Posts tagged ‘education’

Review: ‘Why It’s Kicking Off Everywhere: The New Global Revolutions,’ by Paul Mason

By , 10 February, 2012, No Comment

Paul Mason, the Economics Editor of the BBC’s Newsnight program, has a new book out. In it, he argues that the myriad forms of protest we’ve seen over the last year – the Arab Spring, the Occupy movement, student protests, protests against austerity budgets in Europe, are linked, part of a global revolution. Over at my Forbes blog, I’ve got a long review of the book.

The links are, according to Mason:

1. “the near collapse of free-market capitalism,” and in particular the opportunities it presents to the young;

2. rapid demographic growth creating a “youth bulge,” where young people come to represent a growing percentage of a country’s overall population, compounding and amplifying the impact of point 1;

3. growth in educational attainment, which Mason uses to argue that the young people sans opportunity are those who played by the rules and feel their economic loss more acutely as a result. He calls them “graduates with no future”;

4. “an upswing in technical innovation, a surge in desire for individual freedom and a change in human consciousness about what freedom means.” Technology and individualism, Mason says, allow protests to assume a networked structure than can overpower traditional hierarchies.

I’ve been skeptical of this argument since it first appeared on Mason’s blog a year ago.

The three core problems Mason identifies – youth unemployment, the youth demographic bulge, and the diminishing returns on education- are real ones. But in Mason’s account, they are depicted as three components of the same, global problem. That’s simply not accurate.

To learn exactly what’s wrong with Mason’s economic assumptions, and how a more rigorous look at the economic data undermines his argument, read the whole thing.

Note to English teachers: Get Real

By , 3 February, 2009, 3 Comments

I have been contemplating posting these reflections for many months, but a post over at FWFL reminded me how I got on this subject to begin with. The author of that blog, Colin Clout, is a literature graduate student with a broadly postmodernist approach to the study of culture, an approach that pervades much of the academy these days. I crassly summarize this approach as

1. It’s impossible to know, 100%, what Shakespeare was thinking when he wrote Hamlet or why Napoleon invaded Russia. Even if these men kept diaries, they might have lied. Therefore it’s intellectually unconscionable to ask such questions.
2. You and I may today find many patterns in this writing that Shakespeare did not intend or could never have thought of especially since words in the English language, or any other language, have changed over time, and since language is imperfect and manmade anyway. Indeed, an old book can be about some newfangled concept if I, reading it today, am reminded of a newfangled concept. Heck, it could be about anything so long as somebody thinks so.
3. It is intellectually admirable to constantly expand the set of interpretations, even if some of them have seemingly weak ties to the historical or social context in which books were written, paintings painted or political speeches delivered, or even to the social context in which those books, paintings or speeches were read, seen or heard. It is sinful to attempt to establish which meanings matter most at any particular time. The more subversion you contribute to the debate, the better you have performed. To quote Mr. Clout directly, “What is the relevance, the importance of humanities? What is the functionality of the academy?…[It is] in questioning the need for functionality.”
In conversations with Mr. Clout, I have said that my problem with this school of thought is not only that I disagree with its main tenets but also that I find it socially pernicious. I think a good researcher of culture can often determine beyond a reasonable doubt what people intended to accomplish and what others perceived. More importantly, however, I think it’s AS windows into such motivations and societal implications that culture, or history, or really most branches of the humanities, matter to begin with.

Once upon a time, indeed until after World War II, most university education was in the humanities: young propertied men went off to prestigious Ivy-covered halls to read Chaucer and Cicero, and their professors helped them understand, specifically, how those texts might inform their future decisions as businessmen or statesmen or generals.

That very functional approach to the study of culture was undone during the Cold War, by academics who wanted to make sure that smart people did not choose to help the government or the corporation, since (these thinkers determined), those were more or less corrupted institutions from which the academy was meant to offer a retreat. They argued that they were preserving young minds from a dehumanizing bureaucracy, but I wonder if there isn’t something dehumanizing about the separation of the mind, of academic intellectual endeavor, from the person, a social being embedded in the political and economic contingencies of a specific historical moment.

The moment academics in the humanities rejected the social for the psychological is, coincidentally or not, the moment public education grants shifted from the right brain field to the left. If Mr. Clout and his peers are worried about financing their profession, they might start by reconsidering their ideology.

Deresiewicz: Halfway There

By , 3 August, 2008, No Comment

The current issue of American Scholar (aka Geek Magazine) has this fascinating essay by William Deresiewicz about “The Disadvantages of an Elite Education.” Read the whole thing if you have time on your hands, but here’s the cliff notes version.

1. elite schools breed smart people who will go on to be successful but not be able to converse with or show compassion for those less smart/successful than them, i.e. their own plumber
2. elite schools breed smart people who think intelligence is the only virtue in life
3. elite schools train smart people to think they (and their children) deserve success, i.e. grade inflation and the inherited meritocracy
4. elite schools encourage smart people to take safe paths in life, where they know they will succeed, rather than to take risks
5. elite schools are hotbeds of social conformity

I’ll dismiss the first and last points right off the bat. If Deresiewicz feels socially inept and unoriginal, I assure you that no single educational institution is to blame for making him that way. But points 2-4 struck me as dead on, faults that I myself plead guilty to sometimes and consider among my chief weaknesses.

I discussed the essay with several friends, and found that most of them hated it. Not always, however, because they thought he was wrong about the existence of grade inflation or the pressure to choose the straight and narrow career. Rather, after much long debate, my conversations with friends wound up with them saying “So what?” As in, so what if we expect success in exchange for our intelligence–don’t we deserve that?

The problem with this essay is that Deresiewicz exposed all these qualities of an elite education but didn’t really explain why they are disadvantages.

My own answer to friends is that you deserve success when you achieve it–you proved it by getting there. That’s not a particular nice or fair worldview, I realize, but societally, it’s the kind of ethic you have to have to innovate. Leaders are intelligent people who kept proving themselves even after a solid SAT score and an Ivy degree “entitled” them to sit on their laurels. If our best and brightest get complacent, this country’s leadership days are numbered. Somewhere in the midst of his overdone prose, I think that’s what Prof. Deresiewicz meant to say.

The Future in Tow

By , 24 June, 2008, 1 Comment

Bad pun, I know, but I couldn’t resist.

See, philanthropist and old-time media man Leonard Tow just shelled out $8 million to help the newspaper industry figure out what to do about this pesky web thing. One grant’s going to Columbia, Tow’s alma mater, to fund courses in digital media. The other’s going to City University of New York, to fund research into new business models for newspapers in the digital age. Among the stars of CUNY’s venture is blogger-extraordinaire Jeff Jarvis. It’s unclear who’s gonna teach the new Columbia courses, but apparently Bill Grueskin of WSJ is interested.

It’s early to bet on the relative merits of these two programs, but I’d say CUNY’s is a better strategy. See, most people coming into J-school in the next few years, and certainly in the years after that will already know how to work digital media. It’s figuring out how to make business out of digital news that needs attention.

What Friends are For

By , 30 May, 2008, 1 Comment

Just when I think I’ve seen it all, the U.S. government does something so mind-bogglingly stupid I have to pinch myself to make sure it’s real. That’s what happened today when I learned that the State Department has cancelled the Fulbright grants for seven students from Gaza.

Israel’s current policy vs. Hamas is to close off the Gaza strip until tough living conditions force Palestinians to rise up against their government. That means no one can go in or out of Gaza for work, food, or travel.

I’m not a fan of the culture war rhetoric that dominates discussions of Middle East politics, but if there is a culture war, then our best hope is to empower the brightest young Palestinians with education and job prospects, and let them build civil society from within. It’s Kafka-esque of Israel to insist upon a strong Palestinian civil society as a precondition for any negotiations, and then deny Palestinians access to the resources to build that society.

What outrages me, as an American, is that we let them get away with it. Technically, yes, Israel has a ban on Palestinian travel, but as one of the seven students said in an interview with the NYTimes, it’s hard to believe that American influence couldn’t have wrangled an exception for seven individuals selected by the State Department. Breaking cultural barriers is precisely the reason the State Department funds Fulbrights to begin with.

Public anger about the decision today is putting pressure on Israel and the US Government to make a visa exception for the seven students, but it doesn’t solve the fact that the Fulbright organizers have already cancelled the scholarships and given the money to other applicants. Now the question is whether they can russle up new funds for the original seven.

As Israel’s strongest and staunchest ally, it’s our responsibility not only to support them in tough times, but to give honest advice, to say “no” when they make a wrong turn. THAT’s what friends are for.