Category Archives: Education / Youth

Meanwhile…

Virtually everyone I know is obsessed with the dumpster fire that is our current federal government. It’s certainly understandable; we have a President whose manifest deficiencies become more bizarre by the day, and a Cabinet filled with ideologues who are  incompetent or racist or both. And if you want to know a lot about our “Christian” vice-President, this (very amusing but really totally accurate) site is worth visiting.

Watching what is happening in the nation’s capital is obviously important, but so is the ongoing, on-the-ground work of local governments and nonprofit organizations. In fact, those nonprofit organizations are more important than ever; in a country where the federal apparatus is stuck in neutral (if not reverse), and few of the elected officials in Washington seem to give a rat’s ass about the common good, the steady presence of these voluntary and charitable organizations is often a life preserver.

What made me think about all this was an email announcing an event to support Hope Academy, a “recovery high school” that is attached to and affiliated with Fairbanks Hospital.

I had visited Fairbanks Hospital and Hope Academy a few years ago, at the invitation of a good friend who was then the President/CEO of Fairbanks, and I was duly impressed. As local folks know, Fairbanks Hospital addresses substance abuse in adults, and it has been a compassionate and supportive lifeline for people hooked on alcohol or drugs. At the time of my first visit, my friend and her board had just established Hope Academy.

A couple of months ago, on a return visit, I talked at length with teachers and students, and was once again struck by the importance of what Hope Academy does.

The individual stories really got to me: “Jeremy” was using and selling hard drugs, blacking out and failing tests in his high school. He was in jail at 17. After he was released, he found Hope Academy and he now has a college degree, a good job, and a wife and child. “Ben,” another graduate, has turned his life around and is working on a dual master’s degree at Purdue. There were many other stories, equally inspiring.

Medical science confirms that addiction is a disease, not a failure of will power or evidence of moral failure. Like other diseases, it can be cured–or at least sent into remission–if pproached with appropriate understanding, support and treatment.

That costs money, of course, and it’s no surprise that Medicare and Medicaid together account for only 27% of Fairbanks’ operating budget. Given what’s going on in Washington, Fairbanks’ staff aren’t expecting that to improve any time soon. Like so many other nonprofits, they depend heavily on volunteers and donors–on “the kindness of strangers.”

I’ve dwelled a bit on this particular nonprofit, not just because I recently visited, but because Fairbanks and Hope Academy are examples of the thousands of voluntary organizations supported by people of good will–people who have seen gaping holes in America’s social safety net and moved to fill them. (It’s like the tag line in that old TV series, “The Naked City”–“There are a million stories in the Naked City; this has been one of them.”)

America has so many truly admirable people providing so many important services out of the goodness of their hearts–working in our communities to make life better for their neighbors, helping people who need that help, giving of their time and treasure to make  the worlds of those less fortunate just a little less desolate and forbidding.

Seeing compassion and generosity in action raises the question: why aren’t we sending those sorts of people to Washington?

 

Elevating Ignorance

By now, most people have heard about the twitter storm in the aftermath of NPR’s 4th of July tweeting of the Declaration of Independence. A number of Trump supporters responded angrily to the descriptions of King George as a tyrant; unfamiliar with one of this nation’s founding documents, these “patriots” assumed that the tyrant in question was Trump and unleashed their ire accordingly.

Pretty much everything to be said about that episode has been said, and I don’t intend to belabor yet another example of the lack of basic civic knowledge. (I’ll  even resist the temptation to say “See, I told you so.”)

What is worth thinking about, however, is what has been termed “America’s Cult of Ignorance.” An article addressing that issue began with my favorite Isaac Asimov quote:

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.’”

The linked article is an excerpt from a book the author has written on the subject. He gives several examples of the harms done by widespread ignorance, then gets to the point:

These are dangerous times. Never have so many people had so much access to so much knowledge and yet have been so resistant to learning anything. In the United States and other developed nations, otherwise intelligent people denigrate intellectual achievement and reject the advice of experts. Not only do increasing numbers of lay people lack basic knowledge, they reject fundamental rules of evidence and refuse to learn how to make a logical argument. In doing so, they risk throwing away centuries of accumulated knowledge and undermining the practices and habits that allow us to develop new knowledge.

The author grapples with the phenomenon of “stubborn ignorance”in the midst of the information age, and concludes that “hilarious” as examples may be (see the NPR episode, for example) it is ultimately no laughing matter.

Late-night comedians have made a cottage industry of asking people questions that reveal their ignorance about their own strongly held ideas, their attachment to fads, and their unwillingness to admit their own cluelessness about current events. It’s mostly harmless when people emphatically say, for example, that they’re avoiding gluten and then have to admit that they have no idea what gluten is. And let’s face it: watching people confidently improvise opinions about ludicrous scenarios like whether “Margaret Thatcher’s absence at Coachella is beneficial in terms of North Korea’s decision to launch a nuclear weapon” never gets old.

The problem, as he readily admits, is not that we do not have experts. We do. The problem, he says, is that we use them as technicians, as conveniences. We don’t engage with them.

It is not a dialogue between experts and the larger community, but the use of established knowledge as an off-the-shelf convenience as needed and only so far as desired. Stitch this cut in my leg, but don’t lecture me about my diet. (More than two-thirds of Americans are overweight.) Help me beat this tax problem, but don’t remind me that I should have a will. (Roughly half of Americans with children haven’t bothered to write one.) Keep my country safe, but don’t confuse me with the costs and calculations of national security. (Most U.S. citizens do not have even a remote idea of how much the United States spends on its armed forces.)…

Any assertion of expertise from an actual expert, meanwhile, produces an explosion of anger from certain quarters of the American public, who immediately complain that such claims are nothing more than fallacious “appeals to authority,” sure signs of dreadful “elitism,” and an obvious effort to use credentials to stifle the dialogue required by a “real” democracy. Americans now believe that having equal rights in a political system also means that each person’s opinion about anything must be accepted as equal to anyone else’s.

A society that knows nothing, elects a know-nothing.

It Isn’t Race

Tomorrow’s post, accidentally published today. Sorry for cluttering your in-boxes, subscribers…

The Brookings Institution recently published a very interesting study about the persistence of an achievement gap between white and minority students in the nation’s classrooms. The research looked at multi-racial student performance–a population that was rarely studied before increasing rates of intermarriage produced enough children to allow for reliable conclusions.

The study is explained more fully by the linked article, but here are the findings:

  1. Students of multi-racial identity are from families with lower socioeconomic status than whites;
  2. They attend schools that are far more integrated with whites and Asians compared to blacks, Hispanics, American Indians, and Pacific Islanders;
  3. Multi-racial students have the same average test scores as whites on math, science, and writing;
  4. For reading tests, multi-racial students outperform other groups, including Asians; and
  5. These results contradict the controversial hypothesis that between group differences in IQ result from genetic differences between races.

These findings suggest that the race gaps in academic achievement in the United States are the result of inequality, especially in terms of access to educational opportunities, and therefore could be closed under fairer political, social, and economic arrangements.

Reading this research took me back many years, to my undergraduate education classes and the work of a sociologist named William Coleman. In 1966, he published a paper titled Equality of Educational Opportunity (usually referred to as “The Coleman Report”). The study surveyed 600,000 children in 4,000 schools, and its conclusions were unexpected: family income and peer influence were more predictive of children’s school achievement than school funding levels.

Although Coleman discovered that expenditures were not closely related to achievement, the report found that a student’s achievement appears to be “strongly related to the educational backgrounds and aspirations of the other students in the school …. Children from a given family background, when put in schools of different social compositions, will achieve at quite different levels.” Writing in The Public Interest, Coleman was even more forceful: “The educational resources provided by a child’s fellow students are more important for his achievement than are the resources provided by the school board.” The Coleman Report concluded that “the social composition of the student body is more highly related to achievement, independent of the student’s own social background, than is any school factor.”

The conclusions of the Brookings study are consistent with Coleman’s emphasis on the importance of socio-economic integration. And therein lies the problem.

So  many of the issues we expect our public schools to solve are really broader social issues–social disparities that pose barriers to learning. Poverty is obviously the most significant of those barriers, but its effects are multiplied by residential patterns that separate middle and upper-middle class children from poor ones.

The research continues to show that gaps in achievement are not based upon race, but upon the environment within the classroom–an environment dramatically affected by the experiences, expectations and “aspirations” of the children who inhabit it.

The Atlantic recently reported that Coleman’s work was finally getting the attention it deserved.

James Coleman, who died in 1995, never saw the growth of socioeconomic-integration programs. But a half century after publication of his seminal report, school integration by social class is finally getting its proper due.

As the article noted,

Many of the districts pursuing socioeconomic integration are seeing impressive results. In Cambridge, Massachusetts, for example, a socioeconomic-integration program was adopted in 2001 and by 2014, 86 percent of low-income students graduated, compared to 65 percent of low-income students in Boston, whose schools are not socioeconomically integrated. Coleman would not have been surprised by the 21-point differential…. Moreover, socioeconomic integration often leads to racial integration, which has powerful benefits, such as reducing bigotry and forging social cohesion.

The research confirms that in education, it’s nurture, not nature.

Couldn’t Have Said It Better Myself…

Yesterday brought news of a recent poll in which a majority of Republicans blamed universities for taking the  nation in the “wrong direction.”

Think about that.

I don’t know Henry Giroux, but his recent article in Salon was what we used to call a barn-burner, and it provides a context for that sorry and depressing poll result. It began:

Donald Trump’s ascendancy in American politics has made visible a plague of deep-seated civic illiteracy, a corrupt political system and a contempt for reason that has been decades in the making. It also points to the withering of civic attachments, the undoing of civic culture, the decline of public life and the erosion of any sense of shared citizenship.

After cataloging the serious social schisms manifested in Trump’s campaign and victory, Giroux gets down to the question most rational Americans have been asking since November 9th: how did we get here?

What forces have allowed education, if not reason itself, to be undermined as crucial public and political resources, capable of producing the formative culture and critical citizens that could have prevented such a catastrophe from happening in an alleged democracy? We get a glimpse of this failure of education, public values and civic literacy in the willingness and success of the Trump administration to empty language of any meaning, a practice that constitutes a flight from historical memory, ethics, justice and social responsibility….

In this instance, George Orwell’s famous maxim from “Nineteen Eighty-four,” “Ignorance is Strength,” materializes in the administration’s weaponized attempt not only to rewrite history but also to obliterate it. What we are witnessing is not simply a political project but also a reworking of the very meaning of education as both a crucial institution and a democratizing and empowering cultural force.

Giroux reports that two-thirds of Americans believe that creationism should be taught in schools and that a majority of Congressional Republicans believe either that climate change is not caused by human activity or that it is non-existent.

The article goes on to detail the assault on education and educational institutions, and it is well worth reading in its entirety. His analysis of Betsy DeVos particularly resonated with me.

On a policy level, the Trump administration has turned its back on schools as public goods. How else to explain the president’s appointment of Betsy DeVos as secretary of education? DeVos, who has spent most of her career attempting to privatize public schools while acting as a champion for charter schools. It gets worse: As a religious Christian extremist, DeVos not only supports religious indoctrination in public schools but has gone so far as to argue that the purpose of public education is “to help advance God’s Kingdom.” Not exactly a policy that supports critical thinking, dialogue or analytical reasoning, or that understands schooling as a public good.

Giroux insists that the rampant illiteracy of our politics has been intentionally fostered, that the “dumbing down” of America prevents us from acting from what he calls a “position of thoughtfulness, informed judgment, and critical agency.” Even a cursory survey of the political landscape lends credibility to his argument.

Here are my own questions: when and how did this happen? when did scholarship and expertise become signs of a despised elitism? When did America’s longstanding admiration for “the best and the brightest” turn to scorn?

And what are we going to do about it?

 

Reality Doesn’t Care Whether You Believe It (Part I)

La La Land isn’t just the title of a movie. Increasingly, it’s where our government officials live.

The Trump administration is debating whether to launch a governmentwide effort to question the science of climate change, an effort that critics say is an attempt to undermine the long-established consensus human activity is fueling the Earth’s rising temperatures.

This effort is being pushed by Scott Pruitt, the truly dangerous Secretary of the EPA, but other administration troglodytes are also involved.

Energy Secretary Rick Perry, who once described the science behind human-caused climate change as a “contrived phony mess,” also is involved in the effort, two officials said.

At a White House briefing this week, Perry said, “The people who say the science is settled, it’s done — if you don’t believe that you’re a skeptic, a Luddite. I don’t buy that. I don’t think there is — I mean, this is America. Have a conversation. Let’s come out of the shadows of hiding behind your political statements and let’s talk about it. What’s wrong with that? And I’m full well — I can be convinced, but let’s talk about it.”…

Other agencies could include the Commerce Department’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy and NASA, according to the official, all of which conduct climate research in some capacity.

And then there’s Florida. As CNN reports,

A new Florida law would let anyone in the state challenge, and possibly change, what kids are learning in school.

Any Florida resident can raise concerns about teaching material they find unfit for public school classrooms, according to legislation that went into effect Saturday. The bill was introduced in February by Rep. Byron Donalds, R-Naples, and was signed into law last week after passing with bipartisan support…

Supporters of the law have disputed material presenting global warming and evolution as “reality.” Others found certain reading material to be “pornographic.” And for some, US and world history textbooks seem biased and anti-American.

Impetus for the measure came from a conservative group called “The Florida Citizens’ Alliance.”  That organization  gathered testimony from “at least 25 people” (!) in favor of the legislation, and their reasoning (I use the term loosely) was predictable.

One woman took issue with evolution being taught as a “fact,” arguing that the “vast majority of Americans believe that the world and the beings living on it were created by God as revealed in the Bible.” Another person complained that history classes were making students “subservient” by teaching them about the president’s ability to issue executive orders.

Shades of Trump’s go-to response when his “facts” are challenged:  “a lot of people agree with me.” A lot of people still believe the earth is flat and that aliens landed and are buried in Roswell, New Mexico.

What’s that great Neil DeGrasse Tyson quote? Reality doesn’t care whether you believe it or not…