Saturday, January 02, 2016

Democracy Gone Awry

In the last year or so I have come to the conclusion that the root of all the problems facing America today (growing inequality, profligate consumerism, materialism, greed, deception, a sclerotic state apparatus, and many more) is the very bedrock of our governmental system: democracy. To put it concisely, our democracy is based on old-school models of proper government. Such models do not work in the 21st century. The solution is to find a new model, especially adapted to our present epoch.

Most people take it for granted that democracy is obviously the right form of government. But this is not at all patently axiomatic. Most societies of the past, since neolithic times 10,000 years ago, both primitive pastoral ones and more advanced agricultural ones, were socially stratified ones. Some people (such as priests and governors) had clearly defined more power than others, and such societies often lasted for millennia, such as the Egyptian civilization.

By contrast, the few civilizations that did experiment with democracy, had a mixed record of success with it and none of them lasted for very long. The Romans, for examples, inexorably moved from republic toward empire through the various triumvirates, culminating in Julius Caesar's non-official abolition of the republic and declaring himself emperor. It is hard to envision any different historical path for a rapidly surging and prosperous 1st century B.C. Rome.

Greek democracy, almost from its very beginning was characterized by leaders' deception of the masses in order to secure their support for government policy.

Themistocles, the first non-aristocratic Greek politician in the newly-forged Athenian democracy of 508 B.C., sought to channel wealth generated by silver mines that had been recently discovered, into large naval fleet of triremes, in order to defend against what he feared would be an imminent Persian attack. As a populist leader he considered it tactless to cite the true reason for his plea to the masses to not splurge the newly acquired wealth. The people were terrified of the Persians and would have been shocked and dismayed to hear someone argue that Persians may return for an additional strike after having been stopped in the Battle of Marathon of 490 B.C.

Instead, Themistocles cited the the threat of Aegina as the reason for urging the massive naval buildup in 483 B.C. This is rather remarkable since the Persian threat was still quite vivid in the people's minds, and if it were to materialize, the outcome would be more detested than an occupation by a rival Greek city-state, since it would spell a complete annihilation of the Greek of way of life, by despised barbarians no less.

The modern equivalent to this is how the American government cited the threat of nuclear rearmament by Iraq as the reason for invading it and toppling its regime. Experts mostly agree that there wasn't any evidence for an Iraqi nuclear program and even if there were, there would have been other ways to deal with it (including doing nothing, as the administration did nothing about India and Pakistan and North Korea who similarly violated the global non-proliferation pact). The real reason for the Iraq war of 2003 was to appropriate (a.k.a. "steal"?)  Iraq's oil. As a bonus, it would be a boon for the defense industry, with which the Bush administration was in bed (Dick Cheney in particular).

Liberal would cry foul at any such declaration of war for the purpose of stealing the country's natural resources. Paradoxically, however, he might have gained the support of many ordinary Americans who do believe in the "might makes right" doctrine (which used to be taken for granted by all people). Still, in the Bush admin's reasoning, even if American may have retrospectively said decades from now "yeah, it's good that we got Iraq's oil; otherwise prices would have skyrocketed here and our lifestyle would have been crippled. After all, why does the oil belong to the Iraqis merely because it was found on their land?", such an argument couldn't have been made politically IN A DEMOCRATIC COUNTRY in 2003. The majority of American voters just wouldn't buy it, not to speak of the moral outrage the world would evince at this.

Thus, democratic governments are often forced to be deceptive to its electorate if its operating technocracy is to accomplish what is in the best interest of the people. A politician can either be an honest elitist, or deceptive populist, but honest populism doesn't do.

The solution.

The solution is to revoke the franchise from the hoi polloi. Voting for political office should not be an automatic right. Rather it should be a privilege for those who earn it by demonstrating proficiency in politics. Does it make sense for a plumber to get to tell me, a teacher, how to run a classroom, or someone who is not fluent in the social sciences to advise me as to what should and should not be included in the World History class that I teach? Everyone understands that in a highly specialized work force, such as is ours, the system runs best if disparate departments do not interfere in the operations of one another. When a contractor builds a house, the carpenter decides what kind of wood and nails to use and the type of drill, if any; the plumber decides what kind of piping to use and where to install it. The electrician has a slew of decisions to make in turn; and so on. Why then should politics be any different if the system has evolved, as it did, to be so complex as to require political professionals to give competent advice on how to run it?

To put this into practice, we should devise a written multiple choice test, drawn from a bank of thousands of questions. Those who want to participate in the democratic process, will take a 100-question-test, of which test items are drawn randomly from the bank, in a government testing center. If they get a passing score, they are then declared eligible to vote in elections. The test bank should encompass all subject matter that pertains to the contemporary political process, including constitutional law, major judicial rulings (e.g. Plessy V. Ferguson, Brown V. BOE, Marbury V. Madison, Citizen United, Miranda Rights), the branches and duties of our government, the function of government agencies (such as FCC, FAA, SEC, FTC, FDA, CIA, DOJ). You get the idea.

It is important to note that even though we have universal suffrage for all sane, law-abiding adults over 18, whose voting rights can easily be exercised in all elections, the fact of the matter is that an Athenian citizen in the 5th century B.C. assembling in the Acropolis and casting a stone to show their vote, was actually far more influential in government than ordinary citizens are today. For one, there were many fewer eligible Athenian citizens than there are Americans, so the weight of each voter was greater. Secondly, most citizens did not bother voting on any given referendum unless they actually cared about it (they would have probably been forced to take a unpaid day off work), thus further accentuating the relative weight of each vote. Thus, it is ironic that we tend to think that our representative democracy is more "democratic" since everyone gets to have input into who enacts the law; but in fact our system is less democratic insofar as our voices are frequently drowned out in a sea of votes, none of which specify what the elected official should actually do, only that the voters trusts that the official will faithfully represent their interest.

An even more sophisticated voting scheme could feature, additionally, the following:

1) Once a voter is certified as eligible to vote based on his politics proficiency test, the voter can then choose to specialize in one or more specialty fields, (e.g. foreign policy, consumer products, fiscal policy).

2) When a a policy question arises in a specialty field, those who have certification in the field can log in to an online portal where they can cast their vote within a certain time window. This moreover allows the two sides in a debate to make a persuasive verbal case for their respective positions, which the voting citizen "specialist" can then read and ponder prior to casting his vote upon online.

I am actually surprised that I have not come across any online voting proposal yet. It seems natural to me that, like so many other routine tasks that are performed online, voting should be done online as well. Even if we do not restrict access to "uncertified citizens" as my plan calls, one can envision many benefits enabled by an online voting platform.

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

What is the Purpose of K12 Schools?

The latest buzzphrase is "college and career ready", the idea being that the school's mission is to prepare its pupils for college if they so are so inclined and capable, or else prepare them for a non-"professional" vocational career straight out of high school, such as a painter, carpenter, salesperson, secretary, etc.

The problem with this mindset is manifold. For one, there is almost no vocational training available in today's k12 schools. Vocational schools used to be in vogue in this country years ago, when most people didn't go nor aspired to go to college. Back then it was considered the obvious and practical thing to do. If the student is not going to go to college, then what is the point of the k12 education if not, among other things, to train them for a job?

However, this approach is no longer considered equitable. No child or parent wants to hear "your little Johnny is not college-material and so we're putting him on a vocational track, rather than a liberal arts track", with all the attendant supposed stigma and lower earning potential.

This is why nowadays if you walk in to any middle school or high school, kids are indistinguishable from one another. The expectation is the same of all of them and insofar as they do not attain the same grades and achievements, it's deemed to be due to a lack of studying hard enough, or paying attention in class, etc. It's not deemed to stem from innate factors, such as intelligence, genetics, even socioeconomic conditions beyond the scope of the school.

This is all an illusion, and a costly one at that.

The truth is that all students are NOT the same. Some are capable of achieving a lot more than others. Some simply do not have the capacity of succeeding in any liberal arts setting, period. They are practical. They are artistic. They are concrete. They are kinesthetic. They are athletic. They are sporty. If a student is any of the above types, they loathe the atmosphere and curriculum in today's k-12 schools.

The solution.

The solution is to return to real tracking; not the kind of tracking that groups students based on ability but leaves the curriculum and assessment instruments uniform. We need real substantive differences in the way we teach college-bound individuals vs. non-college bound ones.

In order to do this, we also need to remove the stigma associated with not going to college. Charles Murray (in the book "Real Education") is a great advocate of this and I fully agree with him on it. His estimate is that about 80% of students do not belong in a college-bound track. He is flexible with the cutoff percentage; you may well argue that more students belong in college (which would be bound up with the debate over the level of rigor colleges should demand). One thing is clear, however, he rightfully points out: 50% of students are in fact below average, by definition. And so unless you set the standard really really low, by definition they will be unable to achieve even an "average"-referenced standard.

What can we do to remove the stigma?

At a minimum, what we can do easily in the here and now without much fanfare and revamping of the status quo is to design a different curriculum (and its aligned standards and assessments) for LT (lower-track) students. This means that the "general" students that I teach, for example, shouldn't be expected to learn the same skills and knowledge that the "advanced" kids learn in my school.

If this is done without unduly prominent announcements, then noone will have reason to resist.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

How to Restore Discipline to Classrooms

What is the single biggest problem with today's public schools?

Ivory tower academics, from whom educational policies emanate are obsessed with research and data. They are fond of studying problems scientifically by conducting experiments, measuring results, drawing conclusions and then devising a solution. The problem with all this is that those academicians are not in the classroom. True, they are more intelligent and pedagogically proficient than the teachers whom they guide; but they are living in their own bubble of what has been "proven" to be sound.

From the Uncertainty Principle (and also from the Law of Unintended Consequences) we know that it's impossible to observe the environment without the environment being altered in response. The studies hold up in the observational and experimental field, but once applied they affect outcomes in unforeseen and deleterious ways, often to the extent of rendering social programs more harmful than beneficial.

The sad truth is that all of the harping about testing, evaluation of teachers, rigorous standards etc. pales as a significant factor in education in comparison to the one big elephant in the room: children coming to school mentally unprepared to learn. And there's nothing the teacher can do to change the child's mindset since the teacher's mandate is to teach, not to mentally enable the student to learn. Student discipline is almost completely neglected in today's teacher preparation courses, such as the one I attended "Teacher Ready".

What can schools do to restore discipline in the classroom?

First let me say that I categorically condemn the notion that schoolchildren, in general, can be disciplined without any corporal punishment. From my observation and experience in life and in the classroom, I have become convinced that children are not rational creatures, and so adults often (though not always) are unable to reason with them. Adults are simply unable to verbally make a compelling case for them to stop misbehaving. Skinnerian reinforcement (whether positive or negative) works better, but its inherent shortcoming is that whereas it motivates good behavior it does bot deter bad behavior. Deterring bad behavior is far more challenging than inducing good behavior since there are plenty of palpable rewards that a student can envision for getting food grades, for example. But there's often little in the way of a punishing consequence that a child will envisage for, e.g., talking in class.

The only thing left is for educators to administer physical punishment. Bodily punishment is swift (it takes seconds to execute) and has a pronounced and lasting effect on the delinquent student, AND on others present by way of deterrence. Whereas a pep talk must be long and its tone severe to be taken seriously, and even then the student is only under its spell while the event is ongoing -- the effects of physical punishment continue long after the punishment is over, as the child ponders the actions that led to such an adverse consequence.

Here's the type of corporal punishment regimen that I think is demonstrably implementable, even given the prevailing liberal spirit of the day:

At the beginning of the school year, principals (in Florida where paddling is legal) should send out a note and/or corral and orally explain to all parents why he believes that corporal punishment is essential to the success of the school and the child. The principal should take a brave stand by forcefully advocating for its use. Parents would then be asked to permit the school to use corporal punishment on its students without having to notify them first. It would be nice if the principal could give examples of an act or behavioral pattern that would result in corporal punishment, and non-examples of acts and behavior that would not rise to that level.

Principals and AP's will then command much greater respect from students. Teachers should be able to easily refer students to the Principal or AP for such punishment (thought of course they too will be trained on when to exercise such a referral and when not to). Even if such corporal punishment does not occur often, the very awareness on the part of students of its existence as an option will serve as an effective deterrent, possibly even for children of parents who have not opted in to his program.

I also recommend that teachers should be allowed to seize a delinquent student under certain conditions (for example, if the teacher asks a student to identify themselves after running in the hallway and they refuse, and the teacher then directs the student to follow him to the office and the student balks, the teacher should then be allowed to grab the students arm and say "you're coming with me"). I realize that this is a bit more controversial and could prove problematic in our times. It is clearly a notch above the practice of paddling by admins, and so I'm not insistent on its implementation, especially as a first step toward restoring discipline in schools.