Food for Thought: Differing Perspectives

October 2009

Dear Friends,

When I started teaching I discovered that almost everything I read or viewed was useful and/or usable in my life as a school person. I read everything with double-sight. I was reminded of this a few weeks ago reading the New York Review of Books. There were literally five articles about—education, well sort of! Granted not everyone will see them as such—including their authors.

First and perhaps best is Gary Wills powerful short piece entitled Entangled Giant, about Obama’s current dilemma. He focuses on issues of respect for the law and the Constitution. After succinctly describing how difficult if not unwilling the administration is to relinquish unconstitutional presidential powers, he reminds us that “some of us entertain a fondness for the quaint old Constitution,” as well as what Cheney called the “quaint old Geneva rules”. But so too is it true that the Constitution did not intend for the Federal government to run our local schools. The Federal government’s intervention on behalf of straight-forward discrimination on the basis of race (based on the Constitution) is not an excuse for the Feds to dictate (in effect) the curriculum, how teachers are paid, what pedagogy is legitimate or even how schools are evaluated. “It may be too late to return to its ideals,” says Wills, but, “One doesn’t fight in the hope of winning.” Or at least not only with victory in mind. But what he also reminds me is how uninterested “the people” are in issues of means, although that’s what a constitutional republic is all about. Is that a task for K-12 schooling?

A few pages later, William Easterly’s “The Anatomy of Success” `reviews two books on free trade and protectionism. He explains why good researchers often get it wrong. I was struck by the following sentence: “In view of this acknowledged ignorance” (he quotes Arnold Harberger, Joseph Stiglitz and Nobel laureate Robert Solow), “how can there still be so many writers who claim to know how to promote growth?” Humans, he suggests, “are suckers for finding patterns where none really exist.” Especially one’s they like. Economists, he argues, “count no fewer than 145 separate factors that have been found to be associated with growth.” He argues that at least two reasons account for the arrogance with which writers on the subject proceed —plain ignorance or abuse of statistics and what one of the authors calls “confirmation bias.” Seeing what you hope to see. Mea culpa; along with all the other weighty authorities who proclaim to know how to turn around 5,000 low achieving high schools (et al)—bad statistics and an inclination to look and find what one favors. Yes, I try to be careful, but…. (Much as I did in reading this Saturday Review of Literature).

Jeremy Waldron does for ethics something like Easterly does for world trade. While praising Kwame Appiah’s new book on Ethics, and even his conclusion, Waldron suggests that it is an example of inferring too much from the research on people’s ethical choices regarding the merits of spontaneous versus reflected moral acts. He suggests that we too adopt two rules in research (and in life) when posing dilemmas to test subjects: One: “Always insist on more than one description of a difficult situation before deciding what to do.” (“That oughta be a law”) Two: Use multiple formats for deciding on what and why people do x vs y, and do not invent situations that pose stripped bare, de-contextualized situations. Does it sound familiar?

On another plain entirely, I found much about schooling in Julian Bell’s “Why Art?” In particular, I underlined a lot in his discourse on two very different accounts of art by the two authors reviewed—focused contemplation and narrative story. One author raises the possibility that human art arose as a means to avoid boredom! It reminded me of what is lost when we eliminate art from our schools. We get boredom. (Of course, students may well do more art to keep awake in boring classes than they ever do in overly academic art classes.)

And finally, there is Justin Hammer review of “Fordlandia” by Greg Grandin. Grandin tells the story of Henry Ford’s experiments in creating utopian factories and factory towns. Grandlin points to Ford’s extraordinarily diverse biases: a suffragette who didn’t pay women equal wages, a believer in the League of Nations and world government but a hater of Jews for their “internationalism,” etc, etc. I try keeping this in mind as we fight over school (or health) reform.


p.s. Suggestions: go to now for more on stories and why educate; and Nicholas Meier’s piece on play.

© 2009 Deborah Meier

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