfaction.

If by progress we mean a greater understanding of our biological nature as well as the physical world we have certainly made enormous progress. For doesn't the undeniable progress of science and technology give a direction to history, even if we don't yet understand the goal to which all this progress is taking us?

But Scruton is clearly right where he says there has been no moral or spiritual progress, no progress in our view of man. This conclusion follows clearly from the fact that we read the oldest literary texts today as if they were no less relevant now than they were in their time, hundreds and thousands of years ago.

Progress in science is demonstrated by the fact that our science texts, while not ever being completely discarded, are constantly being replaced by new works reflecting our greater knowledge of man and nature. Literary texts, on the other hand, those of Sophocles and Shakespeare, for example, have not yet been undone and replaced.

So there have been direction and progress if by that we mean reaching a greater understanding of what we are and from where we came. But if we mean by that a greater understanding of truth, beauty, goodness, and other moral qualities, no.

In regard to their understanding of truth, beauty et al. the great prophets of the past still mostly equal or surpass in their relevance to our lives the writers and prophets of more recent times and the present.

Our conclusion that we know very little of what we really are, and what we ought to be, should teach us humility. Yes we can go to the moon, but we are no more in control of our individual destinies that was the biblical Job.

Yes, Roger, there is, so far anyway, no such thing as moral and spiritual progress. The next question would be, is this conclusion enough to make conservatives of us all?

December 05, 2007

Vladimir Putin, as seen by Bill Nichols in USA Today, March 27, 2002

(My commentary on the text in red italic)

If Bill Nichols has correctly read Putin intentions in March of 2002 one might reasonably conclude that the present lack of cooperation between Russia and the West, is mostly our fault. And also that Bush's reading of the man, ten months earlier on June 16 of 2001, was not completely whacky. That is, Bush's words following his first meeting with Putin whem he said that he, Bush, "looked the man in the eye," and "was able to get a sense of his soul."

Perhaps, although I've never believed it until today, what Bush saw was not unreal. In any case by our actions since then we've helped to bury under a renewed and hardened and darkened antagonism whatever light Bush may have seen in the man. Nichols' account makes me think that whatever Putin is today it's in good part because of us. Certainly we're to blame for the crazy idea to install missile defenses in two of the former Republics of the Soviet Union. Whose daft idea was that anyway?

In what follows I cite passages from Bill Nichols profile of Putin done for USA Today on March 27, 2002. Why the Russian translations? Probably that's mostly for me. But we Americans sometimes seem to forget that the Russians do speak another language. English is not yet the world's language, and the Russians, like many others still want to be heard in their own language. Nichols' words are in bold, following by the Russian translation. If you know a little Russian it might be fun to follow along.

Russia's Putin is an enigma to the world
(Путин – загадка для всеро мира)

Bill Nichols'original text is in bold characters,
Followed by a Russian translation in normal text size.

Several weeks after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the United States, Russian President Vladimir Putin confronted an historic choice.
Через несколько недель после нападений террористов на Соединенные Штаты 11 сентября российский президент Владимир Путин встал перед историческим выбором.

His top advisers pushed him to extract concessions from Washington in exchange for Russia's help in the U.S. war on terrorism, officials close to Putin say. His response was startling: No. Instead, the Russian president would offer unconditional cooperation to strengthen bonds with the West.
По свидетельству официальных лиц из ближайшего окружения г-на Путина, его высшие советники подталкивали его к тому, чтобы он выбивал у Вашингтона уступки в обмен на помощь России в войне Америки с терроризмом. Его реакция была поразительной. Нет! Вместо этого российский президент предложил безусловное сотрудничество в целях укрепления связей с Западом.

''He said to this crowd, 'This is not about price lists. This is not about bargaining. This is about something else,' '' says Grigory Yavlinsky, a leader in the Russian Duma, the lower chamber of Parliament.
"Он сказал этим людям 'Тут неуместно заводить разговор о прейскурантах. Мы не собираемся торговаться. Тут речь совсем о другом.'", - вспоминает Григорий Явлинский, один из лидеров Государственной Думы Российской Федерации.

The ''something else'' Putin seeks is a new Russia, a Russia that is regarded as a full partner by the same Western nations that were mortal enemies of the Soviet Union.
То, другое, к которому стремится г-н Путин - это новая Россия, такая Россия, в которой те самые западные страны, что были заклятыми врагами Советского Союза, будут видеть полноправного партнера.

Just as earlier this week our own intelligence services told our government that Iran's nuclear bomb initiative had been on hold since 2003 (meaning that during the time since then our government has not been aware of what was really going on at Iran's nuclear facilities) so reading Nichols' reporting from Moscow, one year earlier, in 2002, makes us painfully aware now of just how much we perhaps missed a golden opportunity to cooperate with Putin and Russia.

Apparently we just as incorrectly read the man Putin, as Bush did Iran. Has 9/11 blinded us to just about everything else that was and is going on in the world, including, perhaps, a more cooperative Russia?

Quick, name one important, beneficial, and well thought out international action that our government has undertaken during the past six years, that is, since 9/11. Can you? I can't.

That this former KGB officer -- who marked the second anniversary of his election on Tuesday -- would try to build such a Russia has shocked diplomats around the world, turned traditional East-West relations upside-down and left global leaders wondering what Putin will do next.
То, что этот бывший офицер Комитета государственной безопасности (КГБ) СССР - который во вторник отметил вторую годовщину своего избрания на пост президента России - намерен попытаться построить такую Россию, шокировало дипломатов во всем мире, перевернуло традиционные отношения Восток-Запад и заставило лидеров нашей планеты гадать, каким будет следующий шаг г-на Путина.

Well, at least some things don't change. The elections in Russia are just over (last Sunday, December 2) with the crushing Putin victory, and now everyone is wondering what Putin is going to do next.

Perhaps nothing surprises Westerners more than Putin's success in turning around his nation's economy, particularly in Moscow, where a once drab and listless communist capital has come alive with glittering streets and vibrant commerce: sushi bars, store windows displaying trendy designer clothes, Manhattan-like traffic jams.
Пожалуй, ничто так не удивляет представителей западных стран, как успехи г-на Путина в деле перестройки экономики страны, особенно заметные в Москве. Когда-то серая и апатичная коммунистическая столица сегодня полна жизни: сверкающие улицы, бурно расцветшая торговля - суши-бары, одежда от модных дизайнеров в витринах магазинов - "пробки" на улицах, как в Манхэттене.

We need to hear this sort of thing more often. The city Moscow is now right up there with Paris and London in regard to glitz and show, and its citizens, no less than those of the other European cities, will surely fight to hold on to what they now have (a material prosperity they never knew during Soviet times). So in spite of the apparent incomprehension between Putin's Russia and the West there will be no return to the closed Soviet society of before.

Russia was on the verge of economic ruin and political anarchy during Boris Yeltsin's last years as president. Now, Putin wants his rejuvenated nation to be at the table with other Western nations.
В последние годы президентства Бориса Ельцина Россия стояла на краю экономической разрухи и политической анархии. И вот теперь г-н Путин хочет, чтобы его обновленная страна была за одним столом с другими западными странами.

The difference between when Nichols was writing and now is that Putin is evidently thoroughly convinced that order and security trump democracy, at least in Russia. And it's hard to quarrel with him in that regard. In 2002, his second year in office, Putin may have felt that a Russian democrat in office was possible, although Yeltsin's example ought to have told him the opposite.

Now he knows there's no place in present day Russia for the democrat. The Russian people are not ready. Putin has become, whether he knows it or not, a disciple of Hobbes, and he's going to make sure that his country has a strong ruler at the helm.

Western leaders, however, aren't sure whether to trust Putin. Many still question whether he is committed to a Russia that embraces capitalism and democracy.

Однако западные лидеры не уверены, стоит ли доверять г-ну Путину. Многие все еще сомневаются, действительно ли он хочет, чтобы в России восторжествовали капитализм и демократия.

Putin, now we know, while he has turned his back on democracy, does embrace a kind of state capitalism. See my earlier piece below, Putin and Kasparov.

Russia's new prosperity, for example, is limited to Moscow and a few other large cities. Critics at home and abroad say Putin's record is poor on civil liberties, such as press freedom. Rights groups say Russian troops continue to commit atrocities in the breakaway republic of Chechnya. Senior U.S. officials here say they question whether Putin believes in democracy at all.
К примеру, новообретенное процветание России пока ограничивается Москвой и несколькими другими крупными городами. Критики дома и за рубежом говорят, что г-н Путин плохо зарекомендовал себя в вопросе о гражданских свободах, например, свободе печати. Правозащитные организации говорят, что российские войска продолжают творить злодеяния в мятежной республике Чечня. Американские высокопоставленные официальные лица здесь, в Москве, говорят, что не уверены, верит ли вообще г-н Путин в демократию.

Most of what Nichols has to say could have been said today, with few changes being necessary. The new Russian prosperity is limited to Moscow and a few large cities. The new found oil wealth has done little to raise a good half of the population out of the depths of poverty. There is little or no press freedom, but, and to the good, people are able to travel abroad, and as far as we know the latest representatives of Putin's own KGB are not torturing and murdering dissidents in the basement of the Lubyanka.

Chechnya is no longer the "breakaway Republic", its people, those that are still alive, having been successfully pacified. Putin has succeeded with the Chechnyans whereas we failed with the Viet Cong, although admittedly the two situations are not comparable. But most of all we didn't have the stomach to do in Vietnam what Putin has done in Chechnya.

Finally, when Nichols wrote Putin watchers weren't sure, but now they are, that Putin is much more the Tsar of a fallen Russian empire trying to hold on to past glories, than the President of a new liberal and democratic Russia reaching out to the West. Helas! But we really couldn't have expected anything else.

Some Russians have the same doubts and question whether he is merely building a new authoritarian system. ''(Putin) has started to restore what we had before, but in an even uglier way,'' says Tatiana Chubrikova, 52, a translator for the United Nations High Commission for Refugees. ''He thinks he knows what is good for everyone and then tries to impose it.''
Некоторые россияне испытывают аналогичные сомнения и задаются вопросом, а не выстраивает ли он новую авторитарную систему. "Путин начал восстанавливать то, что у нас было раньше, но в еще более скверном виде, - говорит 52-летняя Татьяна Чубрикова, переводчик Верховного комиссариата Организации Объединенных Наций (ООН) по делам беженцев. - Он думает, что знает, что хорошо для всех, и пытается навязать это людям".

Now six years later Putin no longer thinks, but knows what is good for everyone, and no longer does he try, but simply imposes his own thinking on everyone else. We see this today in the pictures coming out of Russia of the large numbers of Russian youth attending youth camps. They're not yet, thankfully, comparable to the frightening Chinese youth formations of Mao's cultural revolution, but they do remind us of that time in China.

Many Russians, long accustomed to living under a schizophrenic communist system that delivered far less than it promised, say the inscrutable Putin is another enigma for them to unravel. Officials close to the former spymaster say a normal day might find him talking to President Bush, British Prime Minister Tony Blair and a group of his former KGB cronies -- and giving equal weight to each conversation.
Многие россияне, давно приученные жить при шизофренической коммунистической системе, которая делала куда меньше, чем обещала, говорят, что непостижимый г-н Путин является для них еще одной загадкой, которую нужно разгадать. Официальные лица из окружения этого бывшего шпиона говорят, что в любой обычный день он может беседовать с президентом США Бушем-младшим (George W. Bush), с премьер-министром Великобритании Тони Блэром (Tony Blair) и с группой бывших дружков из КГБ - и каждой беседе придавать равноценный вес.

''Putin's very far away from us,'' says Eugin Dashkin, 52, a department manager in a sugar production company. ''It's very difficult to tell the difference between his deeds and his words. It's difficult to feel if it's real or not.''
"Путин от нас очень далек, - говорит Евгений Дашкин, 52-летний менеджер отдела в компании по производству сахара. - Очень трудно делать различие между его поступками и его словами. Трудно понять, реально это или нет".

Few Muscovites doubt that the economic turnaround is real. The economy has improved steadily since Putin, 49, became interim president when Yeltsin retired on New Year's Eve, 1999. Putin was elected three months later.
Немногие москвичи сомневаются в том, что перемены в экономике реальны. Устойчивый рост экономики отмечается с тех пор, как 49-летний Путин стал временно исполнять обязанности президента страны, когда в конце 1999 года, накануне празднования Нового Года, ушел в отставку г-н Ельцин. Через три месяца г-на Путин стал законно избранным президентом.

If you want to read Bill Nichols's full account of Putin's Russia in 2002, which I encourage you to do, go to the USA Today article here.

December 01, 2007

Putin vs. Kasparov, Hobbes vs. Locke

"There are, at the present time, two great nations in the world which seem to tend towards the same end, although they started from different points: I allude to the Russians and the Americans.... The American relies upon personal interest to accomplish his ends, and gives free scope to the unguided exertions and common-sense of the citizens; the Russian centres all the authority of society in a single arm. The principal instrument of the former is freedom; of the latter servitude."
             (Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, Book One, 1835, Chapter 18)

During the some 40 plus years of the Cold War almost the entire inhabitable world seemed caught up in the seemingly unending, relentless struggle between de Tocqueville's "two great nations," between the United States and the Soviet Union, and the long struggle between the communism and totalitarianism of the one and the capitalism and democracy of the other.

Then two things happened to bring the Cold War to an end. First, Mikhail Gorbachev at the Twenty-Seventh Party Congress in 1986 inaugurated Perestroika, or economic structuring, this being a fundamental reform of Soviet totalitarian rule from within.

Two years later, in May of 1988, the Soviet Union began the final withdrawal of its troups from Afghanistan, this withdrawal and defeat signaling the rapid break-up of the Soviet Empire that was to follow, beginning with the Fall of the Berlin Wall on November 9, 1989, and ending with the dissolution of the Soviet Union into its component republics in late 1991.

Then what happened? The West rushed in with their carpet bags filled with democracy and capitalism. The one, democracy didn't take hold. For as we know from William Shakespeare the readiness is all, and the Russian people were not ready for democracy.

The other, capitalism, did triumph, not only in Russia, but throughout the former republics of the now defunct Soviet Union. It was a wild and unruly capitalism, but capitalism it was, and communism was relegated to the dustbin.

The Soviet Union had always possessed a wealth of natural resources. The new, now Russian capitalists, first private grasping individuals, and then the Russian state itself, set about to exploit them, seizing ownership of the resources while paying little or no attention to whatever rule of law had survived the death of the Soviet Union.

All that brings us up to the present moment and to President Putin, a.k.a. Tsar Putin. Russia, under Putin's not yet totalitarian but more and more authoritarian rule, is again becoming a principal player on the world stage, and once again a serious obstacle to America's attempt to export freedom and democracy to the Middle East and elsewhere.

There are even those who speak of a new Cold War, but I don't think this is an accurate description of what is happening. And in fact in most areas, in particular in regard to spending on defense, Russia is no longer a serious rival, if it ever was, to the United States.

Furthermore, in Russia itself, and in spite of Putin's clamp down on democracy, the West in important ways has triumphed. For example, Russians are now able to acquire property. They are free to travel both within and without the country. And for the first time since the end of the second World War there is an abundance of consumer goods available on the shelves.

However, at the very least, there are growing tensions between the new Russia and the West. What is the source of the tensions? What has kept Russia apart from Europe? Why didn't the new Russia simply join, say, the European Union? What is it that still seems to come between Russia and the West?

I think what is going on in Russia is a revival of the old struggle between Hobbes and Locke, between the merits of authoritarian rule, such as that of a king or tsar, and another kind of rule by democratically elected representatives, such as that of our Congress and President, although I'm not sure that Putin has read either Hobbes or Locke, or would even describe the situation he has faced in this manner.

But this difference is still a valid one. And in fact Hobbes is still triumphant in many if not most countries of the world. The two largest countries, China and India, well represent the two positions. And it's interesting that we would not think of imposing democracy on the one, nor authoritarianism on the other, if indeed we could. We can't.

Putin probably hasn't read Hobbes, and there's probably even less chance that he has read Locke from whom our own Declaration of Independence (life, liberty, and, not the pursuit of happiness, but property) was principally derived. But the strength of Putin's position clearly depends on its similarity to the position of Thomas Hobbes.

In his own lifetime Hobbes witnessed the beheading of a King, the English Civil War, and the Protestant Revolution. He understandably concluded that only a strong state under a strong, authoritarian ruler could prevent anarchy and provide security.

Just today in a Wall Street Journal interview Mikhail Gorbachev said of Putin that "he had somehow managed to put together a country that was falling apart." And that's probably the very best that can be said about the man.

Putin must have known disorder. He witnessed the final years of the Soviet Union, and he probably suffered through the chaotic first years of Boris Yeltsin and the new Russia.

Then, and given his own totalitarian upbringing as a member of the KGB, he must have readily concluded, probably during the Yeltsin years of non-rule, that the Russian people needed security and order, not to mention income and jobs, benefits that could come from a strong ruler, much more than they needed freedom and democracy from Europe or the United States. And that makes him, whether he knew it or not, a disciple of Hobbes.

The leaders of the Western world, on the other hand, are disciples of John Locke, even while admitting along with Winston Churchill, that "Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time."

Those words of Churchill came at the very beginning of the Cold War. At the end of the Cold War, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, we all naively believed that Churchill was shown to be right.

But now, some 16 years after the collapse, we can't be so sure. Hobbes' argument in his Leviathan of 1651 was valid at the time and given the existing or imminent disorder and anarchy in many nations and regions of the world, including Russia, it may still be valid today.

Who would go to the Sudan, to the Congo, or even to Iraq thinking that representative democracy was more important than a strong and capable authoritarian government? We did of course, and look what happened.

So the good that can be said about Putin can be summed up by saying that he has recognized that the Russian people want and need a strong ruler. He is certainly trying to provide one. If he steps on a lot of toes, and worse, crushes liberal minded individuals and reform minded and rebellious groups, as in Chechnya, that's just the cost of civil order in Russia today.

Last week the Hobbes-Locke duality was beautiful illustrated by the "match" between the former world champion chess player, Gary Kasparov, and Putin. Kasparov lost of course and spent five days behind bars.

Putin didn't offer to take Kasparov on in a game of chess. That being just one more piece of evidence that Putin, no matter what else he may be, is not a great man.

Putin did win their "political" match-up, "hands down," and made his point that in a Russia still highly susceptible to coming apart at the seams not even a tiny rebellion, such as that of the liberal reformer, Gary Kasparov, could be tolerated. And he may be right.

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.   

October 30, 2007

Groundhog Day and the Dropout Problem

Most news items, especially local items such as fires, homicides, and the inevitable scandals involving our business, political, and religious leaders, are not really new, or news, but further re-occurrences of myriad and alike past events. As one grows older one realizes this about the news, and in fact, those of us who still read the print publications, prefer the opinion pages where at least someone is trying, although probably in vain, to say something for the first time.

It’s probably no less true that for most of us each new day is not new but a repeat of the day before. This is easily seen when someone asks us to describe a day in our lives. One day we can do, but to describe a second day, that is not just a repeat of the first, is more difficult.

There is a character in the movie Groundhog Day, Meteorologist Phil Connors, played by Bill Murray, who alone in the movie realizes that each day is a repeat of the day before. He’s caught but unlike the other characters he knows it, and in order to eventually free himself from the endless, lifeless repetition of his acts, he has to become a different and better person.

Now it seems to me more and more that those who write about the schools are repeating, evidently unknowingly, things that have been said about the schools, probably since their founding in the 19th century, but certainly since the time of Sputnik when the schools suddenly became, wrongly of course, our best hope for our outperforming the Russians (and later the Chinese) in space and elsewhere.

Gerald Bracey made all this clear (for the first time?) in a Commentary article in Ed Week of February, 2005:

Media stories about public schools show the reporters as non-Bill Murray characters in “Groundhog Day.” In the 1993 movie, the same Groundhog Day repeats itself over and over again, but only Murray’s character sees the repetition. About schools, the media report the present with no apparent historical awareness that it’s the same story once again. As a consequence, Americans keep waking up to headlines declaring that, apparently for the first time ever, the public school sky is falling. The public doesn’t seem to notice the recurrences, either.

It seems, however, that the reporters did not read or hear what Bracey was saying. For just today I read two stories by writers for the Associated Press on the dropout problem, two stories that are almost word for word repeats of countless stories I have read during the past 30 years or more.

It’s not that the writers are wrong in what they are saying. It’s that what they are saying is not news but merely a repetition of the old. Also, and more important, what they are describing, the so called dropout problem, may not be the problem at all, but only a symptom of something else, the existence of which these reporters haven't yet registered.

Although at first he didn't know what it could mean Phil Connors in the movie Groundhog Day did see right away that each new day was exactly the same as the day before. Eventually he was able to move on. Whereas these and many other education writers don’t seem realize that what they are saying, in this instance about the school dropout problem, has been said many, many times before.

Yesterday the two AP writers, Nancy Zuckerbrod and Stephanie Reitz “woke us up” with these headlines respectively, “1 in 10 Schools are “Dropout Factories,” and “Mentoring, Alternative High Schools on Rise to Reduce Dropouts.” If you had never encountered the “dropout problem” you might be impressed by the use of the term “factory” in regard to dropouts, and by the “folk” wisdom of the use of mentoring and alternative high schools as a cure for the same.

The factory school analogy goes back at least to 1900. The first alternative schools, set up to provide a viable alternative education for those not being served well by the mainstream, probably go back just as far. I take from my own files this passage: “In 1987, the Boston Public Schools and the Mayor's Office signed an agreement to fund a network of community-based, alternative education programs to provide options for students who were at risk of dropping out of high school.”

Mentoring on the rise? Maybe, but I don’t think so.  Mentoring is the very first thing that people do for others who need help in making life decisions. The Big Brothers Big Sisters programs are mentoring programs, in many instances with the expressed purpose of keeping at risk kids in school. These programs were founded over 100 years ago. If there is more mentoring it's because there are more kids.

I take the following passages from the two articles mentioned:

“Most [dropout factories] have high proportions of minority students. These schools are tougher to turn around because their students face challenges well beyond the academic ones - the need to work as well as go to school, for example, or a need for social services.”

“The fact that kids are entering high schools with such poor literacy skills raises questions about how much catch-up work high schools can be expected to do and whether more pressure should be placed on middle schools and even elementary schools…”

“Many of the state schools with high dropout rates are in lower-income, urban communities, where a teen's academic success can be influenced by poverty or social problems in their families and neighborhoods.”

“Springfield superintendent Burke and several other educators say getting students to feel involved and interested is critical, and that schools should be centers of encouragement and high expectations rather than frustration and anonymity.”

If we had never read about the dropout problem we would be thoroughly persuaded by the truth of these observations. But we’ve heard these things over and over again, “forever” it seems.

I find myself responding to these and other similar articles in some combination of the following. First with boredom, because I’ve heard it all before. Then with tears of discouragement because so many good kids are still being mostly lost. For we are well aware of all the bad things that do happen to many of them following their dropping out of school. Indeed, that’s the source of our constant attempts to keep them in school, our fear for them, of what will happen otherwise.

Finally, I settle back into my long held conviction that the problem is not of the kids doing, but of our doing and of the schools themselves. In years past this realization led many radical reformers to want to abolish the schools entirely. And this may still be the best solution for many of our students at risk of dropping out.

In any case we ought to abandon the all out attempt to keep these kids in school, and rather assume that our schools, especially our middle and high schools, as presently structured are not the best place for them to be. Isn’t that obvious?

Alternative schools by and large have failed miserably, the exceptions to this being when by alternative we mean an alternative, a vocational program for example, to the college preparatory curriculum that is more and more imposed upon all of our young people. Mentoring programs, although positive and beneficial for other reasons, have also failed to keep kids in school.

Kids, probably half of our young people of high school age, are telling us that they don’t want to be in school as it’s presently constituted. Why don’t we listen to them, instead of devising schemes to somehow keep them in and from dropping out?

In the movie Phil Connors got out of the endless repetition of his days by seeing things differently and going on to live differently and better. We need to see school differently. We should be looking not first at the school and what we need to do to keep all of our kids in school, because we can't. We should be looking first at the kids, and at what they need and what we might do to meet them on their own ground.

Many kids have been telling us, in my own experience for some 50 years now, that math, science, history and language classrooms are not what they most want and need. Why do we go on subjecting all of them to this regime that is probably only for some an appropriate use of their time? Well, in regard to school reform, we’re still living the same day over and over again, and, as a result of our not seeing further, nothing much is being changed for the better.