Democrats on Syria, Democrats on Iraq

So…I have a question:

Has anyone else noticed that Kerry and Obama (and thus the entire liberal media establishment) are using exactly the same reasons to get involved in exactly the same kind of “quagmire” that engulfed George W. Bush’s presidency?  You know?  Operation Iraqi Freedom?  That thing every liberal decided they were against after they decided they were for it in 2002?

Kerry’s address on the subject was filled with the following talking points (which have also been stated multiple times by liberal columnists and reporters in various national main stream media outlets):

  • The US has a moral obligation to stop the use of weapons of mass destruction and the cruel oppression of liberty-seeking peoples
  • A regime that would use such chemical weapons is illegitimate and not a sovereign nation with the right to its own defense.
  • A nation that would use WMDs on its own people is a vital security threat to the west.
  • The U.S. does not need international support by a unified coalition – we have the right to choose how to use our own military and the resources to make this choice.
  • This will be a limited engagement and every effort to affect change in Syria will begin with judicious and selective use of force to minimize collateral damage.

Sound familiar to you?

The dogs of war are howling yet again in the Middle East – partially as a result of Obama’s continued incompetence and incoherence regarding the use of his and NATO’s military assets to enforce international law and back the coalitions that represent a real hope for peace.  Time and time again, like a battered spouse, Obama has chosen to back the Muslim Brotherhood (our abuser) on the grounds that this organization best represents the people of the region and that their self-government will leave them more satisfied and less likely to cause problems for the west.  Time and time again, the Muslim Brotherhood – militarily backed by Al Qaeda (that pesky group of terrorists that…um…blew up the World Trade Center…twice!, the USS Cole, the Pentagon, countless embassies in Africa and the Middle East…those guys!) has, surprise surprise, chosen, when handed power, to threaten its neighbors, start internal conflicts, rule with an iron fist.  In Egypt, Libya, Lebanon, Tunisia…and now Syria…pro-liberty coalitions have come to the President and begged for support, and he’s ignored their pleas.  At every turn, Obama has chosen wrongly.  He toppled the (admittedly corrupt) Gaddafi regime in Libya, and our reward for taking that action was the death of four US officials including our ambassador to Benghazi (likely related to a plot by the US to run guns to the Muslim Brotherhood before we realized that they were actually allied with Al Qaeda).  He ignored pro-freedom coalitions in Lebanon and Egypt and favored the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood during the so-called “Arab Spring.”  Civil war-torn Lebanon remains in flames and Egypt – once a reliable and stable westernized ally in the region – is now falling into utter chaos.

The wages of Obama’s conciliatory and pro-Islamist Middle East policy are now being paid in Iraq and Afghanistan (those places Bush attacked about which the media has completely forgotten), where factional fighting continues.  And we’re about to pay the same high price in Syria, where chemical weapons were used by one brutal, totalitarian faction to slaughter the members of another brutal, totalitarian faction.  Bashar al Assad is hardly a leader worth supporting in these trying times, but the alternatives are anarchy (the only thing worse than a totalitarian state) or rule by Al Qaeda (other than that!).  And yet, we are faced with a painful choice – do we do as George W Bush did and go to war to prevent the proliferation and usage of biological, chemical and nuclear weapons on civilians, not to mention rescue our flagging credibility abroad, and in so doing, hand the region over to chaos?  Do we invest ourselves and our capital and human assets in a long ground war where no US interests were at stake (unlike in OIF, where our interest in the energy sector was theoretically it risk)?

Whatever the decision, this mess could have been avoided with better statesmanship and better use of military force in prior conflicts, but that isn’t even the point of this article.  The point, as stated at the top of this piece, is that the very same arguments are now being made to go to war in Syria as were made prior to Operation Iraqi Freedom!  The arguments that the SAME PEOPLE now running our military blithely dismissed as invalid or disingenuous when uttered by the previous administration are now being made by THOSE VERY PEOPLE.

The hypocrisy astounds.

To expand upon that "our problems in education are complex" observation…

In chat the other day, Matt raised the possibility that national standards like the Common Core could work if it were made clear that such standards were meant set a floor, not a ceiling — an absolute minimum that, if not accomplished, would trigger punishment. And yes, he may be right there. However, it does not appear that the states – or testing entities like the College Board – are interpreting the Common Core in that manner. Why, for example, is the College Board kvetching over aligning their AP Calculus to Common Core and kicking around the idea of creating an AP Algebra exam? (Really? Really?) Evidently, someone thinks the Common Core precludes Calculus.

Alas, I must come back to my original conclusion: Our system is so dysfunctional at present that any attempt at standardization will inevitably devolve into a lowest-common-denominator rush to the bottom.

Why the dysfunction? Well, there are no pat answers to that. The problem is multidimensional.

One thing that is probably not a contributing factor? Poverty. Sorry, but you have to look at the history. Once upon a time, the schools in Harlem were capable of turning out a Thomas Sowell. Once upon a time, the children of thousands upon thousands of immigrants – who, by the way, often lived in shabby tenements and labored daily for low wages – went on to become successful middle and upper class professionals after passing through urban public schools. Once upon a time, schools were able to function – and function well! – despite crumbling physical plants and limited resources. Money is not the issue. The economic background of the students is not the issue.

But when leftist defenders of the public schools attribute school failure to socioeconomic factors beyond the schoolhouse walls, they are not entirely in the wrong. There is one social problem that does have a huge impact on the education of our children, and because it strongly correlates with poverty, it’s very easy to mistakenly conflate the two. The problem in question, of course, is the collapse of marriage. When Thomas Sowell was growing up in Harlem, the illegitimacy rate was low. Most children were living in two-parent households. Now, that is no longer the case in poorer neighborhoods (white or minority). In many such neighborhoods, single parenthood has become the norm rather than the exception. And yes — that the child of a single parent is at a tremendous disadvantage right out of the starting gate is incontrovertible at this point. When it comes to teaching children, two heads are better than one.

Of course, marriage inequality is not something the left wants to consider because the solution involves abandoning the libertine ideals of the sexual revolution and actually promoting marriage as a superior environment for child-rearing. Heavens no! Can’t have that!

Another problem the schools are dealing with here is the general decline of our nation’s social capital. Do people get hyped up about the activities of the school board anymore? Evidently not — turn out for a school board election is usually abysmal. As Matt has already observed in a previous post, people no longer feel able to influence the government at the local level, and that is certainly as true for our local schools as it is for our local board of supervisors. We are all focused on the federal government – and yes, I include myself in the meaning of the word “all” – because that is currently where all the power is going. Our political elites have forgotten completely about federalism and subsidiarity and are trying to control everything from the top.

So perhaps those who favor getting rid of the federal DOE and putting the power back into the hands of local governments are on the right track. Perhaps local control does result in empowerment, a feeling of community ownership, and – ultimately – better educational outcomes. The history, once again, would seem to bear that out; when taxes for the schools were collected locally and curriculum decisions were made by the community, our schools were more effective. (Though, yeah, there are a ton of confounding variables in there — like the marriage issue I mentioned above.) Modern Americans are seriously out of practice when it comes to making our own decisions, though. If the feds and the states were to say to our cities, towns and villages, “Hey, it’s totally up to you now,” could we pick up the reigns?

Given the state of civics education in this country, probably not. And that brings us to another big stumbling block: pedagogy. In most of our public schools, high school civics is taught in plodding fashion as a series of discrete facts about the structures and functions of our local, state, and federal governments. It’s all dry technicalities; there’s no meaning in any of it because for some silly reason, we’ve decided to divorce civics from history and teach it separately. No — in order for students to truly understand and appreciate the Constitution, federalism, “checks and balances,” etc., they have to know where it all came from, and that requires diving into the cultural milieu of the 18th century and exploring the genesis of the Founders’ political thought.

And it isn’t just civics that’s taught incorrectly. As I’ve noted on this blog before, our language arts and math curricula are plagued by faddish hogwash – “whole language,” “reform math,” etc. – that hampers our students’ ability to move on beyond the basics. Many, many times, I’ve had to correct my public-school-educated clients because they guess at words based on only the first few letters. I’m not screaming “Look at all the letters and SOUND IT OUT!” in wild-eyed frustration — yet. But I’m getting there. And don’t even get me started on all the high school students who are plugging 8X4 into a calculator — or counting it out on their fingers. These poor kids were taught to draw pictures and explain their answers so they could develop “deep understanding” — and now they’re floundering in upper math because it takes them ten minutes just to re-derive their multiplication facts.

Among teacher educators, a certain pernicious philosophy holds sway — one that views received knowledge (like the multiplication tables or the long division algorithm) as fundamentally suspect. Clear out the cesspools that are our schools of education and funnel our teacher candidates into legitimate, content-oriented academic programs, and our pedagogical problems might be mitigated. Unfortunately, such a plan seems far from feasible; I doubt Bill Ayers and his compatriots will go quietly.

So bah! I’m tempted to throw my hands up in resignation at this point. I’m not really sure what we can do to fix our schools because so many of these problems are fully outside the jurisdiction of the political process. Alas and alack.

Changing My Mind (An Education Post)

As recently as a few years ago, I leaned in favor of national education standards. It alarmed me that the states were reporting internal proficiency numbers that wildly contradicted the NAEP/PISA/etc., and it seemed quite clear to me that some sort of federal brake on rampant cheating would have to be established. What’s more, as a Navy brat and a lifelong public school student, I’d had personal experience getting screwed in a state-to-state move* and consequently felt that some standardization would be beneficial.

Well — I’m here to officially announce that I’ve changed my mind. I still have sympathy for those pushing for such standards; unlike many who oppose the Common Core, I think Bill Gates, et. al. generally have their hearts in the right place and aren’t simply trying to turn us all into brain-washed liberals and/or corporate automatons. Moreover, I’d like to note for the record that my opinion on standardized tests in general has not changed; after years in my current line of work, I remain convinced that such tests do provide useful information. Even the SAT, one of the most hated multiple-guess tests among anti-test activists, measures something valid, as anyone who’s worked with teenagers with combined SAT scores ranging from 900 to over 2100** will tell you.

HOWEVER — federally-established education standards are just not workable. Gaaah, I hate to say that, but they aren’t – not now, and possibly not ever – and the reason is pretty simple: As Kevin Williamson has trenchantly observed in his latest, anything that politics touches turns to crap.

It alarms me, for example, that the Common Core discourages taking Calculus in high school. Granted, the reasoning behind this makes partial sense; as an experienced math tutor, I agree that American students often enter higher math courses woefully unprepared to tackle the material due to weaknesses in foundational skills, and I further agree that said foundation in arithmetic and algebra should be mastered first. But removing Calculus as a goal is, in essence, misdiagnosing the problem. The issue here is not that our students are being rushed through the preliminaries. Ten years (from kindergarten through the ninth grade) is plenty of time for a striver (barring any organic hindrances***) to prepare for Algebra II and beyond provided the curriculum is solid and focused. And there’s the rub! The American math curriculum is neither of those things – indeed, it has been described on more than one occasion as “a mile wide and an inch deep” – and that is the real malady we need to address. Will that happen if we poo-poo taking Calculus at the high school level? No. On the contrary, that will set up perverse incentives not to improve — a disastrous result for the bright-normal inner city kid who probably could take Calculus and become a competent engineer if only he had access to teachers who were willing to push him the way Asian tiger parents push their kids.****

The reality of the situation is this: There are very powerful political players out there who have a vested interest in keeping any national standards regime toothless. Going through the political apparatus, therefore, will result (as we have seen) in standards that are laughable in their lack of rigor. English classes that downplay the importance of wrestling with great literature? Check. A glacially-slow math curriculum that lags behind the international standard? Check. At base, I’m an egalitarian when it comes to education; I want to bring as many of our students as humanly possible up to world-class standards. But the Common Core – and similar initiatives – are not going to make that happen. I think our problems here are much more complex — and not all of them can be solved with legislation.

*In the early 90’s, the schools in Bremerton, Washington, didn’t offer full-year science courses in junior high. Thus, when I transferred to a Virginia public school as a freshman in high school, I was one year behind my honors-level peers and had to take a summer school class to catch up.

**For the confused oldsters out there, those scores are out of 2400. The SAT I now has a writing/grammar section that didn’t exist when you and I took the test.

***Which do exist. Don’t misunderstand my meaning here. I’m fully aware that some students simply won’t be able to master higher mathematics. However, I’ve seen plenty of students with unspectacular IQ’s succeed in the Calculus track solely because they had parents and teachers who set a high standard and then worked their butts off to meet it.

****Which is not to say that I approve of Asian tiger parenting in every particular. It’s just hard not to notice how disproportionately successful the children of such parents are academically even though there’s nothing particularly special about their protoplasm.