Tag Archives: education

Returning to the Well of White Resentment

As Republicans in Congress back away from Trump, he throws red meat to his base.


When things go wrong, you go back to basics. As the down-home saying has it: “I’ll dance with who brung me.”

What “brung” Donald Trump to the White House was not the support of establishment Republicans like Paul Ryan or Mitch McConnell, but the white resentment that had built up during the eight years of the Obama administration. And as Congressional Republicans start to back away from him, Trump is responding by going back to that well.

Sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild started studying the Trump base years before anybody knew they’d be the Trump base. In her book Strangers in Their Own Land,  she summed up their “deep story” — the narrative of how life feels to them — like this:

You are patiently standing in the middle of a long line stretching toward the horizon, where the American Dream awaits. But as you wait, you see people cutting in line ahead of you. Many of these line-cutters are black — beneficiaries of affirmative action or welfare. Some are career-driven women pushing into jobs they never had before. Then you see immigrants, Mexicans, Somalis, the Syrian refugees yet to come. As you wait in this unmoving line, you’re being asked to feel sorry for them all. You have a good heart. But who is deciding who you should feel compassion for? Then you see President Barack Hussein Obama waving the line-cutters forward. He’s on their side. In fact, isn’t he a line-cutter too? How did this fatherless black guy pay for Harvard? As you wait your turn, Obama is using the money in your pocket to help the line-cutters. He and his liberal backers have removed the shame from taking. The government has become an instrument for redistributing your money to the undeserving. It’s not your government anymore; it’s theirs.

It’s tricky to argue with this narrative, because they’re not wrong about being stuck in an unmoving line: Middle-class wages have been stagnating for decades. The jobs you can get without a college education are going away, except for the insecure ones that don’t pay much. And college is increasingly a highly leveraged gamble: If you don’t finish your degree, or just guess wrong about where the future jobs will be, you may end up so deep in debt that you’re worse off than if you hadn’t tried.

What’s wrong with that deep story is in who it blames: Immigrants, blacks, and Muslims, not the CEOs who send jobs to Indonesia, or the tax-cutting politicians who also cut money for education and training, or the lax anti-trust enforcement that keeps monopolies from competing for workers and funnels so much of America’s economic growth to corporations that occupy a few key choke points. The story, in a nutshell is: Get angry about the real problems in your life, and then let yourself be manipulated into blaming people who are even worse off than you.

Writing in The Washington Post on Friday, Christine Emba summarized how Trump uses this deep story.

First, Trump taps into a mainstream concern, one tied to how America’s economic system is changing and how some individuals are left at the margin: Employment? Immigration? College? Take your pick. Then, instead of addressing the issue in a way that embraces both its complexity and well-established research, [administration] officials opt for simplistic talking points known to inflame an already agitated base: Immigrants are sneaking into the country and stealing your jobs! Minorities are pushing you out of college!

Misdirecting blame onto well-chosen scapegoats is the heart of the Trump technique. Two weeks ago I described how environmentalists have been scapegoated for the decline in coal-mining jobs, taking the real causes — automation and fracking — out of the conversation. This week, in the wake of TrumpCare’s failure, a brewing rebellion in Congress, and the increasing likelihood that the special counsel’s investigation into the Trump campaign’s collusion with Russia will actually get somewhere, those dastardly immigrants and minorities were front-and-center again.

Why can’t working-class kids get into Harvard? Tuesday, the NYT’s Charlie Savage reported that the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division is looking for lawyers interested in “investigations and possible litigation related to intentional race-based discrimination in college and university admissions.” This appears to presage an attack on affirmative action programs which disadvantage white and sometimes Asians applicants.

Such cases have been litigated for decades, with the outcome so far that affirmative action programs are OK if they are narrowly tailored to serve the goal of creating a diverse student body, which can improve the university’s educational experience for all its students. (Two examples: A history class’ discussion of slavery is going to be more real if some participants are black. And an all-white management program might be poor preparation for actual management jobs.)

Black comedian Chuck Nice lampooned the affirmative-action-is-keeping-my-kid-out-of-Harvard view Friday on MSNBC’s “The Beat”:

I am so happy this has finally come to the fore the way it should be, because whenever I walk onto an Ivy League campus, I always say to myself “Where are the white people?”

Emba’s article was more analytic:

Affirmative action is a consistent hobbyhorse on the right because it combines real anxieties with compelling falsehoods.

The real concern is how hard it is for children of the white working class to either get a top-flight education or succeed without one. Nobody’s laughing about that. But the compelling falsehood is to scapegoat blacks, who have an even smaller chance of getting ahead. The truly blameworthy people who get taken off the hook are the rich, and particularly the old-money families whose children have been going to Yale for generations. They’re the ones who are sucking up all the opportunity.

At Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Georgetown and Stanford universities, the acceptance rate for legacy applicants is between two and three times higher than the general admissions rate.

If you want to blame somebody for why your children didn’t get into their first-choice schools, consider Jared Kushner. Daniel Golden had already researched Jared’s case for his 2006 book, The Price of Admission. In November, when Trump’s win made Jared (and Golden’s book) newsworthy, Golden summarized his findings:

My book exposed a grubby secret of American higher education: that the rich buy their under-achieving children’s way into elite universities with massive, tax-deductible donations. It reported that New Jersey real estate developer Charles Kushner had pledged $2.5 million to Harvard University in 1998, not long before his son Jared was admitted to the prestigious Ivy League school. At the time, Harvard accepted about one of every nine applicants. (Nowadays, it only takes one out of twenty.)

I also quoted administrators at Jared’s high school, who described him as a less than stellar student and expressed dismay at Harvard’s decision.

“There was no way anybody in the administrative office of the school thought he would on the merits get into Harvard,” a former official at The Frisch School in Paramus, New Jersey, told me. “His GPA did not warrant it, his SAT scores did not warrant it. We thought for sure, there was no way this was going to happen. Then, lo and behold, Jared was accepted. It was a little bit disappointing because there were at the time other kids we thought should really get in on the merits, and they did not.”

It’s not that Somali immigrants are cutting in line ahead of your kid. It’s that there’s a different line for the very rich; your kid was never allowed to get into it.

Let’s shut down immigration, especially by people who don’t speak English. Donald Trump literally loves immigrants; that’s where his mom came from, and two of his three wives. His Mom, though, came from Scotland, where they speak something closely resembling English. And while Melania has a distinct Eastern-European accent, she was what Julia Ioffe calls “the right kind of immigrant. She is a beautiful white woman from Europe, and we like those.”

Those grubby brown Spanish-speaking immigrants, though, something has to be done about them. So Wednesday Trump endorsed a plan by Republican Senators Cotton and Perdue to cut legal immigration in half, and introduce a point system that favors English-speaking, youth, wealth, and education. (Homework: Try to figure out whether your own ancestors could have made it into the country under this system. I’m not sure about mine.)

The plan has virtually no chance of becoming law. Since it was introduced in the Senate a few months ago, no new sponsors have signed on. A number of other Republican senators criticized it, and it seems unlikely even to come up for a vote.

So the point of Wednesday’s push by the White House was purely to throw some red meat to the base. It also gave White House adviser Stephen Miller (who you may remember from his chilling quote in February that “the powers of the president to protect our country are very substantial and will not be questioned”) a chance to get in front of the cameras and repeat a number of falsehoods about immigrants and their effect on the economy.

He also got to dog whistle to white nationalists. When CNN’s Jim Acosta challenged how this plan aligns with the inscription on the base of the Statue of Liberty (“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breath free … ), Miller waved aside the poem as something that was “added later” and accused Acosta of “cosmopolitan bias”.

The added-later part is true, sort of. Emma Lazarus wrote “The New Colossus” as part of a fund-raising campaign for the statue’s base, and it has been part of the monument for only 114 of its 131 years. The idea that its addition was somehow a usurpation of the statue’s original meaning is popular on the alt-right:

We’re having this “great war of national identity” because our New York-based Jewish elite no longer has the power to control the Narrative. The fake news Lügenpresse has steadily lost its legitimacy. Thanks to the internet, the smartphone and social media, they are losing control over everything from radio to publishing to video. I now have the capability to fire an Alt-Right cruise missile of truth from rural Alabama right back at David Brooks in New York City.

The “Occidental Dissent” blog recognized that Miller was repeating its case and felt suitably validated.

Chances are, you have never heard cosmopolitan used as an insult before, either. But that’s because you travel in the wrong circles. Nationalist movements have often used it to denote fellow citizens they thought might fit in better somewhere else. Stalin used it against Jews. It also traces back to Mussolini and Hitler. American white nationalists know this kind of history, which is what makes the word a good dog whistle.

Both these incidents go with Trump’s endorsement of police violence last week, the transgender ban, and his attempt to revive anti-Hillary-Clinton animus in West Virginia Wednesday. Governing is proving to be difficult, so he is trying to relive the glory days of the campaign. We should expect to see a lot more of it.

Academic Freedom and Institutional Power at My Old School

The University of Chicago, where I did my graduate work in the late 1970s and early 80s, doesn’t make headlines all that often. It’s been a top academic institution for more than a century, but hasn’t had a great sports team since Coach Amos Alonzo Stagg was pushed out the door in 1932. The most famous thing that ever happened there — Enrico Fermi’s self-sustaining nuclear fission reaction in December, 1942 — was secret at the time. [1] And despite the occasional law lecturer like Barack Obama or econ professor like Milton Friedman who wanders into the public eye, the bulk of Chicago’s faculty does research far too esoteric to draw any reaction from the mass culture.

But like a disguised celebrity who succeeds in attending a public event without being recognized, the U of C community takes a perverse sort of pride in its relative obscurity: History will notice us, so CNN doesn’t have to.

Nonetheless, the University caused a buzz this week because of an unusual welcome letter the Dean of Students sent to the incoming freshman class. The letter made the Chicago experience sound more like boot camp than a nurturing environment where young people can find themselves and achieve intellectual maturity. The Dean warned his new flock that the rigorous academic debate they will hear “may challenge you and even cause discomfort”, and that the U of C

does not support so-called “trigger warnings,” we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial, and we do not approve the creation of intellectual “safe spaces” where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.

The letter received a wave of acclaim from the sorts of elders who think the younger generation has gone soft, [2] or who wring their hands and clutch their pearls about “political correctness”. Like much of the discussion of political correctness, the Dean’s letter struck me as disingenuous. Academic freedom is not the simple issue Dean Ellison is making it out to be, and he is not necessarily on the side of the angels.

To begin with, he pulls together two issues — trigger warnings and controversies over invited speakers — that are related only through the false frame he has constructed for them. In neither case is the alleged over-sensitivity of today’s students the real issue. Most of the commentary on this has focused on trigger warnings (and I’ll get to that), but I think I’ll start with controversial speakers, because I have some history there.

Controversial speakers. The Dean’s statement that “we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial” took me back to the only protest I participated in during my years at Chicago: In 1979 a substantial segment of the student body was outraged when the University decided to give a prestigious award (for “outstanding contributions to international understanding”) to Robert McNamara, one of the con-men who had sold the American public the idea that we were winning the Vietnam War. The anti-McNamara demonstration was a true 60s flashback; Chicago cops dragged people away by their throats and everything. (I was on the sidelines and escaped unharmed.)

Nearly four decades later, I remain convinced that we were right and the University was wrong. By mingling Chicago’s prestige with McNamara’s toxic legacy, the administration was failing in its duty to protect the University’s reputation. And this absolutely was the student’s business, since we were working and paying to attach that reputation to our names.

That’s typical of the “controversial speaker” flaps that are still happening today. They’re not about limiting free speech or protecting over-sensitive students from upsetting ideas. They’re about administrators misusing (and hence endangering) their universities’ prestige.

So, for example, when faculty and student protests got former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to back out of speaking at the 2014 Rutgers commencement, the issue wasn’t that a conservative speaker might say something liberal students would find upsetting. The issue was that “commencement speaker” is a position of honor; a university implicitly presents the speaker as a role model for its graduates. Many in the Rutgers community found it inappropriate to honor someone who promoted the deceptions that started the disastrous Iraq War and collaborated in the Bush administration’s torture regime. Rather than expecting honors from universities like Rutgers, Secretary Rice should be happy that she’s not on trial at The Hague.

Appropriate gatekeeping. A university is not and should not be a podium from which all ideas are proclaimed equally. When a university presents speakers in some official context — at commencement, in named lectures, as course presenters, and elsewhere — it legitimizes their message. The university doesn’t necessarily endorse that message as truth, but it does say that the speaker deserves attention and presents a point of view that an educated person should be familiar with.

So while, for example, it could be entirely appropriate for a political science department to host Ben Carson so that he could discuss his experiences running for office, it would be malpractice for a history department to invite him to present his belief that the Biblical Joseph built Egypt’s pyramids to store grain. There are many academically legitimate theories about the pyramids, but that is not one of them.

The Tattooed Professor offers an edgier example:

To move from the hypothetical to the real, the Virginia Tech students who protested their university’s invitation to Charles Murray to deliver a lecture weren’t some sort of intellectual gestapo, they were members of a community calling out other members’ violation of the community’s ethos. Murray is a racist charlatan who’s made a career out of pseudoscientific social darwinist assertions that certain “races” are inherently inferior to others. To bring him to campus is to tell segments of your student community that, according to the ideas the university is endorsing by inviting Murray, they don’t belong there. This isn’t a violation of academic freedom. It’s an upholding of scientific standards and the norms of educated discourse — you know, the type of stuff that colleges and universities are supposed to stand for, right?

Especially in the internet era, when any kind of wild notion can gain a wide audience and corporate money can create an imposing facade of intellectual authority, this gatekeeping role is an important part of a university’s mission. For example, universities should promote a well-informed and wide-ranging debate about President Obama’s anti-terrorism policies, but not about whether he is secretly a Muslim in league with our enemies. A university that legitimizes baseless conspiracy theories diverts attention from topics that need and deserve it.

The major threat to universities’ ability to perform this function honestly comes not from students below, but from administrators above. Like political candidates, universities face a constant temptation to bend to the will of their funders, and the Koch Brothers and other billionaires are working hard to buy academic legitimacy for ideas that could not compete on their intellectual merit. Like big-name journalists, university presidents can also be corrupted by their exposure to power; once you get accepted into the social world of cabinet secretaries and corporate CEOs, their point of view takes on an authority it does not deserve.

Student protest is a counterweight to this executive corruption, and students should be commended, not condemned, for keeping watch on who their universities honor and which ideas they legitimize. To the extent that Dean Ellison’s letter intimidates students into shutting up, or emboldens other administrators to ignore students’ views, it undermines the mission of a true university.

Trigger warnings. This is not a new controversy, and a very good defense of trigger warnings appeared in New York Magazine in 2014. First, Kat Stoeffel explains the history:

They were popularized in the feminist blogosphere, to warn participants of the self-designated safe spaces about stories involving rape, abuse, or self-harm that might induce flashbacks to their own past traumas

From there the concept expanded to blog posts about racism and various other isms, until eventually they started showing up in university course descriptions. Stoeffel describes how she initially rolled her eyes at the whole idea, but has since changed her mind.

Why should trigger warnings bother me? Like many of trigger warnings’ loudest opponents, I have noticed, I have no firsthand experience with rape or racial discrimination or cissexism. And a few words at the beginning of an article (or on a seminar syllabus) are no skin off my un-traumatized nose.

In fact, what now strikes me most about trigger warnings is how small a request they are, in proportion to the backlash they incite. What is it about about this entirely free gesture of empathy that makes people so outraged? In their distress, critics have entirely overlooked an important distinction: Oberlin students aren’t trying to get out of reading Mrs. Dalloway because they’re special, sensitive snowflakes, or even get it removed from syllabi. They just want a three-word note on the syllabus giving them a heads-up that it addresses suicide. If that’s all it takes for instructors to prevent the shock it could cause a student who has been suicidal, it is, to me, a no-brainer.

Erika Price describes how this works from both an instructor’s and a reader’s point of view.

It is impossible for a professor or teacher to anticipate every student’s triggers, and frankly, I’ve never met a student who was demanding or entitled about having their specific triggers tagged in advance. What I have encountered, numerous times, are students who have a trauma history or a mental illness that involves triggers, who are only willing to gently and quietly request trigger warnings after I have made my pro-TW stance abundantly clear. These requests have always been polite and reasonable, and have never involved scrubbing my syllabus clean of challenging material.

… Because I am a rape survivor with trauma triggers, I know firsthand that the experience of using trigger warnings completely contradicts the anti-TW stereotype. I am not a soft-willed, petulant baby. I am a battle-tested, iron-willed survivor who has faced far more personal horror than any anti-TW demagogue could. I do not use TW’s to “protect myself” from writing that challenges me intellectually. I read writing by people I disagree with on a daily basis, for both academic and personal enrichment; my use of trigger warnings to sometimes avoid rape- and stalking-related content is utterly irrelevant to that. And the use of trigger warnings does not make me weak. Trigger warnings empower me by allowing me to customize my reading-about-rape experience. I get to choose when and how I present myself with upsetting or triggering content. This makes it easier for me to do so regularly. [3] And for the record, when I am faced with triggering material, I am not a trembling, weeping wreck, fuck you very much.

Like anything else, the idea can be misapplied. [4] But we don’t abandon the whole notion of product-safety liability just because people sometimes sue for trivial reasons. By rejecting the trigger-warning notion wholesale, Dean Ellison is short-circuiting a potentially fruitful academic discussion: What kind of consideration do individual students have a right to expect, and when are they imposing too much on the group? By declaring this whole debate illegitimate literally from Day One, it is Dean Ellison who is retreating from ideas and perspectives at odds with his own. He “wins” not by marshaling a better argument, but by invoking his institutional power: ME DEAN. YOU STUDENT.

Safe spaces. I think this part of the discussion borders on the ridiculous. Nobody lives 24/7 in an environment of unfettered academic critique. Nor is that a goal anyone should aspire to.

I hope every student finds a safe space somewhere and retreats to it when under stress. Even if it’s just a friend’s dorm room or some remote corner of the library stacks that no one else seems to know about, everybody should have one. And if students collectively decide to create a limited space where, say, no one is going to tell you that rape victims had it coming, I don’t see the harm.

Ali Barthwell nailed it:

Imagine you’re inviting a friend over to your house and before they say yes, you go “Oh, by the way, I have a dog in case you’re allergic.” THAT’S a trigger warning.

Imagine your friend says they do have a dog allergy so you agree to keep your dog out of your living room and vacuum everything so there’s no dander. THAT’s a safe space.

That’s what you assholes are against.

Trauma and empathy. Every life contains some amount of trauma, which really ought to give us all empathy for people who have been through worse.

Twenty years ago, I accompanied my wife to a doctor’s appointment, where we heard an unexpectedly bad diagnosis. For a time, I was convinced that I would spend the next two years or so watching her slide into a painful death. (That didn’t happen; she’s fine.) Afterwards it was lunchtime, so we stopped at a Mexican restaurant we used to go to occasionally. It was the only time since childhood when I literally could not stop crying.

I’ve never been back to that restaurant. It’s not their fault, and I imagine their food is still good. But there are other Mexican restaurants where I don’t have to remember crying my eyes out in public, so I go to them instead. If you’re ever going out to lunch with me and innocently suggest that restaurant, I’ll politely nudge you somewhere else. Indulge me; it’s not that big an ask.

Most of us — even if we were never raped or held hostage by terrorists or forced to watch our parents’ murder — can recall some lesser trauma. And I suspect a lot of us have some place we don’t go or thing we don’t do or product we stay away from. Maybe we could all pluck up our courage and confront those limitations, but most of us don’t. Life is too short and courage too limited to spend it so freely.

Whatever traumatic moment you can remember, imagine somebody who went through something ten times worse. If they’re not asking you for much, maybe you could indulge them. That’s all this controversy is about.


[1] Funny story related to that: Decades before I came to Chicago, Eckhart Hall, which houses the Mathematics Department, was a Manhattan Project building. As a math teaching assistant I had an office in the basement, and for several years I spent about as much time down there as a troll spends in his cave. After I got my degree, I was packing up my books when workmen came in to grind off and repatch hotspots in the floor and walls, because the government had just tightened the standards for allowable background radiation. “Now you tell me,” I said.

[2] By any objective standard (other than maybe background radiation) the current generation of students has it much harder than mine did. Most of them will leave school with a vast amount of debt, and will enter a far more uncertain job market. Older folks should be looking for ways to make their lives easier, not harder.

[3] There’s an analogy here from the history of commerce: The insurance industry did not grow because ship captains became more fearful. Quite the opposite, the protection provided by insurance allowed captains to become more adventurous.

[4] Another resemblance to the political correctness debate is the high urban-legend factor. Everybody knows somebody who knows somebody who read about a really outrageous example of a demand for a trigger warning (that for some reason could not be answered by a simple “no”). But when you go looking for verifiable examples of real damage to academic freedom, the pickings are pretty slim.

The one example that keeps showing up, Jeannie Suk Gerson’s discussion of teaching rape law at Harvard, seems to me to be as much about faculty laziness as student sensitivity. Gerson concludes:

If the topic of sexual assault were to leave the law-school classroom, it would be a tremendous loss — above all to victims of sexual assault.

Yes it would. But are “cover the topic insensitively” and “drop it” really the only options? I discussed a similar excluded-middle thought pattern with regard to policing in “Rich Lowry’s False Choice“.

9 Things I Think About Education and the Common Core

The problem isn’t the standards and it’s not even the tests. It’s what people want to do with the scores.


For months, friends have been asking me, “What do you think about the Common Core?” (You get that kind of question when you write a political blog.) The first time I responded “Huh?” Then I started googling around, and my ignorance turned into confusion: The Common Core itself is little more than two lists — one for Mathematics and one for Language Arts — describing the knowledge and skills that children should be acquiring in various school grades. Nothing on either list is obviously controversial. No “learn how to perform a wide variety of sexual acts” or “master methods for invoking Satan with or without human sacrifice”.

But if you wander into the wrong discussions, the vitriol is intense and it’s very hard to hold a discussion on track. You see, the CC is not just a set of standards for education; it’s Step #1 of half a dozen contradictory conspiracy theories. That’s because the CC sits in the intersection of at least four different culture wars.

  • local control vs. national standards. Parents like the idea that they can walk into the office of somebody — a principal or a local superintendent — who has the power to fix whatever they think is wrong with their kids’ school. But Americans in general hate the United States’ poor showing in international comparisons, so many of us wish we could impose higher standards nationwide.
  • public schools vs. privatization. To one side, public schools represent community, the common good, the sense that we’re all in this together, and our shared commitment to any child who wants to learn. To the other, the public school system is the quintessential failed government bureaucracy. The sooner it gets replaced by a system of competing entrepreneurial private schools, the better.
  • basic skills vs. progressive education. Is the point of K-12 education to instill a firm grounding in the 3 R’s? Or is it to awaken (or at least not stifle) a child’s creative intelligence so that s/he can cope with a future whose requirements we can’t predict? (I’m old enough to remember a previous version of this battle: New Math. That controversy spawned this classic Tom Lehrer song, which he introduces by saying: “In the new approach, as you know, the important thing is to understand what you’re doing, rather than to get the right answer.” The audience laughs nervously.) This taps into an even deeper religious battle: Should we be teaching our children the eternal truths laid down by God and tradition? Or does culture progress in such a way that what used to be central may now be trivial, and what seems wrong to us may someday become right?
  • individualized education vs. standardized testing. Each child and each classroom is a unique bundle of talents and interests. Each day is roiled by waves of happenstance that a wise teacher is creative enough to use rather than fight. (The kids can’t stop watching the bird building a nest on the ledge outside the window, so today’s the day to jump ahead in the syllabus — or invent a new unit on the fly — and talk about birds.) But how can we root out the bad, lazy teachers or identify the dysfunctional, under-performing schools unless we rigorously define what the kids are supposed to learn when, and have objective tests that determine whether they’re learning it?

In addition, there’s a battle-of-the-billionaires going on. The Gates Foundation is pushing the CC, while the Koch brothers are fighting it. Neither of these big-money interests believes in public schools in anything like their current form, so there’s a third front represented by anti-CC pro-teacher liberals like Diane Ravitch.

So whether the venue is liberal or conservative, Common Core discussions have a way of wandering off into bizarre stereotypes and dystopian futures. It’s easy to forget that you’re talking about two lists of knowledge and skills (that don’t mention Satan).

Where I’m coming from. Like everybody, I have my own biases: I went to high school during the era of experimentation in the 1970s, and my public high school (in the small town of Quincy, Illinois, which Time in 1975 described as “an unlikely place for an educational mecca“) was — for the short time I was there — a national leader in new ideas. I went through Quincy High’s Project to Individualize Education (PIE), which today sounds like a hippie fantasy, even in Quincy. I organized my own schedule week-to-week, took tests whenever I felt like I had mastered the material, and had enough free time to write a novel during my senior year. (It’s not very good; if you ask to read it I will claim it’s lost.) I was also the student newspaper’s reporter at Quincy’s annual education conferences, where I (briefly) got to meet legends like John Holt.

I never bought into Holt’s big theories about un-schooling society, but I did retain this much: Everybody is interested in something, and everything is interconnected. So the best kind of education starts with what kids want to know and leads them to what they need to know.

My other prior opinions are influenced by my sister’s experiences. She recently retired from a career teaching elementary school in both public and private systems. She left with a lot of teaching still in her, but the public school system in Chattanooga had squeezed all the joy out the profession.

Finally, one of my friends from grad school has taken a public position in favor of the CC: Sol Friedberg is known to the world as the chair of the Boston College math department, but he’s known to me as the guy I drove from Chicago to San Diego with in a $200 car. (During that trip he convinced me that I ought to pay more attention to the woman I’ve now been married to for nearly 30 years.) His op-ed on CC appeared recently in the LA Times.

So bearing all that in mind, let’s think this through from the beginning. My first four conclusions are positive.

1. There’s a legitimate national interest in education. Public schools began in a low-mobility era when every small town educated its own future citizens and even its own leaders and professionals. The local factory knew that its workers were coming from the public schools, and the old people all had grandchildren there.

Today it’s different. My sister and I took our good educations and left town, while my parents’ doctor came from India and their grandchildren grew up in Tennessee. Today, the local public school is a special interest that mainly matters to parents and teachers. So left to the local political process, all but the richest communities will underfund their schools. Local curriculum decisions will revolve around religion and political ideology rather than the interests of children, because more voters have religious and ideological passions than have a connection to the local kids.

But not even the United States can import all the smart people it needs, and we can’t have government-of-the-people if the people are ignorant. So those kids being taught anti-science nonsense in Louisiana or stuck in dead-end schools in inner-city Baltimore are going to choose your presidents and maybe even do your brain surgery. So it’s your business.

2. On a large enough timescale, national standards make sense. Whatever state they’re from, high school graduates compete for places in the same colleges, or for jobs in an increasingly globalized market. It makes sense for “high school graduate” to mean one thing, rather than fifty or fifty-thousand different things. I don’t think we want every local school board debating what kids need to know about trigonometry.

Given the mobility of our society, year-by-year standards make sense too. Schools shouldn’t be McDonalds franchises, but when you have to take that new job in New Mexico, your fifth-grader should continue to be a fifth-grader.

The stuff that drove my sister nuts was the finer-scale scheduling: being told not just where her students should be at the end of the year, but what she had to cover week-by-week and even day-by-day.

3. No set of standards is perfect, but these are fine. Ignore whatever commentary you’ve heard; just go look at them. Sure, good students, good teachers, and good schools will aim higher, and the top colleges will expect more. But if all kids came out of high school with this much math and language skill, that would be tremendous.

4. It makes sense to test how well students are reaching these goals. The CC standards themselves are just a list of knowledge and skills, but two state consortia are building tests around them: Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium and  Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers.

I don’t have any problems with national tests. My problem starts with how the results get used.

5. The standards-adoption process has been undemocratic. The Obama administration all but made Common Core a requirement to qualify for Race to the Top money, which the states desperately needed at the bottom of the Great Recession. And Race to the Top wasn’t debated and passed on its own merits, it was folded into the stimulus.

So on paper it looks like states are choosing to adopt these standards and the tests that go with them. But there has never been an appropriate public discussion, either in Congress or in the state legislatures.

6. High-stakes testing is a bad idea. You can use a traditional metaphor (watched pots) or a scientific one (Heisenberg effect), but the idea is simple: Sometimes watching things too intently screws them up.

In the school-reform movement pushed by the Gates Foundation, tests rule the world. Tests close schools, hold students back, and fire teachers and principals. Even the jobs of mayors and governors ride on test scores. This is where things start to go wrong: The whole system is filled with test-score anxiety, and more time gets spent on how to take tests than on the Civil War. Everyone — students, teachers, principals, all the way up to superintendents and governors — has incentive to cheat, or at least not to catch cheaters. If you can find a way to shuffle low-scoring students out the door, so much the better.

And if your job or your school is in danger, why would you waste time teaching anything that’s not on the test? That’s when principals start micro-managing the classroom and asking teachers: “What test questions did you cover today?”

This process got dramatized in one of the subplots of Season 4 of The Wire: A former cop starts teaching math in a Baltimore school. The story starts down the familiar To Sir With Love super-teacher path, but just as Prez starts getting through to his kids, he’s reprimanded and forced to go back to robotically training them to take the state test.

7. We’re using test scores to scapegoat public schools and their teachers for social problems we’d rather not deal with. My church is in an upscale Boston suburb that has a lot of educated parents, so those are the public-high-school kids I run into. I’m always impressed with how much they know and how well they can think. If they were typical American students in a typical American high school, we wouldn’t be talking about school reform at all.

But think about kids who grow up poor. Their mothers are less likely to have appropriate pre-natal care and nutrition, and more likely to suffer from either drug problems or exposure to toxic chemicals. So right off the bat, poor kids have more learning disabilities. As toddlers, on average they continue to have worse nutrition and less medical care. They are more likely to enter school with undiagnosed sight or hearing problems, not to mention those learning disabilities, which are also probably undiagnosed. They are likely to be raised by less articulate parents in homes with fewer books, so they reach public school knowing far fewer words. Then we crowd them together with other students with similar disadvantages, in schools that aren’t as well equipped as schools professional-class kids go to. If poor kids overcome all that and make average progress during the school year, in the summer they again live with fewer books, fewer piano lessons, and fewer trips to the museum, so they are behind again by fall.

It’s obvious how to fix all that, but nobody wants to pay for it. Nobody wants to pay for pre-natal care or check-ups for toddlers or childhood nutrition or pre-school enrichment programs. Nobody wants to give schools in poor neighborhoods significantly more funding than schools in rich neighborhoods get, even though they need it. Nobody wants to merge their rich school district with the poor school district on the other side of the boundary line. Nobody wants to pay for summer programs or year-round schools. And so on.

It’s much easier to blame the schools in poor neighborhoods and claim that lazy teachers are using poverty as an excuse.

But when you compare our schools to a world-class system, like say Finland’s, the schools themselves are only part of the story. Finland is a socialist country, so it puts enormous resources into making sure kids don’t grow up poor.

8. Super-teachers won’t save us. Somebody’s study says that great teachers can move a class 1.5 grade-years, while bad teachers might only get half a grade-year of progress. From there comes the notion that three great teachers in a row could completely wipe out the gaps between black and white or rich and poor.

My Lutheran elementary school gave us achievement tests every year, and the principal showed me my score chart just before I graduated from 8th grade. In sixth grade, my scores jumped two-and-a-half grade levels. And yes, I had a good teacher that year. But it’s also true that my scores the previous year had been flat, so the jump had just restored the normal trajectory of my education. I sincerely doubt that two more years of great teachers would have raised my test scores by five grade levels.

So can a great teacher get a 1.5-year jump out a class? Maybe, sometimes. Would three in a row get a 4.5-year jump? I doubt it.

9. We won’t get super-teachers by firing the teachers we have. Baseball statistics geeks should understand this. One of the most advanced baseball stats is Wins Above Replacement (WAR). An earlier generation of statistics measured players against the average major-leaguer, but then somebody noticed that teams can’t just whistle up an average major-league shortstop whenever they need one. Some teams go entire decades without managing to fill some key position with an average player. So stats geeks started measuring against the replacement level: the kind of shortstop you can call up from the minor leagues or sign after some other team releases him. They’re not nearly as good as average, but you can always find them.

The same idea works here. If you fire a below-average teacher, you can’t automatically assume that the replacement will be an average teacher. The replacement level might be considerably lower than the average.

The underlying assumption behind the fire-teachers strategy is that teachers are unmotivated, and so need to be made to fear for their jobs. What other profession do we treat this way? Some doctors are certainly better than others, and there are probably patients who die because their doctor wasn’t as good as the best. So should we fire all but the best doctors? Would that motivation push the replacement doctors to be excellent? I kind of doubt it.

Conclusion. So here’s what I think about the Common Core: We could do a lot worse. We should have year-by-year national standards, and we should have tests that measure how well we’re achieving them. That’s not the battle to fight.

The right battle is over what to do with the scores. The Gates program, which influenced both No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top, is fundamentally misguided. What-test-question-did-you-cover-today education is not good education. (No school trying to attract the children of the rich would work that way.) Get-the-scores-up-or-else is no way to motivate teachers either to work harder or to improve their craft.

You’ve got your conspiracy theory and I’ve got mine. (I think profit-making corporations want public schools labeled as failures so they can get their hands on the billions we spend on education. But that’s a topic for another article.) Common Core is Step #1 in both of them. But I don’t think things get sinister until Step #2.

“Acting White” isn’t really a racial issue

If you want to blame a downtrodden group for their own disadvantages, here’s a handy trick: Take a broad social problem, see how it intersects with that group, and then talk about that intersection as if it were a unique problem located in that group.

Tricks like this are easier to spot in retrospect. So, for example, years ago when the gay-rights discussion was about whether public schools should allow gay teachers — already in 2004 that issue was an embarrassment to Jim DeMint and has since been removed even from far-right documents like the South Carolina Republican Platform — we used to hear a lot about gay teachers having sex with their students, as if this were some special gay problem totally unrelated to straight teachers having sex with their students. (Something similar is still going on in the Catholic priest scandal; rather than talk about the larger problem of the clergy sexual abuse that occurs in all denominations and victimizes both genders, some people want the issue to be about gay priests.)

Muslim terrorism and Islamic extremism are good present-day examples, because they’re usually discussed as if they had no similarity to Christian terrorism or extremism.

This trick is easy to fall for. I used to think that every incompetent black or female I ran into was an indictment of affirmative action, until somebody asked me: “How many incompetent white men do you know?”

Never mind.

Anyway, we’re supposedly having a national conversation on race. So far, the conservative half of that has largely been an indictment of black culture: Since racism is mythical and the ladder to success climbed by white ethnic groups — Irish, Italians, Poles — is still there, all blacks would have to do is clean up their act, get educated, and work hard. They’d all be CEOs in no time.

What supposedly stops this from happening is the unique inferiority of black culture. They take drugs, commit crimes, have illegitimate children — nobody forces them to do this stuff, Bill O’Reilly reminds us, “That’s a personal decision.”

And they’re actively hostile to education. “young black men often reject education and gravitate towards the street culture, drugs, hustling, gangs”. Bill came back to that point in a later broadcast:

Even if there were plenty of jobs, most employers are not going to hire people who can’t read well and speak proper English. Right now the unemployment rate among black males age 16 to 19, 57 percent; 57 percent. It’s 25 percent for white males that age. Overall, black unemployment, 14 percent; white unemployment, 6.6 percent. The reason, in many poor neighborhoods there’s chaos, violence and little discipline in the public schools. Kids aren’t learning.

CNN’s Don Lemon said O’Reilly “didn’t go far enough” and told his fellow blacks:

Want to break the cycle of poverty? Stop telling kids they’re acting white because they go to school or they speak proper English.

Even President Obama has hit that theme, most notably in the 2004 Democratic Convention speech that launched him onto the national stage:

children can’t achieve unless we raise their expectations and turn off the television sets and eradicate the slander that says a black youth with a book is acting white.

Telling kids who succeed in school that they’re “acting white” — for an educated white audience, that’s just beyond the pale. It’s a conscious rebellion against knowledge. What more proof do you need that black culture is horribly sick?

You know where else you see that phenomenon? Working class whites. In Reading Classes, Barbara Jensen writes both about her own white-working-class childhood and her adult experience as a counselor to working class white students.

She describes school as an extension of professional-class culture. Kids who grow up in the professional class live at home with the same communication patterns they’ll meet at school, while kids growing up in the working class have to learn special ways to act and talk in the classroom. (Simple example: Adults quizzing kids by asking questions they already know the answer to. It’s an obvious school thing, and professional-class parents do it all the time, beginning at a very early age. “What’s the cow say?” When parents question kids in a working-class household, it’s more like, “Who knocked that glass of water over?” So when those kids arrive at school and the teacher starts asking them questions, their instinctive reaction is that they’re being accused of something. And if you can’t see where a line of questioning is going, the safest thing is just to dummy up.)

Once working-class kids get past the basic foreignness of the school environment, they are taught that the way they speak at home is wrong. (I grew up putting an r-sound into the name of our nation’s capital — Worshington — and taking one out of the second month — Febuary. School taught me that was wrong.) Jensen has no problem with teaching Standard English, but …

How kids should be taught these skills is my concern. Is it really necessary to learn that everything a child knew before school about language is nothing more than bad English and ignorance?

Little by little, what you do at school starts to seem disloyal to your home life, because you’re being taught to look down on where you come from. It gets worse in middle school, where even professional-class kids have issues with peer pressure versus submission to authority. In the early grades, the clash was mainly between the influence of the parents and the influence of the teacher. But middle school is likely to be a larger school of mixed social classes. In addition to the teachers wanting to civilize you, you have to deal with the born-civilized professional-class kids and the teachers’ implicit why-can’t-you-be-more-like-them. Result? a culture of resistance that punishes collaborators.

Working class kids who are into academics get shunned and teased by other kids because they care about impressing their teachers. … My friends and I came to excel at rebelling — not as solitary rebels, like actor James Dean in the movie Rebel Without a Cause, but as a community of resistance to the authority of school.

This is a white author talking about white kids. She tells a sad story about quitting choir — even though she loved it — because she was too embarrassed to be up on stage with all the goody-goody professional-class kids in front of her working-class friends. (Jensen herself eventually got a Ph.D., but not until after a long strange trip that had little to do with her early schooling.)

So in short, I’m not claiming that “acting white” isn’t a problem, or that it doesn’t get in the way of black kids making a better life for themselves. I’m just saying it’s not a racial problem. It’s a thing that happens when the culture of school is alien to the culture of a neighborhood, and it happens to whites as well as blacks.

Because of their place in society, blacks are more likely to be in the path of this storm than whites, just as more blacks than whites were left behind in New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina hit. But just as we don’t have a “black hurricane problem”, we don’t have a black resistance-to-education problem.

Evolution/Creation for Non-Eggheads

Every year I use Darwin’s birthday (last Tuesday) as an excuse to check in on the creation/evolution issue and the debate over what to teach in public schools. That pot is always simmering, so whenever you choose to pay attention something is bound to be happening somewhere. But it gets dull really quickly, because both sides repeat themselves a lot. Checking once a year is about right.

This year I watched PBS documentary “The Revisionaries” about the battle over curriculum standards in Texas. (You can watch it for free on the PBS web site until Feb. 28.) As always, I was impressed by how well the creationist side pitches its arguments to the general public. “Teach both sides,” they say. “Teach the controversy. Teach the strengths and weaknesses of evolution.” It sounds so fair and reasonable — nothing at all like the stereotype of the crazy fundamentalist radical.

Then the scientists come on, and they look and sound exactly like their stereotype. You can tell they’re trying to be nice and non-threatening, but whatever they’re saying, the main thing that comes through is that they’re smart and they know better than you. It’s hard not to be reminded of all the other “experts” who are constantly explaining why everything you do is completely wrong: You eat wrong, you exercise wrong, you like the wrong kind of music, you watch the wrong kinds of movies and TV shows — everything you do is bad, and you should listen to them to learn how to do it right.

Most of all, you raise your kids wrong. When you let the kids do what they want, that’s wrong, but when you force them to do what you want, that’s wrong too. You talk to them wrong, you discipline them wrong — it goes on and on. And sure, you realize you aren’t the greatest human being who ever lived, but you do OK and your kids seem to be doing OK, so you wonder what you’d see if you walked into the experts’ houses and looked at their kids (if they have any). Are they better, really?

Sure, the evolution scientists are a different kind of expert entirely, but they look and sound exactly the same. You know you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but the look-and-feel thing is hard to get past. Watching them, all you can think is: “What do they want really? And why? Can’t they just come out and say that?” But they don’t. So when preachers tell you that the scientists want to destroy religion and convert everybody to atheism — well, at least that’s an answer.

I’ve lived a bunch of my life between the world of scientists and the world of ordinary people. I grew up in a small town in the Midwest and spent a lot of afternoons helping my Dad on the farm. I went to a Lutheran grade school where we memorized Bible passages every night and had to recite them in the morning. (We definitely did not learn evolution. I started picking that up in the public high school.) But I was born with a knack for math and went on to get a bunch of degrees. I’m not an evolutionary biologist, but I can hang with them when they let their hair down and not seem out of place.

Let me see if I can translate how this discussion looks to a university biologist or a high school biology teacher.

Politicians are telling them how to do their job. I’m guessing you can appreciate how that feels. They’ve devoted their lives to studying biology, figuring out how it all fits together, and coming up with ways to teach that knowledge to other people. And then a legislature or a school board or Congress wants to stick a hand up their backsides and turn them into puppets who repeat whatever they’re supposed to say.

You know how you feel when people who don’t know your kids tell you how to raise your kids? Well, people who don’t know their subject are telling them how to teach their subject. It pisses them off.

One of the reasons they so often look phony is that emotional outbursts aren’t valued in scientific discussions. In science, you’re supposed to be reasonable all the time, even when you’re really pissed off. So they can’t let on how they really feel. Instead, all that anger gets channeled into a biting cleverness that can be really, really annoying.

Why evolution is important to them. I’m sure they think they answer this question all the time, but it never comes out in the language ordinary people speak, so let me see if I can explain it better.

Have you ever listened to six-year-old boys describe a movie they’ve just seen? They remember all of it — probably more than you would if you saw it. Their young brains are sponges that soak up detail. But when they talk about it, those details come back out in some stream of consciousness that you can’t possibly understand if you haven’t seen the movie yourself. That’s because they haven’t learned yet what a plot is, or how use a plot to organize a whole bunch of facts into a story that people can understand and think about together.

Well, evolution is the plot of biology. By now, we know so much about cells and animals and environments and so forth that no one could possibly deal with it as a long list of details. You couldn’t learn it, you couldn’t teach it, you couldn’t even think about it, no matter how smart you are. But evolution arranges all that in a structure that people can learn and teach and think about. Even if evolution had turned out not to be true, biologists would still want to learn it as a memory device. It’s that useful.

Now, the obvious question is: Couldn’t creation or design become the plot of biology? It more-or-less was 200 years ago. And sure, we have a lot more details to organize now than we did then, but maybe biologists could make all that new knowledge fit somehow. So rather than saying “Giraffes evolved long necks because being able to eat leaves higher in the canopy gave them a survival advantage”, we could say “God designed giraffes with long necks because he knew they’d need to eat leaves high in the canopy.”

What’s wrong with that?

The first answer you’re likely to get from a biologist is that it wouldn’t work, because of things like your appendix. (It’s hard to make sense of the human appendix from a design point of view, because it doesn’t do anything useful. It makes sense from an evolutionary point of view, though, because similar organs serve a purpose in the digestive systems of animals we’re related to, and evolution works slowly, so it hasn’t been useless long enough to evolve away.)

But the better answer is: Who knows? Maybe there is some way to tie all our biological knowledge together in a design-oriented plot. But nobody has done it. Whether some design-oriented plot for biology could work or not, it doesn’t exist now. It’s like talking about whether solar power could someday supply all our needs. Maybe. But that doesn’t help me if I want to flip on a light now.

So if, today, you want to learn or teach or think about the full range of what we know about biology, evolution is all you’ve got. You either use it or you give up.

Creationist textbooks are facades. Biology teachers know that K-12 students in China, India, Europe, and Japan are learning real science, not fantasies about approaches to science that maybe could work someday (but don’t work now and probably won’t work ever). So they wonder: How are American kids going to compete if we’re wasting their time like that?

Creationists can hide this state of affairs from the general public by writing design-oriented grade school and high school textbooks. But those textbooks are like the facade of Dodge City on the set of Gunsmoke. You’re supposed to think a whole town is back there, but it isn’t. What you can see is pretty much all there is.

Similarly, that creationist high-school textbook looks like the beginning of a complete design-oriented biological education. But in fact students who finish it are pretty close to the end of the line. If they get interested in biology and want to go further, they’ll have to start over in college and learn evolution. That’s not because colleges censor design, it’s because there isn’t much more design-oriented biology to learn.

I know that’s hard to believe, but you don’t have to take my word for it. Go listen to a creationist lecture. I predict they won’t tell you much of anything about creationist biology. Instead, they’ll spend all their time criticizing evolution. That’s because they don’t have anything else to present. Creationists are also using evolution to organize their thinking; they’re just against it rather than for it.

And that’s not going to change anytime soon, because creationists are not even trying to develop their theory. The budgets of creationist think-tanks like the Discovery Institute are almost entirely devoted to politics and public relations, with barely anything for research.

Creationists cheat. If putting up that kind of facade seems like cheating, well, creationists cheat in a lot of other ways too. Many of those reasonable-sounding arguments are just word games designed to confuse people.

Like: “Evolution is a theory, not a fact.” Sounds convincing, doesn’t it? Even scientists talk about “the theory of evolution”, right?

Of course, scientists also talk about “the theory of gravity” and “the theory of the solar system”. The word theory has a specialized meaning in science that has nothing to do with uncertainty. Gravity isn’t doubtful just because we have a theory about it.

That kind of trickery is not exceptional, it’s typical. Creationist arguments are full of untruths, half-truths, and word games — and the arguments keep circulating no matter how many times the fallacies get exposed.

Which is another reason why scientists get tied up in emotional knots at these public hearings. Very often the folks presenting some totally bogus argument are mothers who have an honest religious faith and are very genuinely concerned about their kids’ education. But it’s hard to see how the people who invent and popularize these arguments — the folks at the Discovery Institute, say — can be anything other than con-men who know better.

Scientists don’t know how to deal with that. The whole culture of science (going back to the 1600s) is based on arguing in good faith and assuming that your opponent is doing the same. A scientist who gets caught cheating is finished. There’s no rehabilitation process, you’re just done being a scientist. But dishonest creationist arguments live forever, and the people who invent them are not even embarrassed.

We’ve been through this already. Now let’s talk about what’s wrong with “teaching the controversy”. When biologists refuse to “teach both sides” or “teach the controversy”, it sounds like they’ve made evolution into some kind of unquestionable dogma, like the Trinity or the divine inspiration of the Bible is in some religions.

Everybody knows that scientific theories are wrong sometimes, and history is full of controversies when one theory challenges another. (The most famous one is the Copernican Revolution, when a Sun-centered theory of the planets replaced and Earth-centered theory.) When scientists won’t “teach the controversy” of evolution, they seem to be denying this history and to be hypocrites about the whole process of science.

What most people don’t realize is that there was a creation/evolution controversy in science, but it has been over for a long time. Scientists argued vociferously about evolution in the 1800s. By the 20th century the fact of evolution was widely accepted, but scientists continued to argue over the mechanism (i.e. natural selection) until mid-century, when the modern evolutionary synthesis came together. Just about all the scientific questions raised by creationists today were asked and answered generations ago.

Here’s an example: “Evolution can’t explain a complex organ like the eye.” Evolutionists run into that claim all the time, but in fact the basic framework of how the eye evolved was laid out more than half a century ago. If you’ve got two-and-a-half minutes, here’s the simple version.

If you’ve got an hour, here’s more detail.

The creation/evolution argument continues today not because new evidence raises new questions about evolution, but because people don’t want to believe answers that conflict with their religion. That is a religious controversy, not a scientific one. And if enough people want to impose their religion on the rest of us, they can create a political controversy or a legal controversy. But you can’t create a scientific controversy just by refusing believe something you don’t want to believe.

So by all means let’s teach the creation/evolution controversy in a history of science course, or in a course on religion, politics, or law. But it doesn’t belong in a biology class.

What’s different about evolution? And now we come to the most recent creationist political strategy (the one portrayed in The Revisionists): demanding that textbooks and curricula teach the “strengths and weaknesses” of evolutionary theory.

Again, that is well constructed to make scientists look bad. What kind of dogmatist would refuse to let students learn about the weaknesses of his ideas? What’s he afraid of?

But a better question to ask at this point is: Why are we just talking about evolution? Why do the textbook stickers warn students to have “an open mind” just about evolution? Shouldn’t they also “critically consider” the “strengths and weaknesses“of theories like the solar system? the atom? continental drift?

What’s special about evolution?

Only this: Evolution conflicts with a popular religion. Otherwise, it’s like the germ theory of disease, electrical circuit theory, or any other scientific theory. (The solar system used to conflict with popular religion, but it no longer does.)

So again, this is dressed up like a conversation about science, but it’s really about religion. There’s no scientific reason to pick evolution out for special scrutiny.

What’s wrong with that? Some creationists are very open and honest about wanting to impose their views on the public through the public schools. In a democracy, the religion of the majority tends to become the religion of the government, and public resources are used to promote it.

I think the Founders looked at what had been happening in England since the Reformation — religious factions squabbling to get control of the government — and they wrote the First Amendment specifically to prevent that from happening here.

But that issue takes us into textbook history standards, and a whole other set of things people want or don’t want to believe. Maybe I’ll save that topic for James Madison‘s birthday in March.

Education Reform: I’m Still Not Convinced

The Chicago teachers’ strike gave me an excuse to do something I’ve been meaning to do for a while: read up on the education reform movement. So I watched Waiting for Superman. I read Steven Brill’s Class Warfare: inside the fight to fix America’s schools. And I worked my way through a variety of less well known blogs and articles and videos.

It’s all interesting and makes several good points. But I’m still not convinced.

The ed-reform case. In a nutshell, the argument is this: The difference between good teachers and bad teachers is enormous. So the clearest path towards improving American public schools is to identify which is which, reward the good teachers (so they keep teaching) and fire the bad ones.

We also need longer school days and longer school years. We need high expectations for students, particularly students who are poor or otherwise disadvantaged. We shouldn’t accept that any sub-population of our kids is unteachable.

Particularly in big school districts (which tend to have a lot of disadvantaged kids), the bureaucracy of the system and the culture of the schools have to change. The way to do that is through charter schools, which operate within the public-school system, but have their own rules and constitute an end-run around the usual bureaucrats. (I’m not even getting into vouchers for private schools. That’s a whole different subject.)

From there, the discussion goes to teachers unions: They’re the villains. They’re the reasons none of this common-sense stuff has happened. They protect the bad teachers who ought to be fired and the lazy teachers who hide behind the restrictive work rules laid out in massive union contracts

The movement’s heroes are the pioneers who start or teach in high-standards charter schools in failing inner-city school districts. They have impressive Ivy League degrees (usually in something other than education), but they have turned their backs on the millions they could otherwise make and decided to save children instead. They work night-and-day, kids and parents can always reach them, and they don’t care about things like health insurance.

The other heroes are hard-nosed public-school principals and superintendents who refuse to go along with the status quo, so they take on the evil teachers unions and carve out bureaucratic space for the charter-school heroes to work their magic.

It makes a great book and a great movie. So why aren’t I convinced?

OK, I buy this much. A lot of the education-reform story is just common sense. Anybody who was ever a student knows what a big difference an unusually good or bad teacher can make. Imagine what your own schooling would have been like if every teacher were like your best teacher – or your worst.

And yes, it’s probably no great mystery who the best and worst teachers are. The kids, the parents, the other teachers, the principals – in most schools I bet they all know. If your kid has always hated a subject and suddenly loves it, chances are a really good teacher is involved. Or if your kid has always been eager and confident in school, but suddenly isn’t, bad teaching is a good first guess at an explanation.

And it’s true that bad schools develop a culture of failure. The good students with the caring parents find ways to opt out. Controlling a class, not teaching the kids something, becomes the top priority. Teachers commiserate with each other’s sense of defeat. Kids, parents, and teachers all become convinced that their best efforts will go unsupported. Rebuilding a culture of success – in spite of poverty, nightmarish home situations, drugs, violence, and all the other things that can get in the way of education – is damn difficult.

But …

The unintended effects of testing. Ideally, you’d like to train and hire good teachers, and then let them teach. (That’s what they do in Finland, whose school system is the best in the world.) But that’s not what’s happening in “reformed” school districts here.

When you measure a school’s success by its test scores, reward or punish principals based on their schools’ success, give principals the power to fire teachers easily, and measure teachers’ impact on test scores, the whole system starts to revolve around the test. Some teachers have told me that their daily lesson plans are required to identify exactly which part of the test the lesson covers.

A fictional (but I fear far too realistic) example was shown in season 4 of The Wire. A new junior high math teacher is initially horrified by his inner-city Baltimore class, but then starts on the classic To Sir With Love trajectory: figuring out who these kids are, finding where his subject meets their lives, gaining their trust by teaching them something whose value they can see, and then … being shut down by the principal because he isn’t teaching what’s on the test.

When you remember your best teachers, chances are you remember them as idiosyncratic, creative, and spontaneous. If a hurricane was coming, they might drop everything and do a unit on hurricanes. If a bird nested outside the classroom window, that was a chance to learn about birds.

That’s exactly the kind of teaching you won’t get in a test-driven system.

Low cost/low wage. The big reason America has no middle class any more is that we’ve applied the Wal-Mart model to one industry after another: Drive down costs by driving down wages. If you just did it in one industry, everybody else would benefit. But if you do it in all industries, you destroy the middle class.

Steven Brill’s book claims that’s not a goal of reform, but the stories he tells say otherwise.

Early in the book we meet a New York City charter school that shares a building with a numbered public school. As Brill describes the two schools, they are night and day: The charter is orderly, focused, and successful; the public school isn’t. He then proudly points out that the charter pays its teachers (on average) more.

But that’s just salary. He later mentions that charter-school pensions and other benefits are far lower, more than eclipsing the difference in salary. Plus, the charter has a longer school day and a longer school year; it gives teachers special school cell phones so that parents can reach them at any hour; and it allows the principal to fire teachers at any moment for any reason.

Lower pay, harder work, no down time, no job security – why do those evil teachers’ unions resist this modern utopia?

The heroic young charter-school teacher Brill follows in Class Warfare burns out by the end. So is that the plan nationally? Find 3 million idealistic and talented young people who are willing to give their lives totally to teaching our kids … and then find 3 million more five years from now when they burn out?

Is it really such a bad idea to preserve teaching as a liveable middle-class profession?

The superstar charter schools aren’t really comparable. Charter schools in general do no better than regular public schools, but there are some spectacular success stories like KIPP or the Harlem Children’s Zone (which I’ve told you about before). These schools prove that good teaching can overcome many of the disadvantages of poverty.

The most moving scenes of Waiting for Superman follow families through the lotteries that determine whether their children will be admitted to these massively over-subscribed schools. It’s a little like watching the lottery in the Hunger Games.

But I’m sure every public-school teacher who watched those scenes had the same thought: “I wish all my students had won a lottery to get into my class.”

The process of applying to a charter school weeds out families that don’t value education or just can’t get their acts together. Brill brushes this off by quoting a study; it shows that the students who lose the lotteries (whose families presumably are just as dedicated) do worse in their public schools than the winners do in their charters.

That misses the point. The charter school is made up entirely of families who value education. That by itself would change the culture of a school, even if you let unionized tenured public-school teachers teach the classes.

Politics. A lot of the funding for the education reform movement comes from billionaires. Some of them are probably sincere (Bill Gates, I suspect), but for a lot of them (the Walton Foundation, I suspect) education reform is just a wedge issue to divide anti-poverty liberals from pro-union liberals. Governor Scott Walker has made use of ed-reform rhetoric in his quest to destroy Wisconsin public-employee unions completely.

It has to make you suspicious when one of Brill’s heroes (New York City education chancellor Joel Klein) leaves his education job to become an executive VP for Rupert Murdoch.

A second subtle message of education reform is that the education issue can divorced from the poverty issue, that it’s OK to have a large underclass as long as we provide a way for a few talented poor kids to escape, and that the only way to help those kids is to destroy teaching as a middle-class profession.

The rich have always looked for ways to make the middle class fight the poor rather than ally with them. We shouldn’t fall for that old trick again.

Where to go. I wish I knew. The state of most inner-city schools is unacceptable, and even many of our suburban schools aren’t giving American kids what they need to compete in the future. Something does need to change, and the best charter schools deserve credit for demonstrating that poverty by itself doesn’t make children unteachable.

But there is also a lot of special-interest money out there doing what special-interest money does: creating dubious “facts” and self-serving frames. We all need to be careful that we don’t get herded in the direction the billionaires want us to go.

Santorum’s Education Commissars and other short notes

Lots of news shows have replayed the Rick Santorum clip where he says that contraception is “not OK” and endorses various other medieval notions about sex.

If you watch the whole interview, though, sex isn’t the half of what’s alarming. Check out 26:30, where he says:

Just like we have certifying organizations that accredit a college, we’ll have certifying organizations that will accredit conservative professors. If you are to be eligible for federal funds, you’ll have to provide an equal number of conservative professors as liberal professors, so that we have some balance when our children come to school, and they’re not in the process of being indoctrinated by the academy, which is exactly what they are right now.

Think about that: He wants the federal government to enforce a system in which professors at private or state universities are hired for their political views. “Certifying organizations”, i.e. political commissars, would decide who is conservative enough to provide appropriate “balance” to the professors that the commissars decide are liberal.

Whatever you think about academic bias in the current system — I think business schools, economics departments, and fundamentalist institutions like Liberty University are biased to the Right — it doesn’t have federal commissars. That would be new.

Picture Santorum’s system in operation. Would an accredited conservative professor be afraid to teach or publish anything that might jeopardize his rating? And what is liberal or conservative? Is it “liberal” for a climate scientist to look at the data and conclude that global warming is happening? What about evolution? Keynesian economics? A history of religion class that treats Christianity the same as Islam or Animism? Anthropology courses that see nothing special in our culture’s sexual mores?

The scariest thing is that Santorum had just said:

We’re going to repeal all sorts of regulations … that inject the federal government into the area of education.

He doesn’t see the contradiction.

Fundamentally, what’s dangerous about Santorum — and this shows up across a range of issues — is his self-centeredness. He can’t picture his own view as one among many, or think in terms of principles that apply equally to himself and to those he disagrees with.


I know Chris Hayes’ weekend show Up is supposed to be amazing, but was anybody else freaked out to discover that the Ferengi Grand Nagus is a socialist?


A recent decision by the Montana Supreme Court may bring the unlimited-corporate-campaign-contribution principle back to the Supreme Court. Liberals probably don’t have the votes to overturn the Citizens United decision, but they should be able to make Justice Kennedy — the Court’s swing vote and the majority opinion’s author — squirm. Justice Ginsberg writes:

Montana’s experience, and experience elsewhere since this Court’s decision in Citizens United, … make it exceedingly difficult to maintain that independent expenditures by corporations ‘do not give rise to corruption or the appearance of corruption.’


Friday’s NYT highlighted this statistic: More than half of women under 30 who give birth are unmarried. Overall, 41% of children are born to unmarried mothers. Both numbers have been rising steadily for a long time.

The article suggests a number of explanations: As well-paid working-class jobs vanish, fewer men can play the traditional bread-winner role. As women’s economic opportunities increase, they need a man less. Women whose parents divorced no longer trust men or marriage. Government safety-net programs relieve men of the responsibility to take care of their children. For everyone involved — mother, father, and child — the stigma of illegitimacy has diminished.

But it seems to me that we have a blind spot about one of the most important reasons, one the article doesn’t mention: Increasingly, we live in an economy of short-term arrangements. A job is not a career. Factories move. Companies re-organize. Employers commit to nothing beyond (if you’re lucky) a few weeks of severance.

This is especially true for people in their 20s. Even with a college degree, and even if you are making decent money right now, you string together a series of short-term jobs and hope for the best. This short-term thinking is bound to show up in non-economic life as well.

Put yourself in the shoes of an unmarried young woman who might become pregnant and might already be living with the father. In past generations, marrying the man would increase her child’s economic security. But today, doesn’t it just add another person’s uncertainties to the picture?



Big week in same-sex marriage: Washington passed it into law and Maryland is on the verge. The New Jersey legislature passed it, but Gov. Christie vetoed.

The chairman of Garden State Equality explained: “[Christie] won’t veto the bill because he’s anti-gay. He’ll veto the bill because the 2016 South Carolina presidential primary electorate is anti-gay.”

On the West Coast and in the Northeast, I think we’ve reached a tipping point. The question is no longer why you allow same-sex marriage, it’s why you don’t.


The new blog Confessions of a Thinking Woman gets off to a good start by reposting the author’s viral Facebook piece: Grievances against the GOP from a (former?) Republican Woman.


Columbia Journalism Review spells out how conservative media disciplines conservative politicians, pushing them far to the right of the electorate. As David Frum put it: “Republicans originally thought that Fox worked for us, and now we are discovering we work for Fox.”


You may have heard the right-wing talking point that the Occupy movement is somehow committing or condoning rapes. This comes from an Andrew Breitbart list of 17 (actually 14 when you remove duplicates and one story from overseas) incidents in which Occupy and some form of sexual assault are mentioned in the same news story.

Keith Olbermann goes through the list one by one, demonstrating that in none of the incidents is an Occupy demonstrator a suspect in the crime. When Occupy protesters are involved at all, they are the victims of the assault.


The rumor that Israel was about to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities has been going around since the Bush administration. Foreign Policy’s Robert Haddick claims it’s serious this time.


How much entitlement spending supports able-bodied working-age people without jobs? Less than a tenth.


RIP, John Fairfax: Gambler, pirate, jaguar hunter, rogue explorer. At 13 he ran away from home to live in the jungle like Tarzan. As an adult, he crossed the Atlantic and Pacific in a rowboat just to prove it could be done. I guess I don’t envy the inner process that drives a guy to live like that, but I’ll bet my obituary won’t be nearly so interesting.


This speaks for itself: