Monday, March 30, 2015

Overheard on the NYC subway

Two British girls in a whole class of high-school students taking the 1 train uptown to 59th St.:

Did you know we're going to Central Park?

What's Central Park?

It's just a park!

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Why the humanities shouldn't be crowded out by STEM education

Fareed Zakaria makes a compelling case:

If Americans are united in any conviction these days, it is that we urgently need to shift the country’s education toward the teaching of specific, technical skills. Every month, it seems, we hear about our children’s bad test scores in math and science — and about new initiatives from companies, universities or foundations to expand STEM courses (science, technology, engineering and math) and deemphasize the humanities. From President Obama on down, public officials have cautioned against pursuing degrees like art history, which are seen as expensive luxuries in today’s world. . . .

This dismissal of broad-based learning, however, comes from a fundamental misreading of the facts — and puts America on a dangerously narrow path for the future. The United States has led the world in economic dynamism, innovation and entrepreneurship thanks to exactly the kind of teaching we are now told to defenestrate. A broad general education helps foster critical thinking and creativity. Exposure to a variety of fields produces synergy and cross fertilization. Yes, science and technology are crucial components of this education, but so are English and philosophy. When unveiling a new edition of the iPad, Steve Jobs explained that “it’s in Apple’s DNA that technology alone is not enough — that it’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the result that makes our hearts sing.”

Innovation is not simply a technical matter but rather one of understanding how people and societies work, what they need and want. America will not dominate the 21st century by making cheaper computer chips but instead by constantly reimagining how computers and other new technologies interact with human beings.

For most of its history, the United States was unique in offering a well-rounded education. In their comprehensive study, “The Race Between Education and Technology,” Harvard’s Claudia Goldin and Lawrence Katz point out that in the 19th century, countries like Britain, France and Germany educated only a few and put them through narrow programs designed to impart only the skills crucial to their professions. America, by contrast, provided mass general education because people were not rooted in specific locations with long-established trades that offered the only paths forward for young men. And the American economy historically changed so quickly that the nature of work and the requirements for success tended to shift from one generation to the next. People didn’t want to lock themselves into one professional guild or learn one specific skill for life.

That was appropriate in another era, the technologists argue, but it is dangerous in today’s world. Look at where American kids stand compared with their peers abroad. The most recent international test, conducted in 2012, found that among the 34 members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the United States ranked 27th in math, 20th in science and 17th in reading. If rankings across the three subjects are averaged, the United States comes in 21st, trailing nations such as the Czech Republic, Poland, Slovenia and Estonia.

In truth, though, the United States has never done well on international tests, and they are not good predictors of our national success. Since 1964, when the first such exam was administered to 13-year-olds in 12 countries, America has lagged behind its peers, rarely rising above the middle of the pack and doing particularly poorly in science and math. And yet over these past five decades, that same laggard country has dominated the world of science, technology, research and innovation.

Consider the same pattern in two other highly innovative countries, Sweden and Israel. Israel ranks first in the world in venture-capital investments as a percentage of GDP; the United States ranks second, and Sweden is sixth, ahead of Great Britain and Germany. These nations do well by most measures of innovation, such as research and development spending and the number of high-tech companies as a share of all public companies. Yet all three countries fare surprisingly poorly in the OECD test rankings. Sweden and Israel performed even worse than the United States on the 2012 assessment, landing overall at 28th and 29th, respectively, among the 34 most-developed economies.

But other than bad test-takers, their economies have a few important traits in common: They are flexible. Their work cultures are non-hierarchical and merit-based. All operate like young countries, with energy and dynamism. All three are open societies, happy to let in the world’s ideas, goods and services. And people in all three nations are confident — a characteristic that can be measured. Despite ranking 27th and 30th in math, respectively, American and Israeli students came out at the top in their belief in their math abilities, if one tallies up their responses to survey questions about their skills. Sweden came in seventh, even though its math ranking was 28th.

Thirty years ago, William Bennett, the Reagan-era secretary of education, noticed this disparity between achievement and confidence and quipped, “This country is a lot better at teaching self-esteem than it is at teaching math.” It’s a funny line, but there is actually something powerful in the plucky confidence of American, Swedish and Israeli students. It allows them to challenge their elders, start companies, persist when others think they are wrong and pick themselves up when they fail. Too much confidence runs the risk of self-delusion, but the trait is an essential ingredient for entrepreneurship.

My point is not that it’s good that American students fare poorly on these tests. It isn’t. Asian countries like Japan and South Korea have benefitted enormously from having skilled workforces. But technical chops are just one ingredient needed for innovation and economic success. America overcomes its disadvantage — a less-technically-trained workforce — with other advantages such as creativity, critical thinking and an optimistic outlook. A country like Japan, by contrast, can’t do as much with its well-trained workers because it lacks many of the factors that produce continuous innovation.

Americans should be careful before they try to mimic Asian educational systems, which are oriented around memorization and test-taking. I went through that kind of system. It has its strengths, but it’s not conducive to thinking, problem solving or creativity. That’s why most Asian countries, from Singapore to South Korea to India, are trying to add features of a liberal education to their systems. Jack Ma, the founder of China’s Internet behemoth Alibaba, recently hypothesized in a speech that the Chinese are not as innovative as Westerners because China’s educational system, which teaches the basics very well, does not nourish a student’s complete intelligence, allowing her to range freely, experiment and enjoy herself while learning: “Many painters learn by having fun, many works [of art and literature] are the products of having fun. So, our entrepreneurs need to learn how to have fun, too.”

No matter how strong your math and science skills are, you still need to know how to learn, think and even write. Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon (and the owner of this newspaper), insists that his senior executives write memos, often as long as six printed pages, and begins senior-management meetings with a period of quiet time, sometimes as long as 30 minutes, while everyone reads the “narratives” to themselves and makes notes on them. In an interview with Fortune’s Adam Lashinsky, Bezos said: “Full sentences are harder to write. They have verbs. The paragraphs have topic sentences. There is no way to write a six-page, narratively structured memo and not have clear thinking.”

Companies often prefer strong basics to narrow expertise. Andrew Benett, a management consultant, surveyed 100 business leaders and found that 84 of them said they would rather hire smart, passionate people, even if they didn’t have the exact skills their companies needed.

Innovation in business has always involved insights beyond technology. Consider the case of Facebook. Mark Zuckerberg was a classic liberal arts student who also happened to be passionately interested in computers. He studied ancient Greek intensively in high school and majored in psychology while he attended college. And Facebook’s innovations have a lot to do with psychology. Zuckerberg has often pointed out that before Facebook was created, most people shielded their identities on the Internet. It was a land of anonymity. Facebook’s insight was that it could create a culture of real identities, where people would voluntarily expose themselves to their friends, and this would become a transformative platform. Of course, Zuckerberg understands computers deeply and uses great coders to put his ideas into practice, but as he has put it, Facebook is “as much psychology and sociology as it is technology.”

Twenty years ago, tech companies might have survived simply as product manufacturers. Now they have to be on the cutting edge of design, marketing and social networking. You can make a sneaker equally well in many parts of the world, but you can’t sell it for $300 unless you’ve built a story around it. The same is true for cars, clothes and coffee. The value added is in the brand — how it is imagined, presented, sold and sustained. Or consider America’s vast entertainment industry, built around stories, songs, design and creativity. All of this requires skills far beyond the offerings of a narrow STEM curriculum.

Critical thinking is, in the end, the only way to protect American jobs. David Autor, the MIT economist who has most carefully studied the impact of technology and globalization on labor, writes that “human tasks that have proved most amenable to computerization are those that follow explicit, codifiable procedures — such as multiplication — where computers now vastly exceed human labor in speed, quality, accuracy, and cost efficiency. Tasks that have proved most vexing to automate are those that demand flexibility, judgment, and common sense — skills that we understand only tacitly — for example, developing a hypothesis or organizing a closet.” In 2013, two Oxford scholars conducted a comprehensive study on employment and found that, for workers to avoid the computerization of their jobs, “they will have to acquire creative and social skills.”

This doesn’t in any way detract from the need for training in technology, but it does suggest that as we work with computers (which is really the future of all work), the most valuable skills will be the ones that are uniquely human, that computers cannot quite figure out — yet. And for those jobs, and that life, you could not do better than to follow your passion, engage with a breadth of material in both science and the humanities, and perhaps above all, study the human condition.

One final reason to value a liberal education lies in its roots. For most of human history, all education was skills-based. Hunters, farmers and warriors taught their young to hunt, farm and fight. But about 2,500 years ago, that changed in Greece, which began to experiment with a new form of government: democracy. This innovation in government required an innovation in education. Basic skills for sustenance were no longer sufficient. Citizens also had to learn how to manage their own societies and practice self-government. They still do.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Why not force everyone to vote?

Peggy Noonan says:

"It would be transformative if everybody voted," [Obama] told an audience in Cleveland. Yes, it would. It would mean a lot of people who aren’t interested in public policy and choose not to follow it would suddenly be deciding it.

The way it is now, if you aren’t interested—and you have the right not to be interested—you don’t have to vote. If you are interested, you pay attention, develop political views, and vote. Making those who don’t care about voting vote will only dilute the votes of those who are serious and have done their democratic homework.

Most of us are moved by the sight of citizens lined up at the polls on Election Day. We should urge everyone to care enough to stand in that line. But we should not harass or bother those who, with modesty and even generosity, say they are happy to leave the privilege of the ballot to those who are engaged.
Mandatory voting would also increase the sense that your vote doesn't make a difference, since your vote would become an even smaller proportion of the total. More people would vote, but most of them would be more lackluster about their votes — including those who would have voted voluntarily anyway.

Friday, March 20, 2015

The US Department of Justice report on the Ferguson Police Department

Conor Friedersdorf quotes conservatives who are taking it seriously:

Conservatives fancy themselves zealous protectors of constitutional rights. They are suspicious of government power. They are hostile to bureaucratic corruption, however petty. And they oppose the confiscation of wealth without compelling reasons. The Ferguson report gives them much to object to in every one of these categories. It is remarkable that many on the right have instead dismissed the report without even reading it—as if psychologizing Eric Holder or cross-referencing generic arguments about disparate impact and crime rates obviated the need to reckon with the Justice Department’s specific findings. It seems to me that a kind of team-sport mentality has prevailed. Conservatives do not like sweeping denunciations of the entire criminal-justice system as racist, and they especially do not like violent protests, looting, and attacks on policemen—all very rightly.

But from there, too many conservatives have come to see any criticism of police conduct, or any allegation of racism, as if it were a play by the opposing team. They duly boo. Instead, they should reflect that all that is correct in their defense of the police is compromised by the extension of that defense to anything unworthy of it. . . .

Many conservatives I have spoken to are of the opinion that the FPD is no worse than any other police department and that they oppose the FPD being targeted simply because of the Michael Brown incident. I suppose this is probably true, but what I don’t understand is why that is seen as a feature, not a bug. The information I am going to describe below is appalling and breathtaking. If Ferguson is no worse than other cities, then why don’t we say that the problem is that all cities need to look very hard at fixing their municipal police departments, rather than that the Ferguson PD should be excused?

Thursday, March 19, 2015

What happens when you try to talk to a Starbucks barista about race?

Joe Berkowitz finds out:

I went to the four Starbucks closest to my office and asked the baristas about race. It is difficult to put into words the relief of never having to do so ever again. . . . .

Starbucks was definitely asking baristas to speak to customers about Ferguson and other race-related issues, with all locations technically participating, but the finer details remained a mystery. Were the baristas, presumably already quite busy, receiving any training, or getting paid extra for this? Were there boundaries in place, or at least prescribed talking points or verbal no-fly zones? I decided, for the sake of the experiment, to pick up on those details as many of the frappe-crazed masses would--on the spot. So I set out for the nearest coffee shop, information-gaps and all, to have a deeply personal and political conversation with an apron-clad stranger. . . .

I order a small coffee and glance at all the people on line behind me. It's so many people--at least enough to fill a jury box. If the barista and I are to have an effective meditation on identity politics, all of these people are going to be made to wait. It's the first time that the wild impracticality of this campaign, as I understand it, fully dawns on me. Could Schultz really expect people on line to patiently wait while the barista and I—and the rest of America, by extension—make inroads toward unity? Perhaps once I start the conversation, an assistant would come along and take me aside so that we may approach enlightenment more privately.

When the barista, a young wavy-haired Latino, brought my change, I spoke my truth. "This is a little embarrassing," I began, "but I was wondering what happens if I want to talk about race."

His eyebrows narrow as though I've just asked him whether he has a minute to talk about green energy. After I mention having heard about a promotion, though, he understands. He gets a fresh cup for my small coffee and, while scribbling on it with a Sharpie, he explains more about the campaign. It's called ‪#‎RaceTogether‬, and baristas like him are being urged to write this hashtag on coffee cups in hopes of sparking meaningful conversation and spreading awareness of Starbucks racial issues. . . . "I was writing it more yesterday, but a lot of the customers were not super into it." He makes air-quotes during the last three words, leading me to believe those other customers were so not into it as to be far away, observing the inside of "it" through binoculars while shaking their heads emphatically. . . .

We are not talking about race, we are talking about talking about race, and that is it. Even doing just that took long enough, though, to make both the barista and the already antsy customers visibly antsier. As I leave, I can hear him ask the next poor guy if he's heard of #RaceTogether, and I feel a little queasy about the domino effect of this visit.

Now that I've experienced this campaign in action, I realize why it's familiar. Although the trend seems to have tapered off recently, Trader Joe's must have at one point urged its cashiers to always have a friendly chat with customers. How else to account for the consistent conversations I've had about what kind of party I must be throwing with so much Speculoo's Cookie Butter? (Um, the best damn party of your whole life.) Of course, the mandatory nature of these conversations sometimes made them veer beyond the amusingly banal into the realm of debasement. Those people were being forced in some way to make the smallest possible small talk with me, even though they were perhaps not "super into it."

The other customer service moment this campaign reminds me of is when certain pharmacy cashiers are made to ask customers to donate in support of breast cancer awareness, or something similar. In a technical sense, the pharmacy's heart, such as it exists, is in the right place, supporting a worthy cause. In a more accurate sense, though, this pharmacy might be forcing me to tell a human being that I'm too much of a self-centered cheapskate to support a worthy cause. Starbucks seekers will soon be put in a similar position when forced to decline helping to heal our nation's deepest wound in favor of not being slightly late for Trapfit class.

After visiting the next two neighboring Starbucks in quick succession, it's become clear that nobody on either side of the counter wants to talk about race. They want to talk about coffee, and transacting around it as expeditiously as science allows. . . . In both the second and third visit, I placed my coffee order and, upon receiving it, asked what happens if I want to talk about race. The baristas at both spots, both of whom are black, seem only vaguely familiar with the concept. They just know they're supposed to write #RaceTogether on the sides of some coffee cups. One of their managers hears my question and explains that the promotion hasn't actually begun.

"I think it's starting next week," he says. "We're gonna write ‪#‎ComeTogether‬ on all the cups that we hand out, and stickers. I think, the whole Trayvon Martin, trying to just, I would say, merge between the community and the police department."

Who could blame him for putting this off? I wouldn't want to write #RaceTogether on coffee cups and have to humor media people and the terminally curious with all their guinea-pig fascination. At this moment, #RaceTogether still has enough mystery to be viewed abstractly as this ridiculous idea that hasn't quite happened yet—like if we'd all heard tell of the selfie stick two or three years ago. It's the reason half of the baristas I ordered from giggled in a sheepish way while explaining the campaign. As of March 17, just after 6 p.m., they have yet to experience the reality of having to inquire what Starbucks customers claim to think about how institutionalized racism kills unarmed black people.

Perhaps they never will, though.

When I make my final coffee order, from another barista who is black, I have the following exchange:

Me: This is a little embarrassing, but I was wondering if you wanted to talk about race.

Him: Race?

Me: Yeah.

Him: What to say about it?

Me: I don't know, I just saw there was that promotion going on.

Him: Oh yeah.

Me: Yeah. Like, what happens if someone wants to talk about it?

Him: I don't know. Nothing.

No corporation can force people to have an honest conversation about America's race problem. They'll either have one or they won't. Simply presenting them with the opportunity, though, doesn't even raise awareness of the matter; it just raises awareness of Starbucks's awareness. The more you pat yourself on the back for being conscious of an issue, the more it seems like exploitation. What kind of positive change could actually come from a large number of people knowing that Starbucks wants people to talk about race? I don't know. Nothing.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

What's the point of talking about "white privilege"?

John McWhorter writes:

[T]he idea is supposedly that we need to disseminate this awareness of White Privilege before we can start on the political part of the project. But the case for White Privilege as a necessary prelude to change relies on a premise that America is a nation “in denial” about racism past and present. That premise has rhetorical punch, but doesn’t comport with reality.

Take the usual phrasing that America needs a “conversation” on race. Our country engages in an endless “conversation” about race year round, in the media, academia, and barstool talk, while schools, museums, the media, the publishing industry, and government organizations treat coverage, exploration and deploring of, as well as apology for, racism as ingrained aspects of their mission.

Many foreign observers would be baffled by the notion that this is a nation that refuses a “conversation” about race or even racism—just last year involved fervent discussions of not only police brutality, but microaggression, gentrification, the N-word, reparations, and much more. The fact that this conversation doesn’t lead to all whites bowing down to all black complaints, an outcome tacitly desired by a certain cadre of academics and journalists, does not disqualify it as a conversation.

The question, then, becomes: Precisely what benefit do White Privilege 101 lessons add to all of what there already is? (Again, “knowing about White Privilege” is not an answer.) What are we hoping will happen in the wake of these lessons that hasn’t been happening before, and crucially, upon what evidence has that hope been founded?

America is by no means post-racial, but it is not 1960 either; change happens. Example: The U.S. Justice Department has officially faulted the Ferguson police department for discriminatory ticketing and could even shut it down. I cheer that development, but the protests over the Michael Brown verdict, magnified by social media, are what created this attention. The White Privilege lessons the DOJ’s outreach body imposed just made local whites angry. What popped the lock was good Old-Fashioned Civil Rights law. What’s the gain from White Privilege rhetoric? . . .

White Privilege 101 lessons require endless reiteration of key principles to retain. In many ways, taking them from words to action is such a logically fragile proposition that it must be billed as endlessly “subtle” (or “messy”)—a strange kind of pitch for something supposedly so urgent. And those questioning the whole affair are heatedly dismissed as “not getting it.” It all sounds familiar—but less as politics than as religion. . . .

In a society where racism is treated as morally equivalent to pedophilia, what whites are seeking is the sweet relief of moral absolution. Inside they are pleading, “Please don’t hate me!” And I wouldn’t be surprised if there is an accompanying feeling of purification (redemption, even) that comes with such consultant-given absolution. I can honestly say that I would be engaging in exactly this kind of moral self-flagellation about racism if I were white in today’s America.

However, not being white, I can’t help but see it from a different perspective.

If “I know that I’m privileged!” is a statement made largely for one’s own sense of security, then it’s unclear to me how, say, the private school programs’ White Privilege sessions are “challenging” White Privilege, as the Times story’s headline put it. Semi-coerced self-interest rather than genuine enlightenment or understanding seems to be the vehicle for this racial revelation. . . .

So let’s start this stage of our “dialogue on race” with a simple question: When our mandated diversity director says, “This is messy work, but these conversations are necessary,” we have every right, as moral persons, to ask: Why, and for whose benefit?

Friday, March 13, 2015

Radiohead — The Bends turns 20

Radiohead released their best album, The Bends, 20 years ago today.

Here's a full concert from that era (including at least one preview from their next album, OK Computer, which came out the next year).


Stevie Wonder plays "Fingertips Part 2," 52 years later