More Thoughts on Teaching and Learning

Most education writers write as if the students who would profit from what they have to say were a single, monolithic group of learners, and that whatever they were saying about education were appropriate to the entire group, say kids learning to read, or kids being introduced to algebra or geometry. The reason the education writers differ so much among themselves is that only the needs and abilities of certain students, say middle class kids from two parent families living in the suburbs, or impoverished, immigrant, and minority kids from single parent families in the cities, are most on their mind, whether consciously or not, when they promote this or that method of what and how to teach. Instead of writing about, say, the best way to teach reading and math, these people should be writing about the different needs of different groups  of students, all the ways that students differ among themselves, the widely differing ways in which they best learn, and perhaps most important of all, the differing ways in which they are ready or not ready to learn. Most of what the education writers have to say would be perfectly reasonable and appropriate with this or that group of students. Most of what they have to say is not appropriate for all kids.

This is why some educational disputes seem to never reach a resolution. Take, for example, the disputes over how best to teach math. There are those who push for the basics. There are those who push just as hard for the so-called new math. There are those who swear by applied mathematics. And there are those who back “general math,” or an understanding of numbers in every day life. Now it may be true that all kids can learn, and that all kids can learn to handle numbers in some useful and profitable manner, but it is no more true that all kids can function at the highest levels of abstract mathematics (which can begin at a very early age, such as in the Math Olympiad competitions for elementary school students) than they can reach master level play in chess. Suppose for a minute that it was chess, not mathematics, that made up along with language arts the most important subject matter of schooling and testing. Wouldn’t it be clearly absurd to expect all kids to proceed ahead in pretty much the same fashion towards chess master play? We know it wouldn’t/couldn’t happen. Yet don’t we now expect all kids to proceed in pretty much the same fashion, be this integrated or traditional or applied math, towards math proficiency? We also know that wouldn’t/couldn’t happen.

Milton Friedman, 1912-2006

Milton Friedman is dead. His voice, now quelled, was probably the strongest voice ever raised in this country, or anywhere else, for doing away with the government monopoly on education. During his lifetime he was listened to in this regard, but not nearly enough.

For example, vouchers were one of his ideas, but vouchers haven’t yet been tried in any meaningful manner. The latter meaning that the student, or the student’s parents, receive a voucher at least as large as the dollar cost of each pupil to the local school system. This didn’t, and hasn’t happened. And as long as vouchers are small, both in numbers and amounts, there will be no definitive answer to the question, will vouchers solve some of the worst problems of the public schools, especially those within our inner cities where failure is common and drop out rates are high.

"As a libertarian, Mr. Friedman advocated legalizing drugs and generally opposed public education and the state’s power to license doctors, automobile drivers and others. He was criticized for those views, but he stood by them, arguing that prohibiting, regulating or licensing human behavior either does not work or creates inefficient bureaucracies." (See the obituary in today’s NYTimes.)

Friedman liked to say that, "unimpeded private competition produced better results than government systems. ‘Try talking French with someone who studied it in public school,’ he argued, ‘then with a Berlitz graduate.’"  He might also have said, try testing a fourth grader’s knowledge of the times table and other math facts, and then those of a Kumon student of the same age. Although he probably oversimplified the issue, in regard, for example, to the reasons for the Berlitz graduate’s success, those of us who have taught in the public schools would have to admit that our students were never learning more than a fraction of what they could have learned if they had  been motivated and interested.

OK, you’re right. Even more important than the public-private thing is the motivation of the learner.  Friedman seemed to assume that on the part of both teacher and learner in a private school environment motivation and interest would be highest. Maybe so, although we haven’t found that out yet. But isn’t it true that ownership, meaning in this case owning one’s place in the learning environment from having paid the purchase price, is more apt to result in hard work and the assumption of responsibility on the part of the learner? In any case there is very little of both, hard work and the assumption of responsibility for one’s learning, to be found in our failing inner city  schools.

Groundhog Day and a New Push for the Basics

[EDDRA is dedicated to analyzing reports, dispelling rumors, rebutting lies about public education in the United States. It represents an online version of the work that Gerald Bracey has been doing since 1991.]

An article from today’s (11/14) Times (As Math Scores Lag, a New Push for the Basics, By TAMAR LEWIN) seems like a good subject for EDDRA commentary.

First of all wouldn’t one have thought that not once again could we have been subjected to “a New Push for the Basics.”  For how many times can one write about this and expect to be noticed and read, let alone believed?

As I skimmed the article I right away thought that we were one more time caught up in the situation depicted in the movie Groundhog Day. We were to again live through the same day, knowing it was a repeat of the day before, while the other actors on the set with us, Tamar Lewin et al., seemed convinced that they were living the day for the first time.

We know better. Jerry Bracey himself reminded us on an earlier occasion how common it is among those who write about the schools to repeat, seemingly unaware, what past writers on the same subject have said: “About schools, the media report the present with no apparent historical awareness that it’s the same story once again.”

In the movie Phil Connors (the actor Bill Murray) finds he’s doomed to repeat Groundhog Day — again and again — until he learns that his actions can affect the outcome.  In regard to math education in our schools is there some way that we also can break out of the cycle of repeating, in this case the same reforms over and over again? Is there an action that we might take that would change the outcome, move us onto something new, something that would restore our confidence in the way math is taught in the schools? Well, evidently not yet. As of this time our groundhog day movie has no resolution,

Perahaps EDDRA might want to comment on the accuracy of a number of (unsupported) statements in the article, as well as the general applicability of a number of the quotations from the various people interviewed. Is this Misinformation?Disinformation? [What’s the difference between the two?]

“students’ lagging performance on international tests”

‘We don’t teach long division; it stifles their creativity.”

“…recommending a tighter focus on basic math skills and an end to ‘mile wide, inch deep’ state standards that force schools to teach dozens of math topics in each grade.”

“Many point to California’s standards as a good model: the state
adopted reform math in the early 1990s but largely rejected it near the end of the decade, a turnaround that led to rising math achievement.”

“…at a time of increasing globalization, the math skills of children in the United States simply do not measure up: American eighth-graders lag far behind those from Singapore, South Korea, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan and elsewhere on the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, an international test.”

“It [traditional math, whatever that is] produces people who hate math, who can’t connect the math they are doing with anything in their lives,…”

“In Asian cultures,” she added, “the assumption is that everyone learns mathematics, and of course, parents will help with mathematics.”

“….the whole country has been in denial about mathematics, and now we’re sort of at a second Sputnik moment.”

Now I realize as I take certain statements from the article, that it’s really the whole article that is mis-, disinformation. Furthermore it probably could have been written with few or no changes in any year since when, the sixties?  If I hadn’t seen it in today’s Times I’d be probably unable to say when it was written. Just as Phil Connors woke up again and again to the same day, I’ve been reading this article throughout some 45 years spent in or close to education.

Down with the Age Graded Classrooms

Before the Civil War the one room school house was common, being nothing more in the small towns and villages than a structure about the size of a single large classroom. In the cities where the students were more numerous it took a much larger building to house them all together. But in both the students were not separated into groups by age. What did this mean for the students? Did they learn better when they were in close contact with those both older and younger than themselves?

We don’t know if they learned more. I suspect they did from what I know about large families. We do know that reform, unable to leave things as they are, came along and changed things. The first and most significant reform, and one which is still very much with us, was the graded school. No longer those large rooms with students of different ages learning together but students stil in a large room but with others of the same age. David Tyack (in Tinkering Toward Utopia) says that this reform came about because school superintendents and school board leaders were impressed with the division of labor and hierarchical supervision common in the brand new factories, and sought to adapt this tidy and efficient system to education.

The change to graded classes came about quickly and just as quickly came the unintended and what would prove to be much later in the mid twentieth century disastrous consequences for our schools.  For while the graded school may have succeeded with a few, with those whose abilities and family and cultural backgrounds fit the school environment and curriculum, for too many others the graded school didn’t work at all.  For difficult now to understand reasons we had put students equally ignorant all together, expecting what, that they would all learn to swim? They didn’t.

This is our situation today. The graded school didn’t and doesn’t work for those kids who come from impoverished and disadvantaged inner city and rural areas. My conclusion? If you want to improve the schools, get rid of our age graded educational system.

There is actually one current reform movement that could help to bring this about. That is school choice. There should be many different schools out there, including no school at all, and those not based on the age of the student, for children and parents to choose from. And the many schools of choice ought to reflect the diversity which is no less great among students of the same age as it is among students of varying ages. Other current reform initatives such as the longer school day and year, merit pay, better teacher preparation, and the movement for higher standards and accountability, in particular No Child Left Behind, won’t do it. Keeping students equally ignorant and widely differently endowed together in an age graded classroom will prevent these reforms from ever having the desired result.

Learning succeeds best when the kids have been separated from one another, not by their age but by what they can do (the Math Olympiad), like to do (play soccer, piano, other games), want to do (write, collect, speak) etc. As long as we keep them all together, simply according to their age, as long as we disregard their enormous differences, say, of interests and abilities, there will be those who understand the lesson and those who don’t, as well as all those in between. There will be those who succeed, and those who fail and are held back, and those who drop out. Now it seems to me unbelievable that this situation has been with us, for at least 100 years, and we haven’t tried to change it, let along do away with it (home schooling being an exception to this), but have kept it pretty much intact, even while changing everything else.

The kids themselves are aware of this situation by the fourth grade if not before. In the fourth grade large numbers of them lose their excitement and interest in school. The classroom activities are now more boring than anything else. The situation is much more pronounced in the “common” or public school classroom because many of these children, coming from poor and immigrant families, especially in the cities, are much less prepared for the learning activities that the school would have them do. So in addition to the differences of interests and abilities among them there is also the difference between the culture of their home and community, and the new learning culture of the school. The situation although present is less pronounced in the private schools, or in schools where the students are selected, because in these instances there is a better match between the culture of the home and that of the school.

So what is to be done? As early in the learning process as possible, certainly by age 8 or 9, that infamous fourth grade, we need to have fashioned for each child individualized learning environments, not tracks, but sets of expectations and opportunities, that take into account each child’s inherent talents and interests. I admit that what I am proposing can’t be done without fundamental changes in our outlook. First and foremost learning has to be taken out of the school, and put back into our lives.

If we continue to do nothing, if we don’t “reach” the child at an early age, when he is still ready to listen, we are probably going to lose him for whatever number of years he does remain in school. This is what is happening now. While gaining the few who take well to the age graded classroom we are losing the many who don’t. You can see this clearly if you follow closely a group of middle school students (that time when most kids are lost to their education), say, in any one of their subject area classes such as math or foreign language. How many children in the class will clearly have no interest in, let alone achieve evident mastery of, either one?

The mantra that you hear everywhere among school people is that every child can learn, every child succeed, that every child can go to college. I too believe that every child can succeed, that every child can go on to higher education, but not, as now, by following the same track. We need many different tracks to success for our kids and now we don’t have them. We have only the one with the result that everyone is required to get over the same obstacles, such as state requirements for high school graduation and college entrance examinations. And of course it’s not going to happen. Everyone doesn’t get over these obstacles. A third of our young people nation wide will drop out of high school, a third or more of our college students will not finish. And to this situation so far we have only one answer, more and better test prep.

Now our educational system awards with first good grades and then good jobs those young people who are particularly endowed with either math of language abilities. When they have both they gain admittance to our most prestigious universities. But these abilities are just a part of what we are as human beings. That is, they are not what we are, as sometimes our tests would seem to be saying, but just a part. Together they represent just two of Howard Gardner’s multiple intelligences, the logical-mathematical and the linguistic. We know that if we tested those fourth graders for mathematical ability that the result would be a Bell curve for student performance. There would be those on the left showing little ability in the area tested, those on the right with great ability, and the many with average ability in between.

We know all this about our students (and about ourselves) and yet we go on year after year insisting that our students go on year after year being painfully made aware of their respective positions in relation to the logical-mathematical and linguistic intelligences. Why should either one, or both these particular abilities, have such great power over the individual without them? Once it was asked of high school dropouts just why they had dropped out of school. The most common response was math class, algebra, something year after year they were required to fail at. For many of us who were only average we can understand their dropping out for that reason.

If we really do believe that all children can succeed we ought to make sure that whatever each child has in the way of a gift, be it one of the two mentioned, or one of the other of Gardner’s seven (now eight?) intelligences, the musical, the bodily-kinesthetic, the special, the inter- and the intra-personal, that this gift be recognized and given a favored place in the child’s home and school learning environment. Because it will only be through this “intelligence” or particular gift that the child will ultimately learn and be successful.

The learning environment of the school ought to directly reflect the interests and abilities of the children, not as now their ages. When children are in fact doing what they most like to do, acting in a play, playing on a team, being a part of a musical ensemble, staffing a computer clubhouse the age differences are disregarded. Isn’t this fact telling us that the school itself needs to structure its activities not on age, but on what the child most wants to do, and through which activity the child will most learn? A no-brainer, yet look at what we are now doing.

Finally, to expect that all kids can become proficient in math and language, if proficient does represent a real standard of excellence, is as ridiculous as expecting that all kids can reach the master lever of chess playing. It won’t happen. But to expect that all kids want to learn, that all kids have within them a spark that once identified will fire up their school years and take them right on into meaningful and successful lives, that may happen if we change the way we’re doing things in our schools.

Asking Charity to do the Work of Social Justice

In a recent article in Slate Magazine City University professor and historian David Nasaw (the author of The Chief: The Life of William Randolph Hearst) questions, for the most part the unquestioned, respected, and admired place of private philanthropy in the life of our country. Why, it was great news all around, wasn’t it, when we learned about Warren Buffett’s planned 32 billion dollar gift to the Gates Foundation? The Foundation already had some 32 billion dollars of its own, and was to be the recipient in the near future of another 32 billion, again from Gates himself, in the form of Microsoft stock, all that together totaling some 96 billion dollars! The largest sum of private money in existence, easily beating the combined endowments of the Vatican, the Ivies, Stanford, MIT, and the University of Texas, although still only about 3% of the 2007 budget of the United States.

But how does David Nasaw put private philanthropy, this year amounting to about $280 billion, how does he put all this private giving into question? First of all he reminds us that early in the last century self-perpetuating private foundations were said to pose a “menace to the country’s future” because, as it was claimed anyway, “the private foundation, was a profoundly anti-democratic institution, one that concentrated too much wealth—and power—in the hands of trustees who were neither elected nor accountable to the public.”

Then Nasaw reminds (well not really “reminds” us) but tells us of the Colorado coal miner who complained loudly at the time about $250,000 of Rockefeller Foundation money that had been allocated for a retreat for migratory birds. The miner insisted that the Rockefeller money was the product of his and other workers’ labor and that he and his fellow workers ought to have a say in how it was spent. Why migratory birds? Why not a safe retreat for his wife and his children? And closer to home, why AIDs in Africa? Why not failing inner city schools?

Nasaw ends his article by quoting William Jewett Tucker, a future president of Dartmouth College, who in 1891 while criticizing Andrew Carnegie’s Gospel of Wealth, declared that “a society could make no greater mistake than asking charity to do the work of social justice.”

Wow, I said to myself. Isn’t this exactly what has happened? This is our country today. A lot of private charity, certainly, but no where near enough to satisfy the claims of social justice. And new charitable foundations, such as that of Bill and Melinda Gates, are the insurance that this visibly deficient method of accomplishing “social justice” will continue to prevail. Most of all the Gates Foundation will enable governments even more than in the past to do less in the future.

Now no one really expects Foundations to do all the work of social justice, not even most of it. For the social justice work of Foundations can go no further than their charitable contributions can take it.

Let me give you an example. You have an inner city school system with some 10 elementary schools, each with some 500 students. The kids are in school all morning and while there they are mostly preparing for tests because of the No Child Left Behind law of 2001. They get out of school between 1 and 2 and they have very few good places to go, good things to do during the long afternoon hours. Art, music, shop, and sports activities, the sorts of activities that are the rule in private schools, are almost non existent for them, until some Gates or other private foundation money turns up. But that money is only enough to enable just one of these schools to create afterschool activities such as theater, a boys chorus, a girls soccer team. The other nine schools will go without.

The one program in the one school is presented as a pilot program, that is, a program from which kids in other schools will eventually benefit when the program gets beyond the pilot stage. But it never gets beyond that stage, and after 2 or 3 years it may even lose the continuation of that initial funding. Now the school system is not at fault. For everyone is of the opinion that this is the sort of thing that only private funding can bring about, and there’s just not enough of that. No one’s at fault. That’s just the way things are.

So what has happened? The government is off the hook, meaning that the public authorities don’t have to face up to the inadequacy of their work with inner city
children. The authorities don’t see as their responsibility to provide the vital, asset and confidence building activities that children need. Instead they pass this responsibility by default on to the philanthropic community. But this community, as we have seen, can not do more than a small portion of what is needed, with the result that things go on much as they always have. And for too many kids in our inner cities the conditions of their lives don’t get any better.

It’s hard not to conclude that the Gates money, and charitable giving in general, may not be the great blessing it’s taken for, but rarther an insurmountable obstacle to the public’s acceptance of full responsibility for the health of our children living with unmet needs in our impoverished inner city neighborhoods.

Good, but not Enough

The off-year election results are now in. Well almost. The House is in Democratic hands, but we don’t yet have the results of Senate races in Montana and Virginia. Democratic wins in both would give the Senate majority to the Democrats.

So far this is what I like most about the election results:

First, the defeat of the anti-immigration "bully" and republican representative J.D. Hayworth in Arizona. For me he represented the worst of the reactionary, far right conservatives in the House.
Second, the replacement of Dennis Hastert by Nancy Pelosi as Speaker of the House. Nancy is a cut  above Dennis in every respect. The men have done such a poor job governing our country that it is time that they be replaced by women. I hope that Nancy is the head of a movement in this respect.
Three, the defeat of Senator Rick Santorum, a far right on social issues Republican in Pennsylvania, by the Democratic moderate Bob Casey.
And four, the apparent movement to the Center of the newly elected Democrats. This is good for the country, and should even help to bring the Centrist Republicans, scorned by their conservative colleagues on the right, back into governing the country.

So far this is what I like least:

The defeat of Harold Ford, a five-term congressman from Tennessee, who was trying to become the first black senator from the South since Reconstruction, by Bob Corker, a Bush republican. The country needed Ford. The "Corkers" and their ilk have failed the country for a long time.
The reelection of Ted Kennedy in Massachusetts and Robert Byrd in West Virginia. Both should be reclining in lounge chairs in Palm Beach, pontificating on the significance of this election, no longer a part of it.
In Massachusetts, the failure of the supermarket chains to gain the right to sell wine in their stores. This is especially surprising since we’ve just recently learned that red wine in particular will increase our longevity. A vote against longevity?

OED off Limits

Are there things that should be within our natural rights to possess, and are there things that once they appear among us should become the property and possession of us all? I would place the OED into the latter category.

There are those things that first appeared right along with us, actually long before us, and that we can’t get along without and which are certainly the property of us all. I’m thinking of air and water, and with some limitations, food, limitations being no eating your neighbors or the last elephant or whale. And there are those things that some have discovered, or uncovered, and then shared freely with the rest of us, such as fire, and clothing, and ornaments, and technology.  There are other things, most things probably, that we have no inherent right to own and possess, such as cars, televisions, and washing machines, but that can become ours if we work to earn them.

What about the Internet. Should that be a free gift to all of us, or something that we need to pay for? At the present time it’s not free, although nearly so. A modest payment to an internet access provider enables us to freely visit thousands, tens of thousands of web sites, as many as we could ever want, and from these sites then download pictures and texts to a computer screen in our own home. Only God’s earth and the air we breathe and the water we drink and the plants we cultivate are as bountifully and as freely available.

But what will the future bring in this regard? Already many of the publications that used to allow the surfer free access now have erected subscription barriers. The NYTimes, which during the very first internet years was freely available to all, now has what they call TimesSelect, available to only a relatively select few paying subscribers. The future could mean an Internet pretty much unavailable to those without the means to become subscribers. And anyway no one would have the means to subscribe to more than a small number of the tens of thousands of publications now out there on the Web. Fencing seems to be coming to what used to be open range.

I was thinking about all this as I read James Gleick’s article, Cyber-Neologoliferation, in today’s NYTimes Magazine. Gleick’s point is that the OED or Oxford English Dictionary, thanks to the Internet, now finds itself confronting more than ever before, when words were mostly found in books, the English language’s boundlessness. The internet is a huge and constantly growing and changing source of new words. Hundreds of thousands have already been found and there are hundreds more turning up almost daily, and there is, of course, no end in sight. It seems that the OED has found its proper place and role on the internet. Electronic editions of the dictionary, constantly being updated, will make the book form a thing of the past.

Now I ask myself, will the publishers of the OED make their fabulous wealth of English words freely available to anyone with a computer and internet access? Or will they as in their paper past, when the words were inappropriately fixed in alphabetically ordered listings on the pages of a book, make you pay for the privilege of looking?

Right now things don’t look good for us. If you go to OED Web site, you are told that, following a free trial period of one month, you will have to become a paid subscriber to use the dictionary. Otherwise it’s off limits. Too bad. You’d have thought that the dictionary makers would have insisted that the hundreds of thousands of words of the English language, the creation not of dictionary makers but of the English speaking world, over hundreds of years, be made readily accessible to everyone regardless of ability, or willingness to pay subscription fees. Costs could have been met otherwise. Clearly, so far anyway, a missed opportunity to do the right thing. Write them a letter. Who owns the English language?

In 1948 48 counries voted in favor of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

At that moment in time these 48 countries were known as: Afghanistan, Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Bolivia, Brazil, Canada, Chile, China, Colombia, Costa Rica, Cuba, Denmark, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Egypt, El Salvador, Ethiopia, France, Greece, Guatemala, Haiti, Iceland, India, Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Liberia, Luxembourg, Mexico, Myanmar, Netherlands, New Zealand, Nicaragua, Norway, Pakistan, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Philippines, Sweden, Syria, Thailand, Turkey, United Kingdom, USA, Uruguay, Venezuela.

Another 10 members of the UN at that time either abstained (Byelorussia, Czechoslovakia, Poland, the Russian Federation, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, Ukraine, Yugoslavia) or were absent (Honduras and Yeman).

Things have changed since then. Now there are, of course, many more, 192 members as of this year, 2006. Furthermore, of the 48 original signers of the Declaration how many of these have a government today that is at all a continuation, and not the result of a rejection and replacement of an earlier government? The United States and the United Kingdom, Canada and Australia, Belgium, Costa Rica, Denmark, maybe France, the Netherlands, Norway, and Sweden. In short the liberal, Western democracies.  Pretty much Europe and America.

The nations of South America, Africa, Asia, the states of the former Soviet Union, all those countries that now make up the largest part of the current UN membership, were not for the most part signers of the Declaration.

Now what was the Declaration that the 48 countries, were signing onto in support in 1948? (How many of the 192, would vote in favor of the Declaration today?) There were thirty articles in the Declaration which you can read here.

If you read all 30 Articles, you will immediately realize that there is not a single country in the world today that tries to govern in accordance with the Declaration, neither in fact nor in spirit. The Declaration represents a Utopia that if anything is receding even further into the distance.

What do I mean by that? Take just one Article, Article 26, which says:

(1) Everyone has the right to education. Education shall be free, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages. Elementary education shall be compulsory. Technical and professional education shall be made generally available and higher education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit.

(2) Education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. It shall promote understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations, racial or religious groups, and shall further the activities of the United Nations for the maintenance of peace.

(3) Parents have a prior right to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children.

Of how many nations might such things be said today? Not even the United States, could say, for example, that “higher education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit,” or that “education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality,” or finally that “parents have a prior right to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children.”

One wonders who wrote the Declaration, since it obviously could not have been the nations who signed on. A Google search quickly gives us the answer, John Humphrey, a Canadian and employee of the UN, was the principal author.

One wonders what the signers of the Declaration were thinking when they signed it. One wonders if they even read it. A Google search doesn’t give us an answer to this querstion, showing that Google too has its limits.

In today’s NYTimes Michael Kinsley reviews “a shelf of books” (see below) that raise “various alarms about the condition of American democracy.” The condition is not good according to these books. “Cheating” by those on the Left and the Right is what is wrong and in Kinsley’s view “the worst form of cheating in American democracy today is intellectual dishonesty.” Now doesn’t “intellectual dishonesty” mean not telling the truth? Truth telling is certainly absent from our political life. The question that Kinsley doesn’t answer, nor, I suspect, is the answer anywhere on Google, is, has there ever been a society when not telling the truth was not the rule?

Perhaps our biggest mistake is that we go on pretending. Pretending, for example, that we are respecting the Rights as set down in the Declaration. Nowhere do we hear political leaders telling us how things really are, for only then could we, might we, go on to make things better. Who has the courage to admit that these Rights cannot now be honored because it would mean that too many of those now favored would lose favors to those many more who are now unfavored?

For example, take Article 23, that concerns work, “Everyone has the right to work,…”, and Article 25 that concerns remuneration, “Everyone has the right to a  standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family,…, and Article 29, the individual in the community, “Everyone has duties to the community in which alone the free and full development of his personality is possible, and Everyone in the exercise of his rights and freedoms shall be subject only to such limitations as are determined by law solely for the purpose of securing due recognition and respect for the rights and freedoms of others and of meeting the just requirements of morality, public order and the general welfare in a democratic society.”

John Humphrey’s mistake was not to have said that his Declaration was the result of a communication with a Higher Being. For then the Declaration might have become a text for us to live by. But it didn’t happen and now the Declaration is forgotten, and instead we have fanatics turning to other texts, the Bible and the Koran in particular, and waving them before us as they proceed to destroy both people and property, the very things that the Declaration set out to protect.


For more background to all this discussion, go to the article by James Traub, in the New York Times: Ban Ki-moon vs. the Bad Guys


Michael Kinsley’s “shelf of books.”

TAKE THIS JOB AND SHIP IT
How Corporate Greed and Brain-Dead Politics Are Selling Out America.

By Byron L. Dorgan.

STATE OF EMERGENCY
The Third World Invasion and Conquest of America.

By Patrick J. Buchanan.

IS DEMOCRACY POSSIBLE HERE?
Principles for a New Political Debate.

By Ronald Dworkin.

DOES AMERICAN DEMOCRACY STILL WORK?

By Alan Wolfe.

THE BROKEN BRANCH
How Congress Is Failing America and How to Get It Back on Track.

By Thomas E. Mann and Norman J. Ornstein.

ACTIVISM, INC.
How the Outsourcing of Grassroots Campaigns Is Strangling Progressive Politics in America.

By Dana R. Fisher.

LOSING OUR DEMOCRACY
How Bush, the Far Right and Big Business Are Betraying Americans for Power and Profit.

By Mark Green.

OUR UNDEMOCRATIC CONSTITUTION
Where the Constitution Goes Wrong (and How We the People Can Correct It).

By Sanford Levinson.

STEALING DEMOCRACY
The New Politics of Voter Suppression.

By Spencer Overton.

WAS THE 2004 PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION STOLEN?
Exit Polls, Election Fraud, and the Official Count.

By Steven F. Freeman and Joel Bleifuss.

 

TimesSelect & the Skateboarder Bob Burnquist

By now everyone knows that the Web edition of the NYTimes is no longer fully accessible to non-subscribers. Why did they cut themselves off in this way from the “people?” Is it that their newspaper is not fit for everyone? But only for those who are able to pay?

The Times is a great newspaper. They should have remained, no matter what it cost them, freely accessible to the surfer on the Web. That would have been the mark of newspaper greatness. Others, Milan’s Corriere della Sera, Paris’ Figaro, and our own Washington Post, have lifted themselves above the Times in this respect. The daily editions of these, along with many others, can be read on the Web in their entirely without payment.

The Times now has a service called TimesSelect. By paying as little, they say, as 14 cents a day, one can read the entire edition on the Web. I don’t know about you, but I read hundreds of Web publications during a week. What if they all charged me “only 14 cents a day?” At a minimum that would mean thousands of dollars in a year’s time.

If everything on the Web became “…Select” wouldn’t that be the death of the Web? Isn’t the Times forgetting Kant’s Categorical Imperative which says: “Act only according to that maxim by which you can at the same time will that it would become a universal law.” In other words act in such a way that your actions could be followed by everyone with benefit to all. If everyone in this instance were to follow the Times’ lead the world would be a worse place.

But then what does TimesSelect prevent me from reading? Most of all the op ed writers. About them the Times has built a fee fence. Perhaps this is not such a bad thing. How important is it that we read these writers? To find out I went to see what I was missing. Just during the past week, in regard to two of them, Bob Herbert and Paul Krugman, here is what I found. And I know that what I found is pretty representative of these writers because I used to read them during that golden age before the subscription wall was built.

On 11/2/2006 Bob Herbert was writing this sort of thing: “We need to do something about the systematic subordination and brutalization of women and girls around the world.”

A few days earlier, on 10/30/2006, he wrote:  “If you pay close attention to the news and then go out and talk to ordinary people, it’s hard not to come away with the feeling that the system of politics and government in the U.S. is broke.”

One week ago, on 10/26/2006, this is what he said: “The overwhelming sense I took away from interviews with voters in and around South Bend was a feeling of disillusionment with government.”

Happy stuff, right. Not something you’d want to miss! Then I turned to Paul Krugman, who on 10/30/2006 wrote:  “But the housing boom became a bubble, fueled by a surge of irresponsible bank lending, which continues even now. The question now is how much pain the bursting bubble will inflict.”

On 10/27/2006 he had this to say: “Iraq is a lost cause. It’s just a matter of arithmetic: given the violence of the environment, with ethnic groups and rival militias at each other’s throats, American forces there are large enough to suffer terrible losses, but far too small to stabilize the country.”

And then, over one week ago, on 10/23/2006, we read:  “There are those who believe that the partisan gap can be bridged if the Democrats nominate an attractive presidential candidate who speaks in uplifting generalities. But they must have been living under a rock these past 15 or so years. Whoever the Democrats nominate will feel the full force of the Republican slime machine.”

Wow! Pretty dismal stuff all in all. Perhaps I should be grateful that TimesSelect meant that I wouldn’t be subjected to this. Perhaps even, I said to myself, the Times editors in their great wisdom were purposely keeping these writers away from us, from “we the people,” that our natural optimism and joie de vivre not be undermined?

Now the Times is still a great newspaper in spite of the wall, and here’s why. It’s the news, there’s just a lot of it, never too much, good reporting on all kinds of interesting and important, interesting and unimportant, happy and inspiring (as well as ugly and depressing) things going on in the world. Their news reports, which cover the full gamut of life on earth (and in outer space), unlike the op ed pieces mentioned, do strengthen my natural joy and optimism, and most espcially on the Web because I can rapidly pick and choose among them.

Just two days ago I read in the Times Mike Higgins’ inspiring account of the skateboarder Bob Burnquist. Bob, we’re told, had just completed the largest skateboard ramp in the world on his 12 acre farm north of San Diego among the green foothills of the San Marcos Mountains. The Times reporter describes Bob’s run down the 180 foot ramp at 55 miles an hour that launched him out over a 70 gap to the ramp beyond. For Burnquist, the reporter says, the ramp has become the latest step in a journey to create what Bob called an exponential progression in an otherwise street-bound, terrestrial sport. Bob Burnquist and Bob Herbert, will the twain ever meet?

“When I’m risk-taking, I feel like I’m alive,” said Burnquist, who is also a farmer, pilot, skydiver, musician and restaurateur…. “Born in Rio de Janeiro — reared in São Paolo — to an American father and Brazilian mother, Burnquist grew up speaking English and Portuguese. He began skateboarding at 11 and developed a style by imitating the exploits of professionals featured in magazines and videos… But he took what he learned much further, learning a full repertory of tricks.”

“Although Burnquist said he felt scared riding his ramp, he did not appear so on a first run during a solo session last week. Rolling in from the lower platform, he shot over the gap, spun a 360-degree mute grab, touched down and zipped toward the quarterpipe before floating into an elegant method air more than 40 feet up. Landing cleanly, he rolled away.  Afterward, he walked off the ramp, plopped into the passenger’s seat of a golf cart and was ferried 300 feet uphill. At the top, he climbed two sets of stairs to the platform and set up for another run.”

And the reporter concludes, and takes me along with him: “Alone at the pinnacle of skateboarding’s newest discipline, the sky was the limit.”

Prayer and Demonstrations

Imagine if suddenly we were all asked to become like Monks. This, although with important differences, is what Islam asks of its adherents. In particular in regard to the obligatory place that prayer must have in one’s life. The Muslim, as much or more than the Monk, turns daily to his or her God in prayer. Of the five pillars of Islam, the testimony of  faith, the fasting during the month of Ramadhan, Zakat, or the giving of alms to the poor, the Haj or the pilgrimage to Mecca, it is the second pillar, prayer five times a day, that makes, in this unbeliever’s eye, a Muslim a Muslim.

I’ve never really understood how one could live in the world, our world of constant action, of fully carrying out one’s various tasks connected with one’s job or profession, and stop whatever one is doing to pray. And then not just once, but five times a day, before the Sun rises, at noon, at mid afternoon, after the Sun sets, and at twilight. And each prayer has to be preceded by getting ready, that which usually means thoroughly cleansing oneself (with sand is there’s no water).

I’ve searched Google, so far in vain, to find an estimate of the amount of time these five prayer sessions would require of the Muslim worshipper. Thirty minutes per prayer session seems like a minimum because one cannot stop where one is to perform the prayer ritual of two or more “rakahs,” but instead one must go to the nearest Mosque or other assembly point and pray with one’s fellows and one’s Imam at one’s head. Two and one half hours a day, and that’s in addition to the time it takes to eat something in the form of snacks or meals, usually following each one of the prayers, except of course during Ramadhan.

I thought of all this as I read in today’s NYTimes about the Pakistan army’s recent destruction of a Madrassa or religious school used for training militants in the Bajur tribal area, which straddles the border with Afghanistan. Accompanying the article was this photo:

Madrassa

The photo shows a lot of mostly young men, probably not too different from the 80 militants who were killed in the attack. Where else would you find so many young, well appearing, well dressed, or at least in clean clothes, mostly white loose fitting robes that because they were white had to be changed (and washed) frequently? Not certainly in America’s cities and towns, where most everyone is employed.

The prayer ritual, five times a  day, was the answer. Prayer made them available. These men were used to being together in prayer, so it was not surprising that they could just as easily be assembled in response to whatever their leaders might wish, in this case in opposition to the government’s (wanton?) destruction of the Madrassa.

Liberté, Égalité, et Fraternité