Thursday, August 28, 2008

The Democratic Party Education Platform

The few remarks on education in Joe Biden's acceptance speech last night were lifted directly from pages 18-21 of the democratic election platform.

The education plank is brief and not very informative. The key features are recruiting and retaining teachers by providing merit pay, fixing NCLB by adding a number of additional metrics and providing resources for unsuccessful schools rather than labeling them as failures, supporting more public charter schools, and reforming schools of education. No details are provided in the platform itself. More detailed policy statements are no doubt available, but I haven't yet tracked them down.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Younger Democrats Moving Towards School Choice

At a democratic convention breakfast held by sponsors of school choice initiatives in Denver early this week, Colorado state Senate President Peter C. Groff noted that school choice demographics are changing, according to Ed Week's election campaign coverage.

Groff, 45, who is black, noted that African-American policymakers under the age of 50are no longer following in lock step behind teachers unions or party officials opposing school choice. "This is a generation that doesn't look at race first, but policy first," said Groff, 45, a Democrat. "It's not looking at party first, but the best idea first."

Newark Mayor Cory Booker, the event's main speaker, said charter schools in his New Jersey city are successful, but they don't have enough seats to fill demand.

Many Newark families "break the law, literally," said Booker, a Democrat. "They are faking addresses and sneaking [their children] into schools" in neighboring towns. School officials there investigate students and kick out those who live in Newark, charging their families tuition for the time they were enrolled.

"This is not the America I dream of," Booker said.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Academic Capitalism Watch I: Stanford Restricts Drug Marketing in Medical Education

Stanford University's program in medical continuing education will, according to the New York Times, announce today that it will no longer permit drug companies to pick and choose the continuing education courses they support. Going forward, any drug company wishing to support medical continuing education will contribute to a general pool. It can support the continuing education effort, but can no longer shape it to deliver its own carefully tailored marketing messages.

Dr. Philip A. Pizzo, dean of Stanford’s School of Medicine, said in an interview that the school wanted to take a firm stand on the issue, even if it meant that drug and device companies might no longer contribute to the educational effort if they could not specify which classes they wanted to support.

“I want to make sure we’re not marketing for industry or being influenced by their marketing,” Dr. Pizzo said.

The Times states that doctors have grown accustomed to getting their continuing education classes free and getting a nice lunch thrown in as an added inducement. "Separating commercial influences from doctor education might require doctors to pay their own way," the Times adds, "which some doctors have said they would resist."

You heard that! Feed me or you won't even be able to drag me to continuing education! How is that for entitlement? Corruption breeds corruption.

Dr. Murray Kopelow, chief executive of the Accreditation Council for Continuing Medical Education, said that Stanford’s new policy was part of a growing push in medical education to further separate crucial medical information from marketing messages.

“It’s a good plan, and it’s a big deal that a place like Stanford has adopted it,” Dr. Kopelow said. “When this is all over, medical education will not be the same as what it’s been.”

Actually, medical education may be taking a small step back to what it was until recently, an honest and professional attempt (not without its own biases, of course) to educate doctors and keep them up to speed.

Educators speak out at Democratic Convention

In the primary season the AFT supported Hillary Clinton and the NEA mostly sat on its hands. Both are now solidly behind Obama, as we would expect. Both groups will be listened to, but given their slow arrival at the campaign, one can ask whether they will be welcomed as insiders going forward.

But to get a clearer sense of where Obama is heading on education we can listen to what Jon Schnur, an education adviser to Barack Obama’s campaign and CEO of the non-profit reform group New Leaders for New Schools, has to say. Schur spoke on the first night of the covention Monday night at one of the three "American town halls".

According to EdWeeks's convention coverage,

Schnur tackled a very broad question from a Philadelphia mom who was piped in on video, who wanted to know how Obama would reform schools. Schnur basically recited Obama’s education platform in lightning speed, but emphasized the Illinois senator’s plan to recruit and retain effective teachers with the goal of getting the best teachers in schools where our students need them the most. Schnur, and his school reform group that trains school administrators, are more open than the teachers' unions are to ideas such as merit pay.

Also on stage on night one were National Education Association President Reg Weaver, and American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten.

Weaver said: "He knows we must hold schools accountable. But that the world is too complex and diverse to judge students by a single, multiple choice, and high stakes test." Weingarten added: “Barack Obama knows teachers must be partners, not pawns, in federal education policy.”

Monday, August 25, 2008

Postmodernists, RSVP!

As I noted in my previous post, I hoped to engage further in the question of the relationship between pragmatism and postmodernism raised by Larry Hickman in his book Pragmatism as Post-postmodernism. Hickman's overall theme is that classical pragmatism is beyond post-modernism. It addresses the same issues that concern the postmodernists--that is, the failing of modernism. However, in being beyond postmodernism, Hickman means to indicate that pragmatism offers a way forward, something he doesn't believe postmodernism to do.

I fancy myself no expert regarding postmodernism. In the few attempts I have made to read and understand texts in this tradition, I have found them nearly impenetrable. I am willing, however, to say that this may well be due to the authors, both literally and figuratively, speaking a language I don't understand. (Pragmatists, I suspect, just tend to think and write in ways compatible with my particular cerebral furrows. Some days I suspect all philosophical allegiances are thus.) Some of the writers--Derrida being just one example--are clearly intelligent beyond any measure I can comprehend. It therefore dismays me when people, particularly "analytical philosophers" that I hang out with from time to time, reflexively dismiss them as worthless crap (often in exactly those words) without giving the texts more than a cursory glance, and seldom less.

So I ask those who do either consider themselves postmodernists, or at least well-versed in and sympathetic to this tradition, if postmodernism offers as few resources for constructive forward movement as Hickman (and many others) represent.

Rorty is interestingly Janus-faced in this conversation. Hickman offers the following (by now famous) quote from Rorty:
"On my view, James and Dewey were not only waiting at the end of the dialectical road which analytic philosophy traveled, but are waiting at the end of the road which, for example, Foucault and Deleuze are currently traveling." (Hickman, p. 13)
Yet the approach of neo-pragmatism, with Rorty seen as its leading advocate, is represented by Hickman as another form of postmodernism (and not necessarily a faithful continuation of the tradition of classical pragmatism), and thus subject to its same failings.

Hickman notes that Dewey, not the postmodernists, help us develop a "sound philosophical ecology":
"Against the modernists, Dewey therefore proposes that we cease our attempts to attain certain knowledge of Being in general, and proceed instead with an investigation of the generic traits of existence. Against the postmodernists, he argues that these traits are empirically available, that they are assumed by science, and that they include such items as 'structure and process, substance and accident, matter and energy,' to name a few." (p. 24)

Deweyan pragmatism offers us empirical investigation of experience in a post(post)modern frame. Postmodernism, on the other hand, has nothing to offer beyond irony, the endless play of signs, and vague thus empty hope. Perhaps more sympathetically put: where postmodernism has cleared out old brush, pragmatism will build new, resplendent structures.

I know a lot of people, and I suspect there are at least a few following this blog, who have found in postmodern thought inspiration for positive action in their classroom and public and community engagements. So far I don't understand what that inspiration consists in, but unlike the "analyticals" (or "analysts"?) I know, I'm interested in learning. So, postmodernists--do you feel yourselves guilty as charged, or what can you share with us not versed in the tradition's particular jargon?

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Why Remember the Night of Terror This Tuesday?

This past Thursday, a grandmother-friend who works as an office manager in the education department of one of our campus museums sent me the most unexpected and thought-provoking spam email, especially instructive for those who (like me) are NOT political or social historians. Forgive me if you are yourself an historian (in which case you may want to amend or otherwise critique this history) or if you have already received this email (which may be late in coming to me). I never forward spam, but I did forward this “Message for All Women,” itself an inspiring example of spam activism. All day Thursday and Friday my inbox filled with replies to that spam, from yoga teachers and classmates, girlhood pals, graduate students, and school teachers telling me about their grandmothers’ observations of the events retold in this email or about young students’ responses to it in class that day, and pleading for social events organized this election season around HBO’s 2004 movie starring Hilary Swank, Iron Jawed Angels. Referencing that film as well as a highly informative Library of Congress archive online, this spam email implored its recipients to ask ourselves what the women who struggled to win the right to vote would think of the way we use or don’t use our right today. Any thoughts on that question to share? Have you seen this film? If so, please comment here.

Remember also that not only women—but John Dewey and other men too!—wrote, spoke, and marched for women’s suffrage, a cause intimately connected with that of coeducation. But I don’t think Dewey or many of them suffered for suffrage as some courageous women did on the Night of Terror, only to be labeled “insane” by that “progressive” Democrat U.S. president who sold war as a way of making the world safe for democracy.

Useful to educators, the HBO film’s website and the government archive site both include timelines and pictorial histories of women’s struggle for suffrage and of President Woodrow Wilson’s active opposition to that struggle as he led the U.S. into World War I. It’s worthy of note how war seems to affect political concerns about sex equality. Just as the U.S. suffrage movement had slowed to a halt during the Civil War, some women gave up the struggle for suffrage to take up “war work” during World War I. But Lucy Burns and Alice Paul, religious women (Roman Catholic and Quaker respectively, educated at Vassar College and Swarthmore College respectively) who founded the National Women’s Party, adopted the tactics of British women’s activism for suffrage, organized a counter-inaugural parade, and relentlessly picketed the White House everyday. As a consequence they were arrested for “obstructing sidewalk traffic,” and November 15, 1917 has become known as the Night of Terror. Forty prison guards with their warden’s consent went on a rampage wielding their clubs against the arrested suffragists. They smashed Dora Lewis’s head against an iron bedstead and knocked her out cold, causing her cellmate to have a heart attack. Imprisoned six times, Burns insisted that the incarcerated suffragists, who also included Paul and many others besides Burns herself, were political prisoners. Imprisoned at Occoquan Workhouse in Virginia, the women were fed colorless worm-infested slop for weeks and could only drink water from an open pail; Burns and Paul instigated a hunger strike among the prisoners. Prison officials beat Burns, handcuffed her hands over her head, hung her bleeding overnight, and force-fed the hunger strikers. They tied Paul to a chair, poked tubes down her throat and poured liquid into her until she vomited. Afterwards, these suffragists organized a cross-country speaking tour, the “Prison Special,” to inform the public about their experiences of brutality, their punitive reward for wanting full U.S. citizenship.

This coming Tuesday, August 26, will be the 88th anniversary of U.S. women’s getting the right to vote, through U.S. Congress’s ratification of the 19th amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Contemplate this fact along with the Night of Terror while watching the Republican and Democratic Party conventions on television this coming month, and share your relevant reflections and observations here.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

When will Men finally be treated fairly?

A disgruntled lawyer is suing Columbia University for discrimination against men! Yes, it sounds ridiculous, but it's true, a New York lawyer and self-proclaimed anti-feminist (and probably a good friend of Rush Limbaugh), would like everyone to know that Women's Studies courses are unfair to men.  
While this man is so busy worrying about what ideology is being spread against men, he should just realize that Women's Studies like other course offerings in Universities continue to be offered because they continue to be profitable, the students pay the thousands of dollars in tuition and attend the classes. So, I encourage him to design a program for Men's Studies and let's see how many people are interested... maybe he can start by studying what's on Spike TV.

UPDATE: I certainly don't want to disparage existing Men's Studies Programs. My remarks here  were designed to question the legitimacy of this lawsuit, which I view as one man's attempt to use the press for his own agenda against liberated women. ( He uses the term Feminazi's. His other lawsuits involved suing the Federal Government over a law that protects women from violence. Beyond that he has a lawsuit against nightclubs for lady's night discounts! see: NY Times) I appreciate Len's comment and I agree that gender studies is a progressive development. Of course, neither women's nor men's studies programs should be used as a forum for discrimination. I think one important way of determining whether these types of programs are rigorous is to evaluate the extent to which they are seeking to contribute to a pluralist interpretation of the world that will be passed on to the next generation, and not simply seeking to spread their own interpretation of the world as the only valid one. 

(Thanks to Michelle Forrest for sending me this link)

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Millennials in service

The Millennials are coming!   Or are they rising?  Actually, they have arrived, says Neil Howe, co-author of the 2000 book Millennials Rising, a volume that has found its way to the shelf of every college admissions and student affairs professionals.     And with them has come a penchant for community service.   Today’s young people spend more hours in community volunteer work and service projects than any generation before them – and with this service comes an oft-underutilized opportunity for the kind of trying, undergoing, and connecting by reflecting that Dewey described as the organic circuit of learning.

But that’s not my point today.  Instead I want to point out that“the service agenda” has become a political message as well.   Both presidential candidates are touting the glories of citizens serving others.   Time Magazine. The Carnegie Corporation, the AARP, Target  and others are together helping to make “The Case for National Service”  (see

I bring this up for two reasons.   First, I am an avid advocate for national service.   I think it would be swell if every American (or American wanna-be) between the ages of 18 and 22 spent at least one year in some form of service (educational, environmental, military, infrastructure-building, security, emergency-responding, or whatever else we can imagine) in exchange for a subsistence wage, further education credits (to complete GED, obtain job training or attend college), and the right to vote.   They would live with other young people under conditions of minimal supervision and have responsibility for paying their own bills (without the benefit of credit cards).    (By they way, I’d also be happy to tie receipt of social security benefits by older citizens to part-time service in domains appropriate to their interest and expertise.)

Second, I think it’s important to give credit where credit is due.   As far as I’m concerned, the millennials’ interest in community service is not an accident.  It’s a function of a push by educators (individuals, schools, districts, state departments of education, and even university professors J) to incorporate service learning, character development and citizenship awareness into curricula and requirements.

I am not saying that these efforts were as widespread nor as well-done as they might have been.  Much of the push to service learning followed the minimalist Maryland dictum that students must amass a certain number of service hours to graduate from high school.  And I’m well aware – based on the experience of my own children – that service hours do not always prompt constructive reflection and are often fudged.  Still, kids listen when we talk even when it seems like they are paying no attention.   And the truth is that service is its own reward.  Not all kids attend to the people they are serving and the situations that require their assistance – but many do.  Once they see that their work makes a difference, they are hooked.  Making a difference is one of those natural reinforcers that young people find hard to resist.

So let’s give the schools some credit here.  (We rarely do, you know.   Consider the blame placed on schools during the Reagan years when our nation was at risk economically because schools were failing.   Then think about the relative Clinton “boom times” a decade later.   Did you hear anybody acknowledging the difference schools were making????  I thought not.)   Schools may not be the only tool for social reform, but schooling does have a significant impact on the quality of community life.  The current focus on service is not purely accidental.   Kids may not recognize that service supports the development of a meaningful sense of self at the same time that it enables a deeper understanding of the structure and function of the communities of knowledge and action in which we live.  It’s up to educators to see and express this lofty goal.   But kids know it’s worth doing, and they want to keep doing it.   Let’s continue to encourage them.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Deliberation as Dark Comedy?

Lately, I’ve been thinking about how public deliberation can function effectively. In particular, I’ve been wondering about a possible tendency to pay undue attention to the most extreme comments that are made in deliberative settings.

My question was piqued by a recent high profile effort by the Quebec government to address the perceived problem of "intercultural friction" in Quebec. The provincial government set up a traveling commission chaired by two high profile academics, historian Gerard Bouchard and philosopher Charles Taylor. From September to December of 2007, the commission traveled throughout the province soliciting input from ordinary citizens about "interethnic relations and harmonization practices." At the outset of the hearings, the commissioners indicated their hopes for a “frank, open discussion” and suggested that the commission would constitute a “major demonstration of democracy.”

As it journeyed across Quebec, the commission received many thoughtful contributions from citizens, but the media spotlight seemed to me to focus particularly on citizen comments that were ignorant, narrow-minded, and/or racist. For example, in their coverage of the citizen comments at the hearing held in the Laurentians, the Montreal Gazette (the largest English-language daily in Quebec) focused extensively on contributors who made anti-Semitic remarks. The Gazette’s coverage of the hearings in Laval was similar in terms of the amount of attention given to xenophobic contributions.

A great deal of media attention was also given to the testimony of André Drouin, the mayor of the town of Herouxville. Drouin and his small town had entered gained national attention in January 2007 for crafting and propagating a code of conduct for immigrants. A quote from the preamble to the code—“We would especially like to inform the new arrivals that the lifestyle that they left behind in their birth country cannot be brought here with them…”—gives one a sense of the flavor of the rest of the document.

Quebec’s answer to Jon Stewart, Jean-René Dufort (better known by his stage name of “Infoman”) also weighed in with a weekly feature called “Un Excellent Moment de la Commission Bouchard-Taylor.” Each week, Dufort would highlight particularly strange and funny moments from the live TV coverage of the commission.

I have to admit that I was fascinated by some of the more bizarre antics of the contributors to the commission, and I enjoyed Infoman’s comedic take on the whole enterprise enormously. Still, the fact remains that the media played a role in spotlighting the extreme testimony, as opposed to the more sober contributions. If deliberative exercises like the commission are to function well, shouldn’t the media consider highlighting a representative sample of the contributions, or even avoiding coverage of sensational contributions that are on the fringe? Of course, we know that the for-profit media likes to report on stories that will sell papers and draw eyeballs to the screen. Perhaps not-for-profit citizen journalism could play a useful role in providing more balanced coverage? I'm interested to hear your thoughts on this issue.

Further reading: The Bouchard-Taylor Commission’s final report.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Happiness in Dubai

Some say that philosophy is not practical. But they are wrong. About two decades ago a printer in Connecticut named Lionel Kechian stumbled upon ancient philosophy. He read Aristotle's Nichomachian Ethics and the Handbook of Epictetus and was hooked. He started thinking seriously about happiness, and the reasons why so many people were unhappy. From Epictetus he learned that most people were unhappy because they thought about life problems in a wrongheaded way: they had a poor philosophy.

Lionel set out to change that by offering a course on the philosophy of happiness at a local college in Fairfield Connecticut. When the course was over the students wanted to continue the discussion so Lionel started a "happiness club," which continues to meet monthly at the Fairfield Public Library.

His idea has been contagious, and happiness clubs have spread across the U.S. and around the world. In dozens of cities people get together each month to talk about the theory and practice of happiness. A new chapter has just opened in Dubai.

What is so interesting about this phenomenon is that Lionel does not fit your preconceptions of the towering intellectual leader; he is not a learned professor, priest or pontificator. In fact, he revealed to me that when he took "introduction to philosophy" as a college course he found it quite daunting. He is, however, very fond of thinking about the good, and how to live better, and talking about this question with other people. His extraordinary enthusiasm for the philosophy of happiness continues to spread. Here in Fairfield, where I spend about half the year, he is the local Socrates. When I run into him at the library or on the street, he always makes time for an interesting conversation about how we can live better.

There is a lesson here for professional philosophers.