Monday, September 11, 2006

Bush Plays Dominos

President Bush spoke from the Oval Office tonight on the fifth anniversary of the attacks of 9/11/01. Here is part of a recap from the New York Times:

If we do not defeat these enemies now,” Mr. Bush said, “we will leave our children to face a Middle East overrun by terrorist states and radical dictators armed with nuclear weapons.”

The address capped a week of speeches in which Mr. Bush tried to lay out his best case for the war in Iraq by defining it as a crucial front in the war on terror, while portraying the broader struggle as a natural successor to World War II and the Cold War in defining the place of the United States in the world.

Even by the standards of his latest round of speeches, Mr. Bush’s language was particularly forceful, even ominous, with warnings of a radical Islamic network that was “determined to bring death and suffering to our homes.”

Bush wants to play dominos, just like one of our first cold-war Presidents, Eisenhower, with just about the same logic—see if you can pick out the inconsistencies, or how history went vs. how our leaders told us how it would go:

First of all, you have the specific value of a locality in its production
of materials that the world needs.

Then you have the possibility that many human beings pass under a dictatorship that is inimical to the free world. Finally, you have broader considerations that might follow what you would call the "falling domino" principle. You have a row of dominoes set up, you knock over the first one, and what will happen to the last one is the certainty that it will go over very quickly. So you could have a beginning of a disintegration that would have the most profound influences.

Now, with respect to the first one, two of the items from this particular area that the world uses are tin and tungsten. They are very important. There are others, of course, the rubber plantations and so on.

Then with respect to more people passing under this domination, Asia, after all, has already lost some 450 million of its peoples to the Communist dictatorship, and we simply can't afford greater losses.

But when we come to the possible sequence of events, the loss of Indochina, of Burma, of Thailand, of the Peninsula, and Indonesia following, now you begin to talk about areas that not only multiply the disadvantages that you would suffer through loss of materials, sources of materials, but now you are talking really about millions and millions and millions of people.

Finally, the geographical position achieved thereby does many things. It turns the so-called island defensive chain of Japan, Formosa, of the Philippines and to the southward; it moves in to threaten Australia and New Zealand.

It takes away, in its economic aspects, that region that Japan must have as a trading area or Japan, in turn, will have only one place in the world to go -- that is, toward the Communist areas in order to live.

So, the possible consequences of the loss are just incalculable to the free world. --News Conference of April 7, 1954

So the choice here is, give up tin and tungsten, or kiss Australia goodbye?

After 50 years, in a time of crisis, we the people are being fed the same theory -- dominos falling -- the name of which we had to learn in high school 40 years ago. It was a mistake then, a game of smoke and mirrors to lull the citizens into falling lockstep in line behind the hairbrained leadership for the sake of the powerful interests--whoever tin and tungsten was benefitting at that time.

I truly trust our troops in Iraq are kept safe, until they get to come home, and soon! The oil windfall never panned out anyway, and the manpower could come in handy to overcome the terrorist cells in the US, not to mention in all the other countries the world over. And who plays dominos anymore?

Sunday, September 10, 2006

9/11/01: Five Years Later We’re Worse Off

In the “you learn something new every day” category, I got a week’s worth of lessons in this morning’s newspaper. For one thing, I thought terrorists who kill innocent people are basically nuts looking for attention. The truth is nowhere near that simple. Another assumption was that Bush’s policies have put American lives increasingly in danger, but I was unaware of the possibility of a consensus of experts in agreement about this.

On the terrorists as nuts scenario: Rosa Brooks, Los Angeles Times columnist, reviews three new books on terrorism. One, What Terrorists Want, by Louise Richardson, has a nice explanation of the terrorist mentality and why the knowledge of that mentality is important:

Drawing on interviews and primary source materials from dozens of such movements, Richardson reminds us that despite the awfulness of their acts, most terrorists are neither "insane" nor even unusually cruel. On the contrary, their acts are rationally calculated, and most terrorists believe themselves to be altruistic and noble, Davids fighting Goliaths.

This is a simple insight with profound implications for counter-terrorism policy. The rhetoric of "evil" prevents us from understanding how terrorists think and alienates those who may be torn between sympathy for the political aims of such movements and
disapproval of terrorism as a tactic. And these are precisely the people Richardson says we can least afford to alienate. Although terrorist movements thrive when they are based in what she calls "complicit communities," they fizzle out when they lose community support. Thus, understanding the grievances of those drawn to terrorism is crucial to designing effective policies to halt its spread.

By refusing to consider that terrorists may have any legitimate grievances, the Bush administration has radicalized moderates throughout the Islamic world and has wasted opportunities to deprive terrorists of the community support so critical to their survival. From the war in Iraq to the abuse of detainees, U.S. anti-terror tactics have backfired, driving more and more recruits into the arms of Al Qaeda.

Heinous terrorist acts of any kind are indefensible. With that in mind, it is difficult to reconcile willful ignorance of terorist mindset when some heroes of the most vocal anti-terrorists in the US fit that category--American Revolutionary War heroes who were snipers and indescriminate bombers; Jewish terrorists who bombed the King David Hotel in 1946, an act which paved the way toward UN acceptance of Israeli statehood. The question is a lot more complicated and important than just telling the lowest common denominator--American citizens--we have to protect against those "evil folks."

I knew calling terrorists “evildoers” was bizarre (what isn’t bizarre in the ignorant and muddled chatter of the inarticulate and decidedly arrogant POTUS?) – now I know that the use of simplistic terms is anti-productive.
On the front page of the Times was the glaring day-before-the 9/11 anniversary headline:

Is the U.S. Winning This War?

WASHINGTON — Five years after Sept. 11, is the United States winning the war against Al Qaeda? President Bush says yes, but most experts — including many inside the U.S. government — say no.
The article enumerates reasons for its point:

…The war in Iraq has become a training ground for Islamic extremists from Saudi Arabia and other countries, and some have returned home with expertise in urban warfare and explosives.

…Wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Lebanon have damaged the image of the U.S. in much of the Muslim world and made it easier for terrorist organizations to win recruits.
Beyond the misguided Bush/Cheney priorities of spreading forces too thin in the wrong places -- the lack of focus on the enormous and growing health care coverage fiasco; not developing an alternative-energy source plan — all of the last six-year’s poor leadership is setting back the potential for which Americans are famous: innovative solutions to problems. And the set-backs create new obstacles, bureaucratic and financial, that make taking the next step forward in progress more like digging out of a muddy hole.

As for the 9/11 five-year anniversary: next time the republicans pat themselves on their backs for keeping the US homeland from suffering a terrorist attack in the last five years, think of the co-chairman of the 9/11 Commission report:

"Why have we not suffered [another] attack?" asked Lee H. Hamilton, co-chairman of the Sept. 11 commission, which exhaustively studied the 2001 attacks. "The honest answer is: We don't know. We simply don't know. Because we don't know the minds of the terrorists."--Los Angeles Times, 9/10/06

It’s time for a fresh group of people to be in charge, with better expertise and more open minds, who are willing to shelve the arrogance of power and roll up their sleeves, to find out what it really takes to improve lives. And that includes the lives of everyone on earth, not just the ones living in America.

The additional attention and money for nation-building and public relations is increasingly seen as a key to winning the war against Al Qaeda."It's not so much a question [of] whether you're able to …capture or kill or otherwise drive off" terrorists, said Cambone, the Pentagon intelligence chief. "That we know we can do. It's whether the confidence of those who stand in opposition [to terrorism] is going up … and that of the terrorists is going down.

"Then you're succeeding," he said. "And then the issue isn't how many successive terrorist cells you've undone. They will disband."—Los Angeles Times, 9/10/06

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Menace to our Children: School

As I watched our 4th grader enter the classroom for her first day of school, I was overwhelmed by the regimentation of these sweet little children. Thirty five kids with backpacks in tow, feeling the first separation after the summer from anxious parents standing by, marched into the building in groups of ten at a time. Their teacher, a kind, dedicated multi-decade veteran of elementary school habit, at one point in the “ceremony” stomped over to a group of three dressed-for-jogging young moms to reprimand them for talking so loudly that the children couldn’t hear the teacher’s directions. I like a take-charge attitude, but I still couldn’t get the idea that I had recently read about, out of my mind, that this scenario seemed more like prisoners being led to their cells then it did of happy enthusiastic children entering a “palace” of learning.

John Taylor Gatto is a former New York State and New York City Teacher of the Year and the author of The Underground History of American Education. In a short article, “AGAINST SCHOOL: How public education cripples our kids, and why” he reviews the history of the present US public school system, its derivation from the 19th century militaristic Prussian background, and his conclusion of how it does not serve our children.

Gatto quotes the famous writer H. L. Mencken:

H. L. Mencken, who wrote in The American Mercury for April 1924 that the aim of public education is not
to fill the young of the species with knowledge and awaken their intelligence. ... Nothing could be further from the truth. The aim ... is simply to reduce as many individuals as possible to the same safe level, to breed and train a standardized citizenry, to put down dissent and originality. That is its aim in the United States... and that is its aim everywhere else.

Gatto goes on to show how the elite powers-that-be historically had a hand in creating the US school system and curriculum, and that this provides a class of “servant” individuals which is perfect for the purpose of catering to the small ultra-upper class.

Whether or not one wants to subscribe to this radical opinion, the truth is that there are many elements wrong with the basic nature of compulsory education, and there is a lot of advocacy in the air for change. Gatto’s explanation of how the “institution” of public school was developed is helpful if one ponders how many other ways it could be set up.

Consider the following aspects of school that we take for granted—that children go to school every weekday, with a few minor breaks, for ten months a year and have two months off in the summer; that they go to school at ridiculously odd hours, locally from 7:45 am to 2 pm (I went to school 9 – 3 in the late 1950‘s); that children are expected to begin reading in Kindergarten, that they have homework every night, that they are continually tested to determine if they are keeping up to a certain state-prescribed level of maintenance; and finally, that all children are expected to become experts in all subjects, including advanced math and algebra--disciplines they will never use in most cases once they have left high school. Yet in reality people specialize in certain areas in their employment—no one is an expert on everything—neither are children, yet they are taught that way.

One new book, The Case Against Homework: How Homework Is Hurting Our Children and What We Can Do About It by Sara Bennett, Nancy Kalish, specifically states that

...there is almost no evidence that homework helps elementary school students achieve academic success and little evidence that it helps older students. Yet the nightly burden is taking a serious toll on America’s families. It robs children of the sleep, play, and exercise time they need for proper physical, emotional, and neurological development. And it is a hidden cause of the childhood obesity epidemic, creating a nation of “homework potatoes.”

I didn’t like school when I went through it 40 years ago. I was bored most of the time, except when I was given an assignment to do an independent “project” about a subject of my choice. I never had homework until the 7th grade—jr. high school—and then it was never-ending. I was under the certain perception that I was inadequate in my performance, and as a person. I developed huge insecurities, despite the fact that I had an above average I.Q., was always near the top of my class, and had a great talent for playing the piano. What I did was never enough, and my teachers were always insistent on telling me so.

The fault lies in the system itself, not in the teachers, some of whom are dedicated beyond excellence, nor in the parents, nor in the students themselves. The constant testing and subsequent fault-finding in each individual child (unless you get 100% or A+, you did something wrong) makes most of them question their capabilities, and no two children at any given age are going to have the same abilities, so most US school children wind up developing insecurities which take years to overcome.

I can’t believe my fellow parents standing next to me watching our children enter the 4th grade classroom want the devastating outcome of their education that I just described. What was good enough for me is not good enough for my children. I wonder how many other parents feel that way.

It is proven among animals, and that includes human beings, that positive reinforcement will always produce much better and more thorough results than negative reinforcement. When my wife volunteers in the class and tells the children how great they are doing on an art project, they always respond positively, even the ones who have Attention Deficit Disorder, or who are unruly or rebellious, and they all love to have her to come to the class. Some of the teachers of our children have that knack as well, but it is not what they are taught—they’re instructed on curriculum and goals, not human nature.

Roger Shank, who I’ve quoted before, is an authority on learning. He is a psychologist and computer scientist and author of dozens of books on the subject of how people learn. Here is a sample of his expert opinion on the US school system:

After a natural disaster, the newscasters eventually excitedly announce that school is finally open so no matter what else is terrible where they live, the kids are going to school. I always feel sorry for the poor kids.

My... idea is one that most people immediately reject without giving it serious thought: school is bad for kids — it makes them unhappy and as tests show — they don't learn much. When you listen to children talk about school you easily discover what they are thinking about in school: who likes them, who is being mean to them, how to improve their social ranking, how to get the teacher to treat them well and give them good grades.

Schools are structured today in much the same way as they have been for hundreds of years. And for hundreds of years philosophers and others have pointed out that school is reallya bad idea:

We are shut up in schools and college recitation rooms for ten or
fifteen years, and come out at last with a belly full of words and do not know a thing. — Ralph Waldo Emerson

Education is an admirable thing, but it is well to remember from time to time that nothing that is worth knowing can be taught.—Oscar Wilde

Schools should simply cease to exist as we know them. The Government needs to get out of the education business and stop thinking it knows what children should know and then testing them constantly to see if they regurgitate whatever they have just been spoon fed.

And from Gatto’s article, his conclusion:

First, though, we must wake up to what our schools really are: laboratories of experimentation on young minds, drill centers for the habits and attitudes that corporate society demands. Mandatory education serves children only incidentally; its real purpose is to turn them into servants.

There is a solution, ultimately, to this amazing quandary of such a broken institution as how we educate our next generation. The answer is not unlike the way to correct the broken health-care system, or our misdirected foreign policy: we the people have to make known our concerns, by voicing opinions like this blog, by writing our elected representatives from the national level down to the city council, and by voting for those who want to make changes. And the changes require experts who are willing to stand up to the crowd that utters the universally unproductive mantra, “We’ve always done it this way.” “This way” isn’t working in the schools, and never did. People are not indigenously lazy enough not to be able to make changes. People just need to know there is a better way. I know there is.

I’ll be happy to sign off on any homework my children do not want to finish any day of the week. That’s a start—after all, this is just the first day of school.