Sunday, June 26, 2011
More ruminations on 21st century learning and the concept of change
As usual in the distributed learning (DL) world, the month of June is absurdly hectic. Students who’ve enjoyed the right to create their own learning schedules realize, at the end, that no right exists without a corresponding responsibility. And now - as their asynchronous bliss meets the realities of graduation, post-secondary timetables and the rigours of employment - their panic must become my panic!
In any case, I am returning to my blog with a multitude of ideas for the summer. The one topic that continues to dominate my thoughts is “21st century learning”. In my last blog entry, I discussed the bait and switch nature of this latest educational bandwagon. The Minister of Education and his underlings are baiting us with golden visions of individualized learning, where students can follow their own pursuits and passions and be forever unshackled from the factory-like uniformity that supposedly characterizes (and impedes) our modern education system.
My response is one of deep suspicion. In my opinion, the vision they propose is extremely unrealistic. The amount of time and resources it would require is almost immeasurable, and will certainly not be available to a branch of government that the Minister has said will only receive “incremental funding” in the near future.1 Instead of personalized learning, I fear we will instead be switched to something less savoury: correspondence courses within brick and mortar institutions.
There are others (like here and here) who see an even more insidious game afoot. For them, this 21st century bait and switch is actually a Trojan Horse. Hidden inside the promises of “creativity and innovation”, “[t]ailored learning” and “[a]daptability” 2 are the banal realities of 19th century power politics: the breaking of unions; the end of work-hour, seniority and autonomy provisions; and the centralized control of professional development. Recent talks between BCPSEA and the ministry have focused upon the apparently inflexible nature of the current teachers’ contract, and how it’s an obstacle to 21st century learning. Indeed, in a recent government presentation to the BCTF, the rather cryptic nature of government objectives has led to a real fear by teachers that 21st century learning is simply code for breaking the BCTF and imposing a Wisconsin-style work environment. Nobody really knows what the government objectives mean in concrete, policy-manual terms, but here are a few objectives that can spark your imagination:
- We want the right teachers placed in the right positions. Qualified and suitable teachers – in best “fit” placements - lead to better learning
- We want to ensure that school districts are able to make human resource decisions that are effective and efficient
- We want to align professional development with teacher performance evaluations and school district policy requirements.
In the end, I am not entirely sure if the worst-case scenario is any different from the bargaining objectives of past Socred, NDP and Liberal governments. Perhaps the BCTF is ramping up the concern in anticipation of the upcoming strike vote. Nevertheless, I’ll follow the old adage and “hope for the best, prepare for the worst”. My apprehension about 21st century learning, not surprisingly, remains strong.
Another curious development related to the
21st century learning bandwagon is the colonization of the word
“change”. As a person trained in political philosophy and the politics
of language, I'm fascinated by the politicization of the word. Perhaps
"change" is destined to become politicized any time there are great
struggles between groups seeking to preserve and those seeking to change
the status quo, or between groups who have competing visions of the
future. In the context of BC’s education system, “change” has become weaponized.
In other words, it has become a unit of rhetorical armament that is
deployed at the first sign of dissent. What do you mean you oppose
these policies? Why are you scared of change? Clearly you are an
obstacle to 21st century realities! If you’re a skeptic like me,
you’ve doubtlessly encountered this
response many times. Those who ask tough questions about policy shifts
(such as the underlying assumptions, the actual costs, and the positive
policies that may be discarded) are often cast as “resistors” to change.
We are dinosaurs who care only for ourselves, and not “the kids”. [In
education, appealing to "the kids" is like both sides in the Crusades
appealing to God.]
Notice what’s going on. “Change” does not imply that the intended alterations are positive. Change is simply difference or an adjustment of position. It’s not a straight line of progress from the Dark Ages to the Age of Enlightenment. It could be meandering. It could ultimately bring us back to the starting point. It says nothing of the merit of that adjustment. In short, "change" means nothing.
Yet to the “change agents” who view dissenters as obstacles rather than valued interlocutors, their change is necessarily good. They've captured a neutral term and armed it with a more powerful meaning - goodness - that no one wants to oppose.
But this is nonsense. If I oppose your “change”, it’s because I believe your proposal is flawed. Just because you invoke “change” does not mean I concede its superiority. I believe my own position, which may or may not be the status quo, is better than yours. Amongst other things, I believe my position is better because it more accurately aligns itself with human nature, actual financing and/or the nature of institutions. And it offers less BS.
In the end, teachers ought to be very wary of “change”, whether it’s change for the sake of change, change that merely advances a person’s career, or – in the worst case situation – change that masks a partisan, non-consensual agenda. Above all else, don’t let others define their change as necessarily good change. If you do, and the BCTF is right about the government’s desire for less union protection, then those who demand honesty and clarity will be the first to go.
1. Abbott, George. “Opening Remarks”, Digital Learning Spring Conference: Personalized Learning for the 21st Century. April 18, 2011.
2. Premier’s Technology Council. A
Vision for 21st Century Education. (http://www.gov.bc.ca/premier/attachments/PTC_vision%20for_education.pdf)
Dec. 2010. Accessed 25 June 2011.
Monday, May 23, 2011
Personalized Learning? Unlikely...
The latest buzz-phrase in education is “personalized learning”. Like so many other education bandwagons, it has enjoyed a surge in popularity in university education programs, the provincial Ministry of Education, and recent education conferences. In December of 2010, the BC Ministry of Education and the Premier’s Technology Council [PTC] published its Vision for 21st Century Education, a vision “rooted in personalized learning” and our “knowledge-based society”. Recently, LearnNowBC held its 2011 conference, entitled Personalized Learning for the 21st Century.
So what exactly is “personalized learning”? According to the PTC manifesto, it means that education is individualized to the needs of each student. Because content is constantly evolving, the PTC asserts, instruction “should more consistently focus on the skills required to find and use relevant content rather than on the delivery of pre-determined content.” Over time, students will “increasingly access and engage with their own content, at their own pace of learning and take an increasing role in charting a path best suited to those talents, interests and abilities.” With the help of technology, and greater maturity, students “will, with the assistance of teachers and parents, take on more responsibility for choosing their educational path. The student would still have to achieve learning outcomes but focused on the student’s particular interests.”
So here it is. Another major bandwagon that's going to create a lot of changes in BC. Or will it?
Suffice to say, I remain deeply skeptical of this move into “21st century learning”. After 18 years in education, I have seen a lot of education fads come and go. Many have been riddled with faults, based upon theories of human nature that are well-meaning but have little basis in reality. The ultra-permissiveness of Martin Brokenleg’s Circle of Courage comes to mind, as does the impracticality of portfolio assessment. Other bandwagons may have merit, but die because they require a level of commitment that is hard to find. In my district, for example, much was made of AVID, but it died a slow and miserable death within a few years of its introduction. AVID’s commitment to helping students enter post-secondary education clashed with the anti-intellectualism that was (and is) rampant in my school district. Most of our kids don’t go to university, so why bother? More importantly, AVID requires a huge investment in resources and timetabling. However, most people with power seemed to want the resources to go elsewhere – to the next shiny new panacea. Our current flavour du jour, “professional learning communities,” is also fading as its novelty declines.
To be sure, some bandwagons persist. The “I” or “incomplete” policy is one of the more unfortunate elements that has survived from the “Year 2000” era. It’s added a layer of complexity for teachers and non-accountability for students, and has done nothing but harden cynicism. Students who are unwilling to do the work the first time are now entitled to an “I” plan that will allow them to make up the work – or “learning objectives” – at a later date. Of course, those unwilling to do the work the first time rarely do the work at a later date. But “plans for success” are nevertheless developed, discussed, implemented and measured.
So, will “personalized learning” fade away, or will it persist? To be truthful, I really don’t know, and I have no feeling or intuition regarding its future. It seems like a very flaky concept (see below), but the recent BCPSEA discussions with the Ministry of Education over this very issue make it seem like the government appears serious. The fact that tweeting by the participants in these discussions was banned also makes me wonder.
So let’s say “personalized learning” is indeed a serious contender. What can we make of it? My belief is that there’s a serious "bait and switch" effort underway. [Perhaps this is more circumstantial evidence of the seriousness of the initiative.] The bait is the promise of an education tailored to the specific needs of each student. Wow! This seems fantastic! What incredible service! But then you have to wonder about its practicality. How is a high school teacher with 200 students going to help each and every student create a personalized learning plan, replete with - in the words of the PTC initiative - “an ‘integrated’, ‘project- based’ or ‘problem-based’ approach to learning”? When will the teacher have time to create 200 separate projects and problems on an ongoing basis? What about counseling students as they choose “their educational path”? How is the teacher then going to monitor each student, providing instruction and advice for each step of the problem or project? And, finally, how will he or she provide timely and individualized assessment?
Only non-educators could think this is practical. Every teacher, however, will tell you the same thing. It’s utter madness. An unremitting fantasy. Total cock ‘n bull. There is simply not enough time in the day to personalize the learning for each student. It will never happen.
So what’s going to happen instead? Well, this is where it gets hazy, but I think this is where we'll see the switch part of the bait and switch. It will look something like this: pre-packaged programs where students work at their own pace. In other words, students will get correspondence courses, built by distributed learning (DL) teachers or institutions like Open School. I've been told it's about to happen in some districts; in the nebulously labeled “blended model”, pre-packaged content will be offered to students within regular schools. Depending on the district, students will complete these courses on their own time, or in an “X” or designated “distance ed" block, with or without access to an actual teacher. Content from DL teachers will be appropriated and shared throughout certain districts, or students will receive the canned packages that we all know and love from Open School. I’ve heard that some district administrators like this model because it earns their district full funding per block, rather than the less-than-full funding currently received by DL schools. [There's also a concern that the blended model might encourage schools to override the recent court ruling against the BC government and increase the number of students taught, er, ... guided... by each teacher.]
The result, if my prognosis is correct, will take us to a place far different than the world of “personalized learning”. This so-called blended model is, in fact, the epitome of “pre-determined content”. Nothing will be personalized. You’ll do the same Foundations of Mathematics 11 course and the same Social Studies 8 course as everyone else. If you’re lucky, you might get a teacher who can modify an assignment or two, but, more than likely, your courses will be more standardized than ever. Talk about bait and switch.
But there are more problems. As a teacher currently working in the DL world, I can tell you that “working at your own pace” is not for everyone. In fact, I don’t think it’s for most people. It only really works for those who are highly self-motivated and/or those with a strong support network. It’s also a very lonely way to learn. Working at your own pace, in an asynchronous manner, makes it less likely that you'll find people with whom you can collaborate. Indeed, in my asynchronous DL school, we have largely given up on the interactive Elluminate vClass program because it’s a synchronous tool; it only works well when a large number of students are available at the same time and working on the same part of the course. In our asynchronous, “anytime, anywhere” environment, it’s a largely irrelevant technology. Finally, these blended courses will likely be housed in some form of electronic Learning Management System, like Moodle, Blackboard or D2L. Any desire to change or modify a course will require time as well as the skills necessary to work with the LMS. At that point, educators in regular schools will find out what I learned years ago: distributed learning, if done properly, takes an incredible amount of time, effort and training. It’s no cheaper (again, if done properly) than traditional “brick and mortar” education.
So, in the coming months, the question is clear: what does the government really mean by personalized learning? I think we need to prepare ourselves for a huge disconnect between rhetoric and reality.
Friday, May 13, 2011
The Decline of the American Empire
A popular media topic these days is the cultural, economic and political decline of the American Empire. It’s reflected in a large number of books, blogs and mainstream news stories. My former professor, Morris Berman, writes a popular blog, Dark Ages America, almost singularly devoted to the theme.
Perhaps you’re skeptical? Well, if you remain doubtful, I’ve come across a number of recent examples of this decline, including two from that increasingly important barometer (and archive) of American culture, YouTube. Let’s proceed with the evidence…
Exhibit #1: In the land of torts, Gloria Allred has risen above the pack and become a well-known trial lawyer and media manipulator. She’s also lost her mind. Witness the following press conference captured on YouTube, and consider the utterly inappropriate content given the two young girls who are flanking her.
Exhibit #2: American presidential hopeful Mike Huckabee [Note: On May 16, Huckabee withdrew from the presidential race.] thinks American teachers are too biased, so he's created his own company called learnourhistory.com. Here is the website's introduction:
Welcome to Learn Our History, where kids discover history through entertaining animated videos! I co-founded this company to give children a fun, fresh way to learn about America’s rich past and most influential people.
Many of our schools and teachers today haven't found ways to make history for kids fun. Instead, they’re teaching with political bias that distorts facts for the sake of political correctness. As a result, our national pride and patriotism are in jeopardy.
That's what makes Learn Our History different. Your kids will love to learn American history as they watch our nation's stories come to life right before their eyes! All the while, they’ll build a strong sense of national pride and appreciation for America.
Now, watch one his company's "inspiring"
video promos on Ronald Reagan:
Not surprisingly, comments have been turned off for the YouTube site. As an educator, my only question is this: Do I use Huckabee’s site first to teach irony, or do I move immediately to the topic of propaganda?
Exhibit #3: On a more serious note, Andy Kroll, a well-known writer for Mother Jones magazine, has written a chilling article on the hollowing out of the American middle class. He documents the jobless and unequal recovery now being touted by the Democrats - minus the jobless and unequal part, of course – and the critical role that labour unions used to play as the foundation of the modern middle class. Here are two excerpts:
... On April 19th , McDonald’s launched its first-ever national hiring day, signing up 62,000 new workers at stores throughout the country. For some context, that’s more jobs created by one company in a single day than the net job creation of the entire U.S. economy in 2009. And if that boggles the mind, consider how many workers applied to local McDonald’s franchises that day and left empty-handed: 938,000 of them. With a 6.2 percent acceptance rate in its spring hiring blitz, McDonald’s was more selective than the Princeton, Stanford, or Yale University admission offices....
…Bargaining-table clout is crucial for unions, since it directly affects the wages their members take home every month. According to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, union workers pocket on average $200 more per week than their non-union counterparts, a 28 percent difference. The benefits of union representation are even greater for women and people of color: women in unions make 34 percent more than their non-unionized counterparts, and Latino workers nearly 51 percent more.
In other words, at precisely the moment when middle-class workers need strong bargaining rights so they can fight to preserve a living wage in a barbell economy, unions around the country face the grim prospect of losing those rights….
Do I take any comfort in this decline of a superpower? Do I display Schadenfreude, the pleasure of witnessing the discomfort of others?
But of course, it’s self-defeating and just plain ‘ol bad karma. As a Canadian, I know that America’s decline almost certainly means our decline. But it’s like a car wreck. Terrible. Awful. Irresistible.
Tuesday, January 25, 2011
Ben Levin's thoughts on education
The presentation below, by Ontario professor Ben Levin, makes some interesting points about modern education.
The first point is that many of the elements that differentiate the education systems of Canada and the USA - and lead to better PISA results in Canada - are macro-factors outside the control of individual teachers. Levin points to political differences, such as strong provincial governments versus weak state governments, that retard the consistent implementation of programs in America. He also points to financial inequities between American school districts that are much less pronounced in Canada. [He might have added that the USA is one of the most unequal societies in the western world.] Levin points out that countries with strong test scores closely correlate with strong teacher unions; strong unions succeed in winning good pay, benefits and working conditions, and this in turn attracts better candidates to the teaching profession. In many American school districts, where teachers are lucky to make $30,000 a year, the most capable young people generally go elsewhere to start their careers.
Levin's second major point refers to a problem that I have witnessed since the start of my education career: innovation for the sake of innovation. Usually caused by certain educators wishing to advance their careers, the constant cycle of innovation produces exhaustion and cynicism. Even if a new program has merit, it will most assuredly be dropped within five years. At most. No discussion about the past is allowed - that would embarrass those in power and expose an endless cycle of change - while we move on to the "latest and greatest". And there's an almost Orwellian air to professional development discussions; we must pretend that the old programs never existed. Levin's final conclusions on this topic should be a key lesson for all administrators: spend much more time on implementation than innovation. If he had supported the idea that brand new programs must be supported for at least, say, 8 years, then I would be in full agreement.
Levin's last major point is somewhat more
problematic. To be sure, he argues that teachers must be respected and
convinced to employ best practices, rather than be used and bullied. I
have no problem with that! But I do have a problem with his assumption
that there is one best way to accomplish a certain goal (like improving
reading scores) or manage a classroom. In my experience, education is not
analogous to flying a plane or designing a bridge. I often find that
there are many ways to reach a common pedagogical goal or be a
successful educator. These different paths often correlate with the many
different personalities and temperaments that we find in a school's
staff. Unfortunately, those differences are often seen as threats to the
innovators, and older teachers (especially) are compelled to withdraw to
their classrooms, lest their wisdom and experience provide a path away
from the latest changes - and make them a target.
Improvement, Not Innovation, is the Key to Greater Equity from CEA ACE on Vimeo.
Thursday, January 13, 2011
Contrary to Sir Ken
Sir Ken Robinson’s RSA presentation on “Changing Education Paradigms” (see below) is a well-meaning critique of the "factory model" of education. Nevertheless, I think his alternative is much more flawed than the system he attacks.
At the core of Robinson’s argument is a familiar counter-Enlightenment, romantic critique of modern education. In a bid to standardize and routinize the process of learning, schools apparently suppress the authentic feelings and curiosity of children. Routinized learning (as well as its modern ally, Ritalin) anaesthetizes young people, blocking them from feeling “fully alive”. Furthermore, modern schools are a simulacrum of the factory model: a bell system, specialization and age cohorts. In the end, there’s not much difference between Robinson’s speech and Rousseau’s Émile, or On Education (1762): society corrupts the natural self, a self that – given a natural state - would wander, wonder and feel without reference to common industrial standards.
So if Robinson’s argument is not particularly novel, and refers to an enduring point of view, why then has it never been put into effect in a long-term, large-scale manner? Why have we never seen a romantic view of education implemented by a majority of school boards in the Western world? [Otherwise, the romantic critique would not persist!]
I would contend that romanticism is a noble but ultimately futile basis for mass education. I share its yearning for individual authenticity and respect for sentiment. However, I’m suspicious of a worldview that has never established itself as a viable alternative to the perspective it attacks. Of course, there are some movements like the Montessori schools and small, elite academies that emphasize experiential or “relevant” education. But these are usually focused on narrow age groups and small education communities characterized by high costs and/or disproportionately motivated participants. Like anarchism, romanticism does not appear practical for large and complex industrial societies. In other words, after so many education reform movements inspired by the romantic call to action, it hasn’t withstood the practical test of time. Across so many countries, so many communities and so much time, isn’t it likely that the one constant – the romantic critique itself – has serious flaws?
Friday, December 24, 2010
Gabor Maté: In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts
One of my favourite books of 2010 is Dr. Gabor Maté's In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts.
The following is a series of interviews with Maté, a Vancouver doctor who treats drug addicts in the Downtown Eastside neighbourhood of Vancouver. The interviews are conducted by Amy Goodman of Democracy Now:
Monday, November 08, 2010
The Neo-Liberal Agenda: The Effects in BC, Part 1
I've talked at length about the failure of the neo-liberal agenda to increase productivity and high-quality employment, particularly in the Canadian context. But do these lack of economic benefits pertain to BC?
The Fraser Institute certainly doesn't think so. In a recent editorial puff piece in the Vancouver Sun - surprise, surprise - two writers from the F.I. extol the virtues of the BC Liberal government:
... Shortly after coming to power in June 2001, Campbell implemented major tax cuts on both personal and corporate income and scheduled additional cuts thereafter. Specifically, in his first budget (2001), Premier Campbell enacted a 25-per-cent across-the-board reduction in personal income tax rates, followed by more cuts in 2007 and 2008. The result was a significant improvement in incentives for British Columbians to work, save, invest, and be entrepreneurial.
His 2001 budget also reduced the general corporate income tax rate to 13.5 per cent from 16.5 per cent (effective in 2002); later reductions dropped the rate further to 10.5 per cent in 2010. Thanks to these and other business tax cuts (i. e. elimination of the corporate capital tax) B.C. now has a more competitive business tax regime.
Controlling government spending has also allowed Campbell to better manage government debt. From 2001-02 to 2009-10, Campbell's government generally balanced the books and on average recorded a small surplus (0.13 per cent of GDP). Over the same period, it reduced B.C.'s net debt to 15.7 per cent of GDP in 2009-10 from 18.5 per cent of GDP in 2001-02....
I won't go into the massive capital infrastructure costs that are not part of the Fraser Institute's accounting of our provincial debt. The real point is the drivel about "a more competitive business tax regime". In a truly competitive economy, profits and tax savings are supposed to be reinvested to make a business more efficient and more cost-effective. That's how you succeed in a competitive environment. But the problem with the Fraser Institute argument is - surprise, surprise - it's not happening.
In their recent "2010 BC Check-Up", the Institute of Chartered Accountants of British Columbia - no friends of progressive policy - offer very different conclusions about BC's "Golden Decade". To be sure, they do agree that productivity is important:
Improving productivity should be the cornerstone of any provincial economic action plan, as productive and efficient businesses have additional capital to reinvest in both their workforce and new machinery and equipment. A productive economy allows BC’s businesses to better compete internationally and will drive the province’s long-term economic health.
Unfortunately, BC isn't doing particularly well in terms of productivity:
Despite the infusion of investment and human capital in the past five years, BC’s labour force productivity stagnated. All of Canada suffers from a labour productivity gap with the US, but BC’s productivity has remained below the national average for many years. To a large degree, poor productivity explains the lower real wage in BC, as a less productive workforce affects profit margins and decreases the amount of capital that can be reinvested. This deterrent to investment, over the long-term, could erode BC’s ability to compete against the US. One of the more notable results in this year’s BC Check-Up was BC’s productivity gain of 2.1%, the best result in our comparison. However, to some extent, this gain was the result of rationalization in the forest industry, which means that BC’s turnaround in this critical indicator was linked to the loss of many jobs in a vulnerable sector, rather than increased investment in machinery and equipment and human capital.
Labour productivity rests not only on capital investment, but also the quality of the labour force itself. BC’s labour force educational attainment is still lower (63.1%) when compared to Alberta, Ontario, and Canada as a whole (64.3%, 68%, and 66.4% respectively); it also grew slowly during the past five years (3.8% compared to the national average growth rate of 4.7%). And employment in the sciences declined in 2009, by 0.6 ppt, as layoffs occurred across many sectors where these skills are needed.
This lack of productivity helps explain why BC has the highest child poverty rate in the country, and some of the worst real wages of any province. Indeed, the effects are quite staggering:
In 2009, BC’s real hourly wage was $23.89, compared to $27.24 in Alberta, and $24.48 in Ontario. Labour compensation per worker was even more skewed, at $44,568 in BC, compared to $64,516 in Alberta and $48,612 across Canada. Finally, the female/male wage ratio in BC is lower than it was five years ago (from 0.87 in 2004 to 0.84 in 2009), in stark contrast to all other comparison jurisdictions, where it has generally risen.
The only question remaining is this: After a
decade of massive tax cuts for businesses, what have they done with all
Monday, November 01, 2010
The Georgia Straight on Post-Secondary Spending in the Valley
The Georgia Straight, and its online version, the straight.com, are useful sources for news, investigative journalism and media criticism. Amid its pop culture pap and racy personal ads, the Straight can deliver articles of surprising quality on topics rarely seen in BC's corporate media.
Here's a recent article on the imbalance of spending on post-secondary institutions on the south side of the Fraser River compared to the north. It's amazing what a little bit of research and empirical analysis can do:
Wednesday, October 27, 2010
Notes from Michael Oakeshott's "Political Education"
One of the most thoughtful and engaging conservative philosophers of the 20th century is Michael Oakeshott. I'm re-reading some of the essays from his famous work Rationalism in Politics. Here are my quote notes on the first essay I've read:
Oakeshott, Michael. “Political Education," Rationalism in Politics and other essays, Expanded Edition (Liberty Press, Indianapolis), 1991.
[C]onsider Locke’s Second Treatise of Civil Government, read in America and in France in the eighteenth century as a statement of abstract principles to be put into practice, regarded there as a preface to political activity. But so far from being a preface, it has all the marks of a postscript. And its power to guide derived from its roots in actual political experience. (p. 53)
Freedom, like a recipe for game pie, is not a bright idea; it is not a ‘human right’ to be deduced from some speculative concept of human nature. The freedom which we enjoy is nothing more than arrangements, procedures of a certain kind: the freedom of an Englishman is not something exemplified in the procedure of habeas corpus, it is, at that point, the availability of that procedure. And the freedom which we wish to enjoy is not an ‘ideal’ which we premeditate independently of our political experience, it is what is already intimated in that experience. (p. 54)
[A]n ideology is an abbreviation of some manner of concrete activity. (p. 54)
On ideological politics: The complexities of the tradition which have been squeezed out in the process of abridgment are taken to be unimportant: the ‘rights of man’ are understood to exist insulated from a manner of attending to arrangements. And because, in practice, the abridgment is never by itself a sufficient guide, we are encouraged to fill it out, not with our suspect political experience, but with experience drawn from other (often irrelevant) concretely understood activities, such as war, the conduct of industry, or Trade Union negotiation. (p. 56)
The only cogent reason to be advanced for the technical ‘enfranchisement’ of women was that in all or most other important respects they had already been enfranchised. Arguments drawn from abstract natural right, from ‘justice,’ or from some general concept of feminine personality, must be regarded as either irrelevant, or as unfortunately disguised forms of the one valid argument; namely, that there was an incoherence in the arrangements of the society which pressed convincingly for remedy. (p 57)
[T]he abridgment itself never, in fact, provides the whole of the knowledge used in political activity. [p. 58]
Everything is temporary. Nevertheless, though a tradition of behaviour is flimsy and elusive, it is not without identity, and what makes it a possible object of knowledge is the fact that all its parts do not change at the same time and that the changes it undergoes are potential within it. Its principle is a principle of continuity: authority is diffused between past, present, and future; between the old, the new, and what is to come. It is steady because, though it moves, it is never wholly in motion; and though it is tranquil, it is never wholly at rest. (p. 61)
In political activity, then, men sail a boundless and bottomless sea; there is neither harbour for shelter nor floor for anchorage, neither starting-place nor appointed destination. The enterprise is to keep afloat on an even keel; the sea is both friend and enemy; and the seamanship consists in using the resources of a traditional manner of behaviour in order to make a friend of every hostile occasion. (p. 61)
Everything is temporary, but nothing is arbitrary. (p. 62)
Though the [political] knowledge we seek is municipal, not universal, there is no shortcut to it. Moreover, political education is not merely a matter of coming to understand a tradition, it is learning how to participate in a conversation: it is at once initiation into an inheritance in which we have a life interest, and the exploration of its intimations. (p. 62)
Political philosophy cannot be expected to increase our ability to be successful in political activity. It will not help us to distinguish between good and bad political projects; it has no power to guide or to direct us in the enterprise of pursuing the intimations of our tradition… we may hope only to be less often cheated by ambiguous statement and irrelevant argument…. The more thoroughly we understand our own political tradition, the more readily its whole resources are available to us, the less likely we shall be to embrace the illusions which wait for the ignorant and the unwary: the illusion that in politics we can get on without a tradition of behaviour, the illusion that the abridgment of a tradition is itself a sufficient guide, and the illusion that in politics there is anywhere a safe harbour, a destination to be reached or even a detectable strand of progress. (pp. 65-66)
Friday, July 16, 2010
Elizabeth Warren: The Coming Collapse of the Middle Class
The following lecture features Elizabeth Warren speaking about the current crisis in (and looming collapse of) the American middle class.
This presentation is almost 58 minutes, but I highly recommend it for anyone interested in long term social and economic trends and the future of the middle class. Warren is a Harvard law professor who is a well-known commentator on debt and family issues. (She's even appeared in Michael Moore's Capitalism: A Love Story.) In this lecture, her basic thesis is that the typical American family (two parents, two kids) does indeed earn more income - even adjusted for inflation - than its counterpart in the early 1970's. This is mainly due to the addition of a second income, usually from the wife. On the other hand, there have been many extraordinary increases in costs (mostly inelastic) that have overtaken this increase in income, to the point that the 1970's family actually has more disposable income and more financial flexibility.
There are many impressive aspects to her
presentation. First, it shows the relevance and usefulness of good
statistical data. It is culturally fashionable to dismiss statistics,
but the evidence Warren uses is illuminating and provocative. It
confirms some things I felt were true, but have never been able to
confirm or quantify. Second, her conclusions seem difficult to ignore or
refute, and they are plainly scary if one thinks about them for too
long. Warren's point about the move from a three-class society to a
two-class society is particularly chilling. Third, while certain cost
challenges are clearly American in nature (e.g. health insurance), many
others, like housing and education, pertain to middle class Canadians
like myself. Finally, her insights into the declining costs of food and
clothing, as opposed to the increasing costs of electronics and child
care, provide a sense of fairness and balance that is often missing in
popular political discourse. Generally speaking, this is a
thought-provoking use of an hour.