Some academics, he says, either do not know what their job is or prefer
to do something else. He recommends a "narrow sense" of the academic
vocation that precludes saving the world, a mission for which academics
have no special qualifications. Universities talk about making students
sensitive, compassionate, tolerant, democratic, etc., but those bland
adjectives often are packed with political agendas. The "focused"
academic vocation that Fish favors is spacious enough for actual
academic skills involving "the transmission of knowledge and the
conferring of analytical skills."
(George Will, Washington Post, 11/27/2008, while speaking of Stanley Fish's book, "Save the World on Your Own Time.")
Archive for November 2008
Some academics, he says, either do not know what their job is or prefer
I have encountered, although not yet read Claudia Goldin's and Lawrence Katz's new book, The Race between Education and Technology.
The authors inform us that, "in the 1970s, the United States education
system began to stagnate, with high-school graduation rates stuck at
about three-quarters of all students."
The authors would probably agree with Fareed Zakaria's conclusion in his book, The Post-American World,
that our country's central problem is our bad schools. As Professor
Golding says, “Lots of kids are being left behind,… Investing in
human capital is still a very good deal. Returns are very high.”
sort of talk about the condition of our schools is now widespread,
almost conventional wisdom. However, while no one doubts that we are
failing terribly our poor and minority children in our inner cities, it
is not at all apparent that the additional and improved human capital
that would result from better city schools would be instrumental in
growing our economic wealth, preventing our country's economic decline.
For it's just not true that all of our school children can, even
given the proper schooling, whatever that might be, become instrumental
in maintaining let alone growing our increasingly technological society.
it is true, as Katz and Goldin make clear in their book, that the
United States during the 20th. century was the world leader in bringing
12 years of free public schooling to all its young people. And it's no
less true that the world is now catching up with us and we may no
longer be in first place.
But is it true that our eventual
decline, in respect to our wealth and high standard of living, follows
from this, our undeniable neglect of some of our human capital, and the
fact that other countries are now, as we before them, bringing public
education to the masses?
I don't think so. For there is another
way of seeing what has been and is still happening. By the late 1970s
our schools were the first to reach most of the country's young people
with a free public school education through high school. It was
inevitable that others would catch up with us while following our lead.
For we had reached a point from where we had no place else to go, and
we could only wait for them to join us.
What is not generally
recognized is that when we reached this point we found ourselves up
against another kind of barrier altogether, and now, some 30 or 40
years after that time, we are just as much up against it. And
confronting the barrier we haven't been guilty of neglect, although our
continually revised strategies, our seemingly endless reforms, have had
little or no effect in lowering the barrier.
Hence the understandable but mistaken conclusions of Goldin and Katz, Fareed Zakaria, Nicholas Kristof in today's Times, and many, many others, calling our failed reform efforts neglect.
happened shouldn't have surprised us. We did get all the kids into the
classroom but we couldn't make them all learn. We should have known
this, or at least we should have recognized that this is what happened,
what had to happen. Is there anyone who hasn't learned that not
everyone can be made to learn anything? Algebra in the Middle School,
and other such ambitious school reforms, if nothing else, ought to have
convinced us of this.
People like Katz and Goldin call this
failure our neglect of human capital. It's not, of course. Rather we
have not recognized that a good number of our young people need
something other than a college preparation program.
before we realize that a college prep program worthy of the name just
doesn't work for many, perhaps even the majority of our school
children. If there is neglect it is that we are neglecting what the
kids could do if provided with a more realistic educational
Sports and music are a big part of our lives. Not
to mention the arts and crafts, theater and film. Not to mention the
trades, where many are now needed to strengthen the infrastructure of
our cities and towns. How many sports academies, music conservatories
are there in our public school systems? How much is being done to
prepare our young people for careers in the arts and crafts, for the
trades? This is neglect with a capital N.
Again, my conclusion is
that we have not failed so much as bumped into a natural barrier to
what we were mistakingly trying to do — this natural barrier being the
normal distribution of intelligences. Superior understanding of math
and language is not the proud possession of all of us, let alone all
the kids in our public schools.
We should stop pretending that
it is. Listen to the kids in our inner cities. Find out who they are,
what they can and want to do. Work with the talents, interests and
other intelligences they all do have without exception.
Two respected Black intellectuals would question two of my, our assumptions regarding the significance of Barack Obama's election. This is not so surprising in that Whites, even those most against the country's choice of Obama, have been forced to take a back seat to the general and world-wide post election euphoria. Whites to avoid being labeled small minded, of being unable to grasp the obvious importance of what has happened, if not going along with the euphoria of Barack's triumph, have been forced to at least adopt a wait and see attitude.
Blacks, however, are even freer than before this election to say what they think. Freer because one of their own is now at the top. Shelby Steele and Thomas Sowell, both op-ed writers and senior fellows at the Hoover Institute in Stanford, California, have questioned the very two perceptions, or assumptions, that for me, and probably for many, made this election so significant.
One assumption, that Obama is a thinking man, an intellectual, and that his election represents a significant victory for our country's thinking or intellectual classes in their perennial battle to gain leadership positions in the country, if not the presidency. Not to mention that it would mean better governance for us all.
The thinking man's candidates since World War II, nearly, although not all democrats, have been all too frequent losers in presidential campaigns. Adlai Stevenson in 1952 and 1958, Eugene McCarthy in 1968 (to his fellow democrat, Hubert Humphrey), George McGovern in 1972, perhaps Walter Mondale in 1984 (although Richard Nixon was no less a thinking man), Michael Dukakis in 1988, and certainly Al Gore and John Kerry in 2000 and 2004.
These candidates lost to men who, if not men of action, were closer to the American cultural mainstream. They lost to General Eisenhower, Ronald Reagan, and yes the Bushes, father and son. And Barack Obama found himself up against just such a "man of action," one not infected by the thinking virus as he himself so clearly was. And actually because of this, not only because of his blackness, we feared for his election.
But lo and behold in this election the thinking man, and the black man, won. And we ask, did this represent a real change in the country, that a man so clearly able to reason, to respond thoughtfully to his questioners, would be elected to our highest office? I wanted to think so, just as I wanted to think that the racial barrier had been overcome.
Then I read Steele and Sowell, first Thomas Sowell who was writing in response to an op ed piece by Nicholas Kristof in the New York Times, Obama and the War on Brains. Kristof saw an Obama administration as ending "the anti-intellectualism that has long been a strain in American life."
But Sowell doesn't at all go along with Kristof. For example, he doesn't allow Kristof's, and our take on Adlai Stevenson. Stevenson, he informs us, could go for months or years without picking up a book. In short, Stevenson had all the airs of an intellectual but not the substance. And because of this, because intellectuals are often not what they would seem to be, intellectuals in our country are not taken as seriously by the rest of us as they take themselves.
Just to further undermine our respect for the intellectual Sowell points out that the presidents often labeled unintellectual were in fact the most intellectual of all. Calvin Coolidge and Harry Truman, often put down for their low-brow status, given their real knowledge of the classics and other languages, were stellar examples.
According to Sowell "the intellectual levels of politicians are just one of the many things that intellectuals have grossly misjudged for years on end." He points out how our history, especially during the 1930s when our thinking elites failed to recognize the true meaning of Hitler and Stalin, "fully vindicates William Buckley's view that he would rather be ruled by people represented by the first 100 names in the Boston phone book than by the faculty of Harvard."
All of this to suggest that it may not be such a great thing for the country, to have placed with the election of Obama, a thinking man, an intellectual in the White House. For in the past intellectuals have often been wrong "by thinking that because they are knowledgeable — or even expert — within some narrow band out of the vast spectrum of human concerns, that makes them wise guides to the masses and to the rulers of the nation."
What about my second perception, that this election has put race behind us, that we have entered a feel good post racial period, and that once again we will be the envy of the world, not for our wealth, but for our moral leadership? Well Shelby Steele has put this second perception, one shared by huge majorities throughout the country and the world, in doubt.
Steele tells us that Obama's "talent was to project an idealized vision of a post-racial America — and then to have that vision define political decency. Thus, a failure to support Obama politically implied a failure of decency." And people, most people, want to be decent.
Furthermore, on the level of public policy Obama was quite unremarkable. By him what was for anyone else, policy boilerplate, "was freshened up — given an air of 'change' — by the dreamy post-racial and post-ideological kitsch he dressed it in."
Prior to the present moment Americans were by and large held to be racist. Obama, according to Steele, offered them a way out from under this label. By voting for and electing him to the presidency the racial stigma Americans had forever been saddled with could be removed. And with a sigh of relief we could move on to a post-racial country. Europeans today are giving us credit for having done this.
In other words Obama's election removed the burden of race from us. Whites, Steele says, wanted Obama in the White House most of all "as evidence, certification and recognition" of their new-found racial innocence.
But if to get beyond race is the principal reason to elect Obama, as Steele implies, and not for his policies, white electors "unwittingly thereby embrace race as their primary motivation." They are in fact thinking racially, not post-racially.
A real post racialist "would evaluate Obama politically rather than culturally…. But true reform, like the civil rights victories of the '60s, never happens until people become exhausted with their suffering. Then they don't care who the president is." As during the time of John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson.
Under Obama will real reform take place? Steele reminds us that our "post racial" country still has all of its pre-racial problems, especially those of the Blacks in our inner cities. Here new policies, not our new found racial innocence, will be all important. And it's true as Steele says we don't yet know much about Obama's policy intentions.
These two black intellectuals rightly force us to realize that the election of the first Black as the country's president doesn't by itself do much of anything. And that the election of a thinking man doesn't at all guarantee us good governance and good policies emanating from the White House.
What Obama's election will mean for the country is still anyone's guess.
We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born. The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of Arabia, Certainly those unborn ghosts include greater poets than Keats, scientists greater than Newton. We know this because the set of possible people allowed by our DNA so massively exceeds the set of actual people. In the teeth of these stupefying odds it is you and I, in our ordinariness, that are here.
(Richard Dawkins, Unweaving the Rainbow, p. 1)
To live at all is miracle enough.
(Mervyn Peake, The Glassblower, 1950)
The various Republican constituencies need some reason to hang together. It's not obvious what socially conservative, big-government types like Mike Huckabee have in common with economically conservative libertines like Rudy Giuliani. So why are they in the same party? It used to be because they both hated communism. Then it was Bill Clinton. Most recently, it was a shared fear of Islamic extremism. What now? Time to think of something—quick. There's no natural reason these two groups should be connected. In fact, they sort of despise each other, as you'll notice immediately if you ever eat with them.
(Tucker Carlson, Slate Magazine, 11/5/2008)
The words below are taken from an article (Racial Imbalance Persists…) in today's NYTimes:
…parents and students attributed the racial disparities to a lack of private tutoring, subpar middle schools that do not expose students to test material, transportation concerns, cultural differences and a simple lack of motivation on the part of some students.
The 1.1 million-student New York City school system is about 40 percent
Hispanic, 32 percent black, 14 percent Asian, and 14 percent white. At the three most prestigious high schools the mix is different. At Stuyvesant
67% of 3,247 students are Asian. At Brooklyn Technical 8% of
4,669 students are Hispanic. At the Bronx High School of
Science 4% of 2,809 students are Black.
Would that the parents and students were correct, and that the disparities could be attributed to poor preparation, transportation problems, cultural differences, and lack of motivation. For then our seemingly endless reforms, additional preparation, better bus services, cultural enrichment programs, and a supply of adult mentors, would do much to lessen the disparities. But this doesn't happen.
The educational establishment, including teachers, administrators, and politicians is afraid to mention, let alone admit, that there may be different talents, different interests, and, yes, different intelligences among the students, real differences that most of all account for the disparities. Nor do the parents and students, for obvious reasons, want to acknowledge this.
This situation more than anything else accounts for the existing tragedy of our inner city public schools, when large numbers, as many as one half the entering high school class, fail to graduate, and when large numbers, again maybe half of those who do graduate and go on to higher education do not complete two year community, let alone four year liberal arts colleges.
We've known for a long time what is the only effective solution to the ugly seemingly racial (but not, or course) achievement disparity that has confronted since high school attendance reached a maximum in the 1970s. And that is to provide in our schools other career paths corresponding to the no less admirable and important talents, interests, and intelligences that all kids, probably most of them, possess.
As it is now those who don't score well on the entry examinations to Stuyvesant,
Brooklyn Technical, and the Bronx High School of
Science, those who don't have those particular math and language skills that these tests demand, have few places to go.
I took the words below from today's NYTimes. Do these findings mean that we have gone beyond race? That we have become a country where people are no more judged by the color of their skin than by their body weight, height, or the color of their eyes? I'd like to think so.
If this has in fact happened it's thanks to Barack Obama who conducted himself throughout the recent campaign as a man, and not as a black man. He seemed to know intuitively that he alone by his words and actions could make his black color, if not irrelevant, peripheral to the race.
The voters of course were always well aware that Obama would be our first African-America president, that he, Michelle, Malia, and Sasha would make up the very first black first family, but this never became a major issue during the race. Only now when the race is over do we think of it, and smile happily at the thought.
Mr. Obama lost white voters by 12 points, but that is the same margin Al Gore lost them by in 2000 and better than the 17-point margin John Kerry
lost them by in 2004. He also lost among white men by a 16-point
margin, 57 percent to 41 percent. But again, that is a better result
for the Democrat among this group compared with 2004 (when Mr. Kerry
lost white men by 25 points) and 2000 (when Mr. Gore lost white men by
That trend carried through in some key states.
While Mr. Obama did not carry white voters in Indiana, North Carolina,
Ohio, Pennsylvania or Virginia, for example, he lost them by smaller
margins than Mr. Kerry did in 2004.
Rosa Parks sat so that Martin Luther King could walk. Martin Luther King
walked so that Obama could run. Obama's running so that we all can fly. I
can't wait until 5 November and I'm going to say 'Hello, Brother President'.
In Molière's Bourgeois Gentleman M. Jourdain learns from the Philosophy teacher that there is only verse and prose, and that he, Jourdain, has been speaking prose all his life without even knowing it, and that when he says, "Nicole bring me my slippers and fetch my nightcap," he is speaking prose.
We learn from our teacher, the options trader turned philosopher, Nassim Nicholas Taleb, that although we are living comfortably in the kingdom of Mediocristan, our prose world if you will, our long term survival is by no means assured. For, Taleb affirms, we are no less inhabitants of the opposing kingdom of Extremistan, where our seemingly secure and comfortable lives can be and probably will be overwhelmed by unforseen and extreme events.
This fact ought to do away with our assurance, our confidence in our ability to order the events of our lives. This ought to teach us humility at the very least. Taleb's conclusion is not too different from the 2500 year old Platonic maxim that Socrates mostly differed from others in knowing that he did not know.
Taleb knows that he, and the financial experts with whom he worked for many years, don't know, and he doesn't tire of saying it. Most of all berates those who set themselves up as knowing, as knowing more and better than the rest of us, the "tie wearers," the economists, the bankers, the doctors, the experts of all sorts. For Taleb the risks that confront us, financial risks and health risks among others (Taleb himself is a cancer survivor, and the health risk is still very much with him) are always hugely greater than the experts' ability to quantify and thereby lessen their effects.
Taleb's most recent book, The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable'' (Random House), came out in May 2007, just months before the subprime fiasco rocked global markets and led banks to announce at least $208 billion worth of writedowns. Did he in fact predict the unpredictable? How did he do that?
According to Taleb the present crisis, came about because we thought we understood the risks we were taking. We didn't, of course, and we fear now that even today Henry Paulson and Ben Bernanke still don't. We fear that our guides are not aware of the road ahead, in particular the additional risks stemming from their own corrective actions.
However, Taleb, like too many original thinkers with good ideas goes too far with his argument. His quarrel with the financial experts, the bankers and others who have by and large created the present financial crisis by their own irresponsible behavior, is certainly a legitimate one. Yes, the experts did overlook the complexity, the random behavior of the markets, and had far too much confidence in their own ability to manage the risks.
But the central images of his book, the black swan and the kingdoms of Mediocristan and Extremistan are clever distractions at best and at worst reveal the author's superficial reading of the place of randomness, of unexpected and devastating events in history.
First, the black swan. Taleb, while defending his choice of the black swan says:
"First, it is an outlier, as it lies outside the realm of regular expectations, because nothing in the past can convincingly point to its possibility. Second, it carries an extreme impact. Third, in spite of its outlier status, human nature makes us concoct explanations for its occurrence after the fact, making it explainable and predictable."
One is puzzled by his statement here that the black swan "carries an extreme impact." What is the extreme impact? An earthquake has an extreme impact, as does a financial bubble (the effects of the housing bubble that are with us right now), yes, but not the first sighting of the black swan, which has had no effect on our lives, and which, by the way, no one ever said was an impossibility.
The apparent non existence of black swans for many hundreds of years, and then there discovery did have a useful application. Philosophers by that example loved to point out the inherent limits of induction: All the white swans in the world couldn't do away with the possible existence of a black one. Taleb should have left the black swan example there with the philosophers.
Similarly with his two kingdoms, Mediocristan, that of the Bell or Normal curve, and Extremistan, that of the fat tails or single all powerful events. Instead, and for his own purposes, he might much better have referred to the long standing debate in geology regarding the relative importances of Uniformitarianism, or the observation that fundamentally the same geological processes that operate today also operated in the distant past, and catastrophism, that which states that Earth surface features originated suddenly in the past by geological processes radically different from those currently occurring.
These opposing positions have always been with us in one form or another, and Taleb didn't need to reinvent them in the guise of Mediocristan and Extremistan. Furthermore, from within the position of the uniformitarians, within Mediocristan we are often able to know the future. Take, for example, the height of mountains, the flow of rivers. Both measurements, as many others, are fully determined by present processes that we can understand.
Of course there are and have always been extreme events, catastrophies. Of course all sorts of things do happen without our being able to predict them, common examples being weather phenomena, currency fluctuations, earthquakes and other natural disasters including asteroids striking the earth, most notably the giant asteroid that hit the coast of Mexico 65 million years ago and probably incinerated all the large dinosaurs that were alive at the time in only a few hours leaving only those organisms (our forbears) already sheltered in burrows or in water left alive.
Most of all Taleb to my mind is totally unconvincing when he talks of his "black swans" as including such events as the rise of Hitler and the subsequent war, the precipitous demise of the Soviet bloc, the rise of Islamic fundamentalism, the spread of the Internet, the market crash of 1987… fads, epidemics, fashion, ideas, the emergence of art genres and schools… Would that such devastating events had only been black swans, bringing with them only as gentle an impact as that sighting of the first black swan in Western Australia in 1697 by the Dutch explorer Vlamingh.
Maybe there are readers who can follow Taleb's extended use of the image of the black swan. I can't. The internet is a black swan? The major medical discoveries, black swans? Technological innovations including the laser in medical applications, black swans?
While perhaps not forseen in respect to their subsequent huge impact on our lives (for they did have huge impacts, unlike the first sighting of a black swan) these happenings were in no small regard not totally surprising nor totally unexpected.
Why did Taleb use the black swan as the central image of his argument? What is that enormous impact of which he speaks? Why did he not use insrtead a real devastating and if not unexpected at least unpredicted event such as the Lisbon earthquake of 1755 the inspiration of Heinrich Von Kleist's great story, Das Erdeben in Chili. Or that dinosaur killer asteroid…? Both of much greater significance for his argument.
Now it's true that technological developments will often take us well byond what we had expected, the internet being a good example of this. But then why not call the wheel, the printing press, the automobile, and going back to the time of Prometheus, fire itself, black swans? You see the problem with his argument. Black Swans are everywhere, and like pigeons and sparrows lose their significance.
In an exceedingly maladroit manner Taleb is attempting to make a much larger place for randomness in our lives. Again, he is only on solid ground when he singles out the risk analysts as
having most covered up the paramount place of randomness, and points out that here correction is needed. This is the correction he was right to make.
He should have stuck with that. Stuck with his opinion, which did appear in his published book of that name, remarkably and unexpectedly (making his book a black swan?) well before the present financial crisis, in March of 2007.
It was, and I expect still is, Taleb's not unreasonable position that the global financial structure was far too complicated for anyone, let alone the so-called experts, to understand, and that the real risks of a global financial collapse, because of the existence of innumerable factors beyond our ken, let alone our control, ought to have made us a bit more humble and pay more attention to the risks that were there.