Wednesday, September 09, 2009

The great escape

Many of the issues of our times are hard to understand without understanding the vision of the world that they are part of. Whether the particular issue is education, economics or medical care, the preferred explanation tends to be an external explanation-- that is, something outside the control of the individuals directly involved.

Education is usually discussed in terms of the money spent on it, the teaching methods used, class sizes or the way the whole system is organized. Students are discussed largely as passive recipients of good or bad education. But education is not something that can be given to anybody. It is something that students either acquire or fail to acquire. Personal responsibility may be ignored or downplayed in this "non-judgmental" age, but it remains a major factor nevertheless.

After many students go through a dozen years in the public schools, at a total cost of $100,000 or more per student-- and emerge semi-literate and with little understanding of the society in which they live, much less the larger world and its history-- most discussions of what is wrong leave out the fact that many such students may have chosen to use school as a place to fool around, act up, organize gangs or even peddle drugs.

The great escape of our times is escape from personal responsibility for the consequences of one's own behavior. Differences in infant mortality rates provoke pious editorials on a need for more prenatal care to be provided by the government for those unable to afford it. In other words, the explanation is automatically assumed to be external to the mothers involved and the solution is assumed to be something that "we" can do for "them."

While it is true that black mothers get less prenatal care than white mothers and have higher infant mortality rates, it is also true that women of Mexican ancestry also get less prenatal care than white women and yet have lower infant mortality rates than white women. But, once people with the prevailing social vision see the first set of facts, they seldom look for any other facts that might go against the explanation that fits their vision of the world.

No small part of the current confusion between "health care" and medical care comes from failing to recognize that Americans can have the best medical care in the world without having the best health or longevity because so many people choose to live in ways that shorten their lives. There can be grave practical consequences of a dogmatic insistence on external explanations that allow individuals to escape personal responsibility. Americans can end up ruining the best medical care in the world in the vain hope that a government takeover will give us better health.

Economic issues are approached in the same way. People with low incomes are seen as a problem for other people to solve. Studies which follow the same individuals over time show that the vast majority of working people who are in the bottom 20 percent of income earners at a given time end up rising out of that bracket. Many are simply beginners who get beginners' wages but whose pay rises as they acquire more skills and experience. Yet there is a small minority of workers who do not rise and a large number of people who seldom work and who-- surprise!-- have low incomes as a result.

Seldom is there any thought that people who choose to waste years of their own time (and the taxpayers' money) in school need to change their own behavior-- or to visibly suffer the consequences, so that their fate can be a warning to others coming after them, not to make that same mistake.

It is not just the "non-judgmental" ideology of the intelligentsia but also the self-interest of politicians that leads to so much downplaying of personal responsibility in favor of external explanations and external programs to "solve" the "problem." On these and other issues, government programs are far less likely to solve the country's problems than to solve the politicians' problem of getting the votes of those whose think the answer to every problem is for the government to "do something."


British universities 'swamped with students, but no extra funding'

Universities risk being swamped with more students but no extra funding because of government policy, a leading vice-chancellor will tell university heads at a conference this week. Steve Smith, the new president of Universities UK, which represents vice-chancellors, will give his inaugural address at its conference in Edinburgh. Professor Smith, who is Vice-Chancellor of the University of Exeter, told The Times that the theme of the conference would be that universities needed support during the recession.

He said: “Whatever government is in power will need a strong university sector. The key point is that if universities are to take more students, it’s essential we don’t see a return to what happened in the 1970s and 80s, with a decline in the funding per student. “It’s essential that in the recession we don’t keep putting in more students without the funding. The bottom line is that, if we keep taking more and more students without funding, the quality of the university experience could be threatened.”

A review is expected to begin this autumn, into whether the £3,145 cap on annual top-up tuition fees should be lifted. It is not due to conclude until after next year’s general election. However, it is expected that the review group will recommend that universities should be allowed to set higher fees, and this would bring in additional income.


More British grade-school children to be educated in "academies" (charter schools)

Thousands of primary schoolchildren will be educated in academies because of a surge in the number of all-through schools opening this term. Eight of the schools, which cater for children from the age of 3 to 18, are opening their doors this week and two more are planned, doubling the number of all-through academies (semi-independent, state-funded schools). Sponsors no longer have to provide £2 million in funding but need to show that they have the skills and leadership to run an academy.

David Miliband, Harriet Harman and Andy Burnham were among 19 ministers from a range of departments who turned out in force to open their local academies yesterday in a show of support for the scheme.

Ed Balls, the Schools Secretary, said: “Scrapping the £2 million sponsorship has led to a boom in the number of universities, schools and colleges coming in – so it makes sense to do the same for the voluntary and private sector.” He said that a robust selection process would be used to assess potential sponsors thoroughly, but teaching unions disputed this.

Christine Blower, general-secretary of the National Union of Teachers, said: “The requirement of interested companies simply having to prove they have the ‘necessary skills and leadership’ to run an academy really does not stand up to scrutiny. “One of the latest academies to open is being sponsored by Aston Villa Football Club. I defy anyone to suggest that a football club can know more about the running of schools than a local education authority. “Where the focus needs to lie is on strategies which will genuinely help children from socially deprived backgrounds, rather than feeding a burgeoning two-tier system.”

The Tories, and some education experts, want to see primary schools become academies. Michael Gove, the Shadow Schools Secretary, said this year that primary schools would be able to apply for academy status within two years of the Conservatives winning a general election. But the Government is reluctant to do this because of the cost implications, and because it does not want to divert focus from the drive to improve standards in secondary schools. A source at the Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF), said the issue of primary-only academies had been explored and dismissed by ministers, adding: “In particular there were concerns about the large costs involved.”

The primary element of all-through schools is funded by local authorities. Children as young as 3 will be starting at eight new all-through academies this term. They include the Nottingham Academy, created from two secondaries and a primary school. It will eventually become the largest school in the United Kingdom, with 3,600 pupils. Barry Day, the chief executive, who turned around one of the predecessor schools, said: “We’re working with a primary school because our fundamental belief is, if we have children from the age of three, we can do absolute wonders with them. “We serve a very deprived inner-city area. We already have a track record of getting a large number of pupils through to university.”

A DCSF spokesman said: “We back all-through academies where they are part of robust plans to drive up standards. We know that many academies already work closely with their feeder primaries so it is common sense to extend this. Ministers are clear that improving the transition between primary and secondary school is vital in making sure children do not fall back — so there are clear benefits in pupils have seamless continuity during their school careers with shared facilities and coherent leadership, ethos and school policy.”


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