Saturday, April 28, 2007

Westward Ho! (But the Kids Can't Go)

As demand grows for low wage service workers in Western Europe, desperate Roumanian parents are abandoning their children. Business week reports that upwards of 40,000 children have been left behind.

"Indeed, the children here - as in many other settlements in the county - grow up virtually alone, many waiting for their house-cleaning mothers to call from Italy or Spain on Christmas, hoping to see them for perhaps two weeks during the summer holiday. Some wait to finish carpentry or another trade school, then join their fathers on construction sites across Europe. Others end up in foster homes or even orphanages, though they have parents. And on occasion, a 10-year-old drops out of school, runs away from home, or even hangs himself in the closet with father's tie. . .

"We are devastated that 10- or 12-year-olds commit suicide because they cannot talk on the phone with their parents," says local UNICEF representative Pierre Poupard."

Public Infrastructure: A New Asset Class

Business week reports today that public toll roads, bridges, and other infrastructure projects are being sold off or leased to private investors hungry for the steady, non-competitive income streams.

The advantages are clear: the public gets the money to pay off debt, and the investors and their private managers can make business decisions, from raising toll rates to implementing differential peak period tolls to outsourcing labor, free from fear of voter backlash.

The disadvantages are also clear: the private investors, free from ballot box pressures, can milk the infrastructure assets for all they are worth while letting them run down in the long run.

Keep an eye on this!

Friday, April 27, 2007

Undergraduate Admissions Leader Resigns in Disgrace

Marilee Jones, MIT's provocative dean of admissions, resigned this week after it was revealed that she had faked her own undergraduate degree 29 years ago in order to get an entry level position at the prestigious university, according to the New York Times.

Ms. Jones will be missed. She has offered a rare sane voice in the crazed race for college admissions. The recent New York Times article detailing this years' crop of candidates noted that Harvard, Princeton and Yale now reject students with perfect 2400 SAT scores. Perfect is no longer good enough.

Ms. Jones has been urging students to calm down and get off the rat race. She counsels that some will get into the best schools -- even MIT -- without driving themselves crazy, while others can get terrific educations at schools which are less hyped. Brave words from a dean of admission. Most of her peers just keep applying the pressure that drives the rat race -- increasing the flow of applications and raising those admirable rejection rates.

It was Ms. Jones' personal failure that she lied to get a job, and then didn't clear the record as she worked her way up the ladder based on her superlative performance and growing visibility.

On the other hand, she proved beyond the slightest shadow of a doubt that her lack of a college degree has been irrelevant to her enviable success.

Wouldn't we have been better off prohibiting employers from making diplomas necessary conditions for jobs?

Any curriculum is an imperfect means to a learning achievement that can be attained in other ways, e.g., through apprenticeship or self-determined, auto-didactic learning. A diploma is no proof of capability, and the lack of a diploma is no proof of incapability.

But the diploma system closes access to advantageous positions, blocking those who for whatever reasons can't complete college. To put a fine edge on it, the diploma system is mostly the means for the reproduction of class advantage.

Ms. Jones' downfall comdemns the diploma system more than it does Ms. Jones.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Self-Defeating Standardization

The New York Times today reports that Eli Broad and Bill Gates plan to devote $60 Million to push educational reform to the top of the 2008 political agenda.

The two philanthropists call for “stronger, more consistent curriculum standards nationwide; lengthening the school day and year; and improving teacher quality through merit pay and other measures”.

These ideas are self-defeating.

Nationwide curriculum standards stifle teachers and nullify our federal system as a “laboratory of democracy” where many innovations can be tested.

Lengthening the school day and the school year are entirely unnecessary if teachers could make curriculum choices that fully engaged students in learning. Students pay scant attention to the dreary materials served up to them now. Why prolong the agony?

Merit pay might attract brighter people to teaching, but not if we measure teacher quality by student achievement on standardized exams. No bright person wants a job as an operative. A superior approach is to free teachers from standardized curricula and tests so they can apply their full intelligence to reaching and teaching their students.

Monday, April 23, 2007

National Novel Writing Month

Last night I read Chris Baty's quirky writers guide, No Plot, No Problem. Chris is the founder of National Novel Writing Month (nanowrimo). Every November thousands of writers, from school kids to professionals, write 50,000 word novels (think The Great Gatsby or Of Mice and Men). The rules are simple: You may work for no more than one week prior to November 1st thinking about your novel plot, setting and character, but cannot write a single word of text until November 1st. You must finish by midnight, November 30th. You can submit the mss (scrambled if you wish) to the word count "validator" after November 25th. If your word count is 50K +, you are a "winner". Every year about 17% of the entrants completes a novel. Many have been published (after extensive editing, I am sure), some by first rate publishing houses.

Chris's book is an excellent guide to the writing process. The key to completing a writing project is having a real deadline. Other important factors are being part of something larger than oneself, gaining support from friends and family, making very public commitments which will bring total humiliation in case of failure.

There are nanowrimo groups in hundreds of cities across the US and in many other countries. Nanowrimo also encourages high schoolers to join in the effort and has a national school coordinator.

Nanowrimo makes an ironic commitment to the idea of quantity over quality: 50,000 words and we really don't care how awful. But Chris thinks that the only way to do anything well is, well, to do it. Quality arises out of intelligent effort, and that requires a structured activity with a real deadline.

The best learning experiences involve doing something hard and lonely. Schools specialize in making this just about impossible. Nanowrimo is the real thing! And doing something as lonely as writing a novel is just a tad easier when you can draw on the strength of those thousands of others writing along with you.

This November you can go out to the cafes all over the country, late into the evenings, and see dozens of people typing away furiously on their laptops. Look for copies of No Plot, No Problem sitting next to the coffee mugs. Better yet, you can sign up on the nanowrimo website and write your own novel.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

More on the Voice of the Weakest Link

Today's news from the Associated Press:

"Mass public shootings have become such a part of American life in recent decades that the most dramatic of them can be evoked from the nation's collective memory in a word or two: Luby's. Jonesboro. Columbine. And Now Virginia Tech.

Grant Duwe, a criminologist with the Minnesota State Department of Corrections, said the availability of guns was not a factor in his exhaustive statistical study of mass murder during the 20th century.

Duwe found that the prevalence of mass murders, defined as the killing of four or more people in a 24-hour period, tends to mirror that of homicide generally.

Duwe also found that mass murder was just as common during the 1920s and early 1930s as it is today. The difference is that then, mass murderers tended to be failed farmers who killed their families because they could no longer provide for them, then killed themselves. Their crimes embodied the despair and hopelessness of the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression, the sense that they and their families would be better off in the hereafter than in the here and now.

Despondent men still kill their families today. But public shooters like Virginia Tech's Seung-Hui Cho are different. They are angrier and tend to blame society for their failures. . . "It's society's fault ... Society disgusts me," Kimveer Gill wrote in his blog the day before he shot six people to death and injured 19 in Montreal last year."

Comment: in the Great Depression depair and hopelessness were turned inward. The mass murderers were unable to survive, to provide for their families. They didn't blame their victimes; in a crooked way they were protecting them.

Today's mass killers are not defeated by nature, but by society, by epidemic displays of differentiation: BMWs, Nike Airs, Starbucks Lattes.

The law of karma: for every action an equal and opposite reaction.

The Voice of the Weakest Link

A chain is only as strong as its weakest link.

A community is only as strong as its weakest member.

Seung-Hui Cho was our weakest member. He was delusional, psychotic. And like many psychotic young adults, he had been unable to find his voice and assert himself during his childhood. He was scrawny and undeveloped, the runt of the litter.

That does not justify us in deafening our ears when he finally spoke up.

True, according to the New York Times he earlier claimed to have a girl friend in outer space. He said that he grew up with Vladimir Putin in Moscow. These were psychotic delusions. Symptoms of Mental Illness!

But his rant against hedonism, trust funds, and high-class tastes should not be as easily dismissed. Picture a poor, tongue tied immigrant kid whose parents work in sweatshop conditions, a kid who is humiliated in his everyday interactions with spoiled, insensitive suburban counterparts, who is bullied and terrified.

He said, “You have vandalized my heart, raped my soul and torched my conscience.”
He said,"you had a billion chances" to avert this tragedy.

Are these expressions of psychotic delusion or simply of human pain?

Why is it that no one has commented on these telling phrases?

Cho nursed his hurts and fears and tried to find an outlet for them in literary art but it all came out crooked. And it frightened everybody away. No one could listen. So he kept most of it to himself and it fermented inside and became toxic and then it exploded.

We can employ moral outrage, call him evil, place him beyond the pale. This is impotent, like locking the stable after the horses have escaped. Moral language can be a useful deterrent. It tells those who are about to step over the edge that there is an edge and that the community guards it, that there are serious consequences in stepping over it. But in this case the line has already been breached. And Cho is dead. There is nothing left to deter.

Putting everything together, it might be useful to consider whether Cho "could have done otherwise," whether the language of morality usefully applies to him? Follow the story of this life as it is now unfolding. Is this not a story of a mass murder just waiting to happen?

Judging Cho frees us from listening to him. If we listen we might hear a human voice through the psychotic delusions. We might learn something about what it feels like to be bottom dog, weakest member, in a world where every choice -- of garment, food or language -- is a costly mark of differentiation, a put down. Stylish clothing, exotic coffees from Africa, cool and knowing 'in-group' lingo. Every behavior wearing a sign saying "forget you, Cho!" A "billion chances" -- probably not much of an exaggeration.

Hey, wait a second, Leonard! Are you excusing mass murder?

Of course not. Excuse also falls within the language of morality. It is too late for that now. It is time for facing up to reality.

What I am saying is "listen up!" Listen to the voice of the weakest link. Cho is gone, but someone else is next in line.

Saturday, April 7, 2007

Amazing Girls

It is admission season at American colleges. The New York Times ran two front page articles about college admissions last week. On April 1st it ran "For Girls, It’s Be Yourself, and Be Perfect, Too," by Sara Rimer. It followed this up on April 4th by "A Great Year for Ivy League Schools, but Not So Good for Applicants to Them, by Sam Dillon.

The first is about the "amazing girls" of Newton North High School, taking four AP courses, running track, studying philosophy, playing classical music at the level of concert artists, taking SAT cram courses and competing in the dating and mating game. They are being packaged, or are packaging themselves, for the nation's top colleges. They do five hours of homework every night. They are stretched to the breaking point. And despite their amazing achievements, they are not getting admitted to their top college choices. The message: you have to be a wonder woman -- brilliant, persistent, incredibly talented, malleable and packagable . . . and 'hot' . . . and it just may not be enough.

The second is about the admissions statistics for the colleges so eagerly sought by these amazing girls. Sure enough, each of the colleges is receiving more applications than ever, and accepting a smaller percentage of applicants. Harvard turned down 1,100 student applicants with perfect 800 scores on the SAT math exam. Yale rejected several applicants with perfect 2400 scores on the three-part SAT, and Princeton turned away thousands of high school applicants with 4.0 grade point averages. That's right -- perfect may not be good enough.

What does all of this intense competition for the top colleges -- competition that is tearing these amazing girls apart -- mean?

It means that the k-16 system is collapsing. There is plenty of room for your daughter (or son) in college. But there is simply not enough room in the top colleges for even the most amazing kids. When I was applying for college in 1960, only about 20% of the high school graduates were considered "college material". And this was more a matter of expectations than achievements. I don't remember many of my classmates as being all that amazing. When we went to college and graduated we immediately distinguished themselves from more than 80% of our age cohort. Add in a few years of post-college training or an advanced degree and our pathway to the professional class was clear.

Working class kids at that time still got jobs, or went into apprenticeship programs if they had the right connections. They could still enter the secure middle class.

But there are very few high skilled industrial jobs in today's post-industrial society. Since the 1970s more and more working class graduates have been going to college, and the college world, both public and private, expanded to accommodate them all.

The result is that more high school graduates can go to college, but today's college graduates have to compete against their entire age cohort, not just 20% of it, to get a firm toehold in the middle class. The ones who cannot differentiate themselves from their college graduate peers face job insecurity and shrinking prospects.

So what is the solution? The only way today's high school graduates can attain what we had, without being amazing, fifty years ago, that is, a clear path ahead , is to be even more amazing than amazing, even more perfect than perfect.

This is not the life that we want for our children.

Friday, April 6, 2007

Next Things

Next things. The emerging present not the future.

New kinds of schools and universities. New books. New Magazines. New Arts and Music. New technologies. New forms of health care. New trends. New You Name It.

The aim is to look over the next mountain, to sort out hype, to imagine new needs and new solutions to old problems.

Some themes. The world is vastly over-educated and under skilled. Conviviality and solitude are necessary every day. The Professional Mystique must be challenged and exposed and undermined. People can do for themselves. Things are seldom what they seem. Democracy is a good idea that should be tried out. People are beautiful. Stories are more powerful than information. Multiculturalism and Globalization are tired ideas.

Some tasks. Review books and magazines -- especially trendy ones-- and say what I like and what I don't. Follow hot debates and pick a few worthy fights. Share experiences from my varied tasks and travels. Keep my ear to the ground. Look for the signs of the times.