Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Teaching History

I happened to notice something today.  It's not new to me, but it is still surprising.  Many of today's sixth graders were born after 9/11.  Very few students in the higher grades have any working memory of that event, and soon it will be a historical fact that occurred before the student existed.  Its presence in schools is almost non-existent already, and soon it will be nothing more than a multiple choice question (which may or not appear on a test) that a student can answer incorrectly with little consequence.  

That is, of course, assuming it remains at all.  I took Global in New York 14 years ago, in the far distant time of the year 2000.  Apart from not being impressed with the class, the one thing that really sticks out in my mind is how far short of the then "current" time period we had managed to cover.  14 years of history have been created since then, and yet most world history courses are still lucky to get through the fall of the Soviet Union.  

But we still manage to cover Mansa Musa.  

I've not been shy about my intense dislike for standardized tests in the field of Social Studies.  There are subjects that lend themselves to such assessments, like mathematics, where you either know and can apply the operating principle or you cannot.  Social Studies is not an objective field like that, and it should not be treated as such.  You can come up with a trivia test on historical facts, but that will never gauge a students understanding of human interaction, which is what Social Studies is really supposed to be about. 

I'm currently working through Jal Mehta's The Allure of Order, which outlines the history of educational reform in the United States.  Such objective testing has become increasingly popular in the United States due to a reasonable demand for higher quality education and a lack of any better idea of how to determine whether we're getting it or not.  Very few people will actually argue that standardized tests in history really have any value in assessing student knowledge of history, but teachers have failed to offer a better alternative.   It's impossible to weed out the good teachers who want to be free of the government mandated curriculum from the teachers who want a sinecure.  

Or it is as things stand, anyway.  Accountability of teachers and schools has been handed over to the state.  Like any other government agency, they're good at crunching numbers and data but not particularly good at determining what is going on classroom 203 in X district.  The state lacks the flexibility to both see what is going on in the classroom and make judgement based on those particular students, that particular teacher, and absolutely cannot handle differences in curriculum. 

In order for a far away agency to measure the going ons of far away places, they need one curriculum to rule them all, one curriculum to bind them.  And if you look for student interest, in the darkness you will find them. 

This is the path we are heading down.  In the lower grades, lessons are literally written by the state, leaving teachers to be little more than automatons.  We shall all learn the same, and Washington shall tell us what we shall learn.  Soon, every school in America will be teaching the same thing on the same day.

But there is another way.  

If centralization leads to stagnant Social Studies, it stands to reason that decentralization would allow flexibility to teach different aspects not on the approved curriculum.  I would love to have an educational system that allows a teacher to spend a week on a current event, rather than quickly dismissing it because the test was written last year and the events of this week will not be on it.

In fact, the more I think on it, the more I think we should teach history backwards.  We spend so much time in class explaining to students that the long-past events will be important later to understanding the things they want to know, and half the time we never arrive at that point. 

And students do, in fact, want to know, but we have gone way out of our way to train them into thinking history has no more value than a correct multiple choice response on a test they have to pass to graduate.  Some historical events are inherently interesting in and of themselves, in particular wars. Current events, an aspect of Social Studies that is covered incidentally at best under the present regime, is actually one of the best hooks we have on their attention.  Students want to know what is going on with Putin and why the Palestinians and the Israelis can't seem to live together.  Rather than dealing with the Golden Horde or Peter the Great, talk about Putin and work your way back to the Soviet system.  Rather than being a boring factoid about the world preexisting them (and in some cases, preexisting their teachers), the Soviet Union suddenly becomes relevant in understanding the world around them.  

The exact same thing can be accomplished with Afghanistan.  We're there now.  Students know people who are there or who have been there.  Often I'm asked, why are we there?  Heavens above, what a great question!  They should be asking that, and they should be getting an answer.  Based on that question alone, you can bring in 9/11, the Soviet Union and their conflict, the meaning of communism, discussion on guerrilla warfare, arguments for and against our continued presence, and the morality of the conflict (basic just war theory, jus ad bellum and jus in bello).

It would be an organic conversation.  The teacher can direct the discussion towards certain topics, but the new questions about "why" and "how" are going to come from the students.  John Dewey certainly had his faults, but he knew that students who are told "you need to learn this because I said so" or, worse, "the state says so", are unlikely to retain that information.  But give them the chance to learn the things they want to learn, and they will fly with it.  

Perhaps my favorite aspect of this is that it gives us an idea of what is worth teaching and what isn't.  History is huge; a lifetime is not sufficient to know it all.  We have to pick and choose what material to teach.  In the state's method, Italian Unification will certainly come up; it's on the test.  I can't promise Garibaldi will come up in my method.  The state can make an objection to that and say it is absolutely necessary every student be presented with the Red Shirts, but I am well in my rights to demand a justification for that. 

I would also like to see some proof that after taking the Global Regents in 10th grade that students remember the Red Shirts when they graduate.  So much that is presented is forgotten so quickly because it just is not relevant to a 15 year old from the sticks or the projects. 

Such a method just cannot be prescribed by a state curriculum.  A discussion on Afghanistan could last for a day or a week, depending on the students, current events as they happen, and the teacher.  Albany cannot issue lesson plans saying "you shall have an organic conversation for ten minutes on this topic, then move on to this other activity" because Albany cannot tell when the conversation has reached its natural end.  Albany cannot foresee what other worthy avenues of discussion will pop up.  If we're to have actual Social Studies, the far away bureaucrats have to get out of the way.  

Before I get too carried away here, no, I don't believe for a second that the bureaucrats getting out of the way is sufficient.  It is necessary, but they are not the only thing that would have to change.  Such a class would require a teacher of considerable knowledge who could handle an active conversation on the fly.  In my time, I've come across far too many history teachers who haven't picked up a history book beyond the class textbook since college.  I know of the principal's nephew who wants summers off and the professional coach who teaches on the side.  I don't believe for a second they would survive, especially when placed next to the amazing teachers I know who are shackled by state curriculum.  

But who would make sure the teachers are doing a good job if not Albany or, maybe someday soon, DC?  The same answer applies here: decentralized control must mean decentralized accountability.  It would be up to the local community, those who would actually know the teacher, to say "yes, this woman is doing an excellent job and should stay" or "no, she's in it for the summer vacations, send her on her way." 

I know today is not the day in which this magical transformation takes place.  I know we are making yet another effort to improve student performance via increased test and tighter controls on content from a far away agency.  And I know, like every program to centralize and quantify education before it, this latest push will fall far short of expectations average people have and that folks will continue to grumble about the quality of education in America.  

But maybe, just maybe, Common Core will be too quick on the heels of No Child Left Behind.  Maybe, just maybe, people are coming to their senses about the inadequacy of standardized testing in measuring a qualitative subject like education (in particular Social Studies).  Maybe the Liberals will finally admit their failure to improve education in poorly performing districts via centralization; maybe Conservatives will admit their hypocrisy in demanding less centralized government control in everything but education, the sham that is standardized test accountability, and the abdication of their own role in society when they choose to have the far away capital determine teacher ability rather than making an appointment to meet the teacher in person. 

Maybe teachers of quality will make a point of demanding only the best join their ranks, replacing union protection of the lowest with a high standard that admits no low person.

And maybe pigs will fly.  But unlike the pig, these changes or the lack thereof are a matter of choice that we are responsible for.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Things Imagined and Unimagined

"Whence it follows that the bad economist pursues a small present good that will be followed by a great evil to come, while the good economist pursues a great good to come, at the risk of a small present evil."

~Frédéric Bastiat, What is Seen and What is Not Seen

 Imagine, for a moment, the Death Star. 

Something like this is going to come to mind.  A big, metal sphere of destruction with a weird inverted nipple towards the top (nobody ever imagines it upside down).  Not a particularly difficult exercise so far, right?  We see replays of the movie where it travels in space and blows up a planet.  We can all imagine the Death Star functioning.  

Now, imagine how the Death Star works. 

That's right, you can't.  The details of the corridors alone would boggle your mind; it would be easier to imagine every single road and subway on planet Earth.  Never mind trying to wire and power this thing; how will you feed everyone?  How will society function on such a station? 

It is easy to imagine something working, even something as stupidly complex as the Death Star.  But just because we can picture something happening doesn't make it practical or even possible.  

This is a huge problem in the healthcare debate of our day.  People, even among the more intelligent voters, are easily mislead into thinking their imaginations have any more connection with reality than the Death Star.  They imagine poor and sick people who have been denied coverage all of a sudden being able to log onto a computer, buy coverage, and then be healthy.  Everyone lived happily ever after, The End. 

That daydream is the equivalent of the picture above.  It is the outer shell and nothing more.  The devil lies in the details, and I have noticed not a single Obamacare supporter I know can discuss the details of the law they support any better than they can the heating system of the Emperor's sadistic toy above.  In any discussion about Obamacare, what generally happens is the equivalent of asking me whether I want a Death Star of my own or not. 

Hell yes, I want my own Death Star.  But am I willing to risk my future on actually attempting such a ludicrous project?   Absolutely not.  Great health care for all would be fantastic, but that doesn't make it possible. 

My opponents in this argument have catastrophically failed to understand the distinction between wanting things and those things being feasible.  The debate was never about whether everyone having health care insurance is a good thing in and of itself.  Of course that would be wonderful.  But granting that statement does not mean one must support Obamacare.  One can support Obamacare as a substitute term for universal and less expensive health care if and only if it actually functionally delivers on universal and less expensive health care. This requires supporters to look into the equivalent of the Death Star's pathways, heating ducts, placement of cafeterias, security systems, electrical systems, structural integrity, bathrooms, communication networks, navigation tools, command and control, propulsion, and every other system in detail, lest any one of them fail and the entire station be nothing more than a tomb for those on board.  

I do not know a single person who did this for Obamacare.  Every single opponent of mine relied on replacing their want for universal health care in place of any deep understanding of the law that would supposedly implement it. 

If pressed at all, supporters of this law ultimately had to place their trust in politicians and government bureaucrats to see that all of the moving parts meshed together seamlessly.  What is most frustrating about this faith is that in any other context, the same supporter would give an unequivocal "no" if asked whether we should trust politicians and government bureaucrats. 

They believe this with good reason.  One does not have to read Hayek to know the fundamental limits of what government can do, though it helps.  And yet, in following this Holy Grail of theirs, they lose sight of truths as obvious as the rising of the Sun. 

In order to achieve their idea of a great goal, supporters of this law have required the entire nation board a dysfunctional Death Star.  It is so poorly designed that most of the people who need to get on board cannot do so.  It has come at incredible cost to working class people like myself in terms of less full-time jobs, hours cut, and losing health care plans we like. 

It is time to scrap this plan. The imagined "Good" still floats before the eyes of my opponents in this issue, but I beg them, if they actually care about the good of other human beings impacted by this law, to actually examine what is happening rather than seeing what they want to happen.  Please take into account the harm done to real human beings.  

If nothing else, please admit to yourselves how little you knew about the law you gave support to and those you gave power to that it may be implemented.    The time has come to ask whether you value the well being of people or the survival of this law.  They are not identical. 

Friday, January 25, 2013

On Walden Two

January 21, 2013

Mr. Skinner,

Accept my deepest appreciation for sending me a copy of your account of Walden Two.  It has been a while since I have read a truly fascinating book, but that fast has thankfully been broken.  Please take no offense at this, but I opened this work dead set on finding flaws, and while I certainly found some, I both thoroughly enjoyed your work and found it instructive on a variety of issues.  As much as I wished it otherwise at first, your community is certainly plausible, even if not compellingly so. 

Education today is a sad sham.  Whatever driving force it may have possessed is long vanished and its current movement is more a matter of inertia than intent.  We do it because that is what is done; the act has become its own justification.  Our curriculum is not designed to provide useful skills for life, or to create independent learners, but rather is imposed from a far away capitol uniformly across all youth to discover who is following the curriculum best.  But that is not a justification of what we teach, merely a sad bureaucratic tool used to measure "success."  But again, higher numbers are pointless until the curriculum is justified.  Teaching them more useless trivia is no better than less useless trivia.

As you have heard, I am currently outside of the professional education industry right now and working in a meat cutting shop.  The folks I work with are not only proud of their job and financially secure, they achieved it without a college degree and in some cases without finishing high school.  Within the school walls, such a career is not only not presented as a useful trade, but is often deployed as a specter to those not involved enough in the book learning.  I yield to nobody in my love of academics, but such a snobbish attitude is not only detrimental to less academic youths (being treated as second class) but is detrimental to society at large.  Jobs are sent overseas for a reason; often the skills are over there but not here. 

If this tide of centralization could be rolled back, it would be nice to see local education flex to the interests and talents of students rather than make futile attempts to bend students to a set way of teaching.  Provide the basics of math and reading, but there is no justification for demanding every youth learn Shakespeare.  None.  If a student is interested in mechanics or butchering, don't deride them; encourage them, and hook them up with those possessing the skills and willingness to teach them!  Let them learn not only the trade but the habits of reliability!  We may not be able to recreate your utopia here, but that alone would greatly improve our culture and society.  So many youths spend 12 years in school hearing they are inferior to the book worm and having their own talents trampled down and despised.  How can anyone be surprised that this recipe brews social disorder?

While being praised, the academically superior are equally done a disservice.  As you rightly notice, not everyone can learn any particular skill, but our quantified system requires teachers to do just that.  Their emphasis naturally falls on the struggling to get them to pass the state tests, which increasingly is the measure of the teacher's worth.  The gifted students are ignored and their potential atrophies.  I envy both your youths and teachers in Walden Two. 

I have but a minor quibble on education.  History does serve a purpose.  We cannot perform experiments in history, as you note, but we can apply inductive reasoning to past events to notice repeating patterns.  I do not know how Frazier could tackle societal problems until he first identified them.  That said, we short change philosophy in our current system, which may in fact be its worst flaw. 

As with Mr. More, I cannot tell how serious you are about implementing your own utopia.  I have not received any word of your actually attempting such a community or even having serious designs in motion.  It seems I owe you an answer as to whether or not I believe Walden Two would work and, if it is really a separate question at all, whether it ought to.  The first response is a clear no.  Though it feels convincing enough as read (especially with Frazier's constant insistence), I cannot help but believe this society is over engineered.  This is not a normative criticism, but rather a practical one.  Society is composed of too many moving parts to remain perfectly tuned.  Your society reminds me of tanks in WWII.  Allied vehicles were not as impressive individually as those of Nazi Germany, but they were mechanically reliable, whereas the Axis vehicles were amazing if and only if they were not waiting for some rare and expensive part to move.  Society as it stands is not necessarily pretty, but it has survived for 10,000 years.  One shock from the outside world would severely test the strength of such behavioral engineering, especially as so much relies on a herd mentality. 

You wisely begin your book a decade after the founding of Walden Two.  The ball is already rolling and the inertia of current human behavior has already been overcome, but how that can be done is exactly the hard question essential to the benevolent use of behavioral science.  Frazier rightly describes people as sheep wanting to be lead, but you were equally right in pointing to the string barrier the sheep would not cross.  Only the Fraziers of the world will be there at first, and a functioning society of such people is unthinkable, much less a utopia!

Some method would be required to fairly assign credit values to community work.  This has been the bane of socialist societies and cannot be dismissed. 

Regarding the pitiful state of democracy, I could hardly agree more.  Mr. Madison has summed up the problem of politics better than anyone: we need a government with sufficient power to impose rules that benefit all, but that same government thereby becomes a threat to us.  While I heartily agree with Mr. Thoreau that the government that governs least governs best, it is "best" in a general sense, and a government that rules absolutely is best for the rulers.  Frankly, I have no idea how to keep the Leviathan at bay, and all thought into a better life in liberty comes to nought as we are chased by this increasingly inscrutable dragon.  The men who respect the rights of others will arrive at about the same time as Plato's Noble King and Marx's New Man.  Economics may be the dismal science, but politics is truly the depressing one. 

I thank you again for your outstanding book.  Walden Two falls short of utopia, but I can hardly think of a lighter criticism.  Any student hungry for tough questions and decent social commentary will find a satisfactory meal here. 

With greatest appreciation, I am humbly yours,

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

To Mr. James Fenimore Cooper, Jan 7

January 7, 2013

Mr. Cooper, 

Thank you for the copy of The Pathfinder.  Sadly, it accurately reflects the stubborn ignorance of mankind, the pride taken in false knowledge and the tendency of people to persist in falsehoods rather than own up to an obvious mistake.  Your take on the ship of state allegory is both enjoyable within the story and instructional in the weaknesses of a democratic society. 

Jasper Western's predicament crossed my mind while discussing the recent debacle over the so called "fiscal cliff."  Those bent on following this irresponsible course will never change and admit error, while the vast majority of people will not even know there is a danger until the wheels fall off the bus.  They resemble Mabel aboard the Scud.  Our citizens no more recognize the nature or nearness of our danger than they would be able to recognize breakers; they no more know the tools of government than they would identify leeward from windward, a spar from a topgallant or a halyard.  The destination, the tools to get there, or even our present position are beyond the understanding of the people, yet in a democracy it is their whim and random yanking on ropes that determines our course. 

Were I not aboard this vessel, I wouldn't care what point of the compass the bow would be directed in.  Yet my fate is tied to theirs.  I detest going out in the rain to keep others from getting wet, seeing as it usually only results in me catching a cold alongside them, and in their personal lives I no longer make any attempt to interfere.  The urge grows to act like Jasper and let the fools have the helm unhindered by me; it is my intention to turn to philosophy and religion for a while, though I know myself too well to believe I will long abandon care of the course of our ship of state. 


Friday, January 4, 2013

Response to Mr. Gibbon on the Emperor Julian

Jan 2, 2013

Mr. Gibbon, 

I have just received your account of the life and death of Rome's noble Emperor Julian and quite agree that the man was a worthy prince.  The philosopher ends his life by declaring "I have considered the happiness of the people as the end of government."  Nobly said!  I shall have to borrow any extant works of this wise ruler. 

My time is short today, but I must pose this question: how can any gov't know the happiness of 300,000,000 individual souls? If their happiness is created by different pleasures, can any government fulfill such an end? Poor Julian's dying words are but an empty shell if we fail to fill out the meaning of happiness and truly discern the capabilities of government in its various forms. 

Respectfully yours, 

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Response to Mr. Madison of Feb 1792

Jan 1, 2013

Mr. Madison, 

I have just read through your article in the National Gazette of Feb 6, 1792 and quite agree with your analysis.  Regretfully, I must inform you that, while consolidation of the state governments has not occurred, the states have lost any meaningful check on the Federal government, which has become monstrous indeed.  It has grown to such a size and intrudes upon so many subjects that even the wisest and best connected know but a fraction of its doings, while the common voter is often so completely in the dark as to know only the name of the chief Executive.  Your article is exactly right in declaring that the people are the guardians of their own liberty and happiness.  The people are their own constitution, and the rights of all people, the prosperity of all, will only be maintained if the people actively choose it.  

It is with a nearly unbearable sadness that I must report the vast majority of guardians have fallen asleep at their post, and no few are so groggy as to aid their own foes in storming their own keep.  Most sleep until struck personally; then only do they strike, but having slept through the approach of the villain, our poor citizen does not know friend from foe, but rather strikes at innocent fancies of the imagination.  

Flatterers destroy the civic virtue of our nation.  Every man is convinced he is worth more than the truth actually warrants, which is inflamed by a faction of fools (some out of mistaken convictions, while others are of a more sinister mind) that exploit this situation by promises to raise people to their "correct" value in exchange for the power to accomplish this goal.  Those who have been successful in life are castigated as criminals who have unfairly exploited the wealth of others.  Of course, this is not so, and the entire income of the wealthy could not raise everyone up to his opinion of himself, but that is irrelevant.  Even if all of that wealth were redistributed, those receiving such gifts would always know in his heart that the wealth is not of his creation, that he is the beneficiary of another; an intolerable position for most to live in, in particular if one despises the benefactor.  It is not the theft but the lie that is important, that so many with so much disappointment in themselves may pretend they are equal to those who have done better in this lifetime.  It is the politics of Envy. 

Civic virtue is the soul of republican government, but is no longer the soul of the United States.  Envy and apathy have filled its place.  Our government is now tasked primarily to provide services for which it is not designed, and to maintain this we have plunged deeper in debt than most can understand.  Our gargantuan state is not only incomprehensible to the average voter, but even to the elected officials, who conveniently use that ignorance as a shield from public reproach on the oft chance some public folly catches the public's attention.  Accountability is impossible.  Politics for most consists of attacking a scapegoat, providing no facts, and calling it a day.  

My dear Madison, it is with great shame that I admit this, but I do believe the time has come to abandon the experiment you so nobly advanced so long ago.  The problem lies not in the politicians but, as you pointed out, in the people, all three hundred million ignorant souls.  They must learn if liberty is to be preserved and insolvency avoided, but they are as receptive to instruction as the denizens of Plato's Cave (or even, in most cases, as the Cave itself).  I grow weary of playing the role of Laocoon, but if Troy is consumed by flames, Laocoon's fate is tied to Troy's.  Our time is short in which a remedy may be applied before the disease terminates the organism.  

I am, sir, your obedient servant,

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Ignorance and Insanity

“Being in a minority, even in a minority of one, did not make you mad. There was truth and there was untruth, and if you clung to the truth even against the whole world, you were not mad.”


Federal debt as of 12/05/11: $15,068,133,903,969.13
Federal debt as of 12/04/12: $16,347,055,651,380.32

(Source: TreasuryDirect.gov

That's roughly $1.3 trillion in debt over the last calender year.  In Washington, our President is absolutely demanding tax hikes on the "top 2%" which will supposedly raise $1.6 trillion over ten years.  That's $160 billion per year, assuming of course rich people do not abandon this country.  The United Kingdom just jacked up taxes on their rich and now collect $11 billion less in revenue than they did before.  

$1.3 trillion minus $160 billion is still well above a trillion dollars in the hole per year. 

This is not a serious plan for a very serious issue.  This is purely about attacking innocent civilians who can only be accused of being successful.  And our electorate put Obama back into office purely for this politics of envy. 

No wonder Washington is so dysfunctional. 

The truth is, we are going bankrupt.  The President's plan is not even aimed at this problem but at attacking people he despises for no particularly good reason.    And the American people are so damn ignorant that they can't even do the basic arithmetic to find out his glorious plan leaves us a trillion short for the upcoming year. 

It's not so much that the future isn't bright as that it's horrific.  And it is incredibly frustrating to realize my future is tied to this ship where the captain is a petty minded fool and the rest of the passengers are convinced the ship cannot sink. 

Friday, August 17, 2012

Are These Truths Self Evident?

The bedrock of this nation's conception of justice has been summed up with Jefferson's beautiful phrase 

"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."
But our nation has changed greatly over the past 236 years.  Among those changes is the nation's lack of faith in Jefferson's Creator.  Now, I will not condemn that change, for as an agnostic I too hold doubts of any such Creator existing.  Any honest person will note, however, without the Creator, the source of our endowment becomes unclear, raising the question: are we endowed with any such rights at all? 

I have been sifting through the works of various philosophers of positive and natural law in search of a solid footing on which such rights might rest, but the search has largely been in vain.  A ridiculous amount of verbiage is spent to create ludicrously few solid concepts, but this much I see:

There is no natural law or natural rights in the sense that "Good" requires those laws to be and anything in contradiction is not actually law.  "Good" itself has no objective existence.  Positive laws, those that are actually imposed by men on other men, do exist, no matter how poorly expressed or even insane they may be.  Laws are judged not in objective abstract terms of how will they coincide with the philosophical concept of law but in whether it aligns with one's political philosophy.  As atrocious as it seems to me, Nazi law was in fact a legal system in that it allowed those subscribing to Nazi ideology to fulfill their goals.  We may condemn those ideologies and their attendant jurisprudence, but we cannot point to a Higher Power that condemns them.  If God is dead, so is the Devil; there will be no retribution on evil men who live out long and happy lives.  

This fact has driven philosophers I otherwise respect into flights of fancy.  Friedrich Hayek, for example, condemns positive law as the rule of those who make the rules rather than dispassionate, impersonal law.  Hayek (and my) political philosophy may very well depend on limiting the power of those making the laws, but all of the rules ever written to that effect are in vain if nobody is there to enforce them.  In any democracy, it is easy to bribe a segment of the populace by promising the redistribution of the wealth of another segment's.  Those of us who see this as both morally wrong and economically harmful to most of us (even many in the bribed party) face Plato's daunting task of convincing the tyrant with the ring of Gyges that he personally would be better off doing good, even in comparison to doing evil with absolute impunity.  

Plato did not have a particularly good answer.  Neither the Myth of Er nor the Creator have much sway these days and pushing them would be a pathetic Nobel Lie.  I believe respecting the life, liberty, and property of all citizens it he only way to preventing our government from being an organ of theft and corruption to benefit whichever party currently occupies the Capitol.  But so long as some citizens are willing to be bribed with the wealth and happiness of others while most remain ignorant and apathetic, those on the throne making our laws will reap the benefits of Gyges' ring.  All appeals to natural law will fail, as those corrupt governors are following the natural law of their ideologies.  The only appeal that will demand their attention is the use of force. 

Saturday, August 11, 2012

A Congress of Common Men?

It is "common wisdom" that our Congress lacks truly common men and women, that those who represent us are rarely drawn among a representative strata of the society they represent.  If only the more average citizens could be elected, these patriots would work wonders for the common good rather than putting politics or certain segments of society first.  I find plenty wrong with this commonly held belief, but let's put aside the supposed conspiracy keeping average folk out and the intellectual weakness of the "common good" concept.  Even if a majority of such working class heroes were elected, little would be done of use.  To create change, Congress must legislate.  This is not a patchwork of unrelated laws but rather an immense set of legislation and regulation running into hundreds of thousands of pages, dealing with hundreds of agencies and trillions of dollars, exclusive of contracts with the private sector.  Senator John Q. Public has no chance of effecting meaningful change in this labyrinth he cannot navigate. 

Perhaps more frightening, Representative Silverspoon N. Mouth, with his years of public service and elite education afforded him by his privileged status in society, cannot comprehend this interminable Gordian Knot, either.  That's a frightening thought: nobody actually understands the law.  The most studious lawyers among us only become experts in parts of that law. 

If there are so many laws written in a language only a few can understand, any pretense of our laws being subject to democratic approval should be dropped.  Our elections are never based on the laws passed by politicians but rather on whether the quality of life has seemed to improve or not; most people could no more connect the impact of laws to actual life than they could read the mind of God himself. 

In their ignorance, people call for more regulation from the government.  It has nothing to do with having a sound understanding of economics, finances, or the law, but rather a primordial gut response that the people in charge need to "do something" to prevent bad economic outcomes.  Again, the people in Congress hardly understand the law, much less our entire economic system, but because of political pressure they feel compelled to create some new law or another.  Since the folks in Congress do not understand the laws well enough to change anything in a meaningful way, they turn to the experts in those particular areas of laws to be impacted by the new regulation.  

Those people are called lobbyists.  Their entire point in existing is to understand segments of the law relevant to their interest and write proposed changes that will change those segments in their (or their employer's) favor.  The more we regulate, the more complicated the mess becomes, and the more power lobbyists end up with due to this black hole of legal information. 

"It will be of little avail to the people, that the laws are made by men of their own choice, if the laws be so voluminous that they cannot be read, or so incoherent that they cannot be understood"

~Federalist 62 (I recommend reading it in its entirety)

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Test The Test

I'm currently reading Teaching America: The Case for Civic Education, edited by David Feith with contributors ranging across the political spectrum.  A single theme is dominant in each work: civic literacy is unacceptably low for a republican government like ours to function correctly.  Study after study has revealed America's profound and distressing ignorance of its own history and Constitution.  The rule of the People is based on the notion that the People will be a strong check on government abuse.  That, however, requires the People to first know that abuse is even going on (current events), to understand the proper sphere any particular public official operates in with corresponding powers and limits (the Constitution and attending laws), with a solid understanding of what is right and wrong in politics to begin with (political theory).  Public schools fail on nearly all of these categories; those who learn them do so on their own initiative.  

I think everyone knows this.  It's not even really controversial.  And yet, we continue down the same path, perhaps more out of apathy than anything else.  I've pointed out my discontent with New York's history curriculum before.  It is a creature of bureaucracy, more bent on allowing quantification of student results than improving student knowledge.  Recalling for two years arcane factoids and writing a vapid essay qualifies as acceptable in New York.  This hardly lives up to the lofty goals of Social Studies our state's Department of Education lays forth: 

Courses of study should give students the knowledge, intellectual skills, civic understandings, and dispositions toward democratic values that are necessary to function effectively in American society. Ultimately, social studies instruction should help students assume their role as responsible citizens in America’s constitutional democracy and as active contributors to a society that is increasingly diverse and interdependent with other nations of the world. For example, students should be able to use the knowledge and skills acquired through social studies courses to solve problems and make reasoned decisions in their daily lives. Social studies courses should provide students with the background to conduct research in order to cast informed votes, with the skills to place conflicting ideas in context, and with the wisdom to make good judgments in dealing with the tensions inherent in society such as the enduring struggle to find the proper balance between protecting the rights of the individual and promoting the common good.
Not having a high school diploma in this era is an economic death sentence; failing to pass the history Regents Exams bars graduation.  When the room has a high proportion of students who may not pass, the only option a teacher realistically has is to focus on those border line cases and do whatever possible to get them to squeak by.  The highest achieving students have to hope there is an AP program in order to receive attention, the lowest students are considered lost, and those border line cases hopefully pass the test.  This hardly helps "students assume their role as responsible citizens in America's constitutional democracy" (most people could not tell you what constitutional democracy means) who will "cast informed votes" (take a look at our voting rate and those who vote on issues rather than personalities) who "conduct research" (The Daily Show constitutes the main source of news for a ridiculously high proportion of Americans). 

Ok, so we're not living up to those lofty goals, but students will at least recall some basic facts from world and U.S. history because they can pass the test, right?  Everyone should be laughing at that thought.  Once the test is passed, the information can be and usually is forgotten, except for those few who found the material interesting; those students generally knew the information prior to taking the class. 

I would love to see a study on how many voting New York residents that passed the Global and United States Regents Exams in high school could pass them again now.  We'll eliminate the essay part and give a passing grade of 30 correct responses to 50 questions.  This is the general rule of thumb as to whether a student will pass the test. A response of 2 out of 5 is required on the essays, which amounts to making some vague statement about the topic at hand that wasn't handed to the student in the written directions.  I would wager good money that less than one in four would pass. 

So, why are we doing this?  We're not creating engaged and thinking citizens.  In the long run, we're not even creating citizens who recall factoids from the class. 

We do it because we're in a rut.  Getting out of that rut would require a great deal of work and squarely facing many unpleasant truths, among them that many students do not have the aptitude to understand our government well enough to hold them accountable.  Some will never get it, no matter how much education you throw at them.  We have a strong egalitarian streak in this nation and the notion of a natural aristocracy sets many teeth on edge.  Nevertheless, it exists, and we would be better served by focusing squarely on those with the talent than in wasting our time getting uninterested and incapable students to squeak by a test that has no bearing on long term civic literacy. I mean no disrespect to those who do not have the mental aptitude to govern as voters; the theory of multiple intelligences is one I happen to agree with.  Those with the ability to become mechanics should have that ability improved and polished rather than ignored while becoming frustrated as their intelligence is measured by some other standard.  But just as I don't want somebody who does not understand mechanics (like myself) working on my car, so I don't want those without understanding of government working on that, either. 

I don't know if we'll ever be ready for that as a nation.  Until we do, though, we will continue to fail to develop potential minds by wasting resources on those without the potential.  The first step will be removing these damn state tests and the best way of removing them is to prove how worthless they are.  Some institute or college should be looking into this.  If the History Regents are so important for students to pass that their futures can be ruined without satisfactory performance, then the test itself should be tested to see if the state standards are being met by voting age citizens who successfully completed New York's curriculum.  If there's no link between passing the tests and being informed (even about the exact same material), then the test serves no purpose whatsoever.  

Let's test the test.