Saturday, 05 December 2015 04:37

Ramblings

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Ramblings

Allan C. Brownfeld

Allan C. Brownfeld is the author of five books, the latest of which is The Revolution Lobby (Council for Inter-American Security). He has been a staff aide to a U.S. Vice President, Members of Congress, and the U.S. Senate Internal Security Subcommittee. He is associate editor of The Lincoln Review and a contributing editor to Human Events, The St. Croix Review, and The Washington Report on Middle East Affairs.

One Reason for Our Educational Decline May Be Bad Students, Not Bad Schools

The fact that our schools are not doing very well in educating our students is abundantly clear. A recent international assessment of students showed that as China's economic power has risen, so has its educational progress. The survey, which rated the aptitude for 15-year-olds in 65 countries, shows teens in Shanghai far outscoring international peers in reading, math, and science. The U.S. lags far behind countries such as Finland and South Korea. When it comes to math, Chinese students scored 600 while American students scored 497. In science, the Chinese scored 575 and Americans 501.

A study released in November by McKinsey, the international consulting firm, showed that throwing money at education does not seem to do much good, at least in those countries that already send all their young people to school. The U.S., for example, increased its spending on schools by 21 percent between 2000 and 2007, while Britain pumped in 37 percent more funds. Yet, during this period, standards in both countries slipped.

Many school systems that did not receive extra funds did much better. Schools in the state of Saxony, in Germany, in Latvia, Lithuania, Slovenia, and Poland have all raised their achievement scores. Even poor countries such as Chile and Ghana have made progress.

In an important new book, Bad Students, Not Bad Schools (Transaction), Robert Weissberg, who taught political science at the University of Illinois for decades, argues that the reason for educational decline "is the students, stupid, not the facilities or the curriculum."

It is his view that this "obvious truth" is one which none dares to speak. He reports that millions of lazy, incurious, disruptive, and nearly illiterate youngsters flood classrooms every day, and none of the popular and expensive initiatives and ideas that are being promoted by well-meaning foundations and professors of education will change them. In his view, the middling students far outnumber the motivated ones, and the most difficult ones - troublemakers and vandals, immigrants struggling with English, kids who hate homework (an Indiana survey counts 50 percent who complete one hour or less of studying per week) - effectively turn classrooms into chaotic free-for-alls.

Year after year, Weissberg shows, a new initiative is presented - laptops for every eighth grader, bills to equalize school funding, after-school day care for single mothers - founded on the assumption that a better environment will invigorate lagging ones, close the racial gap, and prepare every student for college.

Weissberg notes that bright students with a good work ethic excel whether they study with new laptops or much used textbooks. His example is the children of the Vietnamese boat people - from close-knit families who place a high priority on educational achievement. Students who come from families who pay little attention to their children's education, children who have never been read to and learned to appreciate books, whose parents - often a single mother - are usually otherwise occupied - are not coming to school prepared to learn. It should be no surprise, Weissberg argues, that they do so poorly.

The kinds of reforms advocated to improve our schools tend, Weissberg believes, to completely miss the point of the real challenge we face:

In sports, this would be as if a basketball franchise with inept, lackadaisical players tried to reverse its fortunes by constructing a spectacular new arena, adding high-tech training facilities, inventing clever new plays, and hiring a Hall of Fame coach.

To resolve these problems, Weissberg advocates a radical approach, one unlikely to find much support. He explicitly advocates a policy "to eliminate the bottom quarter of those past 8th grade" or, "altering the mix of smart and not so smart students." In this formulation, unintelligent and idle students exact a lot of time and labor, holding up gifted students. Once the bad-student pool reaches a certain proportion, the teacher, principal, and school board end up devoting all of their attention to it.

One can find this prescription too harsh and perhaps counterproductive while recognizing that Weissberg has identified the problem with current efforts at educational reform which do not identify the real problems we face. He devotes the bulk of his book to various elements of the reform effort, documenting the way each one rationalizes away the bored and unruly students. Judges force municipalities to integrate schools, foundations write multi-million-dollar checks to enhance "learning opportunities" in urban schools, conservative leaders push charter-school expansion. No one addresses the fact that we do not turn out the same kind of students we used to because we do not get the same kind in.

Professor Mark Bauerlein of Emory University, writing in Commentary, notes that:

An entire industry has prospered on malfunction. If public schools produced skilled, knowledgeable graduates, if at-risk kids turned into low-risk kids, if students in crumbling buildings achieved as well as others, an army of professors, advocates and activists and lawyers, foundation personnel, contractors, and construction workers, security officers, after-school and summer-school tutors, and school administrations, counselors, and professional developers, would have to find other employment. The more schools fail, the more money pours in. Los Angeles has one of the lowest graduation rates in the country, and in September it opened the $578 million Robert F. Kennedy Community Schools complex, the most expensive school in U.S. history.

The 2008 documentary "Hard Times at Douglass High," features a Baltimore student named Audie. "This is what we do," Audie said, talking about himself and other students who roamed the halls all day, learning nothing:

Just walking the halls all day, baby. (Bleep) class. That (bleep's) for clowns, man. Don't nobody go to class here, man. Man, (bleep) academics.

Discussing the Weissberg book, columnist Gregory Kane, who is black, declares: "Want to really reform American education? Get guys like Audie out of our schools."

No problem can be resolved unless it is properly understood. Whatever one thinks of Professor Weissberg's proposed solutions, his analysis is worthy of serious attention.

The Focus of Attention on the Role of Public Sector Unions in Leading Cities and States to Fiscal Crisis Is Long Overdue

The debate in Wisconsin, Ohio, Indiana, and other states over collective bargaining on the part of public employees has focused long-overdue attention upon the role of public sector unions in moving our cities and states toward fiscal crisis and, in many instances, insolvency.

The idea of collective bargaining for public employees is a rather new concept. Wisconsin was the first state to provide those rights in 1959. Other states followed and California became the biggest convert in 1978 under Jerry Brown in his first term as governor. President Kennedy permitted some federal workers to organize, although not bargain collectively, for the first time in 1962.

Few Americans today remember how, until recent years, even our most liberal political leaders resisted collective bargaining for public unions. President Franklin Roosevelt opposed collective bargaining for public unions as did legendary New York City Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia. Even George Meany, the long-time AFL-CIO president, opposed the right to bargain collectively with the government.

The Wall Street Journal explained the basis for such opposition:

. . . unlike in the private economy, a public union has a natural monopoly over government services. An industrial union will fight for a greater share of corporate profits, but it also knows that a business must make profits or it will move or shut down. The union chief for teachers, transit workers, or firemen knows that the city is not going to close the schools, buses, or firehouses. This monopoly power, in turn, gives public unions inordinate sway over elected officials. The money they collect from member dues helps elect politicians who are then supposed to represent the taxpayers during collective bargaining. . . . Public unions depend entirely on tax revenues to fund their pay and benefits. They thus have every incentive to elect politicians who favor higher taxes and more government spending. The great expansion of state and local spending followed the rise of public unions.

Concern about public sector unions is hardly new. When three-fourths of the Boston police department went on strike in 1919, leading to an escalation of crime, then-Massachusetts Governor Calvin Coolidge called out the state militia and broke the strike. Coolidge declared: "There is no right to strike against the pubic safety by anybody, anywhere, any time."

In August, 1981, the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization called a strike over better working conditions, better pay and a 32-hour work week. In doing so, the union violated a law that banned strikes by government unions. President Reagan declared the strike "a peril to national safety" and ordered the members back to work under terms of the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947. Only 1,300 of the nearly 13,000 controllers returned to work. President Reagan demanded those remaining on strike to resume work within 48 hours or forfeit their jobs. In the end, Reagan fired 11,345 striking air traffic controllers and banned them from federal service for life.

Collective bargaining rights are only one part of the problem we face. Consider the state of Virginia, which bans collective bargaining. Like pension systems in states friendlier to unions, Virginia's public employee retirement system is underfunded by $17.6 billion. At the same time, teachers in Virginia have slightly higher average salaries than the unionized teachers in Wisconsin, and over the past decade, Virginia teacher pay grew faster than teacher pay in Wisconsin.

The fact is that, regardless of the question of collective bargaining, states and local governments across the country are faced with chronic fiscal problems rooted in unsustainable employee compensation systems. This is an issue beyond traditional liberal and conservative divisions. Editorially, The Washington Post notes that:

Much of the issue is rooted in healthcare costs, especially benefits for public-sector retirees. States face a combined $555 billion in unfunded retiree health coverage liabilities. Yet in 14 states, taxpayers pick up 100 percent of the premium tab for retirees, who often collect benefits for a decade or more before going on Medicare. This is not only unfair to taxpayers, for whom free healthcare is usually a remote dream. It also encourages overconsumption of medical goods and services, thus raising the cost for everyone.

More than a third of the nation's $9.3 trillion in pension assets belong to state and local government employees, even though they make up only 15 percent of the U.S. work force, according to a study by the Spectrum investment group. Even with $3.4 trillion set aside to pay public pensions, dozens of state and local governments are struggling to make payments. Wisconsin, Ohio, and Florida are calling on state employees for the first time to contribute to their retirement plans the way workers do in the private sector. The $3.4 trillion set aside for public pensions understates the burden for states and taxpayers since the plans are collectively underfunded by as much as $2.5 trillion, said Milton Ezrati, senior economist at Lord Abbott & Company.

"The undeniable fact is that most states and municipalities offer more generous pensions that they can afford," he said, noting that the plans typically allow employees full retirement benefits after 20 or 30 years of employment and include generous cost-of-living increases, healthcare benefits, and other perks that are not common in the private sector.

The Spectrum study found that the nation's 19.7 million state and local employees constituted 15 percent of the 128-million American work force in 2009. Yet they laid claim to more than $3 in retirement assets for every $1 set aside for the retirement of the nation's 108 million workers in the private sector.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics in 2010, the total compensation costs of state and local government workers were 44 percent higher than private industry; pay was only 33 percent higher, but benefits cost 70 percent more.

"The cost," says Daniel DiSalvo of the City College of New York,

. . . of public-sector pay and benefits (which in many cases far exceed what comparable workers earn in the private sector), combined with hundreds of billions of dollars in unfunded pension liabilities for retired government workers, are weighing down state and city budgets. And staggering as these burdens seem now, they are actually poised to grow exponentially in the years ahead.

At long last, public attention is being focused upon the role of public sector unions. It could not come a moment too soon.

Horrors Continue in Zimbabwe, but the World Largely Looks Away

When it comes to dictators in Africa clinging to power, the list, unfortunately, is a long one. This year, popular uprisings in North Africa have led to the removal of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali's 23-year regime in Tunisia, and Hosni Mubarak's 30-year control of Egypt. At the present time, Libya's Moammar Gaddafi is fighting popular resistance - as well as Western air strikes - to maintain his 41-year-old grip on power.

Sadly, many other dictators remain in place. Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe has always been clear about his own ambition. "No matter what force you may have," he declared in 2001, "this is my territory and that which is mine I cling to until death."

In April 2008, voters in Zimbabwe flocked to the polls, and, by an overwhelming margin, repudiated Mugabe's rule. Then 84 and in failing health, Mugabe seemed ready to concede defeat to the opposition leader, Morgan Tsvangirai. Instead, Mugabe and his supporters launched a counterattack. The Zimbabwe Electoral Commission, controlled by the ruling party, falsified the vote count, forcing Tsvangirai into a second round. Foreign journalists were detained and removed from the country. Mugabe loyalists hunted down, beat, and killed supporters of Tsvangirai's Movement for Democratic Change (M.D.C.). Mugabe's generals called it "Operation Who Did You Vote For?"

In a new book, The Fear: Robert Mugabe and the Martyrdom of Zimbabwe, Peter Godwin, himself a native of Zimbabwe when it was Rhodesia, recalls that he was then one of the few Western journalists remaining in the country. He traveled from Harare to rural Zimbabwe, documenting the bloodshed. He visited hospitals overflowing with maimed and burned victims. "Think of deep, bone-deep lacerations, of buttocks with no skin left on them, think of being flayed alive."

He writes of a torture method called falanga: "Think of swollen, broken feet, of people unable to stand, unable to sit, unable to lie on their backs because of the blinding pain."

At one point, Godwin joins with James McGee, the American ambassador, on a fact-finding trip outside Harare. They repeatedly confront policemen, militia members, and intelligence agents, but McGee manages to move forward as he and his team gather evidence of torture and murder. Godwin wanders into a farmhouse used as a torture center by Mugabe's hit teams and discovers a notebook that documents interrogations and names people "who are to be beaten." Finally, Godwin is advised to leave the country for his own safety and he watched from New York as Tsvangirai withdraws from the runoff, saying he cannot participate in a "violent, illegitimate sham."

A few months later, Tsvangirai and Mugabe sign the so-called Global Political Agreement. Negotiated under international pressure by South African president Thabo Mbeki - who remained silent as the murder count rose - the deal kept Mugabe entrenched in power but forced him to install Tsvangirai as prime minister and turn over half the cabinet seats to members of the Movement for Democratic Change.

Peter Godwin returned to Zimbabwe to witness the inauguration of the new government. He quickly realized that the ruling party has no intention of upholding the agreement. Godwin's friend Roy Bennett, a white, Shona-speaking ex-farmer and M.D.C. leader popular with his black constituents, returns from exile in South Africa to assume a junior cabinet post and is almost immediately placed in jail, held for weeks in very poor conditions. Tendai Biti, a courageous attorney and M.D.C. secretary general, survives his own incarceration on treason charges and reluctantly signs on as finance minister, "Here is Tendai," Godwin writes, "trying to scrounge the money to pay for the bullets that were used against his own supporters in the last election."

Godwin portrays Mugabe as an "African Robespierre" - highly educated and completely ruthless. He cautions against viewing him as a case of a good leader gone bad. "His reaction to opposition has invariably been a violent one," writes Godwin.

Using violence to win elections has long been Mugabe's method of remaining in power. He first set out his views on electoral democracy in 1976, during the guerrilla war against the government of Rhodesia - in which he was widely embraced in the West, including in Washington - in a radio broadcast. "Our votes must go together with our guns." He even boasted of having "a degree in violence." Since coming to power in 1980, he has regularly resorted to the gun to deal with whatever challenge his regime has faced.

Peter Godwin details the manner in which, after the 2008 elections, Mugabe unleashed the army, police, security agencies, and party militias to beat the electorate into submission in time for the second round of elections. Among the electorate this campaign was known simply as "chidudu" - the fear. Villagers were beaten and told to "vote Mugabe next time or you will die." Scores of opposition organizers were murdered by death squads. Rape, arson, and false arrests were widespread.

Mugabe was open about his intentions and his contempt for democracy. "We are not going to give up our country because of a mere 'X,'" he told supporters at an election rally. "How can a ballpoint fight with a gun?"

What stands out in Godwin's reporting is not just the scale of destruction that Mugabe has inflicted on his country but the courage of Zimbabweans who defy his tyranny, knowing the consequences of doing so. Godwin describes the "insane bravery" of an opposition candidate who continued to taunt his attackers even while they were beating him and later, defying doctors' orders, appeared in plaster cast to take his place at the swearing-in ceremony at a local council.

The African Union, formerly the Organization of African Unity, says that it is determined to be more rigorous than its predecessor, which turned a blind eye to dictatorship and tyranny. According to The Economist:

. . . The AU still exudes a lot of hot air. . . . The AU's instinct is still to wring hands . . . rather than resolve issues. Its credibility was hurt when Moammar Gaddafi was elected chairman for 2009. This year, Equatorial Guinea's Teodoro Obiang, one of Africa's more venal leaders, looks likely to get the job.

And the people of Zimbabwe continue to suffer as the world, including our own country, which bears some responsibility for installing Mugabe in power, looks away. The brave men and women who have shown their willingness to put their lives on the line for freedom deserve better.

American Colleges and Universities Are Failing to Transmit Our History and Culture

There is growing evidence that our colleges and universities are failing to transmit our history and culture.

Recently, the Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI) gave a 60-question civic literacy test to more than 28,000 college students:

Less than half knew about federalism, judicial review, the Declaration of Independence, the Gettysburg Address, and NATO. And this was a multiple choice test, with the answers staring them right in the face. . . .

said political scientist Richard Brake, co-chairman of ISI's Civic Literacy Board. Brake said:

Ten percent thought that "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal . . ." came from the Communist manifesto.

In another study, a large number of U.S. university students were shown to have failed to develop critical thinking, reasoning, and writing skills because of easy classes and too little time spent studying.

The study of 3,000 students at 29 four-year universities found that 45 percent "did not demonstrate any significant improvement in learning" during their first two years in college as measured by a standardized test. After the full four years, 36 percent had shown no development in critical thinking, reasoning, and writing, according to the study, which forms the basis of the new book Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses. The study attributed much of the problem to easy courses and lax study habits.

Real requirements at most colleges and universities have all but disappeared. John Hopkins University, for example, is America's premier research institution. Yet a student could complete a bachelor's degree without ever taking a course in science, math, history, or English. Students at John Hopkins - and many other colleges - notes Washington Post writer Daniel DeVise:

. . . choose classes the way a diner patron assembles a meal, selecting items from a vast menu. Broad distribution requirements ensure that students explore the academic universe outside their majors. But no one is required to study any particular field, let alone take a specific course. Shakespeare, Plato, Euclid - all are on the menu: none is required.

The American Council of Trustees and Alumni, a Washington-based advocacy group, recently handed out F grades to Hopkins and many of its peers, inviting debate on a basic question: What, if anything, should America's college students be required to learn?

The group faulted the schools, including Yale, Brown, Cornell, Amherst, and the University of California, Berkeley, for failing to require students to take courses in more than one of seven core academic subjects: math, science, history, economics, foreign language, literature, and composition.

"At Stanford, you can fulfill the American cultures requirement by taking a course on a Japanese drum," said Anne Neil, president of the trustees group.

"We're certainly not saying that Harvard or Hopkins or Yale are not good schools, or that their graduates are not smart kids," said Neal, who attended Harvard and Harvard Law. "What we're saying is that those schools don't do a good job at providing their students with a coherent core."

Richard Ekman, president of the Council of Independent Colleges in Washington, states: "I think the criticism that students may not be learning enough in general education resonates with most colleges."

Neal says that the group's examination of more than 700 college catalogs proves that:

It is quite possible to avoid American history, or Plato, or science. Many colleges don't even require their English majors to take a course on Shakespeare.

The study of history is in the process of dramatic change. In 1975, three quarters of college history departments employed at least one diplomatic historian; in 2005, fewer than half did. The number of departments with an economic historian fell to 32.7 percent from 54.7 percent. By contrast, the biggest gains were in women's history, which now has a representative in four out of five history departments.

The shift in focus began in the late 1960s and early 1970s when a generation of academics began looking into the roles of people generally missing from history books - women, minorities, immigrants, workers. Social and cultural history, then referred to as bottom-up history, offered fresh subjects.

At the University of Wisconsin, Madison, out of the 45 history faculty members listed, one includes diplomatic history as a specialty, one other lists American foreign policy; 13 name gender, race, or ethnicity. Of the 12 American history professors at Brown University, the single specialist in U.S. foreign policy also lists political and cultural history as areas of interest. The professor of international studies focuses on victims of genocide.

"The boomer generation made a decision in the 1960s that history was starting over," said David Kaiser, a history professor at the Naval War College. "It was an overreaction to a terrible mistake that was the Vietnam War." The result is that "history is no longer focused on government, politics, or institutions."

There are no reliable statistics of course offerings, but Mr. Kaiser and others argue that there has been an obvious decline. "European diplomacy is just about completely dead," Kaiser said, "and it's very hard to find a course on the origins of the First World War."

At Ohio University in Athens, when a military historian recently retired, there was a vigorous debate about how to advertise for a replacement. Some faculty members had the view that "military history is evil," said Alonzo L. Hamby, a history professor. The department finally agreed to post a listing for a specialist in "U.S. and the world," the sort of "mushy description that could allow for a lot of possibilities."

Our unity as a nation is threatened, argued Donald Kagan, Professor of History and Classics and Dean of Yale College in his address to Yale's freshman class in September, 1990, by those who would replace the teaching of our history and culture with something else. He declared:

. . . American culture derives chiefly from the experience of Western Civilization, and especially from England, whose language and institutions are the most copious springs from which it draws its life. I say this without embarrassment, as an immigrant who arrived here as an infant from Lithuania. . . . Our students will be handicapped in their lives after college if they do not have a broad and deep knowledge of the culture in which they live and roots from which they come . . . . As our land becomes ever more diverse, the danger of separation and segregation by ethnic group . . . increases and with it the danger to the national unity which, ironically, is essential to the qualities that attracted its many peoples to this country.

In his book The Roots of American Order, Russell Kirk pointed out that these roots go back to the ancient world - to the Jews and their understanding of a purposeful universe and under God's dominion; to the Greeks, with their high regard for the use of reason, to the stern virtues of the Romans such as Cicero; to Christianity, which taught the duties and limitations of Man, and the importance of the Transcendent in our lives. These roots, in addition, include the traditions and universities of the medieval world, the Reformation and the response to it, the development of English Common Law, the debates of the 18th century, and the written words of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.

American colleges and universities do our students - and our country - a disservice by not transmitting our history and culture to the next generation. Unless those who understand the very fragile nature of our civilization and the uniqueness of the tradition upon which free institutions are based, rise in defense of that culture may well be swept away. If this takes place, all of us will be the losers, not least the various groups in whose name such a cultural assault has been launched. *

Read 3757 times Last modified on Saturday, 05 December 2015 10:37
Allan C. Brownfeld

Allan C. Brownfeld is the author of five books, the latest of which is The Revolution Lobby(Council for Inter-American Security). He has been a staff aide to a U.S. vice president, members of Congress, and the U.S. Senate Internal Security Subcommittee. He is associate editor of The Lincoln Review, and a contributing editor to Human Events, The St. Croix Review, and The Washington Report on Middle East Affairs.

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