Monday, May 24, 2010

Texas Curriculum Wars

As a "social studies" teacher (I abhor that phrase--I teach HISTORY), I suppose it would be a good idea for me to weigh in on the business in Texas involving the US History curriculum. For those who haven't been following the story, the Texas state school board is about two-to-one Republican over Democrat, and they have voted to change the standards that set curriculum for public schools. This is especially important because the sheer size of Texas' student body means that major textbook publishers tend to tailor their basic texts to Texas standards, so their decisions can bleed over into other states' curricula. The big"outrage" is that the board is trying to fill young students' heads with partisan conservative propaganda, or so all the mainstream media says.

A couple of general thoughts first: History textbooks are generally awful.* Even the best of them. They tell a story a mile wide and an inch deep, and are usually horribly written. Secondly, almost all history textbooks and history standards are written by history professors. And history professors are, pretty uniformly, liberal. There may not be an evil conspiracy to fill kids' heads with progressive claptrap, but there is an awful lot of groupthink, whether intentional or not. This means that, in general, any positive mention of the conservative point of view is going to run counter to the "consensus" of professional historians. Imagine if 80-90% of history profs were members of the Sons of Confederate Veterans. Even though their cause may have long been lost, it would still be hard to get a fair hearing for even an honest appraisal of the proposition that maybe the Union was right. Finally, the mainstream media is at least as liberal as the history professorate. So when they tell the story of this grevious evil being perpetrated by historical heretics, they are not exactly being objective observers and reporters of fact.

That brings me to these standards. Here's a link to a blog I read in which a relatively moderate Wisconsin law professor (she voted for Obama) takes the media to task for mis-stating the so-called conservative bias in the new standards (her post also links back to the actual text of the standards, which the media has not provided). The funny thing to me is that all of these horrible, outrageous offenses against sound scholarship look almost exactly like what I teach in my US history class! I call it teaching kids both sides of the story, and teaching them HOW to think instead of WHAT to think. And it runs both ways. I teach my kids that Joe McCarthy's tactics were terrible, and also that Alger Hiss really was a spy. Those two propositions are not contradictory! I also teach them that both the people who excuse McCarthyism because of their own anti-communism and those who excuse Hiss because of their anti-McCarthyism are guilty of the same error, and that this guilt, in both cases, is founded in the best of intentions. I tell them why conservatives love Reagan, and why liberals don't. And I tell them the reverse about FDR. I give the very best defenses I can for both Nixon and Carter (and believe me, that's hard to do). I tell them how both Keynsianism and Supply-Side economics work in theory, and that neither model is perfect in practice. And over and over and over again I tell them that smart, educated, patriotic people can look at the same objective facts and draw different political and philosophical conclusions. Isn't that what we want for our kids?

Despite all the sound and fury, in the end this isn't going to matter much. Most of the controversy involves the teaching of modern ideas (like the importance of Barry Goldwater to the conservative movement). The vast majority of 11th grade US History classes are going to run out of steam somewhere in the late 1950s, with everything after that jammed into a single wrap-up lesson before the final exam (which will likely be 100 multiple-choice questions on a bubble-test machine base almost entirely off of the bold-print terms from the terrible textbook). I have a full year to teach just 1865 to the present, and I still have to cut corners everywhere to get it all done.

*NOTE--There are several egregious examples of "standard" textbooks which drive me nuts. The American Pageant is used by almost every kid in AP US History in the country. In my opinion, every smart kid who gets force-fed Pageant for a year ought to be inncoulated by giving them a copy of Paul Johnson's A History of the American People for graduation. What I would really love is to see kids read Bill Bennett's America: The Last Best Hope. That will never happen, because as a Reaganite (Secretary of Education under Reagan, back from the days when "A Nation At Risk" came out and pointed out that our public schools already stank almost 30 years ago), he is seen as a "conservative" historian. Which is laughable--if kids read Bennett, they'll be taught that FDR was a great president, that Dr. King was a hero, and that the United States was actually on the right side of history in the Revolution, the Civil War, and WWII. If believing that makes you a bad historian, well, I'm guilty.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Hypocrisy, Taking the Cash, and Confirmation Hearings

A story from a long time ago: the first year I taught full-time for real pay (not being a TA in grad school, etc.) was also the year my oldest son was born. My family bought our first house and our first minivan. We were as flush with cash as we have ever been, before or since (even though we make more than double what we did back then, kids are expensive). Since school starts in late August, I pretty much only got paid for 4 months in the 1994 calendar year. When tax time came, we came in below the poverty line, and qualified for the earned income child credit (and it was a decent-sized check, about $2000). Now, I'm conservative. I don't much care for the credit in principle. I really hate welfare fraud. And I cashed the check without hesitation. We didn't lie or cheat in any way, and if those were the rules, I sure as heck wasn't going to turn down the money.

Not long after, we had a statewide referendum on the lottery. I voted against it. I hate the lottery--it's a voluntary tax on those folks who can't do math, and takes money from the poor and uneducated to give to middle-class families so they can send their kids to colleges they would have attended anyway (where they, too, will become too educated to play the lottery). But in a couple of years, when my oldest goes off to college, I'll gladly take the lottery-funded scholarships.

Let's apply that to the upcoming confirmation hearings for soon-to-be Justice Kagan. Should republicans vote to confirm her? I'd love to say yes. I honestly believe that when a properly-elected president nominates a qualified person to the court, the senate ought to confirm. Scalia and Ginburg both got over 95 votes for confirmation. However, those are not the rules anymore. Bork got borked. Thomas got "a high-tech lynching." Then-senator Obama voted to filibuster Alito, and against confirming Chief Justice Roberts (both of whom are, in objective and non-ideological terms, many times more qualified than Kagan). If both sides would go back to the Scalia standard, I'd be all in favor of it. But there is nothing heroic about sticking to the Marquess of Queensbury Rules if your opponent is employing mixed martial arts.

What do you think? Am I a hypocrite, or a realist?

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Woodrow Wilson and Kobe Bryant

Apparently, Glenn Beck (who I don't watch) has a serious dislike of Woodrow Wilson, possibly informed by Jonah Goldberg's book, Liberal Fascism, which I have written about before. There are little pockets of discussion of Wilson all over the internet. (What? You haven't read them? You mean not everybody reads early 20th-century political theory for fun? Here's one from this week, just as a taste.)

It just so happens that I just finished teaching about Wilson this week. And I'm not a big fan, either. There are lots of reasons--Wilson was a racist, I think his vaunted "idealism" was rooted in a terribly naive worldview which at least partially contributed to the causes of WWII, and his espionage and sedition acts of 1918 (among other things) were, in my opinion, an example of one of the times when we as Americans did not live up to our stated principles. I could go on and on about these and other evils, real and imagined, but that's not the point.

The real reason I don't like Wilson is that I think he's overrated. If he were a bad guy and everyone agreed about it, I'd be fine with that. Or if my opinion of him were lower than most people's, but no one sang his praises, he wouldn't cross my radar screen. But what gets me is that many, many historians rank him among the best presidents. There was a great poll done by the Wall Street Journal in 2005 that ranked all the presidents from G.W. to G.W. (Washington to Bush). The thing I like about this particular poll is that they tried to balance liberals vs. conservatives, so in theory the ideology should balance out (unlike, say, the famous rankings done by the Schlessingers, which could be translated as "liberals good, conservatives bad"). I actually use that poll in my history class. But even on it, Wilson gets the #11 ranking of all time. (As an aside, you can't look at the ranking of George W. Bush with any confidence, as the poll was taken in 2005, immediately after his reelection and before the slide he took starting in 2006.)

Anyway, I understand why he gets the "near-great" designation. He was the first Democrat to win consecutive terms since Andrew Jackson. He is the guy who brought "progressivism" to the Democrats (where it would develop into modern liberalism). And you always get bonus points for winning a war, in his case WWI. Moreover, I never try to judge a president by whether or not I agree with his agenda (or else you get the Schlessinger problem). Even a liberal can respect Reagan's success, and even a conservative can respect FDR's. (And incidentally, I'm perfectly fine with FDR outranking Reagan--the 1930s depression was worse than the 1970s malaise, WWII was worse than the Cold War, and 4 landslides trump 2.) But I just happen to think that those criteria for which Wilson gets so much credit are mis-used. He only won his first term in 1912 because of the Taft vs. Teddy Roosevelt split. In neither of his two electoral college victories did he win over half of the popular vote (incidentally, the same was true of Bill Clinton, but that's just interesting trivia). And I firmly believe that although Wilson "won" the great war, he lost the peace. Moreover, I would say that it was his own ego that prevented the US ratification of thee Treaty of Versailles, and set the stage for WWII.

Anyway, historians can argue about that, and they do. But what amuses me is that I feel the exact same way about Kobe Bryant. I'm not a Kobe fan. Yes, he scores a ton of points, and yes, he has won several championships. But the main reason I don't like Kobe is because too many folks swoon and call him the best player of all time. I'm sorry--he's not the best player in today's league (that would be Lebron), he's not the best player ever at his position (that would be Michael Jordan), he wasn't the best player on his own team for four of his championships (that would be Shaq), and he's certainly not the best player in his franchise's history (behind Magic, Kareem, Shaq, possibly Jerry West, and that's not even counting the time Wilt Chamberlain was there). It just bugs the heck out of me that people walk around not knowing that, the same way they know that 2+2=4.

Oh, well. I guess that's why I blog.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Diversity on the Court

A couple of funnies vis-a-vis "diversity" on the Supreme Court (noted all over the internet, not just by me). First of all, assuming (I do) that Elena Kagan will be confirmed, that will mean that every single justice spent time at either Harvard or Yale law (Ginsburg actually graduated from Columbia, but attended Harvard first). The three most recent appointees (Kagan, Sotomayor, and Alito) all did their undergrad at Princeton. This will be the first time ever that three women have served on the Supreme Court at the same time, but all three of them are Ivy-League liberals from New York City (as is Scalia, except, of course, for the liberal part). And the court will have 6 Roman Catholics and 3 Jews, with zero protestants. Add in the fact that President Obama, of Harvard, defeated Senator Clinton, of Yale, for the right to replace President Bush, of Yale undergrad and Harvard Business, who lost the popular vote to Senator Gore, of Harvard... I sure am glad our country values diversity!

Not that I have anything against the Ivies. Indeed, my school produces its share of Ivy-leaguers, of whom we are justifiably proud. Just to rattle off a few, two of my favorite student-athletes are graduating this month, one from Harvard, the other from Yale. Just yesterday, a former favorite accosted me in the halls on campus--he just finished his freshman year at Yale. And in this year's graduating class, we have a Harvard, an MIT (who is a Presidential Scholar), and my cross-country team captain turned down Dartmouth and Columbia in favor of the full-ride scholarship at Duke.

But let's also be honest--all of these Ivy kids (and in that group I am counting the judges and politicians) fit a certain type. One does not go to that sort of school without fitting the profile. Yes, they are demonstrably smart (although a perfect SAT does not necessarily outrank one in the 96th percentile, and a perfect GPA does not necessarily put one head-and-shoulders above the nearly-perfect). They all interview well. They all have loads of extracurricular activities, properly spread around all the major categories (every single member of the group of my own students I just rattled off has some combination of athletics, fine arts, student government, and community or school service on their resume, usually in near-ludicrous proportions). But most important, they are absolute masters at playing the game.

There's nothing wrong with playing the game, beating the system, figuring out where the proper gears and levers are. It's a major life skill. But it's not farming. On a farm, there's no cramming. On a farm, making the right connections won't get you anywhere. But in an academic setting (and later, in a legal/judicial/political setting), you're dealing with a man-made system, with rules and loopholes, with social norms and expectations. A system like that is built to be manipulated by the exceptionally bright and highly motivated. As I read the various narratives about soon-to-be-Justice Kagan, I am intrigued by the plain vanilla quality of her career. It seems that she may, once at most, as an undergraduate, have expressed a somewhat controversial opinion on paper. The horror! But she has pretty much not made a single misstep that would cause her to stumble on any rung of the ladder of success. It's almost as if she has been preparing for a smooth confirmation hearing since high school. If you know these kids, that's not surprising.

But here's the thing--these kids are the best and brightest, the hard workers, and all that. But they wind up being the movers and shakers, not just in politics, but in finance, in academics, and so forth. They wind up being the ones who write the rules--rules which reward Ivy-type kids. I find it interesting that the last US president we had who didn't get an "elite" education was Ronald Reagan (of Eureka College in Tampico, Illinois). Incidentally, he's also the last president that I can remember who picked an "interesting" nominee for the court. (Although his picks still had the "elite" cred--O'Connor was 3rd in her class at Stanford; Rehnquist was first. And Scalia is an Ivy guy). You know what I'd love to see? A Supreme Court judge who was top of his or her class at the University of South Carolina School of Law. You want a judge with symapthy for the underdog? Pick a Gamecock.

Monday, May 10, 2010

SCOTUS Thoughts

So, today President Obama made official what anyone with a web browser has known since last week: that Elena Kagan will be his nominee to replace John Paul Stevens on the Supreme Court. The narrative has already been pre-written--Kagan is the "safe" pick, and will be easily confirmed, mainly because she got 60+ votes for confirmation as Solicitor General, and because she has gotten some flak from the extreme left for not being a full-blown pinko, as they would have liked. The only small bit of controversy came when someone wrote a week ago that she would be the first openly-gay justice (which was meant to be a compliment), only to be immediately smacked down.

The media double standard never ceases to amaze me. Had George W. Bush nominated a long-time crony with no judicial experience, he would have been crucified. (Wait--he DID. And his nominee, Harriet Meiers, was eviscerated as much from the right as the left. No chance of that this time!) Still, Kagan is a smart pick. Her negligible paper trail (a couple of academic papers, and a few book reviews) will be very hard to use against her, and there is no chance that her lack of scholarship will lead to her "growing" more conservative in office in the same way that previous "stealth" candidates have grown more liberal.

I think some folks are breathlessly hoping that social conservatives like me will get all frothy over her lesbianism. Whether she is formally "out" or barely-closeted, everybody in DC knows she's gay. If you're over the age of about 20, you probably know folks like this. You know, they know you know, but it's just not a topic of conversation. For my money, that's a whole lot better than the people who can't go five minutes without dwelling on it. Once upon a time, the argument was that closeted homosexuals presented a blackmail risk. But now, the phrase of the day is "NTTAWWT." You can't blackmail someone in a culture without shame.

It is true that Kagan's sexuality could impact her jurisprudence on the issue of "gay marriage." Indeed, her only confirmation hurdle will be rooted in her joining a challenge of the Solomon Amendment (which barred colleges which will not allow US military recruiters from receiving federal funds), based primarily on her opposition to the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" rule. (Just as a footnote: the Supreme Court struck down that case 8-0; even the most liberal judges found it frivolous.) But even that doesn't bother me. Let's face it--ever since election day 2008, every SCOTUS nominee for the next 4 years was 100% guaranteed to be pro-abortion, pro-gay-marriage, and in all respects the polar opposite of a Constitutional originalist. Elections have consequences. For conservatives, all we can do is hope that Antonin Scalia eats his Wheaties.

The only "good news" in this scenario, from my point of view, is that Kagan will replace John Paul Stevens. She could be a barefoot hippie in a Che Guevera shirt and still not be any more of a left-wing judge than him. Yes, we're trading a 90-year-old liberal judge for a 50-year-old liberal judge. But at the end of the day, the balance of the court remains the same (which is to say, you work your way through the entire federal court system just to hope you catch Anthony Kennedy on one of his better days).

So, sorry to disappoint if you expected me to get upset. Cronyism? Yeah. Lightweight? Yep. Cynical pandering to left-wing "diversity" group? Check. Antagonistic to my world-view? Uh-huh. But also exactly what I expected. To reference a couple of posts ago--when you expect Big Lots quality, it's hard to be disappointed.