Over at CNN, Will Bunch bemoans how Glenn Beck is attempting to rewrite history in order to support his own political agenda.
For thousands of followers […], there is a genuine desire to relearn American history. The only problem is that what they're learning is bunk. It's not history as it happened, but rather a Beck-scripted, Tea Party rewrite of history that demonizes Obama, Democrats and progressive activists.
This problem is a consequence of the harmful reverence for history that I wrote about earlier this week. If we didn’t have such a history-worshiping political cultur
e, then no rewrite of history would have such an effect on our present day politics.
For example, Glenn Beck teaches his viewers that America’s creation was rooted in Christianity. Whether this is historically true or not, it shouldn’t matter. Even if America was rooted in Christianity, it shouldn’t settle the issue about whether today’s America should be a Christian nation.
The solution is a greater reverence – or at least awareness – of philosophy’s place in politics. If we had such a political culture, Glenn Beck and others would have to argue their case with solid theory and sound logic. And if he can do that, then maybe he’s right.
Photo by Flickr user Gage Skidmore used under a Creative Commons Attribution license.
You may not know this, but, earlier this year, President Obama signed into law the most sweeping overhaul of health care since the 1965 creation of Medicare. It's the largest piece of social legislation in at least half a century.
I know, I know, I shouldn't be treating you as if you have your head buried in the sand. Except you do.
According to a recently leaked presentation based on polling and focus groups about the law encourages Democrats to “Let voters know the healthcare [sic] law passed!”
They don't know? Really?
This raises a depressing question: what's the point of governing in the Republic of Ignorance?
Most major theories of government make some basic assumption
s about human rationality. Some say people are perfectly rational beings capable of deciding their own good. Others take a more moderate stance, suggesting that people are often shaped by their environment and circumstances.
But few if any theories account for complete and total inability to notice life-changing events.
My tone may be humorous, but my humors are melancholy (the bodily ones, anyway).
It's time to make a choice. Must we radically improve the capacity of our population to understand the basic knowledge it takes to function as a democracy? Or should we radically rethink democracy itself?
In either case, it may be time to do something radical.
Image of a lemming used under a Creative Commons attribution license from Flickr user kgleditsch.
Pay, accountability and teachers’ unions
The Los Angeles Times has a new series “exploring the effectiveness of public schools and individual teachers in the Los Angeles Unified School District.” The study, which relies on standardized test scores rather than more comprehensive metrics, is obviously far from perfect. But, as the LA Times explains, this is surely better than nothing when “…across the country, parents have no access to objective information about teacher effectiveness…” Arne Duncan, Obama’s Secretary of Education, has professed support for the LA Times releasing the data.
However, the program has provoked hostility from the Los Angeles and national teachers unions, who claim that the study unfairly scapegoats teachers, many of whom are in poor districts and face unenviable classroom conditions.
What is the future of elite education, and what are the stakes for equality?
Anya Kamenetz's article, alluringly subtitled “How TED Became the New Harvard,” makes the argument that the elite conference/video sharing site has all the attributes of the next generation of elite education: tightly curated lectures from globally recognized leaders, distributed widely for free, discussed widely in facilitated local groups.
The appeal is obvious. By making lectures open to all, TED facilitates anyone in the world consuming elite content regardless of economic circumstance. By inviting only the very best-known to give lectures, TED ensures that most of their content is, if not fantastic, at least prestigious.
What's curiously absent from Kamenetz's article is any discussion of the credentialing function served by universities. The world in which only students of the most elite universities would have physical access to information is clearly over. However, as long as companies, graduate schools, and elite nonprofits continue to offer better opportunities to Stanford grads t
han Samford grads, elite education will remain secure. Exposure to ideas is in no way co-equal with exposure to opportunity.
At TNR, Martha Nussbaum takes Chinese and Singaporean education down a peg. She writes:
It is time to take off the rose-colored glasses. Singapore and China are terrible models of education for any nation that aspires to remain a pluralistic democracy. They have not succeeded on their own business-oriented terms, and they have energetically suppressed imagination and analysis when it comes to the future of the nation and the tough choices that lie before it. If we want to turn to Asia for models, there are better ones to be found: Korea’s humanistic liberal arts tradition, and the vision of Tagore and like-minded Indian educators.
Stanley Fish has a useful rundown of several new books defending “classical education.” (Full disclosure — I haven’t read any of these books, though I ordered Nussbaum’s book and will report back.) What’s odd about his piece is that it seems to suffer from one of the main defects he identifies with modern education — an unwillingness to recognize and evaluate alternate perspectives.
Two objections go strangely unaddressed. The first is that, especially in this moment, those that aren’t equipped with the vulgar arts of profit-making are having a hard time, well, making any profit. This piece could easily have run opposite the near-weekly NYT piece about unemployed English majors from one Ivy or another. There is a real risk associated with leaving one’s education without the dreaded employable skills. There’s an argument to be made that a life of the mind can be lead successfully in a low-wage job, but that life involves serious tradeoffs that are not made clear to teenagers choosing their paths.
Fish and his interlocutors could well respond that they’ve seen many liberal arts grads end up in gainful employment. (In fact, each of the writers of this blog studied philosophy and ended up in gainful employment in the political/public sector, with the exception of myself as the lone profit-monger.) But of course this begs the next question — what are we to do with the vast majority of students who, with or without a classic education, will not graduate from the handful of elite schools Fish and friends attended? The comments offer an almost parodic demonstration:
I almost always disagree with Stanley, but this time I am in complete accord. Perhaps that’s because my husband & mentor, the Italian scholar Aldo Scaglione — a friend of Stanley’s since their days teaching at Berkeley a half-century ago — is the product of a classical education at Torino’s (Turin’s) public prep school. By the time he went to the University of Turin, Aldo was fluent not only in his local Piedmontese dialect & Italian, but also in French & Spanish. He read Latin & Greek, & knew English & German. At 85, he’s still a walking encyclopedia of classical literature & history, much of it learned at the Liceo.
It seems unlikely that we can all learn 4 languages and go on to teach at Berkeley (or that we can have the nature to name-drop our own spouse in a blog comment).
It sure is a lot easier to go through 17 years of schooling without marketable skills if there will be high-level family friends willing to help on the other side or admissions opportunities at the nation’s best law, business, and medical schools (where, yes, profitable skills are taught). There will always be opportunities for the best-positioned in society regardless of the pedagogy they have been exposed to. The hard part, which Fish never wrestles with, is what to do with everyone else.
I am sympathetic to Fish’s argument in that I agree that there’s much in classical education to be admired. I would not have traded my education in philosophy for knowledge of accounting or finance (which I could now really use). However, the idea that this kind of education can exist for large percentages of the population is fanciful.
The difficulty of balancing sports & school
In his column in USA Today, Sam examined the plight of Myron Rolle, the gifted college football player who recently entered the NFL draft following a year away from the turf to study medical anthropology on a Rhodes scholarship at Oxford University. One question he raised is whether being smart can be an obstacle to achievement in the competitive world of professional sport. Read more
Should the Virginia lacrosse teams be playing in the NCAA tournament?
This past weekend, the University of Virginia Cavaliers women’s lacrosse team lost in the national quarterfinals, while the top-seeded men’s team advanced to the national semifinals. This would be unremarkable, if not for the tragic events of a few weeks ago, when women’s player Yeardley Love was found dead and men’s player George Huguely was charged with killing her.
Huguely has obviously been off the team since he was arrested on charges of murder in the first degree, but the two teams decided to soldier on in the aftermath of Yeardley’s death. Was the decision appropriate? Read more
This week’s article in the New York Times won’t be the last on the question of alternatives to college. There is a growing consensus that the college system is broken. It works well for graduates of top colleges and universities who go on to careers in investment banking or consulting (and who maybe pick up a little Plato on the way). It works much less well for the bottom of the vast educational pyramid — lower-prestige regional public colleges and community colleges.
While I think there is a great debate to be had on this point, I tend to agree that there should be other options for accreditation other than a traditional college degree. The challenge, I think, is to understand the extent of the loss of a 4-year education. That loss is probably not in marketable or technical skills but in the general education courses seen as standing between technically-oriented students and their degrees.
If large numbers of the population receive a technical education divorced from the traditional liberal arts, what will replace that education, and does it matter? I tend to think the impact will be minimal. Presenting these courses to populations that view the material as unnecessary seems counterproductive. However, in a world where a much larger group of people are not exposed to the core liberal arts, those topics would become even more so the purview of elites.
Perhaps that’s what makes projects like The Public Philosopher more necessary; demonstrating applied ethics and first principles to a larger population might be the only introduction to such principles many will ever receive.
Last month Colin and I looked at whether public philosophy should be taught in high schools. Apparently we weren’t being ambitious enough. A New York Times article today looks at Thomas Wartenberg, a Mount Holyoke professor, who explores philosophy a few times a month with second graders at a charter shcool in Springfield, Massachusetts. Wartenberg’s approach is to use classic children’s books as a starting point to look at basic philosophical issues. For example, Shel Silverstein’s book The Giving Tree is used to discuss questions like “how should we treat natural objects?” and “how much is too much for an individual to take from nature?”
The article goes into a long running academic debate over the age at which children develop the capacity for abstract reasoning and quotes Professor Gareth Matthews as claiming that “young children very often engage in reasoning that professional philosophers can recognize as philosophical.” In fact, in the 1970s, Columbia professor Matthew Lipman claimed that thinking about philosophical questions could actually help children develop critical reasoning skills.
“A lot of people try to make philosophy into an elitist discipline,” Wartenberg, the Mount Holyoke professor argues, “but everyone is interested in basic philosophical ideas; they’re the most basic questions we have about the world.” Amen.