The Privilege of Charity, Part I

Is the construction of “civil discourse” one that benefits those who already have power? Is my attempt to create spaces where arguments are more productive fundamentally disadvantaging to the people I might be trying to help? Is the very ability to be charitable a privilege?

I think not. But I think these are very good questions, and I’m going to address them.

The issue of the potentially privileged nature of the approach I’ve been discussing lo these many weeks can be split into two main parts: focus and ability. Focus is about the first and second questions above, in which the emphases and priorities of those who defend the approach are brought under scrutiny. In other words, do we care about the wrong things, possibly as a result of our privileged viewpoint? Ability is about the third question above, in which we must ask ourselves whether we are asking for something unreasonable. Does charity require a skill or characteristic that marginalized people tend not to have?

This post will be about focus. The next will be about ability.

The approach I’ve been outlining has three major pillars, which all intertwine and intersect:

1) Effectiveness of Persuasion: Most of the arguments I’ve made have rested on the assumption that the goal is to persuade or convince other people, whether they are in the conversations or merely observers. Given this goal, there is for every situation some optimal approach that is most likely to result in the goal being attained, even if it’s one we can’t know. I have argued that certain methods and approaches have a higher success rate than others.

2) Due Diligence: I reframed “charity” in an almost deontological way, with a basis in the belief that certain forms of discourse are good and others are bad. I defined due diligence fairly broadly, encompassing a wide variety of approaches. Nevertheless, I think there are a number of responsibilities that are incumbent on people who argue, on the internet or elsewhere. I have never stated what specifically I think falls out of this category, but Dan Fincke does an excellent job here.

Importantly, this belief is not in fact deontological, and mostly serves as the set of actions that are most likely to lead to an effective argument.

3) Charitability: The ethos of my approach can be described as one based on empathy, both of emotion, in which we understand how people feel when they are disagreed with, attacked or made to feel that their identity is threatened, and of reason, wherein we seek to understand what others believe and why.

This has an ethical component which may be somewhat separable from merely the best way to win an argument, but it, too is part of what I think is necessary for arguments to be effective.

So, one by one!

1) Is a focus on effectiveness privileged?

Yes and no. I do not think it elevates Voldemort and the Death Eaters over Dumbledore’s Army to suggest that the DA learn better and more powerful spells. It is an attempt, in fact, to do the opposite, to reduce the power differential by improving the tools of the weaker, more just, side. It fundamentally seeks to advantage the marginalized, not disadvantage them.

In some cases, the privileged, whose wands are untouched by actual battle, might appear to be cluelessly asking, “Why don’t you just use better spells?” But anyone who actually offers the olden textbooks filled with spells of hitherto unknown power is helping to make the army stronger. In doing so, they are reducing the effect of privilege, by giving the marginalized access to the quality of tool potentially restricted to the privileged, (itself an equalizing action), and then, by that very action, making the battle against the structures that marginalize in the first place more likely to be won. It is well known that there is a two-prong element to marginalization that allows it to be entrenched so deeply. First a group is marginalized, and then their marginalization removes the tools they need to fight against it. The quest for effective argument is itself two pronged, working to counter both of these elements of marginalization.

To use this West Wing example again: yes, what we see is an older white man correcting, maybe even “educating” a younger black man. Is Aaron Sorkin racist? Maybe. But is Judge Mulready doing harm to the cause of affirmative action and anti-racism? I think not. (Relevant portion 7:18-7:47)

1b) But it is the marginalized who are in the midst of the fight. Do they not know best what they need to win? And if so, is it not privileged to offer, even demand, a change of strategy that has not been asked for? Why have I not asked the marginalized (which, in most categories, I am not), what they need, and supplied that?

This gets three answers. Before I begin, though, it is worth pointing out that my arguments have not been addressed only to those involved in social justice, but to everyone who argues for anything. And insofar as they relate or have been related by me to social justice, I have not been only addressing the marginalized, but also their allies. With that in mind:

One, I have given what I think is useful. Whether or not it is rests only on the strength of my arguments in favor of the approach. If it turns out that what I have offered is useless, then perhaps I have been the clueless privileged person mentioned above, trying to change what did not need changing, or at least did not need the change I could provide. But if not, and I currently believe not, then I have helped in the best way I know how, which I believe is my ethical responsibility.

Two, as a woman, I do belong to a historically disadvantaged group. In fighting against that disadvantage, I am a feminist. That doesn’t give me the right to speak for all women or all feminists, but I think my approach would be highly useful to feminists and greatly improve the efficacy of feminist rhetoric. Given that, in my readings and research I have seen no reason why the effectiveness of argument might be helpful for feminists and not for anti-racists, or trans activists, or gay activists or anti-ableism activists. If someone has one, I would love to hear it.

Three, I belong to many historically advantaged groups. I am white. I am not poor. I am cisgendered. I am able-bodied. In the fights for equality that center around those axes of identity, I am an ally, not a member. And I believe it is precisely my job as an ally to spend a lot of time in arguments, trying to convince people to be and do better. This is even more true if it is in fact the case that being charitable is a privileged thing. Great! I’m privileged! Most of us are privileged in some form or another! Changing the minds of other privileged folks is one of the things we can do to make our privilege useful. The next blog post will expand on this greatly.

2) Due Diligence: Is a focus on due diligence privileged?

No. I do not think that agreeing on a baseline of appropriate and proper conduct in argument privileges one group over another, even if the groups have unequal power to begin with. Is this an example of what Ta-Nehisi Coates calls a “dehumanizing hyper-morality”, in which we require of the marginalized goodness far beyond their humanity in dealing with oppressors? No, I do not think so. In an age where there are few physical barriers to being heard (though of course there are others), I think there are ethical standards that are entirely reasonable for anyone engaging in argument. We do not abuse; we do not bully; we do not use damaging slurs. Look at the list I created; is it truly asking too much? I again point my readers to this Dan Fincke piece where he explains these ideas in full.  And again, I think due diligence makes us more effective against the effects of privilege. It’s hard to see, then, if I am correct, how it could itself be privileged.

3) Is a focus on charitability privileged?

No. It certainly looks as if it could be, since the concept might frequently be applied to Social Justice Warriors, claiming they should be charitable to privileged people, a situation which looks suspiciously like protecting the privileged from criticism. But it does not need to be so. First, I must reiterate, that I believe and have argued that charitability makes arguments more effective. It is a rare thing that more knowledge is a hindrance rather than a help. Knowing our opponents, how they make their arguments and what compels them to believe what they do, can only help us convince them. Second, it is a core social justice concept that the privileged are in general not themselves the oppressors. They are caught up in an oppressive system, just like everyone else. It happens to be that they benefit from it, and often perpetuate it, but they are not it. It is a tragedy that white people have learned that their worth lies in their superiority and entitlement. It is a tragedy that men are taught that their masculinity rests on dominance and physical prowess. It is a tragedy that straight people have so little confidence in their expressions of love that they must institutionalize them to protect them. The humanization (and subsequent persuasion) of these opponents, then, is as fundamental to the work of social justice as everything else.

Previous Posts About Better Arguing 

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In Which Geek Culture Is Not, In Fact, Perfect: Female Role Models

So there’s this image going around:

What’s going on here? Female Role Models are selected from “popular culture” and “geek culture,” the viewer is supposed to instantly understand how vastly superior the latter are. Why?

Well, since much of geek culture is constructed and circumscribed by the all-important trait of knowing and caring nothing of “celebrities” and “popular culture”, it’s probably not because everyone recognizes all of the women on top, realizes that by their actions or opinions they are poor role models for young girls and thus agrees with the image. More likely the women being cast into the “NO” pile for what one might want one’s daughters to be fall into two categories: Try As They Might To Deny It, Geeks Know Some Celebrities And These Are Some Of Them That They Know And Hate and Scantily Dressed. Note: These categories are not mutually exclusive. In fact, they pretty much overlap entirely.

Snooki (top left) and Kim Kardashian (middle top), as near as I can tell, are famous because they are famous. I’ve never seen Keeping up with the Kardashians or Jersey Shore, so maybe I’m not qualified to discuss, but they have personalities and lives which people like to observe. It may not be everyone’s dream for their child, but I’m having trouble understanding why they’re really all that bad. Kristen Stewart makes the line-up more complicated, since I’m almost certain that she’s meant to be representing not herself, but Bella Swan. If anyone knows of any particular reason Kristen Stewart is a bad person/role model, they should let me know in comments. I’m not going to discuss the matter of whether or not Bella Swan is a good role model. She’s certainly boy-obsessed, largely passive and strangely non-troubled by some very problematic behavior on the part of her suitors, but she’s als0 intelligent and has sexual agency. So…it’s complicated?

I’m really baffled as to why Lady Gaga is on the list. She’s an LGBT activist, a philanthropist, a kink-aware artist and she likes to play with social norms through fashion and other behavior. The problem is what? That she’s a conventionally attractive woman who is dressed sexily in the photo shown? Wouldn’t want my daughter ever wearing less clothing than I deem appropriate. Gross. Nothing at all like any of the women in the bottom column (*cough* all the way on the left *cough*). In fact, it seems like that might be the problem with all of the women on the top row. They’re conventionally sexy/are in pictures that are geared to illustrate that fact, and we’re supposed to hate them for it.

It’s that, or it’s that they represent pop culture, which we’re supposed to hate all the time anyway. (This notion deserves its own post).

On the other hand, the characters in the bottom row are sexy, but not over sexualized. They’re talented, intelligent, respected, in positions of leadership and can wield a weapon with flair and skill. Great! Go Geek Culture! No problems here.

You, convenient foil in the back, you want to say something?

“Yes, I think it might be worthwhile to recognize that the women on the top (aside from Bella Swan) are real people whereas those on the bottom are fictional, meaning that the potential perfection and badassery is much higher for the Geek Culture set.”

An excellent point. On the right, obligatory Devil’s Advocate, you have a response?

“Ok, but it’s still important to point out that popular culture glorifies women who aren’t famous for any particularly admirable characteristics like those mentioned above but rather for more superficial traits whereas geek culture does a much better job elevating useful and important aspects of womanhood in their portrayals thereof.”

*snort* Sorry, that was unladylike. While I finish laughing, I’ll let Ellen Lundgren (who also blogged about this very issue here) explain why that’s ridiculous.

Well said (though she did not create the image).

It’s still complicated. For example, Leia is indeed dressed gratuitously sexily and the outfit she is wearing is intended to make her a sex object. But that’s the only time in the movie where that occurs, it’s a punishment by the villain, and she’s a generally badass character. Also, Carrie Fisher requested more interesting outfits to wear.

But it’s by far the most common portrayal of her at Comic/Nerd/Geek Conventions, and dressing that way is highly rewarded by the Geek Community. (Please go read that link, it’s wonderful, and the video linked directly prior is very telling). Sexism is a problem in Geek Culture, and that means it cannot go around claiming that it is a producer of solely Good Role Models for Girls. Ellen is totally right to point that out.

If you’re still skeptical, go check out Geek Feminism. And these analyses of the Starfire reboot. And how female superhero’s bodies are contorted in sci-fi and comic books. And the way Anita Sarkeesian of the amazing Feminist Frequency has been treated for attempting to explore the way women are portrayed in popular videogames. Then come back and tell me you want your daughters (or sons, for that matter) growing up in unexamined geek culture.

Absolutely buy your daughter a ray gun instead of a Barbie*. But don’t consider yourself the enlightened elite unless you’re fighting the battle on other fronts, too. No free passes.

*For the purposes of this post, we’re ignoring the problems with glorifying violence for children, the disconnect between the admirable traits of intelligence, leadership and self-respect demonstrated by the characters in the bottom row of the first picture and what a ray-gun signifies, the gender essentializing and socializing and the possible femme-phobia associated with the denigration of a doll.

Identity Confusion Part 2: Wading out of the mud

I realize that my last post was pretty incoherent, and so I want to write a follow-up piece, one I hope will be shorter and actually have a thesis. In particular, I want to respond to some excellent criticisms that my mother has levied at me.

She pointed out, to begin with, that I didn’t even bother to define ‘identity’ and that’s true. I thought I had good reason not to, given that I was trying to explore intuition rather than give an exhaustive account, but perhaps I was wrong. So to begin with, I’d like to define identity as a composite of three major elements: the psychological and philosophical phenomenon that is a result of memory and consciousness, the sense of ‘I’ that traces out a path through time and space, that is consistent and coherent and develops in a continuous fashion (by the way, note the last sentence of the first paragraph of the Wiki article); the sociological position of existing at the intersection of various communities and societies which help us define ourselves and choose our paths in life; and then the intuitive notion of identity as a deeply significant emergent property which is inherent in us from birth, which comes about as a result of the other two.

The argument I’m proposing is that we gain a better understanding of where our intuitions about identity come from and acknowledge the utility and disutility that come about as a result.

To the best of my knowledge, our psychological and philosophical conceptions of self and identity come mainly from consciousness, that state of being self-aware and having the capacity to recognize an autonomous self, and memory, the capacity to recognize this self as the same self that has existed at other times, in other forms and in other places. This psychological quirk of humans (and possibly other animals) is, one might argue, the defining characteristic of our species. Even if it’s not unique to humans, it is what makes possible the vast majority of what we do. Without a conception of being individuals, of being autonomous beings, I can’t say that I know what humanity would look like. Without a doubt, then, this inborn identificatory mechanism does a great deal of good. Of course, this has a lot of problems. Where, for example, does consciousness come from? Well, the brain, but to be honest, we don’t really understand it (though Dennett thinks he does), and it seems difficult to say what is and is not important. When does someone in a vegetative state cease to be a person? If you are copied and one copy is killed, is it murder? Of whom? More on this later.

Then there’s the sociological conception of identity, in which we are defined by the communities to which we belong, whether we are born into them or we choose them. This could be religion, ethnicity, subcultural interests, place of birth or something else. These are also important to humans, to being human. They give us communities of people similar to us in a variety of ways, they make us feel happy, they give us a sense of belonging. There is no doubt that a humanity without partitioning into subsections based on a number of characteristics would either be a singular community, one that some feel is the future of humans, or a vast network of unconnected autonomous agents, which would probably be undesired by most people. 
So far, everything seems fine. Identity is shown to exist by natural and social sciences alike, it makes us human, and it does a great deal of good. Well, sure, but it’s what we do with that information that begins to disturb me. I mentioned a third aspect of identity above and it’s that one I think I was discussing last time. The intense significance identity holds in our lives bothers and frustrates me when it appears that we are giving it far more power than it ought to have. So let’s problematize the issue. 
Who are you?
Make a list, if you like, of all of the things you are. Maybe they’re nouns, maybe adjectives. Some of them will be capitalized. I’m sure you’ll object that there’s an immaterial general sensation of being yourself that is impossible to convey in a list, and that’s fine, write that down, too. 

Now, let’s play Armchair Philosophical Thought Experiment. If you turned out to be a brain in a vat, would you still be you? If there were a brain in a vat that had all of your memories but was physically distinct from your brain, would that be you? How would you feel about being cloned? Would someone with all of the characteristics on the list be you?
I hope what becomes clear is that what matters is the sense that you are you, not any ‘actual fact’ of being you, and that is really only in your brain. Which does not I repeat does not mean that you are not real, or that your identity isn’t real. As Dumbledore says, “Of course it is happening inside your head…but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?”. It just means that given the logical reasoning you’re able to accomplish, your identity is only based on you thinking you have one, having the ability to consider having one. And that means that your identity is a self-constructed object, pulled from selectively chosen and carefully framed memory, tempered and modified as contexts change. There’s certainly something real about your history, but what your mind chooses to recognize as itself is another thing entirely. Or else do you never feel like you do things that are ‘out of character.’ Are you you when you’re drunk, or high? When are you most quintessentially you, then?
More Thought Experiments. What kind of person are you? Are you kind, decent, nice to people? Above average in most ways? Intelligent, thoughtful, prone to changing your mind when you need to? Do you act in approximately similar ways at most times? Are you a special snowflake? Are you good at imagining what it is to be other people? Are you a tolerant, unprejudiced individual?

Well, probably not, or at least not at all times. We think that we’re consistent, but we in fact behave in wildly different ways depending on our circumstances. We hate changing our minds, rationalizing to infinity to avoid it, especially when it challenges any deeply or emotionally strongly held identity. We care about being kind to people in our in-groups more than people in our out-groups. And none of this makes a bit of difference when you’re asked to describe yourself to others. Want more evidence? You’ve probably heard of the study in which people are given psychological profiles, which they rank as highly accurate, not knowing that they all got the same one. We’re all pretty similar, even though we don’t like to admit it, and furthermore, in the ways in which we are different, we just imagine what we would do in any given situation and work based on that. All of these things we consider ourselves to be, all of these traits we pride ourselves on, they don’t appear to be all that true. And you’re probably a racist.

Finally, what do the groups you count yourself a part of say about you? Does being Jewish really say anything substantive about you? What does it even mean to be a woman, or a man, or neither? There are countless words that we use to refer to concepts that seem to be simply indescribable; they simply are, and we associate powerful identities with these things we can’t explain. But given the vast diversity within the people who identify in a certain way (do Democrats all agree? What about neo-Platonists?), what are we really saying? Or are we muddling through, hoping people understand that intangibles we’re trying to get across?
Some answers:

Clearly, we have much more to learn about psychological identity, but it does seem that our intuition does alright by us, that generally our bodies circumscribe our identities, that our brains are the locus of self and that we are the same people as we move through time. So that’s not so bad. We’ve never really had to deal with aliens, Star Trek or teleportation, and so perhaps it doesn’t matter. But it should really be acknowledged that we don’t have good answers to these questions, and so maybe we shouldn’t put so much stock into the answers we have.

As for how we think of ourselves in terms of positive characteristics, there are very good reasons for favorable self-conceptions. It’s how we stop ourselves from being depressed, it’s how we have the psychological immune system that keeps us happy most of the time, no matter what happens. And yet, if we ignore the facts about the ways we think and the ways we treat and think about other people, we’ll never be able to improve ourselves. If we think we’re excellent, rational thinkers, how will we overcome our biases? If we think we’re consistent and need to be, how will we change our minds when we need to? If we think we are the same around different types of people, how will we learn to act appropriately in different situations, or learn not to judge others for doing the same? And if we think that none of us are racists or sexists anymore, then we won’t respond well to being called out on it, and feminism will stay middle-class and white and no one will think objectification is a problem.
Also, while communities and identity labels are important and feel good and give us a sense of belonging, we can’t be giving up anything just to belong to an incoherent cluster concept. Most identities really are empirical dense spots in concept-space, but there’s plenty of variance in there, and while identifying yourself publicly can make an excellent political statement, there’s no reason to subscribe to the whole list just because you already fulfill a lot of it. If you’re a woman you don’t need to dress a certain way, look a certain way, have sex with men. If you’re a Jew you don’t need to believe in Biblical inerrancy just because you believe in god, or be halachically observant just because your mother was Jewish. These get pretty complicated, of course, but the point is that there’s no need to appropriate a whole set of characteristics for yourself just because they happen to be highly correlated over a population.
In the final analysis, identity is an emergent property, and the thing about emergent properties is that they vanish when you dig in a little. They are real, they are important, but they are not unquestionably fundamental aspects of our lives, unless we make them so. For all of the benefits they give us, there are drawbacks, and we should question these identities whenever they unduly affect us.

The Philosophy and Politics of Education, Part 1

Author’s note: This was going to be one post about how the ideas contained in my last post might be applied and seen being applied in events taking place across the country, but then it ended up being almost 3000 words, so I’m splitting it up. Also, I’m trying a smaller font. If I have any readers, I would appreciate them letting me know which they prefer.

Actual post:

At the University of Chicago, where I go to school, there is a tradition of the Aims of Education speech. Every year, the first years, during their Orientation Week, are asked to go to Rockefeller Chapel with their houses to hear that year’s speaker discuss the aims of education. This is an honor for the speaker, not only because it’s a long tradition, but because this school so strongly prizes the investigation and application of exactly that question, of what it is that a school is for. Their attempts to reach the proper aims are clear, from the Core to the Fundamentals major. But the search goes on. The tradition stems from Alfred North Whitehead’s address to the Mathematical Association of England in 1916, which was as far from a detailed tractate on the teaching of mathematics as can be imagined. Instead, it was a paean to vision, a plea to progressivism, a fervent request that education and learning never be allowed to stagnate, so that we would create a generation of thinkers instead of simply knowers. As he says, 

“A merely well-informed man is the most useless bore on God’s earth. What we should aim at producing is men who possess both culture and expert knowledge in some special direction. Their expert knowledge will give them the ground to start from, and their culture will lead them as deep as philosophy and as high as art.”

And he’s simply not the only one. I know I’ve discussed this before as I see it, and also as countless others have, but I’m struck by how present these lovely images of the role of education are, even if they do not manifest themselves so proudly in our educational system. And it’s intriguing to me to see how these ideas do and do not play out.

For example, Bertrand Russell, in his own piece on education, said, 

“The conception which I should substitute as the purpose of education is civilization, a term which, as I mean it, has a definition which is partly individual, partly social. It consists, in the individual, of both intellectual and moral qualities: intellectually, a certain minimum of general knowledge, technical skill in one’s own profession, and a habit of forming opinions on evidence; morally, of impartiality, kindliness, and a modicum of self-control. I should add a quality which is neither moral nor intellectual, but perhaps physiological: zest and joy of life. In communities, civilization demands respect for law, justice as between man and man, purposes not involving permanent injury to any section of the human race, and intelligent adaptation of means to ends. If these are to be the purpose of education, it is a question for the science of psychology to consider what can be done towards realizing them, and, in particular, what degree of freedom is likely to prove most effective.”

Don’t you love that last sentence? That in the midst of an imaginative discourse (which is still more rational than most of the uplifting manifestos about the cultivation of excellence in a citizen), he appeals to consequentialism, pointing out that we have a fairly solid idea of what we’d like to see, even if we can’t formalize that quite yet. After that, the role of philosophy is over, and we look for effectiveness in achieving that goal. That’s really all I meant by my support for testing, and for pilot programs, so that we can see what works. It’s also deeply important that once we have a sense of some truth or another, we acknowledge it and work with it.

So I applaud the efforts of many around the country who are following exactly this thinking. For example, in New York, there’s this: “100 New York Schools Try Common Core Approach“. It’s a trial program, put in place to try to change education to be more engaging, more general and more the type of education that could produce well-rounded thinkers. If it doesn’t work, they’ll try something else. Essentially, exactly what we should be doing. I especially like this teacher who “On a recent Wednesday closed a unit on the meaning of the American dream not by assigning a first-person essay, as she once did, but by asking each student to interview an immigrant and write a profile of the person.” 

It not only gives the students a better understanding of the issues involved, but it teaches them personal skills, including how to conduct an interview. It allows them to put a human face to the abstract English and history they’re learning, and is all-in-all a fantastic idea. I hope the students got a lot out of it. I also feel that the program demonstrates a smart approach because it relies on an understanding of pedagogy and the importance of teaching in reformulating education. This trial is not only about the students, but about teachers, and giving them freedom to try new tactics that just might work, as well as encouraging them to raise the standards of the classroom. But the best part is the criticism, which in this article came from Timothy Shanahan, a professor of urban education at the University of Illinois at Chicago, who that “the standards make no adjustments for students who are learning English or for children who might enter kindergarten without having been exposed to books”. It excites me because it’s a criticism from within the system, seeking to improve what is a good idea by pointing out the unfortunate fact that exterior circumstance often impact the success of education in powerful ways. It leaves the discussion open to keep looking for what might work better.

And that, in fact, is addressed here: The Limits of School Reform. Social factors, which I discussed last time, play a major role in education. That shouldn’t be something so-called reformers are scared of admitting. Firstly, it’s not as if the schools themselves don’t need changing; clearly that work is still immensely valuable. Secondly, as previously discussed, schools themselves can affect the social environment around them, and in fact, where possible, would seem to have an obligation to do just that. And thirdly, if you’re a reformer, you should be welcoming data which will help you do your job better. This is hard, and it doesn’t have simple answers. Clearly, children who work to support their families, or are often sick, will have difficulty being present in class. If things are difficult at home, they may fail to complete their assignments, or they may exhibit signs of attention disorders or learning disabilities. They’ll also tend to score poorly on IQ tests. But again, that’s an unfortunate truth we should be facing head on. Consequentialism – we all have the same goals in the end, for the most part, don’t we? So, as is said in the article, “To admit the importance of a student’s background, they fear, is to give ammo to the enemy — which to them are their social-scientist critics and the teachers’ unions. But that shouldn’t be the case. Making schools better is always a goal worth striving for, whether it means improving pedagogy itself or being able to fire bad teachers more easily. “
Always a goal worth striving for, indeed.

Evaluating Education, Evenhandedly

A story went around the interwebs a couple weeks ago that garnered many stories and more opinions. Unsurprisingly, it focused on a traditionally controversial subject which features prominently in politics at various levels, and a divisive figure. Given that that description could refer to any number of topics, I’ll end the suspense (if you didn’t figure it out from the title): education. (Which I’ve talked about before, by the way).

You’ve probably heard about Michelle Rhee: wonderwoman, education radical, fearless reformer, draconian, unfeeling witch who wants to pump students out like so many mass-produced cans of tuna. By which I mean to say, there are a range of opinions regarding Ms. Rhee and her testing paradigm, which came under some scrutiny in the media after reports surfaced that may have indicated widespread cheating by the DC teachers during Rhee’s chancellorship of that public school system. All of the traditional divisions came up in full strength, with conservatives, anti-teacher unionites and Ms. Rhee herself defending the results as well as the program itself, and liberals, pro-unionites and teacher advocates leaping on the reports and declaring that not only had there been cheating, but that such cheating was an inevitable part of the overly pressurized, teach-to-the-test system imposed on DC schools.

Such a range of opinions does not exist when it comes to the state of public education in this country in general. It’s awful. We know. So what do we do about it? When faced with a problem this seemingly intractable, my first reaction might be to either throw up my hands in the air or go with the liberal opinion, given how often I tend to fall on that side. But this is actually a great example of an issue which is important enough to spend time researching and considering, complex enough to warrant some attention and distillation of the maelstrom of information and viewpoints that exist on the internet, difficult enough to be interesting and political enough that one needs to be cautious wading into the mix. Which means that it’s a great subject on which to practice rational, disinterested analysis, given in particular that it’s incredibly difficult, because children and the next generation and our dearly beloved public school teachers and all that are at stake. I say this with some sarcasm, but also self-deprecatingly, because this all worries me as well.

So, the basic story is that Michelle Rhee thinks that the problems with the school system are that the incentives aren’t in the right place, because teachers have tenure and aren’t held accountable for their skill at teaching or the results they produce. Her system gathers empirical data from standardized tests administered each year, ruthlessly fires bad teachers regardless of seniority and makes sure that kids keep doing better every year. It turns out that this system seems to have worked. A good, if perhaps overly generous summary is here. The problem is that there are suspicious patterns of erasures from wrong to right answers which might indicate cheating.

Here, Michelle Rhee defends herself. A friend sent me this article, and asked me to respond, which is really how this blog post got started (which also explains why this is written in a somewhat less formal tone). In the piece, she really doesn’t say anything new or radical, she just defends her record against all the allegations of cheating that have been going on. I think the evidence is very murky. The evidence in her favor is certainly considerable, but much of it may not have been her at all. Testing district based on a few years of data is notoriously difficult, and some of the work, such as facilities upgrading, is done by a completely different agency than the DC Public Schools System. More can be read at the links above. The cheating is hard to prove, especially since the testing service only releases certain data.

But, as a broader issue, my brilliant rational analysis has led me to the following…I’m loath to say conclusions, since most of the work that I’ve done here is, I think, asking the right questions. That’s almost always my approach, since if we can agree on the important values and ends we’d like achieved, the rest is just empirical. With that caveat, I’m pretty sure the main points are as follows:

1. What is education for? Whose interests are at stake, and which need to be protected?
2. How do we find out whether it’s happening?
3. How do we fix it if it’s not? What are the underlying causes of the difficulties in our educational system?


Obviously, this is political, social, sociological, economic and everything else you can think of, which is why it’s so damn complicated. Preliminary answers, from a progressive concerns with outcomes rather than means:

What Education is For:
1. Education is for creating a certain type of citizen. It’s often emphasized that we need to encourage math and science education, which is to say we are trying to create productive, economically fruitful citizens for the purpose of our national economy and for their own ability to sustain themselves. For example, I say this with some knowledge of the values of a system that includes vocational schools, and the arguments in favor of making an institutional distinction between those with working class skills and jobs and those with service class skills and jobs. It might be the case, for example, that that sort of division makes it easier for everyone to develop a minimum level of skills needed to succeed and become economically independent and to be a productive member of society.

Others argue, and I tend to agree with them, that what we need is broader than that. I still think it needs to be firmly defined and if at all possible, operationalized, so don’t think I have some nebulous conception of an idealized Montessori-for-everyone system (as awesome as those schools are). I think we need to be cultivating critical thinking, logical reasoning, the ability to amass and process data in productive ways, argue, employ and critique rhetoric, understand abstract concepts. We should be instilling the valuing of knowledge, of empathy and understanding, of science and its capacity to understand and change the world. We should be teaching science as well as scientific thinking, math as well as formal logical thinking, history and an understanding of narratives and politics, economics, politics and how they work, and absolutely the ability to write well. These qualities are necessary for a functioning democracy, they serve national interests, and they are also vital for allowing people to self-actualize.

How we gain insight into our educational system:
2. Testing. Absolutely. I would never argue against the use of empirical data to understand whether or not important things are happening. I get fairly apoplectic when I see the phrase, “policies that over-rationalize teaching and learning.” Over-rationalize? As if rationality isn’t the way to go? The problems are: what are we testing, and what are the effects of testing? The answer to the second is clear: not always, but often, teaching to the test, overly standardized classrooms and teacher cheating. The reason for this, I think, is because of the answer to the first question, which is mostly multiple choice questions about specific knowledge bases. If we had broader questions, more essays and questions about critical thinking, (tests for which have been developed. Mostly, they’re just incredibly expensive to proctor and grade), then it would be hard to teach to the test, and even if it happened, the kids would be being taught the right things. I’m still in support of specific knowledge, of course; people need to be mathematically and scientifically literate. But we absolutely need to test better. I happen to agree with Michelle Rhee that cheating is probably not that common, and anyway, it would be much harder to cheat on these tests.

What the problems are:
3. Poverty, race, marginalization, poor parent involvement, not enough money, not enough ideas, poor health and yes, in some part, bad teachers. So what do we do? A few things. We should absolutely be funding, probably on a federal level, extracurricular activities, after school programs, breakfasts, clubs, sports, medical facilities on campus for free, etc. These are proven to raise student performance and also increase the well-being of entire communities. See here, here and here. They allow parents to work throughout the day and make more money, make school a safe and healthy environment, keep kids off the streets and reduce the disparity between wealthy neighborhoods and poorer neighborhoods.

As for ideas, somehow we need to encourage alternative learning methods like plays and dance and projects for students who learn differently. We don’t have to test them differently, but we should teach differently. We should definitely be launching pilot programs. Charter schools are great for this, when they’re not funded by corporate interests who want all schools privatized. Longer school years would be great.

And sure, we should fire bad teachers. With good tests as well as a good understanding of pedagogy, we can see who those are. There’s a metric, for example, called “value added“, which measures how much teachers add to a student’s ability in a year, regardless of the starting point. We know that bigger classes with better teachers are better than smaller classes with worse teachers. I’m ok with bonuses and performance pay mostly, I’m just worried about what that’s going to incentivize, because it may not be creativity. What would be really helpful would be higher standards (they should have a degree in what they’re teaching and we should pay for them to get masters degrees in education) and pay them all much more money to get the good ones. Unions can play a great role in this. We focus so much on teacher tenure and such, but unions do other things as well. I worry, for example, that this more dynamic, market-based system might cause more movement of teachers between schools, and that lack of continuity can be bad for children’s learning and development.

These are my ideas, and they’re probably overly idealistic and would cost a lot of money, but it might help us rethink how we approach education. At least we should be asking the right questions.


EDIT: I forgot to mention that many of the ideas I have here about the importance of alternative methods of learning and the construction of citizens I got from Martha Nussbaum’s new book, Not for Profit. Although, I suppose I should point out that the ancient Greeks pretty much had those things figured out, with the balance between gymnastics, music and mathematics, and education as cultivation. Also pretty much every political philosopher ever had this opinion about education.

Abortion Rights Curtailed

News from South Dakota!I’m pro-choice. I support the right to abortion. So excuse me if I get a touch irritated when attempted violations of that right are being made in what seems like every state government in this country.

Which brings us to South Dakota. 

Governor Dennis Daugaard passed a law on March 22 that makes women in South Dakota who are seeking abortions to go to a pregnancy help center so as to receive assistance and advice intended “to help the mother keep and care for her child.”

Things wrong with this bill:

1. Stop making it harder for women to have abortions! This is a difficult decision already, and it’s really no business of the state government what medical procedures women are undergoing as a result of decisions they’ve made themselves.

2. So now, they have to go to a pregnancy help center. They have to go to their doctor, then hike off to some clinic with fluorescent lighting and overly smiley attendants, then go back to their doctor. After three days. They clearly aren’t capable of making the decisions themselves, so they need help. Government-mandated help, to tell them all of the options, because, you know, abortion, pregnancy and adoption constitute an incredibly difficult list to memorize. And women need it told to them in simple terms.

3. Even worse, since the kind of consultation described above is present in other states as well, these pregnancy help centers must be staffed by anti-abortionists. I cannot believe this is even legal. The women have to go to centers (which have a disgustingly disingenuous title, by the way) to be talked at, excuse me, to, by pro-life ideologues whose job it is to convince these women that they’re making the wrong decision. The response from a founder of one of these centers? “What are they so afraid of?” Ms. Unruh asked. “That women might change their minds?” What this disgustingly flippant answer fails to address is concerns that women might be bullied, badgered, intimidated, shamed, guilted or psychologically harmed because unqualified anti-choicers are making them feel dirty, immoral and incapable of making autonomous medical decisions. I’m sure that worry is completely unfounded.

And it gets more ridiculous. South Dakota already has the lowest abortion rate in country except for Wyoming and Idaho, less than a third of the national rate. Doctors already have to drive in from Minnesota to perform abortions. Those doctors are heroes, by the way. But of course more restrictions are necessary. Even more than the one-day waiting period and counseling informing women that their abortion “will terminate the life of a whole, separate, unique living human being” that are already in effect.

Why? Why are the Republicans doing this? According to Roger Hunt, one of the legislators, 

“There’s greater assurance that a woman considering an abortion is going to be fully informed about all the risks and about all the options. That’s not being done at the current time.”

So, basically, because they can. What nonsense. All of this anti-choice propaganda is being thrown at women all the time. They know what their options are. Furthermore, Planned Parenthood tells them everything they need to know. They’re an incredible organization.
Unfortunately, that hasn’t been emphasized as it should. The NYT article says 

“Each side regularly accuses the other of manipulating and coercing women.” 

This is a perfect example of bullshit centrist journalism. Yes, they regularly accuse each other. But only one of those is true. The New York Times never bothers to do the journalism required to tell the readers the truth. Instead, they leave it to the Planned Parenthood president, who explained exactly what the excellent policies of Planned Parenthood are, and says, perfectly, 

“They’re not licensed, they’re not regulated, they’re not accredited and they’re openly ideological…[The fact that women are] legally mandated to be coerced by people who aren’t even medical professionals — not that they should be coerced by anyone — is really beyond the pale.”

At the end of the day, this is just Republicans passing anti-woman legislation and not bothering to do anything about, you know, jobs, or anything else important. So glad half the country identifies with this party.


Types of Freedom

Here’s a link about financial reform before the recent bill was passed, along with my commentary.

The first thing to notice is that the author is straightforward about literally wanting the banks to have less money. To be honest, I’m not sure how I feel about that. I mean, how do you democratically and morally take money away from banks in a way that evidence shows does the most good? It’s a hard question. I mean, certainly the idea that too much money = too much control over democracy certainly seems to make sense, both a priori and in looking at the state of this country. A recent conversation with a libertarian friend had him declaring that if government interfered less, businesses would have far less incentive to interfere at all. There are several problems with that, starting with the fact that special interest groups exist in order to ask for benefits even without precedent, and that businesses would always have incentives to buy out senators.


But, if we take that as a philosophical idea, here are my thoughts.

There are many types of freedoms. For example: economic, political and individual freedom. I thought, as a civil libertarian and socialist, I’d come to the conclusion that economic freedom is just different, it can be excluded in a way that the others can’t. Perhaps because money breeds money, because the gap between the rich and the poor is growing, not shrinking, because without money people live on the streets and starve and die or because money has an undue influence on democracy.

But thinking about it now, that’s not how it is. It’s exactly the same as the others. In some cases you need negative freedoms, that is, the freedom to not be taxed to death, to not have to purchase something in particular from some place in particular, just as you need to be able to not be stopped from going where you like and saying what you like. But you also need positive freedoms, like the right to go vote, the positive participation in democracy. In economic terms, that might mean freedom from want, freedom from the fear and undue stress that comes from abject and even not so abject poverty.

Some things I’ve been reading recently have made me rethink my stance on what can be learned from the ever-feared socialist and otherwise repressive governments of the 20th century and their (I argue tenuous) connections to FDR and New Deal-style democracy. What role does economic freedom play? Is it that individual freedoms are great but must be put in the context of society? Is economic freedom fundamentally different? Si Kahn, famous community organizer during the civil rights movement, whose book, Organizing: A Guide for Grassroots Leaders, I think, really said it when he noted that we may very well have learned the wrong lessons from the vast amount of totalitarian oppression and restriction of freedom in the 20th century. We learned that government was scary and bad. What we should have learned was that lots of things are scary and bad (Chomsky and Brandeis would say that big things are scary and bad) and that maybe we should look at what those are exactly and what institutions and resources we have in place at our disposal.

So we know that poverty and death and segregation and concentration camps and lack of security are bad. So we have corporations, who sometimes aid and fund all those things (if you think that I’m exaggerating, look at for-profit prisons), that we can ostensibly control using our money and our free choices. And we have governments, which often do all of those things, that we can supposedly control through the democratic process. We also know that when properly used, both can be forces for good. And what’s really cool about being progressive, and thus following a consequentialist ethic in how we get to a freer, more egalitarian society, is you can say, well great, let’s play these massive, ineradicable forces off against each other. So let’s put in some laws that protect people (like FDIC and the Fed’s emergency funds) but be sure that there are strict regulations (like Glass-Steagal/Volcker or all the regulation that Dick Cheney took away from oil drilling).

Then the corporations have less power and money to screw with democracy and hurt us. Because democracy is good, it’s a positive right we have. And we, the people, are good, and ought not to be hurt. And then when government fails us, as it often does, and we note that democracy is standing in the way of democracy, then we do something else, maybe in the private sector, maybe through community organizing maybe through moving our money from big banks to community ones. Remember that the progressive way is to use things as a means to an end. Everyone, especially libertarians and tea partiers, learned the wrong lessons. Government really can work for us, and the political process is really important. But also, we can force big forces to work for us.

States are not moral agents, people are, and can impose moral standards on powerful institutions.”
– Noam Chomsky


Or something like that.