Fix It! (But Don’t Expect Me To Pay)

Today is election day here in what my friend Kathy calls the Republic of North Virginia. That implies we live in a liberal region but that is very relative and only accurate when compared to the rest of the state.

Anyway, we have no national races on the ballot, which means turnout will be very low. But that doesn’t mean the vote isn’t important, as brilliantly explained here by John Oliver.

With few particular controversies to campaign on this year, all the candidates alternate between describing how evil their opponents are, and how much they support a wonderful life: better schools, better transportation, better health care, more jobs. The stuff that sounds good in 30 second ads, but is very complicated to accomplish in real life.

The problem, however, also lies with us voters. Just about everyone who will bother to vote today will tell you they want the government to improve life in our area, in some way.

They just don’t want to pay for it. No one ever gets elected to office in our little Republic (or anywhere else in the country, I suspect) if they even hint at asking people to pay the bills.

Transportation is a good example of this “I want it all for free” attitude.

Most everyone around here will tell you traffic stinks. The DC area regularly lands at or near the top of the list of most congested cities in the US. Too many cars trying to get to the same place at the same time, even during non “rush” periods.

But the only solutions that interest our local politicians involve building pay-to-drive car pool lanes along major highways – what are called HOT (high occupancy toll) corridors. Roads that require either three people in the car or payments that can be over $10 for five or so miles of relatively congestion free driving. Projects that suck down lots of money while doing very little to address the larger problem.

Public transportation systems that don’t involve cars? Don’t be silly. Most of our “leaders” (including the Congress critters who live in the area most of the year) don’t ride Metro, much less want to pay for it. Buses are for poor people. Walkable, bike friendly cities are for socialist countries.

So, a few of us are choosing many of our local leaders today. The Board of Supervisors, School Board, members of the state Assembly and Senate, various other offices. But they won’t fix any of the problems mentioned (very) briefly in their ads and speeches.

Because we say we want government to provide good public infrastructure. We just don’t want to pay for it. And they know it.

Reflective Rebels

In a new essay, Alfie Kohn, one of the sharpest and most rational voices in the ed reform discussion, says he wants students to become “reflective rebels”.

His starting point is the “tangle of deeply conservative beliefs” which says that parents are too permissive and as a result, kids are spoiled and narcissistic. Kohn points out that there’s no evidence for this contention and that adults have had a similar view of young people for “approximately forever”.

However, let’s assume the grumblers are correct. What should we do differently so that children are less self-centered and will look beyond themselves?

The answer, I think, is to help them become people who are not only empathic and compassionate but skeptical and courageous. It’s one thing to offer a kind word or a dollar to an individual in distress; it’s something else to address the systemic causes of that distress. The latter requires a willingness to question authority and challenge unjust features of the status quo – to stand up to power. In short, the real alternative to egocentricity is what might be called reflective rebelliousness.

The problem with this approach, of course, is that the same people doing the complaining really don’t like the idea of “rebellious” kids, reflective or otherwise. Society, especially the formal education part of it, is not at all receptive to rebelliousness.

Whether or not it’s stated explicitly, compliance remains the central goal of most classroom management programs, character education initiatives, and parenting resources. Sure, we stress the virtues of independent thinking and assertiveness, but mostly in the context of getting kids to resist peer pressure. If a child has the temerity to resist unreasonable rules and demands imposed by adults, well, then, bring on the “consequences” (read: punishments) to “hold them accountable for their behavior.”

We certainly do talk a lot about wanting our students to learn to be creative, innovative, independent thinkers. But when it comes to their relationship the process of school and the educational system that’s been laid out for them, it’s pretty much all talk. We really don’t know what to do with truly creative kids.

In the end, Kohn says that if we really want kids to develop into “reflective rebels”, to think for themselves, “we ourselves must be rebels” and push back “against the dominant tendency to focus on producing children who do whatever they’re told.”

The Lessons of History

The classic saying about history is “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”, attributed to philosopher George Santayana. Unfortunately, too many people interpret it to mean that a careful reading of the historical record will produce a recipe box for dealing with current problems.

However, a staff writer for the New Yorker makes a better case for understanding the past.

But the best argument for reading history is not that it will show us the right thing to do in one case or the other, but rather that it will show us why even doing the right thing rarely works out. The advantage of having a historical sense is not that it will lead you to some quarry of instructions, the way that Superman can regularly return to the Fortress of Solitude to get instructions from his dad, but that it will teach you that no such crystal cave exists. What history generally “teaches” is how hard it is for anyone to control it, including the people who think they’re making it.

Unfortunately, we currently have a large chorus of “experts” who push the idea that events in the Middle East, Ukraine, and elsewhere are the worst challenges the world has ever faced and require US military force.

The real sin that the absence of a historical sense encourages is presentism, in the sense of exaggerating our present problems out of all proportion to those that have previously existed. It lies in believing that things are much worse than they have ever been–and, thus, than they really are–or are uniquely threatening rather than familiarly difficult.

I’m no historian, but even a cursory review of the many world crises, threats, and wars that have been part of just my lifetime clearly shows US responses usually caused many more problems than they solved. Those are some lessons from history missed (or ignored) by too many of our current trigger-happy leaders.

I could continue, but my occasional rants on political topics in this space are usually incoherent at best. So I’ll end with just one more very appropriate pull quote about history and war from the article.

What history actually shows is that nothing works out as planned, and that everything has unintentional consequences. History doesn’t show that we should never go to war–sometimes there’s no better alternative. But it does show that the results are entirely uncontrollable, and that we are far more likely to be made by history than to make it. History is past, and singular, and the same year never comes round twice.

A Cult of Idiots

From Charles Pierce’s1 book Idiot America, which I’ve be listening to in the car this week.

The rise of Idiot America, though, is essentially a war on expertise. It’s not so much antimodernism or the distrust of the intellectual elites that Richard Hofstadter teased out of the national DNA, although both of those things are part of it. The rise of Idiot America today reflects–for profit, mainly, but also, and more cynically, for political advantage and in the pursuit of power–the breakdown of the consensus that the pursuit of knowledge is a good. It also represents the ascendancy of the notion that the people we should trust the least are the people who know best what they’re talking about. In the new media age, everybody is a historian, or a scientist, or a preacher, or a sage. And if everyone is an expert, then nobody is, and the worst thing you can be in a society where everybody is an expert is, well, an actual expert.

It was published five years ago, when I first read it, and reminded me at the time of Issac Asimov’s classic essay from thirty years prior called A Cult of Ignorance.

There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there always has been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.

It’s a sad statement that the trend toward willful ignorance in this country is little changed, and has indeed become much worse, from Asimov’s observations in 1980 to those of Pierce in 2009 to today.

Despite, possibly because of, greater access to information than ever before.

More Tech is Better, Right Kid?

If you watch any American TV without the benefit of a DVR, by now you’ve seen those AT&T ads featuring a group of cute kids being asked by an adult whether more is better than less, faster better than slower or [insert other quantitative contrasts here].

They grab your attention but I also found something slightly off about them. Larry Cuban is also irritated by the ads and does a good job of articulating why.

I have watched these ads many times and I finally put my finger on what bothered me about them. What got to me was not that the values of speed and quantity were being reinforced with kids — hey, the first-graders’ responses are cute and you gotta smile when you see a gap-toothed little kid jump up and down in excitement. What bothered me was the degree to which the pervasiveness of beliefs in technology and its generous fruits are held in America and is now peddled to all of us explicitly without a blink or doubt… by first graders.

There’s really nothing new in that attitude. Many people (although certainly not all) have always accepted the idea that simply incorporating the latest technology can somehow improve our lives and society. More is better than less, newer is better than old, high tech is better than low.

Certainly that has been true about education in my lifetime as schools enthusiastically bought into film, television, computers, the internet, and now tablets and online courses, based on loud claims from advocates (and corporations) that doing so would revolutionize both teaching and learning.

It hasn’t happened, of course, but not because each of the new mediums didn’t bring important changes. Unlike society in general, which is usually forced to change in some way as a result of the impact of new technologies (sometimes in painful ways), our educational system is very good at blocking alterations to the “normal” classroom structure, regardless of the impact being made in the real world.

By the way, have you wondered whether those ads are really unscripted? Yeah, me too.