Friday, May 30, 2003

With Friends Like These....
According to the May 29th Financial Times, the OPEC oil cartel, led by our close allies Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, has declined to invide an Iraqi representative to its meeting next month.

No legitimate governmet was formed in Iraq," said an official from one of OPEC's 11 members." This guy (Thamir Gahdhban, the US-appointed head of Iraq's oil ministry) does not represent the Iraqi government.

Thursday, May 29, 2003

Education and the United States
Note: After re-reading this I realized it really jumped from one side to the other and didn't really address the stupid survey. What the heck. I've been wanting to say these things for years.

Julia is horrified about this survey.

I will admit that my first reaction was amusement. Bill Clinton the third most admired president of the United States? Pass the smelling salts to the Radical Republicans!

My second one was one of, well, unsurprise. I expect Americans to lack historical context.

Let me give you a little background:

I left Cuba just before I entered 9th grade. My elementary school years were spent in a system that was essentially the old spanish school system. During the early Fidel years, the school system was basically not tampered with, other than to inject serious doses of propaganda (I have no idea what it's like now; this is not an anti-Fidel screed, so pay attention and stick to the topic!). I was also lucky in that I lived in a small town where all the teachers were local and friends or relations of the parents of nearly every kid in the classroom.

I have special memories of fifth grade, so let me tell you about the curriculum: Spanish language and literature, history, geography, mathematics, plant biology, and gym. Geography was my favorite subject. The class was divided into sections, I suppose now we would call them lesson plans. At the beginning of each section you would get a set a blank maps for whichever part of the world you were studying, from regional to country maps. Each week you would fill in one of the maps and submit an essay on the region/country in question. The essays were expected to be neatly handwitten and illustrated through magazine photos or sketches: major rivers, mountain ranges, major cities, population, basic country history. Other classes were handled similarly. At the year's end you had comprehensive essay exams and, in some cases, oral exams.

The curriculum made its way through levels of knowledge: the sixth grade English was added and instead of plant biology it was zoology. The seventh took you to physics and world literature in translation. I am not claiming these were the equivalent of college-level classes. Literature classes mostly used short essays, short stories, excerpts from novels, much as the US system uses. Lab sessions were primitive compared to what you can find in any middle-class high school in the states. There was a lot of repetition and memorization. Extracurricular activities were pretty much nonexistant. There were vocational type classes for those who preferred them; much like in the US, boys loved shop.

When I arrived in the States I was set back one year because I couldn't speak English (clearly, that is; I had a british accent and American english was too fast for me), and for some reason my date of birth plus that meant I should really be in 8th grade. I lucked out in that when my first teacher, Mr. Henderson, discovered I could read English and play the piano he concentrated in getting me to speak. Classes seemed dead easy. I could race through my homework in less than an hour at night. It took a long time and looking through some of my old stuff to realize that what the 8th grade was doing in the United States I was doing back in 4th, 5th, and 6th in Cuba.

High school was worse. My first year I was in the ESL class the second in Honors English the third and fourth in AP. Again, I was lucky. Several of my teachers were interesting and interested, so those classes, English honors, physics, and chemistry were good. But that's three classes out of how many? And again, I felt bored (that's how I took up with a bunch of crazy Trekkies and SCA-ers, but that's a whole other story, right guys? :-) ) It was not until I reached college that I felt challenged. I did my first serious learning in the United States at the University of Illinois.

History classes were particularly awful. The whole year was a race to jam in as many independent facts as possible, with no attempt at some sort of narrative. Egypt? Pyramids, Tutankhamen, Cleopatra. Check Rome? Romulus, Carthage, Julius Caesar, Cleopatra. Check Middle Ages? Charlemagne, cathedrals, Vikings. Check. Worse, the modern era was simply seen as an addendum to United States' history. Every country and its history was studied in light of its relationship to the United States. Brief mentions were made that America (AAARGH) had native civilizations before the arrival of the Pilgrim fathers. Then we were off to conquer the West.

There was another thing I noticed. The atmosphere was dreadful. One of the absolute rules of life when I was growing up was that teachers were God's deputies and right hands. They stood out in the community as people of education and substance; one of my family's claim to fame was that my great-grandmother had been the town's first teacher and my grandfather was a principal in the town he lived in. If I did something in school that my teacher felt my parents Should Know About, I was in deep dreck; any kid would be. Dissing a teacher was the ultimate of horrific behavior, and one that would shame your parents and follow you up the ladder for years.

In the United States the teachers seemed to be fairly low in the pecking order. The students encouraged to become teachers seemed to be the middle of the road ones. If ever a bright kid expressed an interest in teaching, he would be discouraged: why be a teacher when you can be a doctor, or a dentist, or a lawyer? Americans' view of teaching were best encapsulated in the contemptous those who can't, teach. Parents routinely assumed their kids were in the right in any argument with a teacher.

And teachers? Except for the bright lights most were either mediocre or burned out. The "bright lights" financed some of the learning out of their own pockets: one of my English AP teachers purchased paperback copies of Shakespeare's plays so "her" kids could read it without resorting to the ancient school books (not to mention the fact that Chaucer, Shakespeare, and others were routinely bowdlerized and censored. It was an amazing experience encountering them in college). Trying to teach in overcrowded classroom with lousy tools must have felt like climbing Mount Everest carrying a two hundred pound barbell in each hand.

And that is why I am not suprised at the results of that survey; because I am quite aware that Americans as a whole have a horrific lack of historical context. And geographical context. And I place the blame firmly on the way this country structures its educational system.

I've kept an fascinated eye on the American educational system for years. I have watched as it has disintegrated and observed with exasperation every attempt at fixing it. Except for a few years, I have spent all of my working life in the upper end of the system, watching kids come into college less and less prepared. Most universities are now running basic "catch up classes" for high school graduates; originally they were meant to help "inner city" or "minority" high school students but that is no longer true. At the receiving end, colleges are often diploma mills expected to provide a student with a way to make a living; learning is secondary.

Here's some advice, for what it's worth:

1. Accept the fact that education is an important public good. In spite of all the big talk of politicians and parents, if we are to judge by their actions, education is actually low in the American priority rankings. The first thing state legislature cut when there's a fiscal crisis is education funding. Citizens routinely turn down proposed tax increases to fund better schools. In place of real funding and real learning, we are building a testing system especially set up to promote non-learning: this year, most Florida kids spent their year learning to pass a multiple-choice test.

In a world where knowledge is coming to be the ultimate power base, this education system is guaranteed to bankrupt America in a couple of more generations. The United States needs to invest as much in education as it does in the average battle ship budget. And it has to be done as a national priority. The current system enshrines inequalities that cannot be fully erased through affirmative action programs at the college level. Affirmative action should take place much earlier, by making sure that EVERY ELEMENTARY AND HIGH SCHOOL KID has access to the SAME education. (As a side benefit, this would answer the concerns of the anti-affirmative-action crowd: If kids get the same educations grade kindergarten through twelfth grade, surely any differences that arise can be safely be ascribed to the child and not the system).

2. If education is important, good teachers are essential. Make sure that the best and brightest go into teaching. Make teaching a profession that requires a heck of a lot more specialized training than it does now (in some school systems you can teach if you have a couple of years of college). In fact, reverse the current system: a teacher should have a master degree in a subject and a certain number of courses in education, instead of the other way around. Require and pay for regular refresher courses for teachers in their subject matter. Encourage older people to go into teaching, experienced folks in the fifties and sixties who have a successful career behind them. PAY ACCORDINGLY. For crying out loud, these people are going to determine the course of your damn world, isn't that important enough?

3 . Re-introduce the idea of vocational learning I know this one is going to get me metaphorically killed, but I'm not talking about the old shop class concept. There are two types of education: practical education, and the intellectual in-depth experience that Universities are supposed to provide. One of the things I have noticed after twenty years of working in Universities is that there are two sizable groups of students that are not interested in the intellectual experience:

First, there are those who are in college because a college degree is kinda-sorta required in order to make a decent salary and because "everyone" you know is going anyway. A lot of those kids will probably end up being office managers and retail workers and small business owners and bank officers. They are taking degrees in things like psychology and communications. Many are miserable in college and are just waiting to grab that piece of paper and run like hell. The rest find school enjoyable enough: a sizable number of teachers come from this pool.

The second group is the really bright geeks who go to college because that's where they teach the stuff. These are the future systems managers, computer programmers, graphic designers, game developers, movie visual effect whizzes, and animators. They could care less about all the other stuff. These are the kids who get excellent grades in the stuff they like and Cs in everything else. They also are just waiting to grab that piece of paper and run like hell.

There's an American obssession for the University degree as the terminus of the educational system that serves all these people very badly. Maybe we should redefine the college curriculum to accomodate everyone in the most efficient way possible. I'll bet you anything many people taking certificate courses at night in community colleges are people who came out of college after four years with a degree in psychology or english or history and found out exactly what that would get them.

4. Challenge the kids! I remember reading something once, something like: why should I be interested in education if you're not interested in making it as least as interesting as the dice game across the street? I believe that all kids want to learn. School should be made challenging. Not "learn this to pass this test or else" challenging. It should be challenging like this: you WILL study French and Spanish and art history and english literature and calculus. You are bright. We expect no less of you. Teachers like Marva Collins and Jaime Escalante proved that kids will rise to the challenge.

Do I think any of this will happen? No. Americans use their schools as battlegrounds for cultural and religious wars, not for their children's education. Our saving grace is that our University system is so good that in spite of ourselves we get a hell of a lot of bang for the buck. About 1/4th of what we should be getting.

Monday, May 26, 2003

On Fear
Has anybody noticed how odd people's fears are?

People are afraid of SARS and HIV, when influenza, cholera, and malaria are more likely to kill them.

People are afraid of strangers, when the overwhelming majority of murders and rapes are committed by a member of the family, friend, or acquaintance.

People are afraid of airplanes, when getting into a car everyday makes you statistically a much more likely victim.

People are afraid of fundamentalists from Iraq and Iran, when the biggest supporters of radical Islam are in Pakistan and Saudi Arabia.

What the heck are Democrats afraid of?

Well, if the Democratic Leadership Council is to be believed, Democrats are afraid of being thought of as....well....liberal. This article describes the DLC's push to move Democrats to the "middle":

The From-Reed memo took dead aim at Democratic liberal activists, saying "the McGovern-Mondale wing, defined principally by weakness abroad and elitist interest-group liberalism at home," was "an aberration." They made clear that those candidates who opposed the Iraq invasion, especially former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, need not apply for DLC backing.

In all, Mr. From's remarks sounded like an intent to deal the DLC in on picking the next Democratic nominee and deal the party's congressional leadership out. In a way, it was reminiscent of the creation during the Dwight Eisenhower years of a Democratic Advisory Council by Democratic National Chairman Paul Butler to, as he put it, "provide a collective voice for ... millions of Democrats who may or may not be represented in either House of Congress."

So, if I understand Mr. From correctly, the "new democrats" are people who believe we should go out there are beat the crap out of any country we want to (weakness abroad) and we should not be interested in what happens to minorities, the poor, and other disenfranchised citizens (interest group liberalism). All the concepts that made a "democrat" an actual distinct political creature from a "republican" are to be thrown out the window.

When you visit their website, you find priceless pieces like this:

Every time Gov. Dean suggests that unlike his opponents, he represents the "Democratic wing of the Democratic Party," he's being divisive. Every time he denounces his opponents as "Bush Lite" and suggests that only a Republican would support education reform or stand up for America's interests in the world, he's being divisive. And ironically, he's doing this in a transparent effort to appeal to the same fringe activists who used to do the same holier-than-thou number on him in Vermont.

At the same time, they support welfare reform that would assist working mothers and immigrants; Social Security reform that would simplify and guarantee retirement pensions for all workers; and environmental reform that would curb carbon dioxide emission. I would consider these classic Democratic concerns. But instead of saying, this is what the Democratic party stands for the DLC is saying: this is what we the enlightened Democrats who have moved away from our party's traditional beliefs, stand for. They have hijacked Democratic positions, dressed them up in neocon clothes, and paraded them as new inventions.

There are names for people like that, none of them complimentary.

Another rather distasteful DLC habit is the dissing of traditional Democratic constituencies like unions. Somehow they forget that it's the traditional constituencies that make up the core of party volunteers. If I were one of those union ladies that canvass their neighboorhood every year I would begin to ask myself why I should waste good shoe leather on someone that thinks I'm something he has to scrape off his shoe. NOTE TO THE LEADERSHIP OF THE DLC: People who show up for cocktail parties seldom man the voting registration tables.

This is why we are losing the battle, folks. Parts of the Democratic party, terrified of taking up a permanent minority position in American politics, are desperately trying to appeal to the mythical "middle Americans" by rewriting the party's history and abandoning its traditional constituencies. The middle Americans, who are not being given any reason why they should vote for people who seem like a carbon copy of the other guy, are staying home in droves; while at the same time the folks who used to be the heart and soul of the party are starting to realize that it no longer pays to have any party loyalty.

Fear is a hell of a lousy springboard for any kind of success.

Meanwhile, the DLC tells me that they can make major changes in America through the use of (TAA-DAA) market based initiatives. I swear to God, if the candidate the DLC backs gets the nod, I might consider voting Green. At the very least, the Greens don't piss on your head and tell you it's raining.

UPDATE: Arianna Huffington, bless her heart, takes on the Democrats much better than I could.