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November 14, 2013

Comments

russell:

I think we are actually far more in agreement than I thought.

I'm not for vouchers. I don't have an objection to them in principle, I just haven't seen a system where they are cost effective. If it isn't cost effective, I'm out.

I'm not saying (or at least I'm not trying to say it :P) "let the market fix it". Actually, I don't believe I've used the word "market" at all. Nor do I think markets are virtuous. Markets are a construct, and have no value beyond results. Bluntly, we probably differ on how great/bad those results are, but I don't think that's relevant to the subject at hand.

I do believe in stochastic order being a very powerful optimization tool. (Maybe its just my background in computer modeling and evolution.)

At the moment, what I was proposing we invest more in, is semi-independent public schools, and give parents choice of schools in their district. This allows for (a) more unique efforts which can help us discover what does work in the very hard problem of public schooling and (b) more flexibility for parents to choose what is best for their child (if they are so inclined). Whether they are administered by a public entity, a private non-profit, or a private for-profit, I couldn't care less. As long as the pricing is comparable.

You don't have to tell me that sometimes public/private partnerships form that aren't in the public interest. I find those as offensive as you do.

So, sorry I derailed a little from the original post. But I view raising the status of public schools as the fundamental solution to the public vs. private school question.

High end private schools will always have more resources (but I don't think that's representative of most private school). But really...I think at some point you see diminishing returns.

Frex, Three languages is great, and sometimes I wish I had more than a fractured second one...but I don't really think I'm crippled for life by it.

All you need is reasonable (or "adequate") public schools and you have a roughly even playing field. Private schools and everything else...great if you have it but I don't think a determinate for overall success and happiness.

All you need is reasonable (or "adequate") public schools and you have a roughly even playing field. Private schools and everything else...great if you have it but I don't think a determinate for overall success and happiness.

Yes, I basically agree with this. In contrast to Ugh, I am not seeing private schools as a threat to the sufficiency of public schools overall.

There are, IMO, some real problems with public education in the US - high levels of spending for pretty much dead-average results, wide variances in quality from one place to another.

But I don't think private schools play into that, one way or the other. They seem to me to be sort of orthogonal issues.

If you have a lot of money, you can buy better stuff. That's just the way of the world. If what's available to the rest of us gets the job done, it's not an issue.

"If you have a lot of money, you can buy better stuff. That's just the way of the world. If what's available to the rest of us gets the job done, it's not an issue."

This is true, but also points to something that nags at me in discussions, including this one, about resources for public versus private goals. That is the general belief that "throwing money at a problem" is not the way to solve problems in the public sphere and then pointing to the private sphere to bear this cliche out.

When, in fact, Ugh's example (which I do not judge; as others have said, we do the best for our kids) of his and his wife's school choice for their children seems to show, if the numbers provided are on the mark, that money will probably be thrown in great amounts to the private side of education with little more than hope that only marginal utility for the kids will result.

But we do it for our kids. Others' kids, not so much (yes, we pay property taxes and then most complain with gusto), though I understand all of the reasons for this to be the case, having been through the mill (suburban public school, gifted and talented program) raising a child (so far, so good, for which he gets the full credit --- he just started a five-year Doctoral program in Chemistry with a salaried teaching assistantship/full scholarship).

I'm just saying, take Problem A, say flying from one end of the country to the other, and while my solution A is throwing as little money as possible at the legroom/schedule/baggage problem, there are folks whose Solution B is to buy or lease a private jet, stretch out, and have an attendant open the bag of peanuts with their teeth, while said passenger tucks into a lobster roll, and they arrive faster than I do under my solution.

Which is to say, throwing money works.

My favorite way is to roll a bunch of $100 bills into a tight ball, held tight by rubber bands, and wind up and throw.

As it is, I'm stuck with foregoing my favorite way, so I use a baseball, which is fun but doesn't buy me jacksh&t.

How are we evaluating our schools--by student outcome, achievement, what?

Because you are going to get consistently substandard results if your classes consist of unmotivated, marginally parented students. At best, way reduced class size and very talented teachers might make improvements at the margins.

Our son went to public school through high school, out daughter thru the 7th grade. The academic difference was negligible, the social difference pretty huge. Both went to Vanderbilt and then grad school at Columbia (our son) and Rice (our daughter). Credentialing matters and they both make a good living, but they were both motivated, well-guided students and remain motivated, hard workers today. We have friends whose children had every advantage, but truly abysmal outcomes.

So, to the Count's point, throwing money at a problem has questionable returns. My education is about as pedestrian as you can get, yet I make a good living. I am confident that the public/private thing through high school was of marginal significance. Vandy has a lot of cache in Texas, so that was worth it in terms of getting hired right out of college. As far as getting into grad school, if an applicant is perceived to have done well at an academically rigorous undergrad school, that seems to be a plus. We didn't pay for grad school--one private college tuition enema per kid was enough--but it seems to have been worth the student loans and time out of the work force.

I wonder if Slarti and I would be close to being on the same page if put in charge.

Leaving that nightmare aside, about the most one can and should ask from public schools--which I prefer to private schools for a number of reasons--is a safe environment where students who wish to learn can learn.

Sure, do what we can within reason to reach and motivate those who have no examples on which to pattern themselves, but be realistic.

One difference might be to try to identify non-college material at the 7-8th grade level, and try to direct those students into a trade of some kind.

Parents--two of them in most cases--make the difference. We've talked about this before. If you want to truly stack the deck against a kid, have him or her born to a single, uneducated, unskilled woman. It's game over 90% plus of the time.

After reading through all of this, I have to ask why it is that some other countries are doing a better job of educating their kids. Do they have better parents in those countries? If so, why?

Perhaps this would be a good point in the conversation to re-read the comment Posted by: geographylady | November 16, 2013 at 01:03 AM.

Which is to say, throwing money works.

So, to the Count's point, throwing money at a problem has questionable returns.

What I think about this is that throwing money at problems solves those problems that more money can solve.

Which is sort of a tautology, but I make the point because the set of things that can be improved with the injection of more money is not an empty one.

In other words, it doesn't make a difference in every situation, but it sure as hell makes a difference in many.

How are we evaluating our schools--by student outcome, achievement, what?

I think this is the big unanswered question in education - all education, public private or whatever.

It's not clear to me that we have a crisp and common understanding of what exactly it is we want schools to accomplish.

I don't have anything like a good answer to that question.

After reading through all of this, I have to ask why it is that some other countries are doing a better job of educating their kids. Do they have better parents in those countries? If so, why?

I think the single mother phenomena is much more widespread here than elsewhere. Hispanic assimilation is spotty. I suspect if there was a way to quantify assimilation geographically, we would see an increase in outcomes as a function of generation and English proficiency. African American communities are plagued with single parent issues and I cannot begin to suggest a remedy for that community. I suspect that immigrant communities in Europe have somewhat comparable educational disparities as we do, however those countries are much smaller to begin with and have much smaller immigrant communities.

In other words, it doesn't make a difference in every situation, but it sure as hell makes a difference in many.

Marginally but only to a degree once the basics are covered. I get to Paris whether I'm in coach or first, the difference is 12K, free booze and better food. I get to work in my 9 year old ride, but if I had a new car, I'd get better music, GPS, etc. I am a proud graduate of Carl Junction High School, Carl Junction MO. I had a teacher who taught us that bombs were not used in WWII, among other useful bits of info. I got a "D" in typing, which was a required subject and which kept me out of National Honor Society. My girlfriend and I went drinking with my 40 year old history teacher and his 22 year old wife. I never felt even remotely intellectually challenged except by Miss Vera Ralston, who well and truly had my number. She worked for the same pay as the lady whose views on WWII were a bit garbled. The most important things I learned in high school was after school and on weekends as a farmhand and as a carpenter's helper.

I think this is the big unanswered question in education - all education, public private or whatever.

If the metric is outcome, the end product is not going to be materially better than the raw material.

If the metric is equality of opportunity, access to competent, trained teachers and whatnot, that is fixable, but a lot of oxen will be gored.

for those who want to get their public ed nerd on (and you know who you are!), here are the key findings page from the OECD PISA project. It compares programs and results for OECD and other countries.

The data is as of 2009, 2013 data will be up in December.

I think the single mother phenomena is much more widespread here than elsewhere.

good old Nationmaster appears to say no, not really.

African American communities are plagued with single parent issues

This does appear to be so.

Marginally but only to a degree once the basics are covered.

The definitions for "margin" and "basics" here are crucial.

But more or less yes, once the basics are covered, I agree that the law of diminishing returns kicks in fairly quickly. As always, just my opinion, this is not an area where I have any expertise, I'm just trying to keep up.

From what I remember of my own public school experience, I learned most of the stuff I make use of in my daily life by about 9th or maybe 10th grade. Most of 10th, 11th, and 12th grades were just treading water.

Most of my time in high school was spent playing drums and hanging out with my buddies.

I will credit my very good liberal arts university education (BA Music) with teaching me how to think and articulate my thoughts.

I'm sorry that didn't happen sooner, but I'm not sure I can blame my grade and high schools for that. For various reasons, I was not a very motivated dude, academically.

And FWIW, I'd also like to say that I found geography lady's comments to be right on. Thanks geography lady, let us hear from you more often!

russell:

Thanks for the link. Page 15 is relevant (paraphrasing):
-Teacher pay is more important than class size
-Schools with increased resources tend to do better, but this is likely due to the these schools having students from higher sociology-economic backgrounds.

So fire the underperforming teachers and pay the rest more.

And a direct quote is worth it because it summarizes a vast number of the comments made in this thread:

"In other respects, the overall lack of a relationship between resources and outcomes does not show that resources are not important, but that their level does not have a systematic impact within the prevailing range. If most or all schools have the minimum resource requirements to allow effective teaching, additional material resources may make little difference to outcomes."

In my lifetime we have piled increasing 'responsibility' on our public schools, and then we have consistently underfunded them. Many are simply astonished that we continually have to discuss the 'failure' of our public schools. I guess many didn't take school too seriously, because apparently they believe you can get something for nothing (Laffer Curve, which see).

Good white folks fled to the 'burbs leaving a black underclass behind. I guess flight does solve some problems if money won't.

Coupled with stagnating wages since the 70's, the fact that some folks blame the poors for their plight is not surprising. They have always done so. Similarly with our public schools. It is a target rich environment going back to the 60's with the first anguished cries of "our schools are failing!"

The plain fact of the matter is this: Our public schools, given what we have burdened them with and coupled with their lack or resources, don't do all that badly. Geographylady, McKinney, Russell....my own, their experiences testify to this fact. Most people, given a fairly stable middle class background get through our public schools without too much trauma.

THE DATA AGREES. READ IT.

But school reform is the grift that keeps on giving. And of course teachers must be taught a lesson (irony alert) for having the temerity to insist they have the basic human right (or so says the Wagner Act) to bargain over their work conditions and pay.

As to merit, if merit really meant crap in the private sector, Fred Haitt would not have a job. QED

So fire the underperforming teachers and pay the rest more.

Heresy. The true doctrine is to cut the wages until only the truly committed and the desperate go into teaching. And the former can then be eliminated by a barrage of insults, putting rubbish into the curriculum (firing them the moment they deviate from it) and instigating the worst parents to harass them.
It's overdue to go back to the system of having the parents pay the teachers in kind (but no chickens; those are for the doctor). And once a month the teachers have to get weighed in order to check that they do not get overfed. They are supposed to be fed up not we to feed them up.

So fire the underperforming teachers and pay the rest more.

Hmmm, this provokes me to write, though not as much as it provoked Hartmut ;^).

Any large organization, you have people who underperform. Point me to an organization where everyone is the best at what they do. Those organizations do exist, but they have a special skill set and they generally take no prisoners.

Akio Morita had a philosophy about hiring that I think underlines why this 'fire the underperformers' is so problematic. I'm not sure about the precise percentages, but he said that when he hired, you look for maybe 75% of solid dependable folks, 10% highly driven high fliers and then you accept that 15% may be underperformers. You do that because if you try to have all high fliers, you end up with quarrels and conflict, often driven by egos. The other thing is that often, people who you might have consigned to the 15% category will surprise you when placed in the right environment.

While 'fire the underperformers' has a nice ring to it, you really don't know who is going to emerge when you hire, and if all your hires are under the mortal threat of being axed, they aren't going to give you the creative solutions that everyone seems to acknowledge are needed. And you can't expect a teacher to do their best if they are not given opportunity and space to try and fail. For most of the teachers I know and hang out with, they are a lot rougher on themselves over what they perceive as their failures, so this 'fire the underperformers' when it is based on shoddy metrics that don't translate to real-world outcomes is really missing the point.

McKinney: If the metric is outcome, the end product is not going to be materially better than the raw material.

The end product and raw material being the students?

"You do that because if you try to have all high fliers, you end up with quarrels and conflict, often driven by egos."

Some insiders at Google say that's a problem in some areas there.

"While 'fire the underperformers' has a nice ring to it, ..."

In many school districts, it can be difficult to fire the outright criminal, much less, the under-performers.

The 'underperform' metrics are indeed a crucial part. It goes into the other direction too. If any worker can expect that above average performance/productivity will inevitably lead to increased demands (making the overperformance the new work norm), then (s)he will be careful to meet but never exceed the plan. Unfortunately this is not just a practice of commie countries but also of applied capitalism (If one can make 3 perform the work of 4 one can fire the 4th, and there are enough tricks to not pay for overtime work).
And teachers have extra bad luck because far too many consider them als slackers because they do not spend 40 hours per week in the classroom but still get a full wage (that a teacher's job is not limited to classroom time seems to be inconceivable).

In many school districts, it can be difficult to fire the outright criminal, much less, the under-performers.

How many of those who pushed NINJA loans, procured fake appraisals, packaged and sold junk asset backed securities as 'AAA' and then bet against them were fired?

'Difficult to fire' you say? I rest my case your Honor.

"So fire the underperforming teachers and pay the rest more."

Others have taken care of this (hooray, Hartmut), so I'll cease and desist .... no I won't.

Not picking on thompson, who is looking for answers in good faith, I'm picking on ... the word "So" because it makes things sound "so" easy.

What's the cutoff between underperforming and performing?

In any field?

In a society (this American one) wherein everyone, regardless of social class, believes, congenitally, that everyone else is full of sh*t and overpaid to boot and give us five minutes and each of us can become a yeoman Jeffersonian farmer in a heartbeat.

Go to lunch with employees and listen to how management is full of sh*t and overpaid. Go to lunch with management and shareholders and listen to how employees are full of sh*t and overpaid, not to mention on lunchbreak.

It's crap. Besides, you fire people and then you have more folks on foodstamps, signing up for Medicaid, and receiving unemployment in an economy where hiring is the last thing employers want to do, because headcounts must be kept at a f*cking minimum.

That said, put me in charge (and you thought having Slart and McTx would be a nightmare) and I'll put 60% of America on the unemployment lines and then make standing in line illegal, because none of us are ever f*cking good enough.

Except for the poets.

Who don't get paid anyway.

As earlier noted, my experience is so distant (in time and space) that I have little to contribute, but I did hark at one passing comment of McKT:

I got a "D" in typing, which was a required subject and which kept me out of National Honor Society.

I, on the other hand, got a "C" in typing, which was not a required subject, and that kept me from being valedictorian of my HS.

Great minds, etc.

I don't remember getting anything better than "C"s in typing. But I think it was still the single most useful thing I learn in high school.

In many school districts, it can be difficult to fire the outright criminal, much less, the under-performers.

Not meaning to get into it, but how do you know this? Were you working in multiple school districts when these issues came up?

There are undoubtedly bad persons, even evil persons working in all kinds of situations. If they are called out, they will probably avail themselves of every option to stay on their jobs. But with many of these situations, what seems like open and shut often is a lot more complex. Here in Japan, I've been involved in several cases of problematic firings, etc and I've know of many more. And when it is possible to define underperformance in such a way as to select out individuals for ill treatment rather consider what the metrics are really doing, I would suggest you take a sack of salt with each report.

In New York City...

How Do I Fire an Incompetent Teacher? (.pdf)

Yes, the cartoons by the Reason staff cartoonist make that pdf particularly convincing...

You may want to look at this

Due process, seniority, and salary scales predate unionization; they grew out of state and local civil service reforms in the early twentieth century when political machines thrived in large part by controlling jobs. Civil service laws protected teachers against the graft, cronyism, and favoritism that plagued public school systems under the thumb of political bosses and run by patronage. The laws benefited children by aiming for a meritocracy: teaching jobs would go to those who had training and skills. Since the 1960s when public employees in many states won the right to bargain collectively, teachers’ contracts have included the same protections.

The traditional protections are just that—protections against corruption and favoritism; they have nothing to do with evaluating teachers. Even if an ideal evaluation system existed, teachers would still need recourse when administrators and politicians ignored regulations. Yet the reformers have misleadingly conflated the two issues: we can’t get proper evaluations, they claim, without eliminating protections. Since state laws can be written to take precedence over teachers’ contracts, the most effective way to eliminate protections is to get state laws changed. This is what the reform campaign is doing around the country.

A short digression on due process: it doesn’t mean that public school teachers cannot be fired. The problem is extremely drawn-out and costly procedures for hearings and rulings. Unions get the blame for this, but departments of education (notorious for bureaucratic snafus and foot-dragging) and the lawyers on both sides (also foot-draggers) bear equal responsibility. The solution is straightforward: strict time limits for the process. But, perversely, with the escalation of the reform campaign, “reform superintendents” have a greater interest in showing that due process doesn’t work than in repairing it.

The section about the VAM (Value Added Measure), one of the current sticks used to beat teachers with, is excellent, and has this.

John Ewing, president of Math for America (which promotes better math education in public high schools), describes the VAM phenomenon in “Mathematical Intimidation: Driven by the Data” (Notices of the American Mathematical Society, May 2011):

People recognize that tests are an imperfect measure of educational success, but when sophisticated mathematics is applied, they believe the imperfections go away by some mathematical magic. But this is not magic. What really happens is that the mathematics is used to disguise the problems and intimidate people into ignoring them—a modern, mathematical version of the Emperor’s New Clothes….

Of course we should hold teachers accountable, but this does not mean we have to pretend that mathematical models can do something they cannot….In any case, we ought to expect more from our teachers than what value-added attempts to measure.

But off with their heads! They should have chosen to be in the FIRE industry if they didn't want to be fired.

What really happens is that the mathematics is used to disguise the problems and intimidate people into ignoring them—a modern, mathematical version of the Emperor’s New Clothes….

"That sounds like economics!" was the first thing to leap into my mind when I read this.

Then lj writes:

They should have chosen to be in the FIRE industry if they didn't want to be fired.

Heh.

I suspect that what makes a difference isn't whether the child has a single, relatively uneducated, parent. Rather what matters is the culture and whether it values education.

If it does, whether in other countries or in various subgroups within the US, the actual education of the parents, or whether both are present, doesn't matter that much. Even though they are personally uneducated, they believe that education is important and make sure that their kids know it. And the children's peers are also clear that education is important, which reinforces the view.

So what makes education in the US more problematic? It is the relatively large segments of the population which have not embraced education as a "good thing." Indeed, there are segments where someone who shows an interest in getting an education is subject to social pressures (sometimes serious ones) to stop doing so.

The end product and raw material being the students?

Yes.

On the "fire the underperformers" thing: substandard performance becomes fairly apparent over time, if not sooner. High, unexcused absenteeism is a clear marker for a lazy, unmotivated and unnecessary burden on the payroll. If there is a good argument for keeping people like that around, I'd like to hear it. People who want to do a good job but who lack skills, insight, whatever, you work with them. But, at the end of the day, they have to meet minimum performance expectations or someone else is having to pick up their slack. Bad for morale, bad for other reasons.

I moved my firm into a large, national firm 14 months ago. My responsibility for payroll and whatnot is highly attenuated--and I sleep much better at night--but I can still tell you that the one attorney and one staff person we have in our Houston office who clearly take every advantage and then some of generous time off and other policies add to others' loads and impact morale. New career opportunities lie ahead for both of these folks absent a major turnaround.

"...the one attorney and one staff person we have in our Houston office who clearly take every advantage and then some of generous time off and other policies..."

Isn't that the purpose of generous time off and other benefits? To identify any slackers as soon as possible? :)

New career opportunities lie ahead for both of these folks absent a major turnaround.

Why haven't you done it right now? Think of the clients! It's not 'give the underperformers time to make it apparent that they should be let go', it's 'fire the underperformers'. This is all so confusing.

I set off quite the firestorm. I admit the fire them was a little off the cuff, but I stand by the principle.

Teachers aren't well respected in society. They aren't in the media, and the couple I know personally...I know it grates on them.

And with that lack of respect often comes a lack of pay. I know one (super anecdotal, I know) that moved from a public to a private school because (a) better pay (b) more flexibility in how they teach and (c) the public school principle WANTED to continue their position but basically couldn't due to union rules and funding (brand new teacher, didn't have seniority, etc). So they went job hunting and ended up teaching at a private school.

I'm not going to pretend my friend represents every, or even most teachers. But I do think offering people a basic amount of respect and reasonable pay is crucial if you want to retain good employees...from janitors to teachers, from clerks to firemen.

So if I were to phrase my inflammatory statement in a less inflammatory way (sorry about that): The PISA data suggests class size isn't THAT important in the range they investigated. Teacher salary WAS important. Based on their data, I'd say having FEWER teachers, that are paid and respected more, will likely get you better results. Based on the PISA data.

To answer all the comments in the vein of 'how do you define performance' I'm pretty sure that's why schools have principles and superintendents...so some random guy on a blog (me) doesn't have to decide hiring and firing. But seriously, I was just pointing out that, according to the data, we'd be better off focusing on improving teacher quality (which to me, as an unabashed capitalist, means making the job more attractive) than focusing on just getting class size down.

I wasn't advocating lining up teachers by their students test scores and firing half of them as a stern warning to rest.

In my lifetime we have piled increasing 'responsibility' on our public schools, and then we have consistently underfunded them.

This seems accurate to me.

My sister and my niece both worked in public schools as, variously, classroom teacher, district-wide teaching coach for reading skills, and school librarian.

Among the tasks that fell to them, more or less by default:

Buying basic classroom materials out of pocket.

Acting as more or less mental health first responders for kids with issues such as acute depression, sexual or physical abuse (from family members or other kids), physical self-abuse, anorexia and bulimia, etc.

This includes stuff like trying to explain to a 14 year old girl why it's not such a good idea to hand out BJ's to the boys in the back stairwell. Without, of course, overstepping any bounds and interfering in the parental relationship.

Tricky.

Acting as more or less social services first responders for kids who lack food, proper or adequate clothes, or basic stuff like electricity and central heat in the home (in northern NY state, in the winter).

Acting as plain old first responders for kids who had managed to FUBAR themselves in one way or another.

Dealing with kids who come to school armed, including getting other kids to disclose that kids are in the school with knives or guns.

Dealing with violent or dangerous kids, armed or not.

Monitoring kids' use of online resources to make sure they aren't viewing porn.

All of this in addition to preparing curriculum, teaching classes, and doing the regular stuff that teachers do.

Both my sister and my niece left education - sister retired early, niece decided to stay at home with her kids - because they got sick of dealing with the data-driven, numerical-results-focussed style of school administration that has become the norm under No Child Left Behind.

It's a hard job. It pays OK, but not remarkably so. The perks can be nice - good vacations, sometimes a pension - but the work environment tends to be very political and stressful in ways that have little to do with the classroom. You have about 100 bosses.

And, everybody thinks you got into teaching because you didn't have the goods to do something better, are gouging the public coffers via your big fat union, and probably could never make it in the "real world".

You couldn't pay me enough to do it, just the idea of keeping 30 kids organized and on task for 6 hours a day every day would be enough to make me run for the door.

"everybody thinks you got into teaching because you didn't have the goods to do something better"

This is a part of the problem in my mind...I think its true in the sense that self-fulfilling prophecies often are. If you treat teachers (or anybody) like crap, the ones that can do something else frequently do. Not all, certainly. But many do.

Everything else russell said. It's a hard job. We need really good people doing it. Recruiting them and retaining them is a challenge.

No sweat, thompson.

You didn't inflame me. It's just that along the lines of Jerry Seinfeld, I always wonder if every worker in America had the rest of us show up in front of their desks to boo their performance on a regular basis, how we would feel.

First thing I do in the morning is light myself afire and then run around like the Scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz and set the entire hayfield alight.

Then I hit the internets for a splash of gasoline and additional tinder as a cooling off period and I'm good to settle down for the rest of the day with a few good books.

Speaking of leave, I'll be on leave without pay from OBWI for a few weeks starting today to see to things in the Motherland. I hope my absence doesn't cause a falloff in morale or productivity here at the head office and I trust my cubicle will still exist when I return and that my swivel chair remains un-booby trapped.

I hope the extra load isn't too much for all of you, although I'm already noticing a certain energy and lightness in everyone's mood and step, respectively, as I depart, which seems a little counter intuitive.

If we're lucky, you guys can solve all of the weighty matters of the world while I'm out and sort of lie down end to end and reach some conclusions because I'm surely sick of coming up with all of the easy answers.

Also -- what Russell just wrote.

Hopefully, the boss doesn't read that last because it might make me seem redundant and I have pre-existing character flaws that will soon need expensive medical attention, so keep that in mind at the staff meeting.

"I know one...that moved from a public to a private school because (a) better pay (b) more flexibility in how they teach ..."

Another argument for more school choice. It allows teachers, along with students, to find their best fit.

High, unexcused absenteeism is a clear marker for a lazy, unmotivated and unnecessary burden on the payroll. If there is a good argument for keeping people like that around, I'd like to hear it.

There isn't one. But I don't think those are the metrics for performance under discussion. Even liberals like me don't think people who fail to show up for work without good reason (among other things) deserve to keep their jobs, believe it or not.

That's an entirely different problem from, say, teachers whose students don't average above a certain score on some poorly designed test, which is evaluated according to some poorly designed statistical analysis that fails to account for a number of (often rather obvious) confounding factors.

But I don't think those are the metrics for performance under discussion.

In any of the current-day "reform" efforts, they are not.

The metrics are results in the form of student performance, as measured by test results.

Why haven't you done it right now? Think of the clients! It's not 'give the underperformers time to make it apparent that they should be let go', it's 'fire the underperformers'. This is all so confusing.

You may not have read everything I wrote.

Acting as more or less social services first responders for kids who lack food, proper or adequate clothes, or basic stuff like electricity and central heat in the home (in northern NY state, in the winter).

Acting as plain old first responders for kids who had managed to FUBAR themselves in one way or another.

Dealing with kids who come to school armed, including getting other kids to disclose that kids are in the school with knives or guns.

Dealing with violent or dangerous kids, armed or not.

Monitoring kids' use of online resources to make sure they aren't viewing porn.

All of this in addition to preparing curriculum, teaching classes, and doing the regular stuff that teachers do.

There we are. Who had to deal with this 40 years ago? Fistfights, sure. Truancy, sure. Hitting a teacher? Go to jail and be expelled. Porn at school--Playboy was it back in the day and if you brought one, it was 3 days suspension. Teachers and principals used paddles--not enough in my case--and it was only mildly controversial.

If education were a defeasible right, one which a chronically misbehaving or violent student could lose, we might have a different situation. Not to offend, but life would be a lot easier for many, many students and all teachers if the bad kids who won't change were removed from class.

If the rules for being allowed to enter and remain in school were clear and were enforced, I believe we'd have noticeably less of an issue today.

"In my lifetime we have piled increasing 'responsibility' on our public schools, and then we have consistently underfunded them."

Was this really forced on schools or was it just mission creep on the part of schools and their political overseers?

"Another argument for more school choice. It allows teachers, along with students, to find their best fit."

Yep.

I'd also like to touch on the metrics that keep coming up. There aren't great metrics, especially not ones that can be administered once a quarter and have funding or teacher pay or whatever tied to it.

Which is why I'd argue for more flexibility for teachers to teach how they feel is best, more flexibility for administration to recruit and retain teachers they feel teach best, and more flexibility for parents to select schools they feel benefit their children the most.

Again, not offering cure-alls and tonics.

Also, Count, enjoy your travels, I'll miss your commentary in the meantime.

hey, how 'bout that Senate?

hey, how 'bout that Senate?

A close vote. Long term, who knows. If the Repubs ever get back in, they will finish the job so that Dems can't block SCt nominees--we'll see who does the shouting then.

If the Repubs ever get back in,

Perish the thought.

thompson: So what makes education in the US more problematic? It is the relatively large segments of the population which have not embraced education as a "good thing." Indeed, there are segments where someone who shows an interest in getting an education is subject to social pressures (sometimes serious ones) to stop doing so.

russell:
...they got sick of dealing with the data-driven, numerical-results-focussed style of school administration that has become the norm under No Child Left Behind.

I have very limited teaching experience; I did one year as a secondary educator, and that at a public high school in France. I'd not dream of trying to teach in the US; it was challenging enough over there where teachers are substantially better paid, respected, and the student body is more agreeable to education. The only comparative anecdata I can bring to the table for the US ed system is my own underfunded rural schooling, and conversations with old classmates from my undergrad French days (most of whom were ed majors and now teach at underfunded suburban Midwestern schools). But one question - fraught with cliches, but still - that contrast raises for me is this: what is the point of American education? The French system still retains some of the old Republican ethos which views the schools as citizen factories, albeit much less than it did a century ago. But in the US, we tend to view them first and foremost as worker mills. If media representations are to be believed, the point of a school is to make you ready for the job market, and additionally this is apparently quantifiable... (No context needed! Just add diploma!)

I think thompson makes a good point in bringing up the venerable strain brought to bear by good old fashioned American anti-intellectualism as well. That was definitely not present in any meaningful sense in France. Education had value in itself, as it made better citizens; and for businesses, citizens perforce double as workers. That doesn't work both ways, though, so magic bullets like teaching to the test appeal to us here because, again, education must have a quantifiable result, and as such we must be able to quantify it. It's frustrating, and it's depressing, and it's something that can't be easily fixed because the problem is cultural. And with the current economic situation encouraging pop culture to teach that education is not a path to success, but rather pretension and debt*, we're almost certainly looking at another generation before this could even hope to change. Not that it will, in all likelihood. American anti-intellectualism is older than America. But the current wind isn't very favorable for even hope in this regard.

*Despite my talk of education for its own sake, I'm all for vocational programs. I don't see that as being different than "higher" education. The society that values its philosophers but not its plumbers, etc. I'm also for low-skill employment providing a living wage, though, so take that with a grain of (red) salt.

One of the 3 opposing Democrats:

Pryor issued a statement saying the Senate "was designed to protect_not stamp out_the voices of the minority."

Yeah, well what about the level of representation the least populated states still have, which has gotten even more disproportionate since the Senate was designed? The "minority" protected in the design wasn't a political party, I don't think.

If the Repubs ever get back in, they will finish the job so that Dems can't block SCt nominees--we'll see who does the shouting then.

I'd be lying if I said that I wasn't at all worried about that.

I'd be lying if I said that I wasn't at all worried about that.

Having seen the shoe on both feet . . .

Having seen the shoe on both feet ...

No Senate has ever done to a President what the Republicans have done to Obama. Period. There's no question that they're capable of doing worse things if they gain a majority in the Senate. That's why it's incumbent upon us to be sure that it doesn't happen.

Fortunately, signs point to people being fed up with this Republican nonsense.

NomVide:

As much as I agree with the comment, it was wj, not me.

I agree with your sentiment, anti-intellectualism is a problem in the US. In the media (in my perception), its been on the rise recently.

But I'd paint with an even broader brush. It's not just anti-intellectualism, it's how combative we, as a society, are when it comes to social/cultural/life differences.

Most of the people I interact with socially have at least a college degree, many graduate and professional degrees. It's pretty staggering to me how much entitlement comes along with that, and how dismissive people can be towards those with "less education."

Or, even more hilariously, different education. Same degree level, but in different fields, is often considered "less."

The anti-intellectual elitism/anti-intellectual argument goes both ways. And I think it is prevalent because its a really useful narrative for media and political noise machines.

"They" aren't like you, they are up in their ivory tower.

"They" aren't like you, they cling to their guns and religion.

I don't know that the pro-/anti- intellectualism narratives are that different than the many other narratives that get pushed.

I'd actually think it doesn't have much to do with the anti-teacher agenda in the US. I'd consider that more driven by anti-union, anti-government narrative. Sentiments that I have some sympathy for, but don't agree with how it gets extended to the rank-and-file teachers.

You may not have read everything I wrote.

Sorry, I left out those irony tags. I realize that you didn't say 'fire the underperformers', I was just pointing out that thompson's 'fire the underperformers' is not equal to your 'substandard performance becomes fairly apparent over time, if not sooner.' It wasn't meant to address any other point.

NV wrote
I have very limited teaching experience; I did one year as a secondary educator, and that at a public high school in France.

I would love to know more, maybe a guest post? I did a year as an assistant de langues at a high school in Poitiers in the late 80's, I'd love to compare notes.

and Count, take care.

I'd be lying if I said that I wasn't at all worried about that.

Same here.

I appreciate NV's 4:21 quite a bit. There are many many differences between the US and France, or pretty much any other first world country for that matter. Education for its own sake is little valued here. I'd extend that to many or most forms of cultural or social engagement or awareness.

If it can't be monetized, it's not valuable.

On my more cynical days lately, I suspect there no longer is anything recognizable as an American culture. We swapped it for an enhanced shopping experience.

The society that values its philosophers but not its plumbers...

Oddly perhaps, many of the best educated folks I know - in the cultural, knowledge for its own sake sense - are blue collar folks and tradesmen.

Libraries are free, as it turns out. So far, anyway.

I know I'm getting old, because everything makes me cranky.

Count, safe travels and best wishes for a good visit. May there be a sweet song or two still to be heard in the midst of the noise.

"Education for its own sake is little valued here. I'd extend that to many or most forms of cultural or social engagement or awareness. If it can't be monetized, it's not valuable. On my more cynical days lately, I suspect there no longer is anything recognizable as an American culture. We swapped it for an enhanced shopping experience."

I'd say that is overly harsh.

I work regularly with undergraduate students and I am consistently impressed how many clubs/organizations/political movements/etc that they are part of.

In terms of nationwide movements, I'm very impressed with the spread of Makers.

The tea party, love them or hate them, is a national and influential cause/group.

Even home brewing and home wine making seems to be undergoing a resurgence.

MOOCs and DOCCs have pros and cons, but they've rose out of nothing in a few years. Of course, it's hard to track country of origin, but I've met people who like them, so at least a few americans are taking them.

Musically, there are tons of festivals around the country every year.

I could go on, but I'd say america still has a vibrant cultural and educational drive.

I do think its easy to turn on the news, or see old buildings turn into strip malls, and despair...but I for one am not weeping for this nation's culture just yet.

Then again, I'm dangerously optimistic.

russell: "Education for its own sake is little valued here. I'd extend that to many or most forms of cultural or social engagement or awareness. If it can't be monetized, it's not valuable. On my more cynical days lately, I suspect there no longer is anything recognizable as an American culture. We swapped it for an enhanced shopping experience."

thompson: "I'd say that is overly harsh."

I'd say so too! In fact, it's ridiculous. I'd suggest you get out more, russell, especially among young people. I know several people who could be making quite a few bucks, because they have degrees in hugely marketable fields (and have had jobs there), who instead are serving some greater ideal somewhere. And I live in the South!


On my more cynical days lately, I suspect there no longer is anything recognizable as an American culture.

Oh, and forgot to address this directly: Sure, lots of rich people like to shop. But what about the success of Etsy, and the entire DYI movement, and so many people who "like to shop" to support people who are doing stuff that's creative, local and good? You need a nap, russell.

I would love to know more, maybe a guest post? I did a year as an assistant de langues at a high school in Poitiers in the late 80's, I'd love to compare notes.

I was a language assistant at a medium-large lycée on the outskirts of Lyon in 02-03. I'll see if I can find the time (not a problem) and creativity (something of a problem) to generate enough content to merit sharing. I'm not optimistic, but I'll give it a good-faith effort.

I'd suggest you get out more, russell, especially among young people.

I suspect I get out more than most folks. I definitely suspect I get out, for a wide variety of purposes, more than most folks on this board.

I could be wrong, if so folks here are pretty unusual.

What I find is that the general level of basic cultural literacy in the US is pretty damned low. And, is not particularly highly valued.

Etsy, homebrew, and MOOCs notwithstanding.

I just got in from "being out" in order to engage in a "cultural activity" including many "young people", and I'm too freaking tired to debate it further. Maybe later.

Night all.

Obviously, I don't know who your musical audience is, russell, or who your friends are, but I'm dismayed by your frequent generalizations about the level of people's intellectual curiosity and appreciation of culture. I find it hard to believe that my experience (knowing a lot very intelligent, interested, creative and dedicated people of all ages) is unusual.

As to American culture, one thing that's fairly distinctive about it is how inquisitive and appreciative many people are about other people's cultures, including their food. Obviously, some Americans (like some Europeans, Asians, Africans, etc.) are narrow-minded, bigoted, ignorant, and materialistic, but that's no more the rule here than anywhere else in the world.

one thing that's fairly distinctive about it is how inquisitive and appreciative many people are about other people's cultures, including their food

I'm really not trying to pick a fight about this, nor do I want to jack the thread in the direction of some bizarre pet peeve of my own. It's also not something I've really thought through to any degree of clarity, my comment upthread was kind of a throw-away.

Suffice it to say that a curiosity about other people's cultures, including their food, isn't really what I was trying to get at, however incoherently.

Or, if anything, offering the fact that Americans like to try foods from other countries as an example of cultural engagement (for lack of a better word) kind of illustrates what I'm trying to say.

What I think is that Americans approach things from the perspective of consumers. Culture - our own or anybody else's - is no different, it is a grab-bag of artifacts to consume.

As opposed to a shared and common legacy, a body of traditions and practices that reflect a particular understanding (perhaps plural) of the world.

What I think is that consumption *is* American culture, nowadays.

None of this is to disparage people's personal interests, hobbies, or pursuits, I think all of those things are great.

I think these two links kind of support Russell's generalizations, in a general sort of way

http://blogs.villagevoice.com/runninscared/2011/02/only_30_percent.php

and

http://edition.cnn.com/2011/TRAVEL/02/04/americans.travel.domestically

from the 2nd link
The percentage of Americans with passports -- a number that was in the teens just a few years ago -- has spiked since the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative was adopted. It requires American and Canadian travelers to present documents showing citizenship when entering the United States.

which suggests that the number is still in the teens if you exclude Canada and Mexico.

There is a prospective post about this, in that I'm always struck how much my students know about Western pop, yet the inverse of US students knowing about Japanese pop might be in the upper 1 digits, if that much.

You can encounter lots of American culture at your local Walmart. It might not be the culture you like yourself...

I don't know how to measure something like cultural literacy. Am I a cultural illiterate when I have no idea who those people are who are featured on magazines at the grocery line? They obviously mean something to a lot of other Americans or their faces wouldn't sell magazines.

Am I exceptionally culturally literate because I took Spanish in college, have a passing acquaintance with life on a nearby Native American community, and learned a little about Samoan culture from one of my clients?

This is a pretty big diverse country. I'm not so much worried about cultural literacy as I am about the lack of acquisition of basic facts. For example, a lady of my acquaintance told me that Obama caused the deficit by spending too much on porkbarrel programs like a one hundred thousand dollar grant for research. She knew that it was true because she heard it on Faux.

That's just plain ignorant.

There's lots of that sort of ignorance around. People who don't know that every state has two Senators. People who don't know what "socialism" means. People who have no idea what a state religion is. People who not only lack knowledge of history, but lack basic knowledge about the structure of their own government.

That worries me a lot more than people who don't seem to participate in the same cultural events and activities that I do.

As opposed to a shared and common legacy, a body of traditions and practices that reflect a particular understanding (perhaps plural) of the world.

That definition of culture would seem available only to very small, insular communities.

As to eating food (and drinking beverages, such as tea or wine or other things), yes, that's the definition of "consumption", but food is a huge part of what human beings do, and an extremely important basis for many cultural "traditions and practices." Calling food-related practices "consumption," as if they have no further cultural significance is an example of what I object to about your attitude towards our "culture." You seem to have a narrow, extremely romanticized, view of what people should be like. Under your definition, a large, diverse society such as ours could never have a common culture. But, in fact, a huge part of our culture is our ability to look outward and embrace other people's ways.

There is a prospective post about this, in that I'm always struck how much my students know about Western pop, yet the inverse of US students knowing about Japanese pop might be in the upper 1 digits, if that much.

I would be a rube but for my wife, who is Spanish/French and born in Tanzania, widely traveled, multi-lingual, and so on. In other words, but for her influence, I would think Cancun was high living. So, I kind of get what Russell is saying. I'm not as worked up about it as Russell is, which may not be to my credit. All of that is background to LJ's observation, which I find to be the case everywhere I've traveled, i.e. people around the world pay at least as much attention to what goes on in the US as Americans do. Headlines in most continental European newspapers that I've seen include front page reports on stuff in the US. Same with the Brits and the Aussies. It's flattering in some ways and concerning in others, much as Russell has indicated.

I think food is a good example for drawing distinctions. It can be purely consumed (usually in a highly modified form to make it palatable for your culture) without any regard for its origin and context or it can be used as a jump-off point to get a first taste (literally in this case) of the culture it stems from.
---
As for cultural illiteracy, Mark Twain had a few words to say about that (like his observation that in cases of doubt American pupils answer any number question with 1492, be it the year of birth of any important person, the circumference of the world etc.).

First it was St. Patrick's Day. Then Cinco de Mayo. Now Octoberfest is on the rise. Americans adopt things from other cultures when they provide an excuse to get hammered while not even watching football. ;)

Hey, even the original Oktoberfest has become primarily a tourist trap.
More interesting to me is that there is a society/club in Japan infatuated with the Alphorn. Anyone who wants to join has to make a genuine one him/herself. Quality of the product is not much of an issue, it's the effort that counts. That too is a difference between just consuming (like buying one of these things) and genuine interest in the tradition. It has to be said though that the Alphorn became a Swiss symbol more or less by chance (it was in use in most Alpine countries). It got revived as part of what we would today called a branding campaign, not out of 'real' interest; that only came later.

That definition of culture would seem available only to very small, insular communities.

No, that's pretty much what a culture is. It's not insular, pretty much everybody has one, or more correctly lives in one and participates in one (or more). I'm just making a comment about an aspect of the one we live in.

food is a huge part of what human beings do, and an extremely important basis for many cultural "traditions and practices."

Yes, I agree with this.

Calling food-related practices "consumption," as if they have no further cultural significance is an example of what I object to about your attitude towards our "culture."

By "consumption" I don't mean "something you eat". I'm referring to consumption as a stance toward a cultural practice. I.e., your role as a participant.

Look, lots of my mother's people used to make braided rag rugs. Everyone in the family would save our rags, and they would make rugs out of them. It wasn't a quaint romantic thing, it was just where they (and we) got rugs.

And, it was a cultural practice that involved craft knowledge passed down for some number generations, and a kind of cool funky colorful esthetic because the rags were all different colors and fabrics, and it was a social thing because they'd sit together and make the rugs, and it expressed a cultural value of re-using any available thing until it turned into dust.

They weren't poor people, at least at that point, they could have bought the rugs. It was just *part of their culture* to make the rugs. Specifically, *making* the rugs. Hanging out doing something together, doing something that had been passed down to them, turning rags into something useful and attractive.

Nowadays most folks would buy a rag rug, and they have a particular kind of stylish cachet because they used to be something people made by hand. So, you can buy the vibe of handcraft, without actually making the rug. I don't know where or how they are made, they probably come from Pakistan.

If you want a hand-made one with a "real vintage look" you can in fact get them on Etsy.

And as an aside, if you're looking for "extreme romanticism", selling something on a website and saying it's special because it's hand-made and has a "vintage look" is romantic nostalgia to a T.

I have no problem with the person selling rag rugs on Etsy, they look like nice rugs. I have no problem with you or anyone else eating whatever they like to eat. I recognize the benefits that have come to us through industrial production, and I don't expect everyone to sit around in the evening making braided rag rugs if they would rather just buy a damned rug.

What I am saying is that our own culture has become, to a pretty large degree, commodified, and the way that most folks participate in it is as consumers, as opposed to active participants and practicioners.

You seem to have a narrow, extremely romanticized, view of what people should be like.

No, I don't think I do. I don't think I really have any specific view of what people should be like. People should be like themselves.

Under your definition, a large, diverse society such as ours could never have a common culture.

It's likely that a large, diverse society like ours WILL NOT have a thoroughly common culture. It most likely SHOULD NOT have one, because we're large and diverse.

But, in fact, a huge part of our culture is our ability to look outward and embrace other people's ways.

A huge part of the culture of SOME PARTS of the country is an interest in looking outward and embracing other people's ways.

I guess I'll pile onto the threadjack.

I'd be curious what russell means by cultural and educational engagement. He gave a high level definition, but I'd be helped by some examples. I think I disagree with him, but I don't have a strong grasp of what he means. Russell, if you don't care to answer, that's fine too. It will hold for another time, I'm sure.

LJ: I've always had a problem with the "passport issue". Mostly for the reasons outlined in the CNN article. Travel outside the country is fairly expensive and there is a lot of diversity within the nation.

Not saying foreign travel isn't good for a lot of cultural reasons, but if you're in Paris its pretty easy to take a train to a dozen different countries. For large swathes of america, you're talking hundreds or thousands of dollars and a day of travel each way. A lot of people don't have that money.

There's also fairly high importance given to "working hard" in america and vacations/years off aren't valued as highly as I've noticed from some of my European friends. Then again, those are mostly people who have made the trip to america...so a lot of selection going on there.

And I think its self-reinforcing...if none of your friends travel abroad, there is less impetus for you to travel abroad. With an activation energy that's pretty high already (money, work), you're not going to see that much travel abroad.

I don't know if its due to americans being exceptionally incurious about other cultures or the combination of diversity in country and the price to get out.

Maybe it doesn't really matter, because the end result is less cultural exposure.

And what HSH said. Bluntly, the hammered happened before the holiday's were absorbed...they just provided a great excuse.

I'd be helped by some examples.

Sure. Apologies if this basically shows up twice, I wrote essentially what I'm writing here in reply to sapient's last, it appears to have disappeared.

The women in my mother's family used to make braided rag rugs. They look like this. Everyone would save up their rags and they would make rugs out of them.

This involved some craft knowledge passed down across some number of generations, and also a kind of lively funky aesthetic because the rags were all colors and patterns, and also a social thing because they'd hang out together and make the rugs, and also a basic cultural ethic of using and re-using stuff until there was nothing left of it.

So, a cultural practice.

This wasn't a quaint romantic thing, it was just people making rugs, like people do (or, did). And it wasn't cause they were poor, at that point they weren't, it was just *part of their culture* to make rugs. Specifically, *making* rugs. Their role in the cultural practice was active engagement. Their culture was something they *did*.

Nowadays if you want a braided rug you'd probably buy one, and in fact they have a certain stylish cachet because they used to be a handcraft. I don't know where or how they're made or by whom, I imagine they are either manufactured or else they come from Pakistan or someplace similar.

If you want the real old-school deal, there is in fact someone selling them on Etsy. Where they are advertised as having that "hand woven vintage look".

Which is, as it turns out, "extreme romanticism" and nostalgia in spades. Not that somebody is making these and offering them for sale, but the fact that the big selling point is that it looks old.

So, folks used to make these things, now they mostly buy them. But, part of what they like about them is that they remind them of when folks like them used to just make them.

I'm fine with folks buying braided rugs, I'm fine with crafters making them by hand, I'm fine with folks selling their hand-made stuff on Etsy. I don't expect or particularly desire that folks spend their evenings sitting around the fire (or, as my mother's folks would do, the TV) making rugs.

I recognize all of the benefits that have accrued from industrialization, and don't pine away for the days when we all did everything for ourselves by hand. If anyone is doing that, it's the folks lining up to buy what used to be a plain old functional household item because it has that "vintage look". And, there's nothing wrong with that either, everyone pines away from something or other.

My complete and total point is that in the US our culture has largely been commodified, and the way in which we participate with it is as consumers.

Not absolutely and completely, but to quite a large degree.

As a culture, a lot of what we do - a lot of our common life and values and activities - is some kind of shopping. That, or spectator events.

I personally don't think that's all good, because it's kind of a second hand experience, and a passive one. YMMV, each to their own.

also, please don't get all hung up on the braided rugs. THEY AREN'T THE POINT, they're just an example.

I actually regret not to have the skill for that kind of craftwork. I buy those rugs because I cannot make them myself. It has little to do with nostalghia in this case.
When thinking about the consumerization of culture it went more into the direction of art. High Art seems to be something that the younger generation seems to show little interest in and will NOT develop it when getting older (as the older generations used to do). I see cultural illiteracy spreading over here too, although not YET to the degree I observe in the US. I think that it is a telltale sign that these days one cannot even presume as a given any longer that kids encounter the Grimm Brothers or at least not in the traditional form (if at all then Disneyfied). I consider myself relatively cultured but even I lack a lot of knowledge of the classics that the generation of my parents would have taken for granted. Classical music is used to chase loitering youngsters away from shop entrances.
And I am not one of those critics that don't know whether they should love or hate the authoress of Harry Potter (she got kids to read very thick books but those books were entertaining and therefore without any literary value*).

*It's difficult to imagine how hated Kipling was among German critics for the same reason. His books HAD to be trash because they were readable (even by commoners).

thompson: There's also fairly high importance given to "working hard" in america and vacations/years off aren't valued as highly as I've noticed from some of my European friends."

Yes, indeed. That would be a "cultural" thing. And I basically agree with everything thompson has said here.

russell: My complete and total point is that in the US our culture has largely been commodified, and the way in which we participate with it is as consumers.

That's not true of me, or of people I know. Most of my friends (and I) have various home crafts that they do, even including braiding rugs. Some of these same people buy hand-crafted things, for the very reason that you, russell, often talk about (and romanticize): either supporting local people who do things locally, or at least supporting someone who is trying to make a living doing something besides working for the Man. Because, hey, if we don't do that stuff ourselves, we can support someone who does. Because basically, the only people who have a lot of time to do those things are: 1) people who can afford to, or 2) people who are without a job and dirt poor.

And when we do it, or even buy it, it's not because it's "a commodity."

Sure, not everyone feels that way, and a lot of people don't make anything, and don't value anything, except for its price tag. But plenty of people do. I honestly, russell, don't know where you're coming from that you think that most Americans have no sense of culture.

And back to food: I'm sorry, but if you don't understand that food is a giant cultural subject, and very vibrant in the United States, you're missing a great deal of contemporary culture.

Thanks russell, I appreciate the response. But I'm still not quite getting it and I'd impose on your one more time.

I get together with my friends/family and we brew beer. I attended a knitting club for awhile, not because I like knitting, but it was my friends and they met at a good coffee shop.

I have friends who weld, work on cars with their friends. I spend afternoons slow cooking meat on a grill with friends.

Hikers, rock climbers, bikers both pedal and motor...I know people that do all of these things with groups of people.

I know a few artists and more people that attend art shows. I know musicians and more people that attend music festivals.

I know people who play sports in local intramurals, I know people that play golf at the muni.

Nor do I think I'm especially outgoing and adventurous (pretty much the opposite, actually, but I try).

I guess where I'm lost is why none of those things are "making a rug." You have groups that get together around their shared interests, and a lot of those interests are "making things". Beer, wine, sweaters, fast cars, gardens, preserves...or even just memories.

Or maybe I'm just incredibly fortunate in the company I keep and this isn't your experience at all?

I'd agree that's not what's on TV...but I don't know that I view TV as a window to american society. I mean "real housewives"? Seriously?

Hartmut:
" I consider myself relatively cultured but even I lack a lot of knowledge of the classics that the generation of my parents would have taken for granted. Classical music is used to chase loitering youngsters away from shop entrances."

I think, as someone not trained in the humanities at all, that the constant loss of culture (the classics that fade with time) is itself an indicator for an active culture.

Can you imagine a world where old composers aren't supplanted by new ones and still consider it to have an active culture? Authors? Artists?

Note, I'm not saying Brahms was bad and has been surpassed, or that there is no worth in experiencing his music (I chose Brahms randomly).

Just saying there is a lot of value to contemporary culture as well. Just because someone isn't versed in classical literature that was a staple 20, 30, 50 years ago doesn't mean they lack culture.

In my opinion.

Hartmut: High Art seems to be something that the younger generation seems to show little interest in and will NOT develop it when getting older (as the older generations used to do).

It's been rare in history that "high art" was enjoyed and appreciated by the "masses". In fact that phenomenon goes against the definition of "high art", which assumes an elite. There is still an elite in the United States who appreciates "high art". Many people (such as myself) try to appreciate it and support it. Urban art museums are extremely well attended.

Sure, more popular is "popular" art and music. Wonder why that is.

That's not true of me, or of people I know.

That's great.

Some of these same people buy hand-crafted things, for the very reason that you, russell, often talk about (and romanticize)

You lost me at "romanticize".

the only people who have a lot of time to do those things are: 1) people who can afford to, or 2) people who are without a job and dirt poor.

OK, a couple of points here.

First, what you're saying here is that participating more actively in your own culture is something that has to be relegated to more or less a hobby. Which is kind of half-way to my own point.

Another thing I'd say is that people have time for lots of things. TV, the gym, surfing the web, Facebook. Where you choose to spend your time and attention is part of what constructs the culture you live in.

Look, a week from today is going to be one of the most significant days of the year. Why? Because everyone is going to go buy stuff, and that is going to make or break the year for a lot of the retail industry. The sales figures for the day will be a significant topic of conversation for weeks, as will the sales numbers for the overall holiday season.

The 21 programs with the largest viewing audiences in US history are all SuperBowls. Something like half the population of the country watches. A big feature of the SuperBowl is what new commercials are rolled out. Folks talk about it for weeks, the SuperBowl ads are iconic cultural artifacts.

Americans don't just buy stuff, they have elaborated an entire culture around buying stuff.

I honestly, russell, don't know where you're coming from that you think that most Americans have no sense of culture.

I'm not saying Americans have no sense of culture. I'm commenting on what that culture is, and in particular on how people participate in it.

I would *also* say that, following on Hartmut's comments re: the Grimms, that there are serious gaps in many if not most folks' knowledge of their own heritage.

if you don't understand that food is a giant cultural subject

I do understand that.

Look, for "consumer" in my comments upthread, I think you're reading "somebody who eats". That's not what I'm talking about. I'd think that would be obvious, perhaps it's not.

In any case, our experience, or perhaps our understanding of our experience, of living here in the US differs.

So be it.

Or maybe I'm just incredibly fortunate in the company I keep and this isn't your experience at all?

I would say that you and your friends are going a lot of good stuff. In terms of whether you're "culturally engaged" or not, I would say that you are.

I don't know that I view TV as a window to american society.

Not exclusively, no.

Can you imagine a world where old composers aren't supplanted by new ones and still consider it to have an active culture? Authors? Artists?

That's a reasonable point, but do you know many people who can name a contemporary composer / author / artist, or who have listened to / read / gone to see their work?

Not saying "high art" is the measure of "culture", just saying that your comment isn't making the point I think you're trying to make.

It's been rare in history that "high art" was enjoyed and appreciated by the "masses". In fact that phenomenon goes against the definition of "high art", which assumes an elite.

I'm not sure this is so. It may have been so before the artifacts of high art could be reproduced readily, but I think it is less so now.

Until recently, most people had heard and would recognize the more famous classical musical pieces, because they would have heard them on the radio if not in person. Record companies used to sell anthologies of classical "greatest hits" for the average American family to buy, like a musical encyclopedia.

Folks would have seen at least a print or reproduction of a good selection of the more famous art works.

I don't know if this is still so.

In 1957, Warner Brothers released "What's Opera, Doc?" which, in true demotic WB cartoon fashion, made fun of the pretensions of high art. What makes the whole thing work is the assumption that the average man on the street will recognize, frex, the "Ride of the Valkyrie".

If you sang "Ride of the Valkyrie" while wearing a costume involving a weird corset, long blond braids, and a viking helmet nowadays, for an audience of young people, would they get the joke?

russell, I have to tell you that when I was last visiting my family my young nieces and nephews didn't know who Groucho was. Kids these days!

First, what you're saying here is that participating more actively in your own culture is something that has to be relegated to more or less a hobby. Which is kind of half-way to my own point.

But, wait a minute, what I do is "a hobby," but what your mother did was "culture"? I go to work, and that's part of my culture too. Maybe she did too, and that was part of her culture too?

Look, a week from today is going to be one of the most significant days of the year. Why? Because everyone is going to go buy stuff, and that is going to make or break the year for a lot of the retail industry. The sales figures for the day will be a significant topic of conversation for weeks, as will the sales numbers for the overall holiday season.

That's funny. When I first started reading that paragraph, I thought you were talking about Thanksgiving, which is the biggest "cultural" holiday that my extended family enjoys together every year. There are loads of traditions associated with the holiday, including making stuff to eat, gathering with particular people, etc.

Sure, the next day is a big shopping day in the U.S., but that didn't even register with me (as, apparently, Thanksgiving didn't register much with you). To the extent that people do participate in "Black Friday", so what that it involves shopping for gifts for Christmas? It's not the decline of civilization IMO.

Look, for "consumer" in my comments upthread, I think you're reading "somebody who eats".

No, I didn't think that's what you meant - I understood you to mean "someone who shops." But the fact that you didn't seem to value the fact that many Americans' attitudes towards food, its preparation, its presentation, its quality, its diversity - all of that is a very significant and rich cultural aspect of our contemporary culture.

I would *also* say that, following on Hartmut's comments re: the Grimms, that there are serious gaps in many if not most folks' knowledge of their own heritage.

Perhaps many people have "gaps". I'm with thompson - there's not necessarily room for everyone to curate every aspect of their own "heritage." Participating in contemporary culture is already a time-consuming job, and can yield very meaningful results.

In any case, our experience, or perhaps our understanding of our experience, of living here in the US differs.

Very much so.

I prefer that piece to be accompanied by helicopters, myself.

Ride of the Valkyrie, that is. A couple snuck in while I was reading/typing. Whatever comic timing there might have been...is lost.

Until recently, most people had heard and would recognize the more famous classical musical pieces, because they would have heard them on the radio if not in person. Record companies used to sell anthologies of classical "greatest hits" for the average American family to buy, like a musical encyclopedia.

Until recently, there was no such thing as radio. Maybe one generation would have (all together, shared in common) heard classical music on the radio, because that was the only channel for awhile. Before that, classical music was for an elite who went to concerts, or could afford a piano and lessons.

Maybe in 19th and early 20th century Europe, most people took music lessons and learned classical music. I would argue that it was a very brief span of time that such was the case, if it ever really was. In the United States, most people learned folk music, religious hymns, etc., and if they played an instrument, it was toward the end of playing such music.

In the United States, most people learned folk music, religious hymns, etc., and if they played an instrument, it was toward the end of playing such music.

Which would have been far more culturally engaging than downloading MP3s.

Groucho, wasn't that Macbeth's brother-in-law?
(OK that's a tiny bit TOO geeky)

OK, here's a nice test for youngsters. Go through this virtual gallery* and tell how many of these you 'get'. Now let a common European (or an educated USian) above 50 years try the same. Compare the results.

*this is but a tiny selection of this group's work

Which would have been far more culturally engaging than downloading MP3s.

Wait a minute - more culturally engaging than downloading MP3s of Beethoven's 5th?

Certainly, if you're talking about the disco version.

sapient, if we go to that basic level, you could throw reading and writing in as relatively recent too. 18th century Prussia was revolutionary by making attending school compulsory and other Western countries followed significantly later. Today functional analphabetism is a growing problem. In Germany there are estimates that up to 15% of the citizenry lacks basic reading and writing competence (although they all went to school). My estimate is that in the US it would be even worse. The fact that these days a lot can be done without having those skills (visual and audio signals replacing written ones) is imo likely to worsen* that trend.

*my apology to language purists. While that word might have been correct in Shakespeare's time, these days it clearly counts as language abuse.;-)

Well, as russell once said (paraphrased of course), artists are going to do art. My rejoinder is people are going to do culture.

I find my own life very culturally rich, and I observe friends and family doing things that seem culturally meaningful. It's true that we don't all do exactly the same thing, but variations are meaningful too.

During Beethoven's lifetime it was not uncommon to put an ad into the local paper or pin it to some trees when musicians were needed to premiere some of his works. At least one of his symphonies got its first public performance with an orchestra consisting to a high degree of non-professionals. There might not have been a piano in every household but in most families, even poor ones, at least one person had reasonable skill on a musical instrument (little other wholesome entertainment being available). The main question was, whether they were also able to read a score. That tradition got destroyed first by the grammophone, then by radio. And it got noticed and lamented by contemporaries.

Certainly, if you're talking about the disco version.

My favorite poem.

when I was last visiting my family my young nieces and nephews didn't know who Groucho was.

Dude, that's criminal.

you didn't seem to value the fact that many Americans' attitudes towards food

What I didn't do is make a specific reply to your comment about food. The rest was your inference.

I prefer that piece to be accompanied by helicopters, myself.

I love the smell of napalm in the morning.

My rejoinder is people are going to do culture.

It's inescapable. It's what humans do.

I find my own life very culturally rich

That's great.

All of this has reminded me, for some reason, of the (perhaps apocryphal) story of Tabitha Soren asking "Who is the loneliest monk?"

The memory of which gave me a good laugh.

I think this particular train of derailed thought has consumed as many electrons as it probably deserves.

sapient, I don't want to sound overly confrontational, but your counter-argument to russell sounds more than a little bourgeois in character. The fact that a subset of the populace actively pursue cultural hobbies and the arts, or that they enjoy the vibrant "foodie" subculture, doesn't really speak to the cultural experiences of an awful lot of Americans. Commodified pop culture has replaced shared common culture for vast swathes of us, and we really don't get much of any exposure to other cultures - or even our older common culture. This hasn't been the case for me, but it has for most of my family and the people I grew up with. One can argue that this is natural and organic, and nothing more than culture evolving, but it's not the same; when shared culture is reduced to a stream of commercialized intellectual properties, there's less continuity from one generation to the next. And ultimate, culture is about continuity.

I think this particular train of derailed thought has consumed as many electrons as it probably deserves.

A few more, they are on sale.

At the risk of misstating, the sapient/thompson position is that people are doing lots of stuff, and they produce the artifacts, there are mp3 recordings of Beethoven, so why worry? Russell seems to be noting that when the reason for doing something changes, it really does change the activity. I'm partial to russell's take, though there are areas, like brewing beer, where things are just fermenting away. (ha ha) And there is certainly an argument to be made that internet has made a lot more info and resources available, so now, if I decide I want to brew beer, I don't have to try and source everything I need.

I remember, as a kid and you supported a football team, you'd get these kind of knock-offy t-shirts and hats, but now, you can get the actual jerseys. I also remember my mom was quite adept at making things, finding substitutes, that sort of thing. And I was (this, I really remember, that sort of childhood longing that never leaves you) as a kid never happy, cause those substitutes weren't 'the real thing'. So the seeds of decline were planted in me, as it were.

I suppose I come at this from a particular hobby horse, I have to deal with people (some of them actual linguists) who argue that we've got dictionaries and recordings so if some or most do disappear (as they are probably going to do) we don't really need to worry, we've got the means to analyze them. This valuing of the object rather than the context it is embedded seems to be the problem here, at least to me.

I think this particular train of derailed thought has consumed as many electrons as it probably deserves.

I don't think that this conversation is a derailment from our questions about "what is a meaningful education, and is it available to the poor?" In fact, a conversation about culture lies at the heart of things. "Culture" is the difference between Ugh's public and private school choices. The set of knowledge that we want people to share is the same thing as what we want our common culture to be, and "high culture" distinguishes the elite from the norm.

Nombrilisme Vide, you're not confrontational. I don't agree though that culture is necessarily about continuity, although culture based on history can be very meaningful. But in the end, it's about finding common ground with one's contemporaries. I'm not sure what your talking about when you mention that your family and old neighbors are culturally deprived. Why did they discard the culture of their past? Was it not meaningful to them? If it was worth passing on, who dropped the ball? I think that maybe some of what was our "older common culture" is a myth.

For example, classical music has never been the "common culture," in the U.S. Maybe for one generation, a lot of people listened to the top classical hits on the radio, and were familiar with them - I don't know. There were various types of folk music (some of which was archived by Alan Lomax). There was religious and other popular music. And various ethnic groups had traditional music that they brought with them. But all of that was constantly changing and evolving. Contemporary music is a further evolution. How much should we force people to engage in a culture that is apparently not meaningful to them?

I agree with Laura, that what we shouldn't tolerate is civic ignorance.

I believe that a core curriculum should be taught. Also, there is a lot of research showing that music education (and probably other challenging learning) is good for the brain. So I'm all for high teaching standards. I just don't know why we should wring our hands about people preferring some cultural activities over others. Enlightenment comes to people in different ways.

note, I thought that Russell's spam binned comment was new, not the one he posted earlier.

The set of knowledge that we want people to share is the same thing as what we want our common culture to be

is actually pretty much diametrically opposed to

I just don't know why we should wring our hands about people preferring some cultural activities over others.

I suppose you can invoke a common culture and then reject the examples that people offer up, but you really ought to define what you think is 'the set of knowledge we want people to share'.

I'd put Western Music in there, as I think Russell would. What would you have to replace it?

I think I understand Russell's point now. A nation of spectators who buy experiences rather than have them. And watch reality shows.

I'm not sure we're THAT bad.

Most of the people I know have some sort of creative or involving activity that they enjoy: cooking, making cards, crochet, playing an instrument or singing, playing a sport...

The only people I know who don't do something like that are some of my disabled clients. They watch a lot of TV.

Anecdotal, of course, based on my upper middle class semi-retired milieu.

But we are a consumer society, no doubt about that. And, in my opinion, the number of lives spent in quiet desperation is too high. Too many people have to work too many hours to get by. Exhaustion is part of our culture. And depression. And those folks who rush from low paying job to lowpaying job, always juggling bills and kids and work, well they get stuck with a culture of fast food and TV because they don't have the time or energy for anything else. That's my idea of hell, actually.

But I'm an artist and my heart would shrivel up and die if I couldn't be creative.

Nombrilisme Vide, you're not confrontational.

That line was, alas, a lingering remnant of an earlier time, when the post you responded to was still young and untested, and possessed a rawer, more vitriolic style. It shuffles on as a confusing artifact that makes little sense to those who never knew the context where it once dwelt.

Why did they discard the culture of their past? Was it not meaningful to them? If it was worth passing on, who dropped the ball? I think that maybe some of what was our "older common culture" is a myth.

Oh course some of it is. No question. But the fact that older traditions have been - and are being - discarded in favor of commercialized ones is not perforce a judgement on relative values. In many cases, it's simply easier and less time-consuming to discard the older traditions in favor of prepackaged commercial offerings... especially when the commodified culture requires no context beyond what it offers.

you really ought to define what you think is 'the set of knowledge we want people to share'.

I'd put Western Music in there, as I think Russell would. What would you have to replace it?

I am happy with a very traditional view about what a curriculum should look like, including western music. I would add that I would include mandatory musical instrument education, physical education and art. Not only that, but I'm a huge advocate for a liberal arts college education. So I'm good with all of it.

This is the catch: my background is European-American, and I come from a middle-class white family background, and was born in the '50's. These things have been important to me, and I share them with many people I know. What I've discovered is that people who don't come from my background don't necessarily share my views about what's important. Even some people who do share my background put a much greater emphasis on things like religious dogmatic piety, sports, or other things that I don't value much at all.

I wasn't the best student ever. This was partly laziness and lack of focus, but it was also an inquisitiveness about nonacademic things. School was cultural. Hanging out with friends, etc., was also cultural. I had some catching up to do in terms of formal learning, so I did that by reading. I went to law school. I practiced law, and learned through that discipline a huge amount of "culture".

It turns out that there's "culture" wherever you turn. Some of it requires discipline (and that kind of "culture" is extremely rewarding to me). Some of it requires human interaction, and that kind of culture is also sometimes difficult, and sometimes very rewarding. Making something that requires time, discipline and skill, is rewarding (and "cultural"). Making something that friends can enjoy is "cultural". Attending important social events is "cultural". Making Thanksgiving turkey is "cultural."

Someone who enjoys the company of friends, and listens to rap music, and knows how to use language and idioms that are quirky and specific to his or her social group, and is a pleasure and beloved to his or her peers - I just have trouble claiming cultural superiority to that person, even if he or she knows nothing about Julius Caesar, or Bach's Inventions, and doesn't really care about turkey.

At least in Italy the opera was what the daily soap is today at least for urban dwellers (the Vienna opera too had very cheap tickets for standing places, so even poor people could afford it now and then). And similarly most of it was crap, written in a month forgotten in a month. The inventor of the Grand Opera, Spontini, hack-wrote several dozen operas before 'The Jewess', of most not even the title has survived. Bohemia too had a very rich tradition of 'high' music produced and played by commoners. The land exported musicians because in-country one could not live of it alone (result of supply hugely exceeding demand). Classical music as purely elitist entertainment can be found in some countries but it is by no means universal (special case: Russia. There secular music both high and low was simply illegal* up to Peter the Great).

*not that it stopped people from singing but getting caught could become very painful.

Hartmut, regarding opera and soaps:

Something that comes up a lot when we're talking about the arts is that people have some kind of crazy belief that contemporary poetry (maybe literature, generally), and music sucks compared to the miracles of the past.

What they're not understanding is that we haven't weeded out the immortals yet (certainly not while the artists are alive!). I just feel like slapping them (like the old movies, when slapping was okay - oh, the nostalgia).

The question I always ask is this: how many of them have you read, before you gave up in disgust? Whose opinion are you trusting to sort out what to read?

Of course, when we're experiencing "culture" as it happens, it doesn't seem like "culture" as curated by our forebears.

But we are a consumer society, no doubt about that.

Aye. There's the rub. When relations are increasingly commodity relations, something gets lost. The world is coarsened and depersonalized. The shared sense of community is attenuated. I kinda' think that's what Russell was getting at, and if that guess is correct, I would pretty much agree...farmer's markets, organic co-ops, and local book clubs notwithstanding.

We are the richest nation in the world with astonishing productivity. So why do people work more hours now than ever before? Why is there no heightened sense of leisure and self awareness? Why is so much of the spectrum of human activity denigrated because it cannot be marketed and priced?

Either that, or Russell just had some bad weed while re-reading Marcuse.

But I sympathize in either case.

We are the richest nation in the world with astonishing productivity. So why do people work more hours now than ever before? Why is there no heightened sense of leisure and self awareness? Why is so much of the spectrum of human activity denigrated because it cannot be marketed and priced?

Either that, or Russell just had some bad weed while re-reading Marcuse.

I'll agree that these are problems with our society, and our economic system. But isn't blaming our "culture" essentially blaming the victim? I honestly think our "culture" is doing okay in spite of the sins of capitalism.

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