Category Archives: Capitalism

Oprah wins in Texas

A few years back, in the infamous beef defamation case, Oprah was accused of taking the meat out of Texas, but now Texas has done that all by itself. Texas is taking the meat out of its educational system.  How to improve those graduation rates?  Take the hard stuff out of the curriculum and reduce the number of those mandatory tests.

Image from Idiocracy

Thought-coins in the Fountain of Non-Edification

Educators More Important Than Wall Street Execs

photo of crime signSometimes those of us in education grow weary of the escalation of Wall Street compensation while educators’ pay remains stagnant or declines. One might draw the conclusion that the world values Wall Street types more than academic types, and we know that cannot be so. Now we have the evidence from The New York Times. Beverly L. Hall, a district superintendent in the Atlanta school system, drew the attention of prosecutors who decided she is worth a $7.5 million bond, while back in New York City Michael S. Steinberg, worker at SACS Capital Advisors who made tens of millions trading “investments,” was released from custody on a mere $3 million bail.  Now Ms. Hall allegedly hauled in over half a million dollars over several years from her activities, and prosecutors consider her worth (by bail and bond standards) over twice as much as Mr. Steinberg. Let’s not miss this chance to highlight a shift in society’s appreciation of what educators do.

P.S. Note that neither of these people has seen her or his day in court, and it might be time to roll out the bromide: each is innocent until proven guilty.

The Cloud of Unknowing Revisited

The Cloud is another way to make people property-less. Capitalism does not want you to have property. Rather than have a DVD or a piece of music or a book, capitalism will lure you into the Cloud, where all the property is elsewhere, and you are permitted to have a virtual relationship with that property. However, the property is owned by someone else who does not live anywhere near you.  The owner will stream it to you — for a fee. The owner will allow you to store things in the Cloud — for a fee. The owner will allow you to access the data in the Cloud — for a fee. But after you pay the fee, you have no object, no property, no-thing.  No Used Stream Store will open up on the town square, the way there is a secondary market for books, for example.

All of this signals a future you might not enjoy. Sounds like an empty future, a dark future, full of clouds.

You might be interested in the interview with Jaron Lanier.

The problem with our cloud software right now is that it does tend to be run by the person with the biggest computer on the network, and serve certain interests more than others. It’s not an honest broker. We are constantly running into a situation where a company like Google is saying: we are being the honest broker. Of course that is ridiculous because they are a commercial concern.

“The Silent Rage of a Thousand Romneys”

West's unspoken dream? First Class woman on lifeboat while others perish?

West’s unspoken dream? First Class women on lifeboats while others perish?

The phrase of the day comes from an article posted last night by Lindy West, and it is: “the silent rage of 1,000 Romneys.”  The joie de bitterness in West’s post is admirable, as is her talent for writing in the contemporary mode.  Since reading West’s piece, I wonder whether the amount of silent rage ought forevermore to be measured in something called Romneys, in the way Roentgens are the units for a particular kind of gamma rays.  Or, the way “Southpark” turned the Couric into a worldwide measurement standard.

While it’s always pleasant to witness the privileged complain about their privileges, it is hard to swallow the lengths this article goes to underscore what it claims is the real problem, viz., the mistreatment of women. Rather than focusing on the ever-increasing gentrification of airline travel, to the point that some airlines recently reduced leg room in coach to give those in Business and First Class more room to re-enact Busby Berkeley musical numbers, West’s article presupposes a legitimacy to non-egalitarian travel (did people learn nothing from Cameron’s Titanic?), as if there is no issue with the operation of blatant class biases at the airport and elsewhere.  I am not disputing the colorful examples West cites to support her point about First Class males elbowing First Class women out of the way in the scramble to arrive first for the pre-flight martinis, but it seems that the focus on gender utterly ignores the larger picture. Why isn’t West writing that almost everyone else from the metaphorical cheap seats ought to feel “the silent rage of 1,000 Romneys” about a democracy that demonstrates frequently that it does not believe in equality?

Quotation of the Day

Money is broken, and until we admit that, any attempts to fix the economy seem doomed to fail. We’re like passengers on a nosediving plane thinking if we all fart hard enough, we can lift it back into the sky. So should we be storming the cockpit or hunting for parachutes instead? I don’t know: I ran out of metaphor after the fart gag. You’re on your own from hereon in.
– Charlie Brooker in The Guardian

Snake Oil for Downton Abbey Wannabes

Perhaps all you need to understand is the following short paragraph that should be the quotation of the day: “’It was a very difficult breakthrough for her, she was crying,’ Ms. Messinger, who charges from $25 to $75 an hour, recalled of a recent session with the client. ‘I just made her aware of more options, like maybe you can try Splenda.’”

You can read the entire sad story in The New York Times, and it is especially disappointing that major universities are participating in the sham by providing these “life coaches” with credentials that make them seem legitimate.  If anyone out there wishes to pay me $100 an hour to suggest that she or he use Splenda, please contact me immediately. Heck, for today’s readers I will offer a 50% discount on that price.  Act now.  Operators — in several senses of the word — are standing by.

Night of the Hunter

Bad Chemistry on Radiolab

Radiolab has been a source of fascinating information about all sort of topics over the years, and many people have noticed that the workers at Radiolab understand and appreciate the medium of radio in their presentations. In the spirit of Orson Welles, they experiment with sound, even if sometimes in decibel ranges that hurt my ears. Pathei mathos.  The show has received praise from numerous quarters, and one of its hosts, Jad Abumrad, won a MacArthur award recently.

Clara Immerwahr

During a broadcast about the chemist Fritz Haber, a scientist devoted to his Fatherland and enthralled by his own ambition, one of the hosts decided to pass moral judgment on Mr. Haber.  That judgment calls for questioning. To begin to appreciate the radical nature of the judgment, you might need what Hollywood types call the backstory, at least a bit of it, without mentioning Zyklon gas, another part of the Haber mess. According to Radiolab’s own tale, Haber himself put together a group of soldiers during World War I, and traveled with them to Belgium to experiment with chlorine gas against French, British, and Canadian troops.  With forethought, Haber and his men waited for the right conditions to release the gas on troops confronting the German forces, though using the gas was opposed by several commanders in the German military who believed that Haber’s experiment was a violation of basic human decency in time of war.  You can listen to the Radiolab podcast for a vivid description of the effects of the gas on human beings and on nature.

Upon Haber’s return to Germany after this incident, Haber found himself in an argument with Clara Immerwahr, his wife. She had heard about what he had done and was deeply disturbed. Her last name means roughly “always true (“Wahrheit” in German is truth). In short, the Cassandra story was staring Haber in the face, but he could not see it, nor could the Radiolab hosts in their retelling.  As a scientist herself, Immerwahr knew that her husband had transgressed.  She ended up shooting herself, though Haber, according to the accounts at the time, considered Clara’s interpretation of his actions to be utterly mistaken. Like the deluded Haber, one of the hosts of Radiolab decided to intervene at this point in the broadcast to provide a sterile, chilling, utilitarian arithmetic to Haber’s actions (the judgment mentioned above). In abstracted form, the ethical “thinking” inserted into the broadcast goes like this: If person X murders 2 people, but escorts 3 elderly women across the street and prevents the women from being hit by a bus, those actions combined (murdering and escorting) result in a positive integer.  One extra person lived as a result of X’s actions in those two situations, and that is what makes X a good human being.

I could not believe my ears. Two intelligent people, the hosts of Radiolab, contrary to Clara Immerwahr’s model behavior that ought to have made an impression on them, discussed blithely a formula for ethics as simplistic as the one described above, and one of the hosts concluded that Haber was a good person, because prior to World War I Haber had invented a process involving nitrogen that allowed the world to provide food to its expanding population.  The projected millions of human lives saved by nitrogen fertilizer were set against the hundreds (the exact figure was not given on the Radiolab broadcast, if my memory is correct) of soldiers and other creatures killed by Haber’s chlorine gas, and since millions happen to be larger than hundreds, you can figure out without resorting to a calculator what your ethical position on Mr. Haber ought to be.

I stopped listening to the broadcast after that, and began wishing that I had known Clara Immerwahr.

Quotation of the Day

If you’re not willing to cheat, steal, murder and bribe then you don’t come to power.
– Alastair Smith in The Economist

Let’s Finnish with Assessment in U.S. Education

Photo by Jean-Francois Fourtou

This is the most important article in education that you will read for some time. The evidence comes from one country, but that evidence is startling. It challenges the nonsense proposed by politicians and so-called experts from professional education colleges who have convinced administrators across the United States that assessment is the panacea that will lead us away from the coming Idiocracy.  Can you think of a major American university that now lacks something akin to an Office of Institutional Effectiveness (pardon the oxymoron)?  By most  world standards, Finnish public education (there is no private option, please note — that means no charter schools, for example) is at the top of the heap.  How did they do it without interminable, mind-numbing U.S.-style assessment?

For starters, Finland has no standardized tests. The only exception is what’s called the National Matriculation Exam, which everyone takes at the end of a voluntary upper-secondary school, roughly the equivalent of American high school. Instead, the public school system’s teachers are trained to assess children in classrooms using independent tests they create themselves. All children receive a report card at the end of each semester, but these reports are based on individualized grading by each teacher. Periodically, the Ministry of Education tracks national progress by testing a few sample groups across a range of different schools.

Pasi Sahlberg, director of the Finnish Ministry of Education, is the Cassandra of this tale.  He offers up a fascinating take on another educational buzzword on this side of the Atlantic: accountability.

“There’s no word for accountability in Finnish,” he later told an audience at the Teachers College of Columbia University. “Accountability is something that is left when responsibility has been subtracted.”

An article about the state of education has not been this much fun since the appearance of the works of one of my old teachers Richard Mitchell.