Government, Mankind’s greatest invention?

James Buchanan says that "the loss of faith in the socialist dream has
not, and probably will not, restore faith in laissez-faire. But what
are the effective alternatives?"
That gets you thinking. James
Buchanan was a Nobelprize winning economist, and economists, I know,
love to talk about the "prisoner’s dilemma." I’ve never really
understood the significance of this tale. For don’t we always know what
the prisoner will do? For whom is it a dilemma? In fact why do the
economists make so much of this? Very few in the situation described
would be facing a dilemma. Most would simply "defect," or betray the
other, knowing that from that action they had the most to gain. In any
case that explains the "loss of faith in the socialist dream," that’s
why socialism didn’t work, and will never work. For self-interest is
still the single greatest motivating force in the world. And that’s
why, in spite of its obvious imperfections, the free market does work,
more or less, because it depends on that self-interest. And the "more
or less" explains why the failure of socialism doesn’t completely
restore our faith in laissea-faire. Self-interest alone is not good
enough.
Wouldn’t the situation where there is some government, that
is our own situation, be an "effective alternative?" For isn’t the
proper role of government to tame and temper people’s self-interest,
still the dominant motivating force in the lives of human beings, and
thereby make up for the imperfections of the free market by doing so?
Why would anyone, having experienced his or her own excesses, and
weaknesses, ever think that we could live productively and profitably
with our neighbors without a government "regulator" of some sort?
Why,
it now seems to me that government may very well be the single greatest
creation of mankind.* If you don’t believe that you need only to look
back at man when there wasn’t any government, although that’s not an
easy thing to do, given that early man left almost no traces of his
passage on earth other than his bones and some paintings on the walls
of caves. But is there anyone among us, even any diehard
anti-government libertarian/anarchist who would want to turn the clock
back 10,000 years or more ago, before the first bits of our history,
before the first governments? I don’t think so.
And today, what we
see happening in Iraq is no government, and that’s why even a bad
government, such as that of Mao, Stalin, or Saddam, did and still does
have its adherents and defenders. Why can’t our leaders understand
this, and not be so quick to overthrow a bad government without having
a good one waiting in the wings to take its place?

*“Nothing is more certain
that the indispensable necessity of government; and it is equally
undeniable that whenever and however it is instituted, the people must
cede to it some of their natural rights, in order to vest it with
requisite power.” (John Jay, in Federalist 2,)

Note to Michael Goldstein

   

   

   
      

Michael
Goldstein is the founder and CEO of the MATCH Commonwealth Charter
School in Boston. I wrote this note in response to his comment about my
Rothstein comment in an earlier post:
Dear Michael,
Well yes,  Kevin did say, in a lot fewer words, what I was trying to say.
Oh
well… Do you find that to be true, also, Michael, that most of what
you are thinking and perhaps finally geting around to writing, has
already been thought, said and written, and probably a good many times?
This
weekend I read an excellent article, from the Public Interest, from
Winter, 1966, by Christopher Jencks, Is the Public School Obsolete? ( a
question he would never phrase in that manner today, decidedly
incorrect).
I’ve also been reading (again) Diane Ravitch
on the history of the "public" school and on education and democracy. I
find she agrees with me (or rather I agree with her on a lot of
subjects). In particular when she says this about Dewey, OK, not new,
but it’s what I’ve always thought, and has been my problem with the man
each time I’ve sat down to read him, especially his Democracy and Education, "Dewey left problems in hls wake, caused in no small part by the obscurity of his prose."
Let me steer you to these observations by Ravitch, taken from her:  American Traditions of Schooling.
What follows is the last page or two of that essay. I agree with her
statement: "What does seem likely is that the public will not
indefinitely support schools in which children do not learn the skills
and knowledge that they require for participation in our society." How
do you read this? A radical change in the structure of our public
schooling is almost upon us? With the advent of the charter schools
some 15 years ago it did seem so. I’m less hopeful in that respect
today.
What do you think?
Finally this weekend I learned for the
first time that Ravitch is a great admirer of Robert Hutchins, and I
was too, especially before I took a teaching job at St. Johns College
in Annapolis in 1963, a decision based in some part on what Hutchins
had said. And what was that? Well, this sort of thing:
"Perhaps the
greatest idea that America has given the world," said Hutchins, "is the
idea of education for all. The world is entitled to know whether this
idea means that everybody can be educated, or only that everybody must
go to school." At St. Johns we believed that we knew what it meant to
be an educated man or woman.
And Michael, aren’t we still grappling
with this idea of education for all? You at MATCH, and I with my
Foundation work? It seems to me that we haven’t yet convinced ourselves
that "everyone can be educated," meaning by that, benefit from the
liberal education of which Hutchins is speaking… although for a long
time now we have legislated that everyone must go to school. So the
meaning of "education for all" is still in need of clarification. How
about taking a stab at it?

On Rothstein’s Response to Finn

Sunday, September 03, 2006
On Rothstein’s Response to Finn

[Richard Rothstein has written a response to Chester Finn’s August 17 posting in the Gadfly, “March of the Pessimists.”
Here follows directly the first portion of Rothstein’s response (a second portion to follow), interspersed in italics with my own running commentary on his text. For the complete text of his response, go to Rothstein.]

Chester Finn, in his August 17 “Gadfly” posting, responding to a New York Times article by Diana Jean Schemo and a Wall Street Journal essay by Charles Murray, expresses puzzlement that “the likes of Schemo and Murray” can’t see that good schools can overcome the disadvantages of poverty, racism, troubled families, crime-infested neighborhoods, and harmful peer influences.
These are complex issues, not elucidated by labeling these writers, as Mr. Finn does, ‘liberal,’ ‘conservative,’ ‘pessimist,’ or ‘defeatist.’ But I take Mr. Finn at his word that he genuinely does not understand why Schemo, Murray and others do not share his belief in the power of good schools to offset all other social and economic influences. I will attempt, as respectfully as I can, to explain why, for my part, I do not share his belief.

[The first, and perhaps most interesting, question that Rothstein raises is whether or not schools, good schools, have the power to “offset” all other social and economic influences. “Offset” may be a poor choice of words, as it’s not clear what the word means. Or what Rothstein may have meant in using that word. If it means “do away with” well the schools probably don’t have that power. But if it means “set off to the side,” that seems exactly what is in the power, and the mission of good schools. A good school will set aside one’s ignorance, one’s coarseness, one’s inarticulateness, and replace them in the foreground with articulateness, new found sensitivity, knowledge and other such positive attainments.
What Finn actually said was this: “Backward reeled my mind upon discovering that the New York Times’s liberal education writer Diana Jean Schemo and conservative icon Charles Murray share essentially the same defeatist view of education: that schools aren’t powerful enough instruments to boost poor kids’ achievement to an appreciably higher academic plane due to the many other forces (family, neighborhood, poverty, heredity, etc.) tugging them downward.” All he is saying, or implying, here is that schools can “boost achievement,” not that they can entirely offset “all other social and economic influences.”]

In short, given that, as Mr. Finn asserts, children’s time influenced by families and communities exceeds the time they are influenced by schools “by a multiple of four or five,” I am puzzled that he fails to agree that serious and successful efforts to substantially narrow the achievement gap must include social and economic policies to improve the circumstances of family and community life, as well as policies to improve the quality of schooling.

[Nowhere does Finn say that reform efforts may not include “social and economic policies to improve the circumstances of family and community life…”. In fact he clearly states that, “It’s obvious that schools can do lots more when the 91 percent—the time not in school–cooperates, when non-school influences (family, peer group, neighborhood, church, you name it) tug in the same direction as school.”
Also what Rothstein implies doesn’t necessarily follow from the fact that children spend much less time in school than without. One can speak Chinese during most of one’s waking hours, but in just a few hours a day given to an excellent English immersion program one can also become a fluent English speaker. It’s less the number of hours that one spends in school (although with improved student motivation and work habits and better teachers more time in school will prove valuable and profitable) than what the teacher and the student are doing with the time they have. Improvement in the student’s social (the removal of abusive, bullying, and coarse individuals in one’s environment) and the bettering of one’s economic condition (a good paying job, the arrival of a wealthy uncle, more government handouts) do not necessarily contribute to stronger achievement in the school. The latter will still depend primarily on the student himself, what he or she does with her time in class or without, and on the teacher, and also on classroom peers. How many children of the rich, how many children of kings and queens, have failed to learn even while experiencing the “best” of social and economic environments?]

First, let’s clarify some common imprecisions in the discussion. Mr. Finn asserts that good schools are “powerful enough instruments to boost poor kids’ achievement to an appreciably higher academic plane.” Nobody – not I, nor anyone with whom I am familiar – disagrees with this assertion. But what is commonly argued (and the notion that I dispute) is not that good schools can boost the achievement of disadvantaged children to “an appreciably higher plane” but rather that such schools can “close the achievement gap;” i.e., produce achievement from lower class children that is approximately equal to the achievement of middle class children.

[It may be “commonly argued,” but not by Finn in this piece, that good schools can “close the achievement gap.” In his piece Finn doesn’t even mention the “gap.” Whereas Rothstein in his rebuttal mentions the achievement gap a total of 9 times! He is at pains to point out that these schools cannot close the gap for all their students. But the proponents of so-called “no excuses” schools are not saying this, rather something much more restrained and modest, that good schools, and good teachers, and hard working students, can significantly raise achievement, if not closing the achievement gap in every case. Why isn’t this in itself remarkable enough? Why should these schools that achieve so much with their students be put down for not achieving more? Why isn’t it enough that these schools are doing much more than the schools from which their students have come? One wonders what’s really on Rothstein’s mind. Is it the biais of a point of view he brings with him from the Economic Policy Institute? that only government funded anti-poverty programs can ever significantly lessen and eventually close the achievement gap?]

More specifically, the claim is that if all disadvantaged children could attend such schools, their average achievement would not be appreciably different from the average achievement of middle class children – they would be as likely to attend good colleges, be no more likely to end up in prison or as teen parents, be as qualified for good-paying jobs, etc. Another way of thinking about the claim that good schools can “close the achievement gap” is that if all disadvantaged children attended good schools, and graduated, on average, with average middle class levels of achievement, the vast social inequalities that now pervade American society would disappear. Or, as New York’s Mayor Michael Bloomberg put it, if his New York City school reform program succeeded, “a lot of what Dr. Martin Luther King wanted to accomplish in our society will take care of itself.”

[It almost seems that Rothstein is here saying that children by themselves cannot change the world. I would say rather that it’s only by means of the children, stepping out of and over what ever it was they were born into, overcoming whatever obstacles they’ve had to face, that real progress can ever come about. But here again Rothstein is belaboring his point. For he would still speak of “all disadvantaged children.” And again, need I say it, Finn is not talking about all disadvantaged children. He is talking about what can be achieved by some disadvantaged children in the right school environment. Why fault him for not proving that all disadvantaged children will join the ranks of the “advantaged,” no more than all those who lose their welfare payments will eventually get a job and buy a home, pay income taxes. Should we not have done our welfare reform for those who could when there were those who couldn’t?
It seems to me that Rothstein’s argument is faulty. If I knew more about faulty arguments I’m sure I’d find the right name for his. Finn is most of all talking about what these “no excuses” schools have achieved, and about the validity and legitimacy of this achievement. He is not, certainly not in the brief commentary below which is the object of Rothstein’s response, trying to say that nothing more is needed, that even if battles have been won that the war is over. I’ts not. Again, why does Rothstein not stay with the principal question, which is can these schools of which Finn is speaking significantly improve the life chances of disadvantaged children. Rothstein concentrates on the relatively trivial point that these schools don’t do it for “all,” rather than giving them well deserved credit for their successess and then using his own persuasive powers to extend the model to other inner city schools that are failing, and failing their students.]

A puzzling aspect of Mr. Finn’s confidence that good schools can overcome all or most of the negative influences of deprived social and economic environments is that he himself, in other contexts, wisely endorses “value-added” as a preferred way to evaluate school quality, and as the appropriate way to compare average school-type (charter/non-charter, private/public) performance. Examining value-added trends makes sense only if you understand that social class greatly influences the level of student achievement. Granting that, on average, disadvantaged children (for example, those living in poverty) cannot reasonably be expected to achieve at the same level as middle class children (also, on average), a school serving disadvantaged children can be considered successful if it raises their achievement to levels significantly higher than it was previously, even if these higher levels remain, on average, considerably below those of typical middle class children. Advocacy of value-added comparisons as a preferred alternative to comparing raw achievement levels for accountability purposes makes sense because it recognizes that most children from poor families start their educations at a significant educational disadvantage to most middle class children, and that during their schooling, middle class children continue to enjoy extra-school educational benefits that children living in poverty do not possess. Advocacy of value-added comparisons makes no sense if you believe that good schools can fully overcome the social and economic influences that depress low-income children’s achievement.

[More of the same. Rothstein hammers away at the same point. “Overcome all of the negative influences…fully ovecome the social and economic influences…” Once again not the issue. Why doesn’t he talk about the main point that Finn is making, that schools, even given the negative social and economic influences, can make a significant difference in the lives of disadvantaged kids, differences that were not being made in the failing inner city schools from which these kids have come. Rothstein seems to have his “mantra,” that no single educational institution can overcome all the negative influences in the lives of the children attending that institution. Does that mean that one does nothing much while waiting for the government to change the social and economic conditions of the kids’ lives? Well, that’s what seems to be the rule within the inner city schools at the present time. Waiting for what? A new war on poverty? That is not going to come. And in any case we know the results of the last one. Does Rothstein?
Now a few comments about “value-added comparisons.” Why don’t value added trends make sense period? Why in order to make sense of them do you have to understand that social class greatly influences the level of student achievement”? Won’t everything about the student will more or less greatly influence the level of his achievement? Why is it, according to Rothstein, that “advocacy of value-added comparisons makes no sense if you believe that good schools can fully overcome the social and economic influences that depress low-income children’s achievement?” How does one’s belief about the relative effectiveness of good schools in impoverished inner cities at all affect the validity of our using value added comparisons? Am I missing something here?….]
To be continued.

KIPP or Knowledge is Power

The most common criticism leveled against the successful charter schools, including the Massachusetts network of "no excuses" schools, KIPP, and Achievement First schools, as well as a number of others, is that their impoverished, minority students at the start of their new school careers test out a bit higher than their peers remaining in the district schools, and even more significant they are said to have parents who are motivated to seek out the best possible school experience for their children. And that’s not fair! These critics pretend that the success of these charters is not meaningful because it simply follows from having found (selected) better students and more motivated parents to begin with. Who couldn’t do as well, they imply, given this above average student body?
This is the criticism that Richard Rothstein levels against the KIPP Schools in the book, The Charter School Dust-Up: Examining the Evidence on Enrollment and Achievement. Rothstein, a lecturer at Columbia University and a research associate at the Economic Policy Institute, writes extensively about education and his writings most often, while admitting the existence of failed inner city schools, do not so much fault the schools themselves as the societal problems (poverty, inadequate health care, abusive family situations etc.) that the kids bring with them into the schools. The fault, dear Reader, lies not so much in the schools and students as in the communities where the kids live and where these "essential services" are sorely lacking. Now when the KIPP School takes these kids without essential services and brings their reading, writing, and math skills up to grade level or above, and the district school serving the very same population fails to do so, who is to blame and who is to be praised? Well we have already learned from reading Rothstein that the schools are not to be blamed when they fail, and when they succeed, as in the case of KIPP, are not to be praised because these kids were not, in spite of appearances, enough like the kids they left behind in order to justify the comparison. Their overall test scores were higher and their parents were, what, better parents? You don’t praise the schools whose kids have better parents.
So, what are we to make of all this? There are those, many of those at the Economic Policy Institute, who cry foul whenever people succeed without having begun the race from a level playing field. First make everybody the same, equal, and only then take the next step. In the instance of charter and district schools first make sure that the student bodies are exactly the same and only then arrive at any conclusions regarding the outcomes.
Well this will never happen. To change the outcomes the students, as well as the teachers, parents and the schools themselves, must also change. So it’s true as Rothstein et al. say. At the very beginning the charter school students are different. But the charter school requirements, what the charter school is, make them different. And if you want different outcomes this always has to be the case. You cannot take the students and the parents as they are, and leave them as they are and expect to make important changes in their lives. Inner city schools have been doing just this for generations and they have failed to raise the achievement levels of their students. Tell the students they have to work harder, and tell the parents they have to care about their children’s education, and do that from the very beginning. That’s what the KIPP Schools do, and that’s why their students are different. For that Richard Rothstein ought not to have blamed, but to have praised the founders and leaders of these schools.

Required Curriculum For All?

National boards and commissions have always recommended a required curriculum for all students, the sort of thing that is common in most every other Western democracy and Japan, probably China too. In this country most local school authorities and the people themselves, to the extent they have involved themselves in these matters, have always resisted one K-12 school curriculum for the entire nation. Why? Why is it somehow important that what is to be learned in school be decided by the local school authorities, the school Board, the school superintendent, and in some instances the parents and teachers, and not by the nation? Is it freedom’s last gasp before a steady, undiminishing onslaught of big government? In this case the battle lines are not the usual ones between Left and Right. The political Center is generally sympathetic to national norms but their voice of reason is usually not heard because the opposing voices coming from Left and Right are so much louder.

I think that the sharp disagreement over a national curriculum, and national standards as well, exists in our country, and not, say, in England, France, and Germany, because from the very beginning we have placed a much heavier burden on our schools than have these countries. The school in France is most of all meant to make children literate and to that end a single national curriculum could be and was readily adopted. Schools in this country, however, have always been meant, and probably more so today even than in the past, to do much more than simply teach literacy. We would have our schools make knowledgeable and well informed, but also good and caring adults of our children, and there is little agreement how all that, and probably more still, is best done. Indeed, there is much mistrust of the central authority when it comes to how our children may best learn the difference between right and wrong. And there is no less distrust of, no less disagreement with the national authority in regard to what subject matters ought to make up the curriculum. In this country schools have meant all sorts of things to all sorts of people, and to accept a national curriculum might mean for the local community the loss of the particularities of their school, that specialness, whatever those things were that make the school theirs, and theirs alone. A National curriculum along with national standards would bring with their intrusion into the local community a national set of norms and values, thereby even further diminishing the importance of the local community in the lives of its children. Even further because popular and national culture has already done so much in that regard.

Public/Private

I want to say a few words about the private/public opposition because that’s what people in public education are always talking about, in particular they are always seeking out studies that prove that public schools are better than private schools, or at least can hold their own in the comparison. People in private education don’t seem to much care about this sort of thing, don’t have this public/private opposition very much on their minds. Perhaps they are too busy with their students.
How many times have we seen just during the past year, in the few newspapers still published and still read, such as the Washington Post and the New York Times, this or that study that shows public schools doing better than private schools? And along with that judgement commentary making sure that everyone is aware and knows the significance of the findings. This private/public school thing, that draws so much of our attention in this country, baffles me. Aren’t these categories, private schools and public schools, so vast that any comparison between them is either of so general a nature as to be meaningless, or of such a particular nature that general conclusions are not warranted? Aren’t the proper categories successful schools, not so successful schools, failing schools and everything in between, and might we not with profit look at how schools succeed, how schools fail, whether or not they be public or private.
Private schools want to be good schools, and they want their kids to succeed because otherwise their paying parent customers would put them out of business. Public schools want to be seen as somehow inherently better, more American, or as American as apple pie. They want to be seen as embodying the American dream, creating equal opportunity for all comers, and they enlist the politicians, rather than the parents on their side because their jobs are assured by government, not by the parents of their children.
I would say that I have known good public and good private schools. But the good public schools are nearly all either exam schools, magnet schools, or schools in affluent suburban communities. In this country’s large cities with large minority and poor populations the politicians and everyone else with the means to do so will send their kids to private schools. For even the public figures recognize that the public district schools in our inner cities are failing. And so far no one seems to know what to do about it. And public/private comparisons are of little or no help.

Schools as Instruments of Change

How much have the schools changed our way of life? I won’t even ask how well have the schools created an informed citizenry, that which Thomas Jefferson thought should be their primary mission. What has ever happened that would make us say, why this has come about because of the schools? I can’t think of anything, except perhaps the achievement gap and dropping out. Schools are just there. We’re all familiar with them, but unlike parks, police, and fire engines there is no general agreement as to just what good they accomplish by being there. Rather than life changing instruments, schools are our means of occupying our chldren once it has been pointed out and agreed upon that child labor is no longer to be tolerated.
Need I even say that the real big changes in our lives are brought about, not by schools, but by new technologies? For example, the movement off the farm. “By 1940, as highly mechanized, highly capitalized farming took over, the dusty dirt roads, farm wagons and Model-T Fords passing by, threshers in overalls pitching bundles, small family farms with cows, pigs and chickens, all the speed and power of a rural way of life set by the three-mile-an-hour gait of the horse, all this was just a nostalgic memory. And since 1940 the number of Americans who farm has dropped from about 30 percent to less than three percent of the working population. This is probably the most fundamental change in modern American history, and its cultural consequences have still to be calculated.” (See, Science and the Villager: The Last Sleeper Wakes, Foreign Affairs, Fall, 1982)

Thomas Jefferson’s “informed citizenry.”

Throughout his lifetime Thomas Jefferson had much to say about education. His own education was constantly on his mind. And perhaps because of this we still respectfully listen to what he had to say. Here are a few excerpts from his writings on education:

“Every government degenerates when trusted to the rulers of the people alone. The people themselves, therefore, are its only safe depositories. And to render even them safe, their minds must be improved to a certain degree.” Notes on Virginia 1782

“Educate and inform the whole mass of the people. Enable them to see that it is their interest to preserve peace and order, and they will preserve them. And it requires no very high degree of education to convince them of this. They are the only sure reliance for the preservation of our liberty.” –Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, 1787.

“If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.” -Thomas Jefferson to Charles Yancey, 1816.

“If the condition of man is to be progressively ameliorated, as we fondly hope and believe, education is to be the chief instrument in effecting it.” –Thomas Jefferson to M. A. Jullien,
1818.

“I know no safe depositary of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education.” to William Jarvis, 1820

From these comments and others like them, written over a period of at least 40 years it is clear that Jeffferson saw the continued health and survival of his country in a well-informed people, in a well educated citizenry. Be that as it may Jefferson’s writings are not without evidence that he in fact believed much more in a meritocracy.

Forexample: “It becomes expedient for promoting the public happiness that those persons, whom nature has endowed with genius and virtue, should be rendered by liberal education worthy to receive, and able to guard the sacred deposit of the rights and liberties of their fellow citizens; and that they should be called to that charge without regard to wealth, birth or other accidental condition or circumstance.” –Thomas Jefferson: Diffusion of Knowledge Bill, 1779.

Much more than he believed  in a generally well informed citizenry. The makers of our country, including Jefferson himself, were anything but the well-informed citizenry of which he speaks. They were rather an elite, for the most part consisting of wealthy land and slave owners from the Eastern seaboard of our country.

In Jefferson’s time we didn’t yet have a system of public education so he was free to say anything he wanted regarding what might be such a system’s merits. And in fact when the beast is not yet born it can be all things to all people that await its coming. An educational system as described by Jefferson that created an informed citizenry, thus preventing kings, queens, the nobility and the priesthood from returning to power, could very well be thought of as the source of this country’s strength.

And many even today think, or rather speak of our public educational system in this way, whether they believe it or not. I tend to think that no one can really believe that, that our public educational system has created a well informed and responsible citizenry. And yet we still have our democracy, no worse today than in Jefferson’s time, probaby still in the hands of an elite, not now, no more than in Jefferson’s time, in the hands of the people.

Perhaps the very best one can say of our schools is that so far they seem to be replenishing, along with significant help from a constant flow of highly educated immigrants, our governing elite. Jefferson was wrong in what said about an informed citizenry, or at least that our country would depend on having such, and happily so, because if our country’s survival had really depended on an informed citizenry it would never have survived as long as it has.

What Causes Poverty

Saturday, August 19, 2006
What Causes Poverty

What is the cause of poverty? The other day I was visiting a Boston based organization that was struggling to raise the achievement levels of poor inner city minority kids and was asked that question. The issue of poverty, and in particular the version that is prevalent in all of our large cities, was all too familiar to me. In fact poverty has always been the immovable object seeming to block all our efforts to make such things as safe neighborhoods, good schools, and home ownership realities for the inhabitants of our inner cities. But I had never in all my contact with the beast answered the question of its origins. Now I will.

The cause of poverty, I told my questioner, is two-fold. The first cause is when the free exchange of goods (and ideas, because there’s also intellectual poverty) is interrupted and brought to a halt by such things as excessive rules and regulations, tariffs, walls and other physical barriers, and violence of all kinds, including intimidation, outright theft, and most of all war. Haven’t we always known that new wealth, which alone can reduce and finally eliminate poverty, stems from the free exchange of goods and ideas?

The second cause is greed. Yes, that’s right, pure and simple greed.
The Gross Domestic Product of the poorest 48 nations is less than the wealth of the world’s three richest people combined. For even when goods flow, as into Russia after the breakup of the Soviet Union, as now out of China in shipping containers bound for the West, as into the home of Cinderella in the baskets of her step sisters on market day, just a few enjoy the benefits of these movements of goods. Today in Russia, as in the Soviet Union earlier, the many continue to do without, Cinderella remains in rags still waiting for her Prince to come, and in China tens, perhaps hundreds of new billionaires share the country unequally with hundreds of millions of the still poor.

Just recently I read that Palestinian goods were beginning to flow into Israel: “KARNI CARGO CROSSING, Israel, June 5, — Palettes of fresh produce, seafood, and office furniture rolled into Israel from the Gaza Strip last week, marking the first substantial flow of goods from the economically battered Palestinian territory since February.” This policy turn about was the work of Amir Peretz, the leader of Israel’s Labor Party as well as Israel’s Minister of Defense. Peretz believes that terrorism is best fought by relieving the stress on the Palestinian people. It is his conviction, as that of many of those on the political Left, that the exchange of goods between Palestine (Gaza) and Israel will alleviate to some degree, depending on the amount of exchange, the wrenching poverty of the Palestinian territories. But until the terrorists stop being terrorists the free flow of goods between the two zones will not happen and poverty will continue to dominate the lives of the Palestinians.

Examples of obstruction to the free exchange of goods are everywhere. For examples of greed we have only to live. Most of our wars on poverty would undo the effects of greed by some form of redistribution of wealth. For governments haven’t yet understood that the war on poverty ought to begin in the market place, and not proceed from the pocket books the wealthy. Both Christianity and Communism had as one of their goals the elimination of greed, or at least the reduction of the disparities between the rich and the poor. But they also made the pocket books of the wealthy their principal target, and did little or nothing to promote the free exchange of goods and ideas. Whereas Communism is a clear failure in making the world a better place, the jury on Christianity is still out.

The United States is today the wealthiest nation on Earth. Yet poverty is also clearly with us. In 2004 the official poverty rate was 12.7%, or 37 million people. To reduce the number of people in the ranks of the poor the Democrats would increase the tax burden on the wealthy. The Republicans would deregulate the market place and thereby increase the size of the nation’s wealth. Both efforts seem necessary because even the relatively untrammeled exchange of goods and ideas in this country has not yet much slowed the growing disparities between the rich and the poor.

School Matters

There are some things that one hesitates to even mention, simply because so much has already been said about them and to so little avail. Iraq is one. Globalization is another, and a third the public schools. I’ve never fought in Iraq so I’m not going to put myself in among those who have, and in the way of globalization I’ve done little more than consume the products of China, it being either that or no new shoes. But the schools, well there I don’t fear to tread, having been either a teacher or an administrator most of my life, and I’m now well into my seventh decade.
But I’ll speak only about the schools in our inner cities, because these are the schools that are failing the kids, or the kids in these schools are failing to learn, which is the same thing. This has been going on for a long time, and it seems to be getting worse as the inner city populations become ever more isolated from mainstream America. For a long time now, how long, when did our failing inner city schools begin? I don’t know (a future research project) but I have never ceased to be amazed that the politicians, the school administrators, and the teachers’ unions, all doing quite well in these otherwise failing inner city school environments, go on doing and saying pretty much the same unhelpful things, year after year, and all the time their schools go on failing the kids. Why is this so? Why aren’t they shouting for change and reform from the rooftops?
Is the failure because these kids are poor, that they come from single parent families, that they frequently are victims of physical abuse at home, that they have little or no contact with positive and caring adult role models? Is it because they lack proper health care? Is it because the schools are more segregated than ever before, in Boston more segregated now than before busing began in the seventies? Is it because these poor and disadvantaged kids have little of a positive nature to give to or take from one another?
And busing is still going on! How can that be? No one seems to know how to stop it. The kids are bused throughout the inner city where there are only poor kids like themselves. Why is this so? Is there a bus drivers’ union that is responsible? Just as there is a superintendents’ union responsible for the schools being closed in the afternoons and evenings. But the busing stops at the city limits (although I believe there is an exception to this in St. Louis, and there is the Metco program in Boston). There is a wall, a red line, not to be crossed, between the city and the suburbs, those suburbs where the suburban kids, from whom the city kids in a real integrated environment might learn, live with others just like themselves in their own segregated environments.
Is the failure the result of the classwork being conducted in English when many of the students are themselves only learning English and speak another language at home? Is it because so little is expected of them in class? Is it because the bar has been set too low and they have lost respect for what they are expected to learn? Is it because the teachers no longer care? Well it’s because of all of this and more.
Unbelievable isn’t it, that we go on as if nothing could be done, and therefore do nothing. Actually that’s not quite true. There are exceptions that prove the rule. There are a few school people, the leaders of a few pilot, charter, and nativity prep schools that have sprung up during the past 10 or 15 years or so and that don’t fail these kids. These schools are there quite clearly in response to the failure of so many kids in our inner cities to learn. The charter, pilot and nativity kids are no less attending segregated schools with poor kids like themselves, but in these schools much is expected of them, and that seems to make all the difference. But then, and would you believe this, these few schools that are serving these kids well, instead of being celebrated and looked to as models of change, are scorned by the same politicians, school administrators and teachers’ unions that are continuing to run the failing schools. Are they somehow like the Emperor in Andersen’s story the Emperor’s New Clothes, refusing to see what more and more everyone else sees, their own nakedness, the clear absence of even the appearance of a successful public school system?
Every ten years or so the situation in the schools becomes so obviously in need of reform that the Federal government steps in. The NoChildLeftBehind law of 2002 is the latest instance of this. In part the Feds got it right. The kids did need to be held accountable, the kids needed to learn to read and to write and to figure, and this law requires that they now pass statewide standardized tests in math and language arts in order to graduate from high school. But the law does nothing about all those things that are wrong and probably at fault for much of the failure. The law does nothing about segregation. The law does nothing about unruly classrooms. The law does nothing about teachers who have given up. Worse, the law probably contributes to more kids dropping out of school, from fear of failure. For those kids who stay in school, the ones who always do what they’re told, the new law, because of al the test preparation that it requires of them, allows them no time for such no less important activities as art and music, discussions in social studies class, the preparation of science fair experiments and demonstrations, all these and other intangibles which are so important to every child’s healthy growth and development. For these kids who stay in school doing well in school has been reduced to doing well on a test.
I haven’t finished. But my subject, the plight of our inner city schools, is not going away. It will probably be around a long time after we’ve left Iraq, and probably well after the opponents of globalism have ceased to matter.

Liberté, Égalité, et Fraternité