Sunday, December 30, 2007

Geography of Education and Truth

Mention an obscure painter or poet to a continental European and you'll get an elegant summation of the artist's work, the movement that inspired it and perhaps a word on its relevance to the world today. An American will frankly admit not knowing about the artist and probably ask a question; a Brit will offer a clever joke that changes the topic.

The differences in response do not necessarily mean the Continentals are more learned. It merely means they have been taught differently about the truth.

There may be many more systems of education in the world, but the two educational approaches to which I and people I know have been exposed might be labeled Anglo-American and Continental. They have fundamental epistemological differences, especially in those fields that are not empirical.

The Continentals, according to observations of mine and others, study humanities as a collection of facts subject to approved, taught interpretations. This novel is about X and its symbolism means Y; remember that for the exam and spew it back exactly as taught or fail the class.

In the past two weeks, for example, a French correspondent provided an unwitting example of this. A secondary school teacher who was exposing his students to the idea of colonization, offered them several quotes on the subject, then asked
1. Compare the arguments put forward in 1885 by Jules Ferry, a prime minister favoring French colonization of Indochina, and Georges Clemenceau, a member of the opposition.

2. How was European leadership being called into question at the beginning of the twentieth century?
So I asked what the students had replied, and my correspondent replied "I suppose what [the teacher] taught them." Such a response conveys the assumption that the teacher's role is to provide not merely facts, but also the "correct" interpretation of the events in question.

If the teacher is in a progressive secular school, I would expect the answers to lean toward describing Ferry as a retrograde racist and Clemenceau was a visionary and European "leadership" (quaint description of genocide, ecological rape and theft, but never mind) as a thing of the past well worth burying.

In a religious and conservative environment, on the other hand, one might lament the loss of the "wise" European stewardship of the world and note that Ferry might have had a point about the tutelage needed by the Third World.

In either case, education sets up the student as a parroter of the correct line of interpretation. The European who seems to opine about an obscure poet is likely repeating something learned in secondary school. By rote.

This is the system that Napoleon spread throughout continental Europe, alongside his famous legal code.

In the United States, Canada and Britain (and in British schools abroad) schooling, after 1945 at least, I would venture to say that in a similar situation, the students would be pointed to sources (as the French teacher did), then left to their own devices as to interpretation.

Because the Anglo-American student is not encouraged to imbibe opinions, but rather to consider and search for information, typically Anglo-American school systems cover less material than their Continental equivalents. Thus, it is more likely that Americans, Canadians and Brits may come across as "ignorant" and not know the obscure artist mentioned at the outset -- but if an opinion is ventured, it is more than likely that of the speaker, not of the speaker's high school teacher.

Anglo-American educators not only worship at the altar of open-ended inquiry, but also engage in a full-fledged debate concerning the canonical information to which students should be exposed. For example, there's the library of dead white men as opposed to multicultural readings that include women, people of color and sources that were not conventional 50 years ago. Textbook versus textbook-less.

Is one system better? Not necessarily.

The Anglo-American student typically has a narrower frame of reference tending toward specialization, depth and creativity. The European peer has the advantage of a broader base of basic information, yet also tendencies toward more conventional thinking, surface knowledge and generalization. The eclectic and the specialist complement can each other.

Socially, however, they speak of societies with different vocations and temptations.

European indoctrination aspires to develop renaissance men and women, yet it carries the temptation toward the totalitarian conformity of Fascism and Stalinism. Girded in philosophical absolutism traceable back to medieval, Catholic Europe, its insistence on one truth and one truth only, may spur the desire to uncover her. Once found, European Truth, like Reason during the French Revolution, risks becoming a worshipped statue.

Anglo-American inquiry hopes to develop free democratic citizens who insist on their own truths, yet it can yield unreasoning, over-confident zealotry. Undergirded in the Reformation epistemology according to which each Bible reader was to be seen as the sole legitimate interpreter of truth, under the influence of the more modern offshoots of rationalism and empiricism it can spur to develop scientific and technological marvels. However, these may become soulless and rudderless innovation for its own sake in a vast and stormy ocean of relativism, witness the hollow chatter one so often hears on cell phones.

In the end, I am torn. I like the European palaver, but I admire the Anglo-American thirst for knowledge. I wonder what you think.

Friday, December 28, 2007

An Education Dictator?

Back in 1996, Republican presidential candidate Lamar Alexander pledged to become the "education president," a promise George W. Bush stole for his pack of lies, I mean, his campaign. Surrounded by educators this week, I find myself wondering whether, since this has proven woefully inadequate, an education dictator would do better -- and what would such a potentate do.

The problems are well-known. Only half of all high school graduates go to postsecondary education. Their incomes and general well-being are stagnating. Only half of those who go to college complete four years. Yet all the future jobs demand higher and higher order skills.

Meanwhile, high percentages of youths go straight from dropping out to jail, at enormous social and fiscal cost.

Education would seem to be the natural ticket out of poverty and stagnation for such young people, yet the schools can't manage the job. Why?

Part of it is declining standards.

The New York Regents exams, once the hallmark ticket to a coveted high school diploma are no longer the obligatory for graduation in the Empire State. Students who don't make the grade, can go for a "local diploma," which community colleges accept. While the Regents require minimum scores of 65 percent to pass, the local diplomas accept 55 percent.

This is a way to pad the graduation rates, which fell precipitously during the 1980s, when a B-film actor presided over the first effort to bankrupt educational and social programs. I'm told that half the schools in New York would be closed if Regents were the only ticket to graduation, as they must graduate a certain percentage of the student body by law.

But it's not just that.

Kids who are hungry, who are brought up by guardians rather than parents in prison or imprisoned by addictions, who know no one who has a conventional job and thrives, who must toughen up before their time -- such kids are half defeated before they take their first step into a school.

Only a sustained, intensive, broad-based frontal campaign to address the entire network of social problems that are creating a permanent underclass -- and thus undoing the foundation of democracy -- can hope to succeed.

Here's where the ancient Roman notion of a dictator, someone drafted by the Senate during an emergency to literally dictate what everyone should do, seems a plausible answer. Not a tyrant, mind you, a dictator. Someone appointed as immovably as a federal judge, say, to see things through the resolution of the problems decisively, persistently, immune to fashion and citizen fatigue.

What should such a person do?

1. Federalize education. There is no rhyme or reason to the patchwork of 16,000 school districts, which operate as if the world of the mind stopped at the county, city or district line. No other advanced nation has as balkanized a system.

2. Consolidate bureaucracies so the bulk of the funds can be directed strategically at problems, so the doers in the system are left alone to do their best.

3. Connect educational systems to community and disciplined civilian work agencies and programs with modern apprenticeships and practice-based credentials.

4. Require all university students to serve for one year in literacy and educational support activities as a condition of graduation with a bachelor's degree.

5. Coordinate education with child welfare and family economic self-sufficiency programs, so that enrollment in school becomes the gateway to all necessary services to ensure the well-being of every American or immigrant from birth to 18.

Put together, the school districts, states and the small present federal contribution add up to more than $400 billion a year. These funds need only be better directed.

Don't have children? Think about whether you'd like the ambulance driver taking you to a hospital to be able to read street signs.

Education and social well-being is for all of us. Happiness spreads. When the poorest are reasonably cared for, the richest can sleep soundly.

Then, after 20 or 25 years, the dictator should be asked to resign and hand things over to elected and appointed officials, who will then have another 200 years to run amok.

Friday, December 21, 2007

A Call for Glückenfreude

We all cheer for the underdog, the person who is depressed, who lost a job, who is ill. Secretly, we also occasionally cheer when someone we dislike experiences misfortune, deservedly we believe: schadenfreude. But perhaps the opposite is required somewhat more -- and is considerably nobler.

Schadenfreude, we all know, comes from the German Schaden (harm) and Freude (joy): joy in the misfortune of another.

Face it, you think you might not feel a teensy weensy bit of it if Bill and Melinda Gates got divorced? If Osama got cancer? You weren't secretly glad when Barry Bonds got caught using steroids, Hugh Grant was arrested for getting oral sex from a prostitute in a car, banks lost money due to shady loans, when Scooter Libby was convicted?

Good. Now it's out in the open. We all feel a little schadenfreude now and then. Now Let's consider the opposite.

Your pal gets a promotion or award while you're still stuck in the same old job. Your best friend falls madly in love and you can't get a first date to save your life. Your neighbors take that dream vacation you've always wanted and you haven't been to the next town in three years.

Don't these people make you mad?

For years I felt invidious irritation toward James Fallows. Although he is only three years older than I am, he was Jimmy Carter's chief speechwriter, when I was an apprentice aide to the speechwriter of an international diplomat.

He glided from the White House to the Atlantic Monthly, NPR and endless books, essays and a generally placid and comfortable life with wife and, I believe, daughter. I was let go, later fired from another job and have since toiled obscurely on an economic publication that is revered in its field -- but let's face it, I'm no James Fallows.

How dare he show me up like this!

At first I comforted myself that his passage through Harvard and Oxford were mere perquisites of being born with a silver spoon. But no! He had the effrontery of coming from a working class background and winning scholarships on his own merit.

Surely he would divorce. Surely he would have children with disabilities. Get cancer. Turn out to be a plagiarizer. No, no, no.

People like James Fallows should be shot.

So imagine my shock when I discovered that other people felt similarly about me. Ten years ago I had the good fortune to manage a very leveraged buyout of the firm where I worked. I went to lunch with a dear friend, showed her my new business card with "President" on it. Her face was blank. I thought she didn't understand, so I told her.

"Oh, I have thought of starting a publication," she said. No "congratulations" or "I'm so happy for you," no matter how insincere. I chased her for another lunch over the next three months and it was clear she despised me for my good luck. At least, she was honest; she just couldn't deal with my admittedly modest success.

Since then, I have experienced moments in which I wanted to cry out for joy -- all amid the humdrum teeth-gritting reality in this vale of tears. Sons getting into prestigious universities and embarking upon challenging, make-a-Dad-proud careers.

I have gradually learned that no one is interested in my good fortune. Indeed, they'll likely get upset.

So beginning in this Winter Solstice season, I am calling for a new campaign of Glückenfreude -- joy in the happiness and good fortune of others.

Let me begin with James Fallows: I raise a toast to you, sir, I am honored to have read your marvelous prose, am delighted you have traveled well with your delightful family. If we ever meet, I admit, I will be starstruck, bask in your good fortune and consider it my own to have such a privilege.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Is U.S. news about 9/11 (self-)censored?

You might think so after you learn about the arrest two weeks ago of a French journalist who in April 2007 reported that France's secret service knew minute details of Al-Qaeda's 9/11 plan as early as January 2001 and passed them to U.S. intelligence. Add to that the fact that neither the original French story, nor the reporter's arrest has appeared in a single major U.S. newspaper.

The story is very simple.

On April 16, 2007, the Paris daily Le Monde, which is France's top newspaper, ran a story by Guillaume Dasquié in which he describes a sheaf of 328 pages stamped "Confidential-Defense" and "Strictly National Usage," that he obtained from a source who had access to secret documents of the Direction générale des services extérieurs (General Directorate for Foreign Services).

These documents described Al-Qaeda detailed discussions concerning the hijacking of planes on U.S. soil, including the selection of American Airlines and United flights. All information available months before the attacks.

Moreover, a Jan. 5, 2001 DGSE memo on this subject was given to the Central Intelligence Agency's chief of station in Paris, Bill Murray. Not only did the French know, the CIA knew.

You can read the full story here.

Dasquié, who has also been writing controversial stories concerning French government corruption, was arrested Dec. 5 and charged with "publishing defense secrets" after refusing to name his sources or sources.

“We are troubled by the criminal probe against Guillaume Dasquié and his detention for two days by French security services who pressured him to reveal his sources,” the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists’ Executive Director Joel Simon said. “Dasquié should not be prosecuted for serving the public’s right to know.”

The Associated Press picked up this story and the The Guardian of London ran it (see here). But is it anywhere in The New York Times or The Washington Post? Does it turn up in any U.S. newspaper or major media in a Google search?


The Times last mentioned Dasquié in 2002 in a book review. The Post appears never to have heard of him. Why? Has everyone in the newsrooms been so full of eggnog for the last two weeks that they couldn't be bothered?

As a journalist, I find this appalling. Frightening. We are about to have a presidential election and significant information that our government knew beforehand of the signal event of the present century is swept under the carpet.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

What Elections?

It's not even the presidential election year and how many candidate debates have occurred? I've lost count. U.S. presidential elections last too long, cost too much and the results are unimpressive. There are solutions.

As regards timing, I like the 90-day campaigns under the system that prevails in much of the British Commonwealth. Granted, that's because elections are not fixed at four year intervals.

Also, there are no truly national elections under the parliamentary system: you vote for the candidates in your riding or constituency and cumulatively a party acquires a majority -- or not; thus, most voters have some personal knowledge of the person they are voting for -- or against.

The cost has amply been remarked elsewhere as a barrier to truly popular candidates and the inevitable end-result that presidents first enter the White House already hostage to the sources of cash that put them there.

The duration of the campaign is a factor in raising the cost, but there are silent partner in this: the uninformed voter and the relative secrecy in which decision-making occurs.

Every campaign involves debate of policy questions posed in overly simplified terms for citizens who have not attended to the duty of keeping up. Nothing struck me as more symptomatic of the problem than the question posed to President George H.W. Bush at an open forum by an individual who obviously did not know the difference between the federal deficit and the national debt. (Hint: the deficit is a negative annual balance, the debt is the cumulative borrowing to cover the deficits.)

The cost of the quadrennial education campaign -- or in many cases, the quadrennial play on people's ignorance and basest emotions (yes, Republicans, I mean you) -- is largely the result of poor citizenship. If we don't look after our interests, no one will.

Is it any surprise that the results are so unimpressive? Think about the notion that the electorate in 1980 chose an actor whose sole talent was the ability to read and declaim as if the words he was using were his own. Yes, of course, the current president also comes to mind among the disasters of the electoral system.

Hunter Thompson cannily remarked that up to the 1972 campaign neither major political party had put up a candidate that garnered less than 40 percent of the vote nationally.

Yet the percentage of eligible citizens who vote has been cumulatively declining from the 63 percent recorded in 1960 to the low of 49 percent in the 1996 election. The massive electoral fraud of the year 2000 changed that: in 2004, a full 56 percent of the eligible electorate actually voted.

So think about it. John F. Kennedy got a razor thin margin (49.7 percent of the popular vote), garnering in reality about 31 percent of all eligible citizens' votes. Even Lyndon Johnson, with his "landslide" 61 percent of the popular vote, really had the assent of 37.1 percent of eligible voters. The Ronald Reagan "landslide" of 1984 (58.8 percent) still only won 31.2 percent of all citizens eligible to vote.

So neither qualitatively nor quantitatively can anyone argue that two years of bombast achieves worthy results.

Thus, three remedies strike me as plausible incentives for change:

1. Set presidential campaigns to take no more than 180 days, with one national primary and one national election.

2. Establish a public fund to subsidize candidacies and bar any other source of funding.

3. Make voting mandatory, with periodic citizenship tests and penalties for failing to keep up with the basic decisions that we must make as a society.

Monday, December 03, 2007

Democracy in Latin America

The champagne must be flowing in the White House over the vote in Venezuela. The vote cheered me for very different reasons: to me, it shows that while Latin America wants systemic change, people no longer believe a strongman is needed to achieve that.

For as long as I've been politically aware -- and I started young -- I have known that the key political issue in the region was, and remains, the redistribution of income and wealth from the neofeudal socioeconomic structures that have persisted for half a millenium to ... something else.

What else, and how, has been a widely debated and hotly contested question.

In the 1930s, movements such as the APRA in Peru proposed a kind of socialism with autochtonous flavor and revindication for the peoples of the Inca Empire. In Nicaragua at that time a peasant rebel named Augusto César Sandino, who conceivably never read Marx, prompted the intervention of U.S. Marines.

During the 1940s an 50s individuals like Juan Domingo Perón of Argentina and Getúlio Vargas of Brazil offered a different way -- a right-wing form of anti-imperialism and labor power and redistributionism. It was an era of strongmen.

In the 1960s and 70s came César Augusto Pinochet's theory of "the national security state," which he proposed in a military journal in 1965, just as the Brazilian military regime that most successfully embodied it began to take shape. By the decade's end, with the connivance of the CIA-run "traffic school" torturers wearing military boots were in power in Buenos Aires, Montevideo, Santiago and other Latin American capitals.

With the 1980s democratization began. We are still in the democratic era. One in which almost all countries have tried wild and extreme laissez faire policies -- in Buenos Aires the municipality went so far as to privatize parks! -- and abandoned them.

Now Nestor Kirchner, soon his wife, in Argentina, Michelle Bachelet in Chile, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva of Brazil along with others, represent a wave of social-democracy, expanding rights from the civic realm to social and economic arenas. These are reformist, pro-union, pro-worker leaders who nonetheless recognize the need to rule from consensus and compromise.

This is what people have long wanted. Hugo Chávez of Venezuela, along with Evo Morales of Bolivia, represent the vanguard of Latin America's "new left" -- neither is too far apart from what solid majorities want. At least in their ideals.

What the Sunday vote in Venezuela showed, however, was a new maturity. Left-leaning majorities have learned that power foes not grow from the barrel of a gun, as Mao and a good number of guerrilla leaders have suggested. They have also learned not to trust even the greatest of saviors, such as Chávez.

In Sunday's plebiscite Venezuelan voters rejected by a 51 percent to 49 percent the proposal to expand Chávez's powers and accelerate his move to socialize the economy. The slim margin suggests that the country is deeply divided and that his program has not been resoundingly defeated.

Instead, it seems clear to me that Venezuelans are quarreling mainly with the strategy. They want economic and social democracy. But without a strongman. Cuba without Fidel and one-party rule -- or perhaps merely Sweden.

To me, having watched decades of blood flowing in the streets to no good end, over strongmen and guerrilla strongmen-wannabes, over militaries and ideologies, it is heartening to see Latin Americans choosing, indeed forcing, peaceful debate and the ballot box on their own leader. Chávez looms greater also in my esteem for accepting the verdict.