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Posts Tagged ‘class’

Okay, I’ve been miserably long in posting this (and it’s still not complete) but here is the first installment of a look at U.S. education.

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I recently finished the classic tale of The Brothers Karamazov, written by Fyodor Dostoyevsky (or Theodore Dostoevsky, as it’s sometimes anglicized). If the name didn’t tip you off, he’s Russian, and so are the brothers he writes about. The tale was written in the nineteenth century, about the scandals of nineteenth century life in a small Russian town … and yet I think it’s one of the best books I’ve ever read. It is a masterpiece in every sense.

Once I came to that conclusion, I wondered why it was that my school-age self never got the chance to read him. Was, in fact, forced to slave through stories that were boring and verbose, like Last of the Mohicans, instead. How was Dostoyevsky dismissed (never even mentioned, actually) when Romeo and Juliet was crammed down our throats not twice but three times in high school alone? At least I heard about Tolstoy’s massive classic War and Peace, and Hugo’s Les Miserables, though neither ever had a place on our bookshelves nor in our library nor curriculum. So I began thinking about our education system. I began to wonder, what are students actually learning? When English class rolls around and pupils open their textbooks, what greets them?

From my own school days I recall curricula that rarely wavered from writings of the “Big Three” – the US, the UK, and Ancient Greece – with virtually nothing newer than the nineteenth century except for a handful of short fiction and poetry. It never really struck me at the time how little we read of international authors. Even my university literature classes – open to anything written anywhere, anytime – featured little outside the well-worn paths of American, English, and Greco-Roman classics. Just in case we missed them in high school, I guess. I recall only two exceptions: a piece by Voltaire, a Frenchman; and Metamorphosis, by German author Franz Kafka. For crossing borders, that’s a terribly poor selection. Not that those authors don’t have writings worthy of study, but they were the only representatives of the greater world. I had in fact read Kafka’s famous tale as a teenager without realizing he was not American, which seems an even poorer world lit choice. I expected a great deal more out of my “education.”

I expected my horizons to be stretched; I wanted to be introduced to all manner of thing new and exotic (to me, at least). Growing up in rural mid-America and attending a small public school, I understood they operated under certain limitations. There were few frills – no AP classes, no special college jump-start programs. It was a small school with only a handful of faculty and staff, with mostly older buildings and low district millage rates. It was considered a stretch of our horizons to read Antigone (the story of Oedipus was pretty scandalous for the youth of a town with one gas station, one bank, and five churches). But now our “small” public schools have budgets rivaling that of my university alma mater. So I wonder if the latest crop of students are more well-read than my antiquated little class.

I still live in a rural area, very much like the one I grew up in, and I’m going to use the nearest public school as my model. Its middle and high school sections (with adjoining campuses and shared buildings) serve less than 900 students with more than 100 faculty and major staff (not including higher school officials or secondary staff). The middle school includes thirty-five classrooms; the high school has more, though I’m not sure by what margin; and most of the buildings are less than ten years old. Students can compete in eight different sports and graduate with more than 20 college credit hours. Sounds good, right? So let’s see how they measure up via ye olde standardized testing (not the best judge but the most decent judge I have easy access to).

Let me pre-empt these numbers by noting that very little is available on post-8th grade rankings, and virtually nothing prior to 1998. So, for starters at least, I will have to settle for comparing the 8th graders of 2009 to the 8th graders of 1998 to get any picture of the system at all. Now, on with the show. Since we’re talking literature, tests in Reading and Writing seem the most relevant, and from 1998 to 2009, there was a whopping change in our 8th graders statewide. Writing showed an increase of 5% and Reading showed an astounding increase of … [drumroll, please] … 1%. Wow. Wait a second; let me pull my socks back on before plunging ahead. In 1998, 8th graders in the state ranked 29th nationwide in Reading; in 2009, they ranked 41st. In Writing, their ranking fell from 33rd to 36th. But those are statewide and nationwide numbers, not a representation of my model school. So let’s see what else we can find.

According to 2009 literacy test results, my local high school ranked 96 of 253; the middle school section ranked 102 of 299 – both solidly mediocre. Not bad, not good, but I find it very disappointing given the present funding. Compared to what my former high school worked with, this model school is rolling in money. For instance, my high school had unpaved parking lots, not ideal but certainly functional and low maintenance. The model local school recently spent $1,000,000 on one paved parking lot. Let me repeat that: they spent ONE MILLION DOLLARS to prepare and blacktop ONE LOT so visitors and employees could walk to the main building without getting dirt on their shoes. Never mind the curriculum, crushed rock is hell in heels. But maybe their test scores are fantastic and their budget is overflowing with surplus … which I’m presently researching and hope to include in the upcoming Part 2.

As an interesting aside, I checked the state requirements, and the language arts standards specifically mention only “American, British, and Greek/Latin” literature, with later mentions of “and/or other” literatures. No wonder our school featured nothing else; the Big Three were the only outside sources of literature specifically approved by the state.

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What to look for in Part 2:

Local school results
Teachers’ pay versus test scores
State and National test scores
and anything else I run across that looks juicy

Stay tuned.

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I last wrote about breast cancer in my informal “medical series” here on the blog so, to be fair, I’ll now address prostate cancer. Unlike the enthusiastic pink-banner-waving breast warriors-of-awareness, prostate cancer’s agents of information fly below the radar with little hoopla, few public endorsements, and no ribbon brigades. But statistically, prostate cancer is just as prevalent as breast cancer and results in about 30,000 deaths annually.

But how about a bit of good news to start? Most guys are familiar with the “probing finger” method of prostate examination, but how many have heard of the PSA blood test that can also be used? Ideally, the American Cancer Society suggests they be used in conjunction to help identify prostate issues, and generally only after age 50. But, fellas, there’s our loophole; you have the right to request the blood test and forego the finger.

Now, back the issue at hand (no pun intended). Prostate cancer, like many other cancers, increases in probability with age. Roughly two-thirds of cases are diagnosed in men 65 and older. And whereas a 40 year old man has only a 0.01% chance of being diagnosed with prostate cancer, a man aged 75 has a 12.5% chance. Which, incidentally, is twice the odds of a woman the same age being diagnosed with breast cancer. In fact, from age 55 on, men are at a higher probability of prostate cancer than women of the same age are of breast cancer. And over the course of a lifetime, men are over 30% more likely to develop prostate cancer than women are breast cancer. I don’t recall seeing any blue ribbons for that in the New Yorker.

And although men make up less than half of the country’s population, they are more likely to develop cancer of any major class but one. Digestive cancer? More prevalent in men. Respiratory cancer? Men. Bone, skin, brain? Men. Lymphoma, myeloma, leukemia? Still men. The only major class not led by men is cancers of the endocrine system, involving hormones. (And I dare say most men could offer an explanation for why women are number one in that.)

So I think we should begin a blue-ribbon brigade, to save the men. They are a minority in the populace, suffer a shorter average life span than women, and are at higher risk for debilitating disease. If that doesn’t deserve a ribbon, I don’t know what does. But I don’t think we can rely on super-aid-celebrities like Bono to go waving any flags for the cause (mostly because I think he needs to grow a pair first), so men, take a stand for yourselves. Wave your own banners and be your own warriors-of-awareness. And women, if you support the pink ribbon then you need to support the blue one, too. We have to fight for equal rights, equal awareness, and equal funding together, breasts and prostates alike.

Go blue!!

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Cash For Clunkers seems like a pretty good program. Bring in a not-so-great vehicle and get up to $4500 in credit toward a new vehicle, a value virtually no one would get from a traditional trade-in program. There are a few stipulations but nothing outlandish. And it’s helping both the consumer and the economy, right? What could my beef possibly be?

The long-term result. But even the short-term isn’t exactly pretty. Right now, this program is “helping” people buy cars that get “better” mileage than what they had. But $4500 isn’t a great discount on a new car and I don’t know whether most dealerships will allow it to be paired with other incentives or not. If not, buyers are getting screwed. Secondly, the mile-per-gallon average is grossly overestimated and has decreased the last five years or so. Which means buyers get less bang for their buck even when they try to make the best choice. On top of that, until an amendment to the program passed today, August 1, 2009, the cars being turned in were to have their engine blocks “killed” at the time they were traded (officials recommended water glass, a sealant and bonding agent, be run through the engine in place of oil; the damage would be total and irreparable) … except that, at the time of purchase, many buyers do not know if their old vehicle will be accepted into the program. Some dealers required buyers to sign waivers and release forms to indemnify the dealership against damages. Because if the old car wasn’t accepted, or if the new car didn’t meet your standards, or you decided you couldn’t really afford it, or if you needed to back out of the deal in any other way, your old car was already toast. Sorry, Charlie, you said you didn’t want it anymore.

And the long-term outlook is worse.

If you hadn’t noticed, used vehicles are going pretty cheap at the moment. They have been for about, oh, the last eight months or so … since the stock market fell and the country began to worry about ridiculously bloated banking corporations. My biggest beef with this program is how it will take thousands and thousands of perfectly decent used vehicles out of the market. Just how many? Well, using a bit of fuzzy math, I’m going to take the total Cash For Clunkers budget (including the new increase) of $2.95 billion and divide it by 4000, since some people will get a $3500 credit and some get $4500 … and for the sake of brevity I’m going to assume it’s a pretty even split. Okay, now if even 1 in 3 of all those vehicles being turned in were potentially re-salable (I think the average would be much higher than that, but I’ll play devil’s advocate and remain conservative in that respect) that means roughly 245,000 re-salable vehicles will be crushed or shredded by time the program ends.

Want to see a few examples of the “clunkers” being traded in? Here’s a random group provided by the owners themselves.

(Click here to view full-size.)

Yup, those look like total and complete piles of shit. I don’t know how the owners managed to get them to the dealerships for trade-in.

Sarcasm aside, that’s almost a quarter of a million perfectly good cars and trucks, including those above, permanently and irrevocably destroyed. How is that bad? Well, for some sellers it won’t be, because the price of un-crushed used cars will go up. But, ultimately, all those cars and trucks permanently removed from the market will have an effect on prices. What happens when demand remains constant (or increases) but supply diminishes? The price goes up. And that means higher costs for people who can’t afford new cars. It puts one more burden on an already overburdened class and will result in real clunkers getting driven for longer periods because owners can’t afford to replace them. It means greater hardships and fewer choices for low-income owners. And not only will the price of used cars increase, the price of many parts will increase because those hundreds of thousands of vehicles were crushed or shredded with their drive trains intact. (By law, the scrapyards are not allowed to part them out.) So millions of perfectly usable parts will be wasted, salvage operations face a shrinking pool of resources, and low-income car owners foot the bill.

Granted, Cash For Clunkers will probably get some junkers off the road and likely help a section of lower-middle class consumers sign on for a car they couldn’t otherwise afford. But it seems to me that the “cons” here outweigh the “pros.” By far.

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The United States Declaration of Independence carries within it the oft-repeated phrase “…dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”

We know well that it was a lie when it was written, with slaves huddled in tiny attic spaces and tumble-down shacks at the field’s edge, with some children born into wealth and privilege and others – perhaps only yards away – born into poverty and bondage.

This is nothing new. But it hasn’t changed much in the last couple centuries and that, I think, is often overlooked. The fallacy of being “born equal” remains with us though each and every generation proves it is not true. What the phrase really means is, among your own class, you were born relatively equal.  If you were born to a fabulously wealthy family, you will have access to a reasonable share of the opportunities available to others born into fabulously wealthy families.  It’s as close to “equality” as you’re likely to get.  Likewise, if you were born to a poor family in the ghetto, you will have access to the same basic opportunities as your fellow ghetto-ites.  Across a given class, especially narrowed geographically, the “born equal” ideal holds up fairly well.  However, try to cross classes or geographic and/or political boundaries and it falls apart again.

So what’s the point?  Why even make mention of such an idea if it was unattainable when penned and equally impossible some 240 years later?  The optimist could claim it is a goal, a social principle to aspire to even if it is myth.  The realist in me clamors in rebellion.  Socially, governmentally, I imagine the closest we would come to this quaint fallacy would be a communist state.  Work is shared as equally as possible, gains are shared, losses are shared.  No one really “get’s ahead” but no one really “falls behind,” either.  But history has shown us the downfall of such societies and I daresay it’s not one we will soon repeat.  Our governments are hideously stunted, strangled by human imperfection.  Even in its best form, it fails, because we fail.  To err is human.

If it’s inevitable, why does it bother us?  Maybe because a man on a 20-minute lunch break in a 10-hour shift watched a wealthy yacht owner sail out of a quiet harbor with no certain place to be and no certain time to be there. Because a harried cashier watched yet another wealthy family of tourists spend more on baubles than she would see on her paycheck, without a single obligation or legitimate concern mucking up their day.  And I admit, my first thoughts when I see things like that are fairly hateful.  Given the chance, I would push Admiral Yachty right off his boat and run it onto the rocks out of spite, like a kid burning ants with a magnifying glass. I would smile at a slick thief liberating the parents of the Moneybags Family of their wallet and purse. Not because I knew them to be bad people or any such thing, but simply because they could swim away, walk away, and it would amount to nothing but a story for their next cocktail party, a momentary inconvenience.  They would go back to their well-appointed lives with little more than a few ruffled feathers while the common guy was sweating out another 10-hour shift and the cashier was ringing up the next belligerent, overbearing tourists.

I think we all want to feel – even if just for one moment – that money doesn’t matter and there’s no real worry, nothing will happen that a few phone calls won’t set right. We yearn for that level of unfettered, unencumbered freedom. Freedom to essentially do as we please, when we want, how we want, with no one to answer to but ourselves. …And maybe our accountant. My god that must be nice.

Born equal, indeed.

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