Fantasyland, An American Tradition

“The American experiment, the original embodiment of the great Enlightenment idea of intellectual freedom, every individual free to believe anything she wishes, has metastasized out of control. From the start, our ultra-individualism was attached to epic dreams, sometimes epic fantasies—every American one of God’s chosen people building a custom-made utopia, each of us free to reinvent himself by imagination and will. In America those more exciting parts of the Enlightenment idea have swamped the sober, rational, empirical parts.”
~ Kurt Andersen, Fantasyland

It’s hard to have public debate in the United States for a number of reasons. The most basic reason is that Americans are severely uninformed and disinformed. We also tend to lack a larger context for knowledge. Historical amnesia is rampant and scientific literacy is limited, exacerbated by centuries old strains of anti-intellectualism and dogmatic idealism, hyper-individualism and sectarian groupthink, public distrust and authoritarian demagoguery.

This doesn’t seem as common in countries elsewhere. Part of this is that Americans are less aware and informed about other countries than the citizens of other countries are of the United States. Living anywhere else in the world, it is near impossible to not know in great detail about the United States and other Western powers as the entire world cannot escape these influences that cast a long shadow of colonial imperialism, neoliberal globalization, transnational corporations, mass media, monocultural dominance, soft power, international propaganda campaigns during the Cold War, military interventionism, etc. The rest of the world can’t afford the luxury of ignorance that Americans enjoy.

Earlier last century when the United States was a rising global superpower competing against other rising global superpowers, the US was known for having one of the better education systems in the world. International competition motivated us in investing in education. Now we are famous for how pathetic recent generations of students compare to many other developed countries. But even the brief moment of seeming American greatness following World War II might have had more to do with the wide scale decimation of Europe, a temporary lowering of other developed countries rather than a vast improvement in the United States.

There has also been a failure of big biz mass media to inform the public and the continuing oligopolistic consolidation of corporate media into a few hands has not allowed for a competitive free market to force corporations to offer something better. On top of that, Americans are one of the most propagandized and indoctrinated populations on the planet, with only a few comparable countries such as China and Russia exceeding us in this area.

See how the near unanimity of the American mass media was able, by way of beating the war drum, to change majority public opinion from being against the Iraq War to being in support of it. It just so happens that the parent companies of most of the corporate media, with ties to the main political parties and the military-industrial complex, profits immensely from the endless wars of the war state.

Corporate media is in the business of making money which means selling a product. In late stage capitalism, all of media is entertainment and news media is infotainment. Even the viewers are sold as a product to advertisers. There is no profit in offering a public service to inform the citizenry and create the conditions for informed public debate. As part of consumerist society, we consume as we are consumed by endless fantasies, just-so stories, comforting lies, simplistic narratives, and political spectacle.

This is a dark truth that should concern and scare Americans. But that would require them to be informed first. There is the rub.

Every public debate in the United States begins with mainstream framing. It requires hours of interacting with a typical American even to maybe get them to acknowledge their lack of knowledge, assuming they have the intellectual humility that makes that likely. Americans are so uninformed and misinformed that they don’t realize they are ignorant, so indoctrinated that they don’t realize how much their minds are manipulated and saturated in bullshit (I speak from the expertise of being an American who has been woefully ignorant for most of my life). To simply get to the level of knowledge where debate is even within the realm of possibility is itself almost an impossible task. To say it is frustrating is an extreme understatement.

Consider how most Americans know that tough-on-crime laws, stop-and-frisk, broken window policies, heavy policing, and mass incarceration were the cause of decreased crime. How do they know? Because decades of political rhetoric and media narratives have told them so. Just as various authority figures in government and media told them or implied or remained silent while others pushed the lies that the 9/11 terrorist attack was somehow connected to Iraq which supposedly had weapons of mass destruction, despite that the US intelligence agencies and foreign governments at the time knew these were lies.

Sure, you can look to alternative media for regularly reporting of different info that undermines and disproves these beliefs. But few Americans get much if any of their news from alternative media. There have been at least hundreds of high quality scientific studies, careful analyses, and scholarly books that have come out since the violent crime decline began. This information, however, is almost entirely unknown to the average American citizen and one suspects largely unknown to the average American mainstream news reporter, media personality, talking head, pundit, think tank hack, and politician.

That isn’t to say there isn’t ignorance found in other populations as well. Having been in the online world since the early naughts, I’ve met and talked with many people from other countries and admittedly some of them are less than perfectly informed. Still, the level of ignorance in the United States is unique, at least in the Western world.

That much can’t be doubted. Other serious thinkers might have differing explanations for why the US has diverged so greatly from much of the rest of the world, from its level of education to its rate of violence. But one way or another, it needs to be explained in the hope of finding a remedy. Sadly, even if we could agree on a solution, those in power benefit too greatly from the ongoing state of an easily manipulated citizenry that lacks knowledge and critical thinking skills.

This isn’t merely an attack on low-information voters and right-wing nut jobs. Even in dealing with highly educated Americans among the liberal class, I rarely come across someone who is deeply and widely informed across various major topics of public concern.

American society is highly insular. We Americans are not only disconnected from the rest of the world but disconnected from each other. And so we have little sense of what is going on outside of the narrow constraints of our neighborhoods, communities, workplaces, social networks, and echo chambers. The United States is psychologically and geographically segregated into separate reality tunnel enclaves defined by region and residency, education and class, race and religion, politics and media.

It’s because we so rarely step outside of our respective worlds that we so rarely realize how little we know and how much of what we think we know is not true. Most of us live in neighborhoods, go to churches and stores, attend or send our kids to schools, work and socialize with people who are exactly like ourselves. They share our beliefs and values, our talking points and political persuasion, our biases and prejudices, our social and class position. We are hermetically sealed within our safe walled-in social identities. Nothing can reach us, threaten us, or change us.

That is until something happens like Donald Trump being elected. Then there is a panic about what has become of America in this post-fact age. The sad reality, however, is America has always been this way. It’s just finally getting to a point where it’s harder to ignore and that potential for public awakening offers some hope.

* * *

by Kurt Anderson
pp. 10-14

Why are we like this?

. . . The short answer is because we’re Americans, because being American means we can believe any damn thing we want, that our beliefs are equal or superior to anyone else’s, experts be damned. Once people commit to that approach, the world turns inside out, and no cause-and-effect connection is fixed. The credible becomes incredible and the incredible credible.

The word mainstream has recently become a pejorative, shorthand for bias, lies, oppression by the elites. Yet that hated Establishment, the institutions and forces that once kept us from overdoing the flagrantly untrue or absurd—media, academia, politics, government, corporate America, professional associations, respectable opinion in the aggregate—has enabled and encouraged every species of fantasy over the last few decades.

A senior physician at one of America’s most prestigious university hospitals promotes miracle cures on his daily TV show. Major cable channels air documentaries treating mermaids, monsters, ghosts, and angels as real. A CNN anchor speculated on the air that the disappearance of a Malaysian airliner was a supernatural event. State legislatures and one of our two big political parties pass resolutions to resist the imaginary impositions of a New World Order and Islamic law. When a political scientist attacks the idea that “there is some ‘public’ that shares a notion of reality, a concept of reason, and a set of criteria by which claims to reason and rationality are judged,” colleagues just nod and grant tenure. A white woman felt black, pretended to be, and under those fantasy auspices became an NAACP official—and then, busted, said, “It’s not a costume…not something that I can put on and take off anymore. I wouldn’t say I’m African American, but I would say I’m black.” Bill Gates’s foundation has funded an institute devoted to creationist pseudoscience. Despite his nonstop lies and obvious fantasies—rather, because of them—Donald Trump was elected president. The old fringes have been folded into the new center. The irrational has become respectable and often unstoppable. As particular fantasies get traction and become contagious, other fantasists are encouraged by a cascade of out-of-control tolerance. It’s a kind of twisted Golden Rule unconsciously followed: If those people believe that , then certainly we can believe this.

Our whole social environment and each of its overlapping parts—cultural, religious, political, intellectual, psychological—have become conducive to spectacular fallacy and make-believe. There are many slippery slopes, leading in various directions to other exciting nonsense. During the last several decades, those naturally slippery slopes have been turned into a colossal and permanent complex of interconnected, crisscrossing bobsled tracks with no easy exit. Voilà: Fantasyland. . . .

When John Adams said in the 1700s that “facts are stubborn things,” the overriding American principle of personal freedom was not yet enshrined in the Declaration or the Constitution, and the United States of America was itself still a dream. Two and a half centuries later the nation Adams cofounded has become a majority-rule de facto refutation of his truism: “our wishes, our inclinations” and “the dictates of our passions” now apparently do “alter the state of facts and evidence,” because extreme cognitive liberty and the pursuit of happiness rule.

This is not unique to America, people treating real life as fantasy and vice versa, and taking preposterous ideas seriously. We’re just uniquely immersed. In the developed world, our predilection is extreme, distinctly different in the breadth and depth of our embrace of fantasies of many different kinds. Sure, the physician whose fraudulent research launched the antivaccine movement was a Brit, and young Japanese otaku invented cosplay, dressing up as fantasy characters. And while there are believers in flamboyant supernaturalism and prophecy and religious pseudoscience in other developed countries, nowhere else in the rich world are such beliefs central to the self-identities of so many people. We are Fantasyland’s global crucible and epicenter.

This is American exceptionalism in the twenty-first century. America has always been a one-of-a-kind place. Our singularity is different now. We’re still rich and free, still more influential and powerful than any nation, practically a synonym for developed country . But at the same time, our drift toward credulity, doing our own thing, and having an altogether uncertain grip on reality has overwhelmed our other exceptional national traits and turned us into a less-developed country as well.

People tend to regard the Trump moment—this post-truth, alternative facts moment—as some inexplicable and crazy new American phenomenon. In fact, what’s happening is just the ultimate extrapolation and expression of attitudes and instincts that have made America exceptional for its entire history—and really, from its prehistory. . . .

America was created by true believers and passionate dreamers, by hucksters and their suckers—which over the course of four centuries has made us susceptible to fantasy, as epitomized by everything from Salem hunting witches to Joseph Smith creating Mormonism, from P. T. Barnum to Henry David Thoreau to speaking in tongues, from Hollywood to Scientology to conspiracy theories, from Walt Disney to Billy Graham to Ronald Reagan to Oprah Winfrey to Donald Trump. In other words: mix epic individualism with extreme religion; mix show business with everything else; let all that steep and simmer for a few centuries; run it through the anything-goes 1960s and the Internet age; the result is the America we inhabit today, where reality and fantasy are weirdly and dangerously blurred and commingled.

I hope we’re only on a long temporary detour, that we’ll manage somehow to get back on track. If we’re on a bender, suffering the effects of guzzling too much fantasy cocktail for too long, if that’s why we’re stumbling, manic and hysterical, mightn’t we somehow sober up and recover? You would think. But first you need to understand how deeply this tendency has been encoded in our national DNA.

Fake News: It’s as American as George Washington’s Cherry Tree
by Hanna Rosin

Fake news. Post-truth. Alternative facts. For Andersen, these are not momentary perversions but habits baked into our DNA, the ultimate expressions of attitudes “that have made America exceptional for its entire history.” The country’s initial devotion to religious and intellectual freedom, Andersen argues, has over the centuries morphed into a fierce entitlement to custom-made reality. So your right to believe in angels and your neighbor’s right to believe in U.F.O.s and Rachel Dolezal’s right to believe she is black lead naturally to our president’s right to insist that his crowds were bigger.

Andersen’s history begins at the beginning, with the first comforting lie we tell ourselves. Each year we teach our children about Pilgrims, those gentle robed creatures who landed at Plymouth Rock. But our real progenitors were the Puritans, who passed the weeks on the trans-Atlantic voyage preaching about the end times and who, when they arrived, vowed to hang any Quaker or Catholic who landed on their shores. They were zealots and also well-educated British gentlemen, which set the tone for what Andersen identifies as a distinctly American endeavor: propping up magical thinking with elaborate scientific proof.

While Newton and Locke were ushering in an Age of Reason in Europe, over in America unreason was taking new seductive forms. A series of mystic visionaries were planting the seeds of extreme entitlement, teaching Americans that they didn’t have to study any book or old English theologian to know what to think, that whatever they felt to be true was true. In Andersen’s telling, you can easily trace the line from the self-appointed 17th-century prophet Anne Hutchinson to Kanye West: She was, he writes, uniquely American “because she was so confident in herself, in her intuitions and idiosyncratic, subjective understanding of reality,” a total stranger to self-doubt.

What happens next in American history, according to Andersen, happens without malevolence, or even intention. Our national character gels into one that’s distinctly comfortable fogging up the boundary between fantasy and reality in nearly every realm. As soon as George Washington dies fake news is born — the story about the cherry tree, or his kneeling in prayer at Valley Forge. Enterprising businessmen quickly figure out ways to make money off the Americans who gleefully embrace untruths.


To Be Perceived As Low Class Or Not

In my mother’s family, hers was the first generation to attend college. She went to and graduated from Purdue University, a state college. Before that, her own mother and my grandmother was the first in her family to get a high school diploma.

I never thought of my grandmother as an overly smart person, not that I ever knew her IQ. She never seemed like an intellectually stimulating person, but apparently she was a good student. She always liked to read. I doubt she read too many classics that weren’t Reader’s Digest abridge books. Still, she read a lot and had a large vocabulary. She regularly did crossword puzzles and never used a dictionary to look up a word. For a woman of her age, graduating high school was a major accomplishment. Most people she grew up probably didn’t graduate, including the man she married. She became a secretary and such office work required a fair amount of intellectual ability. Specifically, my grandmother was a secretary at Purdue, when my mother was in high school and later attending Purdue. My grandfather was jealous of his wife spending so much time with professors, as he had an inferiority complex and was highly class conscious, a typical working class guy of the time.

A major reason my grandmother didn’t come across as intellectual was simply the way she spoke. She had a Hoosier accent, such as pronouncing fish as feesh, cushion as cooshion, and sink as zink (the latter known as the Hoosier apex); along with adding an extra ‘s’ to words as in “How’s come?”. It was the accent of poor whites, indicating that your family likely came from the South at some point. Like in the Ozarks, it seems to be a variant of the Appalachian accent where many Hoosiers came from. But there is maybe an old German influence mixed in because so much of my Upper Southern ancestry were early German immigrants. Even in Indiana, having a Hoosier accent marks you as ‘Southern’ and, for many Northerners, it sounds Southern. When my family moved to a Chicago suburb, my mother was often asked if she was Southern. At Purdue, her speech pathology professors would correct her because of  her slurring the ‘s’ sound (partly because of an overbite) and because of her saying bofe instead of both (common among Hoosiers, Southerners, and some black populations).

The point is that speaking with such an accent is not correct, according to Standard English. It is stereotyped as unsophisticated or even unintelligent. My grandmother sounded like this to a strong degree. But she knew proper English. Part of her job as a secretary at Purdue was to rewrite and revise official documents, including research papers and dissertations. It was my not-so-smart-sounding grandmother whose job it was to correct and polish the writing of professors and others who sought her out. She helped make them sound smart, on paper. And she helped two of her children graduate college. Apparently, she ended up writing many of my uncle’s papers for his classes.

One of my grandmother’s bosses was Earl L. Butz. He was the head of the agricultural economics department. After a stint under president Eisenhower, Butz returned to Purdue and became the dean of the college of agriculture. He later returned to politics under the Nixon and Ford administrations. After destroying his career because of Hoosier-style racism, he headed back to Purdue again — it might be noted that Butz’s hometown, Albion (1, 2), and the location of Purdue, West Lafayette (3), had a history of racism; and the FBI in recent years has listed Purdue as having one of the highest hate crime rates among colleges and universities in the US (4). This downturn didn’t stop his legacy of government-subsidized big ag that destroyed the small family farm and created a glut of corn products found in almost everything Americans eat.

Butz died in West Lafayette where my mother was born and grew up. Like my maternal family, Butz came from poor Hoosier stock. If my grandmother had been a man, instead of a woman, or if she had been born later, she surely could have gotten a college education. Butz apparently was ambitious, but I don’t know that his career indicates he was smarter than average. Maybe my grandmother was far smarter than she appeared, even if the world she lived in didn’t give her much opportunity. She would have spent years reading highly academic writing and likely at one point could have had an intelligent discussion about agricultural economics. Being a poor Hoosier woman, she didn’t have many choices other than marrying young. She did what was expected of her. Most people do what is expected of them. It’s just that some people have greater expectations placed upon them, along with greater privileges and resources made available to them. A poor woman, like minorities, in the past had very little chance to go from working poverty to a major political figure determining national agricultural policy.

It’s so easy to judge people by how they appear or how they sound. My mother, unlike my grandmother, came of age at a time when women were finally given a better chance in life. Still, my mother was directed into what was considered women’s work, a low-paying career as a speech pathologist in public schools. Yet this did give my mother the opportunity to escape her working class upbringing and to eventually lose her Hoosier accent. My mother who is no smarter than my grandmother can now speak in a Standard American non-accent accent that sounds intelligent according to mainstream society, but that wouldn’t have been the case back when my mother had an overbite because of lack of dental work and spoke like a poor white. What changed was society, the conditions under which human potential is either developed or suppressed.

What makes for a good law student or spy-master?

Derek T. Muller gathered data on prospective law students, in taking the LSAT: “the best prospective law students were the Classics majors.” Philosophy majors also did well. In a post about law school matriculants, he concluded that:

You can see classics, math, linguistics, art history, and physics all near the top. Philosophy and economics are two of the larger disciplines that perform quite well. Hover over the data for your own observations!

Maybe this shouldn’t be surprising. It is the whole purpose of a liberal arts education to create a well rounded person. Traditionally, a central part of this was philology, the study of languages and texts. It might be related to the reason some spy-masters were professors of literary criticism, as textual analysis is an important skill.

Liam Kinney discusses the value of a Classics major:

It is hard to say whether the study of Classics teaches testing skills or the types of people who choose this difficult major are better testers. Does the hard work pay off or are the people who do it just the kind of people who like hard work? It seems the latter argument is supported by this fact: students who major or double-major in Classics have a better success rate getting into medical school than do students who concentrate solely in biology, microbiology, and other branches of science, According to the Association of American Medical Colleges (The Princeton Review, 2014). In other words, concentrating in a field that overlaps with pre-med requirements is the easy path, but those who add Classics on top have a better chance of getting into Med School. It seems like the people who go into Classics like rigor, ok, but is it the major that teaches them rigor? It’s a chicken-or-egg problem.

This doesn’t undermine the fact that Classics is inextricably linked to success in graduate program acceptance, and in graduate school itself. According to Harvard Magazine, Classics majors (and math majors) have the highest success rates of any majors in law school. Three of the most represented majors, political science, economics, and pre-law, lag fairly far behind (The Princeton Review, 2014). When it comes to navigating higher education, it seems like a Classics major is invaluable.


The Shamelessness of Shaming

There’s a reason education sucks, it’s the same reason that it will never, ever, ever be fixed. It’s never going to get any better, don’t look for it, be happy with what you got. Because the owners of this country don’t want that. I’m talking about the real owners, now. The real owners, the big wealthy business interests that control things and make all the important decisions. Forget the politicians, they’re an irrelevancy. The politicians are put there to give you the idea that you have freedom of choice. You don’t. You have no choice. You have owners. They own you. They own everything. [..]

But I’ll tell you what they don’t want. They don’t want a population of citizens capable of critical thinking. They don’t want well-informed, well-educated people capable of critical thinking. They’re not interested in that. That doesn’t help them. That’s against their interests. They don’t want people who are smart enough to sit around the kitchen table and figure out how badly they’re getting fucked by a system that threw them overboard 30 fucking years ago.

You know what they want? Obedient workers,­ people who are just smart enough to run the machines and do the paperwork but just dumb enough to passively accept all these increasingly shittier jobs with the lower pay, the longer hours, reduced benefits, the end of overtime and the vanishing pension that disappears the minute you go to collect it.

~ George Carlin

I was watching one of those videos showing how stupid kids are these days. It was the 2014 video from Texas Tech University. I think I’ve seen it before or one of the videos like it.

But the video itself isn’t important. It was highly edited and far from being an honest polling or scientific survey. It’s easy to focus on a few people and try to paint an entire demographic in bad light. It’s the same way the American media, political elite, and middle-to-upper classes love to shame the poor. It is good to keep in mind some of the kids in the video might be the first generation in their family to have gone to college.

This shaming has been going on for the entirety of US history, which is a relevant fact. Do the makers of such videos know the history of shaming? If not, what excuse do they have for being ignorant? It is fair to dismiss this bullshit shaming out of hand, because it is bullshit. People who participate in it are the ones who should feel ashamed.

The motivation behind the video, that of shaming people, irritated me. I went to a mediocre high school. And I know many people have gone to even worse high schools. Teachers are underpaid and overworked, and it just gets worse in poor areas. Few students get a good education and aren’t prepared for college, if and when they get there. I dropped out of college because of how underprepared and overwhelmed I was, although depression and learning disability played a role.

Anyway, the following are some of my thoughts.

* * *

I try to stay humble and keep perspective.

I know that when I came out of high school I was extremely ignorant. If anyone had asked me any questions about history, I would have given some really clueless answers, assuming I responded at all. It has taken me a couple of decades of serious reading and research to lessen that vast ignorance and I still remain ignorant about most areas of knowledge.

Learning is hard, for most of us. On top of that, many people have bad or uninspiring experiences of school. I suspect it is a rare person who makes it out of school with curiosity intact and a love of learning instilled in them.

I do find it sad that Americans aren’t better educated. But shaming them for a failed education system isn’t likely to improve anything. I understand the humor of wrong answers. And yet I save my outrage for the social problems and political incompetence that keeps producing ignorant Americans, generation after generation.

* * *

Ignorance is the starting point we all have in life. And it takes immense effort to move very far from that starting point.

I doubt people are more ignorant than they ever were. The closest equivalent to the Civil War for earlier generations might have been the War of 1812. If you asked young Americans a few generations ago why the War of 1812 was fought, most probably couldn’t have told you. It simply wouldn’t have felt relevant to them. Even talking to the older generations alive right now, those of my parents age and above, I’m constantly surprised by how little they know about American history and world history. It certainly isn’t limited to a single generation.

In the not too distant past, most people didn’t have much if any education at all. Even in early 20th century before universal public education, few Americans graduated high school or even elementary school. A large part of the population wasn’t even literate generations ago. In the late 1800s, about 1 in 5 Americans couldn’t read. Even though our education system is far from perfect, the improvements in public education are vast. We should fully appreciate that, even as we seek to do better.

I’d make another point. People tend to only know about what is close to their lives. When I was growing up, the Cold War was still going on. When my parents were growing up, the last of the Civil War veterans and former slaves were still living. When my grandparents were growing up, the last of the Indian Wars were fought. When my great grandparents were growing up, Reconstruction was still happening or had ended not too long before. When my great great grandparents were growing up, the Civil War took place—some of them having been born born near the death of the last American founders and could have met John Quincy Adams.

For most of US history, the country was young. No event was further back than a few generations. Now that we are in the 21st century, the the major events that shaped the country are beginning to feel ever more distant. There is also simply more history to be learned. Learning about US history for a kid born in the past was easier for the simple reason there was less to learn, but even then most Americans didn’t learn much history.

We are only shocked by ignorance today because, unlike in the past, we have come to believe that people shouldn’t be ignorant. It used be that people didn’t care about history all that much, for it didn’t put a roof over their heads or food on their tables. It is interesting that the world has changed so much that we now consider ignorance, the normal state of humanity, to be a mark of shame.

If we actually care about knowledge so much, why don’t we improve education and fund it better for all students?

* * *

I was thinking about what kinds of knowledge is valued.

Kids these days are taught a ton of info, a wider spectrum of knowledge than in past generations. For example, I bet the youth today know more about the larger world than did the youth a century ago. WWI was the first generation of Americans who even saw much of the world beyond US borders. And now traveling the world is common.

What we are taught is based on what those in power deem important. But that is dependent on historical situations and events. At present, kids are probably learning a lot about the Middle East and their knowledge in this area would put most adult Americans to shame. The focus of education in the past, for those who got an education, would have been far different.

I’ve talked to my parents about their childhood and young adulthood. My mom didn’t even know about the Cold War until the Reagan presidency, despite her having been born in the early Cold War. My parents barely knew what was happening in the Civil Rights movement when they were in high school and college. My parents didn’t know about sundown towns, even though my dad grew up in one and both of my parents went to college in one.

My dad also had never heard of bombing and terrorism of Black Wall Street, which occurred a short distance away from his mother’s childhood home. She moved to a major Klan center in high school. Her and my maternal grandfather had to have known the town they moved their young family to was a sundown town, as there were signs that said so. Yet no one talked about any of this and my father was raised in ignorance.

My maternal grandparents didn’t get much education. It is understandable that they didn’t know much. But my paternal grandparents were college educated. When the last of the Indian Wars happened in their childhoods, did any of my grandparents know about it. If not, why not? Like the Tulsa Riots, some of those Indian Wars happened not all that far from where my maternal grandmother spent her early life.

What excuses this ignorance? Nothing. Yet this is the common fate of humanity. We remain ignorant, unless we individually and collectively put immense effort toward informing ourselves. There is all kinds of knowledge we don’t value as a society, even when we should.

* * *

The impulse to shame is easy to give into. I do it myself on occasion.

I think this impulse comes from a place of frustration and apathy, verging on cynicism. We all see the problems we collectively face and we don’t know what to do about them. So, we look for scapegoats. Sometimes that means the youth and at other times it means the poor, minorities, or immigrants.

It is easier to project onto others and pretend one isn’t a part of the problem. It is easier to ridicule others than to try to understand. It is easier to blame than to help. Our laughter has a nervous edge to it, as we all realize the problem points back to all of us. It’s the kind of humor people distract themselves with.

Instead, why don’t we simply deal with the problem?


The Stuff of Childhood

I like to run and walk in the forest and I like to draw.
When I grow up I want to be a runner, forest ranger, or an artist.

Those are words from my young childhood,from 2nd grade. I still like those same things. Then again, right before those words, I also said that, “I like pizza.” But apparently I was self-aware enough at the time to realize I didn’t want a pizza-related career.

Besides, I wrote elsewhere that I wanted to work in the Sears Tower. I can’t say that fits my present aspirations and lifestyle, although being employed as a parking ramp cashier is closer to the Sears Tower than to the rest. Maybe I need to rethink the Sears Tower option.

* * *

My mom was clearing out old paperwork. She had multiple folders of various official documents giving glimpses of my life, from birth to high school graduation. Most of it is boring stuff, including grade reports. But there were a few interesting things mixed in.

My birth certificate shows that Dr. Suk W. Lee brought me into this world. He was my mom’s doctor during her pregnancy. He jokingly gets credit for why I had epicanthic eye folds as an infant. My eyes were quite squinty to an extreme degree and remained that way into early elementary school. Along with my blonde hair, I assume that would be my northern European ancestry.

Along with some other papers and cards, I found a newspaper clipping. It shows the dismissals for the hospital. It lists my mother and I, but what is interesting is that my mother is referred to as Mrs. Daniel C. Steele. This is what makes genealogical research so difficult. In centuries past, most women went through their entire lives without ever having their name stated on an official document.

It was still very much a man’s world, even in the ’70s. To emphasize this point, I wrote in Kindergarten (obviously with some assistance) that, “My father works. He works at the office,” along with a picture of a smoke-belching factory (a massive sun overhead, a symbol of power); but on the next page, I write that, “My mother works. She sweeps the floor,” and the accompanying picture is of her as the stereotypical smiling housewife. In reality, my mom was a speech pathologist who had been working outside of the house for years. I feel I should apologize to my mom (I did end up seeking her out in order to apologize about my childhood stereotyping of her. And guess what? She was sweeping the floor. Ha!). She did all the housework, cooked all the meals, and took care of us kids while she held down a full time job. Feminism back then meant a women could do it all, quite literally.

Mothers are the best. Civilization would collapse without them.

On a different note, another thing that caught my attention was my baptism record. Four months after my birth, my parents decided to get me (along with my older brothers) baptized and Christened. It was done at the United Church of Religious Science, the church based on Ernest Holmes’ The Science of Mind. It was the first church my parents attended as a married couple. They began attending a year before my birth and following a period of non-religiosity and, on my father’s part, agnosticism.

I was surprised that such a New Agey church did baptisms and Christenings. Anyway, it is nice having a certificate proving that my mortal soul has been safeguarded with proper Christian ritual, not that damnation is a part of New Thought theology.

Some of the more enjoyable things to look back on are old writings. There is a collection of stories from third grade. It includes one of my stories and that of my classmates. The story of mine was about a guy named Vick with a space ship who gets captured by the evil magician Zork, but his lazer comes in handy in making an escape. My best friend at the time, Andy Armens, wrote a micro-story that amused me:

“A train came out of a tunnel and tried to go over a bridge. The bridge broke. The train fell into Dead Man’s River. They went down a waterfall and got killed.”

I noticed something about many of the stories. They involved fear of one sort or another and often taking action in response to the source of fear—being or feeling threatened by, being killed or hurt by, being attacked by or fighting with, being captured by or escaping from ghosts, monsters, bad men, robbers, evil magicians, or unfortunate events. Just last year, I came across a recent collection of stories from the same local elementary school. Quite a few of the stories had the same focus on fear. I guess that is a fairly uncertain and helpless stage of life, when kids are just beginning to learn to take care of themselves. Stories, like art work, gives children a safe outlet for their fears.

I remember one story I wrote at around that age. It was about a future dystopian world. There had been some catastrophe and the biosphere was destroyed. People were then living in enclosed cities for protection. I didn’t find a copy of that story in the papers, but it would be nice to see it now. That was the Cold War fears seeping into my childhood psyche. It obviously impacted me for life. Some of my first essays written for school were on topics such as ocean pollution and overpopulation. That is a heavy load to put on the mind at such a young age.

* * *

What interests me the most are the official school documents. And there are lots of them. They bring back some painful memories.

The worst year of my mildly troubled youth was in 7th grade, having begun when at the transformative age of twelve. I did not transition well from elementary school to middle school. It was traumatic, in quiet desperation kind of way. I utterly despised school, except for art class. I did gain my love of reading fiction that year and spent a fair amount of time in the library, one of the few happy places while at school. I almost flunked out of 7th grade. I would have been held back, if we hadn’t moved. On a report card from that year, my grades were mostly Cs and Ds–it states that:


My difficulties began much earlier than that, which I discussed in some detail in a previous post (Aspergers and Chunking). Even after getting speech therapy, my learning disability dogged me for the rest of my education.

Looking back at the years of school records, I noticed some patterns of observations. I was described as getting along well with others, makes friends, cooperative, willing to participate, tries hard, creative, imaginative, thoughtful, requiring ‘thinking time’, slow (even neat, conscientious, and perfectionist), hard time understanding or following directions (needing directions repeated or looking to other students to understand), inconsistent in turning in homework, disorganized, easily distracted, etc. Basically, I often tried hard to fit in and do what was expected of me, but I wasn’t always successful.

I had a disorganized mind, and I simply did not learn and work in a normal fashion. I still have a disorganized mind of sorts—sprawling and unfocused and, of course, easily distracted. My mind runs around in circles and takes extended byways to get to what is sought, if it ever gets there. I’m a slow thinker and slow reader… or rather I’m inefficient. Why do something simply when it can be made complicated and convoluted? Straight lines of thought and simple, direct statements are boring.

Much of this had to do with language skills. I was late in learning to read. It was partly word retrieval, but it seems there was more to it than that. I apparently had difficulty in making complete sentences and clear phrasing, overusing interjections, understanding pronouns and tenses, formulating questions, and other similar issues. In 6th grade, my teacher wrote:

“Ben has good literal comprehension, but at times misses points which lead to deeper understanding in stories. he has some difficulty relating ideas from the real world to the context of a story.”

I’m not entirely sure what that meant. I did find some other clues. From a 2nd grade speech/language form, there were several important details noted:

  • “Ben continues to have some problems with re-grouping in math and makes number reversals. he also has problems with sequencing which have hindered him in math. (What number comes before or after another number, etc.) Sequencing in stories is also difficult for Ben.”
  • “Ben is stronger visually than auditorially.”
  • “Weaknesses: . . . Language dev.[elopment] lag hinders ability to use context clues”

Interestingly, I noticed even a comment about visual perception difficulties. I really don’t know what that could be, as I’ve always been visually adept. It is the one area where I’ve always excelled. When tested in the first grade, my visual problem-solving was at a 12th grade level.

One thing that came up is visual cues were challenging for me in relation to any verbal task, and the challenge is that all of education is verbal. Both listening and reading were problematic for me. Language wasn’t easily connected to other aspects of my thinking and life, even such simple things as recalling a friend’s name. It wasn’t just word recall, but also information recall and making sense of it in any verbal context (e.g., being asked a question).

There was a particularly interesting psychological interpretive report. It was done because of my 7th grade problems.

The psychologist pointed out that my IQ was 102 on the Stanford-Binet intelligence test when it was given to me in 1st grade. That is only average, but she doesn’t mention the breakdown of the test between fluid and crystallized intelligence (i.e., between problem-solving and book learning). That was probably the same test that showed me with problem-solving skills at a 12th grade level. So, considering that my IQ was average, the book learning part must have been extremely low.

She adds that, “It was thought that he had difficulties primarily in transferring information from one modality to another in expressive areas.” Problem-solving, as long as it was non-verbal/expressive, wouldn’t involve that particular difficulty.

In another section about my 7th grade abilities and behavior, the psychologist made some useful observations:

“At this time Ben is functioning intellectually in the average range of intelligence, but there is significant discrepancies between his verbal task, just at the average range, and his work on performance tasks, which is in the gifted range. When Ben works on activities that do not involve interaction with people, he can be extremely productive. He does not use trial and error, but figures out exactly what has to be done, and then does it. In verbal tasks he gives minimal interaction. There seems to be a word retrieval problem, which has been noted in the past, and he would make comments such as, “I don’t know how to state it.” Also noted in verbal tasks that he sometimes missed directions, and then would ask to have them repeated.”

A lot of that resonates with me. I’ve always had social issues that go along with verbal issues. I often felt stupid and, worse, that there was something wrong with me. There was a disconnect between my potential ability to do something and the actual results of my trying to do it. I developed a massive deficiency in confidence and, along with depression, began to develop social anxiety or something like it. I just couldn’t deal with the pressure and the constant sense of failure and inadequacy. It plain sucked. I hated school and I hated myself. I’ve never gotten over that feeling.

There was one thing that I think the psychologist got wrong and, in talking about it, my mom agrees about this. The psychologist concludes that, my younger self’s “problems are related to a history of learning difficulties and a present style of covert resistance to pressure. That is, Ben does not ever exert open defiance or resistance, but instead gives minimal responses whenever possible. He is never actively uncooperative, but the feeling he communicates is very definitely that he does not like being pressured.”

That misses the point. I was feeling frustrated and hopeless, a lost cause and a failure. I had a low self-concept, thought of myself as unpopular and weak, was painfully shy and carried a debilitating sense of shame. I lacked social skills to the point of being socially oblivious, probably somehow related to my learning disability. I didn’t understand people or the world, much less how I was supposed to deal with all my educational problems. No one else seemed to understand me either or knew how to actually help me. Anything I did or didn’t do would be wrong and so what was the point. I was on the verge of developing a permanent state of learned helplessness. It is almost certain that I already had depression at the time, although I wouldn’t be diagnosed until college.

The psychologists response was to have perceived me as having been uncooperative. That probably wasn’t a helpful conclusion.

* * *

While reading such reports, it gets me thinking about early childhood. Mixed in with official documents, there were some photographs of my young self. I was a happy little kid.

One thing I was always good at was art. In the quote at the the beginning of this piece, I stated that among other possibilities I dreamed of growing up to become an artist. Later on, I would even win a scholarship for an art degree. But I don’t think my parents considered that practical and so I went into a botany major and was predictably overwhelmed by science and math classes.

No guidance counselor should have ever allowed me to take that major without voicing some serious concern. The only class I ever had to repeat was a chemistry class. That should have been a sign of problems. But all anyone had to do was ask me. I hated science classes, partly because how they were taught and how I learned. My troubles with learning disability would be magnified a thousandfold in college, and yet no one thought to offer me extra help. I was simply thrown into the deep end with the assumption that I’d just start swimming. Instead, depression fell on me like a ton of bricks.

* * *

It feels like for my whole life I was always being set up for failure. I have this basic sense of being out of sync with the rest of humanity. I’m a seriously dysfunctional person, but I hide it well. That is all that society cares about is as long as you can manage to hide your problems and not make them public concerns. Struggle and fail in isolation. Don’t make yourself a nuisance. It’s all your fault and there is no one else to blame. Feel ashamed, but suppress it and pretend your normal.

What is frustrating about all of this isn’t just my personal problems and the unhappy moments of my past. My personal issues are rather insignificant in the big scheme of things. Our entire society is dysfunctional to the point of self-destructiveness, some might even say sociopathy. We humans have a collective learning disability in that we are incapable of learning from our past mistakes, much less grasp our collective failings in the present moment. My granddad gave my infant self a framed copy of The New York Times’ front page for the date of my birth. The events reported were rather mundane, pretty much the same old crap we are still dealing with—mostly an obsession with such things as politics and troublesome socialists and civil rights activists, healthcare and education, crime and drugs, international conflict and the Middle East.

I just turned 40 years old. That feels like a new era of my life. I guess I’m old now, but it occurs to me that I’m now at the age my dad was when I entered first grade. Back then, my dad was hitting the high point of his career in the private sector and, although his prospects were bright, he had a midlife crisis. He was wise enough to wait to get well into adulthood before having such a crisis. As for me, I started my crisis in childhood and worked from there.

Mine was a generation with many problems. I had good company. As I’ve pointed out a number of times, this partly had to do with lead toxicity, possibly related to my own learning disability. It was also the entire shifting of society and economy, pollutants just being one small part. We don’t choose the world we are born into. I was my parents’ last child because of the fears at the time about overpopulation and the overtaxing of the environment.

When we are young, we dream of the future. This is usually expressed in personal terms. Teachers and other adults will ask us what we like to do and what we want to be when we grow up. But it doesn’t take long for the larger world to impinge on the developing mind and to shape the emerging individual. Each new generation grows up with a shared set of dreams and fears, opportunities and problems. It is what we inherit and what we carry forward through the rest of our lives, traces of it passing onto the following generations.

What will the kids of today find in the boxes of childhood stuff when they reach adulthood and then middle age? What will they make of the world that made them into who they are? How will they see those of us who helped create the world they were born into and inherited?

* * *

With those questions in mind, it occurred to me how so many of my generational peers are at the age of being ‘young’ parents. Both of my brothers have kids, one of whom is just starting school. I have a number of cousins and friends with kids as well, all at school age, many still in elementary school.

I see the issues they are dealing with, both the parents and the kids. There are, of course, various issues involved, as growing up is always a challenge—issues of: learning, development, behavior, etc. In some cases, the parents are struggling. It’s a tough position to be in as a parent, not always knowing how to best help your child and no doubt making mistakes in the process. Also, like in the past, school officials aren’t always helpful, considering the limits of funding, resources, and time.

What kind of childhood do kids have these days? What memories are they forming? It does seem like a strange time to be a kid.

One thought I had was how the world is becoming more impersonal. This is seen in education, where bureaucracy has taken over. I noticed the shift happening even in the records across my own grade school education. The early forms were often filled out by hand and contained personal observations made by teachers, school psychologists, etc. But later records were almost entirely type written and often obviously computer-generated, all personal aspects eliminated.

It also makes me wonder what will get saved. My mom apparently saved almost everything and there was plenty to be saved. All work was done on physical paper. Computers simply weren’t used when I was in grade school, even though they were around. We had computers at home, but they ultimately were just fancy typewriters.

When I was growing up, my mom made photo albums for the family and for each of us boys. But neither of my sister-in-laws makes photo albums for their kids. Most of the photographs remain on the computer, at best maybe getting posted on Facebook. Will those photos just get lost over the decades? Where will Facebook and all those pictures be when my nieces and nephew turn 40 years old? Will people go back to some archived Facebook to explore their childhoods and reminisce?

Many have noted how much childhood has changed in recent generations. It makes one wonder how the remembering of childhood will also change.



On Teaching Well

I noticed that one of my older posts was linked to at another blog, U.S. History Ideas for Teachers. The author is Lauren Schreiber Brown and her piece was both detailed and thoughtful. The link in question is the second in this paragraph (from The 7 Things All Good Lessons Have in Common):

And realistically, that’s what a lot of us do. We know what we did last year, and yesterday, and so what comes next is comparing the North and South. But we should–every year–ask ourselves why do students need to know about the similarities and differences between the North and South? What is the point? How does this understanding help us better comprehend both the onset of the Civil War as well as its outcome? Do any of these differences still exist? In what way(s) does studying this topic improve the quality of our students’ lives?

I wanted to respond. But my response was too long for the character count at that blog. Plus, even the shorter comment I left there was never approved or else disappeared into the internet purgatory. So, I’ll make it a post, as I think it’s a worthy topic.

* * * *

I’m not a teacher, but I found this post interesting. I like how much thought you are putting into this. Education is important and teaching is a tough job. I’m glad to know teachers like you are out there are considering these kinds of issues and questions.

I noticed you linked to my blog, the post comparing the North and South. I spent my own grade school education initially in the Midwest and later in the Deep South. I never liked history, I must admit. I can’t say I had bad teachers, but they never quite found a way to make history seem to matter in my experience. In particular, I didn’t learn anything about the differences between the North and South.

I don’t even remember what I was taught in any history class. None of it ever stuck. I didn’t even know I enjoyed learning about history until I was well into adulthood. In recent years, I’ve taken history more seriously and have become fascinated about it, and not just about American history either.

I’m constantly coming across new data. It amazes me all the things I didn’t learn in school. History, if taught well, should be one of the most engaging topics for students. Yet so many people similar to me were bored silly by history classes. Why is that?

Early America was an interesting place. But before I started studying on my own, I didn’t realize that was the case. Most Americans, for example, are unaware that several colonies had non-British majorities. I was reminded again of this diversity recently:

“…from every part of Europe.”

At that post, I share a passage from The World in 1776 by Marshall B. Davidson. The part that most stood out to me is where he points out that, “One-third of the men who signed the Declaration of Independence were of non-English stock, eight being first-generation immigrants.” I never knew that.

That multicultural reality was a central point that Thomas Paine made in arguing for independence. He wrote that, “Europe, and not England, is the parent country of America.”

I realize that is just info. But a good teacher should be able to make it relevant by connecting the diversity of the past to the diversity of the present. It’s not as if America only became an immigrant country in the 20th century. We are living in a continuity of what came before. An effective teacher would bring history alive and get students excited through the teacher’s own engagement with the subject matter.

I know one thing that helped for me was doing genealogical research. That made it personally real. But that goes off into a different kind of learning experience.

Contrast that to how I was taught history when I was younger. I remember in one class that I took 20 pages of notes for a single test. The teacher wasn’t horrible and he did try to get us to think about what we were learning, but I remember just feeling swamped by endless factoids. I wasn’t able to assimilate the info and no one taught me how to do so. That is the biggest failure of school in my experience, the lack of teaching students how to learn which goes hand in hand with teaching the love of learning.

I was a fairly smart kid. I had a learning disability and that made it difficult, but I was able to learn when I felt engaged enough. Still, the way I was so often taught made me hate school. It felt like a pointless struggle. In a sink or swim education system, I usually found myself sinking.

I had to learn how to learn mostly on my own and mostly as an adult. And I doubt I’m alone in that experience. That is a problem for the education system, and it isn’t a problem that can easily be dealt with by individual teachers. I imagine teachers are too busy just trying to teach to the test that anything more involved than the basics is asking for the near impossible.

It makes me sad that teachers get blamed. Teachers don’t have the time and resources to be effective. To focus on one thing means to sacrifice everything else. I couldn’t imagine the amount of planning it takes to try to make it all work.

Your emphasis on a conclusion probably is important. More than trying to shove info into students’ heads, a teacher should help them to understand the significance, ideally both in terms of personal relevance and real world application. A conclusion should drive home some central point or issue. What is learned needs to be connected and framed for otherwise it will quickly be forgotten.

* * * *

I should point out that some of my favorite classes were also my most demanding.

I had an awesome art teacher. He was a professional artist and taught me some serious skills. But his teaching went way beyond that. He is the only teacher I ever had who taught me how to think on my own.

Of course, art is far different from history. Maybe more similar to history is a topic like English, which was one of my other favorite classes. I had an English teacher who was English and he focused on the classics. He didn’t shy away from teaching difficult works. I suppose it was in 11th grade when I took his class and one book we read was Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy, a daunting piece of writing even for an adult. He simply taught me the love of engagement with a text, as it was clear how much he enjoyed what he taught.

It’s hard to know what is the difference that makes a difference. I’m sure there were students who were bored and disengaged even in those classes that I loved so much. Not everything is going to work well for all students. That is the greatest challenge, especially the more students there are in a single class. It’s easy for students to get lost in a teacher’s focus on the entire class.

In the end, I think the most important thing a teacher does is to model a particular attitude and sets of behaviors. Students won’t likely care about what a teacher doesn’t care about. On the other hand, a love of learning can be contagious, even for a subject matter a student normally dislikes. I ultimately think there is no such thing as boring material, even if some subjects are harder to teach than others.

* * * *

By the way, I thought I’d share with you some cool facts. Combined, they are an example of how cool facts can help make larger points and show greater connections.

William Penn died in 1718. That was the year Benjamin Franklin was indentured as a printer’s apprentice. Some years later as an older teenager, Franklin made his way to Philadelphia where he began to do his own printing. Pennsylvania was one of those colonies that had a non-British majority, as Penn had traveled in Germany and intentionally invited Germans among others to settle in his colony (it’s interesting to note that more Americans today have German ancestry than any other, especially in the Northern states). Franklin complained about all the Germans for fear they wouldn’t assimilate (sounds familiar?). But as a businessman he was quick to take advantage by printing the first German language newspaper there.

When Franklin was in London, he met Thomas Paine, both having in common their being autodidacts. It was also in London where Paine first saw major political and labor union organizing, along with regular food riots. I might note that it was in London that the Palatine Germans (in the early 1700s) first immigrated before many headed to the American colonies, although these aren’t the same Germans that mostly populated Pennsylvania. This particular influx of Germans did happen in Franklin’s childhood and so it was a major social issue at the time. Anyway, by way of Franklin, Paine made his way to the American colonies and he ended up in Philadelphia, which is the location of Germantown where among the Germans the abolition movement began, and also where Paine helped found the first American abolition society. It was in Philadelphia that Paine first experienced the diversity of the American colonies and so was inspired to see them as something more than a mere extension of England.

It is interesting that the British used so many Hessian soldiers. This was related to Great Britain having alliances with German states. King George III being the Elector of Hanover (ethnically German and the first in his line to speak English as his first language). In the American Revolution, there were Germans fighting on both sides. Many of the descendants of those Germans would also fight each other in the world wars, although then with Americans and the Britains as allies.

Thomas Paine died in 1809. That was the year Abraham Lincolon was born. Lincoln, of course, was famous for ending slavery (after Lincoln’s winning the presidency with the support of German-Americans, the Civil War was partly won because of the mass immigrations to the North, including the often idealistic and socially liberal German Forty-Eighters, refugees of a failed revolution). Less well known is that Lincoln was influenced by Paine’s writings and, like Paine, wrote a deist tract (the only copy of which was burned up by a friend who thought it threatened LIncoln’s political career).

About a half century later, Theodore Roosevelt would call Paine “that dirty little atheist.” That is interesting when one considers that Roosevelt, like Lincoln before him, helped to promote Paine’s progressive vision of America. Teddy’s cousin, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, would push that progressivism to yet another level. Although in a different party from Lincoln, FDR also was heavily inspired by Paine. As a side note, the Roosevelt family’s ancestry goes back to the Dutch settlers of the Dutch colony that would become New York, yet another part of early American diversity, and also the place where young Franklin first ran away to and where Paine would spend his last years.

Let me shift back to Lincoln’s lifetime. Karl Marx, who was born in Germany and saw firsthand the social unrest that led to the revolutions of 1848, was forced to flee to England. From there, he later wrote a letter to Lincoln to show his support for the Union’s cause in fighting slave power. Marx probably felt an affinity because Lincoln, early on as president, openly argued that “Labor is the superior of capital.” Charles Dana was a socialist Republican who, before becoming Lincoln’s Undersecretary of War, was the managing editor of the New York Tribune where he published Marx’s writings. Lincoln regularly read that newspaper and Dana had introduced him Marx’s ideas on a labour theory of value.

Marx’s ideas would then be a major inspiration for the ideological conflict that erupted into the Cold War. There was always an ethnic element to this as well, whether the enemy was Germans or Russians, but Germans unlike Russians were always seen as a greater threat since that ancestry was so large in America. German-Americans were always mistrusted, from the colonial era to the world wars. Early twentieth century saw the cultural genocide and forced assimilation of German-Americans, which saw many being sent to internment camps. Until that time, German-Americans had continually maintained their own culture with newspapers written and even public schools taught in the German language. German-American culture was wiped from the collective memory and this heritage was lost for so many.

All of that then leads up to where we are now. The world wars sent even more Germans to the US. Waves of German immigrants have regularly occurred throughout American history. That is why there are today so many Americans of German ancestry, including many students who are not being taught this history about their own ancestors. Sadly, most Americans have forgotten or else never learned about both the early diversity of America and the early radicalism of the likes of Paine.

There ya go. From colonial era to revolution to civil war to the present. That is how one makes history interesting and it was accomplished in only about a page of text. But why this can never be taught is because it is neither politically correct nor ideologically neutral, even though it is all entirely true.

* * * *

I had some thoughts about the example of cool facts that I offered.

There are several reasons why it demonstrates effective communication of history. Besides offering cool facts, multiple connections are offered, a larger framing is made to give context, the development of issues and ideas is shown over time, and a conclusion is offered that explains the relevance. All of that is accomplished in a few paragraphs.

My brain works that way. I make connections and I look for the big picture. That is part of my “learning disability.” What doesn’t work for me is factoid rote learning. Then again, that is true for most people, even if more extremely true for my weirdly operating brain.

So, why don’t teachers teach this way? Because the education system isn’t set for it.

In those paragraphs, I covered material involving multiple countries, multiple centuries, multiple individuals, multiple conflicts, and multiple issues. That doesn’t conform to how students are tested and so the system disincentivizes teaching in a way that would be the most effective. No standardized test will ever have a question that covers such a large territory of knowledge, even though that is precisely what makes interesting history, how it all fits together.

Still, a great teacher would find a way to bring in that style of teaching, if only in those rare moments when time allows.


Opportunity Precedes Achievement, Good Timing Also Helps

None of the Above:
What I.Q. doesn’t tell you about race.

by Malcolm Gladwell, The New Yorker

Flynn brings a similar precision to the question of whether Asians have a genetic advantage in I.Q., a possibility that has led to great excitement among I.Q. fundamentalists in recent years. Data showing that the Japanese had higher I.Q.s than people of European descent, for example, prompted the British psychometrician and eugenicist Richard Lynn to concoct an elaborate evolutionary explanation involving the Himalayas, really cold weather, premodern hunting practices, brain size, and specialized vowel sounds. The fact that the I.Q.s of Chinese-Americans also seemed to be elevated has led I.Q. fundamentalists to posit the existence of an international I.Q. pyramid, with Asians at the top, European whites next, and Hispanics and blacks at the bottom.

Here was a question tailor-made for James Flynn’s accounting skills. He looked first at Lynn’s data, and realized that the comparison was skewed. Lynn was comparing American I.Q. estimates based on a representative sample of schoolchildren with Japanese estimates based on an upper-income, heavily urban sample. Recalculated, the Japanese average came in not at 106.6 but at 99.2. Then Flynn turned his attention to the Chinese-American estimates. They turned out to be based on a 1975 study in San Francisco’s Chinatown using something called the Lorge-Thorndike Intelligence Test. But the Lorge-Thorndike test was normed in the nineteen-fifties. For children in the nineteen-seventies, it would have been a piece of cake. When the Chinese-American scores were reassessed using up-to-date intelligence metrics, Flynn found, they came in at 97 verbal and 100 nonverbal. Chinese-Americans had slightly lower I.Q.s than white Americans.

The Asian-American success story had suddenly been turned on its head. The numbers now suggested, Flynn said, that they had succeeded not because of their higher I.Q.s. but despite their lower I.Q.s. Asians were overachievers. In a nifty piece of statistical analysis, Flynn then worked out just how great that overachievement was. Among whites, virtually everyone who joins the ranks of the managerial, professional, and technical occupations has an I.Q. of 97 or above. Among Chinese-Americans, that threshold is 90. A Chinese-American with an I.Q. of 90, it would appear, does as much with it as a white American with an I.Q. of 97.

There should be no great mystery about Asian achievement. It has to do with hard work and dedication to higher education, and belonging to a culture that stresses professional success. But Flynn makes one more observation. The children of that first successful wave of Asian-Americans really did have I.Q.s that were higher than everyone else’s—coming in somewhere around 103. Having worked their way into the upper reaches of the occupational scale, and taken note of how much the professions value abstract thinking, Asian-American parents have evidently made sure that their own children wore scientific spectacles. “Chinese Americans are an ethnic group for whom high achievement preceded high I.Q. rather than the reverse,” Flynn concludes, reminding us that in our discussions of the relationship between I.Q. and success we often confuse causes and effects. “It is not easy to view the history of their achievements without emotion,” he writes. That is exactly right. To ascribe Asian success to some abstract number is to trivialize it.

The Ethnic Myth
by Stephen Steinberg
pp. 125 -7

At least superficially, the streetcorner men exhibited many of the characteristics of a culture of poverty. They unquestionably had a present-time orientation, in that immediate pleasures were pursued without regard to long-range implications. Their aspirations were low, at least as gauged by the fact that they worked irregularly and did not look for better jobs. Their absence from their families meant households were headed by women. And the feelings of inferiority, helplessness, and fatalism that Lewis saw as endemic to a culture of poverty were in plain evidence. Yet Liebow forcefully rejects the view that these are “traits” that add up to a culture of poverty. He insists that the fundamental values of the streetcorner men are the same as those of the middle-class society, and that their behavior, though in apparent contradiction to those values, is only a response to external circumstances that prevent them from living according to conventional values.

Of paramount importance is the fact that these men are unable to find jobs that pay a living wage. As Liebow points out, the way a man makes a living and the kind of living he makes defines a man’s worth, both to himself and his neighbors, friends, lovers, and family. This operates with the same force as in the rest of society, but inversely, since the streetcorner men do not have jobs that are worth very much, either in status or pay. For Liebow, this is the controlling factor in their lives, distorting their values, their family relationships and their concept of themselves.

Thus if they do not plan for the future, it is not because they are observing a different cultural norm that emphasizes the pleasure of the moment but because their futures are bleak and they lack the resources and opportunities for doing much about it. Similarly their low aspirations are an inevitable response to restricted opportunity, particularly the improbability of finding a decent job. This is not a self-fulfilling prophecy, but a resignation born out of bitter personal experience. All the men in Liebow’s study had tested themselves repeatedly on the job market, and had come to realize that the only jobs available were menial, low-paying, dead-end jobs that would not allow them to support their families. […]

Thus, Liebow presents a strong case that the streetcorner men have the same concept of work and family as does the middle class. Indeed, it is precisely because they share these conventional values that they experience such a profound sense of personal failure. The attraction of the street corner, with its “shadow system of values,” is that it compensates for an impaired sense of manhood. In all these respects Liebow’s intepretation of the street corner is in direct opposition to the culture-of-poverty thesis. […]

Thus, similarities between parents and children are not the product of cultural transmission, but of the fact that “the son goes out and independently experiences the same failures, in the same areas, and for much the same reasons as his father.”

For Liebow, then, the poor do not neeed instruction in the Protestant ethic or other values, but jobs that would allow them to incorporate these values into their everyday lives. It is not their culture that needs to be changed, but an economic system that fails to provide jobs that pay a living wage to millions of the nation’s poor.


There is intellectual perversity in the tendency to use the cultural responses of the poor as “explanations” of why they are poor. Generally speaking, groups do not get ahead or lag behind on the basis of their cultural values. Rather, they are born into a given station in life and adopt values that are consonant with their circumstances and their life chances. To the extent that the lower-class ethnics seem to live according to a different set of values, this is primarily a cultural manifestation of their being trapped in poverty. In the final analysis, the culture-of-poverty thesis—at least as it has been used by Banfield, Moynihan, and others—is nothing more than an intellectual smoke screen for our society’s unwillingness or inability to wipe out unemployment and poverty.

pp. 134-5

Berrol’s inventory of educational facilities in New York City at the turn of the century shows that the schools could not possibly have functioned as a significant channel of mobility. Still in an early stage of development, the public school system was unable to cope with the enormous influx of foreigners, most of whom were in their childbearing ages. Primary grade schools were so over-crowded that tens of thousands of students were turned away, and as late as 1914 there were only five high schools in Manhattan and the Bronx. If only for this reason, few children of Jewish immigrants received more than a rudimentary education.”

Berrol furnishes other data showing that large numbers of Jewish students ended their schooling by the eighth grade. For example, in New York City in 1908 there were 25,534 Jewish students in the first grade, 11,527 in the seventh, 2,549 in their first year of high school, and only 488 in their last year. Evidently, most immigrant Jewish children of this period dropped out of school to enter the job market.

Nor could City College have been a major channel of Jewish mobility during the early decades of the twenntieth century. Until the expansion of City College in the 1930s and 1940s, enrollments were not large enough to have a significant impact on Jewish mobility. Furthermore, Jewish representation at the college was predominantly German; Berrol estimates that in 1923 only 11 percent of CCNY students had Russian or Polish names.

In short, prior to the 1930s and 1940s, the public schools, and City College in particular, were not a channel of mobility for more than a privileged few. It was not until the expansion of higher education following the Second World War that City College provided educational opportunities for significant numbers of Jewish youth. However, by the time New York’s Jewish population had already emerged from the deep poverty of the immigrant generation, and had experienced extensive economic mobility.

It was the children of these upwardly mobile Jews who enrolled in City college during the 1930s and 1940s. For them, education was clearly a channel of mobility, but it accelerated a process of intergenerational mobility that was already in motion, since their parents typically had incomes, and often occupations as well, that were a notch or two above those of the working class in general. As Berrol concluded:

. . . most New York City Jews did not make the leap from poverty into the middle class by going to college. Rather, widespread utilization of secondary and higher education followed improvements in economic status and was as much a result as a cause of upward mobility.


A Ruling Elite of Well-Educated Sheep

Here is an interesting dialogue of articles about higher education. It is from The New Republic magazine.

The initial article is by William Deresiewicz. It is based on his book, Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life. There were two critical responses I came across, one by Steven Pinker and another by J.D. Chapman. The last article is Deresiewicz’s response to his critics.

I didn’t care too much about the issue in and of itself. I don’t know enough about higher education to have an informed opinion, and so I won’t claim to know whether or not Deresiewicz makes sense about that issue. What interested me was the conclusion Deresiewicz offered, the opposition between a false meritocracy and a functioning democracy. That central point goes way beyond any aspect of education. It touches upon the root of nearly every problem in our society.

On this issue of democracy, Deresiewicz hit a raw nerve. I didn’t get the sense that Pinker grasped this aspect of the argument, as is indicated by his own conclusion where he seems to praise meritocracy in place of democracy. Pinker seems to genuinely believe in meritocracy, not just in theory but as it functions in our society. I get a bit of a reactionary vibe from Pinker (see this post by Kenan Malik, Human Conditions, and also notice how much attention Pinker gets by a popular neoreactionary like hbdchick).

Chapman disagreed with much of what Deresiewicz wrote. However, in his own conclusion, he supported the severe doubts about meritocratic claims.

In his final comments, Deresiewicz restates his basic case for an education based on an egalitarian vision. The only thing I wish is that he had grounded this into the larger problems we face with growing inequality, unemployment/underemployment, mass incarceration, structural racism, and a permanent underclass. What is at stake is far more than access to quality education for all citizens.

He does point in that direction, and so he is far from ignoring the implications. I understand he was purposely keeping his focus more narrow in order to deal with a single issue. His personal bias is from working in higher education and so that is where he naturally focuses his attention. That is fine, as long as the larger context is kept in mind.

 * * * *

Don’t Send Your Kid to the Ivy League
The nation’s top colleges are turning our kids into zombies
By William Deresiewicz

“Not being an entitled little shit is an admirable goal. But in the end, the deeper issue is the situation that makes it so hard to be anything else. The time has come, not simply to reform that system top to bottom, but to plot our exit to another kind of society altogether.

“The education system has to act to mitigate the class system, not reproduce it. Affirmative action should be based on class instead of race, a change that many have been advocating for years. Preferences for legacies and athletes ought to be discarded. SAT scores should be weighted to account for socioeconomic factors. Colleges should put an end to résumé-stuffing by imposing a limit on the number of extracurriculars that kids can list on their applications. They ought to place more value on the kind of service jobs that lower-income students often take in high school and that high achievers almost never do. They should refuse to be impressed by any opportunity that was enabled by parental wealth. Of course, they have to stop cooperating with U.S. News.

“More broadly, they need to rethink their conception of merit. If schools are going to train a better class of leaders than the ones we have today, they’re going to have to ask themselves what kinds of qualities they need to promote. Selecting students by GPA or the number of extracurriculars more often benefits the faithful drudge than the original mind.

“The changes must go deeper, though, than reforming the admissions process. That might address the problem of mediocrity, but it won’t address the greater one of inequality. The problem is the Ivy League itself. We have contracted the training of our leadership class to a set of private institutions. However much they claim to act for the common good, they will always place their interests first. The arrangement is great for the schools, but is Harvard’s desire for alumni donations a sufficient reason to perpetuate the class system?

“I used to think that we needed to create a world where every child had an equal chance to get to the Ivy League. I’ve come to see that what we really need is to create one where you don’t have to go to the Ivy League, or any private college, to get a first-rate education.

“High-quality public education, financed with public money, for the benefit of all: the exact commitment that drove the growth of public higher education in the postwar years. Everybody gets an equal chance to go as far as their hard work and talent will take them—you know, the American dream. Everyone who wants it gets to have the kind of mind-expanding, soul-enriching experience that a liberal arts education provides. We recognize that free, quality K–12 education is a right of citizenship. We also need to recognize—as we once did and as many countries still do—that the same is true of higher education. We have tried aristocracy. We have tried meritocracy. Now it’s time to try democracy.”

The Trouble With Harvard
The Ivy League is broken and only standardized tests can fix it
By Steven Pinker

“So why aren’t creative alternatives like this even on the table? A major reason is that popular writers like Stephen Jay Gould and Malcolm Gladwell, pushing a leftist or heart-above-head egalitarianism, have poisoned their readers against aptitude testing. They have insisted that the tests don’t predict anything, or that they do but only up to a limited point on the scale, or that they do but only because affluent parents can goose their children’s scores by buying them test-prep courses.

“But all of these hypotheses have been empirically refuted. We have already seen that test scores, as far up the upper tail as you can go, predict a vast range of intellectual, practical, and artistic accomplishments. They’re not perfect, but intuitive judgments based on interviews and other subjective impressions have been shown to be far worse. Test preparation courses, notwithstanding their hard-sell ads, increase scores by a trifling seventh of a standard deviation (with most of the gains in the math component). As for Deresiewicz’s pronouncement that “SAT is supposed to measure aptitude, but what it actually measures is parental income, which it tracks quite closely,” this is bad social science. SAT correlates with parental income (more relevantly, socioeconomic status or SES), but that doesn’t mean it measures it; the correlation could simply mean that smarter parents have smarter kids who get higher SAT scores, and that smarter parents have more intellectually demanding and thus higher-paying jobs. Fortunately, SAT doesn’t track SES all that closely (only about 0.25 on a scale from -1 to 1), and this opens the statistical door to see what it really does measure. The answer is: aptitude. Paul Sackett and his collaborators have shown that SAT scores predict future university grades, holding all else constant, whereas parental SES does not. Matt McGue has shown, moreover, that adolescents’ test scores track the SES only of their biological parents, not (for adopted kids) of their adoptive parents, suggesting that the tracking reflects shared genes, not economic privilege.

“Regardless of the role that you think aptitude testing should play in the admissions process, any discussion of meritocracy that pretends that aptitude does not exist or cannot be measured is not playing with a full deck. Deresiewicz writes as if any correlation between affluence and Ivy admissions is proof that we don’t have a true meritocracy. But that only follows if the more affluent students are without merit, and without a measure of aptitude that is independent of affluence, how could you ever tell? For the same reason, his conspiracy theory of the historical trend in which Ivy students have been coming from wealthier families—namely that the Ivies deliberately impose expensive requirements to weed out poorer families—is glib. Hoxby has shown that the historical trend was propelled by students’ no longer applying to the closest regional colleges but to the ones with the most similar student bodies anywhere in the country. The law of supply and demand pushed the top schools to raise their academic admissions standards; the correlation with parental income may just be a by-product.

“After first denying that we have ever tried meritocracy, Deresiewicz concludes by saying that we have tried it, and now should try “democracy” instead, by which he seems to mean a world in which the distribution of incomes of Ivy League families would be identical to that of the country as a whole. But as long as the correlation between wealth and aptitude is not zero, that goal is neither possible nor desirable.

“Still, he’s right that the current system is harmful and unfair. What he could have said is that elite universities are nothing close to being meritocracies. We know that because they don’t admit most of their students on the basis of academic aptitude. And perhaps that’s what we should try next.”

Send Your Kid to the Ivy League!
The New Republic’s article against elite education is destructive to my students
By J.D. Chapman

“I agree with Deresiewicz that liberal arts colleges like Sarah Lawrence and Reed are uniquely positioned to nurture and challenge students, and I champion them when I can. I don’t believe the Ivies are for every bright kid, and I have occasionally counseled students capable of admission to them to favor other options. And I agree that class lines are hardening in dangerous ways; the Ivies have too much money and power; and meritocracy is a delusion. That does not mean that an Ivy League diploma isn’t valuable, especially for someone whose family has no history of access to elite careers like teaching at Yale or writing for The New Republic. It means that it is valuable. Whether it should be is another discussion altogether.”

Your Criticism of My Ivy League Takedown Further Proves My Point
By William Deresiewicz

“Nor was it—or is it—an either/or situation: Either a general, liberal arts education or a specialized, vocational one; either building a soul or laying the foundation for a career. American higher education, uniquely among the world’s systems, makes room for both. You major in one thing, but you get to take courses in others. The issue now is not that kids don’t or at least wouldn’t want to get a liberal education as well as a practical one (you’d be surprised what kids are interested in doing, if you give them a chance). The issue is that the rest of us don’t want to pay for it.

“That is finally what’s at stake here. Are we going to reserve the benefits of a liberal education for the privileged few, or are we going to restore the promise of college as we once conceived it? When I say, at the end of my book, that the time has come to try democracy, that is what I am talking about.”


The Public Shame of Intellectual Dysfunction

Why is it more acceptable, generally speaking, to be intellectually dysfunctional while being socially functional than to be socially dysfunctional while being intellectually functional? And yet why would most people take greater offense at being called intellectually dysfunctional than socially dysfunctional (or equivalent terms)?

I ask this in all sincerity. It seems strange.

Our society seems to value social skills more than intellectual skills. In fact, a large part of our society attacks people for being a part of the intellectual elite in a way they wouldn’t toward the social elite. They ridicule people for being stuck in ivory towers in a way they wouldn’t ridicule a Hollywood or music star for becoming rich from mere popularity.

Being intellectually talented rarely will make you rich or famous. But at the same time no one wants to think they are less than intellectually capable. I’m sure most of the population thinks they are intellectually above average.

If we as a society value intellectuality so little (relatively speaking), then why are we so touchy about it?

* * * *

The label of hardworking is one of the door prizes the losers of society can get just for playing.

You can be a poor uneducated wife-beating alcoholic white guy. But if you are one of the lucky schmucks to have any kind of legal work at all, then you get the privilege of being called hardworking. Then your allowed to look down on everyone less fortunate than you: unemployed, underemployed, homeless, welfare recipients, minorities, etc.

On the other hand, if you are intelligent and well educated while being unemployed, homeless, and/or on public assistance, you aren’t likely to get much respect by society. It doesn’t matter how many other good traits you have, from being kindhearted to generous. This is true even if you were a visionary genius, unless you invent or make something that can be marketed and profited from in our consumerist society, but then you’d be deemed hardworking. Your value would be in terms of your social functioning in a capitalist society, not your intellectual ability.

* * * *

I had a thought last night about how this connects to other issues.

The US has a large economic inequality and a large political power inequality. That isn’t extremely uncommon in the world, but it does make us stick out from rankings of other Western countries.

I was reminded about how scientifically illiterate Americans are on average. We rank among the lowest in the world on knowledge about basic scientific facts such as evolution, despite having some of the best universities in the world. If not for all the intelligent immigrants who keep coming here, our average IQ would likely stagnate or maybe fall drastically.

I realized that this is an intellectual inequality, an educational inequality. Our public schools are not so great, but the upper classes go to expensive private schools with the best education money can buy. Maybe intellectuality is such a touchy issue because inequality in general is such a touchy issue.


America’s Less-Than-Smartest Education System

I came across a great talk by Amanda Ripley about her book, The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way. It is from C-SPAN in their coverage of this year’s National Book Festival (see video here).

She compares education systems in various countries. Her purpose seems to primarily be to understand the problems, challenges, and unique qualities of American education. In order to do this, she focuses on some of the best education systems in the world. It is the most intelligent and insightful analysis of education that I’ve come across. She also comes across as intellectually humble, something I always admire.

Here is a short video where she gives a brief introduction and overview:

The C-SPAN video happened to be playing on television while I was visiting my parent’s home. My mother likes C-SPAN. She was a public school teacher for her entire career. She has also been a conservative her entire life. She is critical of many things about public education, but she is still an ardent supporter of it, unlike my more libertarian father.

Amanda Ripley comes across as being somewhere on the left side of the spectrum, probably a fairly standard mainstream liberal. It was interesting that my mother agreed with everything Ripley spoke about. However, after the C-SPAN talk was over, both of my parents brought up the issue of tracking which they see as the solution. As that didn’t come up in the talk, I decided to buy the e-book and do a quick search. She does cover that issue in the book, but it isn’t what my parents would like to see. It doesn’t confirm their beliefs on this one aspect (pp. 137-138):

“Intuitively, tracking made sense. A classroom should function more efficiently if all the kids were at the same level. In reality, though, second tracks almost always came with second-rate expectations.

“Statistically speaking, tracking tended to diminish learning and boost inequality wherever it was tried. In general, the younger the tracking happened, the worse the entire country did on PISA. There seemed to be some kind of ghetto effect : Once kids were labeled and segregated into the lower track, their learning slowed down.”

Of course, it isn’t just my parents who love the idea of tracking. It is a mainstream position in the United States. Even many on the left will argue tracking is one of the answers to educational failure, although those on the right emphasize it the most. Conservatives say that some kids are just low IQ or lazy or untalented. Not all kids deserve equal education, because not all students are equal. In their minds, it would actually be unfair to treat all kids equally.

However, as this author demonstrates, it is precisely because Finland treats all students equally and gives all students equal opportunity that they have the greatest schools in the world. You go to one school in Finland and it is basically the same quality as any other. They direct their funding to where it is needed, not to where rich people send their kids to school.

No Finnish student gets permanently tracked, not even special education students, for in Finland they assume special education is a temporary condition. They have high expectations of all students and so all students improve, unlike in the US. Americans don’t realize how highly unusual is our version of tracking (pp. 138-139):

“When most people thought of tracking, they thought of places like Germany or Austria, where students were siphoned off to separate schools depending on their aspirations. Tracking took different forms in places like the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Japan, Norway, and Sweden. But that didn’t mean it was less powerful.

“Tracking in elementary school was a uniquely American policy. The sorting began at a very young age, and it came in the form of magnet schools, honors classes, Advanced Placement courses, or International Baccalaureate programs. In fact, the United States was one of the few countries where schools not only divided younger children by ability, but actually taught different content to the more advanced track. In other countries , including Germany and Singapore, all kids were meant to learn the same challenging core content; the most advanced kids just went deeper into the material.

“Meanwhile, the enduring segregation of U.S. schools by race and income created another de facto tracking system, in which minority and low-income kids were far more likely to attend inferior schools with fewer Advanced Placement classes and less experienced teachers.”

There are many things that are fundamentally different about the U.S. education system, like so much else in this country. The author notes that the American obsession about extracurricular activities is one of the most unusual aspects.

Americans are obsessed about school more than are the Finnish, but there is a disconnect in this obsession. U.S. teachers give more homework, for example, and yet in Finland students get higher quality homework that demands more challenging independent thought. Finnish schools are laidback by American standards and parents are almost entirely uninvolved, but what they do is heavily invest in quality everything, especially teachers (who get their teacher training in the Finnish equivalent of U.S. Ivy League colleges). They don’t waste their time and money on keeping students entertained with sports, clubs, and other activities.

In most countries in the world, children simply go to school to learn and nothing else. Foreign students who come to the U.S. observe how easy is education here. And U.S. students that travel to the countries with better education systems observe that the students there take education more seriously.

The U.S. is atypical partly because of its dark history of racial segregation. Obviously, this plays into the dysfunctional tracking system that directs most resources to certain students. This leaves a substandard education for the rest of the students, mostly poor and minority. Tracking directly fits into a system of social hierarchy and social control. Those put on the lower track have little expectations placed upon them, or rather a great many negative expectations forced upon them.

Low expectations goes hand in hand with lowered standards and results. This isn’t surprising for anyone who knows about the research on the power of expectations, from the Rosenthal-Pygmalion Effect to Stereotype Threat. Tracking institutionalizes some of the worst aspects of our society, but it isn’t just about the failure of American society. Tracking, generally speaking, is just a bad system in any society.

Lessening the emphasis on tracking has been a wild success in countries all around the world. Americans should take note (pp. 139-140):

“By the early twenty-first century, many countries were slowly, haltingly, delaying tracking. When they did so, all kids tended to do better. In most Polish schools, tracking occurred at age sixteen. At Tom’s school in Wrocław, the sorting had already happened; only a third to half of the students who applied were accepted. Tom only saw the vocational kids when he came to gym class. They left as his class arrived.

“Finland tracked kids, too. As in Poland, the division happened later, at age sixteen, the consequence of forty years of reforms, each round of which had delayed tracking a little longer. Until students reached age sixteen, though, Finnish schools followed a strict ethic of equity. Teachers could not, as a rule, hold kids back or promote them when they weren’t ready. That left only one option: All kids had to learn. To make this possible, Finland’s education system funneled money toward kids who needed help. As soon as young kids showed signs of slipping, teachers descended upon them like a pit crew before they fell further behind. About a third of kids got special help during their first nine years of school. Only 2 percent repeated a grade in Finnish primary school (compared to 11 percent in the United States, which was above average for the developed world).

“Once it happened, tracking was less of a stigma in Finland. The government gave vocational high schools extra money, and in many towns, they were as prestigious as the academic programs. In fact, the more remote or disadvantaged the school, the more money it got. This balance was just as important as delaying tracking; once students got channeled into a vocational track, it had to lead somewhere. Not all kids had to go to college, but they all had to learn useful skills.

“In Finland and all the top countries, spending on education was tied to need, which was only logical. The worse off the students, the more money their school got. In Pennsylvania, Tom’s home state, the opposite was true. The poorest school districts spent 20 percent less per student, around $ 9,000 compared to around $ 11,000 in the richest school districts.”

Other countries came to realize tracking was ineffective, and so they changed their methods. For Americans, it has been just more cowbell (p. 140):

“That backward math was one of the most obvious differences between the United States and other countries. In almost every other developed country, the schools with the poorest students had more teachers per student; the opposite was true in only four countries: the United States, Israel, Slovenia, and Turkey, where the poorest schools had fewer teachers per student.

“It was a striking difference, and it related to rigor. In countries where people agreed that school was serious, it had to be serious for everyone. If rigor was a prerequisite for success in life, then it had to be applied evenly. Equity— a core value of fairness, backed up by money and institutionalized by delayed tracking— was a telltale sign of rigor.”

Many Americans, especially on the right, would argue these countries are successful because they are small and homogenous. They think that the main problem is that we have a large bureaucratic government that is trying to enforce a one-size-fits-all solution onto a diverse population. That of course misses the entire point of tracking. The U.S. has one of the least one-size-fits-all solutions in the world. Even ignoring that, can U.S. education problems be blamed on the government and on diversity?

To answer that question, I would put it into the context of what Ripley has to say about Singapore (pp. 160-161):

“In Singapore, the opposite happened. There, the population was also diverse, about 77 percent Chinese, 14 percent Malay, 8 percent Indian, and 1.5 percent other. People spoke Chinese, English, Malay, and Tamil and followed five different faiths (Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, Taoism, and Hinduism). Yet Singaporeans scored at the top of the world on PISA, right beside Finland and Korea. There was virtually no gap in scores between immigrant and native-born students.

“Of course , Singapore was essentially another planet compared to most countries. It was ruled by an authoritarian regime with an unusually high-performing bureaucracy. The government controlled most of the rigor variables, from the caliber of teacher recruits to the mix of ethnicities in housing developments. Singapore did not have the kind of extreme segregation that existed in the United States, because policy makers had forbidden it.”

I doubt I’d want to live in Singapore, but it offers an interesting example. One of the points the author makes is that there are different ways to get high education results.

To Americans, Singapore seems authoritarian and dystopian. They have a highly centralized and powerful bureaucratic government. They don’t even have the benefit of a homogenous society.

That is everything that right-wingers use to rationalize America’s failing schools. And yet in Singapore it is the precise recipe for educational success.

It isn’t just about a few exceptional countries like Singapore. Diversity isn’t just that big of an issue. There are a high number of highly homogenous countries (homogenous in terms of race, ethnicity, culture, religion, etc) that are extremely poor, have high rates of social problems, and measure low in their education systems. Sure, systems that work best in diverse societies likely will be different than what works in homogenous societies, but the basic point is that there are ways that both types of societies can attain very high standards of education.

Besides, even breaking down the U.S. education system into homogenous and diverse states still doesn’t explain this country’s low ranking in the world. Even many highly homogenous states (almost entirely white in some cases) don’t necessarily get all that great of results. She mentioned one state (one of the Northeastern states, as I recall) that had about average or slightly below average rankings in international comparisons. Even looking back at the supposed golden age of education during the low immigration mid-20th century doesn’t offer much solace. The U.S. never has had a top ranked grade school education system.

Diversity can’t be used as an excuse (p. 17):

“Other Americans defended their system, blaming the diversity of their students for lackluster results . In his meticulous way, Schleicher responded with data: Immigrants could not be blamed for America’s poor showing. The country would have had the same ranking if their scores were ignored. In fact, worldwide, the share of immigrant children explained only 3 percent of the variance between countries.”

Also, it can’t be blamed on poverty, typically associated with immigrants and minorities. Nor can it be blamed on the public schools where immigrants and minorities are concentrated. Ripley makes this very clear (p. 17):

“A student’s race and family income mattered, but how much such things mattered varied wildly from country to country . Rich parents did not always presage high scores, and poor parents did not always presage low scores. American kids at private school tended to perform better, but not any better than similarly privileged kids who went to public school. Private school did not, statistically speaking, add much value.”

It isn’t a matter of whether or not a country has a diverse population or not, but what one does with the population one has. This relates to spending. More funding of education in itself doesn’t correlate to better results. Instead, it is about how that money is used and if it is used equitably to help all students (p. 160):

“The rest depended on what countries did with the children they had. In the United States, the practice of funding schools based on local property taxes motivated families to move into the most affluent neighborhoods they could afford, in effect buying their way into good schools. The system encouraged segregation.

“Since black, Hispanic, and immigrant kids tended to come from less affluent families , they usually ended up in underresourced schools with more kids like them. Between 1998 and 2010, poor American students had become more concentrated in schools with other poor students.

“The biggest problem with this kind of diversity is that it wasn’t actually diverse. Most white kids had majority white classmates. Black and Hispanic students, meanwhile, were more likely to attend majority black or Hispanic schools in 2005 than they were in 1980.

“Populating schools with mostly low-income, Hispanic, or African-American students usually meant compounding low scores, unstable home lives, and low expectations. Kids fed off each other, a dynamic that could work for good and for ill. In Poland, kids lost their edge as soon as they were tracked into vocational schools; likewise, there seemed to be a tipping point for expectations in the United States. On average, schools with mostly low- income kids systematically lacked the symptoms of rigor. They had inconsistent teaching quality, little autonomy for teachers or teenagers, low levels of academic drive, and less equity. By warehousing disadvantaged kids in the same schools, the United States took hard problems and made them harder.”

Once again, dysfunctional tracking in the U.S. is rooted in a history of systemic and institutional racism. Kids are tracked both in the formal and informal sense. Race and class segregation divide up students, and most of the funding is going to wealthier students and white students. It isn’t necessarily that all that extra funding is being used well by those wealthier school districts, but that the poorest school districts have so little money to use for anything, whether used well or badly. Too much funding isn’t necessarily helpful. Too little funding, however, is obviously problematic.

The discussion in America tends to focus only on the average amount of funding for each American child, all the while ignoring the vast disparity of funding between populations. This is how serious attention on the real issues gets avoided. No one wants to talk about the elephant in the room, the historical inequalities that are continually reinforced, not just inequalities between wealth and poverty but inequalities of political power and real world opportunities, inequalities of racial prejudice and privilege. These are among the most politically incorrect issues in this country.

As all of this shows, there is more going on here than can be understood in the ideological frame of mainstream American politics (pp. 163-164):

“The more time I spent in Finland, the more I started to think that the diversity narrative in the United States— the one that blamed our mediocrity on kids’ backgrounds and neighborhoods— was as toxic as funding inequities . There was a fatalism to the story line, which didn’t mean it was wrong. The United States did have too much poverty; minority students were not learning enough. Parents did matter, and so did health care and nutrition. Obviously.

“But the narrative also underwrote low aspirations, shaping the way teachers looked at their students, just as Vuorinen feared. Since the 1960s, studies have shown that if researchers tested a class and told teachers that certain students would thrive academically in the coming months, teachers behaved differently toward the chosen kids. They nodded more, smiled more, and gave those kids more time to answer questions and more specific feedback.

“In fact, the kids had been chosen at random. The label was fictional, but it stuck. At the end of the school year, teachers still described those students as more interesting, better adjusted, and more likely to be successful in life. As for other kids who had done well in the classroom, but were not chosen? The same teachers described them as less likely to succeed and less likable. The human brain depends on labels and patterns; if a researcher (or cultural narrative) offers teachers a compelling pattern, they will tend to defer to it.

“What did it mean, then, that respected U.S. education leaders and professors in teacher colleges were indoctrinating young teachers with the mindset that poverty trumped everything else? What did it mean if teachers were led to believe that they could only be expected to do so much, and that poverty was usually destiny?

“It may be human nature to stereotype, but some countries systematically reinforced the instinct, and some countries inhibited it. It was becoming obvious to me that rigor couldn’t exist without equity. Equity was not just a matter of tracking and budgets; it was a mindset.

“Interestingly, this mindset extended to special education in Finland, too. Teachers considered most special ed students to have temporary learning difficulties, rather than permanent disabilities. That mindset helped explain why Finland had one of the highest proportions of special education kids in the world; the label was temporary and not pejorative. The Finns assumed that all kids could improve. In fact, by their seventeenth birthday, about half of Finnish kids had received some kind of special education services at some point, usually in elementary school, so that they did not fall farther behind. During the 2009 to 2010 school year, about one in four Finnish kids received some kind of special education services—almost always in a normal school, for only part of the day. (By comparison, about one in eight American students received special education services that year.)”

This isn’t something unique to particular societies. It isn’t as if we must resign ourselves to a lesser fate in the global scheme of things. There is evidence that high education standards can even be achieved demographically diverse groups of students in the United States (p. 218):

“Unlike most schools in America, including the best public charter schools, these new schools were actually diverse, in the literal sense. Moskowitz wanted a true mix of white, Asian, African-American , and Hispanic students at a range of income levels, and she got it. That is how kids learn best— together, with a mix of expectations, advantages, and complications— according to the hard-earned lessons of countries around the world.

“There are stories like this all over the country: Success Academy charter schools in New York City, the closest thing to Finland in the United States; William Taylor, a public-school teacher who has almost Korean expectations for his low-income students in Washington, D.C.; and Deborah Gist in Rhode Island, a leader who has dared to raise the bar for what teachers must know, just like reformers in Finland and Korea.

“These world-class educators exist, but they are fighting against the grain of culture and institutions. That fight drains them of energy and time . If they ever win, it will be because parents and students rose up around them, convinced that our children cannot only handle a rigorous education but that they crave it as never before.”

It isn’t just that we Americans have low expectations of American students, especially poor and minority students. The real problem is we have low expectations for our entire society. We expect failure at a collective level, and it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.