Sunday, December 23, 2012

Growing class inequality in education

In a New York Times article with the headline "For Poor, Leap to College Often Ends in a Hard Fall," Jason DeParle writes:

Angelica Gonzales marched through high school in Goth armor — black boots, chains and cargo pants — but undermined her pose of alienation with a place on the honor roll. She nicknamed herself after a metal band and vowed to become the first in her family to earn a college degree.

Weekends and summers were devoted to a college-readiness program, where her best friends, Melissa O’Neal and Bianca Gonzalez, shared her drive to “get off the island” — escape the prospect of dead-end lives in luckless Galveston. Melissa, an eighth-grade valedictorian, seethed over her mother’s boyfriends and drinking, and Bianca’s bubbly innocence hid the trauma of her father’s death. They stuck together so much that a tutor called them the “triplets.”

Low-income strivers face uphill climbs, especially at Ball High School, where a third of the girls’ class failed to graduate on schedule. But by the time the triplets donned mortarboards in the class of 2008, their story seemed to validate the promise of education as the great equalizer.

Angelica, a daughter of a struggling Mexican immigrant, was headed to Emory University. Bianca enrolled in community college, and Melissa left for Texas State University, President Lyndon B. Johnson’s alma mater. . . .

Four years later, . . . [n]ot one of them has a four-year degree. Only one is still studying full time, and two have crushing debts. Angelica, who left Emory owing more than $60,000, is a clerk in a Galveston furniture store.

Each showed the ability to do college work, even excel at it. But the need to earn money brought one set of strains, campus alienation brought others, and ties to boyfriends not in school added complications. With little guidance from family or school officials, college became a leap that they braved without a safety net.

The story of their lost footing is also the story of something larger — the growing role that education plays in preserving class divisions. Poor students have long trailed affluent peers in school performance, but from grade-school tests to college completion, the gaps are growing. With school success and earning prospects ever more entwined, the consequences carry far: education, a force meant to erode class barriers, appears to be fortifying them.

“Everyone wants to think of education as an equalizer — the place where upward mobility gets started,” said Greg J. Duncan, an economist at the University of California, Irvine. “But on virtually every measure we have, the gaps between high- and low-income kids are widening. It’s very disheartening.”

The growing role of class in academic success has taken experts by surprise since it follows decades of equal opportunity efforts and counters racial trends, where differences have narrowed.
If the "experts" are so surprised, perhaps they should rethink their assumptions.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Why is most child murder not in the news?

Emily Bazelon says this about the Newtown, Connecticut mass murder:

They could be us, and we could be them, right? It was so easy for me at least to feel that way, looking up Newtown’s suburban demographics: Family median income $100,000 a year, almost half the town families with children, nearly three-quarters married couples. I don’t live in the suburbs, but I live in a small-city neighborhood filled with two-parent families about 45 minutes from Newtown, and I have a son in elementary school. That was more than enough to share in the chill that spread through the country Friday. I wish I identified as much with the families of drive-by shootings of children in my city, but I don’t. I use class and, I’m sure, race to distance myself. That doesn’t work this time though.
Based on a quick Google search, well over 1,000 children are murdered in the US every year, and somewhere between 3,000 to 5,000 children are killed by guns every year. (It's not surprising that the second statistic is much larger than the first — accidents and suicides are more common than murder.) How does the media decide that 20 children killed are more important than thousands of other children killed? Of course, what happened in Newtown was especially horrific because of the large number of children who were killed all in the same place and at the same time. But how much less horrific is the murder or reckless killing of one child? In the latter case, the pain may even be compounded by the realization that it isn't considered "news."

Friday, December 14, 2012

How much smarter are Americans today than a hundred years ago?

Nicholas Kristof points out this shocking fact:

The average American in the year 1900 had an I.Q. that by today’s standards would measure about 67. Since the traditional definition of mental retardation was an I.Q. of less than 70, that leads to the remarkable conclusion that a majority of Americans a century ago would count today as intellectually disabled.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Ravi Shankar (1920-2012)

Ravi Shankar, the sitarist and composer, died yesterday at age 92 in Southern California, a few days after undergoing heart surgery.

The New York Times obituary says:

Mr. Shankar, a soft-spoken, eloquent man whose performance style embodied a virtuosity that transcended musical languages, was trained in both Eastern and Western musical traditions. Although Western audiences were often mystified by the odd sounds and shapes of the instruments when he began touring in Europe and the United States in the early 1950s, Mr. Shankar and his ensemble gradually built a large following for Indian music. . . .

Sitar performances are partly improvised, but the improvisations are strictly governed by a repertory of ragas (melodic patterns representing specific moods, times of day, seasons of the year or events) and talas (intricate rhythmic patterns) that date back several millenniums.

Mr. Shankar’s quest for a Western audience was helped in 1965 when George Harrison of the Beatles began to study the sitar with him. But Harrison was not the first Western musician to seek Mr. Shankar’s guidance. In 1952 he met and began performing with the violinist Yehudi Menuhin, with whom he made three recordings for EMI: “West Meets East” (1967), “West Meets East, Vol. 2” (1968) and “Improvisations: East Meets West” (1977).

Mr. Shankar loved to mix the music of different cultures. He collaborated with the flutist Jean-Pierre Rampal and the jazz saxophonist and composer John Coltrane, who had become fascinated with Indian music and philosophy in the early ’60s. Coltrane met with Mr. Shankar several times from 1964 to 1966 to learn the basics of ragas, talas and Indian improvisation techniques. Coltrane named his son Ravi after Mr. Shankar. . . .

In addition to his frequent tours as a sitarist Mr. Shankar was a prolific composer of film music (including the score for Richard Attenborough’s “Gandhi” in 1982), ballets, electronic works and concertos for sitar and Western orchestras. . . .

[I]n 1990 he collaborated with the Minimalist composer Philip Glass — who had worked as his assistant on the film score for “Chappaqua” in the late 1960s — on “Passages,” a recording of works he and Mr. Glass composed for each other.

“I have always had an instinct for doing new things,” Mr. Shankar said in 1985. “Call it good or bad, I love to experiment.”
My family and I were recently watching this amazing performance of his from the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival:

Charles Rosen (1927-2012)

Charles Rosen, the classical pianist and writer, died of cancer on Sunday at age 85 in Manhattan, which is also where he was born. His books The Classical Style and The Romantic Generation are full of uncommon insights on Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, Mendelssohn, Chopin, and Liszt.

The New York Times reports:

Mr. Rosen the polymath was possessed of a lightning-fast, seemingly limitless discursiveness that has been described variously as enchanting and intimidating.

A conversation with him, associates have said, typically ranged over a series of enthusiasms that besides music could include philosophy; art history; architecture; travel (Mr. Rosen had homes on the Upper West Side of Manhattan and in Paris, where he had first lived as a Fulbright fellow in the early 1950s); European literature, usually read in the original (he had a Ph.D. in French from Princeton); poetry (he held the Charles Eliot Norton professorship of poetry, an annual lectureship at Harvard, from 1980 to 1981); food (he was an accomplished cook); wine and the glassware it was served in; cognac and the wooden casks it was aged in; and the television shows “Absolutely Fabulous,” “Taxi” and “Cheers.”

It was said of Mr. Rosen that when he practiced the piano, a discipline to which he hewed daily well into old age, he might choose to read something — not a musical score but an actual work of literature — at the same time.
In an article on freedom in art, he wrote:
Of all the constraints imposed on us that restrict our freedom—constraints of morality and decorum, constraints of class and finance—one of the earliest that is forced upon us is the constraint of a language that we are forced to learn so that others can talk to us and tell us things we do not wish to know.

We do not learn language by reading a dictionary, and we do not think or speak in terms of dictionary definitions. Meaning is always more fluid. Nevertheless, we are hemmed in, even trapped, by common usage. Senses we wish to evade entrap us. The greatest escape route is not only humor, but poetry, or art in general. Art does not, of course, liberate us completely from meaning, but it gives a certain measure of freedom, provides elbow room. Schiller claimed in the Letters on Aesthetic Education that art makes you free; he understood that the conventions of language and of society are in principle arbitrary—that is, imposed by will. They prevent the natural development of the individual. The clash between the imposition of meaning and freedom has given rise to controversy in ways that Schiller could not have predicted. . . .

The ambiguity of spoken or written language is far less than the ambiguity of musical meaning, a disconcerting ambiguity powerfully described by Denis Diderot in his Lettre sur les sourds et muets:
In music, the pleasure of sensation depends on a particular disposition not only of the ear but of the entire nervous system…. In addition, music has a greater need to find in us these favorable dispositions of the organs than painting or poetry. Its hieroglyph is so light and so fleeting, it is so easy to lose it or to misinterpret it, that the most beautiful movement of a symphony would have little effect if the infallible and subtle pleasure of sensation pure and simple were not infinitely above that of an often ambiguous expression…. How does it happen then that of the three arts that imitate Nature, the one whose expression is the most arbitrary and the least precise speaks the most powerfully to the soul?
I have quoted this elsewhere (in The Classical Style as an epigraph), but it is important to see how clearly the nature of musical discourse was understood by the second half of the eighteenth century. Felix Mendelssohn found the meaning of music more precise, not less, than language, but that is because music means what it is, not what it says. . . .

The triumph of Beethoven’s musical image of freedom [in his Ninth Symphony] depended on more than just the contemporary popularity and relish for the idea. It needed an adequate musical language for its expression with subtle and complex articulations. These articulations had thickened within a few years after his death, making way for a powerful and rich chromaticism. . . .

We are always haunted by the past, even when we try to destroy it. . . . Our freedom is hemmed in on every side. We must be grateful for what remains.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

A few points about Justice Scalia's comments on sexual orientation and murder

Speaking at Princeton University, Scalia was asked by a gay student why he equates laws banning sodomy with those barring bestiality and murder.

"I don't think it's necessary, but I think it's effective," Scalia said, adding that legislative bodies can ban what they believe to be immoral.

Scalia has been giving speeches around the country to promote his new book, "Reading Law," and his lecture at Princeton comes just days after the court agreed to take on two cases that challenge the federal Defense of Marriage Act, which defines marriage as between a man and a woman. . . .

"It's a form of argument that I thought you would have known, which is called the 'reduction to the absurd,'" Scalia told Hosie of San Francisco during the question-and-answer period. "If we cannot have moral feelings against homosexuality, can we have it against murder? Can we have it against other things?"

My mom, Ann Althouse, links to that article and points out that Justice Antonin Scalia is "antagonizing — antoninonizing — students."

My thoughts on this:

1. I interpret Scalia's phrase "moral feelings against" to refer to disgust. He lends this an air of dignity by using the lofty word "moral," but what he's really talking about is a visceral or aesthetic reaction expressed by interjections like "Eww!" and "Yuck!" We need to think about whether it's actually legitimate for disgust to serve as a primary motivation and justification for passing a law. There's no question that there are good laws that prohibit behavior that happens to be found disgusting. But the question is whether mere disgust can justify a law that would otherwise not seem to have a rational justification. It's fine for people to be disgusted at the thought of a particular couple having sex or even showing any kind of affection. This could be based on any number of factors, including the couple's gender, age, or physical attractiveness. Most people would find it offputting to see certain couples do so much as kiss in a movie — more offputting than they would find a movie scene showing a brutal act of murder. There's a much wider audience for images of violence than for atonal chamber music, but as long as even 1% of the population finds that kind of music pleasant, some people are going to happily exercise their right to create it, no matter how large a majority experiences it as a bunch of noise with no redeeming value. I wouldn't want to live in a society where the presence or absence of such feelings of disgust and revulsion determined what kinds of behavior we're allowed to engage in.

2. I assume Justice Scalia realizes that mentioning gay people and murderers in the same breath is going to be very inflammatory to a lot of people, and isn't the best way to win over those who didn't already agree with him. (He winked at this by sardonically adding: "I'm surprised you aren't persuaded.") This doesn't mean his words were poorly chosen — he might have good reasons to try to stir up controversy over this. And, of course, he has a right to express his viewpoint in his own inimitable style even if he offends people. But while he's remarking on the way voters can make their decisions based on visceral repulsion, he might want to consider that many people are viscerally repulsed by the way he makes his point, and this may affect people's votes in future presidential elections.

3. What matters far more than anyone's visceral feelings about what is or isn't disgusting is this: Murder laws uphold the principle that everyone in a society should have equal rights and responsibilities.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Nicholas Kristof on poverty and unintended consequences

Nicholas Kristof writes:

THIS is what poverty sometimes looks like in America: parents here in Appalachian hill country pulling their children out of literacy classes. Moms and dads fear that if kids learn to read, they are less likely to qualify for a monthly check for having an intellectual disability. . . .

This is painful for a liberal to admit, but conservatives have a point when they suggest that America’s safety net can sometimes entangle people in a soul-crushing dependency. Our poverty programs do rescue many people, but other times they backfire. . . .

Antipoverty programs also discourage marriage: In a means-tested program like S.S.I., a woman raising a child may receive a bigger check if she refrains from marrying that hard-working guy she likes. Yet marriage is one of the best forces to blunt poverty. In married couple households only one child in 10 grows up in poverty, while almost half do in single-mother households. . . .

About four decades ago, most of the children S.S.I. covered had severe physical handicaps or mental retardation that made it difficult for parents to hold jobs — about 1 percent of all poor children. But now 55 percent of the disabilities it covers are fuzzier intellectual disabilities short of mental retardation, where the diagnosis is less clear-cut. More than 1.2 million children across America — a full 8 percent of all low-income children — are now enrolled in S.S.I. as disabled, at an annual cost of more than $9 billion.

That is a burden on taxpayers, of course, but it can be even worse for children whose families have a huge stake in their failing in school. Those kids may never recover: a 2009 study found that nearly two-thirds of these children make the transition at age 18 into S.S.I. for the adult disabled. They may never hold a job in their entire lives and are condemned to a life of poverty on the dole — and that’s the outcome of a program intended to fight poverty.
Kristof talks about this article on Facebook:
With today's column about domestic poverty, I've turned the tables. Some liberals are irritated, while conservatives are sharing the column. I find the politicization of poverty a bit depressing. The evidence of what works and what doesn't in social policy is getting better, so let's put aside ideology and look at evidence!

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Who supports a carbon tax?

A piece in the New Yorker makes the case for a tax on carbon emissions.

That's not very surprising. What's more surprising is that, as the article points out, over 100 big corporations — including ExxonMobil and Shell — have expressed support it. In contrast, the White House spokesperson, Jay Carney, recently said: "We would never propose a carbon tax, and have no intention of proposing one."

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Bottle recycling in the United States, from the '40s to now

The Conversable Economist (Timothy Taylor) points out:

We often think of programs like curbside recycling as driven by a pure environmentalist agenda. But Bartow J. Elmore makes an intriguing argument these programs were passed in substantial part because of pressure from U.S. beverage makers, who were trying to address a public relations nightmare and to increase their profits. . . .

Compared to the 1940s when 96 percent of bottles were washed and reused, often a couple of dozen times, where do we stand today? Elmore cites evidence that in the mid-2000s, maybe 30-40 percent of cans and plastic bottles are recycled.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Rubio and Ryan try to kill Romney's "47%" line

Marco Rubio and Paul Ryan gave speeches last night "delivering an implicit, but sharp, rebuke to Mitt Romney's '47 percent' line." I like this point:

“Every country has rich people, but only a few places have achieved a vibrant and stable middle class,” Rubio added, calling it a “fundamental promise of America” to have the opportunity to make it to the middle class.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Epistemic closure

Public Policy Polling says that "Republicans are taking the results [of the election] pretty hard":

49% of GOP voters nationally say they think that ACORN stole the election for President Obama. We found that 52% of Republicans thought that ACORN stole the 2008 election for Obama, so this is a modest decline, but perhaps smaller than might have been expected given that ACORN doesn't exist anymore.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

The final issue of Nintendo Power

The cover is a tribute to its first issue.

That post says:

Nintendo Power has been on the stands since 1988, first as an official Nintendo publication, and then later as an independent entity. For players of a certain age who grew up with the NES and SNES, this is something of the end of an era.
People are paying tribute over at Metafilter. The best comment:
*tosses red potion on curb*

*door appears*

*escapes into shadowy dreamworld*