Category Archives: Economy

To Educate, or Not to Educate? (1/2)

How we should orient education resources and tools in the 21st century. Recently the Boston Review hosted a debate the posed the very question: What is Education for?

Harvard Graduate School professor Danielle Allen, in the lead essay, argues the education should focus on participatory readiness – so a explicit political (lowercase p) mean to create an end where students are properly trained to be civic agents. Allen in a well-argued piece asserts that the current paradigm is vocational training – we equip students to learn skills and in particular technical skills based on hard science; these skills are enough to help ameliorate all sorts of injustices and inequalities in our society and world.

Allen, at her most pointed and simple reminds us that: “We surely need the STEM fields to navigate this new landscape. But if the STEM fields gave us the mass in “mass democracy,” the humanities and social sciences gave us the democracy.” I think is without-a-doubt true. And a brilliant succinct way of tying this dichotomy up with a nice artistic bow. Of course we need STEM but we also need the liberal arts to help us become well-rounded citizens.

Deborah Meier, Senior Scholar at NYU’s Steinhardt School, responds to the initial outing writing that she “sympathizes” with the first argument. She goes a bit further saying that our schools and their obsession with “test scores” has made the lack of civic agency even worse. “Our current educational paradigm barely recognizes, in the most fundamental sense, what being a person is about.”

Debra Satz, Professor of Ethics in Society and Professor of Philosophy at Stanford University, agrees with Allen on principles but just doesn’t think education can do what Allen is asking it to do. “Egalitarian redistributive justice” is not the “first reason that comes to mind” on why we should teach liberal arts. Satz also argues that vocational training updated for the 21st century would, in fact, do what Allen wants which is more resources to schools. “Vocational education arguably requires not only computer science and coding, but also the ability to write, analyze, and communicate; knowledge of foreign cultures and languages; and a greater emphasis on critical thinking and problem solving rather than rote memorization,” asserts Satz. Fair point here, I think.

Jeffrey Aaron Synder, Assistant Professor of Educational Studies at Carleton College, argues that “it’s the economy, stupid.” Preparing students to enter the labor market has always been what the education system is about and with 15% of the country in poverty, this should remain preeminent, according to the professor.

Robert Reich, former labor secretary under Bill Clinton, argues in the same vein that Satz did: what Allen calls for is simply “too much for civic education to bear.” Reich says we should start with bringing civic classes back. This is something I’ve been arguing for for awhile now. We don’t need people majoring in politics in droves; we need people to understand civics and this should be incorporated throughout our entire educational journey regardless of the paradigm debate. Also, citing legendary political scientist Robert Putnam, civic organizations outside schools are important. We should probably stop bowling alone, basically, and reengage with our neighbors.

Carlos Fraenkel, author of Teaching Plato in Palestine, pushes for the Brazilian model: In 2008, “the Brazilian parliament affirmed that philosophy is necessary for democratic citizenship. Now, by law, every student studies philosophy in that country’s high schools.” Not a certain philosophical school, argues Fraenkel, but philosophy of practice; “semantic and logical tools that allow us to argue well and dialectical virtues that allow us to focus on truth-finding rather than on winning an argument.” This is also an idea that I really agree with.

Lelac Almagor, a Charter school English teacher, argues that class matters and that low-income students deserve an elite education. There is no stark dichotomy of STEM vs liberal arts. We need it all. So Almagor is in the same ballpark as Satz here.

Lucas Stanczyk, political scientist, argues that we should listen to what C.E.O’s are saying is the problem: creativity. How do we foster creativity? Liberal arts and not STEM. What is education for, according to Stanczyk: “It is to help people escape a life of vapid consumerism by giving them capacities to appreciate richer pursuits and to produce their own complex meanings.” His arguments are way to all over the place to be cohesive enough to analyze. Although his C.E.O. point is his best.

I’ll be back soon with a 1000 word response to all of this myself; I think about this often and there is much here to chew on.

(Two responses I am leaving without comment (except for this one) because their essays, IMO, were only tangentially related to the original essay and I found them (mostly) irrelevant. Read them here: (1), (2).)

Reparations: Unenforced & Ignored Examples

I have been following closely the on-going discussion regarding reparations for slavery, Jim Crow, red-lining, etc. online between intellectual-historian (this is what I call him) Ta-Nehisi Coates, rapper Killer Mike, and linguist and professor John McWhorter. There are two points I want to mention regarding McWhorter’s examples of prior reparations. McWhorter writes that we have given reparations to Black Americans through legislation such as the 1968 Fair Housing Act of and the 1977 Community Reinvestment Act. The problem with these examples is that the Reagan administration ignored them. I repeat: these laws were only nominal in many ways.

George Lipsitz in his brilliant The Possessive Investment in Whiteness makes this clear:

Reagan’s appointee as director of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, William Bradford Reynolds, filed only two housing discrimination suits in his first twenty months in office, a distinct drop from the average of thirty-two cases a year filed during the Nixon and Ford presidencies or even the 19 per year during the final 2 years of the Carter administration.”

Regarding the 1968 Fair Housing Act, the devil is in the details. Housing and Urban Development (HUD) was, by law, not really allowed to do to much in enforcing the act. Title VIII, according to Lipsitz, “forbade the agency to initiate investigations on its own.” What happened when claims actually resulted in a penalty? “A maximum of $1,000.” I am only providing a couple of examples here but the true historic record is worse. One more quick example to bolster my case that the two examples by McWhorter were ignored and made impotent. “As of 1980, only five victims of discrimination has received damages in excess of $3,500.”

There  are two options happening here with McWhorter. First, he genuinely doesn’t know the often-cited and heavily reported examples cited here; which if this is the case, he should probably read up more. Or, second, McWhorter is willfully ignoring the details to simply wage an attack on Coates because he doesn’t thnk Coates is a strong thinker when it comes to history. Just watch the conservation between McWhorter and economist Glenn Loury to see proof that McWhorter has an obvious revulsion towards Coates.

The truth matters here and the truth is not on the side of McWhorter in this case. Reparations were, effectively, “resist[ed], refus[ed], and renogotiat[ed],” time and time again. Reparations have not truly been given to Black Americans and the proof is in such numbers as how much property Black Americans own and how much savings they have, even those who do make it to a better-than-average tax bracket.

Reparations have only been illusory.

[Edit on 1/25/2016: An excellent overview of reparations was published in the Washington Post on January 21, 2015 that I want to link to. It was written by Professor of Sociology James W. Loewen. HERE it is.]

Trump and Identity Politics

I argue that you can explain Trump’s rise through the lens of white identity politics, for one. It’s not what he is saying or even the individual himself; it’s that his base – white suburban disaffected ‘victims’ of globalization who are struggling – see themselves in him. It is projection against what they see as an elite harvard-educated political class who is waaaay too literate for their own good and who says things with nuance that they don’t understand. They want someone who is an outsider (like them) who isn’t P.C. (like them) and who thinks in black and white categories of good and evil; of up and down; of right and wrong (like they do.)

Imagine if you are a former factory worker employed during a time of rising incomes; pensions; good health care; and seeming security. Now imagine that this in fact was reality for millions upon millions of workers. Starting in the 1980s and continuing through the present day, tens of thousands of factories have been closed. In fact, over 42,000 factories have been closed JUST since 2001. Look at Trump through the lends of globalization.

If you are a laid off employee who is being pushed further and further down the income and skills ladder, who do you blame?

The political class (Yep; and they would be correct here).
Corporations and their need for maximizing profits (Yep).
Minorities and immigrants (Yep; well, ‘yep’ as in many Americans do blame these fellow under-served people; they would be wrong here however and are blaming the symptom and not the cause).

[Now there is truth to the claim that corporations are benefiting from illegal and even legal immigration by capitalizing on unskilled and/or people without franchise or much legal reprieve; this does hurt working class Americans of all color; however, the fault of this goes to the government.]

The perceived and real impacts of globalization are at work here. Basically anyone with ANY government experience at all is considered an “insider” to Trump’ supporters. Any candidate with prestigious degrees from schools they have only tangentially heard of? Too qualified and self-interested and disconnected from the needs of the working class and the shrinking middle class. This is why occasionally war hungry conservatives do in fact accept anti-war arguments. Why? Because it doesn’t matter what the person says; what matters is the answer to the internal question people are asking themselves: is this person like me? Do I see myself in this person? If the answer is yes, then we are open to their opinion even if it is not one we are, theoretically, likely to support. If we consider them the Other; then it doesn’t matter what they say.

Politics are identity politics. I am of the mind that identity politics of all types are disastrous for any future left movement because, to generalize, they are built on a foundation of separateness and focus heavily on the individual. But I can unpack that later. [I want to write a short book on that actually.]

However, the most dangerous type of identity politics is white identity politics. Why? Because white Americans had an investment in this system that, for a long time, worked for them. People who never had wealth or prosperity can sometimes not have that impetus of hope to fight for change. They don’t see a world that works for them because it largely never has. People who had a middle class life but now see it slipping away? Oh, man. These people are dangerous and angry and look for demagogues that border on fascism. They know what its like to have abundant leisure; income and wealth; and self-actualization.

This phenomenon is not going away anytime soon because it is a product of worsening economic inequality. Political Scientist Inglehart, in the recently released Jan/Feb 2016 issue of Foreign Affairs makes this point while discussing the lack of support for redistribution:

Globalization and deindustrialization undermined the strength of unions. And the information revolution helped establish a winner-take-all economy. Together these eroded the political base for redistributive policies.” [Link]

What will the Trump of 2020 or 2024 look like if whoever wins the 2016 election doesn’t address worsening inequality?