Category Archives: American Education

Speak Your Mind, Unless We Don’t Like What You Say

Journalism professor David Guth of the University of Kansas is at the center of a controversy over a tweet that he made on Monday in reaction to the Navy Yard shootings in Washington, D.C. This is the tweet:

#NavyYardShooting The blood is on the hands of the #NRA. Next time, let it be your sons and daughters. Shame on you. May God damn you.

Professor Guth has been put on leave by the university, and legislators in Kansas are calling for him to be fired. His Twitter account, @DWGuth, doesn’t appear to be available at present, so I can’t speak to him directly, and his webpage offers no contact information, so here’s my message to him:

Dear Professor Guth,

As a supporter of gun rights and as a human being, I find your comment revolting. The idea that those who stand up for basic rights deserve to have their children die as a consequence leaves me pleased that you are not in a position of much power. The NRA is no more responsible for the D.C. shooting than the NAACP is responsible for the gang violence in Chicago recently. Those of us who stand for rights recognize that each person is responsible for himself or herself.

At the same time, as a supporter of freedom of expression and of academic freedom, I deplore the actions of the University of Kansas and of some of your state’s legislators in putting you on leave and demanding your firing. Academia cannot function unless its members are free to speak their minds, no matter how vehemently the rest of us may disagree with what is said. In no way do I support the content of your comment, but I do defend your right to say it.

Greg Camp

La Classe È Mobile?

University of California, Davis, Professor Gregory Clark has released a study of social mobility, focusing on class in England, with some reference to other countries, including the United States. He looks in particular at English surnames over a period of the last thousand years. His conclusion is that there is a tendency to regress to the mean, no matter how high or low in social rank a family starts out. That means that the poor tend to float upward over generations to the middle class, while the rich sink into the same.

This should come as no surprise to those of us who read old books. Plato discusses this idea in his dialogues. We’ve also heard the old line about how the first generation builds wealth, the second spends it, and the third returns to mediocrity. It’s interesting to see that the poor tend toward the middle, as well.

The study is detailed, while its conclusions are tentative, but for social policy, we can draw our own:

1. The middle class is not a bad place to be. We’ve told ourselves that being on top is the only prize worth winning, and the truth of that is a matter of debate, but life in the middle can be lived. Population studies tell us that most people are in the middle, anyway, with regard to ability.

2. The study suggests that the efforts of the wealthy to provide opportunities to their children often do no good. The implication is that the children aren’t necessarily born with their parents’ abilities. That latter statement would seem to be true about children born to lower than average parents–often they are born with more potential. This suggests that we should give up on forcing every child to be equal in academic performance. There are basic skills and areas of knowledge that every citizen needs, but when it comes to more advanced levels, children will sort themselves out, and schools should let them. Trade schools after high school would be of much greater advantage to many students, and universities could return to academic pursuits. Schools should provide the opportunity for students to rise to their level of ability and be satisfied with that.

3. Another set of social policies supported here is the combination of a safety net and inheritance taxes. The poor need time to rise to the middle, while the rich will benefit little in useful ways from having wealth passed on to them. (In the latter case, it would be simple to make an exception for family farms or small businesses.)

There is one final point to make. We should know this, but the tail ends of the bell curve are tiny in terms of the number of people in them. Social policy for decades has been aimed at creating a Lake Wobegon world in which all children are above average, but that’s unrealistic. Instead, we end up with something more like Kurt Vonnegut’s short story, “Harrison Bergeron,” a world that weighs down people of ability in the name of equality. We should celebrate ability where we find it–and go looking for it everywhere.

My Fellow Americans. . .

We have heard and are going to hear a lot about money in elections. The Citizens United decision declared that a corporation has the same free speech rights as an individual, a really rich individual. So be it. Money has flooded the political system for a long time. But all the proposals to restrain the influence of wealth on government come from an old view of the world. In the past, a candidate needed money to gain support. Campaign staff had to be paid. Air time had to be bought. Ballots for stuffing boxes had be purchased, and some people had to be bribed.

But no more. These days, anyone who can afford an Internet connection or who is near a public library can be an informed voter, and any candidate with the same access can be effective. The names of candidates can be written on ballots at the day of the election. The campaign can be done entirely on-line.

It’s time for voters to take control of their democracy. With that in mind, I propose a new party, provisionally to be named the Union Party with the motto, E Pluribus Unam. I’ll entertain better names, though.

The guiding principle of this party will be liberty in the small and cooperation in the large. With that in mind, let’s go through the typical list of political matters in this country today, as given by OnTheIssues.org:

Abortion:

Abortions in the first two trimesters will be solely the choice of the pregnant woman without irrelevant tests or burdens. During the third trimester, abortions will only be allowed if the health of the woman is in jeopardy. That determination will be made between her and her doctor. The government health program (see below) will pay for abortions. Other plans may choose to do so or not at their discretion.

Budget and the Economy:

1. Debt is dangerous. Getting out of debt must be a goal of every administration until the debt is gone.

2. Tax rates will be 30% on the highest bracket, 20% on the upper middle, 10% on the lower middle, and 0% on the poor, income levels to be added later as needed. Some variation will be permitted in the upper brackets to achieve debt reduction or other goals.

3. The tax code must be written in English, not Ligature Rouge. Deductions must be eliminated.

Civil Rights:

1. Race, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and other such categories are part of a person’s nature and are not legitimate for consideration in hiring, in acceptance into schools, in legal matters, or in other similar areas of public concern. That goes both ways, of course.

2. Marriage is a matter for religious institutions to decide. Governments should issue civil unions only that will cover taxes, insurance, finances, and similar.

3. Voting districts should be based on geography and population, not on race or political party affiliation.

Corporations:

1. Corporations will be free to operate, provided that they are honest about the products that they sell and that they can show that their effect on the environment is acceptable.

2. Unions have the right to organize if the workers agree to join and to bargain with employers.

3. Any corporation that gets a bailout from the government will be required to operate according to the best interests of the workers and the community.

Crime and Drugs:

1. Usage of drugs will be legalized, and dealers will be required to label their products honestly.

2. Financial criminals will have to spend their sentences paying back their victims, rather than enjoying a state-funded vacation.

3. Violent criminals will be put away for a long time.

Education:

See my previous articles on this subject. To summarize, class sizes will be reduced, total school size will as well. Add to that a rational funding system–in other words, not property taxes. In addition, children will be required to attend only half a day in public schools. They will be taught civics, mathematics, reading, and critical thinking. Their parents may then choose to educate them for the rest of the day at home, at private schools, or in public schools.

State colleges and universities will provide quality education at a price that everyone can afford. Private schools and for-profit schools may do as they wish, so long as all terms are made clear from the beginning.

This will require funding. That’s life.

Energy and the Environment:

America has large reserves of natural gas, and we grow a lot of corn that can be made into fuel. Those two will be temporary sources until wind, solar, and other types of clean energy are in place. Getting from the former to the latter will be a constant goal and action.

Foreign Policy and Free Trade:

1. Europe must learn to defend itself. America will maintain only such bases as are needed to conduct surveillance of the region.

2. There must be a solution to the Israel-Palestine question–likely a three-state solution. If any party in this dispute is unwilling to negotiate, the United States will withdraw support.

3. Iran and China are primary threats to our security for various reasons. Our policy will be one of containment and reduction.

4. North Korea is a pissant little adolescent state. Anything that they throw at us will be paid for twentyfold. No more aid will go to them unless they promise total obedience.

5. Worker rights and the enviroment will be a part of all trade deals, but free trade is the ultimate goal.

Gun Control:

I’ve also written about this, but in principle, in small arms, it’s not the device that matters; it’s the action. The only restrictions will be on those deemed a danger to others after due process of the courts. Cities may also require that weapons remain concealed within their borders and may restrict discharges to self defense shootings. Property owners may do as they wish on their own land, but businesses are public accomodations, as are colleges. Children may use firearms under the supervision of an adult.

Healthcare:

The government will create a national system for anyone who wants to participate–call it Medicare, since we already have that in place. Medicare will be able to negotiate payments the way that any other health company can. Fees will be determined on the basis of a person’s income. Private companies may continue to operate, and people may choose them as desired.

Immigration:

Anyone who wishes to become an American and who will adopt our values of responsibility and freedom is welcome.

Social Security:

Social Security taxes will be assessed on all income, not capped as they currently are.

Technology:

One valid use of public funds is to promote the development of new technologies. This applies particularly to energy and to space. We must have active programs of research, development, and exploration. Corporations, schools, and private individuals may also do their own work, since competition is healthy in this field.

Welfare:

The goal of welfare must be to make the recipient self sufficent. Programs that create dependency will be eliminated. We must be willing to help, but we must also require growth on the part of those who are helped.

That’s the list, more or less. I’ll gladly consider any other items that my readers wish to offer. Of course, one elected official alone won’t be able to accomplish all of this, but much can be done even so. A president, for example, could get cooperation from Democrats for some of this and Republicans for other parts. A president could speak to the people regularly, creating a lot of pressure on Congress. So can anyone else elected on this platform.

With all of this in mind, if nominated, I will run. If elected, I will serve. I will continue to write in any case. Who’s with me?

A Debate on the Second Amendment

Last Saturday (2 April 2011), I attended a debate held at Temple Shalom in Fayetteville, AR on the subject of employees of colleges who hold licenses carrying concealed handguns on campus, moderated by Doug Thompson, editorial page editor for Northwest Arkansas Newspapers. Supporting this proposition were Charlie Collins, Representative for the 89th District of the Arkansas House and Wesley Stites, professor of chemistry at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville. Collins originally advocated the proposal during his campaign for office in 2010. In opposition were Thomas Kennedy, emeritus professor of history at the U of A, and Stephen Sheppard, professor of law at the same. Kennedy had written a letter to a local newspaper that criticized Collins’s call for concealed carry on campus, and the exchange between the two led to this debate.

Kennedy and Collins presented the usual arguments against and for carrying concealed handguns. Kennedy named automatic weapons and cop-killer bullets and observed that the recent rulings of the Supreme Court allow for limitations on gun ownership and use. He said that he has no objection to sport shooting and hunting, but does not include self defense as a reasonable cause for owning a gun. Collins, by contrast, stated that calling a campus a “gun-free zone” in no way restrains someone who has made the decision to commit mass murder. The bill that he introduced in the Arkansas House of Representatives would have allowed full-time employees of colleges who also have concealed carry licenses to carry their handguns on campus. He saw this as an incremental approach to expanding gun rights.

I’ve seen these statements many times before. Those who oppose gun ownership raise the terror of bullets that will penetrate the vests of police officers and of automatic weapons without being clear about what they’re talking about. The fact is that any centerfire rifle round will punch through the standard ballistic vest that the police wear, but those same vests usually block handgun bullets. The definition of automatic depends on the context. Historically, automatic was used to mean self-loading. In other words, an automatic pistol was the kind that loaded a new round after the last one fired. We’re not talking about machine guns that fire until the shooter releases the trigger.

Collins’s statement about a campus as a gun-free zone was challeneged by the President of the Temple, Joel Freund, professor of psychology at the U of A and a member of the audience. Freund said that the atmosphere of a campus would change if handguns were allowed. As a college instructor and a supporter of gun rights, I do find this to be the challenging part of the discussion. Just as gentlemen in days gone by removed their hats indoors as a sign that they were not going to do battle in that space, it would be best if college campuses were areas in which the only fighting that takes place is on the intellectual level. That sounds lovely, and I’m not being sarcastic here. Since the middle ages, the university in its ideal was a place of freedom from the church and the state. Unfortunately, reality does insist on intruding. The academic world depends on rational behavior, and by definition, the insane and the evil are not rational. In addition, as easy as handguns are to conceal, we in colleges have no guarantee that everyone is unarmed, and I’d prefer that at least some of the weapons be in the possession of those whose backgrounds have been checked.

The most interesting part of the discussion for me was what Sheppard had to say. He went through the history of the writing and interpretation of the Second Amendment, observing that of all the Bill of Rights, that one amendment has almost nothing said about it in its early days. He suggested that anyone on either side who claims to know what Madison originally meant in the Second Amendment is simply wrong. This was something of a challenge to the claims of Stites that our Founders were radicals in their thinking and saw the Second Amendment as defending a right of the people to overthrow an oppressive government.

More can be learned from court cases that came later. Sheppard told us about a ruling in Kentucky in the 1820s that took an individualist interpretation of the Second Amendment and one in Arkansas in the 1840s that favored a collectivist model. The general pattern of court rulings throughout much of American history has been that the amendment limits the power of the Federal government, but leaves the states free to regulate firearms as they see fit. The question that the Supreme Court addressed in the Heller and MacDonald decisions was whether the Second Amendment was incorporated under the Fourteenth Amendment, just as was done with the First Amendment in years gone by.

What is important here is to see how our understanding of rights have evolved in the years since the founding of America. Sheppard pointed out that our modern notions of the natural rights of the individual are a recent idea and that the Founders of our country were not nearly as radical as we like to believe. Perhaps I’m revealing my sympathies as a teacher of literature, but a well-chosen mythology is good for our national culture. I’m willing to acknowledge that I’m reading my modern ideas into writers like Jefferson and Madison, but just as we have come to understand that blacks and whites and all other races are included under the beautiful ideas of legal equality, I think that we can find a belief in free citizens as members of the general nobility of America in their words without doing too much violence to the texts.

What I am referring to here is the idea that in Northern European societies, free persons possessed the right to arms by virtue of their status. (This includes having a coat of arms for the family.) Now who was a free person differed from one tribe or kingdom to another, to be sure, but whoever was meant had a right to personal weapons, and the society expected such a person to be armed.

The mythology of America, something that I believe we can read in the works of our Founders, is that each one of us is a free person. It has taken us a long time to work out what we mean by that. We now include those of African descent. We include women and those whose ancestors lived here when Europeans arrived. We no longer require a person to own land to participate in government and rights.

My argument here is that we are more secure and freer when we look for as many individual rights in our Constitution as we can possibly find. The fact that the First Amendment originally only limited the U. S. Congress shows the danger that arises from only finding a state’s right or a corporate right. Stites reminded us that Mao Tse-tung once wrote that all political power flows from the barrel of a gun. I hope that we don’t have to accept that thinking. The American myth is that political power flows from the individuals who make up the population of the nation.

Society must balance the rights of the individual against the stability of the whole and must depend on the responsibility of the actors within. That having been said, the prerequisite is a recognition of the rights that each of us has because we are alive. I prefer groups–businesses, states, the Federal government, and so on–to have to beg permission from individuals. I want all of us to stand up for ourselves, even as we gather together. A personal right to own, carry, and use firearms is one example of this.

Class Action

The other day, I heard an interview with Eva Moskowitz, an educator in New York City who runs and avocates for charter schools. She was defending the article that she wrote for the Washington Post. Have a look at what she wrote:

http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/the-cost-of-small-class-size/2011/03/03/AFPGSkkB_story.html

Her argument, as far as I can understand it, is that when we limit class sizes, we also limit the number of gadgets that we can give to each child.

Let’s run the numbers. She wants each student to have a laptop and a Kindle. The cheapest laptops run around $250, and a Kindle, without the 3-G option, goes for $140. It’s difficult to figure out how much Smart Boards cost, largely because there are the typical profusion of needless features and associated accessories to factor in, but $2,000 looks like a reasonable estimate for the low end.

This makes a minimum cost of around $400 per student, plus the costs for the classroom devices. We’re not taking into account the upgrades. Inevitably, once we become addicted to some new product of technology, the dealer comes around with the latest thrill that we must have. And what about the prices of the books that will be loaded on the Kindles? E-books run anywhere from free to fuggetaboutit, just like physical books, but not all books are equal. The good ones are the spendy ones.

Compare those costs to teacher salaries. According to the New York City Department of Education (http://schools.nyc.gov/NR/rdonlyres/EDDB658C-BE7F-4314-85C0-03F5A00B8A0B/0/salary.pdf), the base annual salary for a teacher with a bachelor’s degree and no experience is $45,000. The maximum that a teacher can earn by gaining degrees and years of teaching, is $100,000 a year. That means that an individual teacher is worth between 112 and 250 laptop-Kindle combinations.

Moskowitz doesn’t let us know one embarassing fact: her own salary. Juan Gonzalez, reporter for the New York Daily News, tells us that she receives more than $300,000 per annum (http://articles.nydailynews.com/2009-02-26/local/17916998_1_charter-schools-salaries-eva-moskowitz). It’s good to be an administrator.

But so much for the numbers. We can tweak the balance sheet in a variety of ways to argue that one solution is more economically effective than another. The real question here is what we mean by education.

Did you notice in Moskowtiz’s argument that increasing class size will allow “access to a catalogue of lesson plans and videotaped lessons”? This looks a lot like outsourcing teaching. Think of how much money we could save by buying lessons from a “master teacher” in Freedonia (who gets paid the exorbitant figure of a dollar a day) and then showing them to all the students of a city who will be gathered together in a warehouse. My objection to this is that we are taking the humanity out of school. Certainly, we have to afford buildings and supplies and teachers. What are our priorities?

What we need in our school system is teachers. A teacher is someone who has the skill of imparting knowledge and (more importantly) wisdom to students. That’s not something that can be measured on a scale. Education is a human process: the human interactions that happen in a classroom that isn’t crowded. My priority in this age of technological inflation is to preserve what makes us human. Moskowitz obviously has other goals.

Is Our College Students Learning?

A few weeks ago, a friend passed along this piece of disturbing information:

http://chronicle.com/article/Are-Undergraduates-Actually/125979/

The study that is the subject of the article claims that 45% of American college students show no demonstrable learning in standardized assessments after two years of “study.” As a college English instructor and aspiring professional writer, this hits me in my wallet and my soul.

Part of the problem may be that college is simply not for everyone. As shocking as it is to say it, neither, perhaps, is literacy. Throughout the time of human writing, only a small portion of the population could read. Of course, most had no time to read, even had they the skill, while our society gives us some measure of leisure time. In my own classes, it’s been my impression that only about a quarter of my students are fully engaged in the process and another quarter are at least willingly doing the work. The rest are only there to get a piece of paper that will declare them to be graduates.

Many see this as deplorable and likely my fault–college adminstrators, for example–but I can’t agree. College is a self-selective experience. Broadly speaking, college students get out of their classes exactly however much they want to get, usually depending on how much they’re willing to put into the class.

And the material that we study is not comprehensible to everyone. I can often teach anyone who is willing to learn, but there are limits. Some students just can’t get it. I’m not addressing the general population, but I suspect that I would find the same results outside of academe: Some would understand and some would not. What would the numbers be? I guess about half and half, but that may just be because I’m aware of the bell curve of I.Q. distributions.

Raising that point brings along with it one of my complaints about the study. It’s statistics about a standardized test. While it may be possible to analyze human beings with statistical methods, I find most such studies to be excessively reductive. We’re too complex to play games of twenty (or seventy) questions with our minds. (See the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory for an example of such dubious tools of analysis.) I reject standardized tests as means of evaluating learning. A standardized test only tells me how well the taker can take standardized tests.

If it were up to me, there would be no grading at all in college, with the possible exception of giving an assessment of honors, pass, or fail whenever the student decides to leave the experience. The humanities are not subjects that lend themselves to quantitative analysis, and as a teacher of writing and literature, I have no idea how to give percentage grades for the work of my students. If I’m assigning points out of a hundred on an essay, that forces me to attend only to things that are quantifiable–errors in commas, spellings, etc. Such details are important, but they are the lowest level of writing skills. I grade essays based on the Trivium of the classical Liberal Arts: Grammar, Logic, and Rhetoric. Only grammar (or an artificially mechanical form of the others) can be assessed numerically, and even then, that method is a blunt instrument. It took me a few years of teaching to come to this position. I had been mostly to schools that grade by points, and just about all of my colleagues have followed the same system. The method that I use now comes in part from what I saw in use at my graduate alma mater, St. John’s College.

All of this leads me to the question of what ought to be taught in college. What we need to do is divide college into the two parts that it actually has at the moment. The popular impression of any level of education seems to be that its purpose is to be a trade school. Most go to school to learn skills that will be useful in their future careers. We do need to impart job skills to students, but that’s training, not education. I’d like to see trade schools separated from colleges, where the focus would be exclusively on training. The skills required to perform most jobs could be learned in two years, if that long.

But what about college? The purpose of a college is to provide an education, in other words, the experience that makes us good citizens and developed human beings.

Yes, I’m making something of an elitist statement here, but look at what an education gives. An educated person learns the liberal arts, the subjects that free people (the nobility, through most of human history) were expected to know. Today, this means world history, composition, the best of literature, the basics of the sciences and mathematics, a general understanding of world cultures and religions, at least two modern languages and one classical language, and political theory and government. It is for the best also to gain an appreciation of music, philosophy, painting, architecture, sculpture, and other such subjects. Ideally, such a person will also gain physical skills, what the Greeks called gymnastic. (You knew that I’d bring in shooting somewhere, didn’t you?)

All of what I just described is at best tangential to one’s ability to perform most jobs. In my experience, such learning actually makes many jobs more difficult. If we can agree that the portion that covers American government ought to be taught at the trade schools as well, I see no reason for most jobs to have a college degree (understood properly) as a prerequisite. In fact, we could teach basic good citizenship in high school, if such schools can be run effectively.

The problem with my idea here is that no one who cares only about money can find a way of assessing the value of my kind of college. To that person, I say that money is like grammar. It’s a necessary, but not sufficient condition for the good life, and I refuse to reduce humanity to merely that order of existence.

Heating Up the Classroom

Have a look at this bill that has been filed in the Arkansas House of Representatives:

http://www.arkansashouse.org/bill/2011R/HB1479

http://arkansasnews.com/2011/02/22/bill-would-let-college-faculty-staff-carry-guns-on-campus/

It’s about time. Under the current law, college campuses are officially gun-free zones, which means that they provide open season on students and employees to anyone who wants to commit mass murder. Those of us with concealed carry licenses could put a stop to an attack, if the bill passes.

So to my Arkansas readers, please send messages to your representative and senator asking both to support the bill and then, when it passes (let’s be hopeful), write to Governor Beebe to ask for his signature.