Archives for category: Education
Philosophy: the last thing Americans consider in public policy. Because it might be wisdom.

It was a joke when I was a child. It is an atrocity now.

The Army has carried the American ideal to its logical conclusion. Not only do they prohibit discrimination on the grounds of race, creed and color, but also on ability.

Tom Lehrer, An Evening Wasted with Tom Lehrer (recorded at Harvard’s Sanders Theater on March 20–21, 1959)

Ah, discrimination. People forget that it is a good thing. It is what makes us human.

But let us admit it, the normal run of humanity rarely bothers to do much in the way of careful thinking. A word gets associated, in common speech, with another word — and then the concept of the word pair leads, as if by an invisible hand, to impute meaning back up the two words’ separate semantic lines. Well, up at least one of them. Racial discrimination being bad, at least when done by the state or when engaged in privately with malice, so careless, slovenly speakers come to think “all discrimination is wrong.”

And it was not just about race. Sexual discrimination was said to be wrong by liberal folks. And religious discrimination, too. These are the three mentioned by Lehrer in his joke.

In 1984, the two major party candidates for the United States Presidency, when asked about gay rights, admitted, humbly and righteously both, that “all discrimination is wrong.” Walter Mondale insisted that he learned that outstive truth “on his daddy’s knee.” His father had misinformed him. Ronald Reagan answered the question with another question, if memory serves: “isn’t all discrimination wrong?” The answer is definitely “no.”

What is going on here? Well, a puzzled person might consult a dictionary.

from Merriam-Webster’s iPad app.

The root meaning can be found in the second and third listed defnitions, not the first. This is made more clear by consulting an older dictionary.

My copy of The New Century Dictionary (1927), D. Appleton-Century Co. (1933)

Discrimination is the act of recognizing differences, making distinctions and apt judgments. This is what makes man a rational animal.

The error comes down to a category problem.

Racial discrimination is bad when one identifies race as a relevant characteristic upon which to make a judgment or decision when race is not, in fact or by custom or morality, relevant.

We who support the idea of basic human rights insist that it is a person’s status as a human being and not as a member of a particular race that matters in advancing and defending his or her rights.

In employing someone, productivity is what matters, not race as such, so one would be a fool to hire or fire mainly on the grounds of race.

But in other domains of life it may indeed make sense to discriminate to some extent by race. If you are putting on a play about Martin Luther King and the best actor you can find is some white guy, it would be ill-advised to hire him and paint his face darker — better, I think, t limit your search to a population of actors from black African stock. And of course the reverse is true: when casting for the part of George Washington, you can rule out of hand right from the start all black, Asian and even short actors, no matter how good Denzel Washington, Naveen Andrews, and Danny DeVito may be.

Similarly, when choosing a mate, it may be high-minded of you to be open to members of all races, but it would hardly be wrong to discriminate for members of your own race, or members of a race you find most attractive.

The upshot is: equality before the law and doing good business indicate reasons to set up a taboo on discrimination on the basis of race, but there may be a few or even many areas of life where where racial discrimination is not wrong.

And other forms of discrimination — on basis of talent, taste, concepts, efficacy, etc. — remain central to what it means to be human.

I shake my head at this now, and wonder how anyone could be so dunderheaded as to think otherwise. But I remember Reagan and Mondale, and I see why the error of believing that all discrimination is wrong could be made.

Especially by those who are over-vigilant, for whatever reason, in the fight against racism. Over-compensation is a strategy.

But it can lead to bizarre and horrific consequences, as seen in an article that was just published on Quillette, “Public Education’s Dirty Secret.” In this revelatory memoir, schoolteacher Mary Hudson describes why New York City’s schools are so bad. And “bad” is an understatement:

The school always teetered on the verge of chaos. The previous principal had just been dismissed and shunted to another school district. Although it was never stated, all that was expected of teachers was to keep students in their seats and the volume down. This was an enormous school on five floors, with students cordoned off into separate programs. There was even a short-lived International Baccalaureate Program, but it quickly failed. Whatever the program, however, the atmosphere of the school was one of danger and deceit. Guards patrolled the hallways, sometimes the police had to intervene. Even though the security guards carefully screened the students at the metal detectors posted at every entrance, occasionally arms crept in. Girls sometimes managed to get razors in, the weapon of choice against rivals for boys’ attention. Although I don’t know of other arms found in the school (teachers were kept in the dark as much as possible), one particularly disruptive and dangerous boy was stabbed one afternoon right outside school. It appears he came to a violent death a few years later. What a tragic waste of human potential.

As the weeks dragged painfully into months, it became apparent that the students wouldn’t learn anything. It was dumbfounding. It was all I could do to keep them quiet; that is, seated and talking among themselves. Sometimes I had to stop girls from grooming themselves or each other. A few brave souls tried to keep up with instruction. A particularly good history teacher once told me that she interrupted a conversation between two girls, asking them to pay attention to the lesson. One of them looked up at her scornfully and sneered, “I don’t talk to teachers,” turning her back to resume their chat. She told me that the best school she ever worked at was in Texas, where her principal managed not only to suspend the most disruptive students for long periods, he also made sure they were not admitted during that time to any other school in the district. It worked; they got good results.

But this was not done. Suspending the violent and the disruptive was considered by administrators to be . . . wait for it . . . “discriminatory.”

It would be “discriminatory” to keep the students at home. The appropriate paperwork being filed, the most outrageously disruptive students went for a day or two to a room with other serious offenders. The anti-discrimination laws under which we worked took all power away from the teachers and put it in the hands of the students.

This is of course a recipe for chaos. No learning can occur when violent students disrupt classrooms and receive protection from the authorities.

I tried everything imaginable to overcome student resistance. Nothing worked. At one point I rearranged the seating to enable the students who wanted to engage to come to the front of the classroom. The principal was informed and I was reprimanded. This was “discriminatory.” The students went back to their chosen seats near their friends. Aside from imposing order, the only thing I succeeded at was getting the students to stand silently during the Pledge of Allegiance and mumble a few songs in French. But it was a constant struggle as I tried to balance going through the motions of teaching with keeping them quiet.

The abuse from students never let up. We were trained to absorb it. By the time I left, however, I had a large folder full of the complaint forms I’d filled out documenting the most egregious insults and harassment. There was a long process to go through each time. The student had a parent or other representative to state their case at the eventual hearing and I had my union rep. I lost every case.

The sheer craziness of this policy is dystopian in its extremity. And note that excuse: being “against discrimination.”

And let us not fool ourselves. We know where the abuse of the word “discriminatory” comes from: progressivism.

And lawyers.

Over-vigilance against racial discrimination has led to the anathemization of all forms of discrimination, including those forms noticed by Tom Lehrer, discrimination on the grounds of ability. And it is white guilt that is the main trouble — coupled with the moral corruption of inner-city black parents and their lawyers and advocates. Progressive white folks have been so afraid to think carefully about — and criticize, judge — “the marginalized”* when they do wrong that they defend bad behavior and thereby nurture evil and self-destructive vice.

This is a grand example of moral and intellectual cowardice.

That it has led to a form of philosophical corruption, where a word central to the whole moral and intellectual project — discrimination — has become a word to defend bad behavior and the corruption of the young.

The story is not just horrific, though. It is also darkly comic:

Sometimes you just have had enough. One day a girl sitting towards the back of the classroom shouted at some boy up front, “Yo! Nigga! Stop that!” I stood up as tall as I could and said in my most supercilious voice, “I don’t know which particular nigga the young lady is referring to, but whoever it is, would you please stop it.” The kids couldn’t believe their ears:

“Yo, miss!  You can’t say that!”
“Why not? You say it all the time.”
“Uhh . . .  Because you’re old.”
“That’s not why. Come on, tell the truth.” 

This went on for a bit, until one brave lad piped up: “Because you’re white.” “Okay,” I said, “because I’m white. Well what if I said to you, ‘You’re not allowed to say some word because you’re black.’ Would that be okay?” They admitted that it wouldn’t. No one seemed to report it. To this day, it’s puzzling that I didn’t lose my job over that incident. I put it down to basic human decency.

Decency? Maybe. More likely it was a philosophical moment. For one instance the students learned something. What? That the normative order thst they relied upon was itself evil. One can hope that their momentary glimpse of the truth came to serve them later in life. And speaking of life — what kind did they have?

Students came to school for their social life. The system had to be resisted. It was never made explicit that it was a “white” system that was being rejected, but it was implicit in oft-made remarks. Youngsters would say things like, “You can’t say that word, that be a WHITE word!” It did no good to remind students that some of the finest oratory in America came from black leaders like Martin Luther King and some of the best writing from authors like James Baldwin. I would tell them that there was nothing wrong with speaking one’s own dialect; dialects in whatever language tend to be colorful and expressive, but it was important to learn standard English as well. It opens minds and doors. Every new word learned adds to one’s wealth, and there’s nothing like grammar for organizing one’s thoughts. 

It all fell on deaf ears. It was impossible to dispel the students’ delusions. Astonishingly, they believed that they would do just fine and have great futures once they got to college! They didn’t seem to know that they had very little chance of getting into anything but a community college, if that. Sadly, the kids were convinced of one thing: As one girl put it, “I don’t need an 85 average to get into Hunter; I’m black, I can get in with a 75.” They were actually encouraged to be intellectually lazy.

The adults responsible for this system, black and white, should be ashamed of themselves. And repent. Reform the schools. Get rid of the insane “anti-discrimination” rules — at the very least.

But how likely is that? To do that, after all, they would have to discriminate.


* This term of art, “the marginalized,” is especially inartful, hardly an accurate descriptor, since it misidentifies nearly all the problems noted in this memoir.

“Eleven” in “Base Eleven” would be written as “10.”

Eleven in Base Ten, on the other hand, is a palindromic prime. The next such number on the list is “101.”

img_1711When I was in grade school, my first fifth grade math teacher corrected me more than once for my habit of enunciating that number as “one hundred and one.” He was much exercised by that locution’s unacceptability.

“That is ‘one hundred one,’” he instructed, carefully eliding the “and.”

“‘One hundred AND one,’” he informed me, triumphantly, “means ‘one hundred and ONE TENTH!’” And he wrote the number down in “numerals”:


I was very frustrated. I had not been taught to defy my elders, much less my teachers. But I was vexed, for I knew B.S. when I heard it.

I even knew and understood the grounds for my heterodoxy. I was more than familiar with older English writing and speech. The King James Bible was the most important book in the house I grew up in. And I knew that Abraham’s wife was recorded to have lived up to but not beyond “one hundred and seven and twenty years” of age. I understood that the “and” signified addition, and saying “and seven” did not mean “7/10ths,” but seven ones, and just so “one hundred and one” was not “one hundred and one tenth” but, technically, “one hundred and one ones.”

I was right. My teacher was wrong to have censured my lack of conformity to fashion, at least so dogmatically, so lacking in perspective.

But at age 10 — or should I write “X”? — I lacked the courage, and perhaps the requisite verbal quickness, to challenge him. I knew the truth, but could not express it.

Prior to that day, my main reading interest had focused almost exclusively upon science. There existed, at that time, plenty of kids’ books not merely about geology and astronomy and chemistry and the like, but also about the major scientists who had made the most important discoveries. After this time, my interests shifted. A more human realm, somewhat more philosophical, became my stomping ground — a realm that allowed (encouraged) its subjects to take a wider view of alternative nomenclatures and customs.

Interestingly, that very teacher was pushing “the new math” at that time, and vexing the whole community in the process. He did not teach it well; he was not that novelty’s most reliable advocate. Almost no one in my class, anyway, “got it.” We did not see the point. And somewhere in the back of my head a heresy was developing: what if teachers did not teach the pure unadulterated truth? What if they sometimes pushed B.S.? I knew of one instance of B.S. for sure, and about math of all things — or the logic and semantics of math, anyway.

How much else was wrong, even nonsense?

Mathematics never became my bag, though logic did. Math teachers, on the whole, struck me as not very bright. And as for me, I dulled to the subject.

Leaving me here, at night, tonight, thinking fruitless thoughts about Base Eleven. How would one write out the natural numbers in that somewhat hypothetical “new math-y” system?

0, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, X, 10. . . .

But, to carry on, 11 (“twelve” in Base Ten, probably to be said something like “onelf” in Base Eleven), 12 (“thirteen” in Base Ten but “twelf,” no?), 13 (“thirtelf”). . . .

It beats counting sheep.



Americans are over-schooled and under-educated.*

Extensive research is not required to demonstrate this . . . though, happily, that extensive research has been done. (See the recent work of Charles Murray, for starters.) All one really needs is a few minutes spent with a modal student, whether it be high-schooler, collegian, or even college grad. Such folk usually disappoint. Only rarely do they impress.

I noticed this when I was in high school. I wondered, first, whether the prime reason for such limited educational success was not far from view. Much of school life is spent spinning gears, wasting time on superfluous activities just to keep the inmates from revolting and the parents from having to pay for babysitters.

What I figured next, and came to realize with increasing clarity as time went on, is that the only education worth the title is mastery. If you haven’t mastered something, you haven’t learned it.

Now, it is true that there is “education for exposure.” Everyone should be exposed to grammar, rhetoric, great art, history, athletics, mathematics, science, the world’s religions, metaphysical speculation, engineering, map-making, and how to use a computer. To name just a few. Realistically, only a few of us will master more than a handful of these. Nevertheless, we should expect each person above the level of a mental defective to master basic arithmetic, reading and writing in at least one language, and the use of some basic tools, like the automobile and the computer.

Recognizing the limits of possible mastery, we should nevertheless promote the achievements of our civilization in such a way that everyone with aptitude can go on to master at least one domain of the culture, such as music or science.

But at no point should our promotion of exposure to the best preclude students from achieving the best. Nor should we trick them into thinking that extended exposure amounts to mastery. It does not. Mastery in any domain takes practice, persistence, and sometimes a little pain. (Occasionally a great deal of pain. It depends on the discipline, and upon the student.)

It’s easy to look at the last few generations of schooling and see where teachers and administrators went wrong. But it’s quite another thing to change it. Why? Because the errors of the age are closely tied to the means of production and distribution of the goods in question, how they are bundled in supply and in demand.

In a word, the errors of education are largely related to the fact that it is government that is in control. Indeed, if present levels of education were supplied on the market, and not by government, no one to the left of Arlen Specter would tolerate the institutions; the widespread cry would be revolution, now!

But, as it is, schooling in America and around the world is largely a government emprise, and the radical critiques of current education are not primarily from the left — though the left does have its august radical critics, such as Paulo Freire and Ivan Illich, to name the most interesting and the most over-respected, respectively.

The trouble with most critiques, however, is their narrowness. And the unifying feature of current educational failures coalesces, it seems to me, around one idea: the problem of supplying an allegedly uniform good to a vast diversity of learners.

The whole culture of learning and teachings needs to grow up. It needs to hit the market. It needs to spread out, diversify.

There are many types of learners, and many types of teachers. One cannot — and, therefore, should not — pretend that one simple educational change will change everything for the better. Only by recognizing the diversity of students will education substantially improve, and by “recognition” I don’t mean “establishing a general consensus in the teachers’ colleges.” (The teachers colleges are probably one of the main institutional impediments to the advancement of learning in general, anyway.) By recognition I mean “seeing opportunities and filling them,” in the entrepreneurial sense. Only when teachers become part entrepreneur, and aim to fill in the gaps themselves, in a distributed, vibrant culture of learning, will this happen.

And this will almost certainly not happen until the public schools become as the dinosaurs: Defunct.

This scares natural conservatives. I know. There is always a presumptive case for the status quo. But remember: Public schools are as close to socialistic institutions as we can get in America, and it should surprise no conservative (natural or otherwise) that socialism doesn’t work well. Socialism, which has been tied since its early years to a sort of moralistic militarism, only works if those who participate in it give up their individual courses and march, march, march to the uniform beat of a designated drummer. Ludwig von Mises showed long ago why socialism cannot provide a wide dispersal of goods, matching actual, individual human needs. So why should we expect our public schools to produce excellence in education to the diversity of its students? Instead, we get a few groups (the studious, usually, and the willing-to-go-along-to-get-along crowd) advance while vast hordes of students stagnate.

Many people I’ve talked with balk at my negative assessment. They point to rising test scores in some institutions, high marks for “their school,” and the like. Teachers, often, become especially incensed — except for a perceptive few, the ones who remember what high standards are.

Perhaps not coincidentally, high standards themselves have been the chief casualty of the past 50 years of American schooling. The saddest truth of the age is that what was once the goal for every elementary school graduate is now the challenge to provide a mere majority of high school grads: Basic proficiency in English and math. Colleges and universities have had to add on remedial course after course, just to make up for the painful-to-witness failures of public schools around the country.

Most Americans are utterly ignorant of high standards, though. They have been educated in the system that has abused them. They only remember a small portion of what they have been exposed to, and do not know, for example, that in writing the art of rhetoric was elaborated thousands of years ago, and that the tools discovered by ancient masters can be learned, today, by most seventh graders — with pleasure, even, if guided by an enthusiastic teacher who is also not a dullard. But most of us only learned a half dozen of the major figures of speech (hyperbole, simile, metaphor . . . that’s about all I was taught), a small percentage of the very helpful ancient list. Par for the shoddy course.

Since World War II, much of the attention of education promoters has been waylaid. Noting that college schooling greatly affects wage earning potential, promoters have pushed college schooling. As such. Instead of insisting on instruction in the skills and knowledge that potential workers might need, they have promoted “college schooling” in and of itself, as the major means to achieve that magic ability to earn extra dollars in the marketplace (which, alas, also includes growing ranks of the functionary class in government). This promotion has not been a matter of boosterism only. It’s not been confined to public pronouncements of encouragement, all to send kids to college. No. The promotion has been a major intervention into the higher education market, such as financial assistance in a wide variety of forms, including outright subsidies to both students and institutions.

In a manner similar to the recent boom and bust in the mortgage market, this massive government intervention has resulted in an artificial boom in higher education. Far more students than necessary have gone to college. And far too much respect has been paid to the sheepskin itself. It’s bad enough that UPS and the U.S. Postal Service is filled with doctorates in philosophy and liberal arts — it might be worse that our businesses are filling up with MBAs and our news outlets with journalist majors.

Worse, you ask? How can education be worse? Well, by being miseducation. The lowering of standards and the pushing of junk science and fake mastery into areas like business and administration has had wide effects in the real world. Indeed, for my money, no fact seems more pregnant with meaning than the fact that George W. Bush was our first president to graduate from college with an MBA.

Brummagem learning characterizes whole domains of today’s educated classes. Women’s studies and English departments have been corrupted by idiotic yammerings of neo-Marxist theorists and what Richard Kostelanetz calls (perhaps with a ribbit ready, under in his cheek) frogspeak (the “critical theory” of postmodernists, heirs especially to the French Academy, but also to Germany’s Frankfurt School). Economics, particularly the pseudo-sciences of macro-economics — has been over-mathemetized (or mis-mathemetized) to glass-bead game proportions, so that the best students have “learned” reality-warping nonsense about risk — to the chagrin of nearly everyone, today.

How does one unlearn folly?

Well, that’s not a widely studied subject.

Which, in itself, might tell you something about any number of academic disciplines, from philosophy to psychology to political science.

One of the great errors of public goods theory is to suppose that, if everyone needs a set of goods A, then these goods must all be supplied from one source. That’s the theory of public schooling, at its erroneous core. But we all need to eat food. Food comes to us in wide variety, and yet there is no advantage in massive government intervention to assure that everyone eat to a certain level.

If there were such a program, that level would — I hazard — fall over time, till massive starvation were the norm. And the great, illustrious professors of feeding and agriculture and allied sciences would fret over how to raise standards so that children, at the very least, all got a minimum quality of food.

The alternative method of improving the level of consumption of food would be to get government out of the setting of standards, raising of funds, and organization of production of foodstuffs altogether. And, over time, the standards of consumption would rise, just as, over these last 30 years, the standards for computing have risen. (I use the example of computing and allied technical instruments for the simple reason that this has been the most astoundingly progressive markets while, at the same time, the least regulated and subsidized of markets, too.)

So, there’s no reason to argue, now, over the identification of the very highest — or next achievable higher — standard. The relevant standards will emerge in a free marketplace.

Still, those of us who know something about a particular domain of learning, we have much to contribute to the teaching of that domain. And, were the market opened up, we could contribute.

The future of education will likely look almost nothing like what we have now; the institutional make-up will almost certainly be radically different.

Even if, right now, free-marketers argue back and forth about the relative merits and demerits of institutions like public schools, private schools, home-schooling, and charter schools, and various instruments of reform like vouchers and tax credits and the like, what people in markets will eventually supply to meet the extremely varied demand that will necessarily exist for educational services will be mostly unpredictable. We do not know which solutions will prove most successful on the market. I would guess that virtual schooling and private tutoring will be the most effective wedge to improve education, and that large schools may (if we’re lucky) soon prove themselves dinosaurs. But I could be wrong. Maybe private schools will prove successful. Maybe co-operatives will dominate the landscape.

But, no matter what the mix — and no matter what vast, broad networks of educators and students evolve — if actual supplies meet with actual, negotiated demands, then we can expect a return to learning in our culture.

In my final year of socialized schooling, the principal of the high school stopped by the Current World Problems class to give a little speech. He said that the job of the school we had wiled away the bulk of our waking lives, up to that point, was not to teach us, but to help us “learn how to learn.”

My immediate reaction was: “Boy, does this man live in an illusion.” Few of my classmates had mastered anything like that skill. Had the brighter ones done so, they might have been tempted to learn outside of the college system (which most of them did attend). And had the less academically inclined learned such a skill, they might have shown, in their later lives, a glint of excellence hinted at in the current academic cliche: “helping students become ‘life-long learners.’”

Life-long learning is, indeed, a desirable capacity. That it has become a cliché of modern education mavens may be the only salvable element of their theory. But, like earlier goals like “socialization” and “citizenship” and what-have-you, it rarely flourishes in its fullest and most admirable sense. Down-to-business concerns somehow usurp attention.

Indeed, modern schooling has fostered the illusion that exposure counts for mastery. And this, in turn, has led thousands of barely-trained college grads to think that they can enter a government bureau or join a social cause and, from their limited experience but seemingly impressive curriculum vitae, can easily fix the messes others have caused . . . and merely by writing a new law or enacting a new program.

It turns out that mastery requires the acquisition of many skills that cannot be articulated into simple textbook formulae. There is a difference between “knowing how” and “knowing that,” and the modern academy has encouraged many a lettered dilettante into thinking that, because he has studied something, he is now fit to rule that something.

The modern state and modern schools have grown together, in tandem, the one driving the other. Now that I think of it, I’m not sure which has driven the other. Call it a dialectical process, and then wonder: How can the one be fixed without the other, also, similarly and simultaneously, be subjected to such transformation?


* Retrieved from my notebooks; dated September 12, 2010. A little over a week later I wrote on a related theme for The Libertarian Standard, with the first sentence of the above repeated exactly in the new piece, though not given priority.