Wednesday, December 28, 2011

The Philosopher and the Tyrant

Benjamin Wallace-Wells, a writer for New York Magazine, does a piece on the role played by French philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy in persuading the French to come to the aid of the Libyan rebels last spring.

The essay is amusing in its portrayal of Levy's ego and surprising in its revelation of the influence Levy had with President Sarkozy. Here's a sample quote from the article:

Wars are no longer supposed to begin like this. They are exercises in national interest and self-defense, not personal morality and valor. They are the product of military plans, not proddings from celebrity philosophers. And yet Libya — so far the most aggressive humanitarian intervention of the 21st century — depended not on any broad public movement nor any urgent security threat.

There was instead a chain of private conversations: Hillary Clinton moving Barack Obama, Nicolas Sarkozy moving Dmitri Medvedev, and at the chain’s inception this romantic propagandist, Bernard-Henri Lévy. “I think this war was probably launched by two statesmen,” Lévy told me. “Hillary Clinton and Sarkozy. More modestly, me.”
Levy is a well-known celebrity in France, something of a Christopher Hitchens character, a public intellectual. Because of his personal flamboyance and sometimes quixotic causes, however, he's often the butt of ridicule in the media. The mockery leaves him unfazed:
“They have no effect on my narcissism,” Lévy wrote in 2008 of his critics. “In the face of assaults, my ego is fireproof, shatterproof.”
His high self-esteem is apparently matched by his naivete. Being Jewish he was convinced that once the world's Muslims saw what had been done by a Jew on behalf of fellow Muslims in Libya it would produce a rapprochement between the two groups. Wells writes:
He was convinced, he says, that a NATO campaign could help bring Muslims and Jews together—a project he calls a “battle of my life,” and one in which he spotted a role for himself. On the front lines, he told the rebels and jihadists of his religion, believing history might move because a Jewish writer “has given a hand and helped a Muslim country.” Since the sixties, he says, “I have dreamed of this reconciliation of the sons of Abraham. I will have achieved my duty of being a man, if I contribute.”
Anyway, the article is a very good read, offering interesting insights into the life of an interesting man. He reminds me a bit of the late congressman from Texas, Charlie Wilson, who, with only a couple of CIA agents, was able to equip the Afghanistan Mujahideen to defeat the Soviet Union back in the 1970s. A movie (Charlie Wilson's War starring Tom Hanks, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Julia Roberts) was made about Wilson's exploits in 2007.

Maybe they'll make a film about Levy as well. I think it would please him.

Got the Flu?

It might be some consolation as you suffer through the headaches, colds, and other miserable symptoms to know what it is that's happening in your body when a flu virus invades.

On the other hand, when you're really sick with flu you probably couldn't care less what's happening.

Anyway, for those who manage to retain their intellectual curiosity even when laid low by the insidious influenza bug there's this informative video:

Excellence Gap

Sol Stern has a piece in City Journal which highlights one of the problems with the No Child Left Behind Act and with educational thinking in general over the last twenty five years.

In a nutshell, Stern argues that we've become so concerned with educating the weakest students and bringing them up to "proficiency" that we've failed to do all we can for the elite students who will comprise the next generation of technological and scientific innovators and engineers.

Here's his lede:
If an out-of-control national debt weren’t reason enough to worry about America’s global competitiveness, here’s another. Virtually all education reformers recognize that America’s ability to remain an economic superpower depends to a significant degree on the number and quality of engineers, scientists, and mathematicians graduating from our colleges and universities — scientific innovation has generated as much as half of all U.S. economic growth over the past half-century, on some accounts. But the number of graduates in these fields has declined steadily for the past several decades.

A report by the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation concludes that “bachelor’s degrees in engineering granted to Americans peaked in 1985 and are now 23 percent below that level.” Further, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, only 6 percent of U.S. undergraduates currently major in engineering, compared with 12 percent in Europe and Israel and closer to 20 percent in Japan and South Korea.

In another recent study, conducted by the Conference Board of Canada, the U.S. scored near the bottom relative to major European countries, Canada, and Japan in the percentage of college graduates obtaining degrees in science, math, computer science, and engineering. It’s likely no coincidence that the World Economic Forum now ranks the U.S. fifth among industrialized countries in global competitiveness, down from first place in 2008.
As bleak as this sounds, it may not be as bad as Stern suggests. So many people go to college in the U.S. that a low percentage of engineers could still be a large number in absolute terms. Nevertheless, he's on the mark in the rest of his essay. For instance he notes this:
Making matters worse is mounting evidence that America’s best students — kids we’re counting on to become those engineers, scientists, and mathematicians — have had a drop-off in academic performance over the past decade. A recent Thomas B. Fordham Institute study finds that the country’s highest-performing students in the early grades are losing some of that advantage as they move through elementary school and into high school.

Ironically, one reason for their slipping performance is almost certainly the 2002 No Child Left Behind Act, the most significant federal education-reform legislation of the past half-century....NCLB became law thanks to a rare bipartisan consensus that U.S. public schools were failing to turn out high school graduates who could flourish in a technology-based economy. Democrats and Republicans need to reunite and recognize that federal support for elite education — above all, in math and science — is essential for advancing America’s economic success.

No Child Left Behind was propelled by a moral imperative best expressed by President George W. Bush’s call to overcome the “soft bigotry of low expectations.” The new law’s “civil rights” component shaped some of its unique features, including holding states and school districts accountable for their success in narrowing racial achievement gaps.

Before NCLB, the federal government had sought to achieve some degree of educational equity through the Title I compensatory funding program, which sent nearly $200 billion to the nation’s highest-poverty schools over four decades. Title I yielded meager results, however, and suffered from lack of accountability. With NCLB, the federal government took a new, interventionist approach to education reform, requiring states and school districts to meet certain goals and mandates in return for Title I funds.

The states henceforth had to conduct annual tests in reading and math for all children in grades three through eight, with the results—broken down by race, sex, and socioeconomic status—made public.
The results, though better, are still pathetic. It's a dogma among education bureaucrats that "every child can learn," and though the dogma may even in some sense be true, so much effort and resources are expended in a futile attempt to demonstrate its truth that those who manifestly can learn don't get the nurture that we could and should be giving them.

The rest of Stern's article explains how this happens and the disadvantage it's putting us at in our competition with the rest of the world. If you're an educator or have kids in school you should read it.

At some point we have to recognize that, for whatever reason, there are large numbers of students who simply don't, won't, and don't want to, benefit from the educational largesse that is showered upon them and that it's a pointless waste of resources to spend billions of dollars in a vain attempt to raise their test scores by a few meager and meaningless points.