Saturday, August 30, 2003

Weird Zajonc

I’ve long been skeptical about elaborate theories of education, not because I’m an enemy of the subtle—I treasure complicated and devious concepts for their aesthetic value—but because only simple remedies have any prospect of every getting implemented in an enormous public system like ours. In a previous life I spent quite a few hundred hours listening to highfalutin theories of how to teach math and was persuaded that many of them would work just fine if elementary school teachers actually understood math, which of course they don’t and probably never will in our system. Unfortunately, simplicity, by itself, avails no more. I used to know John Saxon, a cult figure among the same kind of right-wingers for whom phonics is a panacea. Mr. Saxon promoted a system guaranteed to improve math skills by program of endless, relentless review. In this approach, every homework assignment and every test covers not only the most recent material but also everything that has already been covered in the whole sequence of math courses. The Saxon method appeals greatly to home schoolers because it requires almost no mathematical knowledge on the part of the instructor whose fundamental role is to hand out hand outs, score the results, and play drill sergeant—did I mention that Saxon once taught at West Point? Professional teachers and students generally despise the Saxon method because it is crushingly dull and discounts understanding in favor of mechanical proficiency but above all because it is very hard work for everybody. It is comfortable for math phobic parents, however; and it does work on its own terms. Which is to say, survivors of the program score very well on tests with the same kind of potted problems as the Saxon exercise sets. And that’s the joke about it. What Saxon has discovered is an instance of Harrison’s First Law of Instruction: If you teach ‘em more, they’ll learn more. Flogged through more hours of instruction, students learn more, but because of the hours, not the method.

In a way, even the Saxon approach isn’t crude enough. It assumes that the best way to improve education is to change a methodology. I think the available evidence suggests something quite different, namely that the crucial variable isn’t how adults interact with children but how much they interact and when. Robert Zajonc pointed out quite a long time ago that the observed higher intelligence of first born and only children had a ready explanation: such children usually spend more time with adults than later children who keep each other company. A more recent and rather tragic finding, which we owe to an incredibly strenuous research project conducted by Betty Hart and Todd R. Risley (Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experience of Young American Children), is that the greater verbal skills of the children of middle class and professional class can be accounted for by the number and quality of words the children hear in their preschool years. In the study, children of professional class people heard something on the order of 500 words an hour, mostly addressed to them, and mostly supportive, affectionate, and substantive. In poor households, the number was closer to 200, less often addressed to the children, and characterized by fewer nouns and adjectives. By age four, the professional class kids had heard a total of 45,000,000 words, working class kids had heard 26,000,000 and poor kids had heard 13,000,000, This difference in experience had significant results. The lower income children arrived at school with an average vocabulary of 3,000 words, the middle-income kids with an average of 20,000. Unsurprisingly, the lower income kids did far worse academically. Intervention after early childhood didn’t remedy this discrepancy; but in a related study, it was shown that intensive education of the parents of preschoolers, in this project mothers with an average IQ of 75, could prevent it. The kids in that pilot study performed at grade level through elementary school. If Hart and Risley are correct, the way to improve American education is pretty clear. Educate the parents and make it possible for them to spend more hours with their kids. And Hart and Risley are correct—their research merely confirms a series of huge studies conducted over the years in the United Kingdom by the discourse analysis folks on the relationship between class and language.

While it is perfectly sensible and often intensely interesting to develop better ways to teach the higher freebus to elite students, the endlessly debated educational problem is not about the Education of the Prince. The often-cited gap between the performance of our schools and those in Asia and Europe disappears when you disaggregate the statistics and remove the underclass kids. If you really want to improve the educational attainment of American kids as a whole, you’ll have to do something for the poor and minority segment and that will require educating their parents and making sure they have the time to teach their own kids at the early stage when it really counts. That’s not going to happen in our America. So we’ll go on trying to solve the problem in schools, where it can’t be solved, meanwhile punishing teachers and school districts for their mysterious inability to float lead.

Thursday, August 28, 2003

We’re Doomed

I’m sometimes amused and sometimes dismayed by the mesmerizing effects of cute little arguments, but that doesn’t discourage me from making up my own:

People normally model their opinions on those of authority figures since they are usually not in a position to make an independent judgment even if they were motivated enough to try. Unfortunately, different authorities say different things. One solution is to parrot a party line, but that solution is, as it were, energetically unfavorable. An unambiguous and stridently stated point of view may have to be defended, a most unwelcome cost. Another common option is to hold several inconsistent beliefs at once—self contradictory propositions, unlike matter and anti-matter, can and do coexist indefinitely so long as the brain is kept at a fairly low temperature. The most common dodge, however, is to assume that the truth always lies between. This strategy has several advantages. It assumes that all differences of opinion occur on a continuum between polar opposites, thus sweeping 99.9% of the unwanted complexity of the universe under a handy rhetorical rug. Above all it is sweet and reasonable and blessedly vague. It is also highly exploitable.

The genre conventions of American journalism assure that every public issue will be presented as a conflict between two opposing positions. Under these circumstances, the more irrational of the two sides will always win no matter how idiotic its contention. Indeed, if you don’t give a damn about truth or fairness, you are well advised to strike the most extreme stance you can. The audience may not buy your thoroughly crazy ideas, but it they split the difference, you still win a partial victory and also make it possible to extend your success at the next occasion by further establishing the legitimacy of your zany ideology. Your opponent, handicapped by scruples, will not be able to counter your tactics by a countervailing exaggeration. His or her caution and good manners will simply be perceived as weakness.

Tuesday, August 26, 2003

The Rhetoric of the Anti-Masonic Party Revisited

The word fascism is useless rhetorically, but I sometimes wish it were still possible to use it analytically because the politics it names is not some historical curiosity but a recurring tendency with great appeal to many people. This fact was conveniently forgotten in the aftermath of the wars of the first half of the last century and not just in liberated France. It's as if we thought that thing itself could not come back if we didn't utter its name. As a result of this linguistic prohibition, still in force, we have no usable name for a political syndrome characterized by:

Coercive patriotism
Populist rhetoric
Non-stop, ubiquitous propaganda
Programmatic official deception
Contempt for individual rights
Demonization of foreign and domestic enemies
Machismo – the Cult of Attitude
Glorification of ignorance as a cultural value
Obsession with violence as a solution to problems
Fascination with weapons
Fear of sexuality
Disgust with parliamentary politics, non-stop calls for national unity
An interlocking directorate of big business and government officials
Cronyism on a vast scale
A politicized justice system
Hostility to labor unions
Regressive taxation
An aggressive, unilateral foreign policy

So what should we call this system now that Hitler has given fascism a bad name? I am keen to hear.

Monday, August 25, 2003

Si lingua non esset immortalis…

It’s an old percept of statecraft—or if it isn’t, it ought to be—that nations should not go to war unless losing the war is a better result than not fighting it at all. By that light, we owe the various Royal Academies and National Commissions a respite from the traditional sarcasm they endure for their doomed efforts to preserve the purity of their various native tongues. The point is apparently never made, but losing the war to create a stable language is a very useful futility. The professors and orthographers have, after all, succeeded in fashioning a whole series of literary languages from a local Babel of dialects and patois. It’s hard enough to understand human history or conduct its affairs when dealing with, reckoning from Sumerian to Tok Pisin, perhaps two hundred regularized languages. Absent the literary and sometimes political effort it required to cut the continuum of ever changing dialects into intelligible units and retard their mutation, human affairs would be illegible instead of merely chaotic. The language police always lose in the long run, but it makes all the difference in the world that it is a long run.

I am minded to make these remarks by the recent appearance of the I Tatti Renaissance Library, a whole series of modern Latin classics presented like Loeb editions of the Classics with an English translation on facing pages. Books written in neo-Latin have a difficult time finding readers, both because translations are often not available and because of the prejudice that even great writers like Petrarch and Boccaccio couldn’t write anything worthwhile in a dead language. This last notion is really quite peculiar since those of us who write in literary English are also writing in a dead language, even if we are working with a fresher corpse. Anyhow, there really are a great many fine books written in neo-Latin. The literary quality of writers like the original renaissance man, Leon Batista Alberti, and the Florentine historian Leonard Bruni is obvious in the high-quality I Tatti translations. The translations also help correct the record in other ways. I’ve just begun to read The Platonic Theology of Marsilio Ficino, but I’ve already discovered that he is a more a serious philosopher than I had ever realized.

I append a list of the current and forthcoming volumes in this series:

In print:

Biographical Writings


Platonic Theology, 3 Volumes


On Discovery


Volume 1, Books I-IV



Camaldulensian Disputations

Republics and Kingdoms Compared





Later Writings

Rome Restored



Philosophical Writings



Lamps of the Thirty Statues

History of the Popes
Worse than a Mistake

Military success is a handy cosmetic for a blemished foreign policy. Napoleon often sought battle as much for the domestic PR value of a victory as for its strategic consequences. The instance of Iraq shows how little changes. The triumphant march on Bagdad boosted Bush’s fortunes at home even though the scripted outcome, more lethal theater than dubious battle, was never in question and didn’t teach us anything about the wisdom or unwisdom of the war since it was always obvious that the high tech American military could easily dispose of the Iraqi government. But if the showy triumph of the spring ought to be discounted in evaluating our policy, the losses of the summer shouldn’t be decisive in judging it either. It could be, after all, that the costs we’re incurring are worth it. No 19th Century imperialist would trouble himself over a couple of casualties a day even if, as is quite possible in the present case, the sacrifice will have to be made every day of every year we occupy the mini-Raj. True, the notion that the terrorists are going to run out of personnel is worse than irrational wishful thinking—granted the birthrate in Muslim countries, it’s another right-wing abuse of arithmetic—but maybe a stable regime will nevertheless eventually emerge in Mesopotamia, probably led by a military strong man, another Bush family client like Noriega or Saddam Hussein. Obviously, one does not know.

Only a true prophet, which is to say somebody who’s lucky, can accurately predict the long-range outcome of a foreign policy action. My own great unhappiness with our attack on Iraq was not based on a judgment of its probable bad consequences, though I think a good case can be made from an unimpeachably cynical perspective that it was pretty unintelligent. I mean I thought it was a mistake, but maybe it wasn’t a mistake and, anyhow, governments make mistakes all the time in a desperately difficult game. What outraged me wasn’t that war was an error but that it was dishonorable. I simply didn’t want to be associated with a state that granted itself the right to make war on whoever it wished without immediate cause. I was also perfectly aware—who among the merely conscious wasn’t?—that Bush, Blair, and Powell were lying to everybody in a premeditated, indeed, systematic fashion and that important sectors of American civil society, especially the media, were complicit in these lies. That’s why I am less impressed than some others by the significance of the problems we’re facing in Iraq just now. If I thought we had any business being there, I wouldn’t find the cost excessive; and I won’t change my mind about the wrongness of what we did even if the triumph of Bagdad is followed by the triumph of Damascus as Jena followed Austerlitz.