Monday, April 16, 2012

Mailbox Monday: Bratz

While not neglecting the really important things in life - our under-construction raised raspberry beds and the current state of the Portland Timbers - I wanted to take a moment to mention this interview with Ed Luce in Foreign Policy.I don't agree with all of it. Starting with the title; "A Nation of Spoiled Brats"? C'mon, Foreign Policy - that's the best your editor could do? Ranger Rick magazine could beat that. Christ.

But outside the bitching I have two main problems with Luce's ideas as expressed in the interview, both of which seem to proceed from his spouting "conventional wisdom" without having any real grounds for believing it.

Specifically;

1. I think Luce (the interviewee) is just bloviating wildly about
"...the swing towards celebrating the child, elevating the child, over-praising the child, boosting constantly at every opportunity the self-esteem of the child, assuming the child is a fragile little eggshell that can be broken at any moment..."
that is supposed to be the cause of educational decline in the U.S. I have kiddos in school AND have taught at several levels and that's, frankly, horseshit.

I honestly think this whole "A Nation At Risk" crap is, well, crap. And, especially this "Nation At Risk From Self-Esteem" crap. I think the problems we're seeing in education - and I think those problems are a lot less significant than they're commonly made out to be - have a LOT more to do with a combination of a) educating more of our population than at nearly any time in our history, and b) the thirty-year cramdown on middle and lower-middle class wealth.

Because the bottom line on education is this;

- Not all kids can "do" a pre-college curriculum, yet that is the current U.S. standard. Prior to about 1975 the kids who couldn't usually simply dropped out, or were shunted aside into vo-tech tracks. Today we're still dropping them out, but a hell of a lot more kids who would have otherwise have been slotted into what when I was in grade school we called the "'tard school" (since non-mainstream kids were retards, see?) are being mainstreamed. I don't know of any parents who want their kids to get a shiny pretty "A" for doing "C" work. But the whole point of a bell curve is that you're going to get 10% of the students in the top 10% of grades. To assume that everyone who breathes can do algebra at a high level? Quit kidding yourself.

- The tighter the household budget, the tougher for the kid to do well.

We've known this since the 1965 Coleman Report. Economic class has always been the single largest factor in predicting academic achievement. There's a number of reasons for that, but as a factor it has never been seriously refuted.

Over the past three decades times have gotten tougher for pretty much everyone outside the 1%, and definitely for those below the top 25%. So I'm not surprised that their kids are not as singleminded about school success. The correlation do well in school (regardless of where you start from) = do well in life just doesn't hold up anymore, and more and more parents, and kids, can see that. IMO that still doesn't give you an excuse to stop trying. But I can see how it would increase the "bad outcome" sort of data.

Either way, I just don't buy this "OMFG, the Republic is collapsing because our schools are shit!" meme. There's no question that we have problems in teaching and learning. But I don't think those problems are anywhere near as simple as over-worked mommies and daddies insisting their speshul snowflake get preferential treatment.

2. Luce seems to start from the conventional wisdom "global is good". At least, that is the implication of his statement here: "...if globalization were put to a referendum in America, it would lose -- which is troubling, and it's one measure of the degree of alarm and distemper felt out there, which I come across the whole time whenever I'm outside of the Beltway." Now, I'm sorry, but I don't understand this whole enthusiasm for "globalization" as an economic religion.

I won't argue that "trade" is usually beneficial for those who engage in it, but how does that follow that it's good for, say, industrial workers here in the U.S. to be pitted in a wage-race-to-the-bottom with industrial workers in China, where cost of living is a fraction of what an American would consider semi-human, where acts that would cost U.S. manufacturers millions - poisoning and killing their workers, dumping hideous shit into the air and water - are simply part of doing business, and where crony capitalism is enjoying a Golden Age (where here it's barely getting back to the Silver standard of our Gilded one...)?

Luce seems to deliberately elide the fact that the greatest period of growth in the U.S. coincided with the time that the rest of the world was either a) walled off from U.S. markets by tariffs, or b) bombed into the Stone Age.

You can make all sorts of arguments about trade and tariffs, but to assume that a reasoned dislike for the sort of unequal playing field inherent in "globalization" as it currently exists is some sort of "troubling" attitude on the part of U.S. citizens is to assume that U.S. citizens are fools with no sense of self-preservation.

Which is often true! But not in this case, I would opine.But...overall the interview is damn well worth reading. Luce has some terrific observations about U.S. politics and economics, and in particular the way the U.S. seems to be politically incapable of either recognizing, or dealing, with the fairly obvious things that are bludgeoning it at the moment; social and economic stratification (and especially the grossly skewed distribution of the "recovery" since 2008), political distemper, and military hubris. And the problems he sees looming like icebergs ahead because of these. So while he's not perfectly correct I think he sure has some scary ideas, and ones that seem to fit what I see around me.And, sadly, I find myself shaking my head especially ruefully at his final paragraph:
"I hope that in the near future America will be able to remind itself that strength comes from its domestic economic muscularity and the degree to which America can again be a beacon to the world, a model worth emulating, rather than by the range and deployment of its weaponry, or by the spending power of those at the top. But I'm not optimistic -- given the trajectory of the debate today and in recent years -- that things will necessarily shake out that way. I wish I could see more cause for hope."
Because from where I see it, it is by our own goddamn feathers, and not by others' shafts, that we now stricken.

4 comments:

Podunk Paul said...

That's interesting, your comments and the Luce interview. One aspect of economic inequality that was not mentioned was the social control needed to enforce it.

One time I went to an upscale restaurant in Lima. A women was sitting on the sidewalk, skin and bones, dressed in traditional Indian garb. I tossed her a coin. The coin rolled on the sidewalk and she reached for it, her hands trembling with what I realized was hunger. Later, in the restaurant, my friends remonstrated with me for giving to beggars.

Podunk Paul said...

To add to the above comment, the situation is similar here in Mexico. Middle- and upper-class Mexicans are friendly -- amicable -- to those lower in the pecking order. But these transactions are purely social: transference of anything material is viewed as subversive. For example, paying a worker something approximating a just wage "undermines the Mexican wage structure" or contributing to someone's hospital bill translates as "thinking you can overcome Mexican poverty."

FDChief said...

Paul: That attitude is at the heart of the Tea Party/movement conservative strain of American politics. So it makes perfect sense when you look at the "comfort the comfortable/afflict the afflicted" agenda that the U.S. Right had been working on for thirty years.

One thing that characterized American society between the Thirties and the Eighties was a strong strain of thought that held that while poverty and social stratification existed that it was demeaning, wrong, and that it should be attacked and, as much as possible, eradicated. That fought the older "the poor will be with us always/the poor are poor because they are Lesser/Wrong/Bad" philosophy.

The real genius of the hard Right has been to legitimize the sort of puerile selfishness that your Peruvian and Mexican convivialists displayed. "Greed is good", "taxes are for the little people"...it's that sort of thing that Luce is calling out as part of the diminishing of this country, and I agree.

I won't argue that many "anti-poverty" programs have flaws. But the bottom line is that, goddamn it, they WORKED. Until the Great Society about a quarter of Americans lived in real dirt-poor, shotgun-shack, hookworm-and-pellagra poverty. Things like AFDC, food stamps, SSSI brought that number down to about 10% by 1970 and it stayed there for almost forty years.

That number is climbing now. And I wonder...why, do you think..?

Barry said...

Two comments - first, this is Foreign Policy Magazine. It's sh*t, and always will be. Anybody who writes for it will have to wallow in the sh*t. It'd be equivalent to some 'World Liberation!' magazine in the USSR, which produced monthly pro-war propaganda.

Second - the reason that the elites don't see the current economic situation as a problem is that they benefit from it. They *like* it.