Archive for December, 2012
…with my apologies to Monty Python.
But I need something completely different at the moment, so let me go with this.
Some of you may know that I collect versions of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol.
I’ve got old versions and new ones, direct versions and adaptations in modern dress. There are strange little versions that I lust after but don’t have yet for one reason or another–there’s a Smurfs one that you can get only if you buy the Smurf movie, as it’s an extra on the disc, and one that’s an episode of Quantum Leap that you can only get by buying the season, and another that’s an episode of Highway to Heaven that has the same problem.
There are also disappointments. The new Dr. Who series has one that isn’t really an adaptation, but just sort of scoots around the edges of one.
Last night, after dinner, I wandered in to the room where the television is and clicked around until I was stopped by the announcement that a Christmas Carol adaptation I’d never heard of was about to start on TCM.
The adaptation was called Carol for Another Christmas, and I sat still to hear Robert Osborne’s introduction to it.
Carol for Another Christmas turns out to be a made-for-TV movie from 1964. It was commissioned as part of a series of movies meant to celebrate something–maybe an anniversary–about the UN.
It was written by Rod Serling and starred the kind of cast they must have spent serious money to get: Eva Marie Saint, Sterling Hayden, Peter Sellers, Ben Gazzara, Steve Lawrence, Robert Shaw. There were a bunch more who escape me at the moment.
And there was a good reason why I’d never heard of it.
The movie had been shown exactly once, and then disappeared for the next–52 years?
The part of my brain that does math seems to be misfiring this morning.
Let’s just say it was a really long time.
And the sudden reappearance of the thing was wonderful. I would never have found it for myself. I wouldn’t have even known to look for it.
So I sat down to watch it.
And there ensued–well, hilarity, after awhile. But in the beginning there was shock.
First, let me say that this movie has cemented for me, for all time, the truth that everything depends on a good director. Without one, even very good actors can be very, very bad. The actors in this thing were almost universally very, very bad, with the exception of Peter Sellers, who was–well, we’ll get to more of that later.
The second thing is something most of you probably already know. Rod Serling is one of those writers who is a genius if you keep him on a leash, but absolutely horrific when you don’t.
Nobody was keeping him on a leash here.
You know the endless preachiness of some of those old Twilight Zone episodes? Well, with this, Serling had more than an hour, and every single one of his characters ended up giving Speeches.
I capitalized Speeches on purpose.
The Speeches were occasioned by the fact that the theme of this movie was not the usual Christmas Carol thing about not being a greedy jerk, but a kind of free floating extravaganza of every left of center cliche about Peace, Understanding and How The Communists Are Just Like Us and war is no longer possible now that we have the atom bomb.
Sterling Hayden plays Scrooge, except he isn’t called Scrooge. Instead, his name is Daniel Grudge–I am not making this up–and his problem is that he lost his only son in a war, on Christmas Day, and has now dedicated himself to Isolationism.
What Daniel Grudge wants is for the US to stay out of all foreign wars, and then to nuke the hell out of anybody who threatens us.
The three spirits therefore take him through a war torn landscape to convince him that war is obsolete and will result only in the total destruction of all mankind. We see devastation in WWI, the remains of Hiroshima, displaced persons in barbed wire camps, and all the rest of that kind of thing.
Along the way, we are treated to Speech after endless Speech about how talking is better than fighting and as long as we’re talking we’re not fighting and that we can trust everybody no matter who they are or what they say they’re after because we’re all human beings in this together and we’d all of us rather be alive than dead.
Then we get to Christmas Future–Robert Shaw–and what you have to understand is this: unlike every other Christmas Future in every other Christmas Carol version ever written, this one talks.
He talks a lot.
He talks nearly nonstop.
He has nothing to say that anybody else hasn’t said already–including Ben Gazzara, who plays Grudge’s nephew and a professor at the local university who wants his fellow faculty members to take part in a cultural exchange program with Poland.
But just because Christmas Future doesn’t have anything new to say doesn’t mean he can’t say it at length.
But although the Speeches delivered by Christmas Future are not very interesting, and nothing that hasn’t been Speechified already in the production, the words and actions of the characters in the scene meant to be part of the future world are very interesting indeed.
We are told that there are only three colonies of human beings left on the planet. We are looking at one of them. The other two colonies want to get together and talk about “our mutual problems.”
This colony, however, is dedicated to The Individual Me. They are convinced that the other two colonies only say they want to talk and are really pulling an elaborate scam to take over the world of the Individual Mes.
Therefore, when one of the colony speaks up for cooperation, they do the next best thing to lynching him–have I mentioned he’s the only black guy in the piece?–and then lay plans for fighting the other colonies as soon as they get anywhere close.
Now, there’s a lot I could say about this segment of the movie, especially about the way it wallows in hackiness. The lynching is actually a shooting and the murder is committed by a small child with a live gun, while his mother sits smiling and knits throughout.
But the real issue is the fact that what happens in this colony is the complete vindication of Daniel Grudge’s original ideas–talking only works if you can trust everybody to talk, and all it takes is one to blow up negotiations for everybody.
The only thing that makes any sense to me about this is that neither Serling nor anybody else who worked on this thing realized what was going on here.
Maybe they were just too mesmerized by the absolute silliness of the scene that they didn’t notice.
Because the scene is absolutely silly. The leader of the Individual Mes is played by Peter Sellers, who talks in a “Southern” accent out of a bad Fifties race relations movie and wears a Pilgrim Puritan outfit topped by a ten gallon hat with a crown on it and ME in glitter letters.
The “me” in “individual me” seems to be some way to blunt the recognition that the movie is arguing against individualism, which had a rather good reputation at the time, and which is not synonymous with either solipsism or the kind of vulgar blind selfishness usually attributed to capitalists in Thirties movies.
I would probably have been less appalled at this production if it hadn’t been written at the intellectual level of a dull five year old, but here it is.
And I’m not surprised that last night was only the second time it was ever aired.
And in the long run, if it comes out on DVD, I’ll make sure to get it.
Because that’s what collections are for.
I waited an entire day to write this post, because every time I thought of it, I found myself getting more and more angry, and more and more incoherent.
So let me take a deep breath here, and I’ll try to stay calm enough here to make sense.
First, I need to tell you that Newtown, Connecticut is a place I know well, and have known well, all my life.
In my early childhood, I lived right next to Newtown, just over the town line into Bethel. My first ever best friend moved to Newtown when we were both ten, and for a while I made regular visits out to the house her father had bought so that she could have a horse.
Going from our house then to visit relatives in New Haven, we passed right through the center of Sandy Hook. During that period, on those drives that were almost daily for a while, I watched the Rose of Lima school being built. I can still remember first realizing that it was open, when I saw a nun in full habit standing in the parking lot waiting for the school buses to unload.
Sandy Hook has also been a common destination from where I live now, because it has a number of different shops that sell what I can’t get elsewhere.
I am very grateful that I didn’t know any of the people who died in the shooting, or any of the parents who lost children. But I do know lots of the people who have been interviewed on cable and local news about the shooting, including some of the law enforcement people. In two cases, these are people I have known since childhood.
All of this is by way of saying that this is not an academic exercise for me, so if I seem a little ticked off–well.
Because I am enormously ticked off.
Not about the shooting, of course, which can only be met with grief.
I’m ticked off about the response to it, on media, on scial media, everywhere.
Let me dispense, first, with the small scale annoyances–the psychologists and the moralists.
The psychologists tell me that the man who did this might have had a “personality disorder.” The moralists tell me that the shooter was evil.
Do you know what these two things have in common?
They’re complete gibberish. “Personality disorder” translates to “this is a guy who behaves in ways we don’t like, so we’re going to label him something that says he really isn’t like the rest of us.” “Evil” translates to “this is a guy who behaves in ways we don’t like, so we’re going to label him something that says he really isn’t like the rest of us.”
To say that such responses to something like this are not useful ought to be evident. People use them to give themselves the illusion of an explanation, and then stop their ears and their minds so that they don’t recognize that it is, in fact, only a delusion.
The major annoyance–the thing that gets me really angry–is the horde of people declaring that this means we should have a discussion about guns.
I think I am as angry as I am about this at least in part because the people who are giving me the gun thing are mostly the same people who declare to me that they engage in “critical thinking” and resort to reason and not emotion when they deal with the world, unlike those stupid religious people who are just closed minded and afraid of death or maybe bigots, or–whatever.
I wish these people would apply critical thinking to what they are doing now.
Let’s start with a proposition.
If it is the case that things like this happen because gun control laws are inadequate, then periods in our history when gun control laws are weaker or nonexistent should see more of this kind of thing than periods in which gun control laws are stronger.
Any look at the history of the US in the 20th and 21st century will tell you that several periods in our history when gun control has been weak or nonexistant showed no events of this kind anywhere at all.
In the 1930s, no gun control laws existed at all in most parts of the nation, and serious weaponry could be had for the asking in quite a few states.
Al Capone and his ilk had access to machine guns, actually army grade weapons, but although they were happy to gun down their rivals and friends, not one of them walked into a public school and shot all the children or walked into a movie theater and laid out the patrons.
And neither did anybody else.
Or take the Fifties, when gun control laws were also much weaker than they are now in most of the nation. My brother got a rifle for his fourteenth birthday, and nobody seemed to think anything of it. He certainly wasn’t the only boy his age who had one.
And yet, even thought he was mercilessly bullied in school, he never used that rifle to shoot up his classmates.
And neither did anybody else.
Obviously, the mere ability to get access to guns is not what causes shootings like this.
In fact, shootings like this are relatively “new.” One friend of mine said he couldn’t remember one before the 1960s. I can’t remember one before the 1980s.
Something has surely changed in our recent history, but any look at the actual facts–without the intervening drive of self righteousness and ideological blinders–will find it plain that what didn’t change was gun control laws being weakened.
The subsidiary argument is to demand that we put into place laws that require criminal background checks, registration, mental health histories, and all the rest.
None of that would have done anything to affect this case and all of it is irrelevant to the situation at hand.
Connecticut’s gun laws are some of the strongest in the nation. They not only require all of the above, but establish mandatory training for anybody who wants a gun permit.
The guns the shooter used to kill little children were legally registered to his own mother. In other words, she had already gone through all the hoops–and more–that people are now saying we should install elsewhere.
Another subsidiary argument is that we should ban “assault weapons.”
That doesn’t apply here either. The shooter didn’t have an AK-47 or an Uzi. He had a couple of ordinary pistols and a rifle.
Of course, there are people who just want us to “get rid of all the guns.” I don’t know if they actually realize they’re suggesting something that is literally impossible, or why they would suggest it if they do.
If they honestly don’t understand why it wouldn’t work, I’d suggest they do a thought experiement.
Say you live on a ranch of several thousand acres out in Idaho or Montana. The nearest police station is a hundred miles away, and if you called the police because your home was being invaded it would take an hour for officers to reach you.
Some people, of course, don’t think the right to bear arms should be a right at all and suggest repealing the Second Amendment, or suggest other things that they would be furious at if they were applied to things they do accept as rights. They would not suggest that people who exercise the right to free speech should have it taken away from them if they can’t control NAMBLA and its website. They get furious when states place procedural restrictions on abortion.
I’ll leave any discussion of the Constitutional problems for another time.
At the moment, I have one large concern.
Not only is the furor over gun control not helpful in this case, it’s actually harmful to any attempt to do anything about the fact that this kind of thing happens.
Because there is certainly a change here. It’s a very big change, and it seems to be accelerating.
We are looking at a phenomenon that was literally unheard of before the last half century.
Something has gone on, and we don’t know what it is. We never even try to find what it is, because we’re too busy arguing over guns.
What happened in this society that led to people doing this kind of thing?
No, it wasn’t cutbacks to mental health services, because there were no available mental health services in the Thirties and far fewer than there are now in the Fifties.
We did make it harder to involuntarily commit people–but unless you want to go back to the days when husbands could have their wives committed because the wives wanted a divorce, you’re not going back to that, either.
And even if you did, it wouldn’t have helped with this. We’re told that the shooter may have had “a mild form of autism.” You’re not going to get away with committing the one out of a hundred children now defined as “autistic” by our new and much loosened standards.
And autism has been around all this time without school shootings and mall shootings and theater shootings.
So has bullying, by the way.
If you want to apply your critical thinking to this, try to answer the real question:
What has changed in this society that makes people want to do these things?
And, very importantly, what has changed in the last decade that has resulted in a near epidemic of mass shootings?
Something very important is going on here, but yelling about guns or disparaging the people who use them or shredding the Bill of Rights will not tell us what it is.
I’m going to go listen to Handel’s Messiah.
It seems to be Christmas.
I’d like to start out here by saying that I was never not talking to any of you. I was just not talking.
But, some notes on the discussion thus far:
1) In terms of fundamental differences in intellectual ability by race, what may or may not be observable at, say, MIT or Caltech, is largely irrelevant in the places I teach.
In fact, one of the constant frustrations of teaching remedial students in classes like mine is the fact that minority students are quite often significantly brighter than the white students who outperform them.
The achievement gap is not being caused, on this level, by any innate differences in intellectual ability.
It is being caused by the fact that, when students are not taught thinks like standard English usage and a wide range of general knowledge at school, then those students whose families and who pass it on will automatically do better than those students whose families do not have the same background and resources.
That’s why that principle–I wish I could find the reference, but at the moment I’m coming up blank–at a high school offering AP classes tried to lay down a rule that students could not bring AP work home, or ask their parents about their assignments. After all, some students might have parents better able to help than others, and resources in the home (like computer access and encyclopedias) not available to others–and that wasn’t “fair.”
2) One of the things that is exacerbating all of this is our increasing reliance on a single conduit to employment and opportunity.
No matter who you are or what you want to do, the assumption is that you are “qualified” for the job only if you have the right academic paper, and that somebody with such academic paper is automatically “better qualified” than somebody without.
My brother got his first ever job–at fifteen, as a mechanic–from a guy who had watched him work on cars since he was ten. He was still in high school and had no formal training in automechanics–and he never would. He was, however, a near genius with automobiles.
Today, the chances are good that that man would not be able to give my brother that job, and especially not be able to give it to him if there were competing applicants with less talent but more academic credentials.
The employer would have to prove that he was not discriminating in any way when he hired my brother over a “more qualified” somebody else with academic credentials. “I’ve watched this kid for three years and he’s the God of getting clunkers back on the road” isn’t going to cut it if the EEOC or a lawsuit comes calling.
And yet the simple reality is that there is nothing about being an auto mechanic that requires an academic degree, or even an academic credential. And that’s true of a lot of other things.
Every year, kids with athletic talent that rivals anything you see in the pros are condemned to lives on the streets make the grades to get into a college–why, for heaven’s sake? Does it really require academic training to play football? Or basketball? Or hockey?
And yes, I know that most pro ball players have short careers and end up broke–but isn’t it at least arguable that that it is preferable to give them the shot and see what they make of it than just telling them, no, you can’t do history papers, you just have to rot?
Credentials do sometimes–and in some fields–indicate that you know something, but far too often they represent nothing but certification that this kid could sit still and follow directions while being bored out of his skull for two to four years.
A lot of times these days, it doesn’t even mean that. I reference Judy and grade inflation.
3) I’ll stick to “the Feds are going ballistic.” They’re just not going ballistic over the things Robert wants them to go ballistic over, and they’re the wrong Feds to be concerned with those things.
A lot of this will make more sense if you look at what the Department of Education Bureaucrats actually want, which is not educated Americans but Congress off their backs.
Congresspeople are looking at skyrocketing costs for all those college students, at federally guaranteed student loans with default rates in free fall, and with constituents and supporters who want to know what we’re going to do about all this money.
They then light on a fact that is true enough, but doesn’t mean what they think it means.
Students who complete their college educations are more likely to repay their student loans than students who do not.
Obviously, they think, the answer is to make sure more students complete their educations.
They begin demanding that more students complete their college educations. The Department of Education hands down regulations requiring colleges and universities show that they are really trying, very hard, to keep kids in school until they graduate.
This results in knew bureaucratic departments of things called “the office for student success” and “the learning center” and whatever. These chiefly monitor student progress, haul students in for pep talks or required tutoring sessions, and all the other things that are largely beside the point.
Student retention rates do not rise much, because the efforts being made are irrelevant to the problems causing the low retention rates.
A few years go by and Congress is yet again made aware that retention rates are really low and that the debt is getting even bigger and tuition rates are rising into the stratosphere (you’ve got to pay for all those extra administrators somehow) and that students who don’t graduate are more likely to default on their loans than students who do.
So Congress starts leaning on the Department of Education, and the Department of Education begins leaning on the colleges and universities and also on the states, which of course run large public university systems.
The states and the universities then turn around and say–you’d damned well retain more students, or the Feds are going to take their money away.
This is, in fact, everybody in the system going ballistic. They’re just not going ballistic about educating students.
Their problem, as they see it, is not that students aren’t being educated. They don’t care a damn whether students are being educated or not.
Their problem, as they see it, is that their access to Federal money will be reduced or eliminated if they don’t produce a specific result: more students graduating.
Since we live in a world where we simply assume that if a credential is conferred it means that the student upon whom it is conferred has a certain set of knowledge and skills, forcing the kids through by grade inflation or the complete collapse of standards is just fine.
Of course, a few years down the line we will reach a point where the lack of skills and knowledge can no longer be ignored,
But, hey. That’s a few years down the line.
Remember: the first job of any bureaucracy is to keep the institution functioning, even if that means harming or completely destroying the purpose for which the institution was founded.
4) The bottom line is that students are not being educated because nobody is trying to educate them, except a few of the teachers on the ground who are attempting to do the impossible.
The system is a gigantic scam to transfer wealth from largely poorer students to largely more wealthy administrators, and that is true of all parts of the system: publicly funded, nonprofit and for profit.
The flap about how awful the for-profit universities are and how they produce too many students with “worthless degrees” is a smokescreen.
Students are graduating with degrees just as worthless from every state college system in the country.
5) Professionals are still professionals when they are required to show that their work does what they say it does. But professionals are NOT professionals when somebody else controls the hours they work or the organization of the content of what they do.
Public school teachers are not professionals because their hours of employment are set by others, their teaching is often controlled by lesson plans and other dictats set down by others, etc.
On this level, college teaching is also rapidly losing its status as a profession.
To the real post, just behind this one.
This, from the New York Times.
I went looking through the comments this morning, and, like Cheryl, I feel for Mique’s granddaughter–but one of those cases here and there will be inevitable in any educational system.
What is going on in the US, however, is not one or two cases, and it’s not “incompetence” in the usual sense.
It is the result of deliberate policy initiatives enacted as regulations by federal agencies and imposed on local school districts by bureaucratic diktat.
These regulations rest on two assumptions, both of which are wrong:
1) that we can mandate results by imposing multiple choice testing and its adjuncts as a measure of those results AND
2) that teachers who have come out of the schools of education are “experts” in pedagogy and therefore can be counted on to achieve those results, if they only try hard enough.
The poster child for the first idea is the No Child Left Behind program, which the Left purports to hate as degrading to teachers and getting in the way of “real” education.
If you look at liberal criticisms of NCLB, however, what you find is not that they think the program gets in the way of “real” education, but that they object to anybody checking on whether or not teachers are achieving results.
This, they say, is demeaning to teachers and treats them as hirelings instead of professionals.
And that, of course, is true. But the same can be said about the Obama administration’s Department of Education in the way it treats university professors.
No bureaucracy is going to treat anybody it regulates as a professional, because the essence of being a professional is having control over your own work. You can’t micromanage the work from Washington and still leave the professionals to make their own decisions on their own terms.
But the simple fact is that NCLB does treat teachers as professionals in at least one way: it assumes they are “experts” on education and let’s them find their own way to getting the job done.
The problem with this is simple. By and large, the teacher training programs in the US present to their students a vision of teaching that says its most important function is to “transform society” by being “change agents.”
Teachers in the classroom are not to be overly concerned with things like grammar, punctuation and spelling, say, or the multiplication tables, but with “teaching students to think.”
This sounds really good until you try to break it down. When you do try to break it down, what you find is that it mostly consists of trying to instill attitudes on a whole host of subjects from climate change to homosexuality to “income inequality.”
There are a whole host of problems with this approach, not the least of which is the fact that you can’t think critically, or at all, unless you have something to think about.
Being given limited information and told it is true is what is usually known as indoctrination, and indoctrination is what US public schools largely engage in.
But in spite of all the yelling–and there’s been a lot–the indoctrination in itself is not the problem here.
The problem here is that the assumptions on which this indoctrination is based largely rule out the only method we now have that can even approach a solution to functional illiteracy.
The method is called “knowledge based education,” and it consists in starting in kindergarten and going on being very careful to make sure that students learn, understand and remember a set of specific facts and ideas that constitute the cultural context necessary to understand anything not only in higher levels of academic work but in day to day life.
Combined with a regime that rigorously fails those students who do not meet benchmarks for the acquiring of this knowledge, this is the only known method we have that actually closes the “achievement gap” between underrepresented minorities and whites and Asians.
The problem, of course, is that such a curriculum at least implies the idea that Western civilization is a good thing that ought to be admired and preserved.
And since most of the teachers’ colleges–and especially the high end ones like Columbia and Harvard–begin with the assumption that Western civilization is inherently bad, racist and sexist and evil, and ought to be destroyed in the interests of “social justice,” that will never do.
All of this is made yet worse by something else. Eric Holder was right about one thing, although probably not in the way he meant it.
We in the US are scared to death to have an honest discussion about race.
When our backs are to the wall, we will mumbling admit the obvious–that black and Hispanic kids are something like five times more likely than white and Asian ones to exhibit a “knowledge deficit,” and that this knowledge deficit exhibits itself disproportionately by race even when factors like income and parental education are held constant.
And, to cap it off, these disparities are actually increasing over time.
This phenomenon does not seem particularly confusing to me.
In an educational system that does nothing to make sure that students have the cultural context they need to operate, those students will do best who can get that cultural context elsewhere.
Contrary to all the hyperventilating about the “injustice” of imposing a hegemonic majority culture on defenseless minority victims, cultural literacy is the ONLY thing that can give disadvantaged students a fighting chance to outachieve their more fortunate classmates.
But cultural prejudices aside, I also think there are two more reasons–and possibly more important reasons–why there is so much resistance to knowledge based education.
The first is that I believe that a fair number of people who declare themselves “progressives” in this country believe, down to their bone, that black and Latino students are inherently incapable of learning on the same level as whites and Asians.
That is, I think they believe that black and Latino students are born stupid.
The second is that the same is true of a fair number of people who declare themselves “conservatives.”
Now we hit a really difficult patch to negotiate.
It is, in the first place, impossible for anybody on any side to admit that this is what he thinks.
The fact that this idea is largely wrong, and could be proved wrong if you actually looked into it, doesn’t matter.
Nobody is going to look into it, because they are too afraid that it might be true.
So we have a covert discussion not about how we can fix the problems of academic underachievement, but in what we should do about a large minority of our population that we assume is just not competent to function in the world with the rest of us.
For progressives, the preferred response is affirmative action of two kinds:
1) The kind we’re all used to, which involves insuring “diversity” (not real diversity, just diversity of skin color) by setting up double standards for admission to universities and for employment.
2) By redefining the meaning of various achievement levels–like “middle school” and “high school” and even “college”–so that more people will meet them and therefore so that more “people of color” will meet them.
It’s a race to the bottom. “Graduating from high school” comes to mean first a skill level that used to be associated with junior high, then a skill level that used to be associated with middle school, and then–well, we’re getting there.
The problem with all this is that there gets to be a point where the rubber meets the road. The skill levels that were required for such achievements were not arbitrary. They represented real needs in the real world.
It doesn’t really matter why Shaniqua can’t read. If she can’t, she can’t safely perform work as an emergency room nurse, or a firefighter, or an engineer. If she can’t write a comprehensible and correct English sentence, she’s a liability to any company that does business with places like Germany and Japan, where they tend to view that sort of imcompetence as reflecting significantly on the ability of the company to do any kind of competent work at all.
This is, of course, monumentally unfair on a lot of levels–it was not Shaniqua’s decision to construct or inhabit a racialized educational system, or to be born to a crack-addicted mother, or to have any of the other myriad things that may have gone wrong in her life go wrong.
But unfair or not, we are just not going to let her into that emergency room with any level of responsible, nor are we going to let her build that bridge, or communicate with the Head of Operations for Toyota in Tokyo.
Our response to this has been uncomplicated: we have redefined a “college” education as a skill level of about the sixth grade, except for the students in very elite and very expensive private universities, or in the Honors Colleges of the public Ivies.
Everybody else will live increasingly in a system in which their college degree becomes increasingly worthless with time–because it is not a college degree, and it is worthless.
And still, that “achievement gap” will not close, because in a system where you cannot learn what you need to learn in school, what matters is what your parents can teach you at home.
And with this we get whole new university departments of “student success,” of affirmative action, of–well, you name it. The departments are necessary because the feds are going ballistic. They’re paying a ton for all this stuff , and it isn’t working. And they’re paying more and more for it, because those administrative departments are expensive to run.
In the short run, good schools in towns where the majority of parents know what their kids should learn try to do an end run around all of this by installing “gifted programs” that teach what kids should really learn, but only to a few of them, at the very top, while the rest of the class is left to wallow not in mediocrity, but in insufficiency.
Then come the complaints that there are too few underrepresented minorities in the gifted programs, so the criteria for admission to those are softened in order to get the diversity up.
Then the parents who can decamp for private schools, and we get a lot of sniffing on the Op Ed page of theNew York Timesabout how we’re abandoning our sense of community and commitment to the public good for an every man for himself society.
One of the things you have to remember about the kids I talked about yesterday–they may not have gone to bad schools. They may have gone to good schools whose administrations had decided that it wasn’t worth the enormous political and social trouble of insisting that they meet common standards.
I think I need to go make egg salad.
If you get me upset enough, I just can’t shut up.
A while ago I posted about a book called Wannabe U, and complained–I believe legitimately–that the book had blinders on. It kept insisting that what was happening was the “corporatization” of the university, with the changes there driven by “corporate values.”
I tried to point out that what the book identified as “corporate” was in fact government–a fact that the writer could not ignore all the time, and every once in a while had to note.
This past week, however, I’ve run into an actual on the ground example of what I was talking about, and I think it’s worth going into.
The federal government has now handed down regulations–to go into effect with the Spring 2013 term–that require colleges and universities to restrict required remedial courses to one course per subject area.
The language is actually more convoluted than that, but what it comes down to is this: if I admit you, I can require you to take ONE remedial course in English composition, but no more.
To those of you who teach at even relatively selective institutions, this may seem like a regulation without an issue. Whoever would need more than one remedial course to be brought up to speed?
And if some students need more than one, surely that’s the fault of the university–it isn’t teaching its remedial courses properly, and students aren’t learning the skills and materials they need to go on to college work.
Those of you who teach in a community college or any other kind of “open admissions” institution–that is, a place where you are accepted as long as you have a high school diploma, no matter what your grades or your courses or your skill levels or anything else–know what is about to go very wrong here.
In the program in which I teach, the regime has been to offer two levels of remedial composition instruction, plus the standard college composition course.
Remedial courses cost as much as regular college courses, but they do not result in credit hours towards graduation.
On entry to the university, students are required to take an Accuplacer test. The results of this test determine whether the student must begin with Phase 1 Remedial, or Phase 2 Remedial, or with the regulat college course.
A student required to take Phase 1 Remedial has been required to pass it with at least a C, and then to go on to Phase 2 Remedial and pass that with a C before going on to the regular course.
A student who starts in Phase 2 Remedial must pass it with a C before going on to the regular college course.
As you can imagine, students who are placed in a Phase 1 Remedial course have a significant expense added to the cost of their college education.
This is exacerbated by two facts:
First, students who place in a Phase 1 Remedial course in one subject almost always place there in other subjects, and especially in mathematics. That means they may rack up the cost of anywhere from four to eight remedial courses that they must somehow pay for even though those courses do not count toward their college degree.
And second, the students who place this low on the academic skill scale are almost always paying for those courses with financial aid, Pell Grants and very expensive college loans.
In some ways, you can see what the federal regulators are trying to grapple with here.
Something seems to be wrong. All these students graduated from high school, some of them with very good grades–although their grades on standardized tests, if they took them, tend to be rock bottom low.
Still, the students graduated, and that must mean something–mustn’t it? Surely colleges and universities should be able to bring students up to speed in a single semester.
Like I said, if you teach at even a relatively selective university, this may sound like common sense to you. You may even share the suspicion of federal regulators that the only reasons universities demand even more remedial work is to plump up their bottom lines. They can charge and charge and charge and just suck in the money.
If you teach in an open enrollment instution, t hough, you know nobody is sucking in the money. You spend every day facing students who never passed Algebra 1, never mind the full four year math course that most colleges insist on as the foundation for things like calculus that are required for graduation.
You also know that kids show up at composition class unable to read and comprehend even a short and simple newspaper article. They are unable to write a standard English declarative sentence, and they can’t punctuate it, either.
You get things like:
My Mom teached me so then I swimmed all over the pool but they just be judging me all the time.
And that sentence is better than the original I tried to copy, because it seems I can’t stop unconsciously correcting the spelling.
It’s also three or four levels above what you’ll usually see in Phase 1 Remedial courses. You can at least tentatively figure out what it means, for instance. And it’s actually a sentence and not a sentence fragment. And its use of slang is minimal and its use of “cuss words” nonexistent.
The simple truth is this: no, it is not possible to fix a literacy problem that profound in a single semester.
I am increasingly of the opinon that it is not possible to fix it at all if you wait until the kid is 18 or older to do it.
There are windows of opportunity here that were missed long ago and cannot be recaptured. The time to begin to address these problems was kindergarten, and the means ones universally rejected by elementary school teachers–by insisting on standard English in school, period, correcting students every time they make a mistake when they speak in class or in the presence of the teacher at recess or lunch.
Start there, like that, and then carefully correct all written work with a red pencial and an attitude of fantacism, marking every single mistake over and over and over again until it finally sinks in.
That is not, of course, what is happening in our elementary schools, our middle schools, and our high schools. What is happening is “holistic grading,” keeping carefully quiet about mistakes so that students don’t feel disrespected or like failures, and holding fast to the conviction that students will “just learn it” (sort of by osmosis) from what they read.
We’ll all just ignore the fact that these kids do not read ever, even when reading is assigned to them, and no matter what reading is assigned to them.
(I want to stop in its tracks, right here, the suggestion that if we just gave these kids “interesting” reading in the genres, they would get excited about reading and go on to become readers. No, they wouldn’t.
In order to do that, they would have to open the books and try to read them, and they won’t.
They won’t do it because they have no idea what the words mean. They haven’t been put off by a Required Reading List, because they wouldn’t have read that either.
If you gave them an exciting adventure story and stood over them to make sure they looked at the pages, they would not be able to tell you what the story was about.
Whenever I get into discussions like this, I have a sinking suspicion that a lot of you REALLY don’t know how illiterate these kids are.)
So no, these regulations will not fix the problem these kids have, because by the time they get to college the problem is not fixable for most of them.
What they will do is put an end to college as the standard we can use to make sure out kids have at least the skill level of a sixth grade education.
Because that is, of course, what we’re doing now. We pretend that a high school diploma means that kids have certain skills. Then we provide the remedial courses that are required because they don’t have these skills.
Give this about five years, and what you’ll find is employers casting around frantically to find another measure to use to indicate that kids of that level of skills.
We may start off doing something sensible, like flunking more students who can’t do the work–but it won’t last.
The disparate impact of college requirements is already huge. Providing only one semester of remedial work will doom a huge minority of kids from the off, and those kids will be disproportionately minority.
So we’ll resort to what we already resort to in some open admissions places–holistic grading again, passing kids out of compassion or because we think they worked hard, whatever.
But the skills are the skills, and increasing numbers of “college” graduates won’t have them.
And when employers realize this–as they are already realizing it, only for a smaller segment of students–they’re going to have to find something else to do.
And that will be the total and final destruction of the value of a “college degree.”
And then you know that student loan debt bubble?
So, for the past few weeks since I posted last, I’ve been t hinking.
I’ll also been doing really draconian revisions, but that’s another story.
And what my thinking has boiled down to is this:
I really don’t have the stomach to be a censor, and I’m not going to do it.
Unfortunately, that leaves me in the same position I was when all this nonsense started. I can do one of two things:
1) Accept the fact that perfectly neutral, in no way negative statements about fantasy and science fiction will be taken as an act of war with gauntlets laid down and fight my way through the ensuing firestorm
2) Censor myself by making sure that I never say anything, no matter how bland, about the genres in question
3) Preface anything I do say about the genres in question, again no matter how bland, with mousy little acts of propitiation like going “Of course, there are many things to admire in sf and fantasy, but…”
Number 3 positively makes my head explode, and I’ve replied to both of the people who suggested it the same way: I’LL start doing that when the rest of you start prefacing your contempuous put downs of the fiction I love dearly (rememberBurning Questions?)the same way.
But the simple fact of the matter is that I just don’t have the stomach for this. I started this blog so that I could talk about the books I love and ideas that don’t have a home on either side of the political divide and other things that just sort of wandered through my head.
I don’t want to have these petty arguments. I don’t want to go back to high school and defend what I do and don’t like or dislike in the way of reading material. I don’t want to watch my words and put up a smokescreen of “nice” to fend off attacks.
When I explained this to one person, he suggested that if this is the way I felt, I shouldn’t be writing a blog at all.
Maybe he was right.
I’ve spent two weeks trying to write a post, and every time I’ve tried, I’ve ended up so furious I couldn’t actually type anything.
So let me make explicit what has been tacit for more than half a month.
This blog is on hiatus. I may come back to it at some point, or I may not, but it will not be any time soon.
I do, however, want to leave one little note for the sf and fantasy people:
THIS is a criticism:
“Heroic fantasy is nothing but a lot of adolescent posturing–virtue! honor! villanny!–punctuated by mind numbingly boring “epic” battles and hyperemotive delusional sex.”
THIS is NOT a criticism:
“All the sf I’ve read is about government employees on government missions.”
That above is just an observation, and says nothing negative about sf or anything else.
Nor does noting that a lot of fantasy sentimentalizes the Middle Ages, although they change the places and the names and throw in magic most of the time.
If you really can’t tell the difference between that first thing up there and the other two, then let me suggest that you CONSIDER the possibility that you are so hypersensitive to any discussion of the genres involved that you’re not able to properly interpret mentions of them.
I’m going to go watch Dr. Who.