Education

Allitt, Patrick. I'm the Teacher, You're the Student. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005. ISBN 0-8122-1887-6.
This delightfully written and enlightening book provides a look inside a present-day university classroom. The author, a professor of history at Emory University in Atlanta, presents a diary of a one semester course in U.S. history from 1877 to the present. Descriptions of summer programs at Oxford and experiences as a student of Spanish in Salamanca Spain (the description of the difficulty of learning a foreign language as an adult [pp. 65–69] is as good as any I've read) provide additional insight into the life of a professor. I wish I'd had a teacher explain the craft of expository writing as elegantly as Allitt in his “standard speech” (p. 82). The sorry state of undergraduate prose is sketched in stark detail, with amusing howlers like, “Many did not survive the harsh journey west, but still they trekked on.” Although an introductory class, students were a mix of all four undergraduate years; one doesn't get a sense the graduating seniors thought or wrote any more clearly than the freshmen. Along the way, Allitt provides a refresher course in the historical period covered by the class. You might enjoy answering the factual questions from the final examination on pp. 215–218 before and after reading the book and comparing your scores (answers are on p. 237—respect the honour code and don't peek!). The darker side of the educational scene is discussed candidly: plagiarism in the age of the Internet; clueless, lazy, and deceitful students; and the endless spiral of grade inflation. What grade would you give to students who, after a semester in an introductory undergraduate course, “have no aptitude for history, no appreciation for the connection between events, no sense of how a historical situation changes over time, [who] don't want to do the necessary hard work, … skimp on the reading, and can't write to save their lives” (p. 219)—certainly an F? Well, actually, no: “Most of them will get B− and a few really hard cases will come in with Cs”. And, refuting the notion that high mean grade point averages at elite schools simply reflect the quality of the student body and their work, about a quarter of Allitt's class are these intellectual bottom feeders he so vividly evokes.

January 2005 Permalink

Bloom, Allan. The Closing of the American Mind. New York: Touchstone Books, 1988. ISBN 0-671-65715-1.

June 2001 Permalink

Brandon, Craig. The Five-Year Party. Dallas: BenBella Books, 2010. ISBN 978-1935251-80-4.
I suspect that many readers of Tom Wolfe's I Am Charlotte Simmons (October 2010) whose own bright college days are three or four decades behind them will conclude that Wolfe embroidered quite a bit upon the contemporary campus scene in the interest of telling an entertaining tale. In this book, based upon the author's twelve years of experience teaching journalism at Keene State College in New Hampshire and extensive research, you'll get a factual look at what goes on at “party schools”, which have de-emphasised education in favour of “retention”—in other words, extracting the maximum amount of money from students and their families, and burdening them with crushing loans which make it impossible for graduates to accumulate capital in those early years which, due to compounding, are so crucial. In fact, Charlotte Simmons actually paints a better picture of college life than that which awaits most freshmen arriving on campus: Charlotte's fictional Dupont University was an élite school, with at least one Nobel Prize winner on the faculty, and although corrupted by its high-profile athletic program, enforced genuine academic standards for the non-athlete student body and had real consequences for failure to perform.

Not so at party schools. First of all, let's examine what these “party schools” are. What they're not is the kind of small, private, liberal arts college parodied in Animal House. Instead, the lists of top party schools compiled annually by Playboy and the Princeton Review are overwhelmingly dominated by huge, taxpayer-supported, state universities. In the most recent set of lists, out of a total of twenty top party schools, only two were private institutions. Because of their massive size, state party schools account for a large fraction of the entire U.S. college enrollment, and hence are representative of college life for most students who do not enter the small number of élite schools which are feeders for the ruling class.

As with most “public services” operated by governments, things at these state institutions of “higher education” are not what they appear to be on the surface, and certainly not what parents expect when they send their son or daughter off on what they have been led to believe is the first step toward a promising career. The first lie is in the very concept of a “four-year college”: with today's absurd relaxation of standards for dropping classes, lighter class loads, and “retention” taking priority over selecting out those unsuited to instruction at the college level, only a minority of students finish in four years, and around half take more than five years to graduate, with only about 54% graduating even in six years. Apart from the wasted years of these students' lives, this means the price tag, and corresponding debt burden of a college education is 25%, 50%, or even more above the advertised sticker price, with the additional revenue going into the college's coffers and providing no incentive whatsoever to move students through the system more rapidly.

But the greatest scandal and fraud is not the binge drinking, widespread drug use, casual sex, high rates of serious crime covered up by a campus disciplinary system more interested in preserving the reputation of the institution than weeding out predators among the student body, although all of these are discussed in depth here, but rather the fact that at these gold-plated diploma mill feedlots, education has been de-emphasised to the extent of being entirely optional. Indeed, only about one fifth of university budgets goes to instruction; all the rest disappears into the fat salaries of endlessly proliferating legions of administrators, country club like student amenities, and ambitious building programs. Classes have been dumbed down to the extent that it is possible to navigate a “slacker track” to a bachelor's degree without ever taking a single course more intellectually demanding than what was once considered junior high level, or without being able to read, comprehend, and write the English language with high school proficiency. Grade inflation has resulted in more than 90% of all grades being either A or B, with a B expected by students as their reward simply for showing up, with the consequence that grade reports to parents and transcripts for prospective employers have become meaningless and impossible to evaluate.

The National Survey of Student Engagement finds that only about 10% of U.S. university students are “fully engaged”—actually behaving as college students were once expected to in order to make the most of the educational resources available to them. Twice that percent were “fully disengaged”: just there to party or passing time, while the remainder weren't full time slackers but not really interested in learning things.

Now these are very interesting numbers, and they lead me to a conclusion which the author never explores. Prior to the 1960s, it was assumed that only a minority of highest-ranking secondary school students would go on to college. With the mean IQ of bachelor's degree holders ranging from 110 to 120, this means that they necessarily make up around the top 10 to 15 percent of the population by intelligence. But now, the idea seems to be that everybody should get a “college education”, and indeed today in the U.S. around 70% of high school graduates go on to some kind of college program (although a far smaller fraction ever graduate). Now clearly, a college education which was once suited to the most intelligent 10% of the population is simply not going to work for the fat middle of the bell curve, which characterises the present-day college population. Looked at this way, the party school seems to be an inevitable consequence. If society has deemed it valuable that all shall receive a “college education”, then it is necessary to redefine “college education” as something the average citizen can accomplish and receive the requisite credential. Hence the elimination, or optional status, of actual learning, evaluation of performance, and useful grades. With universities forced to compete on their attractiveness to “the customer”—the students—they concentrate on amenities and lax enforcement of codes of conduct in order to keep those tuition dollars coming in for four, five, six, or however many years it takes.

A number of observers have wondered whether the next bubble to pop will be higher education. Certainly, the parallels are obvious: an overbuilt industry, funded by unsustainable debt, delivering a shoddy product, at a cost which has been growing much faster than inflation or the incomes of those who foot the bills. This look inside the ugly mass education business only reinforces that impression, since another consequence of a bubble is the normalisation and acceptance of absurdity by those inside it. Certainly one indication the bubble may be about to pop is that employers have twigged to the fact that a college diploma and glowing transcript from one of these rackets the author calls “subprime colleges” is no evidence whatsoever of a job applicant's literacy, knowledge, or work ethic, which explains why so many alumni of these programs are living in their parents' basements today, getting along by waiting tables or delivering pizza, while they wait for that lucky break they believe they're entitled to. This population is only likely to increase as employers in need of knowledge workers discover they can outsource those functions to Asia, where university degrees are much more rare but actually mean something.

Elite universities, of course, continue to provide excellent educational opportunities for the small number of students who make it through the rigorous selection process to get there. It's also possible for a dedicated and fully engaged student to get a pretty good education at a party school, as long as they manage to avoid the distractions, select challenging courses and dedicated professors, and don't have the bad fortune to suffer assault, rape, arson, or murder by the inebriated animals that outnumber them ten to one. But then it's up to them, after graduating, to convince employers that their degree isn't just a fancy credential, but rather something they've genuinely worked for.

Allan Bloom observed that “every age is blind to its own worst madness”, an eternal truth to which anybody who has been inside a bubble becomes painfully aware, usually after it unexpectedly pops. For those outside the U.S. education scene, this book provides a look into a bizarre mirror universe which is the daily reality for many undergraduates today. Parents planning to send their progeny off to college need to know this information, and take to heart the author's recommendations of how to look under the glossy surface and discover the reality of the institution to which their son or daughter's future will be entrusted.

In the Kindle edition, end notes are linked in the text, but the index contains just a list of terms with no links to where they appear and is consequently completely useless.

November 2010 Permalink

Burkett, Elinor. Another Planet. New York: HarperCollins, 2001. ISBN 0-06-050585-0.

December 2002 Permalink

Chesterton, Gilbert K. What's Wrong with the World. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, [1910] 1994. ISBN 0-89870-489-8.
Writing in the first decade of the twentieth century in his inimitable riddle-like paradoxical style, Chesterton surveys the scene around him as Britain faced the new century and didn't find much to his satisfaction. A thorough traditionalist, he finds contemporary public figures, both Conservative and Progressive/Socialist, equally contemptible, essentially disagreeing only upon whether the common man should be enslaved and exploited in the interest of industry and commerce, or by an all-powerful monolithic state. He further deplores the modernist assumption, shared by both political tendencies, that once a change in society is undertaken, it must always be pursued: “You can't put the clock back”. But, as he asks, why not? “A clock, being a piece of human construction, can be restored by the human finger to any figure or hour. In the same way society, being a piece of human construction, can be reconstructed upon any plan that has ever existed.” (p. 33). He urges us not to blindly believe in “progress” or “modernisation”, but rather to ask whether these changes have made things better or worse and, if worse, to undertake to reverse them.

In five sections, he surveys the impact of industrial society on the common man, of imperialism upon the colonisers and colonised, of feminism upon women and the family, of education upon children, and of collectivism upon individuality and the human spirit. In each he perceives the pernicious influence of an intellectual elite upon the general population who, he believes, are far more sensible about how to live their lives than those who style themselves their betters. For a book published almost a hundred years ago, this analysis frequently seems startlingly modern (although I'm not sure that's a word Chesterton would take as a compliment) and relevant to the present-day scene. While some of the specific issues (for example, women's suffrage, teaching of classical languages in the schools, and eugenics) may seem quaint, much of the last century has demonstrated the disagreeable consequences of the “progress” he discusses and accurately anticipated.

This reprint edition includes footnotes which explain Chesterton's many references to contemporary and historical figures and events which would have been familiar to his audience in 1910 but may be obscure to readers almost a century later. A free electronic edition (but without the explanatory footnotes) is available from Project Gutenberg.

October 2007 Permalink

Epstein, Robert. The Case Against Adolescence. Sanger, CA: Quill Driver Books, 2007. ISBN 1-884956-70-X.
What's the matter with kids today? In this exhaustively documented breakthrough book, the author argues that adolescence, as it is presently understood in developed Western countries, is a social construct which was created between 1880 and 1920 by well-intentioned social reformers responding to excesses of the industrial revolution and mass immigration to the United States. Their remedies—compulsory education, child labour laws, the juvenile justice system, and the proliferation of age-specific restrictions on “adult” activities such as driving, drinking alcohol, and smoking—had the unintended consequence of almost completely segregating teenagers from adults, trapping them in a vacuous peer culture and prolonging childhood up to a decade beyond the age at which young people begin to assume the responsibilities of adulthood in traditional societies.

Examining anthropological research on other cultures and historical evidence from past centuries, the author concludes that the “storm and stress” which characterises modern adolescence is the consequence of the infantilisation of teens, and their confinement in a peer culture with little contact with adults. In societies and historical periods where the young became integrated into adult society shortly after puberty and began to shoulder adult responsibilities, there is no evidence whatsoever for anything like the dysfunctional adolescence so often observed in the modern West—in fact, a majority of preindustrial cultures have no word in their language for the concept of adolescence.

Epstein, a psychologist who did his Ph.D. under B. F. Skinner at Harvard, and former editor-in-chief of Psychology Today magazine, presents results of a comprehensive test of adultness he developed along with Diane Dumas which demonstrate that in most cases the competencies of people in the 13 to 17 year range do not differ from those of adults between twenty and seventy-one by a statistically significant margin. (I should note that the groups surveyed, as described on pp. 154–155, differed wildly in ethnic and geographic composition from the U.S. population as a whole; I'd love to see the cross-tabulations.) An abridged version of the test is included in the book; you can take the complete test online. (My score was 98%, with most of the demerits due to placing less trust in figures of authority than the author deems wise.)

So, if there is little difference in the basic competences of teens and adults, why are so many adolescents such vapid, messed-up, apathetic losers? Well, consider this: primates learn by observing (monkey see) and by emulating (monkey do). For millions of years our ancestors have lived in bands in which the young had most of their contact with adults, and began to do the work of adults as soon as they were physically and mentally capable of doing so. This was the near-universal model of human societies until the late 19th century and remains so in many non-Western cultures. But in the West, this pattern has been replaced by warehousing teenagers in government schools which effectively confine them with others of their age. Their only adult contacts apart from (increasingly absent) parents are teachers, who are inevitably seen as jailors. How are young people to be expected to turn their inherent competencies into adult behaviour if they spend almost all of their time only with their peers?

Now, the author doesn't claim that everybody between the ages of 13 and 17 has the ability to function as an adult. Just as with physical development, different individuals mature at different rates, and one may have superb competence in one area and remain childish in another. But, on the other hand, simply turning 18 or 21 or whatever doesn't magically endow someone with those competencies either—many adults (defined by age) perform poorly as well.

In two breathtaking final chapters, the author argues for the replacement of virtually all age-based discrimination in the law with competence testing in the specific area involved. For example, a 13 year old could entirely skip high school by passing the equivalency examination available to those 18 or older. There's already a precedent for this—we don't automatically allow somebody to drive, fly an airplane, or operate an amateur radio station when they reach a certain age: they have to pass a comprehensive examination on theory, practice, and law. Why couldn't this basic concept be extended to most of the rights and responsibilities we currently grant based purely upon age? Think of the incentive such a system would create for teens to acquire adult knowledge and behaviour as early as possible, knowing that it would be rewarded with adult rights and respect, instead of being treated like children for what could be some of the most productive years of their lives.

Boxes throughout the text highlight the real-world achievements of young people in history and the present day. (Did you know that Sergey Karjakin became a chess grandmaster at the age of 12 years and 7 months? He is among seven who achieved grandmaster ranking at an age younger than Bobby Fischer's 15 years and 6 months.) There are more than 75 pages of end notes and bibliography. (I wonder if the author is aware that note 68 to chapter 5 [p. 424] cites a publication of the Lyndon LaRouche organisation.)

It isn't often you pick up a book with laudatory blurbs by a collection of people including Albert Ellis, Deepak Chopra, Joyce Brothers, Alvin Toffler, George Will, John Taylor Gatto, Suzanne Somers, and Buzz Aldrin. I concur with them that the author has put his finger precisely on the cause of a major problem in modern society, and laid out a challenging yet plausible course for remedying it. I discovered this book via an excellent podcast interview with the author on “The Glenn and Helen Show”.

About halfway through this book, I had one of the most chilling visions of the future I've experienced in many years. One of the things I've puzzled over for ages is what, precisely, is the end state of the vision of those who call themselves “progressives”—progress toward what, anyway? What would society look like if they had their way across the board? And then suddenly it hit me like a brick. If you want to see what the “progressive” utopia looks like, just take a glance at the lives of teenagers today, who are deprived of a broad spectrum of rights and denied responsibilities “for their own good”. Do-gooders always justify their do-badding “for the children”, and their paternalistic policies, by eviscerating individualism and autonomous judgement, continually create ever more “children”. The nineteenth century reformers, responding to genuine excesses of the industrial revolution, extended childhood from puberty to years later, inventing what we call adolescence. The agenda of today's “progressives” is inexorably extending adolescence to create a society of eternal adolescents, unworthy of the responsibilities of adults, and hence forever the childlike wards of an all-intrusive state and the elites which govern it. If you want a vision of the “progressive” future, imagine being back in high school—forever.

July 2007 Permalink

Gelernter, David. America-Lite. New York: Encounter Books, 2012. ISBN 978-1-59403-606-4.
At the end of World War II, the United States bestrode the world like a colossus. All of its industrial competitors had been devastated by the war; it was self-sufficient in most essential resources; it was the unquestioned leader in science, technology, and medicine; its cultural influence was spread around the world by Hollywood movies; and the centre of the artistic and literary world had migrated from Paris to New York. The generation which had won the war, enabled by the G.I. Bill, veterans swarmed into institutions of higher learning formerly reserved for scions of the wealthy and privileged—by 1947, fully 49% of college admissions were veterans.

By 1965, two decades after the end of the war, it was pretty clear to anybody with open eyes that it all had begun to go seriously wrong. The United States was becoming ever more deeply embroiled in a land war in Asia without a rationale comprehensible to those who paid for it and were conscripted to fight there; the centres of once-great cities were beginning a death spiral in which a culture of dependency spawned a poisonous culture of crime, drugs, and the collapse of the family; the humiliatingly defeated and shamefully former Nazi collaborator French were draining the U.S. Treasury of its gold reserves, and the U.S. mint had replaced its silver coins with cheap counterfeit replacements. In August of 1965, the Watts neighbourhood of Los Angeles exploded in riots, and the unthinkable—U.S. citizens battling one another with deadly force in a major city, became the prototype for violent incidents to come. What happened?

In this short book (just 200 pages in the print edition), the author argues that it was what I have been calling the “culture crash” for the last decade. Here, this event is described as the “cultural revolution”: not a violent upheaval as happened in China, but a steady process through which the keys to the élite institutions which transmit the culture from generation to generation were handed over, without a struggle, from the WASP (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant) patricians which had controlled them since Colonial days, to a new intellectual class, influenced by ideas from Continental Europe, which the author calls PORGIs (post-religious globalist intellectuals). Now, this is not to say that there were not intellectuals at top-tier institutions of higher learning before the cultural revolution; but they were not in charge: those who were saw their mission in a fundamentally conservative way—to conserve the grand tradition of Western civilisation by transmitting it to each successive generation, while inculcating in them the moral compass which would make them worthy leaders in business, the military, and public affairs.

The PORGIs had no use for this. They had theory, and if the facts weren't consistent with the theory and the consequences of implementing it disastrously different from those intended, well then the facts must be faulty because the theory was crystalline perfection in itself. (And all of this became manifest well before the cognitive dissonance between academic fantasy and the real world became so great that the intellectuals had to invent postmodernism, denying the very existence of objective reality.)

The PORGIs (Well, I suppose we can at least take comfort that the intellectual high ground wasn't taken over by Corgis; imagine the chaos that would have engendered!) quickly moved to eliminate the core curricula in higher learning which taught Western history, culture, and moral tradition. This was replaced (theory being supreme, and unchallenged), with indoctrination in an ideology unmoored to the facts. Rather than individuals able to think and learn on their own, those educated by the PORGIs became servomechanisms who, stimulated by this or that keyword, would spit out a rote response: “Jefferson?” “White slaveowner!”

These, the generation educated by the PORGIs, starting around the mid 1960s, the author calls PORGI airheads. We all have our own “mental furniture” which we've accumulated over our lives—the way we make sense of the bewildering flow of information from the outside world: sorting it into categories, prioritising it, and deciding how to act upon it. Those with a traditional (pre-PORGI) education, or those like myself and the vast majority of people my age or older who figured it out on their own by reading books and talking to other people, have painfully built our own mental furniture, re-arranged it as facts came in which didn't fit with the ways we'd come to understand things, and sometimes heaved the old Barcalounger out the window when something completely contradicted our previous assumptions. With PORGI airheads, none of this obtains. They do not have the historical or cultural context to evaluate how well their pre-programmed responses fit the unforgiving real world. They are like parrots: you wave a French fry at them and they say, “Hello!” Another French fry, “Hello!” You wave a titanium billet painted to look like a French fry, “Hello!” Beak notched from the attempt to peel a titanium ingot, you try it once again.

“Hello!”

Is there anybody who has been visible on the Internet for more than a few years who has not experienced interactions with these people? Here is my own personal collection of greatest hits.

Gelernter argues that Barack Obama is the first PORGI airhead to be elected to the presidency. What some see as ideology may be better explained as servomechanism “Hello!” response to stimuli for which his mentors have pre-programmed him. He knows nothing of World War II, or the Cold War, or of colonialism in Africa, or of the rôle of the British Empire in eradicating the slave trade. All of these were deemed irrelevant by the PORGIs and PORGI airheads who trained him. And the 53% who voted for him were made a majority by the PORGI airheads cranked out every year and injected into the bloodstream of the dying civil society by an educational system almost entirely in the hands of the enemy.

What is to be done? The author's prescription is much the same as my own. We need to break the back of the higher education (and for that matter, the union-dominated primary and secondary education) system and replace it with an Internet-based educational delivery system where students will have access to courses taught by the best pedagogues in the world (ranked in real time not just by student thumbs up and down, but by objectively measured outcomes, such as third-party test scores and employment results). Then we need independent certification agencies, operating in competition with one another much like bond rating agencies, which issue “e-diplomas” based on examinations (not just like the SAT and bar exams, but also in-person and gnarly like a Ph.D. defence for the higher ranks). The pyramid of prestige would remain, as well as the cost structure: a Doctorate in Russian Literature from Harvard would open more doors at the local parking garage or fast food joint than one from Bob's Discount Degrees, but you get what you pay for. And, in any case, the certification would cost a tiny fraction of spending your prime intellectually productive years listening to tedious lectures given by graduate students marginally proficient in your own language.

The PORGIs correctly perceived the U.S. educational system to be the “keys to the kingdom”. They began, in Gramsci's long march through the institutions, to put in place the mechanisms which would tilt the electorate toward their tyrannical agenda. It is too late to reverse it; the educational establishment must be destroyed. “Destroyed?”, you ask—“These are strong words! Do you really mean it? Is it possible?” Now witness the power of this fully armed and operational global data network! Record stores…gone! Book stores…gone! Universities….

In the Kindle edition (which costs almost as much as the hardcover), the end-notes are properly bidirectionally linked to citations in the text, but the index is just a useless list of terms without links to references in the text. I'm sorry if I come across as a tedious “index hawk”, but especially when reviewing a book about declining intellectual standards, somebody has to do it.

August 2012 Permalink

Holt, John. How Children Fail. rev. ed. Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press, [1964] 1982. ISBN 0-201-48402-1.
This revised edition of Holt's classic includes the entire text of the 1964 first edition with extensive additional interspersed comments added after almost twenty years of additional experience and reflection. It is difficult to find a book with as much wisdom and as many insights per page as this one. You will be flabbergasted by Holt's forensic investigation of how many fifth graders (in an elite private school for high IQ children) actually think about arithmetic, and how many teachers and parents delude themselves into believing that parroting correct answers has anything to do with understanding or genuine learning. What is so refreshing about Holt is his scientific approach—he eschews theory and dogma in favour of observing what actually goes on in classrooms and inside the heads of students. Some of his insights about how those cunning little rascals game the system to get the right answer without enduring the submission to authority and endless boredom of what passes for education summoned some of the rare fond memories I have of that odious period in my own life. As a person who's spent a lot of time recently thinking about intelligence, problem solving, and learning, I found Holt's insights absolutely fascinating. This book has sold more than a million copies, but I'd have probably never picked it up had it not been recommended by a kind reader using the recommendation form—thank you!

September 2004 Permalink

Kimball, Roger. Tenured Radicals. 3rd. ed. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, [1990, 1991, 1998] 2008. ISBN 978-1-56663-796-1.
If you want to understand what's happening in the United States today, and how the so-called millennial generation (May 2008) came to be what it is, there's no better place to start than this book, originally published eighteen years ago, which has just been released in a new paperback edition with an introduction and postscript totalling 65 pages which update the situation as of 2008. The main text has been revised as well, and a number of footnotes added to update matters which have changed since earlier editions.

Kimball's thesis is that, already by 1990, and far more and broadly diffused today, the humanities departments (English, Comparative Literature, Modern Languages, Philosophy, etc.) of prestigious (and now almost all) institutions of higher learning have been thoroughly radicalised by politically-oriented academics who have jettisoned the traditional canon of literature, art, and learning and rejected the traditional mission of a liberal arts education in favour of indoctrinating students in a nominally “multicultural” but actually anti-Western ideology which denies the existence of objective truth and the meaning of text, and inculcates the Marxist view that all works can be evaluated only in terms of their political context and consequences. These pernicious ideas, which have been discredited by their disastrous consequences in the last century and laughed out of public discourse everywhere else, have managed to achieve an effective hegemony in the American academy, with tenured radicals making hiring and tenure decisions based upon adherence to their ideology as opposed to merit in disinterested intellectual inquiry.

Now, putting aside this being disastrous to a society which, like all societies, is never more than one generation away from losing its culture, and catastrophic to a country which now has a second generation of voters entering the electorate who are ignorant of the cultural heritage they inherited and the history of the nation whose leadership they are about to assume, this spectacle can also be quite funny if observed with special goggles which only transmit black humour. For the whole intellectual tommyrot of “deconstruction” and “postmodernism” has become so trendy that intellectuals in other fields one would expect to be more immune to such twaddle are getting into the act, including the law (“Critical Legal Studies”) and—astoundingly—architecture. An entire chapter is devoted to “Deconstructivist Architecture”, which by its very name seems to indicate you wouldn't want to spend much time in buildings “deconstructed” by its proponents. And yet, it has a bevy of earnest advocates, including Peter Eisenman, one of the most distinguished of U.S. architects, who advised those wishing to move beyond the sterility of modernism to seek

a theory of the center, that is, a theory which occupies the center. I believe that only when such a theory of the center is articulated will architecture be able to transform itself as it always has and as it always will…. But the center that I am talking about is not a center that can be the center that we know is in the past, as a nostalgia for center. Rather, this not new but other center will be … an interstitial one—but one with no structure, but one also that embraces as periphery in its own centric position. … A center no longer sustained by nostalgia and no longer sustained by univocal discourse. (p. 187)
Got that? I'd hate to be a client explaining to him that I want the main door to be centred between these two windows.

But seriously, apart from the zaniness, intellectual vapidity and sophistry, and obscurantist prose (all of which are on abundant display here), what we're seeing what Italian Communist Antonio Gramsci called the “long march through the institutions” arriving at the Marxist promised land: institutions of higher education funded with taxpayer money and onerous tuition payments paid by hard-working parents and towering student loans disgorging class after class of historically and culturally ignorant, indoctrinated, and easily influenced individuals into the electorate, just waiting for a charismatic leader who knows how to eloquently enunciate the trigger words they've been waiting for.

In the 2008 postscript the author notes that a common reaction to the original 1990 edition of the book was the claim that he had cherry-picked for mockery a few of the inevitably bizarre extremes you're sure to find in a vibrant and diverse academic community. But with all the news in subsequent years of speech codes, jackboot enforcing of “diversity”, and the lockstep conformity of much of academia, this argument is less plausible today. Indeed, much of the history of the last two decades has been the diffusion of new deconstructive and multicultural orthodoxy from elite institutions into the mainstream and its creeping into the secondary school curriculum as well. What happens in academia matters, especially in a country in which an unprecedented percentage of the population passes through what style themselves as institutions of higher learning. The consequences of this should be begin to be manifest in the United States over the next few years.

November 2008 Permalink

Ravitch, Diane. The Language Police. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2003. ISBN 0-375-41482-7.
One thing which strikes me, having been outside the United States for fifteen years, is just how dumb people in the U.S. are, particularly those 35 years and younger. By “dumb” I don't mean unintelligent: although there is a genetic component to intelligence, evolution doesn't work quickly enough to make much difference in a generation or two, and there's no evidence for selective breeding for stupidity in any case. No, they are dumb in the sense of being almost entirely ignorant of the literary and cultural heritage upon which their society is founded, and know next to nothing about the history of their own country and the world. Further, and even more disturbing, they don't seem to know how to think. Rational thinking is a skill one learns by practise, and these people never seem to have worked through the intellectual exercises to acquire it, and hence have never discovered the quiet joy of solving problems and figuring things out. (Of course, I am talking in broad generalisations here. In a country as large and diverse as the U.S. there are many, many exceptions, to be sure. But the overall impression of the younger population, exceptions apart, comes across to me as dumb.)

You may choose to attribute this estimation to the jaundiced disdain for young'uns so common among balding geezers like me. But the funny thing is, I observe this only in people who grew up the U.S. I don't perceive anything similar in those raised in continental Europe or Asia. (I'm not so sure about the U.K., and my experience with people from South America and Africa is insufficient to form any conclusions.) Further, this seems to be a relatively new phenomenon; I don't recall perceiving anything like the present level of dumbness among contemporaries when I was in the 20–35 age bracket. If you doubt my estimation of the knowledge and reasoning skills of younger people in the U.S., just cast a glance at the highest moderated comments on one of the online discussion boards such as Slashdot, and bear in mind when doing so that these are the technological élite, not the fat middle of the bell curve. Here is an independent view of younger people in the U.S. which comes to much the same conclusion as I.

What could possibly account for this? Well, it may not be the entire answer, but an important clue is provided by this stunning book by an historian and professor of education at New York University, which documents the exclusion of essentially the entire body of Western culture from the primary and secondary school curriculum starting in around 1970, and the rewriting of history to exclude anything perceived as controversial by any pressure group motivated to involve itself in the textbook and curriculum adoption process, which is described in detail. Apart from a few egregious cases which have come to the attention of the media, this process has happened almost entirely out of the public eye, and an entire generation has now been educated, if you can call it that, with content-free material chosen to meet bizarre criteria of “diversity” and avoid offending anybody. How bad is it? So bad that the president of a textbook company, when asked in 1998 by members of the committee charged with developing a national reading test proposed by President Clinton, why the reading passages chosen contained nothing drawn from classic literature or myth, replied, as if it were the most obvious thing in the world, “everything written before 1970 was either gender biased or racially biased.” So long, Shakespeare; heave-ho Homer! It's no wonder the author of I'm the Teacher, You're the Student (January 2005) discovered so many of his students at a top-tier university had scarcely read a single book before arriving in his classroom: their public school experience had taught them that reading is tedious and books contain only boring, homogenised pablum utterly disconnected from the real world they experience through popular culture and their everyday life.

The author brings no perceptible political bias or agenda to the topic. Indeed, she documents how the ideologues of the right and left form a highly effective pincer movement which squeezes out the content and intellectual stimulation from the material taught in schools, and thus educates those who pass through them that learning is boring, reading is dull, and history is all settled, devoid of controversy, and that every event in the past should be interpreted according to the fashionable beliefs of the present day. The exquisite irony is this is said to be done in the interest of “diversity” when, in fact, the inevitable consequence is the bowdlerisation of the common intellectual heritage into mediocre, boring, and indistinguishable pap. It is also interesting to observe that the fundamental principles upon which the champions of this “diversity” base their arguments—that one's ethnic group identity determines how an individual thinks and learns; that one cannot and should not try to transcend that group identity; that a member of a group can learn only from material featuring members of their own group, ideally written by a group member—are, in fact, identical to those believed by the most vicious of racists. Both reject individualism and the belief that any person, if blessed with the requisite talent and fired by ambition and the willingness to work assiduously toward the goal, can achieve anything at all in a free society.

Instead, we see things like this document, promulgated by the public school system of Seattle, Washington (whose motto is “Academic Achievement for Every Student in Every School”), which provides “Definitions of Racism” in six different categories. (Interesting—the Seattle Public Schools seem to have taken this document down—wonder why? However, you can still view a copy I cached just in case that might happen.) Under “Cultural Racism” we learn that “having a future time orientation, emphasizing individualism as opposed to a more collective ideology, [and] defining one form of English as standard” constitutes “cultural racism”. Some formula for “Academic Achievement for Every Student”, don't you think? (Reading The Language Police is quite enlightening in parsing details such as those in the drawing which appears to the right of the first paragraph of this document. It shows a group of people running a foot race [exercise: good]. Of the four people whose heads are shown, one is a Caucasian female [check], another is an African American male [check], a third is an Hispanic man [check—although the bias and sensitivity guidelines of two major textbook companies (p. 191) would fault this picture because, stereotypically, the man has a moustache], and an older [check] Caucasian male [older people must always be shown as active; never sitting on the porch in a rocking chair]. Two additional figures are shown with their heads lopped off: one an African American woman and the other what appears to be a light-skinned male. Where's the Asian?) Now, this may seem ridiculous, but every major U.S. textbook publisher these days compiles rigorous statistics on the racial and gender mix of both text and illustrations in their books, and adjusts them to precisely conform to percentages from the U.S. census. Intellectual content appears to receive no such scrutiny.

A thirty page appendix provides a list of words, phrases, and concepts banned from U.S. textbooks, including the delightful list (p. 196) of Foods which May Not Be Mentioned in California, including pickles and tea. A second appendix of the same length provides a wonderful list of recommendations of classic literature for study from grades three through ten. Home schoolers will find this a bounty of worthwhile literature to enrich their kids' education and inculcate the love of reading, and it's not a bad place to start for adults who have been deprived of this common literary heritage in their own schooling. A paperback edition is now available.

May 2006 Permalink

Sowell, Thomas. Inside American Education. New York: Free Press, 1993. ISBN 0-02-930330-3.

February 2001 Permalink

Sowell, Thomas. Black Rednecks and White Liberals. San Francisco: Encounter Books, 2005. ISBN 1-59403-086-3.
One of the most pernicious calumnies directed at black intellectuals in the United States is that they are “not authentic”—that by speaking standard English, assimilating into the predominant culture, and seeing learning and hard work as the way to get ahead, they have somehow abandoned their roots in the ghetto culture. In the title essay in this collection, Thomas Sowell demonstrates persuasively that this so-called “black culture” owes its origins, in fact, not to anything blacks brought with them from Africa or developed in times of slavery, but rather to a white culture which immigrants to the American South from marginal rural regions of Britain imported and perpetuated long after it had died out in the mother country. Members of this culture were called “rednecks” and “crackers” in Britain long before they arrived in America, and they proceeded to install this dysfunctional culture in much of the rural South. Blacks arriving from Africa, stripped of their own culture, were immersed into this milieu, and predictably absorbed the central values and characteristics of the white redneck culture, right down to patterns of speech which can be traced back to the Scotland, Wales, and Ulster of the 17th century. Interestingly, free blacks in the North never adopted this culture, and were often well integrated into the community until the massive northward migration of redneck blacks (and whites) from the South spawned racial prejudice against all blacks. While only 1/3 of U.S. whites lived in the South, 90% of blacks did, and hence the redneck culture which was strongly diluted as southern whites came to the northern cities, was transplanted whole as blacks arrived in the north and were concentrated in ghetto communities.

What makes this more than an anthropological and historical footnote is, that as Sowell describes, the redneck culture does not work very well—travellers in the areas of Britain it once dominated and in the early American South described the gratuitous violence, indolence, disdain for learning, and a host of other characteristics still manifest in the ghetto culture today. This culture is alien to the blacks who it mostly now afflicts, and is nothing to be proud of. Scotland, for example, largely eradicated the redneck culture, and became known for learning and enterprise; it is this example, Sowell suggests, that blacks could profitably follow, rather than clinging to a bogus culture which was in fact brought to the U.S. by those who enslaved their ancestors.

Although the title essay is the most controversial and will doubtless generate the bulk of commentary, it is in fact only 62 pages in this book of 372 pages. The other essays discuss the experience of “middleman minorities” such as the Jews, Armenians in the Ottoman Empire, Lebanese in Africa, overseas Chinese, etc.; the actual global history of slavery, as a phenomenon in which people of all races, continents, and cultures have been both slaves and slaveowners; the history of ethnic German communities around the globe and whether the Nazi era was rooted in the German culture or an aberration; and forgotten success stories in black education in the century prior to the civil rights struggles of the mid 20th century. The book concludes with a chapter on how contemporary “visions” and agendas can warp the perception of history, discarding facts which don't fit and obscuring lessons from the past which can be vital in deciding what works and what doesn't in the real world. As with much of Sowell's work, there are extensive end notes (more than 60 pages, with 289 notes on the title essay alone) which contain substantial “meat” along with source citations; they're well worth reading over after the essays.

July 2005 Permalink

Thernstrom, Abigail and Stephan Thernstrom. No Excuses: Closing the Racial Gap in Learning. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2003. ISBN 0-7432-0446-8.

January 2004 Permalink

[Audiobook] Wolfe, Tom. I Am Charlotte Simmons. (Audiobook, Unabridged). New York: Macmillan Audio, 2004. ISBN 978-0-312-42444-2.
Thomas Sowell has written, “Each new generation born is in effect an invasion of civilization by little barbarians, who must be civilized before it is too late”. Tom Wolfe's extensively researched and pitch-perfect account of undergraduate life at an élite U.S. college in the first decade of the twenty-first century is a testament to what happens when the barbarians sneak into the gates of the cloistered cities of academe, gain tenure, and then turn the next generation of “little barbarians” loose into a state of nature, to do what their hormones and whims tell them to.

Our viewpoint into this alien world (which the children and grandchildren of those likely to be reading this chronicle inhabit, if they're lucky [?] enough to go to one of those élite institutions which groom them for entry into the New [or, as it is coming to be called, Ruling] Class at the cost of between a tenth and a quarter of a million dollars, often front-end loaded as debt onto the lucky students just emerging into those years otherwise best spent in accumulating capital to buy a house, start a family, and make the key early year investments in retirement and inheritance for their progeny) is Charlotte Simmons of Sparta, North Carolina, a Presidential Scholar from the hill country who, by sheer academic excellence, has won a full scholarship to Dupont University, known not only for its academic prestige, but also its formidable basketball team.

Before arriving at Dupont, Charlotte knew precisely who she was, what she wanted, and where she was going. Within days after arriving, she found herself in a bizarre mirror universe where everything she valued (and which the university purported to embody) was mocked by the behaviour of the students, professors, and administrators. Her discoveries are our discoveries of this alien culture which is producing those who will decide our fate in our old age. Worry!

Nobody remotely competes with Tom Wolfe when it comes to imbibing an alien culture, mastering its jargon and patois, and fleshing out the characters who inhabit it. Wolfe's talents are in full ascendance here, and this is a masterpiece of contemporary pedagogic anthropathology. We are doomed!

The audio programme is distributed in four files, running 31 hours and 16 minutes and includes a brief interview with the author at the end. An Audio CD edition is available, as is a paperback print edition.

October 2010 Permalink