kitchen table math, the sequel: 10/6/13 - 10/13/13

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Have I mentioned I don't like policy elites?

I opened up my NY Times app the other morning to discover this opinion from Richard V. Reeves, fellow in Economic Studies and policy director for the Center on Children and Families at Brookings:

"Let" affluent children fail is a thinkable public policy goal?

At Brookings?

The logic shoots off in all kinds of horrifying directions. E.g.: granting for the sake of argument that letting affluent children fail is a good thing, wouldn't giving them a little push off the cliff be even better?

(And how much should we pay suburban teachers for that service?)


I haven't been able to bring myself to read the column, especially after spotting this line:

"It is a stubborn mathematical fact that the top fifth of the income distribution can accommodate only 20 percent of the population."

Twenty percent is 20%, so the "bottom" 80%, a supermajority of the population, is forevermore locked into the bottom 80% unless we "let" affluent children "fail."

By that reasoning, whenever a child grows up in the top 20% and then, as an adult, descends to the top 21%, that child has "failed."

I skimmed long enough to spot the term "opportunity hoarding" and to discover that it originates with Charles Tilly, with whom I think Ed and I had dinner in Los Angeles years ago. I remember liking Professor Tilly immensely, assuming our dinner companion was in fact Charles Tilly; Ed doesn't remember. On the other hand, Ed did know Tilly, so I think it was Tilly.

Anyway, on the strength of one nonverifiable memory of a fabulous evening with Charles Tilly, I have decided that if I want to know more about opportunity hoarding, and I may want to know more about opportunity hoarding, I will go directly to the source and bypass Brookings.

In the meantime, I am now sufficiently well-versed in macroeconomics to know that the answer both to twenty percent being twenty percent and opportunity hoarding is a roaring economy and a weaker dollar.

Today's factoid: our strong-dollar policy apparently originated with Robert Rubin.

Another member of the policy elite.

Information isn't knowledge

re: Ignorance is Blitz: Mangled Moments of History From Actual College Students, Education World reports:
[Henriksson] hastens to add, however, that the book is not a criticism of teachers. Society's interest in what is current tends to eclipse attempts to focus on history. "We are bombarded with an array of material, and it is hard for kids to sort out what's important and what's not. We are losing our common body of knowledge. Teachers are battling uphill against an information revolution that devalues the past."

Still, Henriksson, who teaches a world history survey course taken mostly by college freshmen, points out that many students lack the most basic historical and geographical background. At the beginning of a recent term, he says, he distributed a series of basic history and geography questions to 80 of his students. The majority did not know that Dublin is in Ireland. "Either they never absorbed what they were taught, or they were never exposed to it," Henriksson said.

Some students confuse periods of history in their essays, Henriksson notes, citing the following example from the book: "Wars fought in the 1950s and after include the Crimean War, Vietnam, and the Six-Minute War. President Eisenhower resorted to the bully pool pit. John F. Kennedy worked closely with the Russians to solve the Canadian Missile Crisis."

Some students are simply confused, however, including the one who claimed, "Judyism had one big God, named 'Yahoo.'"

Based on his own experience, Henriksson says, the following general understandings represent the basic accurate historical knowledge one can assume of U.S. college students:
  • At some point "in the distant past," the United States fought a war of independence against a major European or Asian power.
  • George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, John F. Kennedy, and Richard Nixon were presidents of the United States. Washington was the first president and Lincoln was in office a long time ago.
  • The United States still suffers from the legacy of slavery, whenever that occurred.
  • The Civil War, which took place sometime between 1750 and 1930, had something to do with slavery.
  • Adolf Hitler, "a foreigner of some kind," was a bad person.
  • There was at least one world war but not more than three.
On the subject of common knowledge, I'm pretty sure I have only one student who knew what an adjective was when the semester began.