Monthly Archives: February 2005

civic education: the case for smaller schools

The nation’s governors met this weekend to discuss high school reform. They identified real problems, including a high-school completion rate of only about 70% and a set of curricula and standards that obviously aren’t working. But their conversation apparently focused on preparing students for work and college–not citizenship. They called for regular standardized testing rather than reform of schools themselves. I was hoping for more emphasis on school size, which is a signature issue of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Bill Gates himself addressed the governors and said:

The three R?s [rigor, relevance, and relationships] are almost always easier to promote in smaller high schools. The smaller size gives teachers and staff the chance to create an environment where students achieve at a higher level and rarely fall through the cracks. Students in smaller schools are more motivated, have higher attendance rates, feel safer, and graduate and attend college in higher numbers.

He was right, but the governors mainly focused their attention on standards and accountability.

The average size of American primary and secondary schools increased four-fold between 1940 and 1965, from 100 to more than 400 (see this pdf, p. 26). Toward the end of that period (1959), James Conant identified small high schools as the single biggest problem in American education. He argued that they were economically inefficient, unprofessional, and unable to provide a wide range of equipment and specialized teachers. In addition to these arguments, other factors probably contributed to massive school consolidation in that era, including a tendency to close down historically black schools under court desegregation orders (not to mention the desire to field better football teams).

The result was the creation of very large schools, especially high schools, in which students were seen as consumers who should be permitted to choose among a wide variety of offerings (curricular and extracurricular) provided by specialists. Students were presumed to have diverse interests and abilities. Thus it was right that some should choose student government and AP courses while others preferred “shop” and basketball.

If we hope to create effective, committed, and responsible citizens, huge schools have several marked disadvantages. Relatively few students–mostly ones who are already on a successful track–can possibly participate in the extracurricular activities, such as school government and scholastic journalism, that seem most likely to teach civic skills. Students in large schools tend to self-select into cliques and can avoid interacting with those different from themselves. Parents and other adults in the community have little impact on these large, bureaucratic institutions; so schools are rarely models of community problem-solving or active citizenship, nor can they create paths to participation in the broader world. We know that students who feel that they can have an impact on the governance of their own schools tend to be efficacious and interested in public affairs; but it is impossible for anyone to influence the overall atmosphere and structure of a huge school that is organized around private choice.

Finally, young people become victims of their own choices. You can pick up civic skills (as well as other ones) if you attend a school with a wide range of offerings and equipment and you elect to take the honors classes and work on the school newspaper. But those assets are of no use unless you have the confidence, motivation, networks ties, and knowledge to use them. In a huge high school, there is little chance that any adult will try to steer a student who is on a mediocre track onto a more challenging one. Twenty years later, the student who chose easy courses and avoided clubs may still be paying a price, economically as well as socially and politically.

“trackback spam” (an ethical dilemma)

Blogs originally formed a “commons,” even according to a narrow and technical definition of that term. They were always privately owned, of course. I’m the only person who can post here, because I pay the $9.95 monthly fee. However, the whole array of blogs, the “blogosphere,” originally had an un-owned feel. That was because you could visit any site you liked, and any blogger could link to anyone else. The blogs with the most incoming links were the easiest to find through search engines. Therefore, prominence was difficult to buy; it resulted from others’ “gifts” of links. Most blogs also permitted visitors to post their own ideas in the “comments” field, thus opening up space for free discussion. Finally, the clever “trackbacks” feature notified bloggers when their posts were discussed on other blogs. For example, when another site links to mine, it often sends a “trackback ping” to let me know; that site is then automatically listed here (under “links to this specific post”) so that you can see who has written something in response to me.

In short, the network of interlinked blogs belonged to no one, it was unaffected by money, and it was open to newcomers. In all these respects, it was a commons.

All commons are fragile. One form of the “tragedy of the commons” is pollution.

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why Dante is “good to think with”

The Cambridge philosopher Miles Burnyeat says that Plato is ?good to think with? (pdf, p. 20) I believe the same of Dante, which is why I chose to write a book about current moral issues by interpreting sections of the Divine Comedy. Like Plato?s dialogues, the Comedy is a concrete story in which abstract ideas appear as statements by embodied characters in specific historical circumstances, who attempt (to various degrees) to live by what they say. In both works, the question of irony arises. Plato is not Socrates, and Dante-the-poet is not Dante-the-pilgrim. It isn’t clear what the author thinks of his main character’s views.

It is not obvious why we should use old literary works to think about current moral issues, especially if the authors of those texts refused to say straightforwardly what they believed. However, the humanities are premised on the idea that we should ?think with? novels, dialogues, and other narratives.

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reading and civics

It’s hard to modify the current regime for elementary education in America, which revolves around annual high-stakes tests in a few subjects. However, without changing the fundamental structure now in place, we could infuse civic ideas and values in reading education. In general, there is a remarkable lack of nonfiction in early reading texts. According to studies summarized in this article, nonfiction represented just 12 percent of the texts included in five major ?basal? reading series for first grade. “Furry-animal stories” dominate. A survey of 83 primary school teachers found that just 6 percent of the material discussed or used in their classrooms was factual.

However, students perform better on existing reading assessments if they have had practice reading in a variety of genres, including history, news, and science as well as fiction. Thus schools should incorporate more social studies into k-8 education as a strategy for complying with existing “No Child Left Behind” reading requirements. As a very important by-product of reading about George Washington, Rosa Parks, or Nelson Mandela, civic knowledge and skills should also increase.

who’s more powerful, Bill Gates or Kim Jong-il?

This is a silly question, except that it can prompt some serious thinking about the nature of power, the state versus the market, and monopoly.

Let’s say that “power” is the capacity to do things you want to do. Clearly, the Microsoft Chairman and “chief software architect” and the Chairman of North Korea’s National Defense Commission (also known as the country’s dictator) can each do things that the other cannot. Bill Gates can shape the daily experience of, I suppose, billions of human beings. He can influence the flow of global ideas and capital and the creation of new forms of culture. He can employ thousands, and fire any employees he chooses. He cannot, however, order people killed, turn Seoul into a “sea of fire,” or sell nuclear bombs to al-Qaeda that might incinerate Manhattan. Nor can he order people to listen to his six operas, or have a conspicuously weird sex life. Kim Jong-il can do all of the latter things, but he cannot travel freely or have a frank conversation with anyone–or make the North Korean economy prosper while maintaining a totalitarian state.

As Hellmut Lotz (a Maryland graduate student) notes, a dictator cannot retire. Once he loses control of the military and police, he cannot guarantee his own security. He is inevitably a threat to the successor regime, which may decide to destroy him–regardless of any deal he may have struck before exiting power. Augusto Pinochet is just the latest example of an ex-dictator who has paid a serious price for relinquishing control. In contrast, Bill Gates can step down at any time and retain any amount of wealth and influence he likes.

In a perfectly competitive market, Gates’ “power” would be very limited. He would have to produce software that people wanted to buy. He would be constantly maximizing his products’ popularity, at peril of losing his position on top of a publicly-traded corporation. Any discretion that Gates does enjoy results from Microsoft’s quasi-monopoly position. But his monopoly is insecure.

For his part, Kim Jong-il relies on all those guys with guns and bombs in the North Korean security apparatus. If they decide collectively to withdraw support, he’s dead. Fortunately for him, soldiers in a totalitarian regime cannot safely communicate–unlike investors and consumers in a free market.

Bill Gates was part of the “personal computer revolution,” which has certainly changed billions of people’s lives. However, it is not easy to estimate his personal contribution to that revolution. On one theory, he was the very clever (and lucky) guy who capitalized on an inevitable technological development by getting there first. This is not to minimize his intelligence, but it does suggest that he wasn’t very powerful. On the other hand, the discretionary decisions that Gates made early in Microsoft’s history have had enormous and perhaps irreversible affects on the precise way that software works today.

It’s easy to see that Microsoft has been on the side of history over the last 30 years, whereas North Korea is doomed. But that doesn’t by itself show that Bill Gates is more powerful than Kim Jong-il. We don’t say that a dinghy being swept to shore by a strong tide has more power than one battling to stay at sea.