Saturday, September 04, 2010

The importance of history

Back in the classroom after a year-long sabbatical, I’m realizing how much I missed the direct interaction with students. For me, nothing compares to those moments when the light of understanding comes on in my students or when they face a challenge to things long taken for granted. Their faces almost proclaim that they are seeing the world in a fundamentally different way. One of the most powerful ways we can elicit those reactions — and call into question the largely statist worldview they bring to college — is to challenge what they think they know about history. There may be no more important thing for classical liberals to do than to offer counter-narratives to standard historical stories.

I’m doing this in two different classes this semester. The more historical of the two is a senior seminar on the Great Depression, which I’m teaching for the second time. (The syllabus is here). We started the class last week by walking through what I like to call the “High School History” version of the Great Depression. This is the version in which laissez-faire capitalism caused the stock market crash and Herbert Hoover stood around doing nothing (committed lover of laissez-faire that he was), allowing the crash to become a depression. Of course this version also tells us that FDR and the New Deal saved us from utter chaos and that our entry into World War II finally pulled us out of the Depression.

The students nod quietly as I repeat this narrative, only to look a little shocked when I then say, “Every piece of that story is wrong and we’re going to explore why over the course of the semester.”

In the world of liberal arts we like to talk about throwing students out of their comfort zones. That feeling of disequilibrium is the first step toward learning. And it’s one of the most powerful moments one can have in the classroom. But it’s also crucial for helping anyone, not just students, understand the classical-liberal framework.

Understanding the Present

Getting a better understanding of the history, especially of major events like the Great Depression, is so important because historical narratives and interpretations fuel our understanding of current events and how to respond to them. Just think of the ways in which the High School History version of the Great Depression has informed the national discussion of the current recession. If one really believes that story, it’s a small step to applying the same narrative to today’s situation and to believing that capitalism failed and more government is the answer.

The other course is comparative economics. We started by talking about how the West grew rich (and reading Nathan Rosenberg and L. E. Birdzell’s wonderful book by that name). In the opening chapter, Rosenberg and Birdzell offer nine different commonly believed reasons the West grew rich, including three that are staples of the contemporary college curriculum: exploitation, colonialism/imperialism, and slavery.

My students who have studied First-Third World relationships in other courses nod their heads quietly until I start to explore the counterevidence Rosenberg and Birdzell offer. It’s hard to argue exploitation, they point out, when the real wages of labor have steadily risen over the last 200 years and capitalists have more or less willingly paid them. As for the other two, they offer examples of western countries that were colonial powers but did not get rich and other countries that had no colonies but did get rich. As for slavery, they make the same point: Some slave societies did not get rich, and some rich countries did not have slaves. The bottom line of their first chapter is that none of these “standard” explanations seem reliable. They argue instead that it was the unique institutions of the West (private property, limited government, freedom of thought and exchange) that generated our prosperity.

This unmasking of history is not just powerful in the college classroom; it should be one of the key ways we classical liberals make our arguments and try to persuade anyone of our views. Arguing theory is fine, but many who disagree with us often trot out historical examples they believe undermine the theory. Those examples are usually wrong, but to show it, classical liberals must have a good command of history and be prepared to offer a different narrative of the event in question. I submit that at the bottom of most disagreements with classical liberalism lies a bad reading of history.

If we want to change people’s minds, we’re going to have to start by challenging their reading of history. Learning that history is among the most important things classical liberals can do.


Scary back to school future in California

Scary news from California's Contra Costa County — school officials there have reportedly decided to track some preschoolers with RFID chips, thanks to a federal grant supplying the funding.

According to a story from the Associated Press, the students will wear a jersey at school that has the RFID tag attached. The tag will track the children's movements and collect other data, like if the child has eaten or not. According to a Contra Costa County official, this is a cost-savings move, as teachers used to have to manually keep track of a child's attendance and meal schedule.

But of course, an RFID chip allows for far more than that minimal record-keeping. Instead, it provides the potential for nearly constant monitoring of a child's physical location. If readings are taken often enough, you could create an extraordinarily detailed portrait of a child's school day — one that's easy to imagine being misused, particularly as the chips substitute for direct adult monitoring and judgment.

If RFID records show a child moving around a lot, could she be tagged as hyper-active? If he doesn't move around a lot, could he get a reputation for laziness? How long will this data and the conclusions rightly or wrongly drawn from it be stored in these children's school records? Can parents opt-out of this invasive tracking? How many other federal grants are underwriting programs like these?

These are questions that desperately need answers. California is in the middle of a terrible budget crunch, but the solution is not federally funded surveillance of children who are too young to understand the implications.


No room at British schools for many of the 2010 baby boomers

As thousands more are taught in makeshift class rooms

Hundreds of children have no primary school place with term already started as the recent baby boom triggers an admissions crisis. Thousands of other children are having to be taught in makeshift classrooms because of the overspill, which has been further increased by a recession-fuelled exodus from fee-paying private schools.

Councils in many parts of the country, including London and Birmingham, say applications for places are still being received. Yet even some parents who applied in good time have yet to be allocated a school for their child.

Brent, in North West London, for example, has 210 four-year-olds still without a reception class place but only 24 vacancies in schools. The council is preparing to offer places in children's centres if necessary.

Between them, councils including Ealing, Tower Hamlets, Haringey, Merton, Havering, Camden and Hammersmith and Fulham - all in London - as well as Kingston-upon-Thames in Greater London and Birmingham have hundreds of pupils yet to be placed: many of them late applicants.

Meanwhile officials in Newham, South East London, are considering putting four classes in a church hall following a sharp rise in children seeking places this year.

Hundreds of other schools across the country are using temporary prefabricated buildings on their own sites to accommodate additional pupils or are starting to construct permanent new classrooms.

In Hampshire, a school known for its eco-credentials, St Bede's Primary, in Winchester, is seeking to concrete over a pond to accommodate a temporary classroom to cope with soaring pupil numbers. Meanwhile, in Brighton, temporary classrooms are being purchased at a cost of £125,000 each.

In Leicestershire, Lady Jane Grey Primary, in Groby, gained emergency planning consent for a temporary classroom on its site. Head Michael Fitzgerald said: 'The school is facing a very difficult situation - there isn't a spare cupboard in the building.'

Leeds is increasing capacity at 16 primaries from this month while in Bristol, six schools are gaining 22 temporary classrooms. Birmingham is expanding nine schools to create an extra 330 places this month. It will need an additional 3,000 by 2020.

In many areas, schools have agreed to accept 'bulge' classes - an extra reception class which continues through the school. They are meant to be a one-off but some schools have already taken them for two or three years running.

The Coalition has acknowledged the shortage of primary places is now 'critical' and claims the previous Labour government failed to make adequate preparations for the extra pupils despite warnings. More than 1,000 primary schools have closed since 1999 amid accusations some areas have taken a 'short term' view of likely demand.

Education Secretary Michael Gove plans to move cash from frozen secondary school building projects into providing primary places.

But the Mail's survey of local education authorities reveals that many schools need huge sums of money to meet future demand. A spokesman for Kingston warned it would need as much as £70million.

Official figures show the number of babies born in 2006 - and now starting school - was the highest since 1993, with birth rates expected to continue to rise at least until 2018.

Latest projections suggest that primary school pupil numbers will rise by more than 500,000 in just eight years to 4,526,000, reaching their highest level since the 1970s.

The equivalent of more than 2,000 extra primary schools will be needed to cope, at a time of severe public spending cuts.

While classes for children in the first two years of school are limited in law to 30, teaching groups for older primary pupils could balloon as staff are diverted to teach the new influx of pupils.

In the meantime, pupils caught up in the crisis face being taught in overcrowded classes or travelling miles to their nearest school, and being split from siblings.

In Beaconsfield, Buckinghamshire, mothers had to mount a campaign to win an extra reception class at a popular school after being offered schools up to five miles away.


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