Thursday, April 30, 2009

Deep Thought...

... I wish all "failed states" could be like Mexico.

Drill Baby, Drill!

Many nineteenth century educational proponents of a common curricula for all grounded their arguments in a conception called "mental discipline." The notion was that the mind could be exercised like the body, and that practicing certain skills rigorously (ancient languages, poetry, mathematics, etc.) would not only help one master a given subject, but--just as lifting weights helps you carry boxes--would be transferable to other subjects as well. Memorizing Latin vocabulary would, in a sense, expand someone's capacity to remember things in general. Such a view about human learning, not surprisingly, led to a particular kind of pedagogy, based on drilling, memorization, and recitation.

In the Progressive Era, this view came under attack. Psychologists like E.L. Thorndike argued that subjects were not "transferable" in any meaningful sense, and that, consequently, in order to learn a particular skill/body of knowledge, one had to be taught it directly. This kind of thinking would come to dominate schooling, leading to what eventually would be called "life adjustment curriculum," where students deemed less intelligent would be taught basic skills (like hygiene, cooking, child-rearing) that the mental disciplinarians had thought absurd.

I'm certainly not up on contemporary educational psychology, but I always thought the basic Thorndike theory still dominated the field. Not surprisingly, then, I was pretty struck to read a book review today that suggested the sciences is pointing to a return to mental discipline:
Elsewhere Mr. Willingham has his curious teacher ask: "Is drilling worth it?" The answer is yes, because research shows that practice not only makes a skill perfect but also makes it permanent, automatic and transferable to new situations, enabling more complex work that relies on the basics.
While the mental disciplinarians were harangued by many progressive educators as being old-fashioned, I think the idea that different subjects are intimately related is quite a progressive, Deweyan idea. Indeed, while John Dewey was no mental disciplinarian himself, he certainly thought they had something right about the drive to master subject matter, to approach learning rigorously, and to transfer skills from one activity to the next. Maybe Giuliani was right after all, and we do need to drill more.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

A Specter is haunting the Democratic party...

A few thoughts on today's volte-face by He of the Dangling Jowls:

* Specter's justification: "I am not prepared to have my 29-year record in the United States Senate decided by the Pennsylvania Republican primary electorate — not prepared to have that record decided by that jury." Ergo, he will dissolve the people and elect a new one!

* I hope the Democrats of Pennsylvania are happy with having their political rights taken away from them, because Washington is going to serve them up a big, heaping helping of Arlen on the primary ticket, whether they like it or not. My heart goes out to actual progressives in PA who imagine they can win this thing.

* The idea that the Republican Party as an institution is "less welcoming" to a moderate now than in 1966 is an interesting one. Standing liver-spotted cheek-to-waddle-throated jowl with Jesse Helms for 40 years is apparently not that hard, while almost losing your Senate seat to Pat Toomey getting into trouble with your party over voting on a stimulus bill is.

* On the other hand, it may perfectly well be true that the Republican base is now willing to vote only for bat-shit crazy people. While it is their right to do so, I wouldn't hold my breath waiting for such a strategy to succeed.

* It would have been nice if, in the wake of an enormous Democratic win and a progressive upsurge, the left of the Democratic Party had been strengthened to the point of scaring away an Arlen Specter. But perhaps that day will still come, after the Democrats have availed themselves of their new 60-seat majority, and I can look back on this period as a distasteful but useful stepping stone.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

What We Can Learn about the History of Education, Race Relations, and the South with the Baltimore Ravens Draft of Michael Oher

There's much to be said about the Ravens's first-round pick of Michael Oher. They had valued him as a top-15 selection, so when he slid to the 20s, the team--always looking for the best value--snatched him up. The team's logic in picking Oher rather than, say, a much needed wide receiver, would probably sound something like: without a solid offensive line, a first class wide receiver (like the QB who throws to him) is a wasted commodity.

But there's a lot more to this pick than simply shoring up the left side of the offensive line. Oher was the subject of a long 2006 article by Michael Lewis in the New York Times magazine, which was subsequently turned into a book, which is subsequently being turned into a movie starring Sandra Bullock(!) and Tim McGraw(!!). Given that Lewis is probably the best narrative craftsman in journalism today, it's no surprise that the story comes off incredibly engrossing. But it probably would be without Lewis. Little is known about Oher's childhood other than that his mother was a crack addict, that his father ended up shot dead and thrown over a bridge, and that he probably didn't attend the Memphis Public Schools for more than 1/3 or so of the time he should have been there. He was the kind of kid Lyndon Johnson and the Great Society was worried about: someone in desparate need of early childhood intervention. He didn't get it. As a result, his intellectual skills atrophied. He scored abysmally low on intelligence tests. He was a homeless teenager.

To fill in how Oher went from this to being a NFL millionaire, read the Lewis piece in full. While the story is rightly about Oher, what caught my eye was the school where he eventually landed: Briarcrest Christian School, in E. Memphis. Lewis mentions that Briarcrest is almost exclusively white and that the woman who eventually took Oher in and raised him was herself an alumnus of the school, having been sent there by her racist father in 1973 after the courts ordered the Memphis public schools to desegregate.

It's implicit in the article, but Lewis never outrightly says it (perhaps because he established a certain relationship with the school): Briarcrest was almost certainly a "segregation academy." It, like many other private (largely Christian) schools in the South, was founded in the early 1970s as a response to the inevitability of desegreation. As a bit of background: from the moment of the Brown decision, many Southern politicians drew up plans to create state-sponsored ("voucher") private schools for whites to enroll in en masse that could enforce segregation in ways that the public schools could not. For a variety of reasons, these plans in state after state fell through, leaving it to local communities to form private academies where, just like a country club, they could exclude blacks.

But the interesting story here is not that oh my God the South was really racist, though that certainly was the case. The story, I think, is about how the South is trying desparately to change. That, in some sense, is what Lewis's article is about: a white, upper class southern family (driving pick-up trucks, voting Republican, sending their kid to a private Christian school) who is actively trying to get poor black kids from Memphis into the Briarcrests of the world. My understanding is that the number of African Americans attending these former "segregation academies" in the south is rising rather dramatically. At the History of Education conference I attended this past Fall, a couple of African American graduate students presented on the history of these institutions, and at least one of them was an alumnus of them. Private schools can be very exclusive or very inclusive, depending on the time and place. If Oher's story (and the movie, set to come out in two years) continues to grab attention, I imagine this won't be the last time we hear about Briarcrest and what it represents. I'm wondering if my understanding of this seems somewhat accurate to those who share a more intimate relationship with this world than do I.

Friday, April 24, 2009

An allegory...

Monday, April 13, 2009

Everyone loves to kill pirates

I submit that pirates have now overtaken terrorists in the race for "most killable conceivable American enemy." While pirates cannot (for the moment!) lay claim to an all-embracing ideology like "Islamofascism," and thus properly inhabit their bogeyman role in the way that Communists and terrorists did, they still have a number of things going for them:

1. They're anachronisms.
2. They're stateless.
3. They're pesky.
4. They're the most primordial incarnation of property theft and instability (see Thucydides!!).
5. There's a much slimmer chance of a strike against pirates killing innocent children (bad PR).
6. It's in their nature to be killed, so that others can take up their mantle (cf. "the Dread Pirate Roberts").
7. The combination of sniper rifles + waterborne targets gives such an opportunity for using the phrases "like bobbing for apples" and "like fish in a barrel" that the Navy will be unable to resist.

These factors combine, I propose, to make pirates even more slaughterable than South American leftists, Pakistani border-town families, the nation of Iraq, and other illustrious victims of U.S. violence. Think about it: Who would ever propose a truth and reconciliation commission for disappeared pirates? What anti-war group could be bothered to add "pirates" to the various factions now encompassed by the umbrella of "resistance"? (Pirates will never get a spot at the World Social Forum.) And who doesn't enjoy a good pirate offing?

The Washington Post certainly does. Today's editorial whines about Europe not having the stomach to kill more pirates (my favorite part: the Post glosses "ignoring the chaos there" with "targeting its worst elements with airstrikes" -- an interesting, perhaps unique form of "ignoring"!) and offers some suitably vague advice about selling guns to warlords. David Ignatius, following the liberal inclination to practice imperialism quietly and creatively, suggests substituting for "big, direct deployment of military power" ("It's just so messy!" the Democrat is imagined to squeal) the good, old-fashioned targeted killing of private individuals:
This is the kind of problem for which U.S. Special Forces and the covert operators of the Central Intelligence Agency were created. They can move quickly and quietly to alter the balance of power on the ground, just as they have done at sea. They should be subject to close congressional oversight, in secret. The less the rest of the world sees the American footprint in Somalia, the better.
Each of these sentences has something uniquely vicious and uniquely American about it. I especially love the contrast between Ignatius' earlier statement, that "the United States as a nation tends to favor big, direct deployment of military power," with his opinion here that, well, perhaps the hushed secrecy of elites is in fact the best policy.

Someone named Fred Ikle also has an article titled simply "Kill the Pirates," in case you missed the message.

Terrorism : piracy :: tragedy : farce, etc etc.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

The Business of College Kids Is Business!

When the New York Times wants to highlight a trend, it will highlight a trend. This morning we receive word in at least three different articles that perhaps the children won't be flocking into business as they did during those booming 2000s.
For the highest-paid fields, the outlooks is for a tempering correction instead of an all-out exodus. At Harvard, for example, about 40 percent of undergraduates in recent years went into the most lucrative corporate arenas like finance and consulting, based on surveys at the school year’s end.
In Frank Rich's column, it's
In the bubble decade, making money as an end in itself boomed as a calling among students at elite universities like Harvard, siphoning off gifted undergraduates who might otherwise have been scientists, teachers, doctors, entrepreneurs, artists or inventors. The Harvard Crimson reported that in the class of 2007, 58 percent of the men and 43 percent of the women entering the work force took jobs in the finance and consulting industries. The figures were similar everywhere, from Duke to the University of Pennsylvania. Dan Rather, on his HDNet television program in December, reported that at Penn this was even true of “over half the students who graduated with engineering degrees — not a field commonly associated with Wall Street.
But alas, tis nothing new. In the 1890s, forty percent (the same number mentioned in the first Times article about today's numbers) of Harvard graduates went in business. One might be appalled and shocked by this high percentage, proclaiming that the university is not to train men in the pecuniary arts, as Thorstein Veblen argued in The Higher Learning in America. Indeed, it would be hard not applaud this development. Going into community organizing really is a more noble vocation.
But such moralizing may be misplaced. I think it was Harvard's longtime president Charles W. Eliot who, commenting on the propensity of his students to go into business, got it right:
For some reasons one could wish that the University did not offer the same contrast between the rich man's mode of life and the poor man's that the outer world offers; but it does.... In this respect, as in many others, the University is an epitome of the modern world.
As Eliot suggests, it shouldn't come as a surprise when these trends reverse themselves if/when the economy improves.
[NB: Statistic and Eliot quotation taken from Kim Townsend's Manhood at Harvard (Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1996), 25.]

Sunday, April 05, 2009


Saturday, April 04, 2009

With One Hand He Condems the Right to Damnation, with the Other to Eternal Life

Doing research on my master's thesis (which focuses on educational developments within American Protestantism, 1900-1930) has forced me to reconsider many of my previously held positions regarding the role of Protestantism (and religion more generally) in a democracy. While my thesis deals with the more sympathetic adherents of left-wing Protestant thought (the "Social Gospel") I've found it's not easy to simply lop this group off from their right-wing (Fundamentalist) bretheren, given that they both arise out of evangelical traditions.

It was with this history in mind that I grew rather shocked at my own reaction, recently, to seeing a big group of anti-abortion protesters from all over Wisconsin descend upon Madison. While I remain--fundamentally--opposed to their position, I was nonetheless, for the first time, struck by their activism and by the grassroots nature of their campaign. I found myself envious of their organization, though not in the traditional way that liberals formerly envied the right-- for its ideological cohesion, its loyal "base," and its slick use of framing issues. Instead, I was impressed by their committment to democracy and peaceful protest at a grassroots level.

I am reminded of this story now that I see that Princeton University Press has just published a book with a rather shocking title: The Democratic Virtues of the Christian Right. It's quite possible that my views here come from the background of a naive Jew who never really had to interact with any of these people--and if that's the case, let me know--but at least now I can be that naive Jew while citing political science!

Eerie Stuff...

Charles Blow, this morning in the New York Times, on all the revolutionary/fear-mongering currently engaged in by the right:
As the comedian Bill Maher pointed out, strong language can poison weak minds, as it did in the case of Timothy McVeigh. (We sometimes forget that not all dangerous men are trained by Al Qaeda.) At the same time, the unrelenting meme being pushed by the right that Obama will mount an assault on the Second Amendment has helped fuel the panic buying of firearms. According to the F.B.I., there have been 1.2 million more requests for background checks of potential gun buyers from November to February than there were in the same four months last year. That’s 5.5 million requests altogether over that period; more than the number of people living in Bachmann’s Minnesota. Coincidence? Maybe. Just posturing? Hopefully. But it all gives me a really bad feeling.

Now, we get this report from this afternoon's Rambo-esque massacre in Pittsburgh:
Police Chief Nate Harper said the motive for the shooting isn't clear, but friends said the gunman recently had been upset about losing his job and feared the Obama administration was poised to ban guns.... Poplawski feared "the Obama gun ban that's on the way" and "didn't like our rights being infringed upon," said Edward Perkovic, his best friend.... Another longtime friend, Aaron Vire, said Poplawski feared that President Barack Obama was going to take away his rights, though he said he "wasn't violently against Obama." Vire, 23, said Poplawski once had an Internet talk show but that it wasn't successful. He said Poplawski owned an AK-47 rifle and several powerful handguns, including a .357 Magnum.

Poplawski is obviously a wacko, but I can't help but be troubled by the timing...