Thursday, November 25, 2010

What Country Are You From?

Fulgencio Batista, 1940
Recently, Terry Gross interviewed Carlos Eire, a Cuban exiled at the age of 12, now a professor of religious studies at Yale, about his new memoir, Learning to Die in Miami.
In 1962, 11-year-old Carlos Eire was one of thousands of children airlifted out of Cuba and sent to Florida to escape Fidel Castro's regime. His parents thought he would be back as soon as Castro was deposed.
But Eire never returned home. Shortly after he arrived in the United States, the Cuban missile crisis shut down Cuba's borders, and his parents were unable to leave the country. For the next several years, Eire would be shuffled between foster families around the country before joining his aunt and uncle in Chicago.
I'm always torn when thinking about the politics of Cuba.  On the one hand, of course, the Castro regime is terrible in its totalitarian communism, denial of rights, etc.  And Cuban exiles have an an understandable resentment at losing their way of life and family, their country.

But on the other hand pre-revolution Cuba was not a democratic paradise.  It was a post-colonial dictatorship with all the classic remnants of a history of social injustice: a large racial underclass, exploitation by foreign interests, mass poverty, a light-skinned, hegemonic plutocracy that held nearly all the wealth and propped up the corrupt regime.  The government was ruthless and not only controlled the media but punished dissent violently.  John F. Kennedy described Batista's Cuba thusly:
 Fulgencio Batista murdered 20,000 Cubans in seven years ... and he turned Democratic Cuba into a complete police state - destroying every individual liberty. Yet our aid to his regime, and the ineptness of our policies, enabled Batista to invoke the name of the United States in support of his reign of terror. Administration spokesmen publicly praised Batista - hailed him as a staunch ally and a good friend - at a time when Batista was murdering thousands, destroying the last vestiges of freedom, and stealing hundreds of millions of dollars from the Cuban people, and we failed to press for free elections
The Marxist revolution, against all odds, succeeded in its fundamental goal: overthrowing the existing political and economic order and redistributing land and power into the hands of the underclass.

In his interview with Gross, Eire struck me as either being unaware of, or at least uninterested in this latter narrative of the revolution.  I can't possibly understand how painful his experience was; he never saw his father again.  But one wonders to what degree this pain exists unburdened by the idea that despite his personal sacrifice, the context of the situation was one in which there may have been no "good" options.  And that while his family may have born a larger portion of the suffering, this was in part because it had previously born a larger portion of the benefits of the previously existing power structure.

Apparently Eire, blond-haired and with a perfect American accent, came from considerable wealth.  At one point in the interview he describes the Cuban government coming to his home and inventorying their possessions, a process that took nearly three days, owing largely to the vastness of his father's art collection. The great pain in this - the loss of personal property - depends on an explicitly non-Marxist analysis of property.  While a certain human impulse of attachment to one's possessions is unavoidable, if one acknowledges that the attainment of possessions through unjust means weakens one's ownership of them, then this impulse is likewise weakened.  The singular goal of the revolution could be summed up as an effort to correct an inequitable distribution of power from the hands of a few to the many, from a minority who's position depended on the preservation of an historical order that oppressed a majority.

What does "power" mean?  We generally think of political power as having the ability to vote and express oneself.  Yet the ability to express oneself is dependent on many things, not the least of which are the rule of law, equitable education, proper health care, and civil rights.  I would also argue that democracy also depends on the distribution of economic power.  Not only because of increased access to actual levers of power, such as unions, trade groups, or other lobbying organizations that make up a form of social capital, but because of the increased human capital that economic success provides.

When an individual is successful economically, he or she not only has more options personally, but is able to grant others similar access to power.  Family and friends are able to leverage that power in myriad ways: through he education system, through neighborhoods and peer groups, business and co-worker networks.  These are all forms of social capital to others in the community, but they represent human capital in the individual.  By his attitudes and behaviors, he develops a mutually beneficial feedback loop of leveraged success that acts and is acted on in the community.

When an individual is not successful, the options likewise diminish.  The feedback-loop of social capital runs in the opposite direction.  Family and friends have diminished leverage, neighborhoods and peer groups suffer in quality.  The sum adds up to a total downward pressure in the community - increasing and retrenching poverty and lack of success.  Add into this picture cultural memes of race and class, and socioeconomic transcendence becomes quite difficult.

At the individual, experiential level, life-lenses across demographics become very different.  Levels of human capital  in areas such as intelligence, vocabulary, cognitive skills, behavioral and emotional wisdom depend in large part upon an investment of social capital.  Without levels sufficient to achieve proper perspective, the same opportunities will not appear to exist, whether or not they in fact do.  So for instance a low-cost, state-subsidized college, or small business loan can be made available, yet without sufficient social capital, individuals will lack the human capital to take advantage of the opportunity they provide.

At the state-level, this dilemma goes to the concept of democracy itself: without equitable distribution of social capital, there will be an inequitable distribution of human capital, and subsequent inequitable civic engagement among the populace.  The degree to which one can express oneself politically is thus tied directly to one's human capital, which is of course preceded by social capital, which is itself dependent on equitable distribution of economic power.

In this way the Cuban revolution was essentially democratic - it sought to extend economic and political freedom to the previously oppressed people of Cuba.  The great irony of course is that - for whatever reason, whether paranoia, dogma, hubris, etc. - the Castro regime never embraced democracy as a political system in the decades that followed.  Yet for Eire to speak in the way that he did, seemingly oblivious to the extent that his country was fundamentally a different one than the majority of his countrymen, reminds us of the subjectivity of each of our own life-lenses.

In many ways, we are each from different countries.  Owing to the strength of our political and economic system, our fortuitous place both in geography as well as history, in many ways - the ways that really matter - we are from the same country.  But many of us, because of socioeconomic disadvantage, live in different countries altogether.  While the same opportunities exist in theory - indeed in reality, because the means to see and take advantage of them is lacking, they might as well not exist at all.  They might as well be living in another country.

So the question we must ask ourselves is, "What country am I from?"

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Ass Kicked By A Faggot

Bombing of London, WWII
My general position on violence is that it is wrong.  Self-defense aside, there's generally better ways of handling conflict.

But not always.  Not in all worlds.  Not in Afghanistan, for example.  Or maybe South Korea.  The North fired rockets at them today.  There's a little daily ritual I do to rouse the students out of their chairs 3rd period to pledge their allegiance to the flag.  (I know they think it's silly.  So do I.  But they're public school students, and part of a larger normative process that we share in creating: society has summoned them forth, no matter how tired, sad or stoned, to their calling - and we will honor that process.  As an atheist, I feel particularly silly 'round the God bit.  But I tell them this.  Pointedly so.  When the odd goth chick says something like fuck America, I thank her and remind her that her views are perfectly valid.  While she stands.) 

So today I spoke to the conflict in Korea, and wondered aloud if it hadn't been too long since we had a real good war.  You know, with lots of raping and killing.  Because that's what our countrymen faced in WWII.  The Nazis had maps and plans for invading America.  "And don't think they wouldn't rape your mother..."  And what would the flag be then?  A call to arms of course - no more of this stupid gangster dopehead crap.  "You, Jose, get up there on that ridge with a rocket launcher!"  War is God-damned hell and people do terrible things.  So you fight back.

I overheard a student later in the day plot the fight he was going to have this week.  "Just wait 'til he gets his ass kicked by a faggot!", he said.  Then he pulled out his cell phone and left a message on the subject's phone.  "You gonna talk shit then you better back it up.  And without your boys around!  We'll settle this shit right now!"

The student is a real pill.  He's loud and obnoxious and acts as if the world can kiss his skinny golden ass.  And he's gay.  He comes from a thoroughly gang-related family (his "people" were affiliated with the student shot in the head a couple weeks back).  He talks non-stop about the drugs he has either done or is planning on doing.  He moves quickly.  He's hyper.  He's a joker, spitefully daring the world to challenge him.  He's a force to be reckoned with, a fighter.

I could only imagine home-life was painful.  Until a teacher told me today his Dad beats the shit out of him.  Where's CPS?  Apparently, they don't deal with teens.

Apparently a neighborhood kid has been giving him a hard time, calling him a faggot.  Then yesterday at the street fair the kid and a group of his friends caught him alone, jumped out and beat him up, smashed his cellphone.

I called him over and asked if there wasn't a better way to resolve the conflict.  He said there was two ways it was going to go: with a verbal agreement, or the kid getting his face smashed.  I tried to reason with him.  What if it escalates?  "It ain't gonna escalate.  What you think, he's gonna go tell his friends he got beat down by a faggot?!!" Maybe there was some other way.  I racked my brain.  He headed for the door, "Don't worry Mr. XXXXXX", he told me, "I'll be fine."

I couldn't think of anything to say.  He had a point.  What was he going to do?  Call the cops?  Right.  And this kid wasn't going to stop.  This is a community with no adult supervision.  The adults in control are no match for those who aren't. 

When I taught elementary school I always felt a bit hollow sometimes when teaching students to "do the right thing", to "talk it out".  This was usually best.  But children are sociopaths in a sense.  A child could be sitting there, minding his own business and someone could him him over the head with a shoe for no reason.  That's no way to live!

Public education, always the microcosm of the larger planet, has its bad actors, its rogue nations and genocides.  And just like in the real world, the good people, the adults, the police can't be everywhere at once.  And in some situations, it may just may more sense to stand one's ground. 

How was I supposed to tell my student that he shouldn't punch this bigot in the face?  When they leave our doors they're on their own.  It's a war zone and they need to survive.  Without police, without capable parent supervision - and these are teenagers, mind you - it's every kid for his or herself. 

I hope he avoids a fight.  I hope his dad never lays a hand on him again.  But hope won't keep him safe at night.  Sometimes when I ask students why they even bother coming to school, if they never do any work in class.  Because home is worse, they tell me. 

And so I'm glad they're with me, even if the lessons I've slaved over mean nothing to them.  Because at least when they're with me there's still hope.  And that's something.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Tom Friedman Is Silly

Tom Friedman blames America's supposed educational failures on poor teaching.  He quotes Arne Duncan:
"75 percent of young Americans, between the ages of 17 to 24, are unable to enlist in the military today because they have failed to graduate from high school, have a criminal record, or are physically unfit."
He points to a Harvard education expert's ideas on what quality education looks like:
"There are three basic skills that students need if they want to thrive in a knowledge economy: the ability to do critical thinking and problem-solving; the ability to communicate effectively; and the ability to collaborate.  If you look at the countries leading the pack in the tests that measure these skills (like Finland and Denmark), one thing stands out: they insist that their teachers come from the top one-third of their college graduating classes."
His ultimate conclusion is that we're not hiring the best and brightest, and we're not holding teachers accountable, rewarding top-performers.

OK, I'll be brief.  If kids are dropping out of school it isn't teachers' fault.  The problem is a bit more serious than that.  And it isn't because they aren't learning problem-solving, critical thinking skills, communication and collaboration.  Those skills are almost entirely left out of standardized tests, so judging whether or not teachers are teaching those skills is simply not happening.  And since we aren't testing those skills, we can't compare ourselves to countries that supposedly are.

But Tom is actually right: we aren't teaching those skills.  The reason why?  Because they aren't measured on standardized tests from which teachers are supposed to be held accountable, and student achievement is supposed to be measured.  Nice try though.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

The Soft Bigotry of High Expectations

Imagine you are a seasoned mountain climber, and are preparing to guide a group of rookies up a perilous slope. You know that before setting out on such a rigorous climb, proper training and equipment is required. Yet your group has neither. You are thus forced to either push them on, knowing that most will likely fail and many possibly risk injury or death, or hold them back and take a different climb, one that is safer and more appropriate to their level of readiness.

This is the situation we face in education today. Depending on a variety of factors, different groups of students come into school with very different levels of readiness. Like mountain climbers' training and equipment, students bring with them a set of knowledge and cognitive skills, as well as a support system at home and in their community. A student from a stable family with a solid income, college-educated parents who provide positive role-modeling and academic support at home, speak elevated language and foster a love of learning in the home, is going to be well-prepared to take on the most challenging curriculum, much more able to scale the highest academic peaks.

But a student from a broken home with low levels of income and high levels of work-related stress, a father who is not a proper role-model and a single mother without a college education or even a high school diploma, has no love of learning, keeps no reading material in the house and is unable to provide academic support, is not well-prepared for success and will struggle to climb even the lowest academic summits.

The challenge for the teacher and the school is always to meet the student where he is, and help him to be as successful as he can be. Yet in our current model, these two types of student are largely given the same education: a curriculum is adopted which targets specific standards and then provides a general plan of how to get there, with some extensions for both high and low groups of students; free and reduced lunches are provided to students from poor families; professional development and training is mandated for low-performing schools. A large amount of money is spent to test every student in order to assess the ability of each school to meet basic education requirements, however this doesn't alter the fundamental way in which children are taught in the classroom - as an assessment measure, it isn't nearly as informative as the variety of assessments teachers use in the classroom daily.

The basic classroom is still roughly the same no matter the school. One teacher, 25-35 students, all of whom are held to the same educational standards, the teacher accountable for the same outcome. Yet aside from the levels of student readiness previously mentioned, schools in different socioeconomic communities benefit from very different levels of support in the form of parent involvement and fund-raising. Higher-income families, more likely to have an intact family, are also often able to afford for one parent to stay home. These parents are invaluable supplemental resources to a school. They form PTA groups, organize special events and fund-raising activities, and help out in the classroom, offering not only tangible help to the teacher, but serving as role-models for community involvement and cohesion. The gap in liquid funds schools from different socioeconomic levels are able to raise can run in the tens of thousands of dollars.

The proof that the current model is not working needs not be said. But the question is: what can be done about it? Most current models of reform are based in the misguided premise that despite all of these differences, all that is needed is a classroom teacher "to do his or her job." Yet like the mountain guide, can we possibly expect them to lead groups with very different levels of readiness and support to the same outcomes? The obvious answer is to emphasize student readiness, with attention to individualized support systems.

There are ways of doing this, and while they will be more costly, they will actually be responding to the achievement gap in a way that targets real problems and is able to deliver real results, instead of pouring money into testing, accountability and training systems that do little more than show us what we already know (that the achievement gap = socioeconomic differences in human and social capital), and demeans the teaching profession by endless intervention seminars that begin with the assumption that simply through "better teaching" will students be able to be successful.

Right now we are expecting students to be successful when they are not prepared, blaming teachers for not educating them, meanwhile avoiding investing the resources in preparing students, and watching them fail in staggering numbers. A phrase invented in the early stages of the reform movement (that has now taken hold across the political spectrum) and popularized by former president G.W. Bush was, "the soft bigotry of low expectations", referring to the idea that the achievement gap persists only because teachers aren't holding their students to a high enough standard.  One could make a case that a deeper form of neglect, to the extent that failed policies of reform, founded in ignorance, are a form of soft-bigotry to the extent that they refuse to deal with underlying socioeconomic factors behind the racial achievement gap. While I wouldn't go that far, as it would be an insult to real bigotry, I would call it a tragedy. And one with real alternatives. But real reform is absent from any current agenda, either from Democrats or Republicans. And none appears on the horizon.

In the meantime, teachers at poor schools will continue to do what they have always done: be the best they can be for their students in an increasingly demeaning and thankless job. Even if at many schools this will mean watching them fall further and further behind, despite teachers' best efforts, the mantra will continue to be, "you can't save them all". There will be small successes, and in those pieces of light teachers will find the strength to return again the next day, fresh faced and ready to make a difference. They will know that most of their students won't be going to college. But their expectations will remain what it always has: that they do their best to help each student do the best they can. And they can be proud of that.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Either/Or Racism

From a diavlog between Adam Serwer and Michael Moynihan on, among other things, racism and the Tea Party:

This is probably the idea about racism that frustrates me the most: that unless someone is explicitly saying something racist - or even thinking it, that they are not racist or expressing racism. It's the idea that racism is either "on" or "off", and entirely consciously chosen.

We know for a fact that much of racism is actually unconscious. And when you think about it, even people who are avowed racists are obviously expressing a hatred they don't really understand, that is irrational. Much of hatred is carried as cultural memes and attitudes that aren't fully-formed, reasoned opinions. So wouldn't it make sense that even people who don't consider themselves racist might be prone to racial bias?

So you can have all these classic examples of hateful ideation that play on old stereotypes and fears, and they infect even those who may consider themselves perfectly tolerant. What's difficult is tying down exactly what is racism from what isn't, and separating genuine principle from bias.

So you would never want to say what Moynihan proposes many liberals do - that the Tea Party is motivated singularly by race. But if it is possible that people can have their ideas and fears infected by unconscious bias, wouldn't it be possible that at least some of what animates the Tea Party - as a political movement in a general sense - is unconscious racial bigotry? And if this is possible, then how do you decide to what extent this is going on?

This is especially true when so many on the right are avowedly opposed to the idea that they could be harboring unconscious racial bias at all. They generally feel that unless they specifically say "I find minorities inferior", then racism cannot exist. This seems very wrong.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Check Yo Self

An anti-Lincoln campaign poster making the rounds on the internet prompted a commenter at Matt Yglesias' blog to make this observation:
The similarities between "Negro worship" and mockingly calling Obama his supporters' Messiah intrigues me.

They really do need to get some new material.

Fascinating.  The conservative relationship with racism is very strange.  It has become conventional wisdom that liberals accuse conservatives of racism simply because that is what they do.  Therefore any suggestion is dismissed out of hand.  And since modern man knows that racism is unequivocally wrong, it can never be admitted or stated explicitly.

But we know that hatred is largely an unconscious and unreasoned phenomenon (otherwise it would no longer exist).  Yet to the conservative, who has never been interested in understanding its roots (how many conservative scholars or intellectuals have set out to understand it; how many have sought to point it out?), racism is largely a matter of conscious belief - "Are blacks or minorities racially inferior, yes or no?"

If the answer is no, then there is no racism.  So one can literally have a poster of the president with a bone through his nose, or watermelons on the white house lawn, and if they claim not to be racist then they must be taken at their word - certainly if they honestly don't believe they are.

Yet the problem with this is that hatred has always largely existed in these sort of nebulous, ill-defined boundaries of human consciousness.  People feel hatred, and it colors how they view the world, how they express themselves.  But they don't know why.  How could they?  Many people will say outright that gay sex makes them feel disgusted.  This was a common feeling among whites with regard to blacks in prior decades.  They didn't know why, and yet it was still acceptable to express explicit racism.

In modern society, where being racist is one of the worst sins, one must never admit to such feelings.  So what to do if they exist?  And further what to do when a part of you wonders if they are hateful, yet a cultural norm of political incorrectness gives you a pass and says it is OK to go right on expressing them?

Most people probably don't feel outright disgust, which is maybe one of the strongest forms of hatred.  But there are many ways in which hate can bubble around in our unconscious without quite making itself known.  Even the most open-minded among us will experience such feelings, and the degree to which we allow them to influence our thoughts can be modified by conscious examination of how hatred works - what cultural and historical forces drive it, what premises and cognitive biases it operates from, etc.

Yet these are exactly the sort of tactics that conservatives A)deny are necessary and B) unlikely to have been trained in.  So, now you have a situation in which conservatives can view racism as wrong, yet like anyone experience hateful feelings, and then lack the cognitive skills to keep them from influencing their ideas.  In fact attempts to do so are countered by a cultural norm of political incorrectness which provides a sort of foil under which to allow hate to flow freely.

What is more, conservatism as a movement can adopt broad platforms based upon hate-influenced premises, even though the degree to which the hate is coloring the assumptions is not understood.  An example of this would be the Arizona law legalizing the profiling of illegal immigrants.  White people who believe themselves to not be racist, rationally consider Hispanics their equals, nonetheless support a law the burden of which falls grossly on Hispanics.  But because they lack the understanding of how racism and hatred have historically operated, they don't know how to critically examine the assumptions underlying their support of the law.  And when liberals criticize the law on racial grounds, conservatism - having experienced this accusation throughout its history (including when it was defending explicit hatred, and today with homosexuality), closes ranks and denies the mere possibility that race "has anything to do with it".

So we get stuck in these cycles in which two competing narratives are built in reaction to the other, and objective examination of the specific issue is almost impossible.  If liberals have become the movement of people seeking to root out racism and hate, conservatives have become the party of denying its existence in all but the most explicit possible cases.  Even if hate has never worked, and never will work this way.

Humans have demonstrated a limitless capacity to fall victim to hateful bias, and therefor must be on constant guard for its infiltration of our unconscious.  This requires understanding how hate works, the structure of its formation within society.  It also requires active resistance, in the form of meta-cognitive analysis, or as the poet Ice Cube famously put it, "Check yourself before you wreck yourself".

Thursday, November 11, 2010


I'm in the process of putting together a diavlog at blogginheads. They have an "Apollo" program for amateur bloggers (I guess in the end it's all about book sales and page counts!), and a member of their community has agreed to record a discussion with me. You can find him blogging here.

Anyway, we've been comparing notes, and he sent me a link to a NY Times piece on a recent study by the Council of the Great City Schools that found the racial achievement-gap was even worse than we had thought.

The article was well-written, and laid out the study's findings in enough detail to pack a punch.  However I was struck by a major incongruency in the logic of one of the article's sources.  The study's subtitle is "The Social and Educational Factors Contributing to the Outcomes of Black Males in Urban Schools".
“There’s accumulating evidence that there are racial differences in what kids experience before the first day of kindergarten,” said Ronald Ferguson, director of the Achievement Gap Initiative at Harvard. “They have to do with a lot of sociological and historical forces. In order to address those, we have to be able to have conversations that people are unwilling to have.”
Those include “conversations about early childhood parenting practices,” Dr. Ferguson said. “The activities that parents conduct with their 2-, 3- and 4-year-olds. How much we talk to them, the ways we talk to them, the ways we enforce discipline, the ways we encourage them to think and develop a sense of autonomy.”

The article goes on to state that the study proposed more funding for schools, as well as efforts to support more black mentoring.  Yet it specifically shied away from endorsing the education proposals championed by New Reformers, such as testing, accountability, charters, and merit pay.

The article quotes the council's executive director, Michael Casserly:
The report did not go down this road because “there’s not a lot of research to indicate that many of those strategies produce better results,” Mr. Casserly said.
Yet oddly, it returns to Ferguson:
The key to narrowing the achievement gap, said Dr. Ferguson, is “really good teaching.
Really?  You're telling me that a man obviously knowledgeable enough in current research in the socio-economic factors behind the achievement-gap is going to put it all on teachers?  That just doesn't make sense.  Here he is acknowledging the great burden these kids face due to a lack of human and social capital, yet claims the "key" to narrowing the gap is teacher quality.

Obviously it isn't going to hurt.  But how exactly is that going to work?  And why isn't there more evidence of it working?  Maybe because really good teaching is already happening in poor schools across the country, yet they just don't have the resources to do it all by themselves.

One of the findings of the study was that even poor whites are performing as well as blacks who are not living in poverty.  Does this then mean that poor whites are receiving better teachers?  Why would that be?  Maybe a better question to ask is how are poor white communities different than poor black communities.

I realize on this front that I am not very knowledgeable about white poverty.  But as far as I know, there simply are not white communities comparable to large urban black communities.  While the study offers this contrast, there are just too many variables for which to adjust.  As true with poverty as it is with education, it is impossible to isolate an individual from their environment.  A poor student in a poor neighborhood, in a classroom filled with poor students, is going to have a much different experience than were they to be in a non-poor neighborhood, in a classroom surrounded by non-poor students.

The biggest problem I have with the whole New Reform movement is that it seeks to treat the student in total isolation.  In fact, literal isolation is largely the key to success of the KIPP program, which extends the school hours and week, thereby limiting the effects of the poor environment on the poor student.  This sort of massive intervention is also one of the reasons the school is not scaleable.  That and the fact that it is able to select for student its population.  (The students (and parents)  I work with wouldn't last a day at KIPP.)

What these communities need is holistic intervention.  It will be costly.  But those costs will ultimately pay for themselves.  The real hurdle is in convincing American citizens that they need to pay for it, especially as education costs seem to have risen with little they see to have been shown for it.  But there are many programs out there that are scalable, and have been proven effective.  And realistically it isn't going to happen overnight.  It will take decades of slow, complicated work.  But the first thing we need to agree on is that it is something worth doing, and something we are willing to pay for.  Because simply blaming teachers and asking more of them is something that will not only not work, but it will make things worse because it is not addressing the problem in a serous way..

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Fearing Government

In a bloggingheads diavlog with Peter Laarman, Susan Thistlethwaite makes a really interesting point on the anti-government mentality: you're alone.

This can't but feed a sense of alienation and well, fear. The modern conservative movement has essentially come to mean the demagoguery of government. From a reasonable skepticism about the role of government in particular areas of life, it has through endless political propaganda and movement politics morphed into an angry attack on the very idea of government itself.

This is incoherent. Most conservatives will themselves admit to supporting all manner of government services, from libraries to schools to parks to social security and medicare. But in seeking to demonstrate that government is not explicitly doing what they want it to do, in the way that they would prefer, the rhetoric of the movement denies the great and undeniable good that old fashioned government does day in and day out.

This occurred to me today as I drove up one of the beautiful streets in my hometown: the degree to which we take for granted the almost seamless perfection with which our state functions. Who cleaned the street? Who decided to put a left-turn lane there? Who made sure those street lights were working properly? Who planted those shrubs? OK, maybe "seamless perfection" is a bit over the top. But all-in-all, we've got it pretty good.

And in a much grander fashion, we see laws being organized, voted on and followed. We see mail being delivered and businesses applying for the proper permits. We see commerce regulated, children taught, the needy fed, the sick and injured given emergency services.

Now, of course we disagree, often profoundly over what should and should not be done. But that is to overlook the fact that we agree on so much! And we benefit in so many ways from a qualified, competent, citizen-directed and responsive government. To the degree that we have any major problems with the government, is is in the quality, not the quantity. Corruption ought to be rooted out, inefficiencies tightened, important needs met.

But there is no need for existential questions about government, which is what the rhetoric against "big government" often implies. We should all be thankful that we live in a country where things work as well as they do. And to the extent that we do not appreciate this, that we have lost faith in a government that is overwhelmingly good, I worry that our cynicism will only make things worse.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Runaway Bunnies

I wasn't planning on writing about it.  At least not yet.

But one of my students was killed in a drive-by shooting a couple of nights ago.  She was standing in the street with her boyfriend, the father, when they pulled up and shot her in the head.  The baby was shot in the leg but survived, along with a number of others who were shot, including the father.  It was gang-related, and according to students, many of whom know or are related to involved parties, apparently retributive violence is in the works.

Sadly, it wasn't such a novel thing to them, for many of whom violence is a regular occurrence.  I work at a continuation school, and so the population is filled with students from poor, broken homes.  Most of the stories I'll never hear.  But from what I glean from classroom conversation, life is filled with drugs, sex and fighting, and law enforcement is never far off.

One of the biggest problems in teaching them is their abysmal rate of attendance.  In a class of 30, one day only 7 might decide to show up, and 23 the next.  Only a handful of students can be counted on to attend with any kind of regularity.  The school structure provides for this sort of problem; it has to.  A zero-tolerance policy would throw them all out onto the streets.  And for many, if not most, our school is a last-chance.

So we work with them.  It's a fine balance between keeping standards reasonably high and giving them work they have a chance of completing.  Many students have already almost given up, having fallen 2-3 years behind in credits.  Simply showing up is all they can often manage.  I sometimes find myself in dark admiration of their ability to spend hour after hour, day after day doing absolutely nothing in class.  But I suppose they've been in training for years.  Depression and stubborn, nihilistic rebellion is widespread.

They work independently for the most part.  Because of attendance and the constant ebb and flow of drop-ins and drop-outs, teaching a contiguous course isn't possible.  So each student has a list of assignments they must complete in order to pass the section and receive credits.  My job is to facilitate all of this, providing them the best education I can in such a flexible and inconsistent environment.  Much of my job ends up being mentor/counselor/motivational coach.  "Why," I'll ask amid a conversation between one student and another, "do you think it is OK to get drunk when you wake up in the morning?"  Or maybe I'll suggest a better way of resolving some particular conflict than physical assault.  In between helping them with individual questions, trying to engage them in some video or another, or explaining my expectations for a project, I try to create a safe, friendly atmosphere that inspires them with some small manner of joy and inspiration.

A recent email from the principle informed the teacher that administrators would be making the rounds next week, and visiting individual classrooms.  Explicit notice was given that we should be sure and have our "agendas and language objectives posted".

I don't discount the importance of either.  But considering the gravity of the situation in which we teach, in which our students live, these seem somewhat demeaning to the institution of education.  It strikes me as emblematic of the currently en vogue emphasis on the business-like nature of education, complete with endless talk of "data", myopic adherence to schemes of protocol, and the treatment children as widgets on a balance sheet.  A scripted calculation of whether this or that chart is posted on the wall seems entirely superfluous to the real needs of the students at the school.

These are students in crisis.  We have two counselors who, bless their hearts, do an amazing job of helping the students with their problems.  But there is only so much time in the day, and the practical nature of their job is that many students simply need to get schedules attended to, errors corrected, or plans for the future inventoried.  I look out into the eyes of my students and see tired, sad, bored and broken faces.  The practical nature of my job is that I can't be mentor or counselor to them all - certainly not in the individualized and attentive manner they deserve.  To use an analogy, I feel at times as though my job is like that of an old, rusty bottom rung of a ladder.  The students have slipped to the bottom and they can hold on with all their might or they can drop.  I can be there when they need me, but I can't catch them. 

And with every student that walks out the door to never return, another new tattooed, pierced and emotionally bruised young student walks in.  One of my current students was shot in the head.  But someone else's former student pulled the trigger.  If we had an extra $50K a year to hire a full-time psychological counselor would we be able to quantify the results?  Would our test scores improve?  Would drive-bys decrease?  Would the percentage of students smoking dope decrease?

If someone collected the data and did a study what would they find?  That we were simply throwing money at the problem?  I'd like to think that we wouldn't be.  When I'd take out my pad and write a hall-pass to a student who needed someone to talk to, maybe I'd be able to be more than just an old rung on a ladder.  In that moment maybe I would be a net, reaching out to catch them before they slip away.

At least for a little while longer.

Morality vs. Economic Orthodoxy

The attitudes of the left and right toward economic policy can be thought of as encompassing two main arguments: economic morality and economic orthodoxy.  The former involves how we view human behavior and what we ought to do for our fellow man, while the latter involves accepting a particular orthodox approach to economic policy.

There can be no arguing that inequality and hard-times involve human suffering.  From sacrifice and inconvenience at best, to death, violence, pain and starvation at the worst, poverty is a terrible burden on society.  The left and right can agree on this to a point.  But they also have divergent attitudes regarding the fairness of inequality, specifically in the role personal responsibility plays.  For most on the left, a more deterministic view is taken of inequality; the rich and poor have largely received their lot in life from social conditions that they were or were not able to take advantage of.  For most on the right, inequality is the result of personal choice; the rich and poor have created their own successes or failures through a conscious choice to determine their own fate.

The morality of helping those in need thus rests on whether or not we, as members of society that guide its structure and institutional coherence, are responsible for the effects of inequality.  If we are, then we owe our fellow man a helping hand.  If we are not responsible, and he has only himself to blame, then we owe him nothing.  This is a larger argument that is in many ways philosophically complex, and involves many assumptions about why men do what they do.  But regardless, the human suffering still exists.  And to the degree that we are responsible for the plight of our fellow man, we have a moral imperative to help him.

This brings us to the second area of concern in economic policy, and again a split among left on right.  We can all agree that economic growth and stability is a good thing.  But the left believes a stronger government is essential to a robust economy; through investments in infrastructure, regulation, education and health care, society is strengthened, leading to a stronger economy.  The right believes that less government means greater economic strength; leaving it up to the individual to do what's best for himself will result in an empowered, self-reliant and innovative population.  But under the burden of heavy taxation to pay for government spending, a net pull on the economy means less opportunity and wealth for all.  Both views have strong arguments in their favor, and expert economists to back them up. 

Unfortunately, unless you are an economist, it is hard to know who to believe.  One might believe that infrastructure or social spending is important, but what if the taxes raised to pay for them slows the economy to the point where unemployment is higher, and there is greater suffering overall.  On the other hand, one might believe that infrastructure or social spending is unimportant, but paying for them will ultimately grow the economy enough to pay for them.

These two views, the moral and economic orthodoxy, together form a sort of feedback loop in which moral arguments are used to bolster economic arguments, which then bolster the original moral argument.  So if you believe social responsibility requires government spending, it would bolster a view that government spending is good for the economy, which in turn is the socially responsible thing to do.  And if you believe in personal responsibility and less government, it is easier to embrace a view that less government spending is actually good for economic growth.  And economic growth would seem to reward your original premise that personal responsibility has little need for government. 

But if personal responsibility is all that is needed to escape poverty, then whether or not the economy is growing would seem little more than an inconvenience.  For while the left feels that poverty and social dysfunction is a problem of social responsibility, remedied not only by economic strength but government intervention, the right doesn't believe it has much to do with economic growth.  Sure, they know there would be less of it if in a strong economy, but most of the suffering we associate with poverty - the drug use, low-skill jobs, violence, etc. are all situations the right feels are chosen.  There is always, according to them, the possibility of working harder and pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps, as they say.

So it is difficult to see how complaints on the right of burdensome government spending are expressions of moral concern for the welfare of fellow man.  At best, they are irritated over less potential for success among some people (people like them?), because - let's face it - there will always be people who will choose failure.  At worst, they are expressions of irritation with their own pocketbook being marginally reduced.  In which case the moral argument seems slight indeed.  What you mainly have is a convenient embrace of conservative economic orthodoxy less on its merits (who but serious economists after all can really parse the complex algorithms of supply-side vs. Keynesian economics), than for purely philosophical and mostly self-interested reasons.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Dance of the Headless Independents, Pt. 2

As I drove to work this morning I began to doubt my original thesis.  After all, it certainly isn't true that independents are the only class of voters of which a large portion are superficial ignoramuses.  Plenty of Democrats and Republicans are blind sheep to propaganda and normative culture as well.

So while on the one hand you may have the Republicans, Democrats and Independents who have political principles they have tried to understand and think through, there are many who are in a sense "following orders".  Yet while Democrat and Republican simpletons look to an established party or clique for their ideas, the independents do it in an even less organized fashion.  In this sense - i.e. relative to those uninterested or sophisticated enough to pay attention to their civic duties - the uninformed independent voter can at least be admired for their courage in the face of complete confusion.

Adding a further twist to my original thesis, that independent voters are as a class maybe the crucial segment of any election, is the idea that voter turnout may be the greatest political factor.  Many Democratic strategists bemoan the likely failure of many Obama voters to turn up at the polls today, presaging a large boon to the Republicans.

I'm not sure where this elements fits, but the sort of nebulous "voter mood" handily brings it all together.  Of course, what that mood ends up being would seem to depend on many factors, not the least of which being who writes the narrative.  The Tea Party response to the Affordable Care Act, along with major support from unabashedly conservative media, was able to brilliantly craft a story of the act being part of a larger attack on our nations values.  Such an argument is vastly overblown, as even the most charitable reading finds the ACA perfectly in line with most other social spending the population overwhelmingly approves of.

The Dance of the Headless Independents

Doesn't it seem like American elections have just become the dance of the independents?  Democrats and Republicans have their interests, but whomever the independents tend to be leaning towards becomes the defining narrative.  This was true in '08, and likely true today.

But the problem with these folks, as far as I can tell, is that they seem to have a very bizarre reading of politics.  Some are torn between principles, but many seem to be plain ignorant fence-sitters, subject to whichever way the current wind is blowing.  These are the folks who voted for Obama, but now realize he isn't what they thought he was.  This despite the fact that he's governed exactly how he said he was going to.  He's been very moderate, and very bipartisan in his selection of policy.  Not knowing much about politics to begin with, they had been caught up in a fad.

They seem to have no clear principles, motivated mostly by instinct and superficiality.  Almost like a Ouija electorate.  I suppose there is some sort of meaning in their momentum, in that it reflects a popular opinion of some sort.  But I worry that this popular opinion is shallow and hysterical: fads tend to feed on themselves, mistaking their own reflection for substance.

Of course, this is where opinion-makers take the reins; the principled and informed members of the electorate, those of us who do the work of actually understanding why we believe what we believe, jockey for control of the carriage.  This time it appears the right will have won the day.  But next time, surely the headless independents will be on to something else.