Friday, June 02, 2006


Education and Culture - Part 2

My earlier page on the subject produced some adverse reaction, not only on comments posted but also on e-mail I received directly. To start with, I did not mean that immigrants are better students on the average. I did say that immigrants are over-represented amongst the best students but I have also encountered immigrants who were very weak students. So I was not making any general comparison between the two groups. I should have made that point clear.

My main point was that the American educational system is not as bad as is often claimed to be because some people from different cultures seems to learn a lot in American schools. It was pointed that my evidence was anecdotal and I admit it was, although it was not limited to a few examples but to observations over 30 years of teaching.

Clearly what a person learns in a school depends on several factors: on the individual's motivation and preparation, on the effect of classmates, on the individual teacher, on the school atmosphere, and probably others. Over the years of my teaching I observed three types of students: those who would learn no matter what, those who would learn depending on the school and the teacher (usually the larger group), and those who would not learn under any circumstances. When I taught I was trying to peg my teaching to the middle group and I would judge my own effectiveness on how well they did. I enjoyed interacting with the top group of students (and I would take them sometimes as research students) but I would not take credit for their achievements. These were the people who would have done well no matter what. Some of them acknowledged later my influence but I do not think it was critical.

I have noticed that the public debate often ignores the complex interactions of these factors and usually focuses on one of them. Now and then one hears variations of the statement "students do not fail; teachers fail." It often comes from the political left but sometimes comes from the political right if they want to bash the teachers union. Sorry folks, some people are not amenable to education and it is probably not a good idea to force it upon them. The Greek multimillionaire Onassis was a high school drop-out. I had a distant relative who emigrate to the U.S. in his early teens with his father (that was around 1900-1910), the father went back and he stayed on his own. He had no schooling but he ended up as a very successful businessman owning several restaurants. I met him about 50 years ago and he made a point that his lack of education was not a problem for him. "I can hire a secretary for $50 a week" he said " and she can write all the letters I want. I have to spend my time on far important things, dealing with my customers, my suppliers, my employees."

Part of the problem of our schools is the "one side fits all approach", often peddled under the guise of "equal opportunity." In several other countries high schools are specialized, that is a rarity in the United States. Consider five 14 year olds who are destined (if one can guess the future) to become each a great success in different fields of endeavor: retail business, law, theater, medical science, computer technology. Why should all five of them spend four years in the same curriculum?

More to come ...

Wednesday, May 31, 2006


A Crtique of "American Theocracy" by Kevin Phillips

This is an extensively revised and expanded version of a review I wrote on

Probably, the most interesting aspect of the book is that it was written by a lifelong Republican, the architect of Nixon's southern strategy. I found the book hard to read (I wonder how many of those who bought read it cover-to-cover). Phillips is over thorough in his arguments, marshalling extensive evidence that tends to overwhelm a reader. The book could have been half its size without being any less convincing, at least to those (like this reader) who are already worried about certain trends in our country. Those who have a rosy view of the our future are hard to convince anyway.

Still, I am glad that I bought and read the book - not only did I find new information, the book is also thought provoking. Phillips makes a case that the United States exhibits symptoms similar to those of other major powers as they went into their final decline. I do not quite agree with his analysis and I will get to it later in this posting. Still, his arguments made me think hard about this issue.

The book consists of three parts "Oil and American Supremacy" (3 chapters), "Too Many Preachers" (4 chapters), and "Borrowed Prosperity" (4 chapters). The title reflects mainly the second part, so in a sense it is misleading. (Even there is a lot of mention of religious zeal in other parts.)

The first part argues that the world will be running out of oil in this century. Phillips bases this view on predictions of certain scientists that other sources (e.g. The Economist) find too pessimistic. Still, the need for conservation is unquestionable, even if the sources quoted in the book are wrong. It makes little difference if we run completely out of oil or if its price increase by several multiples. I am worried that Phillips conclusion may be attacked by those who will argue that things are not as dire as he claims.

The second part focuses on the influence of fundamentalist Christians on U.S. politics. The issue also spills in the other two parts on the basis of the argument that fundamentalists Christians expect the end of the world to come soon so there is no need to worry about global warming, running out of oil, or the collapse of the U.S. economy because of excessive debt. I am not sure whether the influence of that group is a prime factor or a side show. At the end book Phillips points out that "the financial sector - and a large majority of the richest Americans ... find the alliance convenient ... (because fundamentalists) are too caught up in religion, theology, and personal salvation to pay much attention to economics ..." Of course this was the theme of Thomas Frank's book What's the Matter with Kansas. I tend to the view that religion is being exploited rather than being a prime mover even though most of the book argues otherwise.

A weakness of the book is that it does not differentiates amongst different conservative positions. There are rational arguments against abortion and it is only people who are both against abortion AND contraception that seem to have lost their senses. There are also rational arguments against gay marriage. Even a secular person could be anti-abortion and anti-gay marriage. Lumping people with such views with those who anticipate "rapture" any moment now is misleading. Let us also not forget a significant religious "left" whose focus is on social justice rather than strident positions on selected issues.

"American Theocracy" may be a catchy title but it does not reflect our reality. Some cynical politicians may be exploiting and manipulating parts of the population who have strong religious beliefs, but this in not a theocracy. I think that the book over-estimates the influence of religious fundamentalists in our country. Finding parallels between the United States and the Spanish Inquisition or Calvinist Holland is quite far fetched.

I found the third part the best because it documents how the expansion of the finance sector as the manufacturing sector is declining is leading to a ballooning debt with US obligations held by foreign banks, a far more serious threat (in my opinion) to our national security than any terrorist. While worries about the debt appear daily in our newspapers, the books presents an in depth analysis of why we have reached this sorry state of affairs.

Phillips points out that expansion of finance at the expense of productive sectors such as manufacturing or agriculture is characteristic of the last stage in the decline of a major power and he identifies parallels in Spain, Holland, and England. This ignores several other powers, starting from the Roman Empire (whose decline has been described so well by Gibbon), the Chinese Empires, the shogun regime in Japan, the Ottoman Empire, and other European powers such as France. While extreme religiosity might have been present in Spain and Holland (I am not convinced by Phillips argument about England), it was not present in any of others. Contrary to what Phillips states, Rome was well on its decline by the time Christianity became the official religion (under emperor Theodosius, about a century after Constantine.) Even then, the Eastern part of the Roman Empire (what we call now the Byzantine Empire) survived for another 1000 years with alternating periods of growth and decline.

My reading of history suggests that the major common cause of decline is complacency. A new power emerges by following certain practices and sticks to them long after they have become counterproductive. (In 1938 French generals were concerned about the horse breeding program for their cavalry as Hitler was busy building his armored divisions.) In addition, the leaders and the subjects do not strive as hard, feeling smug and believing that nothing can dislodge them from their elevated position.

We see that happening (in a smaller scale) in the rise and decline of companies. I will end with one example from that sector. There used to be a company named DEC (Digital Equipment Corporation) that did a thriving business in the 1970's and 1980's. In those days the "cool" thing amongst "geeks" was to have access to a VAX (one of the DEC products) running Berkeley Unix. The company is long gone because it failed to see the importance of personal computers. Its founder and CEO is credited with the quote "Why would anyone want a computer in their home?"

If the United States is declining is not only because we waste energy, or religious fundamentalists have undue influence, but because we may think that the American way is the best and there is no need to change anything.

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