Dreams of Better Schools

Andrew Delbanco reviews E.D. Hirsch Jr.'s The Making of Americans: Democracy and Our Schools and Mike Rosein's Why School? Reclaiming Education for All of Us in the NYRB:

Ever since its beginnings in antebellum Massachusetts, public education has been regarded as a national imperative, yet running the schools has generally been left to the states. Before the Civil War, when one western state school superintendent observed the “futility of attempting to operate a Free School System, without proper supervisory agents,” supervision was considered a state responsibility, and so it has remained ever since. During the short-lived experiment of Reconstruction, Congress did seek to influence local educational practices through its oversight of the new state constitutions, and through the Freedmen's Bureau, which set up schools in the South for black Americans who had previously been denied access to education. But it took nearly a century till the US Supreme Court, in Brown v. Board of Education (1954), issued its order that all public schools must be integrated. And it was not until the presidency of Lyndon Johnson that the federal government got substantially involved in school reform by directing funds to the states through the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (ESEA), with the goal of improving schools in high-poverty neighborhoods.[5]

So it is all the more remarkable that it was under George W. Bush, a president full of platitudes about the virtue of local autonomy and the folly of “big government,” that Washington entered the field of public education more aggressively than ever before. The No Child Left Behind Act of 2002, supported by many liberal Democrats, notably the late Senator Edward M. Kennedy, required that states institute standards defining what students must learn grade by grade, test student achievement school by school and district by district, and improve—or, in the absence of improvement, eliminate—schools that fail to meet the standards.

In general, the Obama administration remains committed to such mandates.

teachout defends “civilization”

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Television can make you famous, but it can’t keep you famous. It’s a bit like heroin: No sooner do you stop taking your daily fix than you get all pale and clammy, after which you vanish in a puff of smoke. So far as I know, there’s never been a TV star who lingered in the public eye for very long after departing from the airwaves—least of all Kenneth Clark. Even among his fellow art historians, Clark is only modestly well remembered. Most of his books are now out of print, and you’re not likely to know his name if you’re much under the age of 50. But Clark became a full-fledged celebrity in his late 60s when, in 1970, the newly hatched Public Broadcasting Service aired a 13-part TV series called “Civilisation: A Personal View” in which he escorted his viewers through a thousand years of cultural history. The program had been a huge success when broadcast by the BBC the preceding year, and it made a similar splash in America: In addition to launching PBS with a bang, “Civilisation” spawned an eponymous coffee-table book that cracked the best-seller list. It was the first time that PBS aired the kind of show that has since been dubbed “appointment TV.” Everybody felt they had to see it—and talk about it.

more from Terry Teachout at the WSJ here.

WTV

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Reporting from San Francisco – William T. Vollmann hardly looks like one of the most ambitious authors of his generation. Walking on Haight Street in his rumpled jeans, ball cap and black T-shirt, shoulders bowed beneath a heavy backpack, he seems an older version of the street kids who still congregate in the tawdry heart of Haight-Ashbury — young men mostly, carrying bedrolls, panhandling for change. In a lot of ways, these are Vollmann’s people: outsiders, on the fringes, whom society tends to disregard. Outsiders have motivated his writing, from his 1987 debut novel, “You Bright and Risen Angels,” which posits a war between insects and human beings, through his most recent effort, the monumental “Imperial” (Viking: 1,306 pp., $55), which tracks another kind of conflict: the battles, real and metaphorical, that define Imperial County — battles over immigration and water, identity and the reach and limitations of political power. The book, which came out in August, is perhaps the clearest expression of Vollmann’s career-long commitment to immerse himself in complexities.

more from David L. Ulin at the LA Times here.

The Rags of Time

Istanbul

Part of the delight in “The Museum of Innocence” is in scouting out the serious games, yet giving oneself over to the charms of Pamuk’s storytelling. He often makes use of genre, turns the expected response to his purpose. His 1998 book “My Name Is Red” may be claimed as a historical novel with an embedded mystery, and yet again as a political story — the miniatures of Eastern book art headed toward obsolescence, facing off with Western art, its perspective and freedom of invention. Such worldly engagement is of no concern to Kemal: “I have no desire to interrupt my story with descriptions of the street clashes between fervent nationalists and fervent Communists at that time, except to say what we were witnessing was an extension of the cold war.” It’s one of many denials that maintain his indifference to the political scene, and it’s in keeping with his character. A feckless soul, an aging bachelor living with his mother, he is dealt a position in a family business he barely attends to. Meanwhile, during the years of their separation, the beautiful Fusun has married a would-be movie director. Night after night Kemal joins them at her family’s dinner table, a threesome locked in a hopeless love story. It never occurs to the constant lover that Fusun may be ordinary — much like the adored girl in Nabokov’s “Lolita.” Kemal is chauffeured from his mother’s house in Nisantasi to Cukurcuma, passively watching the nightly news with Fusun’s family. Years flipping by, he tags along with the cinema crowd in Beyoglu, the beloved one aiming to be an actress. Kemal’s dogged endurance may try our patience, though his dead-end accounting provides a bleak comedy: “According to my notes, during the 409 weeks that my story will now describe, I went there for supper 1,593 times.” Maureen Freely’s translation captures the novelist’s playful performance as well as his serious collusion with Kemal. Her melding of tones follows Pamuk’s agility, to redirect our vision to the gravity of his tale: “This is not simply a story of lovers, but of the entire realm, that is, of Istanbul.”

more from Maureen Howard at the NYT here.

Taking the novel seriously

From The Guardian:

Rana-Dasgupta-001 The winner of a literary prize is sometimes surprised, often delighted, seldom ever disappointed. But when I finally caught up with the novelist Rana Dasgupta, speaking on a patchy mobile phone as he drove through rural India a couple of weeks after his novel, Solo, had been voted the winner of the Guardian's inaugural Not the Booker prize, he confessed that he found his victory “very depressing”. After a month-and-a-half of discussion on the Guardian books blog, Dasgupta was chosen from a shortlist of six by an open vote in an atmosphere which he describes as “incredibly chaotic”.

“I had loads of people emailing me, asking 'Can I post this to the discussion?',” he says. “A lot of people were immensely irate about the whole thing – I was amazed by the passion it raised. I was mostly saying 'Please don't post anything'.” A user with the postername John Self posted an invitation Dasgupta had sent via Facebook for friends to come and vote on the Not the Booker thread, and at that point “anything that was said about my book was a conspiracy,” Dasgupta continues, “and people were saying that I was behind it all.” It reached a point where Dasgupta felt there was “no way of arguing with any of this”, and posted on the thread himself to withdraw from the competition.

According to Dasgupta, this was partly because he'd transgressed on an unwritten assumption among those commenting on the blog. “One thing that really surprised me was the expectation that authors should be this completely separate group who wouldn't even know how to send an email,” he says. “There's this particular idea of what an author should or shouldn't do, and when you infringe that view there's an incredible violence. Most publishers are putting enormous pressure on their authors to publicise their own work, but it's as if a fiction must be maintained that you have no part in this; that if you were nominated for some prize you'd have no idea.”

More here.

Ayn Rand’s Revenge

From The New York Times:

Rand A specter is haunting the Republican Party — the specter of John Galt. In Ayn Rand’s libertarian epic “Atlas Shrugged,” Galt, an inventor disgusted by creeping American collectivism, leads the country’s capitalists on a retributive strike. “We have granted you everything you demanded of us, we who had always been the givers, but have only now understood it,” Galt lectures the “looters” and “moochers” who make up the populace. “We have no demands to present you, no terms to bargain about, no compromise to reach. You have nothing to offer us. We do not need you.”

“Atlas Shrugged” was published 52 years ago, but in the Obama era, Rand’s angry message is more resonant than ever before. Sales of the book have reportedly spiked. At “tea parties” and other conservative protests, alongside the Obama-as-Joker signs, you will find placards reading “Atlas Shrugs” and “Ayn Rand Was Right.” Not long after the inauguration, as right-wing pundits like Glenn Beck were invoking Rand and issuing warnings of incipient socialism, Representative John Campbell, Republican of California, told a reporter that the prospect of rising taxes and government regulation meant “people are starting to feel like we’re living through the scenario that happened in ‘Atlas Shrugged.’ ”

More here.

The Berlin wall had to fall, but today’s world is no fairer

Mikhail Gorbachev in The Guardian:

ScreenHunter_14 Oct. 31 10.24 Naturally, we politicians from the last century can be proud of the fact that we avoided the danger of a thermonuclear war. However, for many millions of people around the globe, the world has not become a safer place. Quite to the contrary, innumerable local conflicts and ethnic and religious wars have appeared like a curse on the new map of world politics, creating large numbers of victims.

Clear proof of the irrational behaviour and irresponsibility of the new generation of politicians is the fact that defence spending by numerous countries, large and small alike, is now greater than during the cold war, and strong-arm tactics are once again the standard way of dealing with conflicts and are a common feature of international relations.

Alas, over the last few decades, the world has not become a fairer place: disparities between the rich and the poor either remained or increased, not only between the north and the developing south but also within developed countries themselves. The social problems in Russia, as in other post-communist countries, are proof that simply abandoning the flawed model of a centralised economy and bureaucratic planning is not enough, and guarantees neither a country's global competitiveness nor respect for the principles of social justice or a dignified standard of living for the population.

More here. [Thanks to Kris Kotarski.]

Dennett and Kitcher write to the New York Times

From Philip Kitcher's letter in the New York Times:

To the Editor:

Philip-Kitcher In his review of “The Greatest Show on Earth,” Nicholas Wade charges that Richard Dawkins is guilty of a philosophical error. According to Wade, philosophers of science divide scientific propositions into three types — facts, laws and theories — and, contrary to Dawkins’s assertions, evolution, which is plainly a systematic theory, cannot count as a fact. However, contemporary philosophy of science offers a vastly more intricate vocabulary for thinking about the sciences than that presupposed in Wade’s oversimplified taxonomy and in his confused remarks about “absolute truth.” Although philosophers may quarrel with aspects of Dawkins’s arguments on a range of issues, he has a far firmer and more subtle understanding of the philosophical issues than that manifested in Wade’s review.

The crucial point is that, as Dawkins appreciates, the distinction between theory and fact, in philosophical discussions as in everyday speech, can be drawn in two quite distinct ways.

More here. And more letters about the same thing from others here.

Putting Caste on Notice

Barbara Crossette in The Nation:

ScreenHunter_12 Oct. 31 09.32 Navi Pillay, the South African judge who became the United Nations high commissioner for human rights last year, is moving to the forefront of a campaign to free more than 250 million people from the indignities and horrors of caste discrimination. No previous commissioner has dared to openly take on this pernicious system, the majority of whose miserable victims live in India.

“This is the year 2009, and people have been talking about caste oppression for more than a hundred years,” Pillay says. “It's time to move on this issue.”

For Pillay, who is of Indian descent, the subject of caste has been hidden too long by obfuscation on the part of governments, not only in India, that have successfully argued in UN conferences that existing international conventions against human rights abuses do not apply. Caste did not figure in the official conclusions of a conference on racism and other forms of intolerance in Durban in 2001, after intense lobbying by India, and remained on the periphery of a review of that conference earlier this year.

That being the case, Pillay said in an interview in her New York office on a visit from her headquarters in Geneva, there may well have to be a new international convention written to apply directly to caste.

More here. [Thanks to Ruchira Paul.]

The Explainer: P vs. NP

Larry Hardesty in MIT News:

ScreenHunter_11 Oct. 31 09.25 In fact, in a 2002 poll, 61 mathematicians and computer scientists said that they thought P probably didn’t equal NP, to only nine who thought it did — and of those nine, several told the pollster that they took the position just to be contrary. But so far, no one’s been able to decisively answer the question one way or the other. Frequently called the most important outstanding question in theoretical computer science, the equivalency of P and NP is one of the seven problems that the Clay Mathematics Institute will give you a million dollars for proving — or disproving. Roughly speaking, P is a set of relatively easy problems, and NP is a set of what seem to be very, very hard problems, so P = NP would imply that the apparently hard problems actually have relatively easy solutions. But the details are more complicated.

Computer science is largely concerned with a single question: How long does it take to execute a given algorithm? But computer scientists don’t give the answer in minutes or milliseconds; they give it relative to the number of elements the algorithm has to manipulate.

Imagine, for instance, that you have an unsorted list of numbers, and you want to write an algorithm to find the largest one.

More here.

oh hannah

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Will we ever be able to think of Hannah Arendt in the same way again? Two new and damning critiques, one of Arendt and one of her longtime Nazi-sycophant lover, the philosopher Martin Heidegger, were published within 10 days of each other last month. The pieces cast further doubt on the overinflated, underexamined reputations of both figures and shed new light on their intellectually toxic relationship. My hope is that these revelations will encourage a further discrediting of the most overused, misused, abused pseudo-intellectual phrase in our language: the banality of evil. The banality of the banality of evil, the fatuousness of it, has long been fathomless, but perhaps now it will be consigned to the realm of the deceitful and disingenuous as well. The first of the two new reports—and the one most overlooked here in America, perhaps because it’s not online—appeared in the sober pages of London’s Times Literary Supplement on Oct. 9. It was titled “Blame the Victim—Hannah Arendt Among the Nazis: the Historian and Her Sources.” Arendt—the German-born refugee intellectual, author of the influential The Origins of Totalitarianism and the controversial Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil—has come under fire before for “blaming the victim” in her Eichmann trial book, but the author of the TLS piece, the distinguished British scholar Bernard Wasserstein, breaks new ground here with material I found shocking.

more from Ron Rosenbaum at Slate here.

a foolish boyle

Boyle

Robert Boyle (1627-91) was, at least by reputation, the greatest scientist in the period between the condemnation of Galileo and the triumph of Newton. A founder member of the Royal Society, he did a great deal to win respect for the new experimental science and the mechanical philosophy. His early experiments with a vacuum pump (published in 1660) became famous as a refutation of Aristotelian physics (which denied the possibility of a vacuum), and led to the formulation of Boyle’s Law relating the volume and pressure of gases. These achievements were accompanied by a commitment to religion that was even more important to him than science. He was much concerned with the propagation of the Gospel in foreign lands and foreign languages (including Gaelic), and paid for a translation of Grotius’s De veritate into Arabic (surely a futile undertaking if ever there was one). At his death Boyle left a bequest to fund an annual series of lectures defending the truths of religion against atheism. He clearly hoped that scientific methods would provide indisputable confirmation for religious truths: the existence of life after death, for example, was to be confirmed by investigation of the mysterious drummer of Tedworth, a poltergeist.

more from David Wootton at Literary Review here.

An open letter to Steve Levitt

Raymond T. Pierrehumbert, Louis Block Professor in the Geophysical Sciences, The University of Chicago, in Real Climate:

Dear Mr. Levitt,

The problem of global warming is so big that solving it will require creative thinking from many disciplines. Economists have much to contribute to this effort, particularly with regard to the question of how various means of putting a price on carbon emissions may alter human behavior. Some of the lines of thinking in your first book, Freakonomics, could well have had a bearing on this issue, if brought to bear on the carbon emissions problem. I have very much enjoyed and benefited from the growing collaborations between Geosciences and the Economics department here at the University of Chicago, and had hoped someday to have the pleasure of making your acquaintance. It is more in disappointment than anger that I am writing to you now.

I am addressing this to you rather than your journalist-coauthor because one has become all too accustomed to tendentious screeds from media personalities (think Glenn Beck) with a reckless disregard for the truth. However, if it has come to pass that we can’t expect the William B. Ogden Distinguished Service Professor (and Clark Medalist to boot) at a top-rated department of a respected university to think clearly and honestly with numbers, we are indeed in a sad way.

By now there have been many detailed dissections of everything that is wrong with the treatment of climate in Superfreakonomics , but what has been lost amidst all that extensive discussion is how really simple it would have been to get this stuff right. The problem wasn’t necessarily that you talked to the wrong experts or talked to too few of them. The problem was that you failed to do the most elementary thinking needed to see if what they were saying (or what you thought they were saying) in fact made any sense. If you were stupid, it wouldn’t be so bad to have messed up such elementary reasoning, but I don’t by any means think you are stupid. That makes the failure to do the thinking all the more disappointing. I will take Nathan Myhrvold’s claim about solar cells, which you quoted prominently in your book, as an example.

As quoted by you, Mr. Myhrvold claimed, in effect, that it was pointless to try to solve global warming by building solar cells, because they are black and absorb all the solar energy that hits them, but convert only some 12% to electricity while radiating the rest as heat, warming the planet. Now, maybe you were dazzled by Mr Myhrvold’s brilliance, but don’t we try to teach our students to think for themselves? Let’s go through the arithmetic step by step and see how it comes out. It’s not hard.

More here. [Thanks to Carl Zimmer.]

Joe Lieberman has become the Balloon Boy dad of the Senate

Maura Keaney in The Guardian:

ScreenHunter_10 Oct. 30 13.38 Joe Lieberman has become the Balloon Boy dad of the Senate Democratic caucus, a fame-whore so addicted to media attention that he hatches ever-more-desperate and risky schemes that sell out his “family” to earn press attention.

Progressives can only hope that, like Richard Heene, Lieberman will finally be exposed as a fame-seeking fraudster after his latest stunt, Tuesday's threat to filibuster any bill for healthcare reform that includes a public option.

No one who's been paying attention should be surprised by Lieberman's move, yet the Washington press corps responded as if they'd never heard of the boy who cried wolf. This is Lieberman's schtick, the only act that's ever consistently gotten him ratings.

More here.