Krugman’s Problem: Naked Partisanship

Knowledge Isn’t Power”
Paul Krugman
February 23, 2015

Paul Krugman has written a thoughtful piece about the link between education and inequality in The New York Times. I do not agree with all of it, but his core point – that educational reform is no panacea for the issue of growing inequality – is well taken.

A friend of mine from the Left wondered why his op/ed wasn’t being given more attention. I told her it was simple: Krugman held his audience right up until the end, when he said:

It’s not hard to imagine a truly serious effort to make America less unequal. But given the determination of one major party to move policy in exactly the opposite direction, advocating such an effort makes you sound partisan. Hence the desire to see the whole thing as an education problem instead. But we should recognize that popular evasion for what it is: a deeply unserious fantasy.

There is no reason to turn this discussion into a GOP-bash, but Krugman apparently cannot resist. Problem one is that he is wrong: support for corporate tax holidays, corporate welfare, and and a tax-free Wall Street demonstrably extends deep into the ranks of both parties on Capitol Hill – rhetoric to the contrary notwithstanding.

But the larger problem is Krugman’s desire to define the policy discussion in partisan terms. Turning honest debates about policy into opportunities to score partisan points does neither the debate nor the country any service. It forecloses opportunities to build bi-partisan coalitions around policy. And that is important: history has proven that we do not solve problems in America by giving one party or another dominance over government. We solve problems by forging debates and policies that rise above partisanship and engage the nation as a whole.

I have met Paul Krugman, and find him both intelligent and personable. It is a pity he finds it more important to employ his thinking as a means to divide the nation rather than to appeal for a debate about policy that transcends ideological squabbling. By doing so, he has made himself part of the problem, not part of the solution.

On George Will and Scripps College

Late last summer, George Will was invited to speak at a respected public policy forum at the Scripps College in Pomona, California. He was then abruptly disinvited. The reason given for the withdrawal of his invitation was his recent Washington Post column on rape on college campuses. According to a statement by Scripps College President Lori Bettison-Varga, “after Mr. Will authored a column questioning the validity of a specific sexual assault case that reflects similar experiences reported by Scripps students, we decided not to finalize the speaker agreement.”

The column was awful, but the actions of Scripps College were a travesty.

Good Column Gone Bad

Let’s start with the column. In it, Mr. Will makes an important point that calls for deeper examination: when you celebrate or reward victimhood, victims tend to proliferate. He could have launched into a discussion of perverse incentives that can turn social programs into perpetual entitlements. Instead, he undermines his point by attempting to illustrate it with the worst possible example he could have chosen: the issue of sexual assault on campus.

Progressivism and its baggage have invaded our college campuses, politicizing instruction, fattening administration, and de-legitimizing an entire range of political views. Yet events make clear that those same  campuses do not yet have in place the right kinds of mechanisms to define, prevent, address, adjudicate, and punish sexual assaults. We can argue whether the tonic will cure the disease, but there is truth to the diagnosis. Mr. Will’s column was muddle-headed and embarrassing.

Good Intentions Gone Bad

I applaud the administration and students of Scripps College in their desire to show support to the victims of rape on campus. That said, no matter how you try to spin this, Mr. Will was disinvited because the views he expressed in one editorial out of some four thousand that he has written for the Post in the past 40 years was found objectionable.

To exclude him for that reason is to either demonstrate naked partisanship or to surrender to political correctness. Either is conduct unbecoming an academic institution, the lifeblood of which should be open debate and discussion of all viewpoints, however nauseating or preposterous.

The right thing to do would have been to bring Mr. Will to campus and allow him to speak his piece. If the Scripps students disagreed with Mr. Will, they could demonstrate that they not only possessed the maturity to offer him a forum for his views, but also the intelligence and passion to artfully rip him to shreds in public debate. Sadly, they will be denied that opportunity. That Scripps did not take this course in the name of political orthodoxy reflects no credit on the institution, its faculty, its students, or its alumni.

Debate and the Nation’s Future

When I was an undergraduate at UCSD in 1983, Angela Davis came to speak on campus. My College Republican friends and I raised no furor about it. What is more, I went to hear her speak despite my fundamental objections to her political and economic views, and despite her alleged provision of firearms to an underaged criminal who then used them in a kidnapping. In a mostly Davis-friendly crowd, I challenged her viewpoints and was shouted down, and rightly so: in my passionate disagreement, I had neglected to prepare a question that could be delivered with more logic than raw emotion. Nonetheless, I will treasure that day: nothing is more invigorating, more empowering, than having the chance to face in open debate a public figure whose views you oppose.

I wish only one thing for the students of Scripps and every institution of higher education in our great country: that they have as many opportunities as possible to face up to their political opponents in open debate. For if we do not teach our children to do that, to address their differences in dialogue, even heated dialogue, the only course of action left to them is to disregard or ban those with whom they disagree. Down that path lies a divided nation at best, and at worst, tyranny.

Democracy, Policy, and the Experts

The Death Of Expertise
Tom Nichols
The Federalist
January 17, 2014

The Internet has been accused of many things. It has been condemned as a destroyer of value. It has been reviled as the hiding place of gangsters and perverts. And now, in the pages of The Federalist, self-styled social science and public policy expert Tom Nichols accuses it of destroying expertise.

Nichols’ point, brutally summarized, is that by appearing to make everyone’s opinion of equal value, the Internet is slashing the value of an expert’s opinion to essentially zero. That’s dangerous, he says. To kill expertise is to reject knowledge and how we gain it. It is to raise the value of the opinions of people like Jenny McCarthy over those of doctors.

All agreed: we don’t want experts to go away. They offer tremendous value in society, and we would be lost without them.

And he is so very, very right when he notes:

People in political debates no longer distinguish the phrase “you’re wrong” from the phrase “you’re stupid.” To disagree is to insult. To correct another is to be a hater. And to refuse to acknowledge alternative views, no matter how fantastic or inane, is to be closed-minded.

All Hail the Expert

If this were as far as he took his argument, he would have won the day. Unfortunately, after a good start, Nichols goes off the rails in some important ways that hint at a larger, darker agenda.

He deems as “sanctimonious” and “silly” the idea that every person has a right to his or her own opinion. He launches into a screed against the incompetent taking part in discussions in the public arena. How dare, he suggests, that people who “can barely find their own nation on a map” have strong views on going to war? How dare those who cannot name their legislator have an opinion about how Congress handles a piece of legislation?

How dare, he asserts, anyone have an opinion on a field in which he is not an expert? Only experts, he implies, should be allowed to be heard on anything, unless, of course, the electorate become experts themselves. He doesn’t want a technocracy, mind you:

But when citizens forgo their basic obligation to learn enough to actually govern themselves, and instead remain stubbornly imprisoned by their fragile egos and caged by their own sense of entitlement, experts will end up running things by default. That’s a terrible outcome for everyone.

The threat: either people get a lot smarter about policy, or the experts are going to take over. We’ll let you have your opinions, but we control will remain in the hands of the people trained to run things.

It is sad that Nichols did not quit while he was ahead, making a case that we need to use care where we tread. In suggesting that we have a binary choice between everyone getting a lot smarter really quickly on the one hand, and letting the experts run things on the other, he is being disingenuous: the only likely outcome of those two is technocracy. And so what this article becomes is a case for the experts to take over.

Who is an Expert?

The reasons to distrust this reasoning are manifold. Let us dispose of the easy ones right away.

First, anyone who declares himself an expert is, in my opinion, immediately suspect. If someone who is in a position to know declares you an expert, you may well be one. If you declare yourself an expert, your status is suspect. Declare yourself a specialist or a professional if you must, but allow others do declare you an expert, a master, an authority.

Second, if we grant that he is an expert, his argument on behalf of the primacy of experts is self-serving, and thus suspect. In this, he is little different from the journalists decrying the Internet because it means we are reading less journalism. I feel bad for them, but the horse has left the barn, and experts, like journalists and the rest of us, are all facing a different world.

Trusting Experts

So, let us say that Nichols is an expert, and that he is being selfless. Handing over our policy decisions and our fates is a path fraught with problems. Primary among those “who gets to decide who the experts are?” Expertise is subjective, and the determination of whether someone is an expert demands other experts in that field. Who then appoints those people? This works us into a circular argument, and we wind up with a lot of people claiming expertise, but no objective way of making that determination.

I spent two decades working in China, and three decades studying it. Am any more or less an “expert” in China business than a newly-minted Harvard Ph.D. who did his dissertation on my field? Or than a journalist who has covered business in China for twenty five years? Says who? And why? You see where this is taking us. Multiply this problem by hundreds of fields, and the issue of determining expertise becomes non-trivial.

Once we have decided who the experts are, which ones do we trust? Any competent trial lawyer or white-shoe K Street lobbyist will tell you that on any issue, there are experts, but that often no two experts will reach the same conclusion, and often their conclusions will be diametric. Brookings, RAND, Heritage, CATO, and the Progressive Policy institute are all staffed by experts, but if you got all of their experts on any given issue in a room, you would have a war. Who decides among them and their recommendations?

Further, a reliance on experts implies that there are only two classes of people in any given field of knowledge: experts, and laymen, and only the former have value. This is poppycock. Apart from those with the highest level of mastery are polymaths (who are deeply conversant in multiple fields, though not necessarily expert in more than one;) apprentices, students, enthusiasts, buffs, and talented amateurs. People at any of these levels can make profound contributions to their fields.

Three examples jump to mind. Alan Hale and Thomas Bopp proved the value of amateur astronomy when they discovered the comet that was later named after them. A clerk in the German patent office turned astrophysics upside down when he wrote a short paper describing a general theory of relativity. And corporate finance executive Edward Miller, Jonathan Parshall, a software executive, and Anthony Tully, an IT support specialist each conducted research and wrote books that have forced us to reevaluate the history of World War II in the Pacific.

Broad-based Problems, Narrow Solutions

But among all of these, the biggest problem is the nature of expertise itself. Experts are expert, by definition, because they spend their lives focused on a narrow enough field that they are able to achieve a greater degree of knowledge than most others in their field. For that reason, they are excellent at answering specialized and narrow questions. Unfortunately, their expertise is of declining value as they touch on questions that have implications far beyond their narrow field of expertise, and it is axiomatic that many of the most vexing problems faced by government go far beyond an expert’s ken.

Elizabeth Coleman, who retired from the presidency of Bennington College last year after a quarter century in the role, frames the problem with experts more eloquently:

Over the past century the expert has dethroned the educated generalist to become the role model of intellectual accomplishment. While expertise has had its moments, the price of its dominance is enormous. . . . Questions such as “What kind of a world are we making?”“What kind should we be making?” “And “What kind can we be making?” move off the table.

These are precisely the kinds of questions our polity faces today.  You can substitute “nation” if you think “world” is too arrogant, but the issue stands. These are not the kinds of questions Mr. Nichols and his fellow experts are best suited to answer. They are the kind left to the rest of us.

The Tyranny of Experts

Which brings us to the final problem. Nichols contends that the idea that we all have a right to our own opinion is silly and sanctimonious. He is wrong. Giving us each the right to our own opinion, to express it, and to be proven wrong or vindicated is an essential part of the American democracy. To suggest otherwise steps beyond the arrogance of a learned man in awe of his credentials: it is to place us on the road to a technocratic tyranny where we are all the docile wards of the incredibly smart.

Aldous Huxley would have recognized what Nichols is suggesting, as would anyone who has read Huxley’s Brave New World. It is a world where because all men are not equal, their say in the way the world is run is not equal. That may appeal to the elitists. But that is not democracy, that is not the way the founders of the United States meant this country to be, and it is not a country that I would want to live in, either as an expert or a layman.

Let us keep this in mind: experts have value in that they should always be invited to inform the broader debate. Laymen need to think more critically and question the definitive statements of those who are not deeply knowledgable in the field in question. When faced with an expert versus a layman, deference should be paid to the point of view of the expert, but critical deference should be paid to all.

But experts should never be allowed to dominate that debate or, even worse, by dint of their knowledge be allowed to circumvent it. They are our servants. We shall not be theirs.

To Whom Does Your Child Belong?

Cover of "Brave New World"
Cover of Brave New World

One of the vices I try to foreswear in this forum is the singling-out of a single liberal voice. People on all sides of an issue have a right to their opinion, no matter how loony. But when something comes up that suggests a major divergence of values or perspective from the Bull Moose standpoint, it is worth highlighting if for no other reason than it offers an opportunity for us to stake out a claim.

Case in point: MSNBC’s Melissa Harris-Perry stepped into a very deep pile of something unpleasant when she said in a promotional spot last week:

…we have to break through our kind of private idea that kids belong to their parents, or kids belong to their families, and recognize that kids belong to whole communities.

This has provoked outrage among conservatives, and I think rightly so. William Bigelow, writing for Breitbart, fumed:

[Melissa Harris-Perry] may call those of us who know the value of parenting as opposed to being raised by the state trolls, but she shouldn’t be surprised by the furor over her remarks. To insult all of us who devote our lives to our children and also truly believe that we are completely responsible for their welfare is beyond offensive and repugnant; it is an attack on the foundations of western civilization itself.

I do not often agree with the Breitbart editorial line, but I have a hard time disagreeing on this one. It may take a village to raise a child, but that rearing is the responsibility of the parent(s.) To disagree is to do more than grant the state its right to act in loco parentis: it is to place on the community, and by extension the state, the responsibility for rearing children, and for the decisions about their health, welfare, education, clothing, feeding, and spiritual growth.

That statist approach to child-rearing is not only anathema to the principles that underlie this republic, they are the very precepts followed by totalitarian societies to ensure that the purpose of children is to support the state against all else. Indeed, leaving aside the implicit moral hazard of telling parents to have children without worrying about taking responsibility for them later, having the state assume that children become wards of the “community” places us on the road to fascism, to a brave new world none of us seek.

Fixing Higher Education: Cheap, but Not Easy

“Beyond The Ivy Islands
Steven Brint
Los Angeles Review of Books
July 29, 2012

In a stirring review of College: What it Was, Is, and Should Be,  Andrew Delbanco‘s call for reform of American higher education, Professor Steven Brint of UC Riverside offers what has to be one of the most scathing yet hopeful and non-partisan critiques of the college experience. Refusing to offer soft palliatives, Brint tells us that there will always be an inequality in the education delivered at Ivy-league schools and the rest of American universities. The challenge is to keep that difference as thin as possible. Unfortunately, the gap is growing, and the problem is not only – or even mostly – funding.

Brint knows of what he speaks. He is not only a professor but as Vice-Provost for Undergraduate Affairs he is also one of U.C. Riverside’s senior administrators. As the University of California weathers a brutal if not existential budget crisis, Brint would be forgiven if he blamed the economy.

But Brint doesn’t even go there. Instead he turns to fire upon his own, professors and administrators who have succumbed to the efforts of non-academics to turn most of America’s universities into mass-production polytechnics. The fault (he seems be saying to his fellows) lies not in our spreadsheets, but ourselves.

In the process he manages to kill or wound a herd of higher-ed sacred cows: online education is not the solution, it may be the problem; most four-year institutions carry a large number of students who coast through the program at minimal effort, and are allowed to do so in the name of cranking them out.

He concludes his brilliant discourse with a brief but powerful list of recommendations, not least of which is:

A second improvement will be to infuse into the regular curricula special high-impact academic opportunities as often as possible. The goal is to reproduce something of the private college experience in settings where lecture courses will inevitably dominate. These special opportunities include year-long course sequences exploring different facets of a broad topic of public or scholarly interest in which students take courses with the same group of peers to build a sense of academic community. Other such opportunities include one-unit freshman seminars to bring students into immediate contact with faculty, new study abroad opportunities, expanded faculty-mentored research opportunities, and culminating experiences for seniors in which students are expected to produce an independent work of scholarship, research, or creative activity with the help of a faculty advisor.

Brilliant stuff, and in the context of his other recommendations doable without significant cost increases. He struck several other chords as well, including the stupidity of “no-frills” degree programs and for-profit higher education.

As I read through his essay, I was struck by two things.

First, the people running our great public universities are a veritable storehouse of solutions to the problems we face in higher education. Any intelligent state or national leader with a genuine interest in the future of the country would find a way – ways – to capture that thinking and start making some changes.

Second, despite Professor Brint’s defense of the concept of “a university education for all,” I remain unconvinced that a four-year college education immediately following high school is the right answer for everybody. While he deprecates  community colleges and politicians like Bobby Jindal who seem to want to use them as glorified trade-tech schools, he contends that little if any good really comes out of such institutions.

He may be right about community colleges, but the answer is to change them, not to discard them. Just as we need to follow Brint’s advice and rethink the delivery of the 4-year liberal arts degree, we have to do the same for every other facet of our modern educational system.

Community colleges need to go back to either being “junior colleges” preparing students for transfer into universities, or polytechnics preparing (or retraining) students for the trades, technical vocations, or industrial engineering. High schools have to be re-jigged so that the diploma means more than just “I didn’t drop out.”  And all of this needs to be done in a way that teaches students to become lifelong learners.

Finally, neither community colleges nor universities should be forced to offer and administer courses designed to bring high-school graduates to a minimally-acceptable competency in college prerequisites. High School classrooms doing double-duty as night school will do fine, with such programs operated by the school board with standards forged in the public university system.

We can argue the particulars, but first we need to agree that we need to start coming up with better, more thoughtful, and more creative answers to the problems of American education than simply throwing more money at it. The answers are out there, and I’m betting the educators have most of them.

Ending Agenda Education

The wonderful chef, restaurateur, and leader o...
Alice Waters of Chez Panisse (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Cultivating Failure – Magazine – The Atlantic

In this excellent review of Thomas McNamee’s biography of legendary chef Alice Waters (of Berkeley’s Chez Panisse,) The Atlantic’s Caitlin Flanagan tears into Waters’ effort to turn her celebrity into influence over the curriculum of California schools.

Waters is a major proponent of the importance of school gardens as a teaching tool, the Edible Schoolyard Program, offering students an opportunity to achieve some very high-minded goals, but that does nothing to help them pass math or english exams or get into the university of their choice.

The article debunks, often with brutal statistics and scathing logic, the high-minded movement that has put gardens in 2,000 of 9,000 of California’s cash-strapped elementary and secondary schools. Flanagan then takes a step back, surveys the history of fads in California education, and notes:

With the Edible Schoolyard, and the thousands of similar programs, the idea of a school as a venue in which to advance a social agenda has reached rock bottom. This kind of misuse of instructional time began in the Progressive Era, and it has been employed to cheat kids out of thousands of crucial learning hours over the years, so that they might be indoctrinated in whatever the fashionable idea of the moment or the school district might be. One year it’s hygiene and another it’s anti-Communism; in one city it’s safe-sex “outer-course,” and in another it’s abstinence-only education. (Sixth-graders at King spend an hour and a half each week in the garden or the kitchen—and that doesn’t include the time they spend in the classroom, in efforts effective or not, to apply the experiences of planting and cooking to learning the skills and subjects that the state of California mandates must be mastered.) But with these gardens—and their implication that one of the few important things we as a culture have to teach the next generation is what and how to eat—we’re mocking one of our most ennobling American ideals. Our children don’t get an education because they’re lucky, or because we’ve generously decided to give them one as a special gift. Our children get an education—or should get an education—because they have a right to one. At the very least, shouldn’t we ensure that the person who makes her mark on the curricula we teach be someone other than an extremely talented cook with a highly political agenda?

It is time to pull all of our political agendas, left and right, out of the classroom, save one: the goal to ensure our children are academically prepared for life. Leave the enrichment to extra-curricular activities.

Santorum Crosses All Californians

Rick Santorum flat-out lies about California universities | Hotspyer

Normally, we don’t get involved in the back-and-forth of the campaigns, preferring instead to focus on a discussion of broader principles, issues, and policies. But we get our dander up when a candidate of any persuasion questions the patriotic credentials of Californians.

Rick Santorum apparently accused California universities for ruining the nation, claiming that “seven or eight” universities in the state do not even offer American history.

The University of California response:

But UC spokesperson Brooke Converse told Think Progress, which originally reported the story, that all University of California undergraduate programs require students to study American history and institutions, though the exact requirements vary by campus.

And from the California State University system:

The CSU requires each student receiving a baccalaureate degree to be knowledgeable about the Constitution of the United States, American history, and state and local government. This U.S. History, Constitution, and American Ideals Requirement is generally known as the American Institutions Requirement. You can complete this requirement either by completing the required courses (generally two) or, at some campuses, passing a comprehensive examination or a combination of coursework and examination.

When campaign rhetoric reaches this level of demagoguery, when a candidate has to lie in order to make his or her point, a line has been crossed.

Rick Santorum owes California an apology, and he needs to explain to us how he is planning on avoiding the spread of such disinformation in the future.

Fixing Education Starts at Home

Getting schooled: The re-education of an American teacher—By Garret Keizer (Harper’s Magazine).

In “Getting Schooled,” Harper’s contributing editor Garret Keizer returns for a one-year stint to his old job as an English teacher at a rural Vermont high school, and in the process offers an account that should give pause to those of us who frequently cite teachers as the problem in American education.

A Tough Job

Keizer makes clear that being a public school teacher is damned hard work even for the diligent, and too many of us who have never served a day at the head of a classroom are prepared to overlook that brutal fact.

I was nearly faint with hunger by the time lunch rolled around, for I ate my breakfast most days at 4:00 a.m. Not infrequently I would put in a twelve-hour day before heading home to work several additional hours after dinner, only to wake up the next morning feeling unprepared.

My immune system proved even rustier than my pedagogy. During the course of the school year I caught several colds plus one case each of flu, pneumonia, and conjunctivitis.

Keizer suffers unspecified chest pains and nightmares, and discovers that his life outside of teaching has evaporated.

To be sure, most jobs come with stress attached, but I know from my own peripheral experience with education (parent and Cubmaster) that Keizer’s experience is not only typical, his is not even the worst. By his own acknowledgement, his working conditions probably looked pretty good to many teachers in America’s blighted urban schools.

Pulling Punches

Keizer’s is a moving story, so much so that we can almost overlook his sleeveworn politics. He rightly delivers a thrashing to the hypocrisy of GOP politics that seems bent on dismantling public educations and making teachers scapegoats in a failing education system, yet strangely overlooking the importance of stable families to student success.

Unfortunately, Keizer undermines his credibility when he pulls his punches with liberals for politicizing curriculum by inciting bitter culture wars, and when he ignores the systemic destructive protection of incompetent teachers. The virtues of his small rural Northeastern district obscure the politics of self-interest that pervade the school systems of the nation’s largest cities, including the entitlement mentality of urban teacher’s unions and the too-close relations twixt administrators and vendors. Worst of all, he misses the irony in his imprecation to his students to resist manipulation by the powerful even as he delivers his own demagogic anarch0-syndicalist call for the students to “destroy Carthage.”

These failings, though considerable, should not take away either from his main point (teaching is tough) or his more buried one, that quality education depends on a stable and supportive home environment. Even this most liberal of educators believes that our first focus in improving education must be to strengthen the family.

The Parent-Teacher Partnership

There is no single initiative that will cure the maladies afflicting America’s primary and secondary education. Schools need more money, bad teachers must be dismissed, good teachers must be rewarded, and the entire teaching profession must be made once again attractive and prestigious, if not lucrative, and waste and corruption must be driven out of the school districts. All of these are essential preconditions to fixing our schools.

But the hope that American schools will meaningfully educate students depends upon the role of the parent and family in education. This is not to say that every American parent must become an Amy Chua-style Tiger – I would argue tiger parents are the bane of Chinese education as much as they are the boon. At the same time, we must remember that we are all our children’s first teachers, that this role is permanent, and that we do not delegate it.

A great education begins with good students and involved parents. All too often I speak with parents who labor under the misconception that their responsibility ends when they get the kid to school and, in the case of private schools, write the tuition check. This is nonsense. Sending your child to school does not outsource your responsibility as your child’s teacher, and as a partner with the professional teachers in the classroom.

Teaching is a tough job, and not everyone has the mix of talent and temperament to do it well. Those not suited for the rigors of the profession need to be shown the door. But those left behind deserve to be treated better than babysitters or the sole educators in our kids’ lives. While we are fixing the teacher situation, we need to start working on the parent situation. Otherwise, we will wake one day to find that, as with our universities, our students too often fail our schools rather than the other way around.

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