Sunday, February 26, 2012

Education in America: at least two cheers

The greatest strength in the American system of education is that there is no system.  The pluralism of our society allows choices, options, and alternatives at every level.  The USA has more than 14,000 school districts (for primary and secondary education) and over 5,700 institutions of higher education (two-year and four-year colleges and universities).  These all serve 81 million client learners.  About 10% (5 million plus) attend private schools K-12.  Also, about 2 million are homeschooled. Peculiar to the USA, annually, about 65,000 unauthorized immigrants graduate from high school

We are a nation of autodidacts, self-taught learners.  Historically, most of the justices on the Supreme Court never went to law school and four of those sitting now hold bachelor degrees, not juris doctorates.  Perhaps we are best explained by the fact that Josiah Willard Gibbs earned a doctorate in engineering in 1863; Thomas Edison was home schooled; Nicola Tesla immigrated to the USA in 1884 after dropping out of university (twice).  In our time, while T. J. Rodgers of Cypress Semiconductor earned his masters and doctorate from Stanford by inventing VMOS chip technology, it is famous that Bill Gates and Steve Jobs found college less rewarding. 

But no one complains much about American university education.  Most of the world’s best universities are here: 35 of the top 50 and 55 of the top 100, according to Shanghai Jiao Tong University's Academic Ranking of World Universities (here).

The key is that our colleges all compete against each other: Harvard vs. Stanford vs. Ohio State vs. UCLA… Competition impels toward excellence.  And it allows diversity.  For over 100 years in America “academic freedom” came not so much from the First Amendment, but from the plethora of places to take your teaching.  That also applied to Europe, especially Germany, during the Middle Ages  and continuing until the rise of nationalism.  Once you alienated the king of France or England your goose and you were both cooked: “Play the man, Mr. Ridley and we shall this day by God’s grace light such a fire in England as shall never be extinguished.” 

Moreover, Americans seem to wake up in college: this is the real world, away from home.  As a result, according to Michigan State University's Jon Miller, Americans are slightly ahead of their European and Japanese colleagues in general scientific knowledge, though everyone has room for improvement. 

“A slightly higher proportion of American adults qualify as scientifically literate than European or Japanese adults, but the truth is that no major industrial nation in the world today has a sufficient number of scientifically literate adults,” he said. “We should take no pride in a finding that 70 percent of Americans cannot read and understand the science section of the New York Times.”
Approximately 28 percent of American adults currently qualify as scientifically literate, an increase from around 10 percent in the late 1980s and early 1990s, according to Miller's research. (Science Daily here.)
It is at the primary and secondary level that our pupils do poorly compared to others in the leading industrialized nations of Europe and Asia.  And there are no easy answers.  Those 14,000 school districts are government monopolies, but so are the schools of Finland.  Our teachers are typically union members, but so are others; and in some countries, they are civil servants.  Private schools may compete well (as in USA and Japan) or exist by permission of the state, or hardly exist at all.  Some nations (France, Germany, Japan) track children early and cull out those who are not college-bound.  Other nations (Singapore and the USA) educate all children.  In Singapore parents who allow their children to miss school are charged with a criminal offense.  Most of the leading nations are small, with unified cultures: the Czech Republic, the Slovak Republic, Slovenia.  The USA ranks closer to Russia and India.  But the leader is still Singapore, a variegated society. 

Money correlates only weakly: you do have to spend something; but beyond a basic investment, throwing money at education achieves little. This is known internationally and applies to the G20 nations. (here
For a parent, the most important thing you can do is simply to be involved.  This correlates  better than money or family status or neighborhood.  There is an old joke known to sales people about the two merchandisers assigned to a remote tropical village. One sent back the message that business was horrible because no one wears shoes. The other expected to sell out since no one yet had shoes. We all play the hand we are dealt. 
"Strong performers in PISA are those countries and economies that believe - and act on the belief - that all children can succeed in school. Among wealthier economies, those that prioritise the quality of teachers over smaller classes tend to show better performance. When it comes to money and education, the question isn’t how much? but rather for what?"  (OECD PISA here.)
Higher education does not guarantee economic development, progress, invention, or quality of life. In the USA, the areas with the highest percentage of people 25 years and over with a bachelor's degree are the District of Columbia, followed by Massachusetts, Maryland, Colorado, and Connecticut. Lack of higher education does correlate with diminished opportunities. The states with the lowest percentages are West Virginia, Arkansas, Mississippi, Kentucky, and Louisiana.

It may be wrong to look at states, when cities are the true generators of wealth (and learning). At least, that is the theory posited by the late Jane Jacobs, who educated herself with a wide range of classes at Columbia’s extension school while working as a stenographer in New York City.  Most of the cities with high educational percentages are college towns, of course. However, Seattle and San Francisco are among the complexes that draw highly educated producers. According to the Daily Beast, (here) the smartest cities are: Boston, Hartford, San Francisco, Raleigh-Durham, Denver, Seattle, Austin, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Washington, DC, Rochester, NY. The dumbest are: Las Vegas, San Antonio, Fresno, CA, Houston, Memphis, Orlando, Tampa, Louisville, Miami, and Greensboro, NCOn the US DoE National Assessment of Educational Progress, of necessity, some states were above average, and others below.  And of course scores vary even greater by local school district.  But education does not necessarily bring prosperity.  San Antonio (among the lowest) enjoys an economy as strong as here in Austin (among the highest). 
Chief Justice John Roberts: LLB Harvard; JD Harvard
Justice Antonin Scalia: AB Georgetown; LLB Harvard
Justice Anthony Kennedy: BA Stanford; LLB Harvard
Justice Clarence Thomas: AB Holy Cross; JD Harvard
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg: BA Cornell; LLB Yale
Justice Stephen Breyer: AB Stanford; BA Magdalen College, Oxford; LLB Harvard
Justice Samuel Alito: BA Princeton; JD Yale
Justice Sonia Sotomayor: BA Princeton; JD Yale
Justice Elena Kagan: ABPrinceton; MPhil Worcester College, Oxford; JD Harvard.

Another Cheer for American Education
Educating the Gifted and Talented in Cleveland, Ohio
Where all the Children are Above Average 

Sunday, February 19, 2012

There Really are "Civil" Engineers

The Austin chapter of the American Society of Civil Engineers partnered with the Greater Austin Contractors and Engineers Association to bring "Be an Engineer for a Day" to about 970 people who visited the Austin Children's Museum  from 10:00 AM to 2:30 PM on Saturday, February 18. 

The Austin Children's Museum always provides many interactions: gears, pulleys, wheels, blocks, bricks, pipes, sorting games, agility tests, a simulated dairy, a restaurant playset, and more.  A special area is set aside for toddlers.

The ASCE brought hands-on challenges to build a tower out of newspaper, a paper airplane and a paper helicopter, a balloon-powered car, building a bridge from spaghetti and marshmellows, and more.  Kids were given a hard hat and an agenda.  As they completed each challenge, they got a sticker on their agenda. A full set of completed projects earned each of them a special t-shirt for their work.

Most of the volunteers were professional civil engineers across the spectrum in seniority and specialty.  Many were members of the ASCE student section from UT.  Working engineers earned "Professional Development Hours" credits.  

Having worked at the Ann Arbor Hands-On Museum (2005-2006) and having served as vice president in the Daniel B. Jett student chapter of the ASCE at New Mexico State University (1978-1979),  I was stationed at the Paper Helicopters for the afternoon. They twist when they fall because the forces are unbalanced.  You can fold the body long or short, and give it long or short wings.  You can make the two wings different sizes.  For ballast, choose a large or small paperclip. The best results usually come from symmetry in the middle ranges. But you  can spend an hour making them all different ways and dropping them off a staircase.

Austin at Night

Downtown Austin is party central.  The police cordon off streets for the convenience of people walking among bars, restaurants, clubs, and hotels.  Sunday and Monday are pretty quiet.  By Tuesday enough people have recovered from the previous weekend.  Wednesday looks like the weekend in most other places.  Thursday is the warm-up for Friday. Friday night and Saturday night are what it's all about.
David Navarro plays the hackdrum
he bought custom made in Switzerland. 

The Chronicle is the weekly entertainment newspaper, about 60 pages of ads for things to do thinly wrapped in a few liberal editorial complaints about the state and local governments. (Some people just cannot get enough government intervention in their lives... or maybe they just prefer it be in someone else's life...)  The Onion is published here, also.  Once you get past the humor (and the only rational opinions hereabouts on current events), the regular columns and advertising are all about things to do: music, comedy, and theater (live and cinema). The two public broadcast radio stations do not compete.  KUT-FM from the University of Texas carries "Morning Edition" and all the rest sandwiched within hour after hour of original music and new standards.  Musicians come to the studio to play live.  KMFA-FM is all classical (Romantic, Baroque, etc.) and no political news at all: local concerts and recitals only.   "Composers Datebook" lets us glimpse into the present century, "reminding you that all music was once new."

"If I had a name, it would be Drummer."

The party is everywhere in downtown, though Sixth and Congress is pretty much ground zero.  Going east on Sixth, you find the younger crowd, university kids and locals.  Going west you have the older set. But generalizations fail in three square miles of anything you want.  And that's only north of the river.  Austin has much more all over; and if South by Southwest is not enough, there is "North by Northwest" an entertainment brewpub near Tech Ridge

Myself, except as I keep some downtown offices safe and secure, I would never see any of this.  When I moved here, I got a library card first and then a driver's license.  I joined the local Macintosh users group, and found Dragon's Lair bookstore for D&D gaming.  I also have lunch once a month with the Austin Tech Republicans who do very little impromptu music.

Around Austin
Stadtluft Macht Frei
South by Southwest 2013
Images from SXSW 2013
South by Southwest 2012

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Valentine's Day: Love and Money

"Tell me what a man finds sexually attractive and I will tell you his entire philosophy on life. Show me the woman he sleeps with and I will tell you his valuation of himself. ... Love is our response to our highest values–and can be nothing else. …" Francisco d'Anconia to Hank Rearden in Atlas Shrugged.

Common image found all over the web,
likely from the ANS catalog
The gulf between love and money in our culture goes to the root and rock of who we are as a society ... now...  But there is no dichotomy between love and money. Both derive from the same source.  In the near future, when a significant minority of individuals expresses the unity of love and money, that will have changed.

A.N.A. MONEY TALKS Transcript No. 1400
by Michael E. Marotta, first aired February 14, 1994

Look around . . . heart symbols are everywhere on Valentine's Day.
Maybe even on a coin.

The first heart symbols that appeared on ancient coins were produced 2500 years ago in North Africa.

The town of Cyrene was founded in the 7th century B.C. by Greeks. Their town was eventually destroyed, but it was near what today is the city of Benghazi, along the coast of Libya.

The city enjoyed modest prosperity . . . until its inhabitants discovered the silphium plant. (The plant is extinct now, but its closest living relative is a key ingredient in Worcestershire sauce.) Silphium was used as an herb. Its stalk was edible. Its pungent sap was the basis for cough syrups, and gave food an interesting flavor. But the most important use for silphium was as a contraceptive.
From The New York Sale XXV 5 January 2011 Lot number: 126
Ex J. P. Rosen coll. and ex Münzen und Medaillen AG,
Basel sale 72 (1987), 424

Modern research suggests that silphium actually worked, and because of this, it was in great demand. Attempts to cultivate it in Syria and Greece were unsuccessful. It only grew near Cyrene--and, starting in 500 B.C., it became a steady source of income for the townspeople. By Roman times, silphium had been harvested to extinction.

Over the centuries, the silphium plant came
 to symbolize Cyrene. The plant appeared on the town's gold, silver and bronze coins, starting around 500 B.C. Often the entire plant was shown. But sometimes, only the seeds of the plant were depicted. The silphium's seeds were heart-shaped, and those heart-shaped seeds that appeared on Cyrene's coins eventually came to symbolize love--a symbol that's still with us today.
"Ancient Hearts" is archived at the NumisSociety and Coin Talk websites.  Francisco d'Anconia's speech on "Sex and Morality" is transcribed and posted at "Sharing is Living."


Friday, February 10, 2012

Republican Rebels

The first tyrants were rebels: self-made men on the rise in the archaic Greek world 700-500 BCE.  They replaced kings just as the parallel invention of coinage replaced cows for money, and philosophy replaced religion, and published writing replaced public speaking.  Tyranny led inevitably to oligarchy and then to democracy.  In 514 BCE, at Athens, Aristogeiton and Harmodios assassinated the tyrant Hipparchos making way for the reforms of Kleisthenes in 508 that created democracy.  Since then, rebels have been republicans. 

Julius Caesar and King George III were both denounced as “tyrants” not “dictators.”  The dictator was a constitutional office in Rome, a leading citizen chosen to take command during a crisis.  The most famous was Cincinnatus, the farmer who returned to his plow after soldiering for the republic.  In his name veterans of the American Revolution founded the city on the Ohio River. 

In our time, the dictator came and went with fascism.  We have forgotten how popular fascism was to the Progressives of the late 19th and early 20th centuries: it promised a unity of business, labor, arts, and sciences under the coordination of the government.  Even those who opposed it thought it would work. 

American Dime 1916-1945 displayed the fasces symbol of unity.
Right: German half-mark and American quarter of the 1930s.
The world suffered Stalin, Hitler, and Mussolini; Atatürk, Franco, Metaxas, and Perón; and still others.  Major. Gen. Smedley D. Butler and Prescott S. Bush plotted a “Wall Street Coup” against the New Deal, itself a form of American fascism.  On March 21, 1933, the Michigan Legislature passed the McNitt-Green bill, granting Gov. William Comstock “dictatorial powers” (literally) over banks and then later over insurance companies.  Gov. Comstock had the good sense to turn them down, but it was emblematic of the times.  The democratic republic was considered dead as civilization was submerged under nationalism and socialism. 

Today, the Democratic Party and the Republican Party are nearly indistinguishable as President Obama continues the domestic and foreign policies of the former Bush administration.  Where now are the republican rebels? 

Perhaps resistance comes not from different politics but from abandoning political power entirely.  By its nature, it allows no plurality: once we vote - or the decision is made for us - there is no minority choice. 

In the marketplace, your preference does not prevent your neighbor's equal right to any other decision -- or none at all.  I have never seen a Super Bowl, even though over 100 million Americans enjoyed the previous one.

We all have the same President.  Only one Congressman serves my district.  One school board argues with itself and the public over what children should learn -- and are failing to learn.  Here in Austin, a 1% city sales tax provides the only bus system.  "Political choice" is a contradiction in terms.  If there is a "res publica" a "public thing" it is the agora, the marketplace, where all choices are supported -- and where None-of-the-Above is always your right. 

Unlimited Constitutional Government
Contradictions in the Constitution
Debt: the Seed of Civilization

Friday, February 3, 2012

An Objective Foundation for Government

Ayn Rand’s famous essay “The Nature of Government” in The Virtue of Selfishness seems to appeal to almost everyone, right and left.  Whether or not we want the government to do more, we all accept that it must at least provide an army, police forces, and courts of law.  To sociologists, any government that cannot achieve these is called a failed state.  The problem may be more complicated…

Ayn Rand did not invent this theory.  She took it almost literally from German sociologist Max Weber’s 1919 essay “Politics as a Vocation” (Politik als Beruf), originally an address to the Free Students at Munich University. 

“Sociologically, the state cannot be defined in terms of its ends. There is scarcely any task that some political association has not taken in hand … Ultimately, one can define the modern state sociologically only in terms of the specific means peculiar to it, as to every political association, namely, the use of physical force. 
Today, however, we have to say that a state is a human community that (successfully) claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory. Note that 'territory' is one of the characteristics of the state. Specifically, at the present time, the right to use physical force is ascribed to other institutions or to individuals only to the extent to which the state permits it. The state is considered the sole source of the 'right' to use violence.”  (C. Wright Mills translation)

This specific formulation did not come from John Stuart Mill or John Locke or even Aristotle.  For Aristotle, government was a natural consequence of the state as a union of families.  As such, it cannot have the form of rule limited to one family, to that of the master or head of household.  For Locke, we invoke a social contract in which the pursuit of those who violate our property is the work of the state by a division of labor.  Moreover, for Locke, the courts were not a branch of government.  In The Second Treatise, the three functions of government are given as diplomatic, legislative, and executive.  Courts of law derive from the community; and in England, they were a bulwark against the government: the king’s men had to come before a court and apply for a warrant.  For John Stuart Mill (On Liberty, 1869) government’s role was to prevent harm, which is not necessarily the same thing as preventing crime. 

Weber’s essay reflected the structural and functional methods of sociology, consonant with the positivist tradition of objective description, rather than subjective prescription.  However, modern Objectivists insist that fact and value are inseparable.  Therefore, the justification for government must proceed from observations that are abstracted into an explanatory theory which is then tested (and hopefully supported) by other facts.  

Ayn Rand asserted that capitalism requires objective law.  By “objective” she did not mean good, only consistent.  She pointed out – cogently – that dictatorship is not really iron rule, but caprice: the whim of the bureaucrat.  Capitalism requires property rights.  Hernando de Soto has shown how the trillions of dollars of value owned by the poor is lost for the want of such rights in the so-called “under-developed” nations.  

Beyond those observations, little has been achieved to develop a theory of government that is consistent with objective fact and value.  It may be that all that is required is a legislature, meeting infrequently of course, to review the statutes.  Courts and police can come from other sectors of the economy.  

Rand also asserted that only voluntary funding can be moral: taxation is theft.  It may be then that granted voluntary funding and market solutions for adjudication and protection, the primary purpose of government would be social welfare in the Rawlsian sense: a “floor” under every citizen to ensure against the involuntary want of basic needs.