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Altered States February 12, 2010

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Culture, Dwight Furrow's Posts.
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I think this justifies giving my students more reading.

According to new research at the University of Sussex :

Reading is the best way to relax and even six minutes can be enough to reduce the stress levels by more than two thirds or 68%. […] reading works better and faster than other methods to calm frazzled nerves such as listening to music, going for a walk or settling down with a cup of tea. […]

‘This is more than merely a distraction but an active engaging of the imagination as the words on the printed page stimulate your creativity and cause you to enter what is essentially an altered state of consciousness.’

So it is even better than drugs?

I would guess this doesn’t include reading the news—which just makes me angry.

book-section-book-cover2 Dwight Furrow is author of

Reviving the Left: The Need to Restore Liberal Values in America

For political commentary by Dwight Furrow visit: www.revivingliberalism.com

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The End of Education February 11, 2010

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Dwight Furrow's Posts, Education.
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I have thought for a long time that the education reforms put in place over the past 10-15 years will ruin education in this country.

Education expert Diane Ravitch provides a clear account of the problem. She contrasts a traditional superintendent of schools with a new breed:

Whether he (or she) was a business executive, an education entrepreneur, or a lawyer, he is steeped in a business mindset. He wants results. He surrounds himself with business school graduates, lawyers, marketing consultants, and public relations staff. He focuses on management, organization, budgeting, and data-driven decision-making. He shows little or no interest in curriculum and instruction, about which he knows very little. He is certain that the way to reform the schools is to “incent” the workforce. He believes that accountability, with rewards and sanctions, makes the world go round. He plans to “drive” change through the system by being a tough manager, awarding merit pay to teachers and principals, closing struggling schools, and opening new schools and charter schools, all the while using data as his guide. He believes that the schools he oversees are like a stock portfolio; it is his job not to fix them but to pick winners and losers. The winners get extra money, and the losers are thrown out of the portfolio. When addressing the business community, he speaks proudly of his plan to give maximum autonomy to school principals, thus absolving himself of any responsibility for the performance of the schools, and then sits back to manage his portfolio. If a school fails, he is fast to close it. The failure is not his fault, but the fault of the principal and the teachers.

She then compares this fascination for quantitative measures with the  recent revelations regarding the NYC police department who were found to be fudging their crime numbers to make their performance look better.

The data mattered more than truth. Some, for example, would scout eBay and other Web sites to find values for stolen items that would reduce the complaint from a grand larceny (over $1,000 in value) to a misdemeanor. There were reports of officers who persuaded crime victims not to file a complaint or to change their accounts so that a crime’s seriousness could be downgraded. […]

For just as the police officers felt compelled to game the system to meet the demands of CompStat, so educators are now gaming the system to meet the demands of NCLB. Some states have dumbed down their tests; some have rigged the scores to produce greater numbers of “proficient” students. Some districts have narrowed their curriculum and have replaced instruction with intensive test-prep. Some schools of choice exclude low-performing students. All in the service of making the numbers, making AYP, looking good rather than doing well.

There is a general principle at work here:

This is not only a major scandal, it is a validation once again of Campbell’s Law, which holds that: “The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decisionmaking, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor.”

The summary judgment:

Anyone who thinks that these methods will produce first-class education for our nation’s children is either a fool or is fooling himself.

Thus far this has primarily affected K-12 education. But this fascination with numbers is coming to a campus near you—and both Republicans and Democrats support it.

book-section-book-cover2 Dwight Furrow is author of

Reviving the Left: The Need to Restore Liberal Values in America

For political commentary by Dwight Furrow visit: www.revivingliberalism.com

A Republican Health Insurance Plan? February 9, 2010

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Dwight Furrow's Posts, politics.
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Via the LA Times:

Anthem Blue Cross is telling many of its approximately 800,000 customers who buy individual coverage — people not covered by group rates — that its prices will go up March 1 and may be adjusted “more frequently” than its typical yearly increases.

The insurer declined to say how high it is increasing rates. But brokers who sell these policies say they are fielding numerous calls from customers incensed over premium increases of 30% to 39%, saying they come on the heels of similar jumps last year.

This is the result of not passing health insurance reform. The Republican Party and a few Democratic “centrists” would apparently like to see more of this.

Interestingly, the main plank in the Republican health care “plan” is a proposal to cap medical malpractice awards. The idea is that if you limit the amount of money damaged patients can sue for, insurance companies and doctors will charge less for their services.

But California, the home of Anthem Blue Cross, has capped medical malpractice claims since 1975. And research shows that that capping medical malpractice claims in other states has had no effect on insurance rates. (h/t Jonathan Zasloff)

It would be nice if we had a serious opposition party in this country.

book-section-book-cover2 Dwight Furrow is author of

Reviving the Left: The Need to Restore Liberal Values in America

For political commentary by Dwight Furrow visit: www.revivingliberalism.com

Student Loans February 8, 2010

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Dwight Furrow's Posts, politics.
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The New York Times reports that the Obama Administration’s student-loan reform package is in jeopardy. A reform bill has passed the House of Representatives but it languishes in the Senate where the bank lobbyists hold court.

The reform is in trouble because of—Republican opposition. Who could have guessed?

The current student loan program is a government subsidy for banks. The government provides banks with money to lend to students and pays banks a fee for their trouble. The federal government also guarantees the loan so the banks incur no risk.

The proposed reform would simply have the government lend directly to students bypassing the banks altogether saving an estimated $87 Billion over ten  years.

So Republicans who are constantly complaining about budget deficits are opposed to a simple idea that reduces the budget while enabling more students to attend school.

Anyone who thinks Republicans are genuinely concerned about budget deficits is a fool. They are fine with government spending as long as it is lining the pockets of private corporations.

book-section-book-cover2 Dwight Furrow is author of

Reviving the Left: The Need to Restore Liberal Values in America

For political commentary by Dwight Furrow visit: www.revivingliberalism.com

Death of a Bookstore February 7, 2010

Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Culture, Current Events, Nina Rosenstand's Posts.
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Recently I blogged about the sad demise of used bookstores across the country. Now, for us San Diegans, it is hitting home: The most fascinating, thought-inspiring used bookstore in San Diego, Wahrenbrock’s, closed in 2009, and now the remaining inventory is being sold next weekend. Today’s article in the Union-Tribune illustrates some of the points I made in my previous post.

 “The last time I saw it truly busy in here was in 1997 or so,” said Jeff Brehan, a friend of the Valverde family and a former Wahrenbrock clerk. “Chuck’s lament was that customers he used to see three times a week he’d barely see once a month.”

So here we are, with the ultimate treasure trove of books in San Diego abandoning us, because we abandoned it. And I feel guilty—because Jeff is talking about me (among others): if I, an intellectual whose business, and passion, it is to read, couldn’t even bother to come back to W. more than maybe two-three times a year lately, then how can I blame others?

I have a proposition for you good people reading this blog: we can’t save Wahrenbrock’s, but maybe there’s another used bookstore in your neighborhood? How about if you make a point of, maybe every 2-3 weeks, to go in there and look around, spend 20+ minutes, and buy a  book? First ask if they have a Philosophy section. If they don’t, then buy a book, anyway. Maybe just a $2 crime novel. And then report in to this blogpost about what you bought, if it is in any way philosophically relevant—which just means that it will get your mind started with new questions. Let’s do it.

How to Game the System—and Lose February 4, 2010

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Dwight Furrow's Posts, Education.
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Kevin Carey explains how he squandered 4 years at a University and still received his degree.

I spent phenomenal amounts of time during my four undergraduate years on wholly nonacademic pursuits—drinking beer, hanging out with my girlfriend, playing poker (thank God the Internet hadn’t been invented yet or I’d be doing this still), watching the 11 p.m. ESPN SportsCenter, watching the 2 a.m. ESPN SportsCenter, killing time between the 11 p.m. and 2 a.m. SportsCenters, and so on. […]

I wanted to take art history because I had a vague sense that it was the kind of course freshmen took. But that course was full. I took history of architecture instead because it seemed similar, it was available, and the line was short.

Six of my credits could be earned in phys-ed courses. So I took lifeguarding for three credits, which was good for a summer job. A one-credit “Advanced Basketball” class involved little basketball instruction, but it was a great way to get access to scarce court space for five-on-five full-court games in the middle of the day. “Weight Training” did the same for the weight room, and “Intro to Karate” filled out the slate.

Binghamton had a science distribution requirement, but you were allowed to take some courses pass/fail. […]By the end of the semester, I calculated that I had to answer 20 percent of the final-exam questions correctly to pass the course. Since the exam was multiple choice, with only four possible answers to each question, that wasn’t much of a challenge. I also took Drawing I that semester because I was told there would be nude models. (There were, but not the kind I had hoped for.) […]

I waited until my final semester, when, despite a carefully planned strategy of non-course-taking, I still needed eight credits to finish. I signed up for “Gender, Policy, and Law” because I figured there would be a lot of women in the class. (There were, but not the kind I had hoped for.) It also met in the middle of the afternoon on Tuesdays, perfect for a lifestyle centered on four-day weekends and the 2 a.m. broadcast of ESPN SportsCenter.

Carey admits his responsibility for his careless attitude toward education; but seems to also blame the University.

An institution that routinely describes itself as “the best public university in the Northeast” shouldn’t hand out four credits for a 10th-grade C. It should aspire to be more than just a knowledge vending machine of courses to be chosen at semi-random with little in the way of guidance or forethought. It should look for opportunities to teach undergraduates more than its peers, not less—indeed, that’s what phrases like “best public university” ought to mean.

But if someone is willing to devote this much effort avoiding real work, it is hard to see how modifying the rules will help much.

Is Staying Slim a Moral Responsibility? February 2, 2010

Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Culture, Nina Rosenstand's Posts.
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The Los Angeles Times Health section reports that Americans (who are fit) are getting increasingly impatient with fellow Americans who are obese.  And it may not just be a concern over societal costs:

“In our society, being heavy has become more of a stigma lately because we’re struggling with other issues of consumption,” says Abigail Saguy, associate professor of sociology at UCLA.

The economic climate, a recent history of people buying more than they can afford as well as environmental issues, including the depletion of our planet’s resources, are making people feel more angry about society’s overconsumption, she says. Obviously overweight people are an easy target.

“They’re almost a caricature of greed, overconsumption, overspending, over-leveraging and overusing resources,” says Saguy. “Though it’s not entirely rational, it’s an understandable reaction, especially in a country founded on the Puritan ethics of self-reliance, sacrifice and individual responsibility. If people feel they’re sacrificing, then see someone spilling over an airplane seat, they feel angry that that person is not making the same sacrifices they are.”

That perspective is interesting in itself: according to the analysis, those among us who are not obese or even overweight—because of hard work, or luck (youth and/or good genes)—consider their fitness a personal achievement reached through deprivation and hardship, and resent those who appear as if they don’t want to do their share in the department of suffering.  “If I’m going to suffer and go without, the least you can do is not flaunt your unwillingness to suffer with me!” The article takes for granted that resentment toward people who are heavier than oneself boils down to the assumption that we all can, and should, take personal responsibility for ourselves, and those who don’t are viewed as the losers in an Ayn Rand-style universe of self-reliant people.

There may indeed be a streak of resentment based on a philosophy of personal responsibility in this growing attitude, but since I just got back from a trip to Denmark where the debate has taken another direction I can’t help but compare the tendencies. The Danish newsmedia reported a few weeks ago that, according to a new poll, a majority of employees polled were in favor of their workplace taking responsibility for their fitness and weight. In other words, overweight workers would be put on weight loss and fitness programs through their workplace (with sanctions if they didn’t stick with the program), but the ultimate results of the program would be the responsibility of the workplace, not just the individual worker. The resentment toward heavy people is on the rise in Denmark, just as it is here, and it is assisted by an attitude of publicly accepted ridicule to the point where “fat jokes” are becoming commonplace and acceptable (among fit people, that is), at a level of cruelty that we are simply not used to (yet) on this side of the Pond, because we have a higher level of sensitivity toward issues of discrimination, and legislation to match that level. But instead of insisting on personal moral responsibility, the majority of the polled Danes placed all responsibility for their weight and fitness on the workplace. So essentially, if they remain heavy, it’s management’s fault, not theirs. So, while the “personal responsibility” ideology may be insensitive to genetics and health issues that may make it hard for a heavy person to slim down, the “workplace responsibility” attitude seems like nothing short of a Sartrean “Bad Faith,” a complete abandonment of the idea of taking charge of one’s own life. Interesting contrast, huh?