Saturday, February 03, 2007

HP Squared

The final Harry Potter book, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, will be released this summer. Pre-orders are already setting records. No suprise there. The Gruntleds will order their copy and line up for the midnight release. Last time we started reading it on the way home, started again the next morning and read aloud all day, and finished it the next day. The kids then took turns re-reading it.

Here is the unexpected humor: is offering a pre-ordered copy, paired with another book, as they often do. And what are they pairing Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows with? A second copy of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows!

Friday, February 02, 2007

Murray 3: Educate the Gifted to be Good … and Married

In the final installment of Charles Murray's Wall Street Journal series, Murray argues for special education for the gifted to be good guardians of society. It is not enough that the cognitive elite be smart or technically educated. "It is not enough that gifted children learn to be nice," Murray writes: "They must know what it means to be good." Murray wants the gifted to get a double dose of history and philosophy, aimed at teaching them critical judgment. In an era critical of making judgments at all, this is a controversial thing to say.

I agree with Murray on this point entirely. Indeed, in a small way, this is the main point of my job.

Murray does not attend to another critical part of the education that I would have our cognitive elite receive: an education in the importance of making good marriages and working hard at raising their children. When students are educated about marriage at all, if we say anything good about marriage, it is about how they can benefit individually. Married people, we point out, are happier, healthier, and richer. This is all true. I teach these points myself.

The larger point that we should teach the cognitive elite is that it is hugely valuable to society if they marry well and raise children well. [No, I am not saying that each individual, in any class, must marry or must have children. I am talking about the social effect of the whole class.] The cognitive elite are part of the ruling class, and that class's actions have a disproportionate influence on what other people do. A married elite is more likely to be socially minded and careful. Smart people are more likely to marry other smart people than ever before, and their kids, if they have any, are quite likely to be smart, too.

The biggest reason to put marriage education in gifted education is that gifted women today are less likely than other women to have children. Women who can handle lots of education and demanding careers are the most likely to let that education and career-making consume their entire childbearing years. Our society has benefited in thousands of ways from opening all realms of school and work to smart women. One unexpected lead lining of this golden cloud, though, is that smart women are less likely to have children now than they were in past generations. And that is a great loss, to them and to society as a whole.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Murray 2: Vocational Education … AND Liberal Arts

The second of Charles Murray's recent Wall Street Journal series was entitled "What's Wrong With Vocational School? Too many Americans are going to college." This combines a feature of Murray's argument that I agree with the most, with one that I think is completely wrongheaded.

One of the most admirable parts of Charles Murray's argument about IQ, in The Bell Curve and in this series, is that all kinds of occupations are noble, and are good things for smart people to do. The main thrust of the Bell Curve was not really about the bottom of the IQ distribution, though that got the publicity (along with a minor part of the argument concerning race). His main point, though, was that our educational system had become very efficient in sorting nearly all high-IQ students toward a handful of occupations. A "cognitive elite" is being created that is getting narrower and more exclusive. Some high-paying professions, such as law and investing, are drawing a bigger share of smart people than their social utility deserves, impoverishing other fields; Murray favors engineering. America was worse off, he argues, in the days when smart people were held back from advanced education by sheer poverty and discrimination. But the silver lining of that dark cloud was that smart people were spread over more occupations.

Therefore, I agree with Charles Murray that vocational education is honorable. Vo-tech training is good schooling for a job. I would rather deal with people trained for their work than have them make it up – or even to have them try to guess how their liberal arts education can be applied to a technical problem. And for students who don't want, aren't ready for, or aren't up to a demanding liberal arts college curriculum, vocational education is an honorable and sensible alternative. It benefits them and society.

I teach at a demanding liberal arts college. We do not offer vocational education. Many students, probably most of them, think that the justification for college is to get a better job. This is wrong, and I tell them so early and often. They pick majors on the basis of jobs they hope it will connect to. Doubly wrong. At a liberal arts college, everyone "majors" in the liberal arts. The curriculum is not about this job skill or another. The point of a liberal arts education is to grow wiser and of better character. In some students, this aim is not realized, at least not at the time. But it works often enough, and shapes students over their whole lifetime, in a way that vocational education can't.

I agree with Charles Murray that work, and vocational training are honorable. But I also think that everyone could benefit from a broad education that helps them become wiser and of better character. Moreover, society needs a broad, wiser, and virtuous ruling class. Liberal arts education and vocational education are both needed in society and even in each person.

Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Murray 1: All Children Can Learn, Though Half are Below Average

Charles Murray continues the argument he and Richard Herrnstein advanced in The Bell Curve in an interesting three-part series in the Wall Street Journal last week. I will take up each of his three points in the next three posts.

Murray makes the point that half of all children are below average in IQ. This is true by definition. Yet laws such as the federal No Child Left Behind Act, or the Kentucky Education Reform Act, believe that all children can learn, and many at high levels. These two points do not logically conflict with one another. However, I think Murray is right that in practice Americans take comfort in the idea that just about all children can achieve at the same high level if we just try harder and/or pay more money for schools. This is not so.

Murray's argument rests on a bell curve distribution of "g," the general intelligence thought to underlie IQ. If our school curriculum is good enough to challenge the smartest students, then its hardest courses will be too hard for the weakest students. However, school achievement is not a simple reflection of underlying intelligence. Some students achieve below their ability. They might not be motivated to work hard. Or they might have so many obstacles in their environment, especially at home, that they can't concentrate on school as they ought. Still, if we got up to optimal conditions, there would be a limit to how much the kids at the bottom of the intelligence distribution could learn.

The gap between where we are now and where we should be comes from those environmental conditions. In my opinion, family dysfunction causes most of the educational problems that can be improved. Yes, there is much that can be done to make education better, especially in the worst urban schools. But the main reason that bad schools are bad is because the school has to spend so much energy on just getting the kids there regularly and getting them to do their work. And most of those problems, I believe, come from family dysfunctions.

Murray is right: half of all children will always be below average in school. And if we improve family functioning so that more kids can reach their intellectual potential, the bell curve will become more obvious.

All of which means, though, that we should improve family functioning. Because all children can learn, and many at high levels.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Chinese Divorce Crisis Over! (Sort of)

Last year the Chinese government reported an alarming spike in the divorce rate. The official divorce rate was reported as 2.76 per 1,000. This is still well below Western rates (the U.S. is about 4 per 1,000) but much higher than the Chinese divorce rate was just a few years ago.

The Chinese government has now admitted that they goofed, according to the official China Daily. They counted the number of divorced people, rather than the number of divorces.

The new official 2005 divorce rate for China is 1.3 per 1,000.

Monday, January 29, 2007

Temporary Marriage is Rational, But Wrong

Shi'ia Islam allows men to take temporary wives in addition to their permanent wives. Sunni Islam does not. The practice is old, based on the Shi'ite reading of Muhammad's own attempts to provide for widows. In a "mutaa," the religious term for temporary marriage, the man pays the woman up front, then pays her expenses for the duration of the marriage. The term can be as short as a night, or as long as he wants. He can end it whenever he wants to; she cannot end the marriage before the agreed-upon term without his permission.

Mutaa are "pleasure marriages" because they are not supposed to provide children. If the woman gets pregnant anyway, the man is supposed to support the child, but the religious courts in most places don't have the authority to enforce child support expectations.

Saddam Hussein had banned mutaa. Not only was he a Sunni Muslim, he was originally a secular nationalist. In Iraq today the Shi'ite majority is in power, and their distinctive practices, including temporary marriage, are back.

Temporary marriage was designed to protect widows in a society in which men would scorn widows (and divorced women) for virgins. Iraq today is producing many widows every day. The revival of mutaa is a rational solution to a serious problem. However, temporary marriage is so prone to abuse that it is not worth the cost to society. Temporary marriage takes advantage of women in trouble on terms that please men. As the Sunni critics say, temporary "marriage" is really a way of giving religious sanction to prostitution.

We probably can't stop the revival of temporary marriage in Shi'ite-dominated Iraq. That is their call, and not ours. But we can stay clear about why it is a long-term danger, even if it seems a rational solution to current problems.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Is the Montreat Presbyterian Church Leaving for Big Reasons, or Small?

Montreat Presbyterian Church voted 311 – 27 to ask to be dismissed from the Presbyterian Church (USA) to the more conservative Evangelical Presbyterian Church. The conservative congregation had been upset with the denomination for some time for what it regarded as the denomination's drift away from the Bible and toward pluralism. Moderator Joan Gray met with them before the vote to attempt to answer their questions.

So far, this story has only been reported in The Presbyterian Layman, which reads the congregation's actions wholly in light of national Presbyterian issues. The congregation itself has not issued an announcement, and other news sources – the Presbyterian News Service, the Presbyterian Outlook, the secular press – have not covered the story yet. Others who have discussed the issue with me see this departure as part of a slow national schism driven by the General Assembly's adoption of the Peace, Unity, and Purity task force report.

I wonder, though, how much this particular congregation was moved by a local issue not mentioned in the Layman account: the decision to close the Presbyterian Historical Society office at Montreat. This has been a passionate grievance for many Southern Presbyterians. Surely the anger over the PHS closing has touched more people personally at Montreat Presbyterian Church than anywhere.

Until there is wider coverage of this vote, I can only speculate. But I urge those who see each congregation's departure as a symptom of a national schism to consider how much local issues also drive these votes.