Monday, April 30, 2012

Trotsky Revised Again

Yesterday evening (April 29, 2012), the television program Sixty Minutes has an interesting segment on the work of Dr. Nora Volkow, head of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, on the effects of drug use on the brain and on why addictions are so difficult to overcome. One of Dr. Volkow's best points, I thought, was that some addictive drugs damage the part of the brain involved in exercising will. This does raise the questions of personal freedom. If we hold that some people, such as those who engage in the use of drugs, have diminished responsibility, this also means that they have diminished control over their own actions. Who, then, can exercise control over their actions, supposedly in their interest?

The oddest part of the feature came in the portrayal of Dr. Volkow's family background. The segment identified her as one of the granddaughters of Leon Trotsky and it briefly interviewed her father, who was a child living with his Russian revolutionary grandfather when a Stalinist agent brutally murdered the grandfather in 1940. Sixty Minutes portrays Dr. Volkow and her two highly accomplished sisters as carrying on in the idealistic, humanitarian tradition of Trotsky. It even suggests that Trotsky's enmity with Stalin resulted from the former's desire to move the Soviet Union in a more "democratic" direction. While the Volkow sisters do seem like admirable people, this version of their great-grandfather is a pretty questionable revision of history.

The lionization of Trotsky owes a good deal to the contrast with the man who ordered his murder. Trotsky was an enemy of Stalin, along with Mao and Hitler one of the most vicious monsters of the twentieth century. Trotsky is also an appealing figure for intellectuals because he was highly literate and articulate. His nickname among the revolutionaries was "the pen." He was certainly no advocate of democracy, though. As architect of the Red Army during the Russian Civil War, he was ruthless. In 1921, he played a leading role in the bloody suppression of the Kronstadt Rebellion, in which sailors rose up to demand liberalization of the Bolshevik regime. Trotsky criticized Stalin "from the left," arguing for greater state control over the economy and for making the USSR more active in spreading world revolution. Even after Stalin expelled him from the Soviet Union, Trotsky continued to urge his followers to support the totalitarian Soviet state.  

If Communism was indeed, as Raymond Aron quipped, "the opium of the intellectuals," one may well wonder how much damage Dr. Volkow's great-grandfather did to the frontal lobes of those addicted to his particular brand of intoxicant. 

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Diversity Training Follies

Several bloggers have recently drawn attention to an article on the ineffectiveness of “diversity training” in Psychology Today, among them Walter Olson at “Overlawyered” and Hans Bader at  The article, by  Peter Bregman, recounts the author’s own fruitless experiences in running diversity training and cites “… a study of 829 companies over 31 years [that] showed that diversity training  had ‘no positive effects in the workplace.’” In fact, mandatory diversity training often appears to have negative effects, and to increase expressions of prejudice.
Bregman attributes the negative effects to more than resentment against the mandate. He argues that emphasizing thinking of people in categories actually divides them.  I think he may underestimate the role of sheer anger at being forced to undergo these types of sessions. From experience, I’m also pretty sure that one of the reasons diversity training sessions lead to more accusations of prejudice and more lawsuits is that these encourage people to interpret statements as prejudicial and intensify feelings of victimization and perceptions of discrimination. But I also think there is a more fundamental reason to oppose re-education programs than mere ineffectiveness or even unintended consequences. 
While employers do have the right to set workplace rules, including rules regarding the interactions of their employees, we cannot have a free society when corporate organizations, whether governmental or private, attempt to dictate how and what individuals are permitted to think.  If efforts at thought control were successful, that would hardly be a justification of them.

Friday, April 27, 2012

A Question of Self-Interest

"Don't Tax you. Don't Tax me. Tax that man behind the tree."
- Senator Russell Long

The interest rate on student loans will jump from its present 3.4% to 6.8%, if the present low rates are not extended for a year by the beginning of July.  Unfortunately, this one year extension, if passed will cost an estimated $5.9 billion.  Dean Zerbe, writing in Forbes, has a suggestion about how to cover this cost. Instead of a tax on S corporations that would tax small businesses, Zerbe proposes eliminating the provision in the tax code that allows college professors and administrators to receive free tuition or tuition reduction tax-free from their institutions.

Try as I might, I find that I'm unable to put self-interest aside in considering Zerbe's suggestion. Although I was a partner in an S corporation at one point in the past,  I don't foresee being in this situation again in the near future. On the other hand, I have enjoyed extremely generous tuition waivers for my children. Without those, I would have been in the interesting situation of teaching in a college where I could not afford to send my own children. In fact, my university's sticker price is high enough that I probably would not have been able to pay the taxes on a taxable tuition waiver. Yes, my children could have gone to public universities and, no, I can't think of a reason I'm more deserving of a tuition tax break than someone who works at Wal-Mart or Exxon, to use examples from the Zerbe article. On the other hand, I'm pretty sure I wouldn't have volunteered for as many committees and extra work in an institution that my own children could not attend. 

Mr. Zerbe is also a little misleading when he identifies the tax break as applying to "college professors, administrators, and college presidents." It really applies to any college employee who gets a tuition waiver, including the secretaries and maintenance workers. The article reminded me of a woman I knew who worked at my college, in a staff position. A few years ago, her daughter, then a beginning undergraduate, announced that she wanted to try another school. "I've been working here for all of these years," her mother answered, "at this low-paying, futureless job in order to get free tuition for you and now you don't want to go here? You'll go to school here and you'll finish your degree or else!"  The daughter finished her degree here. I would venture to guess that many of those on our staff are working for the tuition waiver more than the wages.  They would be even less able to pay the taxes on the benefit than I am.  It also costs the university far less to let their children occupy empty seats in the classrooms than to raise wages.

Which would be worse, placing a greater tax burden on small businesses or on college employees (more broadly defined than faculty and administrators)? If this means worse for the American economy, I'll have to put the question to an economist. If it means worse for me, the answer is pretty obvious. My own preference would be to take neither of these options and to keep college interest rates low by dramatically reducing the number available and making them contingent on academic merit and likelihood of repayment. Bringing down the number of subsidies might put us on the road to stabilizing the sky-rocketing costs of college. I'd also like to see us simplify our tax code and end the used-car sales approach to pricing real tuition rates for everyone.  

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

The Rebirth of Hype

The sad death of a young man in Florida continues to receive ever more hallucinatory responses. Here, at my university, in a city where young black men slaughter each other on a daily basis, the extraordinarily atypical case of a black teenager killed by a white Hispanic ,in a city far to our east ,became the topic of a “discussion” extravagantly entitled “Trayvon Martin and the Rebirth of a Nation: Gender & Race in Today’s Media.”  
This event was apparently not a discussion at all, but a series of sermons presenting a single, highly questionable assertion as revealed truth. The killing in Florida, according to this assertion, was not atypical at all, but a consequence of the baseless demonization of black males in the popular media. Rapper Jasiri X set the stage for the outrage against the media and the justice system at the beginning when he “…took center stage, his words articulate and scathing, his passion palpable as he recreated his viral hit indicting the paradigmatic laxity of the justice system in addressing the case of Trayvon Martin,” according to the university publication’s account of the event. This was clearly not going to be an open-minded intellectual inquiry or a debate.
Mark Anthony Neal, professor of African and African American Studies at Duke University, and author Joan Morgan (pictured here) offered their variations on the sermon. Professor Neal complained that “there are very few depictions of black men and boys in mainstream culture… And when there are, they are almost always in a negative context, a criminal context. There is a very clear connection between this depiction of black men and boys, and how it affects policy.”  I don’t know which “mainstream culture” Professor Neal has been observing, but when I look at television and film, I see a constant and self-conscious effort to portray black Americans, men and women, as either respectable professionals or heroes struggling against oppression. The one place where I do see black men portrayed in a :”criminal context” is on the news. There is a reason for that. First, the events that make the news are usually negative by definition and the people who appear on the news are usually not members of the virtuous majority, who make up most of both sexes and all racial groups. Second, black men appear disproportionately in those media portrayals because of disproportionate crime rates. Black men, for example, are less than 6% of the total American population, but they commit more than half of all the homicides in which the offender can be identified.

Black Men as a Percent of the Total US Population and as a Percent of Known Homicide Offenders
Source, FBI, Uniform Crime Reports, 2010

I cite murders specifically because these are crimes in which the “negative context” cannot be attributed to discriminatory arrest rates of a putatively biased justice system. But if we look at arrests for other violent crimes, we see this 5.87% of the population arrested for nearly one-third of rapes, close to half of all robberies, and over a quarter of aggravated assaults and burglaries. Do we really need to wonder where the evening news gets that “criminal context?”
Black Men as a Percentage of the Total US Population and as Percentages of Those Arrested for Selected Violent Offenses
Source, FBI, Uniform Crime Reports, 2010

Author Joan Morgan followed this by observing that “we’re living in an increasingly more complicated reality, but we are not having complicated conversations about race.” Well, yes, and that’s exactly why this kind of simplistic, single-minded, delusional panel session is part of the problem. Although murders of blacks by whites are extremely uncommon, and murders of blacks by blacks occur constantly, a tragic instance of the former is offered up here as representative and "paradigmatic." In a city in a state of warfare among young men, all the panel participants agree that the biggest concern is a lax justice system. Speakers reduce the image of young black men to unfair depictions in the media, ignoring the obvious source of that image in sky-high crime rates. There are no dissenting voices in this fantasy of national rebirth. If we want "a complicated conversation about race," we'll have to look somewhere else.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

The Federal Funding Fiasco

Immediately after Congress passed the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act of 2009, I saw colleagues in the university forming research groups to figure out what they could study to get some of the money, which was largely available through the National Science Foundation (NSF).  In designing their research, they carefully considered what the federal government would want them to investigate and they gave close attention to the social processes and consequences that the federal government defined as desirable. At the time, this struck me as disturbing because it reversed what I would normally consider the order of investigation: a researcher decides that a particular issue is important for understanding the world around us, develops a program for looking into this question, and then (if necessary) finds funding to carry out the research. But when the feds pay the piper, they call the tunes.

In today's highly subsidized world of higher education, there are no private institutions. Taxpayer money funds the tuition of the students, and it funds the research of the professors. One difficulty with this is that it tends to drive a wedge between the two areas of subsidization. The professors are going to be chasing after that grant money and designing their research to get the money, not doing research that they can present in the classroom.  The most successful are often those who spend the least time teaching and the most time seeking external funding.  A second difficulty is that it spreads a subtle politicization of the faculty, as professors seek to shape their careers according to the wishes of the funding bureaucracies, not according to the search for truth.

I was reminded of these thoughts when I read Heather MacDonald's article in City Journal, entitled "Granting Absurdity." MacDonald points out that grants are not really "free money." Grants are dollars that federal agencies draw from localities around the U.S. and then redistribute as the agencies see fit, siphoning off substantial sums for bureaucratic support. "Federal grant-making," MacDonald observes, "is the hook that Washington uses to gain control over local institutions, whether public or private. Universities and schools are in thrall to the Education Department’s absurd reading of Title IX law, for example, because of their consumption of federal (a.k.a. recycled local) dollars."

Sunday, April 22, 2012

The Castle at Santorini

Image of a skull, the ruined castle sat there
on the hillside. Sockets of empty windows
showed the road their aged, sightless stare.

We climbed the stairs, bent beneath our packs
as if we were two thieves, hauling our loads
of goods and guilt slung across our backs.

A living village spilled from still, dead stones;
mocking children and goats traced our tracks
through the bone-white dust around their squalid homes.

But when we reached the top, they left us there.
Inside the skull, we hung from the hill alone,
alone but for the sun nailed in the air,

whose beams crossed through the cracks

Saturday, April 21, 2012

History of Psychoanalysis

For good or ill, psychoanalysis was one of the most influential intellectual movements of the last century.. From its beginnings in the late nineteenth century, though, it has also been one of the most controversial and its future is in doubt. Many academic psychologists today reject psychoanalysis as a pseudoscience, and contemporary practicing psychiatrists generally rely more on other therapeutic approaches.

In Secrets of the Soul: A Social and Cultural History of Psychoanalysis (2004), Eli Zaretsky argues that the origins of psychoanalytic thinking and its changes can be traced to a society being shaped by economic developments. He divides the book into three parts, intended to reflect the forms of the economy and their resulting social styles. The first part, “Charismatic Origins: The Crumbling of the Victorian Family System,” considers Sigmund Freud’s founding of psychoanalysis during the years 1890 to 1914.  Zaretksy argues that these were also the early years of “the second industrial revolution.” During the first industrial revolution, beginning a little over a century earlier, Western economies had moved from a basis in agriculture to a basis in factory production. The second industrial revolution involved the development of mass-produced goods and, later, a consumer culture.

The early years of the second industrial revolution began to dissolve the controls of family life over individuals, according to the author. Zaretsky describes late nineteenth and early twentieth century Vienna as a new center of cultural life focused on the private self.  The idea of the personal unconscious and a new fascination with individual sexuality emerged in response to concern with the private self. Freud’s theories expressed these concerns, and Freud became the charismatic founder of a new movement.  This part of Zaretsky’s argument reminded me of the quip of Karl Kraus that “psychoanalysis is the disease it purports to cure.” To my mind, this raises the question of whether psychoanalysis may be seen as a narcissistic self-obsession resulting from the disintegration of social institutions, much as Philip Rieff argued in The Triumph of the Therapeutic.

As a new movement , psychoanalysis faced the dilemma of whether it would become absorbed into the mainstream of medical practice, or remain on the margins of intellectual life as a sect following Freud. By 1910, with Freud’s split from Carl Jung and Alfred Adler, psychoanalysis was largely excluded from official acceptance and became chiefly a mostly Jewish sect, according to Zaretsky. As I read this, I was reminded that the breakaways from psychoanalysis have also been accused of setting up their own tribal sects, most notably by Richard Noll in his books on the Aryan cult of Carl Jung.

The second part, “Fordism, Freudianism, and the Threefold Promise of Modernity,” considers psychoanalysis from World War I to World War II. The cases of “shell shock” and battlefield neuroses of the first World War gave a push to the attempts to understand psychological problems. These cases also inspired Freud to adapt his theories by developing his ideas on the death drive or death instinct in human behavior. The spread of Freudian approaches, though, accompanied a new era in industrial history.

The term “Fordism” refers to Henry Ford, whose factories mass-produced automobiles, transforming these machines from luxury items for the wealthy to widely marketed goods for consumers in general. Ford-type mass production involved two, contradictory sides. On the one hand, it required standardization. People had to show up at jobs and function as efficient workers. On the other hand, the consumer economy encouraged individualism. Freudian analysis promised to meet both requirements, since it seemed to be a means of curing inconvenient forms of nonconformity through therapy, and it also catered to the self examination of individual patients. 

While Freudian psychoanalysis responded to the market economy, it also flirted with the major industrial competitor to the market system. Several of Freud’s associates were socialists, and for a time the psychoanalytic movement had loose ties to the Bolsheviks in Russia. Leon Trotsky, one of the major figures of the Russian Revolution who was forced into exile by Joseph Stalin in the late 1920's, was interested in psychoanalytic theory. Apparently, Freudian ideas appealed to Trotsky as a promising means of controlling human minds and  redesigning society. In 1918, during the brief period of Communist control in Hungary, the psychoanalysts held a congress in Budapest on the invitation of the ruthless Hungarian leader Bela Kun.

During the years following the first World War, psychoanalysis also became tied to another movement for social change, the women’s movement. By 1930, women had become many of the most dominant figures in psychoanalysis, originally an almost exclusively male activity. Anna Freud, the daughter of Sigmund, became a leading light and her father’s most obvious successor. Karen Horney, a psychoanalyst who became a feminist critic of Freud, developed ideas about women’s sexuality and the psychological development of women. Melanie Klein, who was to become Anna Freud’s great rival, emphasized the role of the mother in the lives of children, a sharp contrast to Sigmund Freud’s emphasis on the influence of the father. This rise of women in the psychoanalytic movement, in Zaretsky’s view, was another consequence of the evolving economy of the second industrial revolution. During and after World War I, women began to participate more actively in employment outside the household and in public life. The family became a place where goods were consumed, rather than produced, and women were central figures in the new, consumption-oriented family. The turn toward the mother in psychoanalysis, then, mirrored events in the surrounding culture.

World War II marked the end of Zaretsky’s second period. With the rise of Naziism and Fascism, psychoanalysis was driven out of its Central European birthplace. In united Germany and Austria, a distorted “non-Jewish” version of psychoanalysis rose under the leadership of a Matthias Göring, a cousin of Nazi leader Hermann Göring. The exile of Freud and his disciples encouraged the spread of psychoanalysis throughout the world, and the movement put down especially important roots in England and America. While Sigmund Freud tried to keep his theories separate from politics, many of the exiled psychoanalysts, as opponents of Naziism, drew closer to left-wing politics. These included the Austrian Wilhelm Reich and members of the Institute for Social Research in Frankfurt, Germany, such as Erich Fromm, Max Horkheimer, and Theodor Adorno.

Zaretsky identifies the period after World War II as the third development in the history of psychoanalysis. This era, particularly from the late 1940s through the 1970s, was the time of the welfare state in Britain, the United States, and Western Europe. The role of the mother became even greater in this post-war welfare psychoanalysis. In the United States, psychoanalysis became institutionalized as a technique for social control, but some theorists also began to discover radical possibilities in psychoanalytic teachings.  The tumultuous 1960s mad echarismatic, radical Freudians such as Norman O. Brown and Herbert Marcuse prominent figures for the utopian New Left.  The society of mass consumption also encouraged the proliferation of therapies, and psychoanalysis began to break down into many approaches to therapy and to merge with other theories and philosophies. In France, Jacques Lacan became something of a cult figure by linking psychoanalysis to structuralism and fashionable ideas about the nature of language.

While psychoanalytic theories addressed many of the concerns of the new second half of the twentieth century, the psychoanalysts themselves had begun to become outdated. The culture of the 1960s seemed narcissistic, over concerned with the self, and the new therapies that had arisen out of psychoanalysis began to replace it. In the 1960s, fewer individuals applied for membership in the American Psychoanalytic Association, and the average age of members rose rapidly.

By the 1970s, psychoanalysis had broken down into two main projects that had little in common with each other. It was a medical technique that aimed at providing therapy for mental and emotional disorders. It was also, though, a humanistic theory for the study of culture. Both of these projects faced challenges as the twentieth century ended. Neuroscience and  psychopharmacology began to replace psychoanalysis as medical approaches. Many mainstream psychology departments in universities ignored Freudian ideas completely. Humanistic psychoanalysis came under assault from cultural studies, feminist theory, and other new trends in academic interpretation. There were indications of renewed interest in psychoanalysis, but there were also many who proclaimed that the movement had been an intellectual dead end.

Secrets of the Soul is an ambitious effort to look at the psychoanalytic movement as a reflection of its historical setting.  Zaretsky’s argument does raise a number of questions, though.  It is not clear exactly what connection Zaretsky believes has existed between psychoanalysis and a culture resulting from modern mass production. It may be that there is a personal unconscious and that sexuality does play the role in human psychology that Freud described. If so, the second industrial revolution may have simply created the conditions for discovering these vital truths about human nature. Another possibility, though, is that psychoanalysis has been simply a series of illusions produced by modern consumer culture.

Some readers may also raise against Zaretsky the same criticism that philosopher Karl Popper raised against Freud.  Popper objected to psychoanalysis as a scientific theory because he claimed that there was no way to prove whether it was true or false.  Similarly, it may be interesting to think about psychoanalytic theory and practice as somehow reflecting cultural and economic trends, but even if we knew exactly what connection Zaretsky believes has existed between psychoanalysis and the second industrial revolution, the connection might be very difficult to prove or disprove.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Biology and Society

What are the links between biology and social organization? Many people today, especially in academia, assert that there are no links, that everything about human beings is "socially constructed," and that to think otherwise is not only factually wrong, but morally despicable.  Thus, when Harry Ostrer published his findings that Jews around the world share common genetic traits that distinguish them from non-Jews, he was, according to a recent Chronicle of Higher Education article, accused of work that would have pleased Adolf Hitler. Ostrer, who is Jewish, did not advocate any anti-Semitic positions. Merely finding a biological basis for identity was unacceptable to his critics.

We really should not be surprised to find that population groups that tend to marry within also share common genetic traits. As Ostrer apparently discusses in his book, Legacy: A Genetic History of the Jewish People, it is difficult to ascribe specific characteristics or outcomes to those genetic traits. Nevertheless, I think reason requires that we consider the possibility that some aspects of social life may be at least partly consequences of heritable differences.

We know, for example, that Jews are disproportionately represented among business and intellectual elites. An estimated 20% of Nobel prize laureates have been Jewish, even though Jews make up far less than 1% of the world's population. There are non-biological explanations for this eminence. It is possible that the rabbinical religious tradition promotes a high level of literacy and intellectual acuity. It is also conceivable that an "outsider" status has stimulated creativity (John Murray Cuddihy gave one of the best-known versions of this argument in The Ordeal of Civility).  However, while those non-biological explanations may be plausible, neither is self-evidently true. Moreover, the clear existence of genetic identity and social outcomes means that it is entirely sensible to investigate whether there is a causal connection between the two.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Light Along the Erie Canal

Across the water's surface, curves     
corner the sun and heave it forth
in glimmers, as man's mind serves
to catch, reflect a sun-like force
in scattered sparks. Above, the birds
scoop waves in wind, ripple and pour
between suns caught on air and earth.
From their flexions flash darts
as bright as those between the shores.
Reflections from the feathers start
an echo of light. Other courses
seize it, toss it, off arrows of bark,
edges of leaves; and crooks of boughs;
shared about like bits of loaves,
white fragments broken from a first
gold crust and shared along the rows.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Strange New Rights in Education Law

The continual expansion of rights in contemporary legal theory leads to some pretty bizarre policy suggestions. Among the looniest that I have seen recently comes from Derek W. Black (pictured here), Associate Professor of Law and Director of the Education Rights Center at Howard University School of Law.  In an article in the Boston College Law Review (you can see the abstract and download the article here),  Black takes note of the fact that students who are surrounded by middle-income peers in school tend to do better than students who go to school with lower income peers. Further, he observes, correctly, that poor and minority students are more likely to go to school with lower income peers than with those with middle incomes.  On this basis, he essentially argues that middle income peers are a "resource" that school districts allocate. Therefore, poor and minority students have a constitutional right to an equal share of middle income peers. That's correct - the children of the poorest of the poor have the constitutional right to the influence of your children.

In this command and control line of thinking, the middle income students themselves are simply educational commodities, to be passed around by government.  Decisions lie not at the level of individual families, but at the level of bureaucracies that decide how to allocate people, as well as funds. My own research has supported the common-sense view that when middle-income people are treated by a school system as "resources" to be exploited for the sake of the least advantaged, those middle-income people tend to leave the system. They are not, of course, just resources to be distributed by government mandate, but people in families that seek their own best interests. And it is certainly not in the best interests of middle income families to see their children "allocated" among those who can contribute least to a healthy educational environment.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Demographics and the Limits of School Reform

School reform is a hot topic these days. The various reform efforts (charter schools, vouchers, increased accountability for teachers and school boards, and the availability of transfers for students out of schools with poor performance records) generally aim at improving overall achievement and eliminating “achievement gaps” among categories of students (mainly racial and ethnic categories)  I do think there is room for improvement and some of the strategies can help.  As I’ve remarked previously, I’m skeptical about the possibility of eliminating the “gaps” because these have been so consistent over time and be
cause their sources are so complicated and poorly understood. Here are the SAT scores by race and ethnicity over the past few decades:
SAT Math (Left) and Reading (Right) Scores by Race and Ethnicty

Source: National Center for Education Statistics
As you can see, Hispanics and blacks remain consistently at the bottom, while Asians and whites remain consistently at the top, with Asians gaining on whites in reading and far ahead in math. But this brings up a second problem. Because of massive immigration over the past few years, trying to improve student performance in public schools entails shooting at a moving target. This figure represents the change in the public school population since 1980:
Racial and Hispanic Composition of the Total U.S. Public School Population, 1980-2010
Source: Steven Ruggles, J. Trent Alexander, Katie Genadek, Ronald Goeken, Matthew B. Schroeder, and Matthew Sobek. Integrated Public Use Microdata Series: Version 5.0 [Machine-readable database]. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 2010.

Since Hispanics have made up the greatest part of the immigrants to the United States over the past few decades, the Hispanic school population has been growing the most rapidly.  Immigration has also caused the proportion of Asian students to go up, but this proportion still remains small. Black students, who, as a category, have shown even weaker performance than Hispanics, have not increased much as a part of the public school population, but they continue to be the second largest group. Meanwhile, non-Hispanic whites have been steadily decreasing as percentages of pupils.
Until someone comes up with a magic wand to make these differences go away, demographics will place severe limits on our capacity to improve public education, regardless of the strategies. The two low-performing groups will, if trends continue, make up ever larger parts of the school population.  Even if reform efforts somehow manage to bring their long-standing low average performance levels up somewhat, it is extremely unlikely that these averages will reach those of the two higher performing groups in the foreseeable future. As non-Hispanic white representation declines in the schools and as Asian representation grows but remains relatively small, the most realistic prediction is that public school achievement in many parts of the United States than it is today.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Preaching a New Civic Gospel

The Spring 2012 issue of the journal Democracy features a trilogy of articles calling for a new emphasis on “civic responsibility.” Introducing these articles, the editors observe that”[i] f progressive politics over the past half century is identified with one activity more than any other, we think there is no question that that activity is the pursuit and expansion of rights.” They don’t call for any backing away from the continual expansion of rights, including the progressive creation of new entitlements, many of which are inconsistent with older rights from state interference with individual liberty. Instead, they want to add “civic responsibility” to the agenda of expansion. “Here,” they helpfully explain, “ we don’t mean—to use that phrase that Bill Clinton tried to appropriate from the Republicans in the 1990s—personal responsibility. We mean something else: civic responsibility.”
Of the three articles on “Reclaiming Citizenship,” the one that I found most interesting, for reasons of professional background, was Eric Liu’s piece entitled “Sworn Again Americans.”  Liu (pictured above) advocates a new creed of assimilation and Americanization , not only for our large immigrant population, but for Americans in general. My most recent book, Public Education – America’s Civil Religion: A Social History (2009) argues that public schooling took its present form in the United States as part of the Progressive movement’s effort to build a highly unified and centralized state in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Through schools, social planners sought to propagate a civic creed intended to “Americanize” both immigrants and native-born Americans. While I recognize that a nation is more than just people who share a common territory and government, in the book I express concerns about the top-down nation-building goals of social planners to use an institution of the state to re-shape the population. There may be, I suggest, an element of authoritarianism or even totalitarianism about the idea that the state creates the nation, rather than the reverse.
Mr. Liu advocates a strong, new civic religion in the United States, which should, in his opinion, involve the three core elements of creed, character, and culture. On the creed that he proposes, I agree that Americans should be immersed in the central texts of our government, from Jefferson onwards. But, beyond that, who defines what we should believe? I suggest that members of the American public, based on knowledge of our history and traditions, should decide for themselves. Liu wants the cult directed from Washington, D.C. “[T]here can and should be a federal requirement that the basic texts and ideas of our nation’s civic creed be taught, in an upward spiral of sophistication, every year from kindergarten to twelfth grade.” If our nation is polarized at present, how much more polarized will it become when the parties and philosophies that control the government get to oversee the “federal requirement” of a “civic creed” through all of American schools?
If the central state can try to direct what we believe, then it can also try to control who we are. This is the essence of Liu’s call for developing “civic character.” Comparing this activity to the cultivating of a garden (are we plants?), Liu wants more “national service programs” and argues that we should be “trained to organize” so that we will make “the right decision.” He wants us to make decisions that he sees as “right” because we have been trained and organized, like plants growing the way the gardener wants them to grow.
What kind of “civic culture” does Liu want our gardeners to cultivate with their manipulations of culture?  He suggests that we should reinvent and rewrite the Pledge of Allegiance. “That’s why,” he tells us, “recently I helped launch a civic-artistic project called Sworn-Again American. It mashes up aspects of a naturalization ceremony, a multicultural festival, and a revival tent to make a playful public experience in which Americans recommit to the content of their citizenship. What we should celebrate more than diversity is what we do with it.” In this view, “diversity” is no longer a recently invented and debatable concept, but a positive item of faith celebrated by all Americans in “multicultural festivals” and “revival tents.”
After reading Eric Liu’s call for a new civic religion, designed according to his own political ideals, I wondered: Who gets excommunicated?

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Niall Ferguson's Civilization: The West and the Rest

Niall Ferguson is a prolific author, with a seemingly endless flow of ideas. I found his The Ascent of Money (2008) a useful and interesting general work on debt and finance, and I have drawn on it in my own thinking about the financialization of the American economy. I also appreciated his earlier work The Cash Nexus (2001), on how warfare contributed to the parallel development of economic and political systems. In this newest book, though, Ferguson’s productivity and intellectual creativity seem to have gotten out of his own control.
Civilization poses two questions that are very much in the air these days: How did the West achieve its global dominance?  Is the period of this dominance reaching its end? Ferguson argues that Western ascendancy came from six sources: competition, science, property rights, medicine, the consumer society, and the work ethic.
Comparing Europe to China, he argues that the competitive nature of the former’s multiple states spurred it to be more active than the highly centralized eastern power. He maintains that Europe’s decentralization of both political and economic life spurred the development of both modern nation states and the wealth-producing system of capitalism. In considering the development of science, he compares the European attitude toward knowledge and technology mainly with that of the Ottoman Empire. This attitude, according to Ferguson, gave the Europeans and then the Americans a military advantage over the rest of the world. Stable systems of property rights, respected (for the most part) by governments not only contributed to economic growth, but also formed bases for representative governments. He maintains that Western progress in medicine improved health and life expectancies in Western societies. This not only contributed to European opportunities to dominate other parts of the world, but it also created benefits for colonized lands. The consumer society created a demand for goods that pulled the Industrial Revolution forward. Finally a work ethic, which Ferguson, following Max Weber, began with Protestant Christianity and promoted social cohesion, in addition to economic productivity.
Some of Ferguson’’s ideas are fairly conventional, such as the argument that the division of Europe into multiple competing states made it more adventurous and creative than the old stolid empires of the world. Other ideas are intriguing and raise good questions about today’s accepted wisdom. For example, I believe he makes a good case that Western colonialism was not the fount  of all evil, as is generally the view in contemporary “post-colonial studies,” but in fact made some valuable contributions to human well-being. I also thought his revision of the old Weberian argument about the Protestant ethic and capitalism raised excellent points about the moral bases of market activity.  Ultimately, though, while the book has many valuable insights, Ferguson lurches from one to another with much of a system other than his six characteristics. These six, moreover, are simply a list and he never ties them together with anything so comprehensive as a theory.
In his conclusion, Ferguson focuses on his second question and seems to imply that China may overtake the West, and he raises the possibility that the West could experience a collapse, rather than a decline, due to its internal weaknesses. He points out that civilizations are complex systems and a failure in one area of a system can set off a chain of destructive consequences. This is an interesting argument, and worthy of a book in its own right, but Ferguson never develops it fully.
Civilization generally reads like a notebook of thoughts for developing a book, or perhaps several books. Those looking for interesting suggestions and stimulating points will find many of them, but those looking for coherent explanations are likely to be disappointed.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

April is the Cruelest Month

Have you ever heard someone say, "these taxes are killing me"? Apparently, this is more than a figure of speech.  According to an article in the Los Angeles Times, Canadian researchers have found that traffic deaths go up an average of 6 percent on the day that taxes are due.  According the researchers, this isn't the result of taxpayers speeding to the post office to send those returns because the death rates haven't gone down with the increase in e-filing. Instead, they attribute this phenomenon to the stress and distraction caused by worrying over taxes.

I would not advise skipping the taxes to cut down on your stress. You'll still be out there on the road with all of those other keyed-up taxpayers. Plus, I would imagine having to explain your strategy for maintaining psychological health and physical survival to agents of the IRS may well make you a tense driver for a much longer time than a single day.

So, on April 17, just remember that our highways will be populated by hyper-taxed neurotics, in addition to the usual drunks, cell-phone conversationalists, and text-messagers. Stay home if you possibly can.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Male Call

My university recently hosted educator and activist Tony Porter (pictured here), who spoke about violence against women. According to the description of his talk, Mr. Porter issued "a call to men to respect women." That sounds fine to me. I think men should respect women. I also take a number of other bold moral positions, and will publicly state that I disapprove of armed robbery and murder.

Tony Porter's approach to the admirable goal of reducing violence against women seems very strange to me, though.  According to the Call to Men website:

By strategizing with groups across the United States and abroad, our vision is to shift social norms that define manhood in our culture, and produce a national movement of men dedicated to this cause. A CALL TO MEN is unique in its ability to be affirming and respectful to the experiences of women while expressing genuine care and hope for men. Through seminars, workshops and other educational vehicles, A CALL TO MEN challenges men to reconsider many of the social norms that define manhood, in an effort to create a more just society.

Now, there are a lot of different "social norms that define manhood in our culture." Chances are that those willing to participate in one of these seminars or workshops already hold that beating up a wife or girlfriend is a very bad thing to do, so Mr. Porter is doing a lot of preaching to the converted. As for the all-too-many men that do commit violence against women, I would suggest that the problem may be precisely that they don't conform to the social norm of manhood that condemns this sort of behavior.  It isn't that they are socialized into the bad ways of American masculinity, but that they have been socialized into the ways of destructive subcultures. If we look at the predictors of male violence, one of the strongest is growing up in single parent family, especially a family headed by a never married mother. Another is living in a neighborhood with high criminality and a low level of informal social control. So, the problem is a society that is falling apart, not one that is "unjust."

Monday, April 9, 2012


There is an old game that consists of asking, “if you were stranded on a desert island with only one book, what book would you want?” If “book” can be interpreted as “publication,” my immediate answer would be “the Oxford English Dictionary,” That might be cheating. It is difficult to imagine my raft floating up on the shore with the twenty volumes of the second edition in a crate. Maybe the compact two-volume edition with tiny print and the magnifying glass in the little drawer at the top of the container might be plausible, though.
Dictionaries are my favorite texts. A few years ago, one of my graduate students was working in Thailand and made the mistake of asking if there was anything I’d like for her to bring back for me, thinking maybe I’d ask for a small memento. I asked if she could bring me a copy of the latest edition of the Phachanahnukrom Ratchabahntityasathahn (Dictionary of the Royal Institute, more or less phonemically transliterated). She did find one and hauled it back in her luggage.
We dictionary aficionados might be considered, for good or ill, as lepidopterists of a peculiar sort. We like colorful, flittering, free-flying things pinned down so that we can know them. A dictionary gives us a special kind of knowledge of the words that fly around us and through our minds. Reading through one of these books, I like to think about the complicated nature of these winged creatures. Words are self-contained aesthetic objects; they point backwards in time; they point sideways to each other; and they point outward to mysteries beyond themselves.
Unusual, antiquated words are my weakness. This is probably one reason I loved Travels in Arabia Deserta, a  book that is best read with a copy of the unabridged OED close at hand. But the dictionary helps one appreciate even ordinary, everyday vocabulary.
I open the OED at random (that’s something you can’t do with the online version – you also can’t take it on your non-wired desert island). The word I see is “mimic.” It is a clustering of sounds that begin with both lips pressed together, then to an opening and slight spreading of the lips, back to lips pressed, back to the opening, and then ends in a breathy stop at the back of the throat. This is a tiny piece of music. Then I look at the way we represent these sounds on paper. There’s a rolling figure, a vertical line with a dot, the rolling figure, another dotted vertical line, and a semi-circle open to the right. It is also a fragment of visual art. The more I look at it, the stranger this everyday item becomes.
At the top of the passage on this word, I can see that this object that exists today in its own right as music and visual art, carries a history that I evoke every time I speak it or hear it. The noun “mime” is the origin of the adjective and verb “mimic.” It comes from the “…classical Latin mīmus< ancient Greek μμος , of unknown origin, possibly a loan; both major strands of meaning (performer and performance) are recorded in classical Latin and ancient Greek.” Possibly a loan. So, even the ancient Greeks may have taken the word from some other ancient language, and the dictionary makes me aware of the vast reaches of time within this simple word.
Ever since Ferdinand de Saussure’s students published his Cours de linguistique générale (General Course in Linguisitcs) three years after he died in 1913, linguists have recognized that language can be considered either synchronically or diachronically. That is, one can look at its historically development or its structure at a given point in time. That is true of individual words, as well as the structure of language. When I looked up the word above at random in the OED, other words made up not only the etymology, but every part of the description and definition. Every word in the book points at other words in the book, and the meanings of each derive from the meanings of the others. The one word I look up is defined by other words, and one of those may strike my imagination and I’ll follow its definition, in a chain that could, theoretically, lead me through the entire dictionary. When I look up a word in a foreign-language dictionary, often I’ll find that within its definition are words that I don’t know or don’t completely grasp and I’ll search for the meanings that give the meaning.
I think the fact that meanings live in the total play of meanings was what Ludwig Wittgenstein was getting at in his later work, when he rejected the picture theory of language in favor of language as a game. But it seems to me that the game approach to words makes them too enclosed in their own system of play.  In a sense, the dictionary is self-contained because each term we look up connects us to other terms we look up. But the dictionary also points outside of itself. All of the illustrations of historical usages come from other books and all of those other books have their own histories. The words themselves don’t just mean what the other words say, but they come from a world that is pre-verbal and enable us to live in a world that is extra-verbal. That, I think, is the ultimate mystery, the world beyond all words that is the origin and ultimate reference of all dictionaries.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Up From Slavery and the Ideal of the Self-Made Man

In 1954, the historian Irvin G. Wyllie declared in The Self-Made Man in America that “the legendary hero of America is the self-made man” As Wyllie recognized, the phrase “self-made man” only became common in public means of communication in the late 1820s, but Americans looked back into their history to connect a newly rising popular ideal to a long tradition of striving. Benjamin Franklin, with his rise from humble origins and great success in so many fields of endeavor, offered an excellent model of the self-made man, but it was only in the Jacksonian era that Franklin’s calls to self-improvement through industry and commerce became the basis of a widespread secular creed. Connecticut’s Roger Sherman became another image of this type.  “By 1830… in the great cities of the North and East, journalists, clergymen, lawyers, and other spokesmen began to lay the foundations for the powerful nineteenth century cult of the self-made man.”
Chapter 19 of Volume II, Part III of  Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America dealt with ubiquity and limited scope of American ambition. “The first striking thing about the United States,” Tocqueville wrote, “is the huge number of people bent on escaping their original condition. The second is the small number of great ambitions that stand out amid this universal outpouring of ambition. The desire to rise apparently gnaws at every American, yet almost no one seems to nurse vast hopes or to aim very high.”
During the thirty years before the Civil War, according to Wyllie, the up from poverty theme captured the imaginations of young men in the nation’s developing cities. It was not, as Wyllie makes clear, a delusion. Although starting out wealthy may have been a common and more assured route to success, examples of extraordinarily successful men with poor origins abounded. John Jacob Astor and Thomas Mellon were only two of many examples. As I have pointed out before, this emphasis on poor beginnings necessarily entailed what Wyllie called the “glorification of poverty,” since the rise to riches depended on moral qualities developed in rags.
By the end of the Civil War, the ideal of the self-made man, the common individual rising through life by his own efforts, had become deeply entrenched in the shared worldview of Americans.  Judy Hilkey, in the 1997 book Character is Capital observed that "in the years between 1870 and 1910, a special, new type of book became commonplace in millions of homes across America. These new books were typically large, elaborately bound, illustrated volumes boasting such titles as The Way to Win, Pushing to the Front, The Royal Path of Life, and Onward to Fame and Fortune....  They were marketed with a rural and small-town market in mind and addressed to an audience of native-born Protestants of moderate means and modest education.” Self-made men did not live in a world in which all people enjoyed the same standards of living or the same chances of success, but one in which individuals could rise and could look forward to better futures.  
Booker T. Washington’s classic Up From Slavery was significant as part of the literature of self-reliance because it brought black Americans into the mainstream culture of self-reliance, even as they lived under segregation. Part of the attraction of Booker T. Washington’s public program, for both black and white Americans, was that it offered a way of seeing becoming a self-made man as an option for black Americans. In this book, being born in slavery appeared as the black version of being born in a log cabin. The humble origins removed all advantages of birth, so that every accomplishment of the author could be attributed only to his own efforts and virtues. Washington’s birth in slavery gave him the chance for the most extreme form of self-creation. He recounted how, when he started school, he did not even know the second name of “Taliaferro” his mother had given him, so he christened himself “Washington” when the teacher asked him for a last name.
As in the tales of log cabin politicians and diligent journalists, the efforts of self-creation produced the virtues. In the second chapter, Washington told how he was embarrassed by the fact that he alone among the pupils in his school had no cap. When he complained to his mother, she responded that they had no money for a store-bought hat and she made him a cap out of two pieces of homespun. Washington wrote that he took this as a lesson in self-reliance and strength of character. He noted that later in life some of his schoolmates with store-bought hats ended up in the penitentiary, clearly having failed to develop strength of character as a consequence of early sartorial privileges.
When Washington wrote of working in a coal mine after the early school days, his greatest objection to this kind of work was neither its dangers nor its difficulty. Rather, he observed that the labors in the mines often stunted the ambitions of the young miners. For Washington, the drive to rise through one’s own struggles was always the greatest of qualities.
Of course, Washington recognized that being black was a severe disadvantage in late nineteenth century America. But he never claimed that the one born in slave quarters had the same life chances as the white child of a log cabin. Instead, he made an argument that applied the self-made man ideal to black Americans, while simultaneously accepting segregation. He asserted the common claims for the virtues of humble origins, while accepting a distinct path for advancement for blacks:
In later years, I confess that I do not envy the white boy as I once did. I have learned that success is to be measured not so much by the position that one has reached in life as by the obstacles which he has overcome while trying to succeed. Looked at from this standpoint, I almost reached the conclusion that often the Negro boy's birth and connection with an unpopular race is an advantage, so far as real life is concerned. With few exceptions, the Negro youth must work harder and must perform his tasks even better than a white youth in order to secure recognition. But out of the hard and unusual struggle through which he is compelled to pass, he gets a strength, a confidence, that one misses whose pathway is comparatively smooth by reason of birth and race.
Self-making always involved some reversal of the valuation of life chances. The more limited one’s chances at the beginning, the better one’s moral character and, since success that was truly worthwhile depended on moral character, the greater one’s ultimate opportunity for ultimate success. In Washington’s narrative, starting out as a slave became, in a sense, the best opportunity of all. In the Up From Slavery account, slavery became a log cabin story.
While today it may be fashionable to be cynical and dismissive of the self-made man ideal, for Americans in general and for minority group members in particular, we should reflect that opportunity means nothing unless people make use of opportunities. The self-improvement literature of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, from this point of view, contributed to the motivational side of a rising nation.  Rather than reject Up From Slavery as a servile product of accommodation, perhaps we should value this book as an important contribution to American moral thought and a book that should be rediscovered today.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

The AdvanceNOLA boondoggle

The AdvanceNOLA program of Tulane's Cowen Institute here in New Orleans strikes me as a bizarre manifestation of the "college for everyone" crusade. According to the program's website, the funding for the program comes from a $1.6 million dollar grant from the ExxonMobil Foundation and a "generous donation" from the AT&T Foundation. This money is to go toward "drastically increas[ing] the number of students (especially minorities) who are prepared for and graduate from college." The program seeks to do this by setting up advanced placement courses in schools that serve "at-risk" students, mentoring teachers and administrators, supporting students through tutoring, "performance-based monetary incentives" for students and teachers, and "high standards with accountability for results" (I'm not sure what that means - are there punishments for failure?)

A newspaper article on AdvanceNOLA, published a little over a year ago, gave more information on those "incentives." AdvanceNOLA students, reported the article, "...are treated to Saturday restaurant dinners and are chauffeured to the AP exam in limousines [emphasis added]. Students receive $300 from the program for getting a score of at least 3 out of 5 on an exam -- the minimum needed to receive college credit -- and teachers also receive $300 for each student who passes." I have commented previously on the absurdity of paying students to pursue their own improvement.  It is a mystery to me how one can communicate to young people that they are responsible for their own lives by telling them that others should not only pay them for things they do for themselves, but drive them around in limousines. Reflect, at this point, that if your own children take advanced placement tests (assuming they don't go to a school with something like AdvanceNOLA), you will need to pay for the opportunity.

This urgent push to get the least-qualified students into higher education is taking place in a state that has traditionally had a demand for workers in skilled trades, especially welding and carpentry, and in a city that specializes in the tourist industry and needs service workers. I do favor making higher education more affordable for all those motivated to pursue it (without others giving them "monetary incentives") and I'm opposed to discouraging individuals from college or any other life path they choose for themselves. But I can't see any good reason to try to channel the least educationally prepared students into higher education when there are plenty of other constructive and more plausible avenues open to them.

Of course, the ExxonMobil and AT&T Foundations can spend their money on any kinds of boondoggles they believe will reflect well on their corporate images.  If nothing else, this might be good advertising. But what are the results of AdvanceNOLA?  At many of the schools, none of the students pass (so, presumably, they don't get the $300, but they still get the limousine ride).  The newspaper article said of students at one school, "though none passed the year-end AP exam, educators say that just taking the college-level courses raised the self-esteem of teenagers used to the stigma of attending a low-performing school."  The AdvanceNOLA website reports that in 2009-2010 three (that's right, three) student out of the 158 in the program received qualifying scores and in 2010-2011 the program celebrated a resounding success, with 19 out of 313 students receiving qualifying scores. So, millions of dollars went into intensive efforts to give students extra help and to reward them for accepting the help, and a 94% failure rate is a success. I hope the advertising paid off.