Tag Archives: education

Ferguson Burning

The decision of the grand jury in Ferguson, MO is finally in (24 November 2014), and Officer Darren Wilson will not be indicted for the shooting of Michael Brown. This is being met with violent protest as I am writing.

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Seeing the events unfold, starting with an eighteen year old man rob a store and assault its owner, then attack a police officer and opening out onto protests and riots, reminds me of students I had in inner-city high schools in the Nashville, TN area who were convinced that a life of crime would bring them fortune and ease, while becoming educated was somehow “acting white.”

As my picture at the top of this site shows, I’m a white male. To some, that negates everything I’m about to say. If so, that’s not my problem. I’ve spent the better part of twenty years in education at various levels, and I will call things as I see them.

Life isn’t easy, especially if you live in the depressed and disadvantaged cities of this country. That’s a fact. But resentfully clinging to that won’t get you out. It won’t make things better. The following are what will:

1. Dress like a successful person, not like a thug. If no one around you is doing so, watch television. Dress like the successful people. Visit a college. Dress like the professors. No, you won’t be seen as cool, and you won’t get laid. Those facts are good for you.

2. Attend classes, talk to your teachers, commit to learning and to getting a diploma. Many schools in the inner city are shit. There’s no other way to put it. But at the same time, you can learn something, more than a little something if you’re determined to gain knowledge.

3. College is expensive, but some are less expensive than others. Go to a community college after high school. Or see what four-year colleges in your state accept any residents with a diploma. Spend time with your school’s guidance counselor, and get answers that you want. Research scholarships. First, get a two-year degree, then go on to a bachelor’s degree at a full college. Even if it takes many years of a class or two a semester, keep doing it.

This all may sound like so much pablum, but like many things in life, it’s a simple answer that requires a lot of hard work. It’s also not a guarantee, though the odds will be much better if you do it.

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Book Larnin’

I’ve had plenty of things to say about education on this weblog. Since I’ve spent the last fifteen years teaching, the subject comes naturally to me. And it’s not just out of self-interest that I support universal and public education. But a recent article on The Huffington Post about Common Core standards that are spreading a layer of varnish over our failing schools reminds me of the need to be clear about what exactly we’re trying to do in education in the first place.

1. Critical thinking

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Another way to put this is logic. Knowing how to think correctly and how to spot erroneous thinking–in others and in one’s own thoughts. That is the one essential skill that students and indeed citizens must have. That skill alone, what the ancients would have called philosophy, makes everything else accessible and useful.

2. Other skills

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These certainly include literacy and numeracy, civics, history, and science, among many other things. Students should have opportunities to find careers that suit them and to learn the skills necessary for those fields.

3. Exposure

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Schools should show students things that they might not otherwise encounter. Not everyone gets to see great paintings, listen to music beyond what’s immediately popular, or hear about the many claims of science and religions at home. To make an informed choice, we have to have some notion of the broad world that we have yet to explore personally.

4. Exercise

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My advisor in college told me that I needed to take a P.E. class–to knock a ball around or something similar. I objected until I saw sailing as one of the options. But in the fine tradition of the Greeks, an educated person improved the body as well as the mind, and given our health concerns in the modern age, that old idea remains valid.

What is the purpose of all of this? For one thing, a wealthy nation should have excellent citizens. But a nation in which citizens participate in their own governance requires an educated population to function. Another article on The Huffington Post decries the influence of money in politics, but with educated voters, money becomes irrelevant.

And that is the point. Citizens make a society in their own image, and I want our image to be an educated one.

Crossposted on English 301: Reading and Writing.

My writing for sale.

How Government Governs Best

Those of us who spend much time discussing politics have heard the saying, government governs best which governs the least. It’s often attributed to Thomas Jefferson, but in fact, the origin is the opening paragraph of Henry David Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience. Because his words are a good introduction to today’s discussion, I’ll quote that paragraph in full:

I heartily accept the motto, “That government is best which governs least”; and I should like to see it acted up to more rapidly and systematically. Carried out, it finally amounts to this, which also I believe – “That government is best which governs not at all”; and when men are prepared for it, that will be the kind of government which they will have. Government is at best but an expedient; but most governments are usually, and all governments are sometimes, inexpedient. The objections which have been brought against a standing army, and they are many and weighty, and deserve to prevail, may also at last be brought against a standing government. The standing army is only an arm of the standing government. The government itself, which is only the mode which the people have chosen to execute their will, is equally liable to be abused and perverted before the people can act through it. Witness the present Mexican war, the work of comparatively a few individuals using the standing government as their tool; for, in the outset, the people would not have consented to this measure.

The war that he refers to was the Mexican-American War, but it could just as well be any war in our history, especially including those of the present.

But let’s work out exactly what the purpose of government is. Otherwise, we have ourselves a massive answer in violent search of a question. My statement of government’s purpose comes in three parts in order descending from greatest to least:

1. The protection of liberty

The first, foremost, and fundamental purpose of government is to protect the liberties of individuals when they live in groups. We saw last week (26 June 2013) an example of this in the Supreme Court’s rulings on DOMA and California’s Proposition 8. Though the rulings were more limited than I should have liked, they did at least declare the principle that all couples have the right to marry. More gains in that arena will follow in due course.

The idea here is that when people concentrate together, the rights that they are born with run the risk of being trampled by the herd. Just as two roads intersecting require traffic lights to allow for both to cross without damage, we have to have a government that will protect the rights of each of us from the desires of others. Notice that government does not create those rights. It exists to protect what comes before and above itself.

2. Creation of an environment for human excellence

The second function of government is to create and sustain an environment in which human excellence is possible. Human beings achieve great things when they work together. This includes consumer protections that guarantee accurate labelling of products, programs that see to the health of people, and services that provide a functioning transportation and education system. Yes, these cost money and have to be paid for by taxes (but not deficit spending, let us agree), but they enhance the liberties that each citizen is able to exercise, and as long as the tax rate is reasonable and agreed to by popular vote–in our case, for elected representatives–this is consistent with the first principle. In fact, let’s recognize that taxation is required for any government action. Without taxes, we lose even the first purpose.

But again, the idea here is that by creating an environment in which humans can achieve great things, either separately or in groups, government makes possible a broader exercise of the liberties we are born with.

3. Promotion of cultural growth

By culture, I mean the arts, sciences, technology, and other such expressions of human excellence. This differs from the second purpose in that I see a job for government not only to create an environment in which culture can thrive, but also to promote new developments that are unlikely to be achieved first by individuals or private companies. NASA and the Internet are my two favorite examples of this. Without government, space, both cyber and outer, would not have been opened. The rewards were too far off into the future, and the technical difficulties meant that profit might never come.

This third purpose is the one that I see as the most debatable. It is the area most subject to risk, as we have seen with the recent kerfuffle over Solyndra. It also is the most subject to waste. But without risk there is no reward, and I’m willing to accept the chance of some money being scattered to the wind, since, in fact, the better metaphor is casting bread upon the water. Yes, some of it will sink or rot, but much will return to us in unexpected ways.

Those are the three purposes that I see. A representative republic–one in which rights are beyond public opinion and citizens vote on who will lead for a defined term–is my choice of how to go about achieving those purposes.

Now, I need a term for this political philosophy. Libertarian somewhat fits, though people who today identify as such would object to many of the areas in which I see a role for government. Liberal would be a good word, if it hadn’t been corrupted by so many on the left of the American political scene. Progressive has suffered the same fate. To shift the debate from the deep ruts of our current parties, I propose a new word, coming from the ancient Greek word, ἐλευθερία, eleutheria, meaning liberty. I’m naming my political philosophy Eleutherianism.

Now to form a tax-exempt organization and begin raising funds….

Reducing Gun Violence

Regular readers of this weblog will know that I am a believer in the basic right of all human beings to own and carry firearms. I have as much right to be armed as I do to have my tongue and my opinions with me wherever I go. I may be justifiably asked to keep my mouth shut and other matters concealed, but no one has the right to require more than that.

That being said, I do recognize that we have a problem of gun violence in America. Every year, around 30,000 of us die by gunfire. More than half of those deaths are due to suicide, but regardless of the cause, the number is too high. So what do we do?

Some propose restrictions on ownership and carry, while wanting to ban some types of firearms altogether. This approach makes no sense, given the more than 300,000,000 guns in private hands in this country and our long and porous borders. But there are things that we can do:

1. Create a functioning and available mental healthcare system. This ideally would be a part of general healthcare reform for everyone. I don’t have much faith in Obamacare, given its lack of a public option and the weak and mealy-mouthed manner of its passage and implementation, but that’s a step in the right direction. More–specifically the public option–needs to be done. Note that I don’t mean involuntary commitments or the violations of privacy. What I’m suggesting here is healthcare available to all who need it.

2. Reduce poverty. In my previous article on Alexandria, I named an educational system as a necessary element of any working democracy. I add to this the idea that education, such as I discussed here is a way out of poverty. Other intelligently run programs would have the same effect. We can debate at length whether poverty causes crime, but certainly living in poverty puts a person at greater risk–both for being a victim and an offender of violent crime. (Being wealthy brings a whole different class of crimes to commit, but that’s not generally related to guns.)

3. End our foolish drug laws. Much of our violence is related to illegal drugs. Treat drugs as a health problem, not a crime problem, and that motivating factor goes away. Al Capone didn’t sell beer nuts, after all.

We often hear from the gun control freaks that Europe is a model for good gun laws. Most countries in Europe have strict gun control–the Czech Republic being a shining exception for the moment–and those countries have lower gun violence than America. The difference is not actually that great, especially compared to other parts of the world, but the fact remains that Europe has fewer acts of gun violence than we do. But let’s note that Europe also has the three items that I just proposed. Certainly, it’s in doubt whether the Europeans will be able to afford the first two much longer, but in many cases, the problematic countries have chosen the California approach to government–lots of goodies, paid for by borrowing. Effective work for the first two can be done without requiring deficit spending–provided we are willing to pay for it. The third item would in fact save us money, both in prison and court costs and in expendatures for public health.

My three solutions have the advantage of not infringing on the rights of those who did nothing wrong in the vain hope of restraining those who make a life of doing bad acts. My answers also would show benefits in a variety of areas unrelated to gun violence. They are measured responses to a problem that has been getting better over the last two decades.

Perhaps they lack the quality of breathless bloviating, but I see that as a feature, not a bug.

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.