Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Adam Smith on education

The Wealth of Nations, V.1.181

"...It is otherwise with the common people. They have little time to spare for education. Their parents can scarce afford to maintain them even in infancy. As soon as they are able to work they must apply to some trade by which they can earn their subsistence. That trade, too, is generally so simple and uniform as to give little exercise to the understanding, while, at the same time, their labour is both so constant and so severe, that it leaves them little leisure and less inclination to apply to, or even to think of, anything else.

"But though the common people cannot, in any civilized society, be so well instructed as people of some rank and fortune, the most essential parts of education, however, to read, write, and account, can be acquired at so early a period of life that the greater part even of those who are to be bred to the lowest occupations have time to acquire them before they can be employed in those occupations. For a very small expence the public can facilitate, can encourage, and can even impose upon almost the whole body of the people the necessity of acquiring those most essential parts of education.

"The public can facilitate this acquisition by establishing in every parish or district a little school, where children may be taught for a reward so moderate that even a common labourer may afford it; the master being partly, but not wholly, paid by the public, because, if he was wholly, or even principally, paid by it, he would soon learn to neglect his business. In Scotland the establishment of such parish schools has taught almost the whole common people to read, and a very great proportion of them to write and account. In England the establishment of charity schools has had an effect of the same kind, though not so universally, because the establishment is not so universal. If in those little schools the books, by which the children are taught to read, were a little more instructive than they commonly are, and if, instead of a little smattering of Latin, which the children of the common people are sometimes taught there, and which can scarce ever be of any use to them, they were instructed in the elementary parts of geometry and mechanics, the literary education of this rank of people would perhaps be as complete as it can be. There is scarce a common trade which does not afford some opportunities of applying to it the principles of geometry and mechanics, and which would not therefore gradually exercise and improve the common people in those principles, the necessary introduction to the most sublime as well as to the most useful sciences."

Of the two systems of morality

"In every civilized society, in every society where the distinction of ranks has once been completely established, there have been always two different schemes or systems of morality current at the same time; of which the one may be called the strict or austere; the other the liberal, or, if you will, the loose system. The former is generally admired and revered by the common people: the latter is commonly more esteemed and adopted by what are called people of fashion."

This was written by Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations, V.1.199, published in 1776.

"The former is generally admired and revered by the common people: the latter is commonly more esteemed and adopted by what are called people of fashion. The degree of disapprobation with which we ought to mark the vices of levity, the vices which are apt to arise from great prosperity, and from the excess of gaiety and good humour, seems to constitute the principal distinction between those two opposite schemes or systems. In the liberal or loose system, luxury, wanton and even disorderly mirth, the pursuit of pleasure to some degree of intemperance, the breach of chastity, at least in one of the two sexes, &c. provided they are not accompanied with gross indecency, and do not lead to falsehood or injustice, are generally treated with a good deal of indulgence, and are easily either excused or pardoned altogether. In the austere system, on the contrary, those excesses are regarded with the utmost abhorrence and detestation. The vices of levity are always ruinous to the common people, and a single week's thoughtlessness and dissipation is often sufficient to undo a poor workman for ever, and to drive him through despair upon committing the most enormous crimes. The wiser and better sort of the common people, therefore, have always the utmost abhorrence and detestation of such excesses, which their experience tells them are so immediately fatal to people of their condition. The disorder and extravagance of several years, on the contrary, will not always ruin a man of fashion, and people of that rank are very apt to consider the power of indulging in some degree of excess as one of the advantages of their fortune, and the liberty of doing so without censure or reproach as one of the privileges which belong to their station. In people of their own station, therefore, they regard such excesses with but a small degree of disapprobation, and censure them either very slightly or not at all."

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

The Sokal affair

Physicist Alan D. Sokal's Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity, published in 1996 in the Social Text, an academic journal dedicated to cultural studies. Sokal is a leftist that has taught mathematics at the National University of Nicaragua during the Sandinista government.

"...the content of any science is profoundly constrained by the language within which its discourses are formulated; and mainstream Western physical science has, since Galileo, been formulated in the language of mathematics.100 101 But whose mathematics? The question is a fundamental one, for, as Aronowitz has observed, ``neither logic nor mathematics escapes the `contamination' of the social.'' And as feminist thinkers have repeatedly pointed out, in the present culture this contamination is overwhelmingly capitalist, patriarchal and militaristic: ``mathematics is portrayed as a woman whose nature desires to be the conquered Other.'' Thus, a liberatory science cannot be complete without a profound revision of the canon of mathematics. As yet no such emancipatory mathematics exists, and we can only speculate upon its eventual content.

We can see hints of it in the multidimensional and nonlinear logic of fuzzy systems theory; but this approach is still heavily marked by its origins in the crisis of late-capitalist production relations. Catastrophe theory, with its dialectical emphases on smoothness/discontinuity and metamorphosis/unfolding, will indubitably play a major role in the future mathematics; but much theoretical work remains to be done before this approach can become a concrete tool of progressive political praxis. Finally, chaos theory -- which provides our deepest insights into the ubiquitous yet mysterious phenomenon of nonlinearity -- will be central to all future mathematics. And yet, these images of the future mathematics must remain but the haziest glimmer: for, alongside these three young branches in the tree of science, there will arise new trunks and branches -- entire new theoretical frameworks -- of which we, with our present ideological blinders, cannot yet even conceive. "

Truth or dare? Sokal's book on the subject, Impostures intellectuelles, coauthored with Jean Bricmont, has apparently been making quite a stir in France. For an entry point to the debate pro and contra Sokal and Bricmont, replete with links to the writings of the actual protagonists, see here.

Friday, February 5, 2010

What is the difference between the AFT and the NEA?

The AFT (the American Federation of Teachers) and the NEA (the National Education Association) are the two largest nationa teacher unions.

"I suppose this is something I should know, but I don't, so does anyone out there know what the difference between the NEA and the AFT are?" That is the question asked by Matt Iglesias in his blog, and a number of well-informed readers of his blog obliged with a well clarifying picture of the two unions.

One of the readers of the Iglesias blog notes very informatively:

Historically the NEA viewed teaching as a profession and itself as a professional organization, similar to the AMA. It would help teachers take their place in society and from time to time assist in the peer-to-peer discussions that would occur when wages and working conditions needed to be adjusted.

The AFT viewed teaching, in its political and contractual interactions at least, as a form of hourly labor best thought of in the framework of an industrial trade union (and it is a member of the AFL-CIO).

From the 1940s through the 1960s most teachers thought along the lines of the NEA, and where teachers were organized they tended to join the NEA.

When the 1970s rolled around, stagflation hit, budgets started getting cut, and teachers bearing the brunt of the problems with city school systems, it became apparent that those in power considered teachers to be akin to janitors rather than doctors, and treated them accordingly. At that point the AFT started to grow and take membership away from the NEA. In reaction the NEA became more politically involved and active, but never as much so as the AFT.

Teachers are still highly educated, politically aware and active, and have some free time in the afternoons - so they have always been a good source of foot labor for the Dems. To the extent that the AFT is still more militant and more active, they are the ones that have the most influence on the Dems, but the NEA was still larger numerically last time I checked.


One difference is that the AFT, brought to national prominence by Albert Shanker, tends to act more like a regular union, going on strikes, etc., and the NEA more like a professional organization, less militant in its tactics. On the other hand, the AFT has been more willing to consider various accountability/curriculum reforms than the NEA. Certainly true under Shanker, who b/c almost a kind of neocon,this may have changed more recently. AFT tends to be more urban, NEA suburban.

Here's a link to a argument that they should merge that runs down some differences:

I'd say the Dems are in hock to both. AFT at the local level on issues of pay/work rules. NEA at the national level on the need to water down accountability reforms.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau - the contrarian genius

"It would have been better for the peace of France if this man had never existed", said Napoleon of Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

Or here is what Voltaire wrote to Rousseau about "The Social Contract":

"I have received your new book against the human race, and thank you for it. Never was such a cleverness used in the design of making us all stupid. One longs, in reading your book, to walk on all fours. But as I have lost that habit for more than sixty years, I feel unhappily the impossibility of resuming it. Nor can I embark in search of the savages of Canada, because the maladies to which I am condemned render a European surgeon necessary to me; because war is going on in those regions; and because the example of our actions has made the savages nearly as bad as ourselves."

A recent biography of Rousseau's life, by Leo Damrosch, apparently hits all bases. Damrosh himself summarizes it very nicely:

Rousseau was "...describing a state of nature that never existed, a political system that never could exist and an educational scheme that never should exist."

The first chapter can be read here. For a summary of the biography, please see Stacy Schiff's 'Jean-Jacques Rousseau' - an unruly mind in the NY Times.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Theodore Darlimple on the intimidating revival of the economist John Kenneth Galbraith

Theodore Darlimple is, if you do not know him, one of the most outspoken critics of the Liberal left. Here is a fragment from The Galbraith Revival, published in the City Journal.

...Here we reach the heart of the matter. Galbraith’s thinking about social and economic matters was always de haut en bas; his solutions emerged from the Olympian heights of his own ratiocination, to be applied to the clueless multitudes below. (No doubt his own great height, over 6 foot 8, accustomed him to looking down on people.) His literary style is symptomatic of his attitude, a true case of the style being the man himself. Hundreds of times, he uses question-begging locutions that intimidate with their orotund grandeur. I open a book of his at random and find the following: “The controlling fact is”; “This trade-off is present in all accepted thought”; “Nor should one wish otherwise”; “It has now been adequately urged”; “This is not a matter of choice; it is the modern imperative”; “It would, of course, be a serious error”; “This has long been recognized”; “All of this is to be welcomed”; “The lesson is clear”; “The solution is not difficult; it has the advantage of inevitability.”

The cumulative effect is to intimidate those who believe themselves not well enough informed to contradict so high an authority. We are far from the realm of Jane Austen’s light and ironic “It is a truth universally acknowledged.” When J. K. Galbraith enunciates a truth universally acknowledged, he does not want us to smile inwardly; he wants us to fear not being included in le tout Paris of correct, generous, and humane thought. What fool does not wish to be on the side of the inevitable?

I find Darlimple's observation pretty deft, de bas en haute, so to say. Darlimple's writing is brilliant, but at times, however, disappointingly uneven. The piece on the architecture of Le Courbusier - The Architect as Totalitarian, also published in the City Journal, I found to be too broad-stroked:

here is to be no escape from Le Corbusier’s prescriptions. “The only possible road is that of enthusiasm . . . the mobilization of enthusiasm, that electric power source of the human factory.” In his book The Radiant City, there is a picture of a vast crowd in Venice’s Piazza San Marco, with the legend, “Little by little, the world is moving to its destined goal. In Moscow, in Rome, in Berlin, in the USA, vast crowds are collecting round a strong idea”—the idea being, apparently, the absolute leader or state. These words were written in 1935, not a happy period for political thought in Moscow, Rome, or Berlin, and one might have hoped that he would have later recanted them.

For such insinuations, I would say, the evidence introduced is pretty flimsy. Or look at this paragraph:

When one recalls Le Corbusier’s remark about reinforced concrete—“my reliable, friendly concrete”—one wonders if he might have been suffering from a degree of Asperger’s syndrome: that he knew that people talked, walked, slept, and ate, but had no idea that anything went on in their heads, or what it might be, and consequently treated them as if they were mere things. Also, people with Asperger’s syndrome often have an obsession with some ordinary object or substance: reinforced concrete, say.

I don't know, Doctor Darlimple, that does not look to me like the right diagnosis. Pity - for Darlimple is an otherwise sparkling and outspoken intellectual critic.

Gideon Rachman, purveyor of doom at the Financial Times

How the bottom fell out of ‘old’ Davos - on the waning influence of the US and 'Old' Europe in a world of high rising East Asian countries.

When nations turn into hoarders - how much the world population growth depends on food supplies, and how much the latter depend on fossil oil energy

Why America and China will clash - about what's behind Google's recent decision to stand up to the Chinese government's tendency to suppress Internet access

America is losing the free world - how Barack Obama was turned down by high officials of brasil, India, South Africa and Turkey at the Copenhagen Climate summit. He writes: "...Revealingly, both Brazilian and Chinese leaders have made the same pointed joke – likening the US to a rich man who, after gorging himself at a banquet, then invites the neighbours in for coffee and asks them to split the bill."

More of his Financial Times columns here. Rachman also has an excellent blog.