Squaring the Culture




"...and I will make justice the plumb line, and righteousness the level;
then hail will sweep away the refuge of lies,
and the waters will overflow the secret place."
Isaiah 28:17

09/25/2009 (6:25 am)

Got Teenagers Who Want to Make Videos?

The Fraser Institute is offering prizes to students for videos that answer the question, “What is the appropriate role of government in the economy?” Students who can answer this question can get a piece of $10,000 in cash and electronics prizes in the Fraser Institute’s 2009 Student Video Contest. Full contest details can be found at: www.fraserinstitute.org/videocontest.

Courtenay Vermeulen
Education Programs Assistant

The Fraser Institute
Direct: (604) 714.4533

Toll free: 1.800.665.3558 x 533
courtenay.vermeulen@fraserinstitute.org

The Fraser Institute is an independent international research and educational organization with offices in Canada and the United States and active research ties with similar independent organizations in more than 70 countries around the world. Their vision is a free and prosperous world where individuals benefit from greater choice, competitive markets, and personal responsibility. Their mission is to measure, study, and communicate the impact of competitive markets and government interventions on the welfare of individuals.

05/20/2009 (2:11 pm)

Abstinence Ed Outperforms Comprehensive Sex Ed

In a survey of more than 100 studies covering the past 20 years of research in the social sciences, the Institute for Research and Evaluation concluded that “…when measured by the same standards of effectiveness, comprehensive sex education programs in America’s classrooms do not show more evidence of success than abstinence education programs.” Quite the contrary, in fact: when the criteria applied to the programs include measurements of changed behavior lasting more than a year following teens’ program participation, practically none of the comprehensive sex education (CSE) programs produced any measurable change, whereas at least three of the abstinence programs sustained significant reduction in teen sexual activity more than a year after the teens finished the program.

Significant findings from the comprehensive survey of the literature included the following:

  • No school-based CSE programs had been shown to increase the number of teens who used condoms consistently for more than 3 months.
  • No school-based CSE programs demonstrated a decrease in teen pregnancy or STD rates for any subgroup for any period of time.
  • No school-based CSE programs demonstrated that they had increased both teen abstinence and condom use (by the sexually active) for the target population for any time period.

By contrast to these results, school-based abstinence education programs produced the following results:

  • Three recent peer-reviewed studies of school-based abstinence education found significant reductions in sexual activity for the target population of program participants. Two of the programs, Heritage Keepers and Reasons of the Heart, reduced the number of teens who became sexually active by about one-half, 12 months after the program. A third abstinence program, Making a Difference, produced significant reductions in teen sexual activity 24 months after the program.
  • In Emerging Answers 2007 one study of school-based abstinence education found a significant delay in the onset of teen sexual intercourse for the target population of middle school students, 18 months after the program.
  • Several studies have also found that abstinence education did not decrease condom use for teens who later became sexually active.

The last finding is crucial because the usual argument raised against abstinence education is that it leaves kids ignorant of responsible condom use. That’s always seemed ridiculous to me. I would guess that if you surveyed 1,000 middle school kids, you wouldn’t find a single one that didn’t know what a condom was, or how and when to use it; and if you did find such a kid, it would be one of those least likely to actually need the knowledge for the next decade. Hell, I knew how to use condoms at that age, and that was 1966!

The survey disputes commonly-reported findings suggesting that abstinence education produces no effect, while comprehensive sex education does produce positive effects.

From the IRE press release:

Since the purported advantage of CSE is that these programs can increase both abstinence and condom use (among the sexually active), IRE examined whether there were programs that succeeded at both. While 44% of the CSE studies showed improvement in abstinence, there weren’t any school-based CSE programs that demonstrated increases in both abstinence and condom use for the target population (two had subgroup effects), thus showing no real advantage over abstinence programs.

IRE then analyzed these school-based programs according to what it considered to be more meaningful standards of effectiveness: 1) Did the program increase teen abstinence or consistent condom use? 2) Did this behavior change occur for the target population and not just for a subgroup of students? 3) Did the effect last at least one year, that is, from one school year to the next? Applying these criteria, IRE found that a higher percent of school-based abstinence programs were effective than CSE programs: 36% vs. 25%.

This review contradicts recent claims made in Time, Newsweek, and a Congressional letter circulated by Rep. Paul Hodes (D-New Hampshire) that abstinence education has failed while comprehensive sex education has been successful. Dr. Weed expressed surprise that the lack of evidence of CSE success in schools had not been reported: “Research evidence does not support the widespread distribution of comprehensive sex education in the schools or the elimination of abstinence education as a viable prevention strategy.”

The survey suffers from the relatively small number of studies analyzing abstinence education programs; however, the studies that were available were peer-reviewed and published in scholarly journals. A survey by the Heritage Foundation of at least 10 studies showing positive results from abstinence education can be found here.

Personally, I found the emphasis on condom use disappointing. Condoms are notoriously weak at preventing pregnancy among the young (their effectiveness increases with the age of the participants), and they don’t do much at all to prevent the spread of disease. Perhaps I should not be surprised — researchers frequently sport agendas, just like anybody else — but I found it disturbing how many of the studies purporting to measure the effectiveness of sex education programs did not even bother to examine the rates of pregnancy or incidence of sexually-transmitted disease; they simply assumed that condom use would take care of all that. Studies of abstinence education made a similar assumption — those who abstain would not get pregnant or contract an STD — but they’ve got a somewhat better case for that assumption.

It appears to me that the American press and social progressives generally cannot be trusted on any topic that involves the choice to engage in sexual contact whenever and however the individual chooses. On all topics touching this arena, the press, staffed as it is almost entirely by social progressives, routinely reports fiction to mask the astoundingly dire consequences of sexual licentiousness. Folks who rely on the press believe that gays are just straights with a binary switch turned the other way, homosexuality is caused by genes, abortion is a harmless procedure with no serious side-effects, there’s no way to stop kids from engaging in rampant sexuality, there are no serious health consequences from early sexual activity, condoms actually help prevent the spread of STDs, and sex ed classes train kids to engage in sex responsibly. All of the above are urban myths, the new fantasy world of the American libertine culture. Not one of those statements stands after reviewing the relevant research, of which there is plenty. And yet, incredibly, the folks who have bought all these myths, actually believe they’re supported by sound research.

There may be no way to stop all teen sex, but we certainly prevented a lot of it by constructing a culture in which it was taken for granted that well-behaved kids waited until they were ready to marry. The fact that the 1960s culture did not engage in anything within several orders of magnitude of the current level of teen sexuality is proved by the incredibly low numbers of teen pregnancies and of venereal diseases in the 1960s culture, when compared to modern statistics.

Make no mistake; it makes a difference if you tell your kids consistently that they’re not ready for sex, and that they should refrain until they are. It’s not an instant cure-all, and it’s not the only thing you have to do, but doing it makes a difference.

03/11/2009 (7:12 am)

Obama Education, a Feint and a Punch

President Obama unrolled his new education policy in a speech to the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce on Wednesday. The New York Times in reporting on the speech extended the perpetual Obama election campaign, mentioning those features of the plan to which teachers unions might object in order to tout Our Leader’s fearless independence. The Times also published the text of the speech, from which intrepid readers might cull the real story for themselves.

The portions of Obama’s plan featured by the Times, merit pay and expanded charter schools, are not bad ideas. Obama mentioned permitting merit pay for better teachers, and making it easier to fire poor ones. This is a common-sense improvement that is long overdue; how the federal government can accomplish it in a system controlled by the states remains a mystery. Removing caps on the number of charter schools is also sensible. If we’re forced to rely on a central, government-controlled public school system, and if we’re forced to permit national control of that system, then these are welcome improvements. Naturally, the Perpetual Obama Campaign fronts these ideas to deflect criticism of other parts of the program. That’s the feint.

obamahispaniccocWhat the Times left out were the totalitarian aspects, notably a $5 billion expansion of federally-managed early childhood education including parenting oversight by medical professionals. That’s the punch.

This is a program liberal social engineers have been attempting to force down the nation’s throat for decades. It was part of HillaryCare in the 90s, but I remember advocating a plan like this back when I was a good liberal in the late 1960s. The theory is that “truly enlightened” citizenry is not possible so long as “mindless, religious parents” can control the raising of their own children. The antidote is for the government to train children to reject the “bigotry” and “ignorance” of their parents when they’re very young. What the liberals are really saying is that individual liberty is too dangerous to be permitted, because it permits the education of children to be something other than good liberals. Seig Heil.

Just in educational terms, Obama’s emphasis on early childhood education is simply wrong. When comparing American students against other nations, the American students already perform better in early education; this is the one place where we do not need significant improvement. The advantage American students show in the early grades gets lost by about 4th grade, though, and becomes a serious deficit once the students reach high school.

In these areas, the President has nothing new to offer. The rest of the speech recites a battery of measures that tell us only that the President has no idea what ails American schools, and that he intends to set high expectations and force states to meet them while throwing money at them with which to do it. He advocates uniform national achievement standards, more time in school, and exhorts all Americans, “Let’s all do better!” In a sadly amusing twist, Obama retains the key features of No Child Left Behind, national testing with funding tied to performance. None of this is new. I’ll give him a few extra-credit points for inflation-adjusting Pell grants.

Everybody has a pet theory regarding why American education is failing; some argue it’s poor teachers, others argue it’s insufficient time, others say it’s low standards. My own take lays the blame on several modern innovations. First, educational theory has abandoned wholesome models of education in favor of coercive, socially progressive models, favoring social development and self esteem above actual achievement; this results in an educational approach that simply ignores human nature. The entire structure of curricula needs to be rewritten by somebody other than leftist academics. The real advantage of vouchered education is that it empowers educators who stray from the social engineering reservation, and the real opposition to vouchers comes from those who want to retain control. Central control of the education system is the enemy here; free market education is the solution, because schools that employ a sound model of human development will perform better than those that don’t, and will attract students while the “progressive” schools fail.

Second, American students begin to decline after the early grades because American kids have developed destructive attitudes by then. American parents have abdicated their authority over their own children and turned them over to electronic gadgets, to be raised by video games and MTV. The result is a student body incapable of self-discipline and possessing no ethic of learning, working, or respect for adults and laws. The only cure for this is a revolution among American parents, with one of the now all-too-common poorly raised generations pulling itself up by its own bootstraps and returning to a model of family responsibility and accountability, with an ethic of achievement. Ultimately, education rests squarely on the parents’ shoulders; children raised in a home where the parents read, invariably obtain a sound education. A little entertainment reform wouldn’t hurt, though.

Consistent with his performance so far, President Obama is moving education in the wrong direction, toward greater central, governmental control over the entire system. The most important point does not address educational performance, but individual liberty; whom the government educates, the government controls. The education of a free people must remain in the hands of the people, or the people will not remain free.

12/30/2008 (3:04 pm)

The Vanishing Structure of Knowledge

As the education of America has proceeded along its century-long decline, many of us have woken up to the fact that our ancestors could think more clearly than we do, and knew a lot more facts than we do. A number of us carry a sense that we’ve been cheated, and wonder how to undo the damage that’s been done.

Here’s a minor wake-up call. I first came across a piece of this in a book I’ve mentioned before, Harry Stein’s How I Accidentally Joined the Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy (and Found Inner Peace). What appear below are excerpts from the entrance examination for Jersey City High School, from June of 1885. It was reprinted in the Wall Street Journal, June 9, 1992, Section A, p. 16. Keep in mind, one had to pass this in order to be considered qualified to enter high school. I would not have passed this test, nor even come close; in fact, I don’t even understand what they’re asking for in a number of the questions.

The complete test, with answers, can be read at Digital History I’ll discuss it below.

ALGEBRA

II. Write a homogeneous quadrinomial of the third degree.
Express the cube root of 10ax in two ways.

III. Find the sum and difference of 3x – 4ay + 7cd – 4xy + 16, and
10ay – 3x – 8xy + 7cd – 13.

IV. Express the following in its simplest form by removing the parentheses
and combining: 1 – (1 – a) + (1 – a + a2) – (1 – a + a2 – a3).

ARITHMETIC

I. If a 60 days note of $840 is discounted at a bank at 4 1/2% what are the proceeds?

VI. The mason work on a building can be finished by 16 men in 24 days, working 10 hours a day.
How long will it take 22 men working 8 hours a day?

IX. By selling goods at 12 1/2% profit a man clears $800.
What was the cost of the goods, and for what were they sold?

X. A merchant offered some goods for $1170.90 cash, or $1206 payable in 30 days.
Which was the better offer for the customer, money being worth 10%?

GEOGRAPHY

II. Name four principal ranges of mountains in Asia, three in Europe, and three in Africa.

III. Name the capitals of the following countries:
Portugal, Greece, Egypt, Persia, Japan, China, Canada, Hindostan, Thibet, Cuba.

IV. Name the states on the west bank of the Mississippi, and the capital of each.

GRAMMAR

VI. Write a sentence containing a noun used as an attribute, a verb in the perfect tense potential mood, and a proper adjective.

IX. Write four lines of poetry, giving particular attention to the use of capitals, and to punctuation.

XI. Write a declarative sentence; change to an imperative, to an interrogative, to an exclamatory, and punctuate.

U.S. HISTORY

II. Name four Spanish explorers and state what induced them to come to America.

III. What event do you connect with 1565, 1607, 1620, 1664, 1775?

V. Name three events of 1777. Which was the most important and why?

X. Name three commanders of the Army of the Potomac.

In what battle was “Stonewall” Jackson killed?

How?

The usual question posed after examining a quiz like this is, why is this information important, especially if I don’t need it for my work? This is like asking “What’s the use of the alphabet?” or “What’s the use of numbers?” The answer is that the information in this quiz is not particularly important in itself, but is crucial basic information that gets used in a much more important exercise, like letters or numbers. The letters of the alphabet mean very little individually, but we need them in order to communicate in writing. Numbers mean very little individually, but we need them in order to count, to evaluate profit and loss, to plan expenditures, and so on. And the facts in this quiz are the ABCs of thinking; they mean very little as disjointed factoids, but they form the basis of understanding history, policy, and philosophy.

If I’m correct about this, I’ve just explained why the population of the US has been deceived so easily by neo-Marxists. We’re not just lousy at thinking, we don’t even possess the alphabet with which to form thoughts. We are an illiterate people. I include myself. (In a closely-related topic, Philosophy Professor Alisdair MacIntyre, in his essential work After Virtue, uses exactly the same thesis to explain the deterioration of virtue in Western civilization, saying that we retain the language of virtue but none of the concepts that undergird the words, such that our moral discussions amount to nothing more than trading meaningless sound bites. It’s a tough read, but my God, it’s necessary.)

This topic came to mind over the past couple of days because of email and blog conversations. In one of those, I chided a friend over some fellow he’d sent my way hoping that this fellow would open my mind and help me think more clearly. Turns out the guy was just a garden-variety hard leftist with a nice veneer of education; he spoke well, but formed thoughts very, very poorly. I chided my friend that the man’s thinking was “undisciplined.” That’s the word I used: “undisciplined.”

And then, one of my commenters here, intending a compliment, compared one of my recent posts to a long game of chess, as opposed to “skittles” he sees on other sites. For those of you unfamiliar with timed, competitive chess, “skittles” is speed chess, a chess game with a clock in which each of the players has a total of five minutes in which to make all of their moves for the entire game. That’s not five minutes per move, it’s five minutes for the whole game. Chess played at that rate is more a test of instinct and preparation than it is a test of skill.

What occurred to me, though, is that even a long game of chess is not so great if the players are not very good. My USCF (US Chess Federation) rating never went higher than 1600 or so, which in terms of competitive chess is barely mediocre for a bush-leaguer. The USCF rating scheme behaves like an exponential scale, such that the difference between a 2200 and a 2400 player is a lot greater than the difference between a 1600 and an 1800. The top players have ratings over 2200. I never came within 2 time zones of that level, and never really understood the game. (Still, I can crush the guys who play once a year…)

And the truth be told, though I’m a bright guy, I know that my thinking ability does not come within several time zones of the abilities of the great men who built this country. Maybe I do well enough by modern standards, but really my ability to reason is not much beyond my ability at chess. If I’m being candid, I need to accuse “undisciplined” in the mirror.

What would it take for a 21st century American to obtain the equivalent of the education a man received a century and a half ago? It’s a daunting question; I ask it of myself every time I pick up a book by CS Lewis, or GK Chesterton, or even Rudyard Kipling. There are several orders of magnitude more books available today than there were then; how does one evaluate which are wheat, and which are chaff? Moreover, what do we know these days of the structure of knowledge? Into what sort of taxonomy of knowledge might we place what we learn, so the facts are not just disconnected trivia, good only for scoring the big bucks on Jeopardy? This is what colleges are supposed to offer; I graduated Cum Laude from a decent school, and received virtually nothing of this sort. Nobody I know got this from college.

I’m 54 years old and I’ve got good genes; odds are that if I control my weight, I should live well into my 80s, and perhaps beyond. I’ve got plenty of time. What I lack are guidance and discipline. Regarding guidance, I’m not sure who exists on the planet whose guidance I would trust on this matter. Regarding discipline, there’s nobody who can do what I need to do for myself, except me.

It’s becoming a goal. Before I leave the planet, I want to have obtained for myself an education that makes it possible to grasp what is truly important in the world — and I want to leave behind a guidebook for others who want to do the same.

If anybody knows of an existing version of what I’m talking about, I’d love to hear the titles. Leave your comments below. Thanks in advance.

Photo from IMDB.com.

12/16/2008 (10:19 am)

Civic Literacy

Here’s a useful challenge for my readers: spend 10 minutes to take a 33-question quiz on civic knowledge. The test was created by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI) to measure the basic literacy of Americans to understand public discourse and vote intelligently: our founding principles, the branches of government and their constitutional powers, major points in our history, and the basic principles of a free market. The questions were taken from the citizenship exam given to immigrants sitting for naturalization, and from NAEP tests of high school achievement. Most of them are straightforward knowledge questions, although a couple of the economics questions require a little nuanced thinking. I missed two, netting a 94% the first time I took the quiz; I took it again two weeks later, saw where I’d gone wrong the first time, and scored 100%.

Click on the “Our Fading Heritage” logo, below, and you’ll be taken to the beginning of the quiz. We’ll discuss it afterwards.

So, how’d you all do? If you did poorly, don’t sweat it; use the test as a guide to where you need to increase your knowledge, and go read a bit. Ignorance is curable, and no shame so long as it’s not wilful.

Of 2,500 Americans randomly selected to take the test, more than 1,700 failed, with an average score of 49%. Those who self-identified as having held public office of any kind did worse, with an average score of 44%. Only 21 of the 2,500 subjects scored an A on the test. We are not a people who understand our own nation well.

A few of the findings:

  • Almost 40 percent of all respondents falsely believe the president has the power to
    declare war;
  • 40 percent of those with a bachelor’s degree do not know business profit equals revenue minus expenses;
  • Only 54 percent with a bachelor’s degree correctly define free enterprise as a system in which individuals create, exchange and control goods and resources;
  • 20.7 percent of Americans falsely believe that the Federal Reserve can increase or decrease government spending;
  • Seniors from most colleges scored only about 4 percentage points higher than freshmen from the same college, and in some very prestigious schools (Princeton, Duke, Yale, and Cornell were named) seniors scored worse than freshmen.

Probably the most dramatic flubs are those related to the branches of government. In the video ISI provided of interviews they conducted on election day (embedded below,) people were absolutely clueless when asked to name the three branches of government. We heard “Republican, Democrat, and I can’t remember the third,” “Dick Cheney, President Bush, and Condoleeza Rice,” “The People, The Man, and the military,” but by far the most common answer was “I have no idea.” There were some pretty interesting ideas regarding who has the power to declare war, as well.

However, the more disturbing failure, in my mind, is the lack of even simple understanding about free markets and tax policy. How can a citizen understand what the government is doing if he or she does not understand why governments might reduce taxes or increase spending during a recession? How can they process news reports about the Fed when they don’t even know what the Fed is, or what it does? It’s no wonder that a demagogue like Barack Obama can gain traction; people have not the slightest clue what makes a government work. All they have to go on is his looks.

The ISI web designers are fond of quoting Thomas Jefferson on this score:

“If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was, and never will be.”

Thomas Jefferson, letter to Colonel Charles Yancey, January 6, 1816.The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, ed. Paul L. Ford, vol. 10, p. 4

The ISI site has video from the news conference they called to announce the publication of this year’s survey. It’s almost 70 minutes of listening to some offensively dreary fellows, but does contain some good information. There’s also a 90 minute talk by David Brooks, but frankly, I don’t have 90 minutes for Brooks.

One of the last questioners in the news conference, a college student, observed that among his fellows there are lots of folks who believe that history is simply irrelevant. I remember fighting this notion back when I was in high school. I think this occurs because history is taught stupidly; instead of a separate subject that covers a recitation of the past, history should be rolled into a single class with civics, geography, philosophy, religion, politics, art, culture, and literature. Home schoolers often achieve this when they approach topics using the Unit Study method. If history is included in the context of who we are and what’s happening today, we won’t get any of that nonsensical “Why do we care what a bunch of dead people did?”

One interesting observation from the news conference mirrors one of my favorite lines from the movies. It’s from Good Will Hunting, where Will (Matt Damon) berates a haughty college student about plagiarizing from his classes to embarrass one of Will’s friends. He ends the brief lecture with: “You dropped a hundred and fifty grand on a f’ing education you could have gotten for $1.50 in late charges at the local library.” There’s truth here; truly, what you get from a college is guidance in your reading. If you’re smart, and have the wit to ask knowledgeable people what’s important to know, you can educate yourself a lot more thoroughly than any college could. My education never really ended. A lot of my discretionary money and time goes to books. I recommend it. (On a related note, the ISI survey inversely correlated performance on the test with time spent in front of the TV; those who watched less, scored higher. No surprise there, eh?)

There’s a huge battle that needs to be fought in the education system of the nation if this is to be cured. America committed a fatal, tactical error in the battle to retain its freedom when education became a centralized governmental function instead of a consumer-driven choice by individual citizens. With education controlled from a distance by experts, a single, centralized source of educational theory emphasizing development rather than knowledge affected nearly all public education simultaneously. Knowledge and achievement dropped off rapidly, and kids became increasingly skeptical, unruly, and unmotivated (this is also affected drastically by home life, of course.) When the same source started slipping political radicalism into the curriculum, it was all over. If we ever get the chance to build a nation again, we must write in stone that education is to be local and controlled by the citizens, and never to become a central, government function.

Here’s a little factoid that the test missed: they note the source of “government of the people, by the people, and for the people” as the Gettysburg Address, and that’s correct as far as it goes. However, Lincoln actually borrowed the phrase from John Wycliffe, the Englishman who earned the wrath of the Catholic Church in the 14th century by translating the Bible into common English, making it accessible to laymen. Wycliffe wrote in the introduction to his bible, “This Bible is government of the people, by the people, and for the people.”

Finally, here’s a four-minute clip of interviews done on election day, showing how people responded to questions about the branches of government, who has power to declare war, and what the electoral college is. Enjoy cringing.

12/09/2008 (8:09 am)

Some Conservative Impulses

Bits and pieces worth reading.

From P.J. O’Rourke, an entertaining old lecher who can write like nobody’s business, and who is full of sound impulses mixed in with curious resorts to unrestrained conscience, or sometimes lack thereof. Here’s his wisdom concerning free markets:

What will destroy our country and us is not the financial crisis but the fact that liberals think the free market is some kind of sect or cult, which conservatives have asked Americans to take on faith. That’s not what the free market is. The free market is just a measurement, a device to tell us what people are willing to pay for any given thing at any given moment. The free market is a bathroom scale. You may hate what you see when you step on the scale. “Jeeze, 230 pounds!” But you can’t pass a law making yourself weigh 185. Liberals think you can. And voters–all the voters, right up to the tippy-top corner office of Goldman Sachs–think so too.

He’s wrong about one thing. Free markets are not just a bathroom scale. They’re also human liberty.

A Britcom called “Yes, Prime Minister” somehow fails to produce laughs, but instead produces uncommon good sense regarding education policy. Translator’s note: “DES” is the Department of Education and Science, their equivalent of the US Department of Education. The clip is 6 minutes long:

The best part occurs just after the 4 minute mark:

PM: “We’ll abolish the DES.”
Minister: “Abolish science and education? That will be the end of civilization as we know it!”
PM: “We’re only abolishing the department. Science and education will flourish.”
Minister: “Without a government department? Impossible!”
Aide: “Government departments are tombstones.
The Department of Industry marks the grave of industry.
The Department of Employment marks the grave of employment.
The Department of Environment marks the grave of the environment, and
the Department of Education marks where the corpse of British Education is buried.”

P.J. O’Rourke again. Same article as before, but this time he’s railing about the vanished principle of fiscal responsibility:

… a low tax rate is not–never mind the rhetoric of every conservative politician–a bedrock principle of conservatism. The principle is fiscal responsibility.

Conservatives should never say to voters, “We can lower your taxes.” Conservatives should say to voters, “You can raise spending. You, the electorate, can, if you choose, have an infinite number of elaborate and expensive government programs. But we, the government, will have to pay for those programs. We have three ways to pay.

“We can inflate the currency, destroying your ability to plan for the future, wrecking the nation’s culture of thrift and common sense, and giving free rein to scallywags to borrow money for worthless scams and pay it back 10 cents on the dollar.

“We can raise taxes. If the taxes are levied across the board, money will be taken from everyone’s pocket, the economy will stagnate, and the poorest and least advantaged will be harmed the most. If the taxes are levied only on the wealthy, money will be taken from wealthy people’s pockets, hampering their capacity to make loans and investments, the economy will stagnate, and the poorest and the least advantaged will be harmed the most.

“And we can borrow, building up a massive national debt. This will cause all of the above things to happen plus it will fund Red Chinese nuclear submarines that will be popping up in San Francisco Bay to get some decent Szechwan take-out.”

Yes, this would make for longer and less pithy stump speeches. But we’d be showing ourselves to be men and women of principle. It might cost us, short-term. We might get knocked down for not whoring after bioenergy votes in the Iowa caucuses. But at least we wouldn’t land on our scruples. And we could get up again with dignity intact, dust ourselves off, and take another punch at the liberal bully-boys who want to snatch the citizenry’s freedom and tuck that freedom, like a trophy feather, into the hatbands of their greasy political bowlers.

And finally, a quotation from a comment on a site called “The New Republican,” concerning the difference between a private company and allowing the government to perform a similar task:

… when Katrina devastated several parts of our country the United States Post Office found it necessary to STOP all interaction with such regions for six months, yet FedEx continued normal (as in, yes, even next day service) to ….wait for it….ALL Katrina-affected parts.

Government is not the solution, it’s the problem.

11/19/2008 (11:31 am)

Public School Graduates

Rachel Lucas, who is 36 years old and taking college courses to meet some requirements for an advanced degree, wrote some entertaining vignettes about her experience with Chem majors who apparently lack some pretty basic concepts.

…way back at the beginning of the semester, we had to do a filtration procedure, where you put a filter paper cone in a funnel on a clamp and pour a solution with some solid in it through the apparatus to get all the chunks out, and the filtered liquid would drip into a beaker below.

This was a very slow process because it was a thick solution. It drip-drip-dripped very slowly through the funnel. So guess what my genius lab partner and a few other brain surgeons in the class decided would be a good way to speed it up?

Why, move the funnel apparatus as high up on the clamp stand as possible, as far away from the beaker as possible! Because somehow, in some alternate universe with vastly different laws of physics than we know here on Earth, that would make the solution move through the funnel more quickly.

I am not making this up.

When Lab Partner started doing this, all spastically as is his way, I told him that all he was accomplishing was making the drips splash harder into the beaker and even out of the beaker entirely. Pretty much, he was just making a mess. He was steadfast, and kept telling me to just watch. “It goes faster!”

I asked him if the solution in the funnel knew where the beaker was and he stared at me like I was being obtuse. I asked again, how could the distance between the two possibly have any effect whatsoever on how fast the solution came out of the funnel because after all, it doesn’t know how far it has to fall, and it doesn’t care. He shushed me and told me to watch.

Pressing on, I asked him if there is some sort of magical force field between the funnel and the beaker, and if he was positing that the beaker was sending a message to the liquid in the funnel, hey I’m far away, you better get through that funnel quickly! I wondered out loud if he knew some special law of physics I’d never heard of. He shook his head and kept repeating, “just watch, just watch.”

It was painful. And the thing is, it wasn’t even only him. Several other groups at our counter were doing the same thing. I was struck speechless and had no choice but to stand there and search for an argument in my brain that did not involve calling anyone “retarded.”

It only went on for about a minute because as soon as TA saw what all these Mensa members were doing, with their funnels high in the air, making the drips splash all over the place, he came over to us and asked why, and some of them actually attempted to present their finely-honed Einsteinian theories about how much more quickly the process would go this way. TA and I and the rest of the class that weren’t acting like crackheads all stared blankly at them for a full 10 seconds. One girl across the room loudly said something like, “I hope none of y’all are science majors.”

Sadly, most of them are. One of the guys so convinced about this technique is a biochem major and at least two of the others are chem majors. Or at least they think they are, now. Wait until they get to organic chem. Oy.

Pretty funny, except some of these folks are going to be trying to design products for American companies.

Comments on the site took over where Rachel left off:

notaclue Says:

A similar problem appears when today’s kids try to do simple arithmetic. The other week the clan of which I’m patriarch took my daughter (same age as you, Rachel) out to eat for her birthday. The check came in around $120 and was to be split two ways. First they split it $69-$69. When we told them this was wrong, they came back with a $40-$40 split. We chose not to pay this one and run. The third try worked with a $60-$60 split.

Some one of the wait staff figured this out on a cell phone calculator, twice wrong, once right. At no point did anyone think, “Half of about 120 is about 60,” or the like.

physics geek Says:

Every time that I led the lab with lasers (interference patterns), I’d unplug the darned things and put signs on every desk and on the board which said “DO NOT LOOK INTO THE END OF THE LASERS OR THEY WILL BLIND YOU!!!” Invariably, I’d catch some dipshit looking into the aperture from a distance of about 4 inches. If I hadn’t unplugged the freaking things, I’ve had had blind-in-one-eye retard students, instead of the regular sighted kind. After I got done yelling at them, they listened. For a while.

However, not because I’m a prick… okay, that last part is a lie. I finally got so disgusted with my students that I charged up a few Leyden jars and left them at each lab station, with signs stating “DO NOT TOUCH”. I also spoke directly to each student, telling them to not touch them the jars. Then I’d turn around to the board to write some notes and, seconds later, I’d hear “OWWFUCK” from behind me. I didn’t turn around, but merely stated to the chalkboard: “Following instructions can be quite helpful.”

There are lots of reasons why this is happening, and everybody has their favorites. The urge to touch things that are marked “Do Not Touch” is human nature, but there’s a growing lack of ability to control these impulses, or even to understand why doing so is a good idea, that has something to do with too-gentle parenting, too much TV, absentee parents, low expectations, etc. There are also bad theories of education dominating the classroom, and some folks like to cite lack of parental involvement, teacher quality problems, too-low teacher salaries, physical plant problems and the like.

However, it does not pay to try to figure it out, as though education was something a central, thinking bureaucracy had to solve. If we could just apply free-market principles to the problem of educating students, not only would sound and innovative solutions find their way to the top of the heap quickly, but parents’ complaints about improper social or religious content of education would pretty much disappear. A full-voucher system would do the job nicely, especially if the requirement for teacher certification were removed.

I understand that teacher certification is one of those things that people believe is necessary for a sound education, but these people need to ask themselves whether it’s really accomplished that anywhere they’ve ever been. All certification does is prevent gifted amateurs from entering the system, and enforce orthodoxy in education theory from the major universities. In my humble opinion, it’s modern, orthodox education theory that’s the largest factor at fault in the steady decline of American education.

I used to think homeschoolers would end up as managers in all the nation’s businesses, and public school grads would work for them. That may happen — if the public school grads don’t end up murdering the home school grads en masse.

By the way, at least one brave reader at Vox Popoli (my man Vox also thought Lucas’ vignette was pretty funny) ventured his opinion that the stubborn lab partner was actually correct, and pointed to water towers all over the country to prove it. The difference is that water towers use a closed system, with pipes leading from the tank to the water system; it takes advantage of Bernoulli’s principle. Letting water fall through the open air has a different dynamic. Ms. Lucas was correct.

Vox Popoli’s comments were also entertaining, albeit a little highbrow. His crowd gets that way.

I enjoyed this one:

This reminds me of the discussion I had with a 3 friends–all college graduates, who thought that there was a strange force in outer space that prevented anything from falling faster than a certain speed, anywhere in the universe, something like 25 feet per second. It was called ‘terminal velocity’. And it was the same everywhere in outer space.

Sigh…

I explained that it only applied to planets with an atmosphere, and that each of these planets would have a different terminal velocity depending on the thickness of the atmosphere and the size of the planet. You would have thought I just became a Holocaust denier from their indignant replies. One of them spent the next half hour trying to correct my assumptions, getting more angry the more I laughed, and when I said “go look it up” he left with “Oh I will… and then I’ll let you know just how wrong you are.”

09/18/2008 (5:55 am)

4chan Geeks Erode Culture

Michelle Malkin posted an email from a helpful 4chan geek explaining how it came to pass that Sarah Palin’s email account was hacked and its contents made partly available to the world. It’s worth reading for a couple of reasons. One, it introduces the uninitiated to the world of 4chan, which is widespread enough to be worth knowing about. Two, it lets us know what’s in the minds of unthinking teenagers, a sort of random window into the product of modern education.

For those waiting for the punchline, it does not appear even remotely likely that the Obama campaign had anything to do with the incident. It may be the case that Obama employs nasty, talented hackers, but they did not do this. This was a dumb kid.

That being said, this incident is frightening for a good reason. American culture is virtue-free. There remains practically no place in ordinary culture where a young person learns ordinary virtue. Things like respect for private property, common courtesy, honor, kindness, and honesty have no champions in our culture. They’re not taught by some parents, they’re not taught in schools, they’re not in the popular media, they’re not in the books, TV shows, or movies kids watch — and as a consequence, they’re not in most kids, either. What’s taught in schools as “virtue” is actually leftist politics, sans ordinary morals. The kids are hard leftists by default, but with no moral limits, and that’s how they behave.

You should read the account of the hack, and then notice all the moral failures that occur along the way. Here’s what I caught:

  • He really was looking for some way to discredit Sarah Palin. This child, with no more brains or awareness than the eraser on a pencil, hates Sarah Palin enough to want to destroy her. Somebody taught him that.
  • He genuinely, completely seriously expected there would be something incriminating in her personal email. These kids actually believe the world is like the grade Z movies they watch, where all Republicans are evil corporate orcs plotting to destroy the planet. That’s all they’ve ever seen of the world; there’s no place where they can see or hear an alternative point of view.
  • He knew perfectly well that what he was doing was illegal. He did it anyway.
  • When he decided to stop doing the illegal act, it was because he might suffer, not because it was wrong in any way.
  • Even though there was nothing incriminating in Palin’s personal files, he wanted to post them in a public place anyway. Because, you know, it’s funny to make other people hurt.
  • He really, really hates the guy who let Gov. Palin know what was going on. Telling on him was lame.

Some of the moral failures in the list, above, are the sort of thing kids can fall into simply by being human. The problem is, though, there’s no general instruction showing them how to govern those human impulses with sound moral reasoning. The only moral instruction they get is the kind that says “It’s bad to hate black people, and we have to protect the planet.” Never “you should do what’s right for right’s sake, not because it makes you better than someone else.” Never “virtue is its own reward.” Never “an honest man is never poor.” Never “if you want to know what’s wrong with the world, the first place to look is in the mirror.” Parents act shocked and surprised when their kids don’t display ordinary virtue; these parents need to be confronted with “Where would they have learned ordinary virtue, if you did not explicitly drum it into their heads? Did you suppose they were going to learn virtue by osmosis?”

The point is that hard leftists have positioned themselves to reproduce their own type by default. They own all the information points in the culture, so all the kids ever hear are leftist rants. Plus, they’ve intimidated parents into backing off from actively teaching virtue to their kids. Parents do not want to sound like out-of-touch losers the way the movies paint them and their kids accuse them of being. Parents back off so their kids can “make up their own minds.” Parents defer to cultural “experts” who assure them that their kids lack of control is normal developmental stuff. It takes courage for a parent to actually intervene in their kid’s life, and few sources are encouraging parents to acquire that courage for that task. The end result is that we’re surrounded by budding, virtueless leftists.

No, this is not just another “Old guy decrying the alarming behavior of ‘kids these days’. You may dismiss me in this manner if you like, but you do so at the peril of us all. It’s really pretty simple: if nobody is teaching virtue, kids will not learn it. Virtue is hard stuff. You can’t catch it like you catch a cold. It doesn’t come unbidden from the sky. You have to learn it and then work at it. If there’s no place a person can learn about virtue in our culture, then it’s gone.

Tell me, where might one go these days and just incidentally hear “You should be kind to strangers?”

What Hillary Clinton meant by “It takes a village to raise a child” was that we should allow the government to raise our children for us; that’s neo-Marxist garbage. However, the phrase itself, when used by wise observers rather than power-seeking politicians, explains something both true and crucial. It’s not enough that parents teach their children ordinary good behavior, even when that’s happening. Kids need to hear consistent messages outside their homes, in their communities, at their schools, on their TVs and Ipods, if the messages are going to stick. Every one of us has some responsibility to train children in ordinary virtue. We each must make the message of virtue part of the culture again, or virtue will vanish.

And while we’re at it, we might want to get behind the latest vouchered education initiative, to wrest control of our kids’ minds from the leftists who are indoctrinating them to think of Sarah Palin as an orc to be destroyed in order to save the planet.

05/27/2008 (5:58 pm)

Civil Disobedience and Pretty Good Debaters

As a former high school and college debater, I was excited to see Oprah Winfrey’s production The Great Debaters get presented to the public, and I looked forward to seeing it. I watched it over the weekend with my wife, and enjoyed it. It wasn’t historically accurate, but it was entertaining.

The movie was predictably about civil rights, and debate topics were chosen to emphasize the civil rights theme for the fragments of the debates they showed us. The movie portrays an invitational debate in 1935 between Wiley College and Harvard College (which in fact never took place) on the topic, “Resolved: That civil disobedience serves a moral role.” In actual fact, the topic of the 1935 championship debate, which was against Southern Cal, not Harvard, was more likely about preventing international munitions shipments, as that was Phi Delta Kappa’s topic for that year.

I was struck by the quality of the education the characters in the movie had received even prior to attending Wiley College. This turns out to be fairly accurate; Professor Melvin Tolson of Wiley College was fierce in preparing his students for intellectual combat. The debaters in the film were able to quote extensively from the classics with genuine understanding, something I’m not able to do despite decades of self-education. One of my recurring disappointments is how badly I’ve been robbed by liberalism of a real education by being born in the wrong time in history; and as much as I read, I’m hacking around in the dark trying to recover the structure of knowledge that nearly everyone took for granted in those days. As with so many other topics, liberals addressed what they considered injustice and inequality in education, not by improving the education of the poor so it matched what the rich received, but by reducing the education of everybody to the least common denominator. They promise to do the same with medical care, using the same argument: some get better care than others, therefore we need national health care. This will result, not in better care for anybody, but in worse care for a large number of people who can actually afford better. When all education was private, the US had the best-educated public in the history of the world. We could have that again, if we could get the government to release education into private hands again.

The Harvard debate in the movie ends with an impassioned speech by 14-year-old James Farmer Jr., the only debater in the movie who was really on the historic team. Rebutting a claim by the previous speaker that “Nothing that erodes the rule of law can ever be moral,” Farmer began his talk “In Texas, they lynch Negros.” He goes on to assert an affirmative duty to oppose injustice “by violence or civil disobedience; you should pray that I choose the latter.”

Farmer in the movie just breezes by the correct argument, quoting St. Augustine’s “An unjust law is no law at all,” in favor of making Oprah Winfrey’s and Denzel Washington’s civil rights point, that violence in opposition to racism is appropriate. The correct argument is broader and more subtle. It is a crucial argument in our modern world, because the moral system of Progressivism is producing such incredibly distorted laws that it will eventually be necessary to oppose them.

The fictional Harvard debater was correct, nothing that erodes the rule of law can be moral. However, nothing erodes the rule of law more surely than a grotesquely unjust law, unless perhaps it is an unjust law officer enforcing the law unevenly. When the law or the defenders of the law titanically fail the cause of justice, it becomes the duty of citizens to stand up to the injustice and force a change. This act, when conducted correctly in the defense of justice, upholds the rule of law, whereas unjust laws or unjust law officers erode the rule of law. History shows that these changes do not always come about through natural evolution of laws; sometimes it takes a little force.

An ironic side note of the question gets raised by the comment, “In Texas, they lynch Negros.” While apparently each of the debaters from Wiley College in the 1930s saw a lynching at one time or another, the truth is that lynching had pretty much died out by 1935. The year 1935 was the last year in the US that the number of lynchings nationwide reached double digits; there were 20 that year. Lynching was never routine, but reached its nadir around the turn of the century, after which it gradually petered out to nothing. The year 1935 was even after the race riots in major cities, which took place mostly before 1930. There may have been 5 lynchings in Texas in 1935; that’s obviously 5 too many, but it wasn’t a common event.

The point, though, is that lynching is an instance of civil disobedience in the mistaken pursuit of justice, by those who don’t know virtue. This makes the point that while civil disobedience can be a force for morality, it can only be so in the hands of those who have “by practice trained their senses to discern good and evil” (Hebrews 5:14). Civil disobedience without virtue is vigilantism, and destroys the rule of law.

Those who would like to read further about this difficult topic ought at least to pick up a copy of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Letters From Prison. Bonhoeffer, a Lutheran theologian, involved himself in a plot to assassinate Adolph Hitler during WWII, and was jailed by the Nazis. His letters explain his reasoning somewhat. I recommend them.

04/13/2008 (7:11 am)

D-Y High, School for Radicals

While I’ve been developing my skills as a writer, I’ve hired myself out as a substitute teacher at a couple of the local high schools here on Cape Cod to bring in some extra bucks. One of them is the mid-cape trade school, which is perhaps a little weak academically but does a remarkable job preparing kids for useful careers. Kids learn hands-on PC troubleshooting, cosmetology and hair styling, auto mechanics, and the like from qualified instructors; they even have a restaurant school with a functioning restaurant that serves the community, and folks come daily from local businesses to eat nicely-prepared lunches at very reasonable prices, prepared and served by the students. It’s a great school.

And then there’s the local public school, Dennis-Yarmouth High School. D-Y High.

The first week I was requested to come and manage a class there, an English teacher instructed me that the seniors in G period could choose, if they liked, to attend the Issues Day presentation in the auditorium instead of having a study hall in their usual room (I think that’s what the day was — Issues Day. I don’t recall precisely). They chose to do this, so I followed them down to the auditorium. I was surprised to hear them instructed by what had to be a local political activist about “Peace Tents,” which get painted with radical slogans and set up at demonstrations in major cities around the coutry. He had a Peace Tent there, and bragged about the D-Y students who had helped paint it as a school project. Then he called on students who were prepared to talk about the horrible conditions in Darfur, and after that they heard a brief lecture from an operator of a local homeless shelter from the Salvation Army. To wrap up the presentation, the young activist (who turned out to be one of the teachers there at D-Y) solicited suggestions from the students about how they could petition the local government to fund more shelters for the homeless.

He never mentioned political parties, and he never mentioned other points of view. This was pretty much training for social activists. I was a little surprised; this is the People’s Republic of Massachusetts, after all, but I didn’t think they’d be performing unveiled political rallies at school, and it occurred to me to wonder, after the fact, about what other topics they’d welcome the Salvation Army to speak there.

About a week later, I got to sub for a history class. They were studying the Scopes trial, and the teacher made it easy for me — all I had to do was run a movie, Inherit the Wind. He had already run the trial portions of the film, but since he wasn’t going to be there, the kids could watch the rest of the film, or as much as we could get into 50 minutes. I was appalled. This was a history class, and the film Inherit the Wind is not in any way accurate history; they even use fictitious names for the historical characters, arguably to avoid defamation lawsuits. Worse — Inherit the Wind is the most bigoted film one can still see in a public venue, written specifically to make Christians look stupid and hateful. The Reverend Brown, played by Claude Atkins, in particular is a masterpiece of rhetorical demonization; if I met a man with his characteristics in real life, I’d argue for involuntary commitment at the local mental health center. I watched kids feign shooting him in anger as he played control games on his daughter by praying loudly in her presence, a vicious mockery of Christian piety. (Note that Brown is an entirely fictitious character — and recall that this is a history class. And did the teacher even know that the trial as portrayed in the film is wildly inaccurate?)

Just this week I got to listen to a teacher’s aid lecture her special needs kids about a poem they were reading, called the Ballad of Birmingham by Dudley Randall. It presented a tear-yanking scenario about a mother forbidding her child to participate in the children’s marches because the police might shoot at them or sick dogs on them, and sending her to church instead where it was safe — only to have her child disappear in the explosion. I listened to this aid paint lurid word pictures for her charges about the vicious dogs that the police used to attack little children, how they used fire hoses that would tear the skin off the children’s arms, and about the horrid Ku Klux Klan.

I have no objection to helping the homeless, though I favor private over public expenditures; Constitutionally, charity is not the government’s job, and there are good reasons for that. I have no objection to kids learning about civil rights marches, so long as they’re presented factually and in proper context (this one wasn’t). My problem is that since my appearance at the high school is random, I would not expect to hear so many presentations that sound like the rants of leftist activists — unless those were actually going on all the time. It appears to me possible that public funds are being spent at D-Y to run a public, partisan school for leftist radicals.

As I said about the Muslim grade school in Minnesota, so I say here: if public funds were available for all parties to teach their children as the parents want them taught, in a completely neutral system that didn’t ask and didn’t care what slant the schools took, I would not object to a politically partisan school, or even a religiously sectarian school. I favor such an approach; it solves lots of problems, and encourages innovation and liberty. I cannot, however, tolerate my tax dollars funding a local public high school that teaches political partisanship that I oppose. Forcing me to fund partisanship that I abhor is precisely the tyranny Thomas Jefferson warned about in his letter to the Danbury Baptists, from which we obtain the phrase “wall of separation between church and state.”

I’m going to keep a journal about my visits to D-Y, and if the pattern persists (I’m pretty sure it will), the legislature will hear my complaints; and if they won’t, then the courts might.

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