URLs du Jour


  • The (PDF) Spring 2008 Cato's Letter has P. J. O'Rourke content: his speech at the 2008 Cato Benefactor Summit. And you can read it even if you aren't a Cato Benefactor:
    Well, I wish I had better news for you, but the barbarians are at the gates. We are besieged by pagans—savage, brutish worshippers of big government. Theirs is not even a golden calf. They've abandoned the Gold Standard. They worship the taxing and spending of a fiat god, all the more dangerous for being both false and imaginary.
    If I need to say "read the whole thing," then consider it said.

  • As a result of P. J.'s victorious barbarian hordes, we're likely to see a lot of handwaving justifying increased levels of taxation over the coming months and years. But as near as I can tell most of those pro-tax arguments boil down to these essential three steps:

    1. You've got money.

    2. The government wants it.

    3. There is no step three.

    Russell Roberts calls this the Willie Sutton theory of government, illustrated by the current proposal in Massachusetts to levy a tax on university endowments that the legislators deem excessive.

  • Also much worth reading for those at all concerned with higher education issues—and if you're not, then maybe you should be—is "In the Basement of the Ivory Tower" by "Professor X" in the latest issue of The Atlantic. The good prof teaches at what he calls "colleges of last resort", and his courses are what he calls "English 101" and "English 102", courses that students take "not because they want to but because they must."

    I've been in a similar situation myself, and Prof X's comments bring back those days pungently.

    I wonder, sometimes, at the conclusion of a course, when I fail nine out of 15 students, whether the college will send me a note either (1) informing me of a serious bottleneck in the march toward commencement and demanding that I pass more students, or (2) commending me on my fiscal ingenuity—my high failure rate forces students to pay for classes two or three times over.

    What actually happens is that nothing happens. I feel no pressure from the colleges in either direction. My department chairpersons, on those rare occasions when I see them, are friendly, even warm. They don’t mention all those students who have failed my courses, and I don’t bring them up. There seems, as is often the case in colleges, to be a huge gulf between academia and reality. No one is thinking about the larger implications, let alone the morality, of admitting so many students to classes they cannot possibly pass.

    If you read that, you might also want to read the comments by the "University Diarist" at Inside Higher Ed. Her conclusion:

    This is what university education is about — the disciplined assimilation of information into historically established categories which allow us to regulate and embellish thought about the world. This professor’s English comp and Intro Lit courses are primitive stages in this education: they ask students to convey only the most basic sense of categorical awareness, the shakiest intimation that there are contexts that connect what would otherwise be arbitrary bits of information, random creative eruptions. A few of this professor’s students will be able to do this, but most will not, and it is a cruel and expensive hoax to fail them repeatedly on their efforts.
    "It is no accident" that both Professor X and the University Diarist prefer to remain anonymous. The modern university can be rough on people who don't buy into the myths that sustain it.

    [UPDATE [2008-05-21]: although it's not obvious who the "University Diarist" is, just a little bit of digging reveals her to be Margaret Soltan, an English prof at GWU. I shouldn't have suggested she was hiding behind anonymity; it's roughly as easy to find out who she is as to find out who I am. Professor Soltan blogs here.]

  • Charles Murray, at least, doesn't write anonymously, but he's equally scathing about prevailing educational attitudes. Check his article from The New Criterion on "educational romanticism." What's that?
    Educational romanticism consists of the belief that just about all children who are not doing well in school have the potential to do much better. Correlatively, educational romantics believe that the academic achievement of children is determined mainly by the opportunities they receive; that innate intellectual limits (if they exist at all) play a minor role; and that the current K-12 schools have huge room for improvement.
    There's remarkably little evidence for that, and plenty that goes the other way. What's the result of having education policy driven by a philosophy without roots in reality?
    For the good of our children, educational romanticism needs to collapse, and quickly. Its effects play out in the lives of young people in devastating ways. The fourth-grader who has trouble sounding out simple words and his classmate who is reading A Tale of Two Cities for fun sit in the same classroom day after miserable day, the one so frustrated by tasks he cannot do and the other so bored that both are near tears. The eighth-grader who cannot make sense of algebra but has an almost mystical knack with machines is told to stick with the college prep track, because to be a success in life he must go to college and get a B.A. The senior with terrific SAT scores gets away with turning in rubbish on his term papers because to make special demands on the gifted would be elitist. They are all products of an educational system that cannot make itself talk openly about the implications of diverse educational limits.
    That's funny, because it's true. But come to think of it, it's not that funny.

  • Thomas Sowell has a new "Random Thoughts" column, and (among many other things) it makes a general point applicable to most of today's items:
    Over the years, slowly but surely, we have painted ourselves into a corner on a whole range of issues, where we can no longer say or do what makes the most sense to us, but only what is considered to be politically correct.
    That's the only way to make sense out of a lot of stuff that goes on.

Last Modified 2008-09-30 2:00 PM EDT