Monday, January 26, 2015

Walter Isaacson - Benjamin Franklin: An American Life

I won this book as a runner-up prize from a college that polls its seniors on what teachers embodied the liberal arts ideal.  I finally got around to reading it over Christmas break.  Historiann calls it Founders Porn and now I know why. 

Isaacson thinks this is a well-researched book.  He read a bunch of biographies of Franklin so that's historiography right?  He looked at Franklin's paper in a variety of archives so that's research right?  Um, no.  History starts with a question and Isaacson started with an answer:  His Franklin is a pragmatic innovator who would be a great silicon valley based politician.   He'd make a fortune in tech and then he'd lead that magical "third way" party that's always looking to step outside politics and draft the best Presidential candidate who'd magically use the bully pulpit to solve all our problems.  It makes for OK reading if you don't know anything about Franklin or Colonial America.  I assume most of his readers don't since the book has been pretty well received (especially on Amazon).

So what's wrong with the book?  I have one test I use for books on the Revolution, if the book doesn't at least try to explain why the British are fighting the war (other than because they are evil), the book isn't worth reading.  Here the British side is never really presented.  The American problem presented a major constitutional crisis for the British.  Adding American representatives to Parliament would potentially undo the Glorious Revolution and notions of Parliamentary supremacy as would any sort of dominion plan.  It would take the Brits almost 100 years to work out alternatives, but Isaacson presents the British as at best bumbling and at worst monomaniacal oppressors.  And despite a nod towards Thomas Hutchinson, there's no discussion of Loyalists at all. 

Second, on the hard issues Isaacson ducks.  His discussion of race is naive at best.  Franklin's father apparently had pro-Indian sentiments during King Phillip's War,  (it's the one new fact I learned reading the book) which was pretty much tantamount to treason.  Franklin badly miscalculated during the Paxton boys crisis and Isaacson doesn't explain how land hunger and anti-Indian feelings served to help undo Quaker dominance in Pennsylvania politics.  Or how Franklin was quick to abandon his beloved Democracy during the crisis.  Despite Isaacson's best efforts to argue that Franklin was the most democratic of the founders, he comes off more as a Philosopher King and despite his presence at the Declaration and the Constitution, Franklin seems like a bystander at both events.  Worse still, Isaacson never mentions the main sticking point in the peace treaty that Franklin was charged with negotiating with Britain: what would happen to the escaped slaves that joined the Loyalist cause.  The British absolutely refused to turn them over or compensate their owners.  Although we are told of Franklin's growing anti-slavery views, we aren't told what Franklin did or thought in this time period. 

At least there haven't been allegations of plagiarism yet. 


I'm reading Andrew Needham's Power Lines:  Phoenix and the Making of the Modern Southwest next.  I suspect I'll like it better. 

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

End of quarter

Sorry for the slow down but it's crunch time round these parts, plus a family thing, etc. etc.  Thanks for checking in.  More posts soon including a book review. 

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Skills, De-skilling, and the Happy Workers Problem.

Audrey Watters year-end reviews on the state of ed-tech are required reading.  But the one on skills really struck a chord with me.  Essentially, Watters points out three interconnected problems.

1.  More students are graduating from college with more debt.

2.  Unemployment for recent college grads continues to be high.  People blame "a skills gap."

3.  There is a huge pressure on colleges and high schools to teach "job-skills" and ditch the "not-useful stuff".  See Florida.

What we have here is a variation on what I call "the happy workers problem."  The happy workers problem is essentially a way of framing the debate around education.  According to the logic of happy workers proponents,  the point of education is to produce highly skilled workers that will be happy in their jobs.  Highly skilled, happy workers will lead, according to this logic, to a prosperous economy, a strong nation, national greatness etc. etc.. 

What happy workers proponents misunderstand is well, pretty much everything.  People aren't necessarily happy because they are well-paid, skills taught for today's job market may be useless tomorrow, schools can't and shouldn't replace job training programs, and advocates of getting schools to do the work of job training are generally trying to drive down wages in their employment sectors.

What education should do (and generally does well) is help create what David Hollinger called in a different context, a  "wider circle of 'we'".   School's main job is to expose students to a world beyond their parochial experience and engage as human beings with the wider world of both imagination and reality.  Real science, the humanities, and math form the core of this curriculum because they expand our ways of knowing the world around us and teach us disparate but related modes of thinking and of asking and answering questions about the nature of the world around us.  These are precisely the questions that happy workers advocates don't want their workers asking.  A worker who has learned about labor unions might want to organize her workplace.  A worker well-versed in math (and thus logic) might question why workers instead of executives or common shareholders are getting such a big share of corporate profits (despite the fact that CEO performance does little to increase profits).  And on and on. 

It's not really a conscious plotting, mind you, it's just that happy workers advocates don't see the point in what they consider useless knowledge.  And useful knowledge is only that knowledge that is measured by economic productivity.  Anything that cannot be monetized has no value.  It's a short-sighted ethic, but as we've seen in Ferguson, in civil forfeiture cases, and the housing crisis, we're heading towards a future where anything can be monetized.   And those monetizations of traffic violations, of the war on drugs, of risky housing policy, all came from good intentioned but short-sighted-policy efforts.  They were supposed to make us happier. 

And yet, we all are so unhappy. 

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Audrey Watters is freakin' awesome or where can I find a gear to jam.

When I started this blog, I wanted to write about the gap between ed-tech claims and ed-tech reality.   I quickly discovered that there was somebody on that beat who did it much better than I ever could.  Ladies and gentlemen (and the rest of you), if you haven't already met Audrey Watters:  
This summer, America’s premier education expert Bill Gates explained why ed-tech fails. “New technology to engage students holds some promise, but Gates says it tends to only benefit those who are motivated. ‘And the one thing we have a lot of in the United States is unmotivated students,’ Gates said.”
The problem, according to Gates, is not that ed-tech is crap. It’s not that many ed-tech entrepreneurs are snake-oil salesmen. It's not that people make these ludicrous claims about ed-tech revolution and ed-tech magic. It’s not that education policies are ridiculous. It’s not that the market-forces skew what gets pegged as a “problem” and what gets sold as a “solution.” It’s not that school is often boring and schoolwork often meaningless.
It’s that kids don’t give a shit. It’s their fault.
Ed-tech, on the other hand, is awesome.

And then she links to the Lego movie song.  Go read the whole thing along with all the Top Ten trends in ed tech list.  Then weep, weep quiet tears of grief for our profession.   Between a post on teaching skills that describes the de-skilling of American teachers and the creeping idiocy of a nation that sees education only as a tool for employment and not for making a better country (or even for nurturing competing ideas about what that phrase might mean), to a despressing account of how big businesses has been skimming money from school budgets for private profit with little to show from it on the results side.  I don't generally go for the full-blown Jeremiad, that's generally Withwindle territory,  but after that Top Ten list we have the moment where we despair.  If that  top ten list is the future, than we all are in a heap of trouble.  But than, I remember I am a history teacher and that for better or worse, many people saw a guy talk about his education and it helped launch a movement.  Here in Philly, the movement has started.  It's started in Chicago, and it's linking up with other movements.  We still have hope, it's not too late.  As long as your realize:

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Crossing Rick Perlstein's Bridge

I recently finished reading Rick Perlstein's The Invisible Bridge:  The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan.  Below, you'll find my review, but first some disclosures.  Rick and I were at the University of Michigan together in the early 90s.  We were in different departments, but ran in the same circles.  We were - and remain - friends.  I cannot pretend objectivity here for a man who recently bought me drinks when he was in town.  I contemplated changing all the "Rick"s in the text to "Perlstein"s but that would be disingenuous.  At the same time, as a friend, I feel obligated to give Rick the most critical of readings.  He wouldn't expect less.  Also, I read the Kindle edition.  No page numbers available.  Sorry.  If you don't have time to read the rest of the review here's the TL;DR - Read the book.     

I was born in 1967, and grew up in a Democratic household in a neighborhood on Long Island in which such folks were rarities.  It was Al D'Amato's Nassau County, or more properly, Joe Margiotta's Nassau County.   It was the kind of place where, if you're aunt ran as a Democrat for Town Council, you were liable to have your family phone bugged.  It was Nixonland writ small, and whatever operative that was listening in was treated to lots of calls to neighbors houses by me asking if my school friends could come over for play dates.*  Among my earliest memories were of family arguments over Watergate in which my grandmother defended Nixon to the bitter end, learning the words to the Fixin' To Die Rag, wondering why everybody was freaking out over my oldest brother's lottery number (it was 1973, his was low but they weren't drafting anybody), and the Ford-Carter election.  If I remember correctly, Jon Hilsenrath (now of the Wall Street Journal) and I were the only two kids in our class who supported Carter.  My father, who worked on Wall Street, would return from Manhattan with crazy stories from those dark days as the city teetered on the verge of bankruptcy.  None was crazier than the bombing of Fraunces Tavern, a few weeks after he had taken our family for breakfast there on a day off from school.  The bombing, by Puerto Rican activists in 1975, killed 4 and injured 50 but only earned a half a sentence in Perlstein's book.  That's how crazy the 1970s were.  A bombing of THE Wall Street breakfast spot barely made an 800 page book on how America was falling apart from 1973-6. 

I suppose that's one of the reasons the book appealed to me.  In the book, for the first time really, the chaotic world of my childhood is fully explained.   Some critics have accused Rick of overkill, but I needed every word here.  I needed to understand why my impersonation of Jimmy Carter killed in a class election in 7th grade ("Hi, I'm not Jimmy Carter, but I do want to be your President," I speechified to my class mates in 1979).  I only know The Exorcist from MAD magazine.  I loved Happy Days, and covered my schoolbooks with bookcovers featuring Fonzie.  My mother disapproved of the show, although she approved of Fonzie because Henry Winkler was Jewish playing against type.  Rick explains my own childhood to me.  And this is the book's greatest strength.  It's also the greatest weakness of the book.  Childhoods run through the book thematically.  Specifically, Reagan's and America's.  Rick explores Reagan's childhood to find the future adult, somewhat successfully although he does not identify the source of the magic Teflon quality that everyone identifies with Reagan.  Bur Rick also uses childhood and innocence as a complaint.  Throughout, there is subtext that too often Americans don't want to deal with their problems, that they want to play innocents, that that they won't act like grown-ups.

No where is this more evident than in his disdain for the Bicentennial celebration.  I was there, of course.  Dad worked at 1 New York Plaza at the edge of Battery Park and his firm hosted a party for the families of the stockbrokers and other workers.  I watched the Tall Ships through borrowed binoculars.  We bought crazy souvenirs, among them plastic American flags with Lincoln on them that had a quote about government "of the people, by the people, for the people."     The Bicentennial made people feel good about America. Rick wants them to grow up, his sympathies are with the complexities of (war criminal) Henry Kissinger (!), rather than the Reaganites who see the world strictly in terms of good and evil.  He likes Betty Ford, Gerald less so, and there's a veiled disdain for Carter who comes off as the Democratic version of Reagan.  One suspects that Rick would have liked to have seen Mo Udall, "second-place Mo", "the man too funny to be President" win out.  Or maybe that's just me.  And always, there is Reagan.  Shifting from being a New Dealer to a Goldwaterite.  Selling out the Hollywood craft unions.  Stumping for GE.  Edging ever closer to the right people.  Or at least, the right people of the Right.

Perlstein's Reagan lacks any real convictions except the rightness of his own views, no matter how often he changed them.  And change them he did.  Reagan saw the world in binaries.  Good and Evil.  Commies and capitalists.  Housewives and feminists.  Binaries make for great TV but make for lousy governing.  And, argues Perlstein, that was Ford's problem.   He had to govern in the real world while Reagan and Carter got to spout platitudes.  (By implication, of course, he's also discussing Obama's problem.)   Ford is the grown-up in the room.  "Damned if he did, Damned if he didn't." 

And as the book closes in on it's Final Act, the chaos of the 1976 Republican convention, I started to recognize the names that shaped my adulthood: Rove, Helms, Rumsfeld.  And of course, this is Perlstein's point.  By the end of the convention, we have the birth of the modern Republican party: anti-ERA, pro-gun, anti-abortion, and anti-government.  Perlstein doesn't need to tell us what happened next.  We Gen-Xers are old enough to know what comes next.  But he did an exceptional job explaining my childhood to me and why somebody would tap our phone.  When you divide the world into good and evil, you'll do anything to stop evil, even if it means listening in on "Hello, Mrs. DeStaebler? Can Todd come over today?" 

*Years later my mother would get her revenge.  She and other family members, I wasn't present,  were vacationing at the same hotel as a Nassau County Republican retreat, a few years after my aunt's retirement from politics.  In a reverse ratfuck, she dug up one of my aunt's old bumper stickers and - with family help  - plastered it on Margiotta's car, the one with the GOP 1 plate.  He drove back to Nassau County before he knew it and was apparently livid when someone pointed it out to him.  He died never knowing who did it.   I suppose that Margiotta also did jail time for some of his crimes is also some sort of justice.  

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Students do cool things

Like this:

Or this from some kids I taught or are currently teaching (not my class):