Wednesday, March 31, 2010
Judging teaching or learning by set examinations is a terrible way of learning what has been transmitted in the classroom, and everything else is worse. The mantra of accountability dictates that we need to know what students actually learn, and the result of a brief test, particularly one for which the students are deliberately crammed, is a poor predictor of how much remains months or years later if the need for it arises. Yet the mechanics of preparing the learner is an ancient practice, and often is a substitute for the kind of internalization of knowledge that is the desired result of the exercise. This applies most especially where the depth of the teacher’s knowledge does not go beyond the surface material that is the most usually the content of the test. The Continental approach, in which the examined student must reach the memorized material by an intuitive and searching extraction of the subtle material to realize how the memorized process is applied to the instant question is generally criticized for demanding insight, which is generally not teachable. A very simple example of this issue is found in what is known by various names, including “word problems” or “story problems”, in which the students is required to puzzle out how the questions are related to the processes of arithmetic. One approach is to have the same insight embedded in several different circumstances, and the true test of understanding is in ferreting out the arithmetic question from the story, if that is one in a new configuration, as where the problem of filling a swimming pool is seen to be essentially the same as the digging of a ditch or the rate of accumulation of a resource. These can be basically the same in form, but if the frame is not a practiced one, most examinees are found to be at a loss. It is there that the body is really buried. But if that form is not familiar drill, the heart of the learning is usually complained of as not having been taught that way.
Monday, March 29, 2010
In the vise between taxes and debt, there is one fairly evident fact that gets very little attention: the genuine enrichment of one’s life becomes smaller for rich people than for poor as the level of income rises. Indeed, it seems that once the basic needs for comfort and sustenance are accounted for, and the desired education and health care are in good supply as needed, one eventually reaches the point in which the major differentiation is found in comparative display of costly luxuries that attest to the wealth of the owner, inwhat Veblen gave the name of conspicuous consumption. Actually, most of the multi-million incomes wind up in the stock market, competing for the acquisition of paper that is described as “earning money”. Almost none of what is called hot money goes for the funding of new economic enterprise that could legitimately be called investment. When U.S. was deep into World War II and thereafter, the top income tax bracket was 91% and that in Britain was 97.5%. The rich continued a life of luxury, except for the few instances where they faced rationing. After the war, the display of wealth that announced the importance of the user remained the same, except for the few who made millions out of war profiteering. Today, when America is richer per capita than any nation has ever been, we hear the robber barons weeping that millions a year is hardly enough to supply them with the basics of upper capitalist life. And the struggling lower classes are taken in by propaganda that there is not enough money in the economy to clear the debts incurred by decades of living on credit and that taxes on the banksters and other “malefactors of great wealth” would be destructive of the system featuring our worship of money. It is time we paid the debts our Nation has put on the cuff, and time that we secured the money by taxing most heavily the class that has profited most by exploiting a policy of predatory lending.
Wednesday, March 17, 2010
In the colloquy surrounding the detainees at Guantanamo, we hear them often referred to as terrorists. In view of this characterization, the claimant argues that we owe them no slack, nothing as arcane as the procedure we call by the name of due process. All we need do is condemn them to the garbage heap as guilty, and only our infinite decency should keep us from having them drawn and quartered without further ado. But the advocates of infinite punishment never question what we actually know about these captives, and seem to think it unnecessary to inquire into that apparently arcane datum. In most cases we know only that George Bush has put his signature to a document calling them that, and maybe less. We know that many were handed over to US forces in exchange for a bounty payment, and can well believe that the accusation was passed up the chain of command without any means of verification until it reached a level where it was no longer available for doubt, all without any addition of substantiating facts. If we decided that we need to assure ourselves that these people were in fact terrorists, we would honor our chosen practices and subject their cases to due process. In fact, we do now know that some were guilty only of something like changing a plane in NYC, and were mistaken for another person with a vaguely similar name or face. Instead of the standard practice we have for inquiry into such things, we often shipped them off to places where they could be tortured into signing a confession that would be taken as proving their guilt. All in seeking to force those we had somehow taken prisoner to be considered proven of the alleged crimes. And in certain civilian crimes, a sensationalist reporter will write that a captive is guilty of a heinous offense, and then the public will decide that he is not worthy of such decency as is to be found in our criminal law. It is the way of the lynch mob, and the public has no appetite for the assumption of innocence or the civilized practice of our Constitution.
Thursday, March 11, 2010
The public press thinks they have discovered what to do about the fact that some of our teachers are not up to snuff in the opinions of their students and/or the students’ parents. One school in Rhode Island has fired all its teachers, including the principal. I don’t know where they imagine they are going to get better ones. Some of our teachers are just wonderful, making easy contact with the students and possessed of remarkable stores of valuable knowledge. Others are no better than the poorer ones of those just jettisoned. In the eyes of the school boards, they are at least cheaper than those, if they are new graduates. And maybe we are just looking at what motivates those boards. Certainly there is not a fund of superior teachers floating around without jobs and waiting to be hired by boards that do not know the importance of sticking to their promises, waiting to fire teachers by the platoons and battalions. Just 40-50 years ago, a teaching position looked very good, just waiting for a talented college graduate to come along. Unfortunately this does not look an attractive position for young people, what with a public that imagines they can improve their schools by firing people until they get what they want. Where some college students considered the life of a teacher rewarding, there are fewer who will take on challenging studies and brave getting poor grades to be turned loose in a profession where every parent and every administrator sees firing of below-average ones until everyone in the school is above average, Lake Woebegone style. And so, that profession seems less attractive as a lifetime choice for students who themselves are above average, as measured by college entrance scores. And those who have themselves had teachers who could penetrate arcane studies for them like long division, are trying instead to march off to Wall Street. Try and tempt those into a classroom. Our schools are dying. Firing teachers will not save them.
Wednesday, March 3, 2010
The trouble with Toyota points to a fundamental flaw in our legal and community thinking about what corporate interests owe the public and the stockholders. There is an undercurrent in that thinking that assigns something like a holy mandate to the commitment to the stockholders to maximize dividends, almost regardless of the cost to the People generally, but it seems today that an unusual exception is being made in the case of a successful foreign corporation. We have lived for decades with outrageous behavior on the part of companies, egregiously by the promoters of lead in gasoline, by tobacco companies, by the owners of chemical corporations and petroleum refineries, and even by the US government, acting against the lives and health of the Utah families that had to live for decades under huge fallout from atomic testing. Profits, financial or geopolitical, trumped everything. In automobiles, the Ford company fought like a tiger to defend the explosive location of the fuel tank in the Pinto. Yet the interest, and even the needs, of the public were brushed aside in an appeal to an obsolete principle, the obligation of the company to maximize the return to the stockholders, an understanding that had wide support 250 years ago when the Free Market was new and in its Wild West stage, but one that now belongs to an outgrown earlier stage of civilization. Many of us can remember all the CEOs of the tobacco companies swearing under oath that they believed that cigarettes were not addictive. Many of us remember Bhopal, and now we have the ashes of the TVA running wild down the Tennessee River. But Toyota is a Japanese corporation, so we can demand attention to the needs of the US public that we have long ignored in American and European companies. I don’t approve of the indifference of the public, and I myself drive a Toyota Prius, but it is time for a higher level of civilization.