Saturday, June 29, 2013

John Roberts & Congress

Though I focused on the problem of state sovereignty in the last post on the Roberts Court, I've been trying to sort through some of the other bizarro rationales that the conservative justices used to make these decisions. I am especially confused about Roberts and his opinion of Congress.

Let's start with Shelby, the Voting Rights Act case. Congress, in a rare display of conscientiousness, undertook an exhaustive review of the voting rights and discrimination patterns in the South before choosing to reauthorize the VRA in 2006. What they found were hundreds of examples of discriminatory practices expressly designed to erode or dilute the political voice of minorities, mainly through voting practices. It seemed pretty logical, then, to re-up the VRA.

In his majority opinion, John Roberts countered all this evidence by citing evidence of the progress made since the law's original passage:
But history did not end in 1965. By the time the Act was reauthorized in 2006, there had been 40 more years of it. In assessing the “current need” for a preclearance system that treats States differently from one another today, that history cannot be ignored. During that time, largely because of the Voting Rights Act, voting tests were abolished, disparities in voter registration and turnout due to race were erased, and African-Americans attained political office in record numbers.
No, history did not end in 1965, but neither did racial discrimination or, more importantly, the evolution of race-based voter discrimination. It seems like the only evidence that would convince Roberts would be replications of modes of voter disfranchisement characteristic of the late Jim Crow era. He's looking around for Bull Connor loosing dogs on black voters and, when he can't find it, he's decided the need for the VRA has ended. That discrimination itself might have changed or become more subtle eludes him. Voting tests and depressing voter registration are not necessarily the methods of choice anymore (although they will be soon enough because of the Court's horrific decision). Nor is Roberts's assurance that "African-Americans [have] attained political office in record numbers" convincing in the slightest. It's easy to set a record when the previous score is zero. A few quick questions to highlight the amazing progress of African-American politicians in the South:
  1. Can you name any African American governors from former Confederate states?
  2. Mississippi is over 37% black... can you name an African American governor or senator ever elected there?
  3. Alabama, home to Shelby County, is over 25% black. Can you name an African American governor or senator ever elected there?
(Answers provided at the end of the post. No cheating.) Back to the question of evidence... Justice Ginsburg takes Roberts to task for his static outlook on discrimination in sections 2 & 3 of her dissent:
True, conditions in the South have impressively improved since passage of the Voting Rights Act. Congress noted this improvement and found that the VRA was the driving force behind it. 2006 Reauthorization §2(b)(1). But Congress also found that voting discrimination had  evolved into subtler second-generation barriers, and that eliminating preclearance would risk loss of the gains that had been made.
Plus covered districts always have the option of appealing for "bail out" under the terms of the VRA, a process in which they prove a history of nondiscriminatory behavior and, upon successful appeal, become exempt from Section 5 preclearance. So the VRA itself accounts for progress in these areas and provides the mechanism for districts to become unburdened of federal oversight.

But the real issue here is that Congress went through all this evidence and Congress decided the evidence was sufficient to reauthorize the act. Roberts himself admits that Congress has the power to pass this legislation, that the VRA is thus Constitutional, if the evidence is sufficient. (This point is lost on the Washington Post conservative editorialist Jennifer Rubin, who compensates for her deep limitations with her great talent for setting up straw men.) His entire opinion is based on his contention that the evidence isn't sufficient. Now if that were true, wouldn't we expect a relatively contentious floor debate in Congress over reauthorization? And wouldn't we expect a relatively close or divided vote, as different members of Congress arrived at different conclusions based on ambiguous evidence?

That was not the case. In the House, the vote was 390 Ayes, 33 Noes, 9 NVs. We can further break this down by looking at the House votes from states most affected by the VRA. If they were unduly burdened, we would expect the majority of them to vote against the bill and, more specifically, we would expect the vast majority of Republicans in those areas to vote against it. Here is the breakdown
State                  No Votes           Total # Republicans              Total # Representatives

Alabama               2 Nays                       5 Rs                                        7 total
Alaska                  0 Nay                         1 R                                         1 total
Arizona                 2 Nays                       6 Rs                                        8 total
Florida                  0 Nay                        18 Rs                                      25 total
Georgia                 6 Nays                       7 Rs                                        13 total
Louisiana               1 Nay                        5 Rs                                        7 total
Mississippi             0 Nay                        2 Rs                                        4 total
North Carolina       2 Nay                         7 Rs                                        13 total
South Carolina       1 Nay                         4 Rs                                        6 total
Texas                    6 Nay                        21 Rs                                      32 total
Virginia                  0 Nay                        8 Rs                                        11 total
Total                    20 Nay                       84 Rs                                      127 total
So in the states most affected, not only did 43 of 43 Democratic Representatives find the evidence sufficient, but 64 of 84 Republicans (all of them white) did too. As for the 2006 Senate vote on the VRA, that is much easier to parse: it was 98 Ayes, 0 Noes, 2 NVs. John Roberts must believe he has special insight into the same evidence that convinced Congress to overwhelmingly pass a bill he believes is unnecessary.

Alternatively, Roberts simply may not trust that a Congressperson's vote on the record reveals what they secretly wanted to vote for. That, after all, is the thinking of Justice Scalia. I wrote about this in February after the oral arguments were presented before the Court—Scalia said the following:
And this last enactment, not a single vote in the Senate against it. And the House is pretty much the same. Now, I don't think that's attributable to the fact that it is so much clearer now that we need this. I think it is attributable, very likely attributable, to a phenomenon that is called perpetuation of racial entitlement. It's been written about. Whenever a society adopts racial entitlements, it is very difficult to get out of them through the normal political processes.
By this reasoning, members of Congress can't appear to be against African-Americans or minorities because... well, I don't know what would happen. Does Scalia or Roberts think the liberal enforcers of political correctness would magically throw them out of office? Who do they think these politicians are fooling?

Here, for instance, is a map of Alabama's Congressional districts after the 2010 census. Shelby County is part of the blatantly gerrymandered 6th district located in the middle of the state. Its ridiculous shape and the fact that it is over 80% white, while it borders a district that is 63% black, kind of give the race-based politicking away.

I suppose in a twisted way, this actually comports with the conservative justices' view of Congress in US v. Windsor, the DOMA case. Roberts, just as he ignored the reams of evidence substantiating continued discrimination in the 2006 VRA debates, is happy to ignore all the evidence from the Congressional record
regarding the debate to pass DOMA in 1996. Channeling the logic of Plessy v. Ferguson, Roberts cannot bring himself to admit that a law defining marriage as the sole privilege of heterosexual couples carries with it an implicit condemnation of homosexual marriage, or that the politicians who voted for it explicitly espoused these prejudices.

The majority sees a more sinister motive, pointing out that the Federal Government has generally (though not uniformly) deferred to state definitions of marriage in the past.... That the Federal Government treated this fundamental question differently than it treated variations over consanguinity or minimum age is hardly surprising—and hardly enough to support a conclusion that the“principal purpose,” ante, at 22, of the 342 Representatives and 85 Senators who voted for it, and the President who signed it, was a bare desire to harm. Nor do the snippets of legislative history and the banal title of the Act to which the majority points suffice to make such a showing. At least without some more convincing evidence that the Act’s principal purpose was to codify malice, and that it furthered no legitimate government interests, I would
not tar the political branches with the brush of bigotry.
I also wrote a post about DOMA and anti-gay sentiment after oral arguments were made at the end of March. Some of the "snippets of legislative history" that Roberts dismisses include the Report of the House Judiciary Committee from where the bill originated, which stated:
Civil laws that permit only heterosexual marriage reflect and honor a collective moral judgment about human sexuality. This judgment entails both moral disapproval of homosexuality, and a moral conviction that heterosexuality better comports with traditional (especially Judeo-Christian) morality.
Brushing aside such statements because they are too inconvenient to acknowledge openly, Roberts is more than willing to point to the lopsided vote in favor of DOMA in 1996. It's not as lopsided as the vote for the VRA in 2006, but apparently the vote matters when heterosexual marriage is on the line, not when voting rights for minorities are threatened. And with DOMA, the motives of Congress were above reproach, despite evidence to the contrary. When the VRA was passed, however, Congress could not be trusted to read the evidence correctly, nor vote their real political desire. For a man who champions judicial modesty, I am struggling to make sense of such a capricious regard for the legislative branch that allows him to decide a case in whatever way he wants.

Answers to the earlier questions:

  1. There have only been two African American governor of Confederate states: P.B.S. Pinchback who was governor of Louisiana for 35 days between 1872-1873 and Douglas Wilder, governor of Virginia from 1990-1994. There have been only 4 African American governors in US history.
  2. Hiram Revels and Blanche Bruce were both African American senators from Mississippi in the 1870s. None have been elected in the modern era. There have been 8 African American senators in US history, only one a woman and only three who came to office by direct election.
  3. Alabama has never elected an African-American governor or senator. But as John Roberts would point out, history hasn't ended just yet.

Edited 6/30: Originally the answer supplied for the first question only listed P.B.S. Pinchback. Now corrected to include Douglas Wilder. Thanks to reader JW for the correction. 

Thursday, June 27, 2013

John Roberts & State Sovereignty

State sovereignty makes my teeth itch. This week's topsy-turvy Supreme Court opinions are riddled with so many references to state sovereignty it's as if the right wing of the Court has disinterred and reanimated John C. Calhoun's corpse to write their opinions for them. After all these decisions, what can we conclude but that the continuing fight for civil rights will be waged on state battlefields, whether it is voting rights or marriage equality, with agonizingly slow progress for the foreseeable future? And all in the name of a principle that has brought unparalleled misery to the nation throughout its history. That is the course that John Roberts and his Supreme Court have plotted for us.

Now, just to be clear, states do have authority over many issues. Justice Kennedy noted many times in his majority opinion in US v. Windsor, the ruling issued yesterday striking down DOMA, that states have always had the authority to legislate marriage. As he put it, "The definition of marriage is the foundation of the State’s broader authority to regulate  the subject of domestic relations with respect to the '[p]rotection of offspring, property interests, and the enforcement of marital responsibilities.'" But even this "sovereign" state authority is subject to Constitutional protections or guarantees of personhood, due process, and equal protection, something Kennedy also acknowledged. One of the problems with his opinion—people have already noted it is not the tightest Constitutional argument—is that he dallies with this notion of state authority and sovereignty before arriving at the moral center of his argument, that of human dignity. The common sense question at stake in Windsor was not whether states have the power to define or redefine marriage, nor whether the federal government has the power to instruct the states on such matters via a law like DOMA (i.e. federalism), but whether the government (and who cares if it's the federal government or a state government) can discriminate against a class of people for no other reason except, to quote Justice Scalia's dissent, "traditional moral disapproval of same -sex marriage (or indeed same-sex sex)." The common sense answer is "of course not," just like traditional moral disapproval of interracial marriage could not be tolerated by the Supreme Court in the 1960s. Not surprisingly, Kennedy is at his best making his case on the grounds of human dignity.

But by engaging in all that federalism language, even halfheartedly, Kennedy may have made the opinion vulnerable (perhaps intentionally so—to his discredit, he is a states' rights guy) to the Great Enemy of Social Justice on the bench—no, not Scalia (who also doesn't think Kennedy is making a federalism case out of Windsor), but the Chief Justice. In his own dissent, John Roberts concluded Kennedy's argument hinged on federalism (emphasis mine):
Thus, while “[t]he State’s power in defining the marital relation is of central relevance” to the
majority’s decision to strike down DOMA here, that power will come into play on the other side of the board in future cases about the constitutionality of state marriage definitions. So too will the concerns for state diversity and sovereignty that weigh against DOMA’s constitutionality in this case.
To Roberts's thinking, Kennedy's argument claimed that the federal government overreached in passing DOMA, which means the federal government (including the Supreme Court) shouldn't get involved settling disputes about marriage as defined by states. He wants to turn this opinion into a precedent for not striking down state laws or amendments against gay marriage in the future. (Scalia thinks that ship has sailed.)

Roberts's use of state sovereignty is more overt and more appalling in his majority opinion in Shelby County v. Holder, the case that Tuesday struck down Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act. Throughout the opinion, Roberts makes reference to "the principle of equal sovereignty" as the logical foundation for striking down legislation that singled out one portion of the country. The idea behind "equal sovereignty," as Roberts uses it, means that if the federal government passes a law that affects one region or set of states, there has to be a pretty good reason for doing so. Basically it is mean, wrong, and sometimes unconstitutional to treat states differently. Now in this particular case, the portion of the country that the VRA targeted launched a bloody Civil War in the name of racial slavery in which 630,000 men died and then the same portion perpetuated racial segregation and disfranchisement for another century, but such history does not concern the Chief Justice overmuch. In fact, the precedent of "equal sovereignty" that he cites states that "a statute's disparate geographic coverage" must be "sufficiently related to the problem it targets." The geography matters, but not history. Here, then, is his problem with the Voting Rights Act:
And despite the tradition of equal sovereignty, the Act applies to only nine States (and several additional counties). While one State waits months or years and expends funds to implement a validly enacted law, its neighbor can typically put the same law into effect immediately, through the normal legislative process.
His argument makes sense but for one problem. There is no tradition of equal sovereignty. John Roberts made it up. Richard Posner, not by the way a radical liberal, pointed this out in a column for Slate in which he calls equal sovereignty "an imaginary doctrine." (So do some of his colleagues, here and here.) But what of that precedent that Roberts cited in his opinion, the one about geographic coverage? It comes from an earlier case regarding the VRA, Northwest Austin Municipal District v. Holder where "equal sovereignty" is mentioned once by the author of the opinion... an author who was, in fact, Chief Justice John Roberts. Moreover, Northwest Austin was an opinion that reversed a lower court ruling but never struck down a statute or law, so no one saw fit to dissent. Perhaps it was this milquetoast unanimity that gave Roberts the fortitude to issue this astounding critique of Justice Ginsburg's dissent in his Shelby opinion:
The dissent refuses to consider the principle of equal sovereignty, despite Northwest Austin’s emphasis on its significance.
Allow me translate that for you: "The dissent refuses to consider the idea I invented four years ago, despite the fact that I emphasized it four years ago when I invented it. (And by 'emphasize' I mean I used the phrase once.)" This is just one of the reasons why Ginsburg described the majority opinion with the word "hubris."

But wait, you may be saying to yourself... how can Roberts refer to a "tradition" and a "principal" of Constitutional jurisprudence without having something more than his own 2009 opinion to use as a precedent? Surely the phrase appears elsewhere? True enough. He does cite a couple of other cases in which the term "equal sovereignty" is used. The first is United States v. Louisiana in 1960, a case which also used the phrase just once. Here's how:
This Court early held that the 13 original States, by virtue of the sovereignty acquired through revolution against the Crown, owned the lands beneath navigable inland waters within their territorial boundaries, and that each subsequently admitted State acquired similar rights as an inseparable attribute of the equal sovereignty guaranteed to it upon admission.
Yes, they employed the idea of "equal sovereignty" to describe the rights of states to resources within their territorial lands and waters upon admission to the Union—that's it. The second case is South Carolina v. Katzenbach in 1966 in which South Carolina (it's always South Carolina) tried to assail the VRA just as Shelby County would 47 years later. Check out what the Court said in response to South Carolina's argument:
The doctrine of the equality of States, invoked by South Carolina, does not bar [the VRA's] approach, for that doctrine applies only to the terms upon which States are admitted to the Union, and not to the remedies for local evils which have subsequently appeared.
Hmm... seems like the opposite way in which Roberts uses the "doctrine." (Ginsburg makes this point in her stunning dissent.) And besides, this is why history matters... you can't cite doctrines invoked by South Carolina because South Carolina makes shit up all the time. It always has. Look beyond South Carolina; look around in the Constitution. There is no language about state sovereignty in the Constitution. Amendment X doesn't even come close. There is only one document from the Founding Era that categorically enshrines state sovereignty, and that is the Articles of Confederation. Article II reads:
Each state retains its sovereignty, freedom and independence, and every Power, Jurisdiction and right, which is not by this confederation expressly delegated to the United States, in Congress assembled.
This, incidentally, is the "sovereignty" US v. Louisiana is referring to—the original 13 did earn sovereignty in their revolution against the crown. Of course, the Articles of Confederation were such a abominable system of government, particularly because of the overweening power of states, that the states gave up that very sovereignty in adopting a Constitution. And that came not six years after the Articles were formally ratified. Even France doesn't switch governments that fast.

So where does all this state sovereignty crap come from? South Carolina, naturally. Here's South Carolina's John C. Calhoun in the 1828 South Carolina Exposition and Protest that he authored setting down the words that allow John Roberts to be John Roberts nearly two centuries later:
If it be conceded, as it must be by every one who is the least conversant with our institutions, that the sovereign powers delegated are divided between the General and State Governments, and that the latter bold their portion by the same tenure as the former, it would seem impossible to deny to the States the right of deciding on the infractions of their powers, and the proper remedy to be applied for their correction. The right of judging, in such cases, is an essential attribute of sovereignty, of which the States cannot be divested without losing their sovereignty itself, and being reduced to a subordinate corporate condition.
South Carolina. Birthplace to John C. Calhoun. Seat of the nullification crisis. First to secede. Opened fire on Fort Sumter. Spawning ground of Strom Thurmond and the Dixiecrats. Native state to Jim Demint, the Tea Party leader, now president of the Heritage Foundation. And home to all the ideas that are driving the Court rightward, patiently guided by John Roberts.

It is astonishing but true that the conservative Justices are far more invested in having states be treated equally than people.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Education: The Classroom Debates

To look at the issue of education with a wide angle lens as I did in my last post is to trade in the language of social science. All the markers and measurements seem to be quantitative and economic: national standards, international test scores, student debt, the rise of tuition, the rise of inflation, state funding levels, property taxes, and GDP. Walk inside the classroom and the debate takes on different dimensions entirely, many of which were at stake in similar conversations decades and centuries before SAT scores and state rankings concerned anyone.

Cardinal Newman, no doubt thinking liberally
In the 1850s, Cardinal John Henry Newman, gave a series of lectures as Rector of the Catholic University of Ireland (now University College, Dublin) on the meaning and necessity of a Liberal Education. These discourses were later published as The Idea of a University. Newman was advocating to his Catholic brethren that their universities might benefit from adopting the liberal tradition that had found a home in the great Protestant institutions of learning. Newman was particularly well suited to deliver this message, having been Anglican most of his life until he converted to Roman Catholicism in 1845, as well as having been an academic at Oxford. "That alone is liberal knowledge," he wrote (with his emphasis), "which stands on its own pretensions, which is independent of sequel, expects no complement, refuses to be informed (as it is called) by any end, or absorbed into any art, in order duly to present itself to our contemplation." Schooling, in other words, is about immersion in learning for the sake of learning, nothing more. Education is not about professionalizing students, nor giving them trade skills, nor even (and this must have been the greatest challenge to his peers) the cultivation of virtue. A liberal education bears with it an intrinsic value to humanity will never become outmoded or obsolete. "This is how it comes to be an end in itself," Newman concluded. "This is why it admits of being called Liberal. Not to know the relative disposition of things is the state of slaves of children; to have mapped out the Universe is the boast, or at least the ambition, of Philosophy." He went on...
It is an acquired illumination, it is a habit, a personal possession, and an inward endowment. And this is the reason, why it is more correct, as well as more usual, to speak of a University as a place of education, than of instruction, though, when knowledge is concerned, instruction would at first sight have seemed the more appropriate word. We are instructed, for instance, in manual exercises, in the fine and useful arts, in trades, and in ways of business; for these are methods which have little or no effect upon the mind itself, are contained in rules committed to memory, to tradition, or to use, and bear upon an end external to themselves. But education is a higher word; it implies an action upon our mental nature, and the formation of a character...
These distinctions between the purposes of the instructional and the higher purpose of education were echoed decades later by American reformer John Dewey and later still by Brazilian philosopher Paulo Freire, who called for a movement of critical or emancipationist pedagogy as opposed to what he called the "banking model of education." (Freire, however, had invested in his theories of education an essential ethos of social justice, which Newman would have rejected.)

Critics of instructional or banking education have been speaking out more often as the debate about education in America has become hopelessly linked to employment. Gary Gutting, professor of philosophy at Notre Dame, offered this rumination just last month in a New York Times column entitled "Why Do I Teach":
I’ve concluded that the goal of most college courses should not be knowledge but engaging in certain intellectual exercises.   For the last few years I’ve had the privilege of teaching a seminar to first-year Honors students....  The goal of the course is simply that they have had close encounters with some great writing.

What’s the value of such encounters?  They make students vividly aware of new possibilities for intellectual and aesthetic fulfillment—pleasure, to give its proper name.  They may not enjoy every book we read, but they enjoy some of them and learn that—and how—this sort of thing (Greek philosophy, modernist literature) can be enjoyable.  They may never again exploit the possibility, but it remains part of their lives, something that may start to bud again when they see a review of a new translation of Homer or a biography of T. S. Eliot, or when “Tartuffe” or “The Seagull” in playing at a local theater.
Gregory Currie, philosophy professor at the University of Nottingham, complicated the value of studying literature further by casting doubt that reading gives us anything more than appreciation of aesthetic merit. He is not convinced that literature brings us greater moral sophistication, an argument with shades of Newman's view of liberal education in it. (I am more inclined to side with Martha Nussbaum, whom Currie takes on in his column.)

All of which is interesting stuff to fuel the imagination of humanists, but what of math and science classes? Can we parse the distinction between instruction and education there? Freire's influence brought about the radical math movement, a method which attempts to imbue issues of social justice and the mechanisms for social change into the pedagogy. In that system, mathematics becomes a tool for an ethical end—what Freire desired and what Newman rejected—but how the math gets learned is still up for debate. More recently, a progressive push in education has tried to replace the traditional style of learning math. Alice Crary and W. Stephen Wilson describe the "math wars" like so:
At stake in the math wars is the value of a “reform” strategy for teaching math that, over the past 25 years, has taken American schools by storm. Today the emphasis of most math instruction is on — to use the new lingo — numerical reasoning. This is in contrast with a more traditional focus on understanding and mastery of the most efficient mathematical algorithms.
Crary and Wilson's point is that this is a false debate: that progressives make a mistake in imagining that internalizing and applying algorithms is non-creative instructional learning, and proponents of the traditional methods of teaching math (who they are more sympathetic to) must teach the reasoning behind the algorithms if students are to properly understand math. In defense of their argument, they invoke the work of philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, by any measure one of the great minds and human figures of the 20th century, who suggested that algorithmic thinking was more than well-oiled brain mechanics. Crary and Wilson remind us that these algorithms "are also the most elegant and powerful methods for specific operations." My sense is that their argument breaks down a bit in this parenthetical:
(Reformists sometimes try to claim as their own the idea that good math instruction shows students why, and not just that, algorithms work. This is an excellent pedagogical precept, but it is not the invention of fans of reform math. Although every decade has its bad textbooks, anyone who takes the time to look at a range of math books from the 1960s, 70s or 80s will see that it is a myth that traditional math programs routinely overlooked the importance of thoughtful pedagogy and taught by rote.)
Judging classroom pedagogy, particularly the pedagogy of math, by looking at a range of textbooks strikes me as a mistake. In my experience, math textbooks are overwhelmingly used as banks of problems to practice. It is uncommon for teachers to assign conceptual readings in math books, and even less common that students do these readings with any purpose beyond extraction of the essential formulas to solve their homework problems. Undoubtedly there have been great mathematics teachers in the older tradition, but what matters is how they presented or unpacked the concepts in class. Still, I am sympathetic to Crary and Wilson's larger point, which is a worthwhile critique of progressives:
There is a moral here for progressive education that reaches beyond the case of math. Even if we sympathize with progressivists in wanting schools to foster independence of mind, we shouldn’t assume that it is obvious how best to do this. Original thought ranges over many different domains, and it imposes divergent demands as it does so. Just as there is good reason to believe that in biology and history such thought requires significant factual knowledge, there is good reason to believe that in mathematics it requires understanding of and facility with the standard algorithms. Indeed there is also good reason to believe that when we examine further areas of discourse we will come across yet further complexities. The upshot is that it would be na├»ve to assume that we can somehow promote original thinking in specific areas simply by calling for subject-related creative reasoning. If we are to be good progressivists, we cannot be shy about calling for rigorous discipline and training.
Here, the authors return us to Newman, whose caution against instructional learning was never to deny the foundations of "rigorous discipline and training." In Discourse VI of The Idea of a University on the subject of "Knowledge Viewed in Relation to Learning," Newman gave us this pedagogical imperative:
It is plain, first, that the communication of knowledge certainly is either a condition or the means of that sense of enlargement or enlightenment, of which at this day we hear so much in certain quarters: this cannot be denied; but next, it is equally plain, that such communication is not the whole of the process. The enlargement consists, not merely in the passive reception into the mind of a number of ideas unknown to it, but in the mind's energetic and simultaneous action upon and towards and among those new ideas, which are rushing in upon it. It is the action of a formative power, reducing to order and meaning the matter of our acquirements; it is a making the objects of our knowledge subjectively our own, or, to use a familiar word, it is a digestion of what we receive, into the substance of our previous state of thought; and without this no enlargement is said to follow. There is no enlargement, unless there be a comparison of ideas one with another, as they come before the mind, and a systematizing of them. We feel our minds to be growing and expanding then, when we not only learn, but refer what we learn to what we know already. It is not the mere addition to our knowledge that is the illumination; but the locomotion, the movement onwards, of that mental centre, to which both what we know, and what we are learning, the accumulating mass of our acquirements, gravitates.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

The Education Crisis: A Macro View

Education has been on my mind lately. About a month ago, I wrote about the MOOC phenomenon and my general distrust of its ability to revolutionize education. Whether that prediction is proved right or wrong, I can say that online courses have provoked a more pointed conversation on the state of American pedagogy and the role of higher education in American society. Consider, for instance, the range of educational philosophies on display in this round table discussion of MOOCs at the LA Review of Books. The New York Times just published another synopsis of the debate over online education on college campuses. And earlier this week reader JM alerted me to this video in which the education issue writ large received some unexpected attention from Miss Utah during the recent Miss USA Pageant.

(At the considerable risk of diving too deep into the wacky world of pageantry, it should be noted that Miss Utah regrouped and offered a better response about women and the wage gap (the actual topic of the question directed to her) on the Today Show on Monday, which is more than 2007's Miss South Carolina can say after this catastrophe. It should also be noted that coincidentally the other Miss Utah, the one entered in the Miss America contest, is also a spokeswoman for education and far more skilled than either of the former two. Finally, I want to be clear that I do not watch any of these events.)

Back to the topic at hand... There are any number of major challenges facing the American education system at any level. Teacher training programs have been roundly criticized. Student loan rates are out of control. Sara Mosle, who writes for the Schooling blog at the New York Times, authored this recent piece on the problem that faces students in summer classrooms without air conditioning. But the most dire problem for (and the most damning indictment of) American education is that it perpetuates, even exacerbates inequality. Rebecca Strauss notes that contrary to virtually every other wealthy nation, American education spending on wealthier, more privileged students has increased dramatically over spending on low-income students. She writes:
At the college level, the divergence in per-pupil spending is staggering. Since the 1960s, annual per-pupil spending at the most selective public and private colleges has increased at twice the rate of the least selective colleges. By 2006, the funding chasm in spending per student between the most and the least selective colleges was six times larger than in the late 1960s.
Strauss advocates for "smarter allocation of scarce resources [that] would focus on boosting lower achievers," noting that:
Historically, broad educational gains have been the biggest driver of American economic success; hence the economist’s rule of thumb that an increase of one year in a country’s average schooling level corresponds to an increase of 3 to 4 percent in long-term economic growth.
Below the college level, inequality is staggeringly apparent in any comparison of private schools versus public schools. A few weeks back David Plotz at Slate offered this (admittedly not scientific) analysis of the reality of class and status in the private school world. (Like Plotz, I am confused by some of the titles. Must there be "Queen" as well as "Your Majesty"?)

Who, then, can afford college? Not many people... not without accruing enormous amounts of debt. In a review of Neil Gross's recently published book Why Are Professors Liberal And Why Do Conservatives Care, Jeffrey Williams identifies Reagan Era neoliberalism as the origin point for the current student loan crisis:
But the current situation actually arose as a deliberate implementation of neoliberal policy in the 1980s. Before then, under the auspices of the post-World War II welfare state, culminating in Johnson’s Great Society, university tuitions were low, largely subsidized by public sources, and student loans, when taken, were relatively small. In 1982, the average federal student loan debt for a graduating senior was about $2,000 — not negligible, but a relatively modest amount (about $4,650 adjusted to 2012 dollars). By 1992, the average jumped to $9,000 ($14,500 in 2012 dollars), in 2002 to $19,000 ($24,050), and in 2012, by my estimate, to about $28,000. (That doesn’t include private loans, which have risen exponentially over the last decade.) This ascent resulted from the deregulation of loans begun in the Reagan era alongside the defunding of public entitlements. Rather than the cost of college being carried by the state — by our collective payment in taxes — it has been privatized, the cost borne by each individual. This has also created lucrative new financial markets, with high profits for Sallie Mae and other student loan holders. (Sallie Mae had been a governmental body but was privatized through the late 1990s, seeing strong profits since.) The precipitous rise in college student loan debt is neoliberalism in action.
Such growth in the loan numbers is staggering and, if Williams is right, it suggests that minor tweaks to the education system won't address the problem of widening inequality. As long as the American Right remains slavishly beholden to a neoliberal worldview and as long as it retains power in the government, even in just one house of Congress, the crisis will be impossible to address.

Friday, June 14, 2013


Democrats obliterated Republicans 22-0 in the annual Congressional baseball game for charity. As always, Linda Sanchez, Democrat from California's 38th District and the only woman to play in the game, wore a jersey honoring Title IX.

Monday, June 10, 2013


A pause at TheUnionMarches these past two weeks for the ending of the academic year and commencement exercises for graduates. It is a strange time. What is a threshold of great meaning for students is an annual event for teachers, and the emotional toll of celebration and leavetaking for me is eased by the knowledge that comes from living the ritual yearly. The sorrow that comes each year always contends with, and always falls before the renewal of faith inspired by the critical minds of the young. And if this blog by needs of its own purpose dwells on the host of dysfunctions permeating American society and politics, then perhaps it is right to take a moment to honor those who are setting out in the world determined to do something about it. Indeed, some of them already have.

So here is to them. They are activists and divestors. They are seekers of social justice. They are feminists. Watch for them with hope and expectation. They will get things done.

I will return to matters of history and politics in the coming days.