Internet Roundup: Education Part 7

Betsy DeVos, who Trump has announced he will nominate to be Secretary of Education, is like many of his cabinet picks, a fox put in charge of the henhouse, vowing to destroy the institution he has chosen to entrust her with. If Detroit’s terrible decentralized all-charter school system is any indication of what she intends to do with the rest of the country’s schools, we are all in trouble.

DeVos and those who agree with her about educational issues talk a lot about “school choice,” which is one of those things that sounds good in theory, but does not work as advertised. The logic of free markets does not apply to education for a few reasons. First, education is not a consumer product, it is a public good and a human right. Second, all parents are not necessarily able to act as “informed consumers” where schools are concerned, and are constrained in their choices by geography, transportation, and a lack of time to research different schools. Third, allowing companies to profit from education incentivizes them to spend as little money on educating students as possible, so that they can keep more for themselves. Fourth, “choice” does not guarantee quality. It doesn’t mean “pick any school in the world.” It usually means “pick one of the two terrible schools in your neighborhood.”

Here are a few articles that fully explain the folly of charter schools, vouchers, other “school choice” policies, and debunk the arguments behind them.

“The Problem with Choice” by Pauline Hawkins

The Essential Selfishness of School Choice” by Steven Singer

“Why Is ‘The Decimation of Public Schools’ a Bad Thing?” by Nathan J. Robinson

If school choice isn’t the answer, what is? This article discusses in a very comprehensive way the concrete reforms and changes in education that would actually work. The author is a Texas legislator who visited all 55 of the schools in his district and conducted many interviews. Time, stability, resources, support staff, wraparound services: it’s really common sense, but also expensive.

What They Said: What I Learned from Conversations with Texas Educators” by Diego Bernal

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Reading the Election

Sometimes when an issue is preoccupying me, I see it everywhere. Almost everything I’ve read in the past month or two, I’ve read in light of the election. I’m looking for explanations, solutions, and sometimes just escape. Here are some books that feel especially relevant right now.

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Coming Apart: The State of White America 1960-2010 by Charles Murray

This book describes how Americans have isolated themselves from each other, based mostly on class and politics. He focuses a lot on coastal elites who live in a few “super ZIPs,” ZIP codes populated by the wealthy, many of whom also attended the same schools and work in the same industries, and who have a disproportionate influence on national policy and culture. His analysis seems extra important as a way of understanding the difference between urban and rural voters and what it would take to overcome these differences. Murray is pretty conservative, so some of the points he uses his data to make are definitely determined by his ideology. It’s also just interesting to think about the cultural touchstones that make up these different American subcultures. Here is a quiz you can take to see if you live in a bubble or not.  I scored 45, which puts me pretty solidly in the middle of the middle.

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Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities by Martha Nussbaum

This book makes a passionate argument for why broad education in the liberal arts widens our perspectives in ways that seem needed today more than ever. Putting aside the intrinsic values of the arts and humanities for improving individuals’ lives, she focuses on how the widespread study of literature, history, and philosophy creates a population capable of sustaining democratic institutions. The lack of this kind of education is probably why we are in the situation we’re in. I found a further explanation for our current predicament in her examination of child psychology, especially her discussion of the narcissism of children and their shame in their essential helplessness. Nussbaum’s prescription is for critical thinking taught by Socratic pedagogy, and lessons on empathy and compassion toward those who are different or far away, using the arts and play. In this way, we can overcome narrow us/them thinking, learn to identify with others, and become educated for global citizenship.

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The Taming of the Queen by Phillipa Gregory

This historical novel is told from the point of view of Katherine Parr, the sixth and last queen of King Henry VIII. The parallels with Trump should be obvious here. The narcissism, the womanizing, the tantrums, the physical grossness. Henry’s policies are incoherent because he changes his mind so frequently, and purposely plays his advisers off each other. Katherine lives in fear as she watches Henry’s behavior toward her change and fall into the pattern of the way he acted toward Anne Boleyn and Katherine Howard before he had them beheaded.

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The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henriquez

This book is told from the point of view of several immigrants from Central America. The main narrative is about a romance between high school age kids, one of whom is mentally handicapped because of a severe brain injury. It’s touching to see how the close-knit community of immigrants helps each other adjust and survive, and heartbreaking to watch them struggle with the language barrier and with bullying and intimidation. I wonder how much more uncertain and scary the characters’ lives would have been if it were set in 2017. Novels help us to empathize with people who are different from us and to see them as three-dimensional and fully human. If there were one book that I could make every Trump voter read, this just might be it.

A Little Life

A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

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This book needs just about every single kind of trigger warning that exists: abuse, sexual abuse, rape, child trafficking, domestic violence, sexual humiliation, self-harm, eating disorders, suicide. The violence is unending and detailed, so physically graphic and psychologically damaging that at times it seemed almost fetishized.

The beginning of the book didn’t grab my interest immediately. It seemed like a bunch of whiny bohemian men, and I wasn’t looking forward to hundreds of pages of that. I wasn’t hooked until almost 100 pages in, when the narrative turned to Jude, the main character, and his past. Jude is the one character who experiences all of those forms of violence, most of them in childhood. But through luck, the help of friends, and deep, deep repression, he goes on to lead a remarkable, even a charmed life: he becomes a lawyer in New York surrounded by successful artists and actors, traveling widely. However, he is deeply scarred by his trauma and the painful chronic medical conditions it has caused. His pathological need for privacy and refusal to accept help and to talk about his past are understandable, but frustrating. The most disturbing part of it is probably the way it gets inside his severely traumatized mind and shows the effect on his self-image. His self-hating ruminations are painful to read.

The heart of the book, though, seemed to be the friendships that make Jude’s difficult life worthwhile, the deep gratitude he feels for simple pleasures despite his past. It will be hard to forget because of the graphic violence, but also because of that touching, quiet humility and surprising optimism. The ending is not really happy, but I think it is realistic.