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Random Notes

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I’m a little scatty today.  I got my younger son up at five in the morning so we could be ready to leave the house at six, so that I could vote before it got crazy later in the day.  We arrived at the polls at six thirty–hey, with Greg, that was some kind of victory–and although there were lots of “privacy booths” to fill out ballots, there seemed to be only one optical scan machine.  So we didn’t wait in line long, but we did wait in line, and that’s the first time that’s every happened to me in the state of Connecticut.

I have no idea what kind of shape I’m going to be in tomorrow. I usually insist on staying up until somebody is declared the winner, but the 2000 election almost killed me, and then it went on for weeks.  I don’t think there will be that kind of problem tonight, but who knows.

Which is in the way of saying that I don’t know how much of a post there’s going to be to this blog tomorrow.

On the political front today, however, I’d like to make a single point.

Democrats sounded like complete idiots–and asses–when they called George W. Bush a “fascist.”

Republicans sound like complete idiots–and asses–when they call Barack Obama a “Communist,” a “Marxist” and, yes, even a “socialist.”

Words have meanings.  People who participate in the political process should look them up.

One more thing:  the Republicans seem to be doing, this election, what the Democrats did for election after election starting with Gingrich and the Contract with America, if not with Reagan.

That is, they’ve started looking for any reason at all why a victory for the other side isn’t really real–it’s voter fraud! Really!  The whole thing is fixed!  Nobody really wants to vote for those guys!

My father used to say that if you failed at something, you’d better pray like crazy that it was because you screwed up.  If you screwed up, you could always fix the problem and try again.  If you failed because somebody else or something outside your control tripped you, you were doomed to failure no matter what you did.

The Bush administration has been, how shall we put it?  Less than successful on many fronts.  And then there’s the banking meltdown, which happens to be an instant replay of the Savings and Loan mess–I mean, didn’t we do the thing where we deregulated the banks but went on insuring their deposits back in the Eighties?  And didn’t it result in a cascade of bank failures?

You see my point here.

Anyway, assuming the Republicans don’t want to spend the next twenty years the way the Democrats spent the last twenty, they’ve got to get their acts together and figure out what they did wrong that they can fix.

And then I think everybody–Democrat and Republican, liberal and conservative, left and right–should sit down and think about what they’re doing to the world’s greatest experiment in democracy when they respond to any election they lose by screaming “voting fraud!” 

There is, of course, some voter fraud in every election in every democracy.  But the incidence of it here is minimal, and one of the lessons of living in a Republic is the responsibility to accept failure when it comes and learn to live as a loyal opposition.


Back to the other stuff.

Cheryl and Robert have both put their fingers on something important, and what would have been the subject of this post if this hadn’t been election day:  the biggest obstacle to doing something sane about university education in the US today is the universities themselves, who have gotten fat and happy on a system that virtually requires any eighteen year old who doesn’t want to spend the rest of his life flipping burgers to spend huge wads of money getting a “degree.”  The money is an important clue to what is going on here, and there’s a lot more of it than most people realize.

That said, to backtrack yet again, a bit:

I agree with Robert that it would be a good thing for even plumbers and taxi drivers to know something about history and literature.  In fact, that has been my point from the beginning.  But the level of study required to do that for most people  not interested in academics, and not likely to want to end up in a position of serious responsibility on a national level, should be pursued in high school.

I find it interesting that most of the books Robert objects to having assigned in what I presume were college English courses were never assigned in any college English course I have ever taken or taught–To Kill A Mockingbird, for instance, was assigned to both of my sons in eighth grade. 

And it’s definitely the case that any reform of liberal arts education has to start in the high schools, because right now we’re stuck with a system that sends all but the very best students from the very best prep schools and gifted programs to “college” with no systematic understanding of literature or history, and none of what we use to call civics, either.

On the post-high school level, however, I don’t see why nursing students should be asked to explicate the significance of original sin in the works of Hawthorne, Melville, Emerson, Thoreau and Fuller.  I do understand that registered nurses need more training than they got in my  mother-in-law’s day, because they have more responsibilities, but that means more training, not random courses in literature and philosophy that do not relate to anything else they’re doing and do not provide a coherent introduction to the fields in questions.

John pointes out that in Australia the BA and BS degrees take only three years and have no distribution requirements.  But the English system was always like that, because it does assume that most students who arrive at university will have been through a secondary school that provided a solid overview of the liberal arts (all three, hard sciences as well as humanities and social sciences).

I’m not sure such a system would workin the US.  There are too many variations in high school education across the country.  Even if every single American high school was as good a representative of its kind as it could possibly be, we’d still be faced with the different kinds.

Elementary and secondary education in the US has always been a local concern, and I tend to think of that as the good news.  I’m uncomfortable even with state school boards, never mind federal interventions in the curriculum,  What some people have called the “fragmentation” of American education has in large party saved it from cyclical systemic breakdowns.

We could, of course, go back to the days of “tracking,” where some students are placed in a “college track” while others are placed in a “vocational track,” but what I remember about that system isn’t exactly positive.  To the extent that it mirrored the European practice of identifying the “acadmically gifted” early and closing off advancement to everybody else, I think it hurt us rather than helped us.

There’s a lot of virtue in a system that allows openings for people who did not arrive at ninth grade thoroughly organized and ferociously mature, who screwed around for a while, who made mistakes, who just didn’t care.  Virtually everybody who becomes a major innovator in the culture was one of these people, and structuring the system in a way that will let them get back into the game when they’re older and wiser and finally know what they want makes their talents available to us when they would have been lost otherwise.

And, in a way, the mess that we’ve made of university study in the humanities in the US threatens just this advantage, because it increasingly means a divide between “real” colleges and universities (all of them expensive and very, very hard to get into) and everything else, where nobody is even trying to provide a university education.

I feel like I’m blithering again.  I just got a call from Matt, who managed to vote successfully, in Pennsylvania, one of those first-time voters everybody is talking about.

So maybe I ought to just let this go and start obsessing on the election news.

Written by janeh

November 4th, 2008 at 10:20 am

Posted in Uncategorized

5 Responses to 'Random Notes'

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  1. Democrats sounded like complete idiots–and asses–when they called George W. Bush a “fascist.”

    Republicans sound like complete idiots–and asses–when they call Barack Obama a “Communist,” a “Marxist” and, yes, even a “socialist.”

    Words have meanings. People who participate in the political process should look them up.

    Yes, words USED to have meaning. But these days, I treat fascist, nazi, communist, socialist as meaningless noise.

    I also treat liberal, conservative, justice, feminist, genocide, and discrimination as meaningless.

    That doesn’t leave much to talk about! :(


    4 Nov 08 at 4:19 pm

  2. Can you teach history? I took a world history course as an undergraduate and learned nothing except dates and names which I have forgotten.

    My personal interest in history developed after I finished grad school and I am pretty much self taught.

    You can certainly teach that the American Revolution began in 1776. But the interesting question is why have so few revolutions produced good governments,

    The English Civil War produced Cromwell, the French Revolution produced the Terror and Napoleoan and we all know about Stalin and Mao. Why did the US work and the others fail?

    Can you teach students to ask that?


    4 Nov 08 at 4:41 pm

  3. ‘Can you teach history? ‘

    Yes, why not? And I don’t think that the dates should be totally ignored (although I personally can reliably remember 1066 and 1867 and maybe a handful of others). You need data to build any understanding on, and you certainly need a lot of it before you can expect students to discuss in any meaningful way why revolutions start and end. Did anyone else learn about WWI and II in the form ‘List four causes of WW I. Now list four results of WW I.’?

    I don’t know how you teach history well. I became interested in history because of the stories in my grade 5 text book and the even more interesting historical novels from the library. I found history involving treaties, governments and modern wars far more tedious than exciting tales about knights in armour. My high school world history teacher made history interesting by dropping little hints about the scandals involving various important people that the textbook authors had unaccountably left out.

    But there has to be a good way to teach history that isn’t 100% dates, that isn’t making little models and doing role playing (thank God I was out of school before they became popular) and that doesn’t focus exclusively on the details of treaties.

    There’s also the problem that appreciation of history probably increases with age and experience and education. You can’t expect a thirteen year old to know about Cromwell, Napoleon, Stalin, Mao and Washington AND figure out why one of those is not like the others in one course in one year.

    Oh, and I think words do mean things, and there’s simply no point in having a discussion with someone who is using a word like ‘Fascist’ in a completely non-standard way. You just can’t get anywhere with a discussion like that; it’s like arguing in English with someone who only speaks Chinese.


    4 Nov 08 at 6:28 pm

  4. There are worse things than accusations of voter fraud. Read Al Gore’s ASSAULT ON REASON, in which he argues that it isn’t really democracy if someone has an edge in propaganda, or pursues a line of argument of which Gore disapproves. Maybe it isn’t really democracy if the voters weren’t “educated” exactly the way Gore feels they should be, even if the voters went to the polls and voted freely.

    You can limit or fix vote fraud. But Gore comes perilously close to arguing that if his side loses, it can’t really be democracy, and there’s no way to fix that at all.


    4 Nov 08 at 6:53 pm

  5. Gore has shown himself to be little more than a fantasist, to put the very best (albeit the least likely) construction on his meretricious statements over the years.

    How anyone can take anything the man says or does seriously is one of the great mysteries of the age.


    4 Nov 08 at 7:38 pm

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