book reviews, education, history, poetry

Book Reviews, July 2016

This post is a little late.  Sorry for the handful of you who actually read my reviews.  I read a lot in July, but only managed to finish two books.  Fortunately they were both quite good.  One is a fine collection of poems and the other a history of education in America.

  • New and Selected Poems (1992) by Mary Oliver is a solid selection of poems from the early career of a great poet.  I picked up this collection years ago because a friend of mine told me he really liked Oliver’s poetry, but it languished on my shelf.  More recently, someone shared “Wild Geese” on Facebook and I realized I had to read more of her poetry after coming across lines like “Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine. / Meanwhile the world goes on.”  I discovered many more poems I liked as well or better as that one, from an early poem about Theseus and the Minotaur to the many nature poems later.  Interestingly, this collection puts the poems in reverse chronological order, starting with the newest ones first and going backwards to the earliest poems.  I liked being able to track the growth and changes in a poet in a collection like this that spans more than 25 years.  There’s something similar in a collection like this to a greatest hits package for a musical artist versus going through a back catalog album by album.  Sometimes I prefer to experience an individual album (or poetry collection) and see it as a whole unit.  But sometimes an artist’s offerings lend themselves to selections plucked from the field and placed in their own vase to be admired as their own bouquet.  This set of wildflowers are beautiful.
  • The Teacher Wars: A History of America’s Most Embattled Profession by Dana Goldstein is a helpful and even-handed look at education in America.  By tracing the history of teaching, Goldstein is able to show how many ideas that seem new have been tried in the past as the country continually tries to improve our educational system.  For instance, ideas like merit pay and complex teacher evaluations have been used in the past without seeing much improvement.  Merit pay has been tried numerous times in the past 100 years, but the programs failed because of “excessive administrative paperwork, low funding, disagreement about how to judge good teaching, and strong opposition from teachers themselves” (174).  Merit pay programs were often implemented as a way to cut overall teacher pay.  Too often the programs pit teachers against each other, causing acrimony instead of harmony.  Teaching should be a collaborative job, where teachers mentor each other and share materials that work.  But most merit pay systems only reward a few top teachers, creating an incentive not to work together.  The chapters each focus on a different time period or type of reform from the first common schools to the beginning of teachers unions to our own day of high stakes testing and charter schools and programs like Teach for America.  Goldstein attempts to give the history straight, showing what teaching was like at the time and how it changed over time.  But she does interject with what the research shows, like when she points out in a discussion about teacher quality (a current hot topic in school reform discussions) that “the current achievement gap is driven much more by out-of-school factors than by in-school factors” and that teacher quality differences amount to about seven percent of the equation.  She withholds her own policy prescriptions for the end, where she recommends some commonsense ideas like focusing on principals as much as teachers because the work environment matters, or that testing is more useful as a diagnostic tool to let teachers know what they need to teach to students, not as a tool to evaluate the teachers themselves.  Above all, teachers should be part of the equation whenever it comes to reform projects because they are the ones doing the job.  Too often, outsiders with business experience or some philanthropist tries to impose strictures on teachers without their input.  This is a useful book for anyone who is invested in the public education of the children of our country, which is basically everyone.
history, politics

The Scopes trial and democracy

Back to Summer for the Gods – Edward Larson’s book on the Scopes trial.  A quick recap for those just joining us (Part 1 here): The state of Tennessee passed a law banning the teaching of evolution.  John Scopes agreed to be a test case for the ACLU, who hoped to show that the law was unconstitutional.  He taught evolution in his biology class and was prosecuted for breaking the law.  William Jennings Bryan, himself a leading proponent of anti-evolutionism, offered his services to the prosecution.  Clarence Darrow, the famous defense attorney, attached himself to the defense team for Scopes.

One of the key disagreements at work in the Scopes case was not science versus religion, but rather differing political philosophies.  The prosecution argued that the law banning the teaching of evolution expressed the will of the people; Scopes broke the law when he taught evolution.  Open and shut case.  Book ‘im.  The defense countered that sometimes the will of the majority tramples on the rights of the individual.  In this case, Scopes was denied the academic freedom to teach the generally accepted view of science.  In other words, let the experts teach their subject.

William Jennings Bryan embodied the majoritarian argument of the prosecution.  Majoritarianism had been his political philosophy his entire life.  He was a populist and reformer.  According to Larson, “Reform took two forms for Bryan: personal reform through individual religious faith and public reform through majoritarian governmental action” (37).  It was an interesting paradox—he combined “left wing politics with right wing religion” (97).  It’s hard to imagine such a politician today.  He rose to fame at the 1896 Democratic convention, when, as a congressmen, he bucked the party establishment and the incumbent president Grover Cleveland by trying to win the nomination.  Bryan delivered his “Cross of Gold” speech, a populist plea to ease the debt and credit burden on the farmers by switching from the gold standard to a currency backed by silver.  The speech won over the audience, and he secured the nomination.

Though Bryan did become the party’s nominee for president, he lost the election.  He ended up becoming the Democratic nominee twice more, but he never became president (again, impossible to imagine either modern political party nominating the same candidate three times for President).  After losing the nomination to Woodrow Wilson in 1912, he served as Secretary of State in Wilson’s cabinet, but resigned in protest when Wilson wanted to enter World War I.  Though out of office, he continued working towards reform.  He gave hundreds of speeches and argued for the passage of several constitutional amendments:

  • direct election of senators—previously, senators were chosen by the state legislature; by electing senators directly, voters had more say in who represented them, making this a majoritarian reform.
  • Prohibition—this amendment made the possession and sale of alcohol illegal in an attempt to reform social ills.
  • women’s vote—thus giving the right to vote to half of the population of voting age; clearly the most majoritarian reform possible at the time.

The Scopes case combined his views of majoritarianism with his personal faith.  The vast majority of Tennessee voters didn’t believe in evolution, so a law banning the teaching of evolution expressed the will of the majority.  It was his argument that the people who paid for the education of children should decide what they are taught.

Majoritarianism sounds like democracy in pure form, but it runs into an obvious problem when the will of the majority is immoral (slavery comes to mind as an easy example).  I think another obvious problem is if the majority of people are ignorant.  It’s vitally important to have an informed electorate.  It’s no surprise that there are fights about curriculum: whoever controls public education wields great power.  In my own life, I feel that my history education, much like my science education, was woefully inadequate in high school.  I want to be an informed voter.  It’s one of the reasons I have been reading a lot more American history lately.

The United States is not majoritarian (at least in most aspects, referenda and other state and local issues are sometimes put directly to the voter); rather, America is a representative democracy—we elect others to be our proxy, hoping they are experts in areas we don’t have the time or inclination to know enough about.  When we do have strong opinions, we let our representative know how we feel, either beforehand by calling or writing our members of Congress (or state legislators, or city councilors), or afterwards at the ballot box.

I’m rather torn about majoritarianism.  On the one hand, I want to affirm democracy.  I want everybody to have a voice in how they are governed.  But as oft-quoted Winston Churchill affirmed, “It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”  The majority can get it wrong.  And that’s not to mention all the ways that democracy can be abused (stolen elections, suppressed votes, beholden politicians to money, etc.).   In this specific case of anti-evolution laws, I would side with the scientists (who I would consider the experts) over the will of the majority.  Does this make me anti-democratic?  Perhaps.  But this is why education is so important.  If one disagrees with the majority, it’s then up to the minority to educate and persuade in order to change the will of the majority.

As a side note on education, high school curriculums can have a profound effect on later views of biology.  A recent study shows that college students are more likely to accept creationism if it was taught in high school (even if it was presented along with evolution).  Another study shows that high school biology teachers are often reluctant to teach evolution.  It’s no wonder that a third of U.S. adults do not accept evolution.  But acceptance of evolution is also a matter of who we consider the experts on the matter and how we decide who the experts are.  When I was a young earth creationist, I had a group of experts I trusted, including teachers and creationist authors.  But now that I accept evolution, my group of trusted experts has shifted accordingly. /end side note

I’d love to hear what others think about majoritarianism as a political philosophy.  Feel free to bring up other issues besides the teaching of evolution that involve majoritarianism.