George Will on Education

Please read this excellent column by George Will, Betting (Again) On an Education Fix.  Here’s the lead-off:

Doubling down on dubious bets is characteristic of compulsive gamblers and federal education policy. The nation was essentially without such policy for grades K through 12, and better off for that, until 1965. In that year of liberals living exuberantly, they produced the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. Now yet another president has announced yet another plan to fix education. His aspiration has a discouraging pedigree.

n 1983, three years after Jimmy Carter paid his debt to teachers’ unions by creating the Education Department, a national commission declared America “a nation at risk”: “If an unfriendly power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war.” So in 1984, Ronald Reagan decreed improvements.

They did not materialize, so in 1994 Congress decreed that by 2000 the high school graduation rate would be “at least” 90 percent and students would be “first in the world in mathematics and science achievement.” Even inflated by “social promotions,” the graduation rate in 2000 was about 75 percent (it peaked at 77.1 in 1969), and among 38 nations surveyed, Americans ranked 19th in mathematics, just below Latvians, and 18th in science, just below Bulgarians.

So, eschewing “the soft bigotry of low expectations,” in 2001 President George W. Bush undertook the loopy idealism of preposterous expectations. No Child Left Behind decreed that by 2014 there will be universal — yes, 100 percent — “proficiency” in reading and math. That will happen if enough states do what many have done — define proficiency down. NCLB gives states an incentive to report chimerical progress, so, unsurprisingly, state tests almost always indicate much more progress than does the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the federal test.

Thank you George for a very nice summary of the history of increasing Federal government meddling in education.

The standards set by these administrations sound good and legitimate.  Better education.  Who’d be against that?  In fact, that’s the exact conversation blocking tactic often used to prevent an honest discussion of the merits of such policy goals.

Voice any amount of criticism against the government’s goals and supporters reflexively bristle and ask, “So, you’re against education?”  From there, they will not listen to a word you say.  In their mind, you are evil and hate kids.

If they would listen, I would love to tell them:

I want the same results as you – high quality education.  That’s why I am for something that actually works.

I am for an education system that is ever bit as good as any number of other systems that produce phenomenal, life-improving results through the free interactions of individuals.

I am for taking an honest look at the things we’ve done and assessing whether those have produced the intended goals or have moved us further from those goals.

With a short discussion about feedback theory, I can explain to you the mechanics of why centralized, government-controlled education produces such substandard results, if you’re interested.

If you’re not interest, then I would conclude that it is you that is against education.

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Michael Steele is Right On with Right Now

I recommend reading Michael Steele’s book Right Now.

Steele does one of the best jobs I’ve seen since Reagan at communicating conservative values for those of us without a poly sci or economics degree.  It’s a quick read and and easy to understand.  He gives an honest assessment of Republican mistakes and a good plan of action for restoring the party to its principles.

Lately, Republicans have been branded the “Party of No”.  If you find yourself believing the reason Republicans vote no for this or that is because they are playing politics or being difficult, this would be an excellent book for you to read.

In short, those aren’t reasons.  The reason is that Republicans want much of the same end result as Democrats, but believe the intended result will not be achieved effectively through government action.  Believing Republicans should vote for something that goes against their principles is a sign that you may not understand Republican principles and it might serve you well to learn more about them.

Here’s one key principle, in Steele’s words:

As Republicans, we can disagree among ourselves on how best to put principles into action.  Such disagreement is good and necessary, because debate, discussion, and advocacy are how we improve policy.  But any principle we embrace must form the foundation for debate, not become the topic of debate.  We must hold the principle in common, it must be grounded in freedom, and it must lead to effective policy.

But what should that principle be?  Does one stand out more than others? Yes it does: individual rights.  The fight for individual rights is what brought our nation into existence and gave root to our party one hundred years later.  It is the foundation of Western civilization, and a pure expression of absolute respect for human dignity.  It is, above all else, the principle to which the Republican Party must return.

A “pure expression of absolute respect for human dignity”.  That is excellent writing.

I do have one critique.  A page after the above paragraphs he writes:

Republicans recognize that in order to protect individual rights, people must accept limits on those rights only to the extent necessary to ensure order.

The test of a limit on our individual right should not be that it “ensures order.”  That can mean a number of things depending on who you ask, which opens the door to unnecessary intervention.

The test should be whether the limit preserves the individual rights of others.    For example, property ownership is an individual right.  I do not have the right to steal my neighbor’s property because that would violate his right.  I have a right to exercise my rights, as long as those rights do not infringe on the rights of others.  Seems reasonable, no?

I might edit Steele’s sentence as follows:

Republicans recognize the role of government is to prevent, settle and enforce consequences for others illegitimately infringing on our individual rights.

Thomas Sowell’s Brainy Bunch

Here’s a good read today from Thomas Sowell.  Some key words:

There is usually only a limited amount of damage that can be done by dull or stupid people. For creating a truly monumental disaster, you need people with high IQs.

Such people have been told all their lives how brilliant they are, until finally they feel forced to admit it, with all due modesty. But they not only tend to over-estimate their own brilliance, more fundamentally they tend to over-estimate how important brilliance itself is when dealing with real world problems.

Many crucial things in life are learned from experience, rather than from clever thoughts or clever words. Indeed, a gift for the clever phrasing so much admired by the media can be a fatal talent, especially for someone chosen to lead a government.

Smarts creates a dangerous veneer of legitimacy for many.  I prefer experience, as does Sowell, but I’m also skeptical of that.  I prefer results, but take those with grain of salt.

Back in 2005, Paul Johnson wrote a column in Forbes called Five Marks of a Great Leader.  He had some things to say about smart people too.  Two of the five marks were judgment and sense of priority.

What makes a person judge wisely? It is not intelligence, as such. Clever people with enormously high IQs often show scarifyingly bad judgment. Nor is it education. When I need advice, I rarely turn to someone with first-class honors from a top university. I turn to someone who has knocked about the world and cheerfully survived “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.” One man to whom I turned for his judgment was Ronald Reagan. Though not a scholar by any gauge, he almost invariably judged correctly on the few big issues that really matter.

Being able to judge well is often linked to an ability to mix with and learn from other people–not so much from experts but from common people, those who lack the arrogance of power or the desire to show off their intelligence but who nevertheless think deeply about life’s trials. A person of judgment develops the habit of asking questions of such wise people and listening to their replies.

In running a country or a vast business, one is faced with countless problems, huge and insignificant, and has to make decisions about all of them. Clever leaders (I’m thinking of Jacques Chirac) often have a habit of pouncing on minor issues and pushing them at all costs, even to the detriment of their real interests. Sorting out the truly big from the small takes an innate horse sense that’s not given to most human beings. It has little to do with intelligence, but it is nearly always the hallmark of a great leader.

Reagan on Capitalism

Ronald Reagan, April 16, 1979, Radio Address (from Reagan: In His Own Hand p. 228): 

It isn’t unfair to say that today the world is divided between those who believe in the free marketplace and those who believe in government control and ownership of the economy. 

Most of us aren’t really conscious of how recently the capitalist system came into being.

Maybe our trouble is caused by the term capitalist itself.  Actually all systems are capitalist.  It’s just a matter of who owns and controls the capital – ancient king, dictator or private individual (emphasis added). 

The insight in bold has stayed with me ever since I read these words several years ago.  Such clarifying statements are rare. 

I agree with President Reagan that the problem may be the word capitalist itself.  It’s shape doesn’t seem to match the hole that it’s supposed to fit through.  It has a sterile quality that shrouds its true meaning and lends itself to be hijacked by other meanings.

To most people, capitalist is interchangeable with greed, evil or robber baron.  But that’s equivocation*.  To strip it of its negative association and shine the light on the true evil, Reagan equivocates capitalist to its root word capital.

Capitalism is a system where individuals (you and I) owns and controls the capital rather than it being owned and controlled by the goverment or king.  But, capital is anything we can use to derive a benefit.  Capital is roads, machines, factories, tools, buildings, property and so forth.  To that extent, every economic system uses capital.  Even the most primitive tribes in the Amazon have homes, tools, weapons and livestock – all of which are capital. 

In his equivocation, Reagan punches you in the gut with the root difference between economic systems: who controls capital.  Greed and evil exists everywhere.  Capitalism doesn’t enable it any more than any other system.  In fact, it keeps greed and evil in check better than any other system (more on that in future posts).

Reagan’s two sentences left me with the sense that freedom and choice are better associated with capitalism, and I find it puzzling why anybody would be against that.

*Equivocation is another one of those sterile words that is often misunderstood.  To save you a trip to dictionary.com, equivocation is the use of two meanings of a word with the intent to mislead.