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Wednesday, January 17, 2007

More Michigan

Stanley Fish, in a Times Select article entitled Revising Affirmative Action, With Help From Kant gives the following interpretation of Kant's political theory, as applied to affirmative action:

Kant says that correct political thinking must begin by affirming two propositions: 1) Â?the freedom of every member of society as a human being,Â? and 2) Â?the equality of each with all the others as a subject.Â? This emphasis on freedom and equality has led some of my students to conclude that Kant would have been in favor of affirmative action because, they reasoned, it was the denial of freedom and equality to African Americans that produced the injustices affirmative action is intended to redress.

That, I tell my students, is the wrong answer, because it confuses and conflates two aspirations Kant was concerned to keep separate: the achieving of results that many would think good, and acting in conformity with the moral law. In some philosophies Â? utilitarianism in some of its versions would be an example Â? morality and the bringing about of a desired social outcome (a more equal distribution of wealth, proportionate representation of minorities in positions of influence and power) would be one and the same. But Kant is, at least philosophically, indifferent to outcomes, in part because, as he puts it, Â?men have different views on the empirical end of happinessÂ? Â? that is, different views about what society should look like and therefore different views about the policies that should be pursued.

A state dedicated to morality rather than to happiness will not take sides and choose one end before the others; rather it will protect the right of every man to choose the end he prefers, provided that he in turn accords the same right to his fellows. Â?Each may seek his happiness in whatever way he sees fit, so long as he does not infringe upon the freedom of others to pursue a similar end which can be reconciled with the freedom of others.Â? It is the abstract right rather than Â?the object in relation to whichÂ? it might be exercised, and the condition of freedom rather than any action freely performed, that Kant values. His interest is not in the particular life plan an autonomous citizen might wish to pursue, but in the ability of that citizen to pursue it without having the plan preferred by others imposed on him or realized at his expense.

Stanley Fish is a distinguished professor of law, has published ten books and has taught at some of the elite educational institutions in the country. I am going to accept that he understands Kant better than I do. Personally, I seem to recall Kant advocating a number of political mechanisms that are in stark contrast to the above view - the death penalty, for example - and justifying them with reference to a distinction between individual action and state or collective action. But let's assume that the above is a correct and consistent interpretation of Kant. It seems the problem that Fish ought to be concerned with isn't the use of affirmative action in admissions, it seems like the problem Fish ought to find principally unacceptable is that the University of Michigan exists at all. The taking of funds by the state from individuals is a clear transgression upon individual's use of those same funds for the realization of inchoate aspirations.

This is largely, however, what I believe to be a misapplication of moral philosophy. The common filter through which to view racial conflict is one closely akin to torts; if a white person harms a black person, the black person is entitled to remuneration of some sort, therefore, if a group of white people (eg. much of the country in pre-1970 America) harms a group of black people, that group is entitled to a remedy in the form of affirmative action. This is typically the form the dialogue has taken since affirmative action began, and it's useful as a model. The decision in Brown vs. Board of Education painted integration with this brush, and it makes racial equality a matter of justice rather than more squishy concepts like 'social good' or 'altriusim'.

The analogy is fatally inexact, however. In the case of single individuals (or even an insular and easily identifiable group), guilt can be precicely pinpointed and blame assigned. Affirmative action isn't that.

As I mentioned in my previous post, Affirmative Action is a good program because racial inequality is a huge problem in America. Apart from our historical difficulties with discrimination, the racial tension that is created by having a de facto underclass has real consequences. The riots in France, while unlikely in America, are a pretty cogent example of what happens to societies that have these sorts of fissures. Crime, political disenfranchisement (even self-perpetuating), and if nothing else, economic inefficiency are outgrowths of stratification, and they're a very real problem. As long as race inbalance exists, it's in the public interest to use public institutions (like universities) to attempt to rectify it.

Kant has nothing to do with this process. It's not a moral question, it's a practical one.

cranked out at 2:15 PM | |

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Michigan Bans Affirmative Action

In the recent November elections, beyond all the liberal grandstanding over the return of the Democrats to power, the state of Michigan banned affirmative action in all of its publcially-funded institutions.

This can, I suppose, be viewed as progress. It's certainly been recieved that way in conservative press - the triumph of civil rights over the soft bigotry of low expectations! The elimination of reverse racism! But let's be real. This has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with ephemeral rights analysis and a strong belief in the constitutional principle of race neutrality and everything to do with the subconscious bigorty and elitism of rich white suburbanites.

People have attempted, in advocacy of this amendment, to suggest that elite state institutions have an obligation to select only the best students, and those most qualified and able to master the difficult coursework that will be thrown at them. In the words of Thomas Lifson just prior to the vote,
Why on earth should admission to the most demanding and rigorous campuses be presumed to be a matter of distributional equity? It is a matter of who can understand, master, and use the education, not a matter of handing out benefits to aggreived constituencies.

Membership on the Berkeley football team is not regarded as a matter of distributional equity. Where is the state's large Asian American population when it comes to the Cal Bears, who are Rose Bowl hopefuls this year? Cal and UCLA are playing Saturday and it will be broadcast on ABC for the nation to see. Please keep a count of all the Asian American players you see on the field. It won't be too demanding. Asian Americans constitute almost half the students at the two highly competitive campuses — because of their hard work and intelligence, not because they were handed a boon by an all—caring goverment.

Disposing for a moment of the fact that the average person gains no particular long-term social or economic advantage as a result of playing football at the collegiate level, while a four-year degree is essentially a prerequisite for admission into the upper-strata of the country, both socially and politically; what makes people think that college admissions can actually evaluate students in such a fair way? Do people believe there's a magical algorithm for discerning which students will succeed and which will fail? The simple fact is, the exemplary students will make it in regardless of what programs are in place, and the dullards won't stand a chance, with or without racial consideration. The problem is, 80% of admissions candidates fall somewhere inbetween.

How do you even begin to compare? Michigan is one of the most racially segregated states in the country, with the African-American population residing mostly within the city-limits of Detroit. The average student who lives in Grosse Point has access to advanced placement classes, extracurriculars, the internet to research and two parents to help get them around - and is white. The average student who lives in Detroit has one parent, is likely on federal assistance of some sort, has far-below average healthcare, and is almost without question black. Is the former student 'more qualified' because she has a more impressive resume? Switch their positions, find out if the she still has time for the soccer team.

So why not income-based affirmative action? Because that method is, at best, imprecice and misguided, and more importantly, fails to take into account the pressing problem that racial segregation, whether it is economically coerced or legally mandated, is a social ill that plagues any society that wants to call itself free and liberal. All manner of idiotic explanation has been given as to why admissions boosts for traditionally subjegated minorities are bad. It has been said that it creates an atmosphere where the minority groups feel as if they are being condescended to, and where the accomplishments of members of those minority groups are tainted. As if they'd be better off working as a mechanic, without higher education of any sort.

Frankly, this isn't a problem of fairness in admissions. There is not now, nor has there ever been, fairness in admissions. It would just be a refreshing change if the unfairness were skewed towards a socially admirable goal rather than continuing to entrench a de facto aristocracy of a racially homogenous upper class.

What this is about isn't rights, and it's not about fairness. It's about the fact that the children of white suburbanites are being denied admission and that pisses the yuppies off. People will construct elaborate excuses as to why they believe what they do, but it always seems to be the thing that will benefit the person, doesn't it? People are anti-immigration because "they're taking our jobs," displaying a sense of nationalism and a need for the government to intervene on behalf of social goods. But they're anti-affirmative action because, in a collegiate setting, it's all about merit. The rich tend to be Republican because it means they pay fewer taxes, while the poor tend to be Democratic because it means there's higher redistribution.

Nobody would ever come out and say it, but the fact is, we're comfortable as a country believing generally in racial equality - but don't care if it ever actually happens, unless you happen to be a member of those minorities. But almost by definition, minorities rarely get their way unless they can convince enough people that they have a chance to become a part of that select few. It's pathetic that the Michigan voters decided to eliminate one of the only avenues to social mobility available to thousands of college-aged African-Americans in their state because they couldn't reconcile their feelings of racial identity with their liberal beliefs.

cranked out at 9:24 AM | |

Tuesday, January 09, 2007


Local Schools to Study Whether Math - Topics = Better Instruction via Phil

A couple thoughts on this:

1) It is absolutely infuriating when supposedly well-educated and informed journalists say things like this:
"Some scholars say the American approach to math instruction has allowed students to fall behind those in Singapore, Japan and a dozen other nations. "

This is a tired loquation, familiar to anyone who has ever read an article detailing literally any facet America's public education. It is a way for an author to add interest by inserting a "sky is falling" mentality into an otherwise innocuous article, which seems to be just about the only thing they teach in journalism schools any more. What they do not note, is that the comparison between the American education system and those of virtually any other country in the world are utterly inexact. Take, for example, the Office for Economic Cooperation and Development study. This study is typical of this category of investigations, and belies one of the basic issues with testing across cultures: namely, it can't really be done.

At the risk of sounding racist, the educational systems of many countries (especially Korea, Japan and China) tend to be much more tightly focused on operational math; that is, addition, subtraction, graph interpretation, and so on. Largely this tends to be a function of working within the confines of a country with a hypercompetitive higher-educational admission process. In the US, the difference between an A and a B can be the difference between MIT and Carnagie-Mellon; in many Asian countries, it can be the difference between getting into Nanjing University and not going to college. The difference is a mathematical culture that is fairly well built with an eye for admissions testing, which tends to fit the same mold as evaluatory testing.

Moreover, tests that want any modicum of comperability cannot test subject matter. Someone in 11th grade who has taken AP Calculus but not Geometry is going to come across on many exams as being worse at math than someone who has the reverse. The solution testmakers have found is to create a test that is solely "reasoning." This has two fairly immediate consequences: first, countries that do not have a democratically integrated education system have a massive advantage. Finland, who consistently ranks first in mathematics, doesn't have the "everyone goes to college" mentality of the US. Instead, they track into higher-education and vocational schooling. In China, those who are not going to go on to University commonly drop out to work. I am not saying those systems are worse than the US system - indeed, I think we would all be significantly better off just accepting that not everyone needs a four-year degree - but they do make a huge difference in testing.

Finally, studies consistently show a robust correlation between poverty and poor performance. This should be a suprise to absolutely nobody, and seems to be consistent without reference to school funding or overall institutional quality. (One of the findings of the above referenced study was that intra-school variation in the US is bigger than almost any other country). Yet the US has a Child poverty rate almost 7% higher than Canada, and 20% higher than Sweden. And considering the difference in quality and quantity of social programs (see: socialized healthcare) poverty in the US, in addition to being more prevailant, is also much more debilitating.

The basic result of these studies, in other words, seem to be: countries that have fewer poor kids taking the test tend to rank ahead of countries with more poor kids taking the test. You can eliminate poor kids from taking the test by tracking (removing the poor or underperforming ones early) or by tackling poverty head on, and making sure children are able to get an education because they are not systematically deprived of basic human rights. The US doesn't seem particularly interested in either of these, since preventing children from developing crippling illness by giving them health insurance is not democratic, and kicking them out of school is too obvious. But it does mean that focusing on curriculum and textbooks may never get to the real root of the problem.

2)This quote is also important:
"One group, led by mathematicians, has argued that children must learn a sequence of basic skills, including times tables and some memorization, if they are to have a fighting chance at college-level math study.

The other camp, led by math educators, has urged children to understand the theory behind math problems and to find solutions in their own way."

It's really unsuprising that the group that wants to teach basic skills is mathematicians, and the one that wants kids to understand "theory" and find solutions in their own way is educators.

Here's the thing: a first grader will never, ever, ever, unless they are an absolute prodigy, be able to understand the "theory" behind addition and subtraction. The actual theory behind addition tends to involve either a set-theoretical approach, invoking the cardinality of sets, or a number-theoretical approach, which tends to necessitate the introdution of the Dedekind-Peano axioms.

In fact, this is true for most math up until roughly the sophomore year of college. In order to understand the "theory" behind geometry, you need calculus. In order to understand the "theory" behind calculus, you need real analysis. These are not elementary school topics.

So what are educators really advocating? What they're going for is "New New Math" - like the disaster that is PSSM. It's a system of approaching mathematics as a social science, removing "right" and "wrong" answers in favor of elevating the explanation over the result. The problem is, this method is utterly bad. It is, for the less mathematical among you, like teaching upper-level linguistics to a kindergartener to help them understand sentences. The abstraction of these principles does not help anyone comprehend methodology, whereas familiarity with the methodology is instrumental in comprehending the abstractions.

The point I'm trying to make is: there are a lot of problems with education. But if the country is looking for real reforms, start by paying teachers more, and eliminating teachers unions. It's the sort of answer that is unappealing to people, precicely because it is obvious and tends to hurt the bottom line. But as someone with a ludicrous amount of math education, I face the choice in the coming year of working for $96,000 a year at Booz Allen, or $27,500 a year in DC public schools, where I will be able to teach Algebra I to 9th graders while someone with a degree in Communications struggles through higher-level classes because he has seniority. Guess which one I'm leaning towards.

The other point: stop letting people who don't know math or science create the curriculum for math and science. The things they teach in science classrooms these days are so utterly detached from anything meaningful, it's embarassing. And you don't need a study talking about Japan to prove it. There is far too much public interference in education, and that evolution/creationism is the hot topic is proof of that.

cranked out at 9:01 AM | |

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