July 31, 2010

Education: Top-Down State Control

After the American Century

Each year at the end of July roughly the same story appears inmost European countries. Thousands of applicants for higher education have been denied entrance. There are not enough places to fill demand. In part, this is because many more want to be doctors than any state can afford to educate and because certain trendy subjects attract a crowd - notably journalism and media studies.

But there is a deeper problem, which is that state bureaucrats believe they are wiser than the students or the professors, and think that no education should be offered unless there seems to be certain employment available. The bureaucratic mind does not like uncertainty, creative interpretation, or imagination. The ideal education, from the bureaucratic perspective, is one that teaches a certain skill which fills an obvious social need, such as nursing. Subjects that develop abstract thinking, creativity, and interdisciplinary capabilities are viewed with suspicion. Every year the press obediently repeats, with a sneer, that there is a limit to how many philosophers or literary critics a society needs.

Strictly speaking, it is true that the market for full-time literary critics or philosophers is small. But the need for critical thinking and creativity is great, and the vocational approach to education will not cultivate the mind. Likewise, if we train only carpenters and no architects, then building innovations will be few and far between, and the buildings will be as bad as public housing planned by bureaucrats. But this example is still too vocational. I know a successful comic book artist in New York who received his BA in geology - and he swears that every landscape he draws is geologically feasible, though that is not the main reason he has steady work. A woman I knew in graduate school did not become a historian but opened an excellent restaurant.  A fellow I knew as an undergraduate majored in English but became a successful radio announcer.

In short, the bureaucrats and the newspapers are not thinking ahead. They imagine that the skills we can identify today are all that is needed to solve the problems or seize the possibilities of tomorrow. Isn't it more likely that we cannot fully imagine the future, and the best thing we can offer students is teaching them how to learn, how to create, and how to think critically? People's careers are not all going to be predictable, i.e. one studies nursing and becomes a nurse for 40 years. I know a successful computer programmer who studied English, and a brilliant real estate agent who studied art history. Likewise, the first generation of computer programmers by definition was not trained to do that work, and many pioneers of the Internet emerged from the counter-culture.

Moreover, the rationale for education is not merely vocational. Education is also needed to ensure that citizens are competent to vote intelligently, to debate effectively, and to consume wisely. A narrow, vocational education is not going to produce citizens who can do these things well. 

Why try to force students into careers that they do not want, by creating quotas for non-vocational subjects? Why not show a little humility and flexibility in Ministries of Education? Top-down state control of education is undemocratic and counter-productive. The careers people actually have are far more numerous than the courses of study can ever be, and a vocational approach will only be able to prepare students for a fraction of the jobs of tomorrow. 

July 20, 2010

The Lost Catholic Church

After the American Century

Many have rightly derided the Catholic Church in recent days after it called the ordination of women as priests a grave sin - in a statement that was otherwise devoted to child abuse!  I am not going to waste time attacking the church, as many others have pointed out its moral obtuseness, obstructionism, and apparent inability to clean its own house. The clergy's scandalous treatment of many young children and its defense of the perpetrators speak all too well for themselves.

But think of the Catholic Church we do not have. The world desperately needs moral leadership on a host of issues, but the Pope is rapidly losing all credibility. In an age of militant fundamentalism, both in Islam and in Christianity, wouldn't it be wonderful to have an enlightened Catholic Church that had a powerful voice on such issues as global warming and environment, women's rights, or non-violent conflict resolution?

The tragedy of this Pope and of the Catholic Church is that they are rapidly becoming powerless to affect the great issues of our time. When the Church is in the news the story seems always to be about the abuse of children, opposition to equality for women, and conflicts with local authorities that the Church has obstructed in criminal investigations.

The Church is now most talked about for what it is against, not what it is for. Six decades ago, Pope  John XXIII convened Vatican II and moved the Church toward ecumenical understanding. His church was dynamic and people around the world, Catholic or not, listened to him. The current Pope will be remembered as a failure who defended indefensible acts and obstructed change.

July 11, 2010

Obama After 18 Months

After the American Century

It has only been eighteen months since George Bush left the White House, but already the American public seems to be suffering from amnesia. The American economy is not recovering quickly from its near collapse under Bush, and this weakness is nevertheless laid at Obama’s door. His popularity has fallen below 50% for some time now. The great bank bailout has been reasonably successful, with much of the money being paid back, yet many Americans talk about the bailout as though it was not a loan but a permanent part of the national debt. The re-regulation of Wall Street has gone through Congress, yet Republicans proclaim that Obama has now hobbled the capitalist horse. (For a reality check, consider the Canadian banks which did not need a bailout because they were restrained by sensible legislation.)

And then there is the endlessly repeated, and endlessly stupid, claim that the health care bill is socialistic. This would be silly if so many did not believe it. If Obama really had created a socialistic health care system then (1) he would have  given free medical care to all citizens and permanent residents, in exchange for higher taxes, (2) he would have put all doctors and nurses in public hospitals on the government payroll, and (3) prescription medicine would be free or heavily subsidized.  This is pretty much what the health care system looks like in Denmark, England, or Germany. But the Obama plan did not do any of these things. It made health care available to all, in exchange for payment to private insurers. It left hospitals under the same management as before, and so forth. The Obama plan is an improvement, but it is not much like a European plan.

My American readers might recall that they do have socialistic elements in their government, notably the fire departments which are paid for by everyone and put out all fires regardless of where they are or whose property it is. The theory seems to be that minimizing conflagrations is a good thing for the neighborhood. Free public libraries are also rather socialistic, though this did not stop that famous capitalist Andrew Carnegie from building quite a few of them. Then there are those terribly socialistic institutions, the free public schools, and so on.

Today’s column clearly has only that most general of subjects, the instability of American public opinion, which so often is based not on logic but pavlovian  responses to key words and silly phrases. The circus entrepreneur P. T. Barnum  once said that no one ever went broke because he underestimated the American public. By November all too many Americans will be convinced that not Bush but Obama undermined the economy by over-spending the budget, letting the banks get out of control, and imposing a “socialistic health” care system. But it was Bush who cut taxes, especially for the wealthy and then overspent the budget by billions in the unfinanced wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. And it was the Bush Administration that failed to keep a watchful eye on the banks and Wall Street, until the economy was near collapse before the 2008 election even took place.




In American political culture, eighteen months is a long time, and some seem to have trouble seeing cause and effect, or separating substance form allegation. It is not easy to be President in the best of times, and far harder than in the present. On the whole, Obama has done a good job. But Americans are an impatient people, and in the off year elections the party that lost the last time usually makes at least a partial comeback. We shall see.