Tuesday, February 22, 2011

a brief hiatus

We're off to a great start, my friends. However, other work will be taking my attention for the next week and a half, at minimum.

Temple Grandin was a quickie to tide you over, dear readers. I was inspired by her speech and had to get these thoughts down. With that done, I will return to my usual Saturday posts in two weeks' time, at most.

Thank you for reading and for your praise, comments, and constructive suggestions--both online and in private. Cheers!

Temple Grandin for President?

It has often been said that those who lose one sense gain extraordinary capacities in another. Stevie Wonder's genius for music and Helen Keller's refined sense of touch come to mind. In a recent talk at Duke University, Dr. Temple Grandin elevated this occurrence to a general rule: nothing in nature is free. Sheep who have been bred for high immunity have low reproduction. Sheep bred for high reproduction have low immunity. Dogs bred for what owners think are "pretty" blue eyes wind up deaf.

Thinking along these lines, I began to think that Ms. Grandin, an autistic person, might be a more effective politician than anyone we currently have.

On Feb 21, 2011, Temple Grandin came to speak at Duke University. She almost immediately insulted academics, lawyers, and abstract thinkers "on the right and the left." She said something to the effect that all the bad thinking in the world comes from people who work in offices. That hit a little close to home, but I continued listening.

She made in argument in favor of a way of thinking she associated with autism--specifically thinking in pictures. Pictorial thought emphasizes detail over generalization and also, she argues, bypasses verbal language. She also contended that pictorial thinkers are more likely to address consequences "on the ground" and could, therefore, be more attuned to the functioning of whole systems. She portrayed abstract thinking as top-down, proceeding from general ideas rather than concrete instances.

While this depiction is certainly not flattering to academics--and is even, in fact, a false generalization in itself--Grandin nevertheless made a very important point about the pitfalls of abstract thinking: those who adhere to rigid precepts are prone to single-mindedness. That is, they judge success based upon adherence to a single criterion rather than looking at broader effects throughout a system. I have certainly seen evidence of that in my years in the educational system.

To combat these tendencies, Grandin proposed some principles that could be generalized across a broad array of fields, not just her own specialties of livestock behavior, facility design, and humane slaughter.

1) Tests should be based on measurable effects. Get out of the office and go find out how policies are working in practice.

2) A criterion in a test should be what she called a "critical control point," that is, it should be a measurable objective that points to a multitude of sins. For example, a high incidence in lameness among dairy cows could point to slippery floors, a contagious disease, or improperly trimmed hooves. She made an interesting proposal for criteria by which school success can be measured: a) Do children stay out of trouble after school? b) Do graduates obtain employment and then progress beyond entry level positions?

These objectives certainly differ greatly from those currently used to measure the effectiveness of schools, but they seem promising choices to me. Of course, I think there are other variables such as racial profiling and job discrimination that must also be taken into account... arrests and unemployment are not simply measures of whether schools are imparting good citizenship and marketable skills. And it's not clear to me that these questions make fixing the problems easier. Trimming hooves is not teaching grammar, mathematics, and the scientific method. Still, her criteria still seem good reference points.

3) In terms of bringing about social change, Grandin is not for legislation. Experience, she says, taught her that companies change their policies when they are afraid of being put out of business. The voluntary changes she saw in terms of the implementation of humane slaughter occurred because she was able to convince Wendy's and McDonald's to stop buying from houses that did not pass the criteria she implemented.

4) On social media and its influence on politics: In regard to companies, Grandin said that their boards gave far more weight to handwritten letters and individual emails -- real correspondence, not form letters. This makes sense to me. The person who takes the time to compose a personal letter is probably more likely to take the effort to find other buying options than the people who merely click to have their names automatically added to a list.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Remembering a Conservative Call for Reparations

This is dedicated to the holders of a particular ideology in my hometown of Cincinnati and its vanilla suburbs. 

Consider this another dispatch from the Blind Squirrel Finds Acorn files

I don't think I had heard of the notion of reparations before I stumbled upon the topic during high school. The unlikely source of my introduction was a 1990 op-ed piece by arch-conservative Charles Krauthammer. He was still an advocate for reparations in 2001. In a surprising departure from the beliefs of his conservative colleagues, Krauthammer did not advocate a Great National Forgetting nor instruct African-Americans simply to Get Over It. Rather, he followed principles recently rearticulated in an article on forgiveness, insisting that for grievances to be suspended, appropriate amends must be offered. I can get behind that vision of social harmony.

Here is Krauthammer in a 2001 rejoinder to David Horowitz: "There is nothing to compare with centuries of state-sponsored slavery followed by a century of state-sponsored discrimination.... Is there a way... to recognize the debt of the past without poisoning the present and future? There is. Reparations. A lump sum compensation does not, of course, make full amends. Nothing can. No one, for example, would pretend that postwar German reparations for the Holocaust made amends. But they were nonetheless extremely important. They gave both symbol and substance to atonement.

Sounds rather like a Fox News caricature of Jesse Jackson or Al Sharpton, does it not? Well, I assure you, it is the very same Krauthammer who bitterly opposes the Democratic Party and President Obama, the same one who lent his full-throated supported to neocons such as Cheney, Rumsfeld, et al.

Fleshing out his program for reparations, Krauthammer goes on to suggest that something on the order of $50,000 be given to every African-American family in exchange for, well, shutting up forever about the whole effects of slavery, rape, lynching, joblessness, arson, depressed wages, baseless incarceration, and residential segregation thing. One wonders if he still feels the same way now that the "budget surplus" from which he proposed drawing the $440 billion in reparations has blown away in an Iraqi sandstorm...

I have my own reservations about some of the premises and details of the project, but I do not disagree with its basic vision of redress. However, I would imagine that most white Americans would balk at Krauthammer's proposal, even in the best of economic times. Across the broad middle of the ideological spectrum and across a variety of class positions, most would offer an alliterative slogan of Hard Work and not Handouts. At this point, many would begin to talk about an immigrant grandfather who "came to this country with nothing" but, through a disciplined work ethic and frugality, moved the family into the middle class. 

I do not dispute the existence of these Grand Fathers. But is the story of the middle class, told in aggregate, a story of self-reliant individuals who, spontaneously and simultaneously, chose to work hard and save their money? Or is the American middle-class the product of large-scale social projects? After the jump, I synthesize the work of historians to show that the middle class was the product of elite political and financial decision-makers. Were it not for these large-scale social projects, American society would have settled into something like feudalism or the oligarchies of the decolonized world.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

palin and the cultural elites

Even a blind squirrel, rooting about desperately for food, bumps into an acorn on occasion. In this case, that squirrel is the former governor of Alaska. 

Sarah Palin is correct to observe that there is a cultural elite in the United States opposing her and her followers. Yuval Levin described the problem succinctly two years ago: "Palin’s cultural populism put her at odds with the foe that did her the most serious damage: the nation’s intellectual elite, whose initial suspicion of her deepened into outright loathing as the campaign progressed. Her inability in interviews to offer coherent answers about the Bush Doctrine, regulatory reform, and the Supreme Court’s case history, together with her unexceptional academic record and the fact that she had spent almost no time abroad, were offered as evidence that Palin represented a dangerous strain of anti-intellectualism on the Right."

By these measures, Mrs. Palin lacked what George W. Bush lacked before her--cultural capital. The French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu defined cultural capital as knowledge, condensed in the symbol of the university diploma. Cultural capital is not equivalent to economic capital, but it can be exchanged for it, as degree-holders expect their salaries to rise with their credentials. 

On the whole, liberal arts education has prided itself on producing opposition to the economic values of capitalism. More than anyone, students and professors in the humanities have claimed that devotion to interpreting the great works of art and philosophy produces true knowledge about human nature and disposes persons to more ethical modes of behavior. But the entanglement of the systems of distributing cultural and economic capital is not easily overlooked. 

Saturday, February 5, 2011

on the untimeliness of this blog

Most of you will recognize a part of this blog's subtitle--"today's hits and yesterday's jams"--as a catchphrase on what used to be called black radio (now urban radio). I should admit at the outset that I haven't listened to "today's hits" since R. Kelly's "Feeling on Your Booty." I remember it clearly: R. Kelly was doing  melismatic runs and riffs (boo-hoo-hoo-hoo-oo-tee) and then there was a flash. I think I stabbed my car radio. I don't know where the ice pick came from. Today, my iPod and I do just fine without Wacka Flocka. I get some Earth Wind and Fire going or some Chaka Khan and I am having Bill Withers' Lovely Daaaaaaaaay.

I actually did not hear of the aforementioned Wacka Flocka until the hilarious parody of his "Hard in the Paint" appeared. After laughing my face off, I decided to go check the original. All I could think was: Shouldn't you die of shame in the rap game if a bougie comedian has a better flow than you?  I mean, better by a lot. And, by the way, if your pseudonym sounds like something Fozzie the Bear used to say on The Muppet Show, don't you give up all claim to being hard core?
I don't keep up with celebrities, except by accident. I was quite pleased for a long time that I didn't know Kate Hudson... or Kate Gosselin. I suppose I take a perverse pride in not recognizing people who haven't made a meaningful contribution to my world. I know Cate Blanchette and Judi Dench. I feel Alfre Woodard and Sanaa Lathan. I am amazed by Delroy Lindo's versatility, Anna Deavere Smith's cast of characters, and by Edie Falco, in every single project. I don't think I'll run out of viewing material.

Now, I realize that these preferences indicate how partial I am to "yesterday's jams." The youngest person on that list is kicking forty in the behind! But this might explain why I've always felt a bit out of place in my own generation. When I was in college, some friends and I used to muse that we could launch a new Harlem Renaissance from our campus. And there are times when, looking back at the art and politics of the 1920s, or even of the civil rights/Black Power eras, I think: I was born too late. They were on their shit back in the day!  You might say that I find the past more appealing because I didn't have to live it. You might be right.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

STEM teachers revisited

This blog will not only be about education, but I did want to follow up on some conversations I've had away from the blog. (By the way, dear readers, it's more fun if you post those comments here rather than send them to me via Facebook, email, carrier pigeon, or threating voicemail, jk ;0). I intend to slow the pace of full-length posts to once a week. Still, this postscript seemed in order.

A friend of mine who is a principal at a charter school in Chicago notes that he has found it exceedingly difficult to hire a science teacher but was inundated with applications for Language Arts and Social Studies positions.

I did not know but I do understand. Still, I am concerned. Will a focus on science and technology and engineering and math (STEM) teachers result in a two-tiered system with STEM teachers prized while others are (further) devalued? After all, English (for example) is not a subject just anyone can teach. A degree in the subject area is not necessarily proof that one really possesses specialized knowledge about the subject or pedagogy. Whether it is knowing the definition and function of gerunds and subordinate clauses or knowing how to scan the rhythm of a line of verse, there are specialized skills involved in teaching language and literature. Would there be any benefit in making teaching salaries more attractive across the board rather than only in the STEM areas, as it appears the President's plan might? Or have I misunderstood what he has in mind?

** And, just to show that I am not against STEM teachers, here is an innovative earth science teacher I hope you will support with a small donation.