Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Palinism and the Place of Knowledge in America.

Over at the Atlantic, and guest-blogging at Andrew Sullivan's website, Conor Friedersdorf has an intriguing and thoughtful post reacting to a parent's experiment in homeschooling curriculum development for his young highschooler son, named Wes. I have to say, my own contrarian view of homeschooling aside, that I, like Conor, was somewhat envious of the creative, interdisciplinary learning experience that is awaiting this fortunate young highschooler.

In his post, Conor, who admits to being jealous of young Wes, writes:

What strikes me, all these years later, about my lousy but better-than-average high school education is how useful it proved in preparing me for college and the job market. Absent exceptional teachers, an academically competitive high school basically teaches the young how to game the system lots of people call the American meritocracy. It is difficult to describe this skill set precisely, though it certainly includes things like earning good grades in classes you know little if anything about, learning to game standardized tests and exams, employing writerly tricks to obscure the fact that you know nothing of substance about the topic of your five page paper, and understanding which teachers aren't desirous of substance insomuch as they want an ability to fake it on pages where the margins and font are diligently set to their specifications.

Oh to have those youthful years back. As an adult, I understand the preciousness of time, and I sorely regret having wasted any of it simulating rather than gaining knowledge. The experience does inform a suspicion that if we stopped making the overlap between academic skills and life skills a self-fulfilling prophecy, they might overlap less than we imagine. Were that the case, perhaps high schools would rejigger their curriculum to more closely resemble what Alan is attempting: knowledge as something more than a metric to be measured by standardized tests, a means of admission to a selective college or a prerequisite for strategic advancement in the American job market.
A fascinating reaction. And I imagine Conor's jealousy of young Wes is shared by many, myself included, whose thirst for "knowledge as something more than a metric to be measured by standardized tests, a means of admission to a selective college or a prerequisite for strategic advancement in the American job market" is burning and insatiable.

And then I had another epiphany ...

At one level, one would think this disconnect between knowledge and the structural mechanisms that lead to success in Western society are precisely what the Palinite wing of the conservative movement in the U.S. would embrace. But I can't help but think, re-reading exactly what young Wes's curriculum is shaping up to be, that Palinites would recoil violently from such a course of study, considering it to be alien and un-American, and rejecting it as elitist -- simply and only because it develops the critical and integrative capacity of the mind. I am convinced that young Wes would have no place in Sarah Palin's brand of "conservatism." And this realization confirms even more for me that the Palinites are not really anti-establishment and anti-elitist. I'm sure they would be very much at home with a particular kind of "establishment" and a particular type of "elite." Rather, I am reduced to thinking that they are, sadly, anti-intellectual. And that is not a comforting thought.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Thought of the Day: Sonia Sotomayor on the SCOTUS

Forget the jurisprudence, I just can't wait for Sonia Sotomayor to slap that cocky blowhard Antonin Scalia around behind chamber doors! Do not doubt that Scalia will try to pull his Italian macho patriarchal dismissive B.S. with Sotomayor, but do not also doubt that Sotomayor will snap back so hard with that fiesty Puerto Rican female sass and intelligence such that Scalia not only won't know what reamed him, but that he will also be shamed by the realization that he brought this reaming on himself!

Thursday, July 09, 2009

Sarah Palin and the Democratic Dream

In a recent op-ed column, which has been much referenced, Ross Douthat of the New York Times pondered what the Sarah Palin story means to the true American Dream that anybody, regardless of gender or class, can become President of the U.S. He had this to say:

Palin’s popularity has as much to do with class as it does with ideology. In this sense, she really is the perfect foil for Barack Obama. Our president represents the meritocratic ideal — that anyone, from any background, can grow up to attend Columbia and Harvard Law School and become a great American success story. But Sarah Palin represents the democratic ideal — that anyone can grow up to be a great success story without graduating from Columbia and Harvard.
My beef with Douthat here is that he draws a clear line between the meritocratic ideal and the democratic ideal. But why should such a line be drawn? It makes no sense to think that Barack Obama's story represents the meritocratic ideal and not the democratic ideal. As Obama himself says, one of the greatest things about this country and its democratic ideals of freedom, liberty, and all the rest, is that, if one works hard, the opportunity and possibility for success exists. Douthat, in fact, seems to be saying in distinguishing between the democratic ideal and the meritocratic ideal, that the democratic ideal means you can get anything you set your heart on just by setting your heart on it. The democratic ideal doesn't require that you "earn" your success (that would make it "meritocratic"), merely that if you are in the right place at the right time you can stumble into success, and that this is good.

But let's run with the distinction as Douthat does. He continues:
This ideal has had a tough 10 months. It’s been tarnished by Palin herself, obviously. With her missteps, scandals, dreadful interviews and self-pitying monologues, she’s botched an essential democratic role — the ordinary citizen who takes on the elites, the up-by-your-bootstraps role embodied by politicians from Andrew Jackson down to Harry Truman.
Now, I agree with Douthat that Palin has botched the "democratic" role he describes. But the reason why she botched it is because she didn't have the skills to represent the American everyman and to keep elites accountable to the Average Joe. In other words, she didn't earn the democratic role that Douthat describes. That role does require leadership. We "ordinary citizens" can't all take on the elites in up-by-your-bootstrap fashion like Andrew Jackson without distinguishing ourselves as capable of leadership in doing so. In other words, even ordinary citizens in a democracy have to earn their leadership props by demonstrating the skills and acumen to serve in that capacity. Sarah Palin botched this democratic role because she simply IS not the "extraordinary" ordinary citizen that Douthat expects can fill it.

Douthat continues:
But it’s also been tarnished by the elites themselves, in the way that the media and political establishments have treated her.
I call B.S. on this. If Sarah Palin had any shred of ability as an ordinary citizen capable of fulfilling the democratic role that Douthat ascribes to her, the "media and political establishments" would have responded to her much, much differently. Douthat seems to be under the delusion that Sarah Palin's "botch job" doesn't merit harsh criticism. He seems to think that the "media and political establishments" just went after Palin because she is from a non-elite class (a claim, by the way, that just doesn't really hold up to any kind of class-based analysis) and because she is a woman. As Douthat must know, there are many women from much more humble backgrounds who have succeeded in fulfilling that democratic role because they earned it through diligence and hard work. And the "media and political establishments" treat such people accordingly. I give Douthat Sonia Sotomayor as a perfect example of this.

More Douthat from later in the article:
All of this had something to do with ordinary partisan politics. But it had everything to do with Palin’s gender and her social class.

Sarah Palin is beloved by millions because her rise suggested, however temporarily, that the old American aphorism about how anyone can grow up to be president might actually be true.
Douthat's absolutist claim that the way the "media and political establishments" treated Palin so critically and dismissively had "everything to do with Palin's gender and her social class" is clearly disproved by the way the "media and political establishments" have treated other women from modest class origins who have sought to make a claim on national power and leadership like Sonia Sotomayor. Reminds me of that 1970s TV game show "The Gong Show" (Maybe today's "American Idol" could compare.) Anyone ordinary could get on the "Gong Show"; but only those with some talent and skills would survive it. Sarah Palin got on the show; and the "media and political establishments" (not to mention the larger public) GONGED her. And it wasn't because of her class or gender, but because she didn't earn advancing toward the prize.

Douthat ends with this quippy bit of pseudo-wisdom:
But her unhappy sojourn on the national stage has had a different moral: Don’t even think about it.
To which I'd add: ... if you don't have the talent. And if you don't have the talent, but put yourself on the stage anyway, you don't deserve for people to pretend nicely that you do.

Why I Don't Home School My Kids

My wife and I don't homeschool our children. Let me tell you a few of the more important reasons why. From what I have been able to discern from homeschoolers, I find that the decision to home school is made primarily out of 2 main concerns, both of which are admirable: (1) a desire to "protect" children from a hostile and inadequate external environment, and (2) a desire to carefully condition the kind of social experience children have and the kind of social reality children are exposed to. Again, both are admirable goals and have a lot of positives to speak for them; but I personally think that homeschooling might actually make achieving these very goals more difficult. In the first place, I believe that the "overprotectiveness" that I detect in some homeschoolers can serve as a disincentive to children to learn to deal constructively and proactively with the reality of a hostile and inadequate external environment when it intrudes, as it inevitably will, in their lives. Second, I think it is important for children to develop an identity and life that is outside of the watchful eye or the managed plan of concerned, loving parents. Even though homeschoolers have very rich social and recreational activities, it is still very much conditioned, planned, and approved by parents. It is, essentially, the parents' conception of appropriate experience and socialization for their children, not the children's. This is not a bad thing, especially at younger ages, but I think it discourages children of crafting their own experiences and learning how to deal with the moral and ethical dimensions of their world and experiences that are truly and exclusively theirs (and not partially mine as well). In other words, I think it is important for children to come into their own, to struggle with issues that mommy and daddy are somewhat removed from, and to have to face their consciences over doing right or wrong, especially when they know that mommy and daddy will likely never know how they chose. I'm sure most homeschoolers are aware of these arguments, but they were very important considerations, among many others, to go the route of the institutional school experience, which also has many "positives" to offer my children.

Now, I have often come across the argument critizing the reasoning above as a kind of abdication of parental responsibility to protect vulnerable and easily-influenced adolescents and teenagers from what is an unnecessary exposure to the dangers and harshness of the rough-and-tumble world of peer pressure with minimal supervision. The argument is usually that kids don't need to be "thrown to the wolves" as part of a kind of hazing ritual in order to come into their own. I agree that children need protection. After all, they are still very vulnerable individuals subject to all kinds of pressures and influences, not all of which are good. But I don't see how sending children to a school is necessarily an abdication of the responsibility of parents to protect their children. It's not an all or nothing proposition. If I ever thought my children were really threatened by being in a regular institutional school environment, I would most certainly intervene to protect them. And my wife and I certainly are involved in the life of our kids' school as much as our time permits, so we do know what's generally going on there. I'm not talking about throwing my children to the wolves, just letting them have a little bit of their own lives decided by them and, at times, kept to themselves. And let's not forget that children still spend a good deal of time at home, too. Sending a child to school is not an abdication of parental responsibility, it is part of it.

I often find that the very admirable parental tendency to want to protect one's children (and I have this tendency in abundance) can easily slip into a rather unhealthy overprotectiveness that can infringe upon a child's unique sense of independent identity. Even at young ages, our children are not helpless mini-me's; they are their own persons, completely independent of us, and I think it is important to let them find space to stake out their independent identities truly separate from us. For instance, let me lay out a common scene that takes place at the dinner table of my home, and I think of probably every non-homeschooling family, but which I can't really imagine being possible at the dinner table of a homeschooling family. I ask my daughter how was her day at school. Sometimes I get the full story, told with enthusiasm and joy at being able to surprise me with details about which I'm in the dark. She's, in effect, the agent in revealing her life to me, as a surprise gift completely at her discretion to offer, and not the other way around. How do homeschooled children get the pleasure and self-satisfaction to boast to their parents about having won the spelling bee that day, and then get to tell the story to a curious parent of how she worked out spelling the winning word? Or, how she tried to comfort the friend who scraped her knee at recess? Sometimes, however, I get a shoulder shrug and the one-word reply "good" that will have to suffice in answer to my question about how the school day was. I can't say that I particularly like the latter response, but I don't think it's because my child is keeping dangerous secrets from me. I think it's either that she's just not interested in talking about it, or, at an unconscious level, she wants to keep her day special to herself. I think that's healthy up to a point.

Finally, there is no guarantee that homeschooling keeps the reality of the world we live in at bay. Personally, I think that's a very nice, but unrealistic, way to approach life. And I'd rather that my children learn to live in the world, as it is, with both its warts and its glories, on their own terms, and not in the idyllic (and impossible, I believe) dreamworld of innocence.

But in the end, I know that loving parents who live out what they feel is best for their children are ultimately all that matters. And in that respect, I know that homeschooled children as well as "institutional system" schooled children who have the benefit of such parents in their lives are not likely to go wrong.

Friday, July 03, 2009

Sarah "Cut-n-Run" Palin

I've always thought this woman was a basket case; but this latest stunt is just bizarre. How anyone can take this woman seriously is beyond me. I have always thought of her as a joke. She seems like a nice enough person; but she always struck me as the most unserious, unprepared, and erratic candidate for national high office that I've ever seen. There was the cringingly embarrassing Katie Couric interview, which should have been enough evidence of her incompetence for any intelligent person; but now there's this resignation.

What does it say that she can't even finish her first term as governor of Alaska? Nothing good, I think. No matter what rationale she gives, the fact will always remain that she just quit.

But let's look at the specific reason she gave. It went something along the lines of: "I don't want to waste the taxpayers' money and time as a lame duck executive." WTF?!?!?! How lame can that be? What would we think about Sarah Palin as President after a stunt like this? I can see it now, after just 2 and a half years as President of the US, facing all kinds of scrutiny and criticism, President Palin calls a hasty press conference to quit the job.

Let's just face it, the woman never has been and never will be cut out to be President. Anybody that continues to support a Palin Presidential run simply isn't thinking straight and just can't be taken seriously.