[Glenn] Reynolds should rethink his position. Electing someone else to sit in the White House isn’t necessarily going to bring about a federal government that functions better. For that to happen, we need to give our presidents fewer tasks to perform well, rather than asking that they give their attention to everything from childhood obesity to North Korean nukes to stem cell policy to the future of GM to… well, you get the idea.
So I have been following thisconversation on "homework helpers," whether boys are more disorganized than girls, whether this is a real handicap in later life, and whether/how this drives gender gaps in academic achievement. To wit, some disjointed thoughts:
1. To my way of thinking, there is all the difference in the world between "learning how to follow senseless rules for the sake of following senseless rules" and "learning how to follow rules that seem senseless, but in fact actually have some purpose." The latter is quite useful in life and work. The former, not. I recognize that which one is which is somewhat in the eye of the beholder....
2. Yes, learning how to submit things on time and complete is an essential skill. On the other hand, I can remember being scolded in eleventh grade for stapling an essay at a funny angle. My teacher preferred staples at a forty-five-degree angle from the page, and I tended to misfire and let my staples run almost parallel to the horizontal edge of the paper. My good friend Clarissa Dalloway teaches high school in CT, and her students have to hand in one-page journal entries. They are shocked, shocked that she lets them submit papers torn right out of spiral notebooks without lowering their grades. Their previous teacher simply could not abide the ugly, rough scraggly edges. Etc.
3... which brings me to the libertarian crankery. In my experience, workplaces have generally been more tolerant of eccentricity, messiness, and what have you than schools. People who are trying to make stuff and sell it usually have incentive not to create overly complex rules and bureaucracies. In schools, the incentives are different. It's all too easy to get drunk on the power of being a petty despot and terrorize students for poor stapler use or scraggly paper edges. There's nobody looking over your shoulder and asking you,"Yes, but does this really contribute to learning?" Of course there are many wonderful teachers who don't fall prey to bad incentives. But neither most teachers nor most people are angels, and bad incentives do tempt otherwise good people to indulge bad tendencies.
Go to enough libertarian happy hours, and you're bound to hear a rant or two on how government schools socialize kids for passive obedience to the state. A lot of this rhetoric sounds a bit too "the black helicopters are coming for you" for my taste. But I don't think these concerns are misplaced altogether either.
4. So I'm pretty comfortable with schools grading students primarily based on their mastery of material, rather than on "life skills." Note that if organization and so forth actually helps students get A's rather than C's, presumably most will figure this out.
5. As far as I can tell, most other advanced industrial nations have school systems that focus much more heavily on content mastery as measured by high-stakes testing. This is perhaps a single point, but my in-laws have remarked on several occasions that they and other Russian immigrant friends are often shocked by how much the American system values "effort" and other soft factors over getting results come test time. Grading on notebook organization and so forth would be unheard of over there. I don't want to go into the weeds on international comparisons of student test scores here; while America often lags on such comparisons, some commentators claim that it's because a wider range of American students take the relevant tests. Still, to my knowledge nobody claims that America is vastly outperforming peer nations on most such tests. So the international experience suggests that adopting a more results-oriented approach would probably not hurt our students and might well help.
From the ever-thick files of Really Stupid Things Written About Libertarianism comes this gem: (via):
Anytime anyone says anything libertarian, spit on them. Libertarians are by definition enemies of the state: they are against promoting American citizens’ general welfare and against policies that create a perfect union. Like Communists before them, they are actively subverting the Constitution and the American Dream, and replacing it with a Kleptocratic Nightmare.
I would not, actually, mind if people spit on me every time I said something libertarian. I do not own enough expensive accessories for it to much matter if my things get damaged by flying spittle. It is true that I say things that are libertarian several dozen times on a good day, especially if comments like "Good morning, Pnin, how are you today? Would you like pancakes?" can be construed as libertarian.
But the spitters should think through whether they want to devise some kind of counter-spit mechanism for comments that are not really libertarian. Like, imagine that Mark Ames went to a bar with two Koch Fellows. Koch Fellow #1 might say something like, "I want to cut the Department of Education's budet by 85%." Mark Ames might be tempted to spit on him for that remark. Except Koch Fellow #2 might fly out of his seat and proclaim, "Eighty-five percent? Eighty-five %*$* percent? Why not abolish it altogether? Statist!" Koch Fellow #1 might then argue that it is perfectly libertarian to have a federal Department of Education that runs American Indian tribal schools and schools on military bases. But Koch Fellow #2 might not agree. So there would need to be a rule in advance: does Ames spit at the initial remark? Or should he wait until the two libertarians have agreed that this argument is in fact actually libertarian? Or is there some kind of viable counter-spitting procedure? Ames might assume that young libertarians do not spend a lot of time sparring with each other about what views count as libertarian and which do not, but I can assure him that his assumption is entirely wrong.
Law professors and lawyers who have blogs (or, indeed, most any other kind of bully pulpit) like to talk about reforming the law school experience. One of the reforms most commonly proposed is Making Legal Writing More Important. In Legal Writing classes and only in them will aspiring lawyers learn the skills that are Really Important for Success in Practice. Down with the eggheaded doctrinalists, with their "tenure" and their three and four-credit classes (Really Important Subjects should be given three credit, at a minimum) and their allegedly important "scholarship" and graded classes and their other caviar-swilling aristocratic ways! Up with the proletariat, who do the real work of educating lawyers! Indeed, near as I can tell from my admittedly haphazard impressions of the legal reform blogosphere, "Let's Make Legal Writing More Important" is a vanilla platitude akin to "Puppies are cute" and "Chocolate is yummy."
Except... such blog posts inevitably set your loyal contrarian correspondent's teeth on edge.
I went to a forward-thinking institution that tried to make Legal Writing Important. It is true, I believe that they did not normally grant the legal writing faculty tenure, and my Legal Writing professor left (to howls of protest) while I was there because my law school would not let him teach doctrinal classes, reserving that honor for the tenured and tenure-track champagne-swillers who published law review articles in the relevant discipline. Legal Writing classes were also two credits instead of four, a fact that again occasioned howls of protest from most of the students who were not me.
The heart of the problem lay in that in Legal Writing classes that are actually important, professors have two goals that are directly in tension with one another: first, to get everyone up to some bare minimum of competence so that not even the lowest-ranked students embarrass themselves in their summer clerkships and first jobs; and, two, to generate a forced curve along which it is easy to sort students into A/B/C categories. In schools where Legal Writing is not actually important, Goal #1 is quite easily accomplished. One gets lots of drafts of a memo and a brief, which means lots of revisions, lots of hand-holding, lots of bites at the apple, and everyone eking out a nice pretty P for Pass. But at schools where Legal Writing is actually supposed to be important, all of this hand-holding tends to result in extraordinarily flat curves. Keep in mind also that 50% of the class at most American law schools scored within two or three LSAT points of one another and is similarly well matched in terms of work ethic as measured by undergraduate GPA, again pushing curves toward flatness.
So what is a well-meaning Legal Writing instructor to do? One could cut out some of the hand-holding and generous multiple draft policy, but that might mean that some students would have trouble attaining Goal #1. Instead, often as not, mine tended to keep the generous rewrite policies in place, but instead grade us rigorously for compliance with arbitrary or entirely false grammar and style rules. My favorite entirely false rule was said instructor's stubborn instance that passive voice was always wrong, when in fact it is often stylistically undesirable but not technically wrong. He also had the charming habit of insisting that verbs in the pluperfect -- e.g. "Professor Throttlebottom had addressed the Federalist Society once before he gave the keynote speech last year" -- were actually passive and thus marking them wrong.
I am actually writing this post in a fit of PTSD because my professor also marked us down for using "since" and "because" interchangeably. I suspected then that this rule made no sense whatsoever, since the New York Times and much of the rest of the respectable world seemed to be with me. Today Eugene Volokh weighs in and informs his blog readers that writers have been using "since" to mean "because" since approximately 1450. My fellow offenders on this score include Shakespeare, Swift, Defoe, and Austen. While it is nice to be proven right, I can't help but feel a bit sorry for law students who may be caught up in similar experiences now. Also, I'd like to try to prevent them from spreading if I can.
Finally, I suppose I should pull apart some of the dimensions of "importance" that I have deliberately muddled together for maximum comic effect. I suppose my core argument here is really one against letter grades, at least at the many American law schools at which most students fall within an extremely compressed range of the I.Q. and conscientousness curves.* If one takes away letter grades, then I'm not sure what argument remains for making Legal Writing worth more credit hours. The arguments against granting Legal Writing profs tenure are perhaps more complicated. Because I'm inclined to oppose tenure for even pointy-headed doctrinal profs, I suppose I'm not the best person to expound on why it isn't necessary to expand the institution. But inasmuch as many Legal Writing professors' arguments for it come down to "You need to raise our status vis-a-vis professors of doctrinal classes because our subject is more important!", I don't find their pleas convincing.**
*This is perhaps a separate post, but I don't think the same argument applies against grading in doctrinal courses. High-stakes exams do generate pretty bell-shaped curves pretty easily, which is why doctrinalists find them useful. I suppose also that Goal #1 is less important here. Minimum proficiency in Crim Law isn't important to a future practictioner of Corporate Law. There is the bar, but the standard prep courses are pretty well designed to bring people over minimum competency thresholds.
While these facts are well-known to regular readers of this blog, I am married to one eggheaded doctrinalist and work for another, which I suppose might indicate conflict of interest. Maybe, although I held these views on not making Legal Writing more important years before I met either. Also, on information and belief, neither swills champagne much and only one of them likes caviar.
**I suspect there is a Baptists and bootleggers dynamic at work here. Many of these people want tenure because they want more money and job security. The bits about how their subject is really, really important may well be a polite rationalization, even though most of these people wouldn't admit it to themselves. Fair enough. I'm attacking them on their Baptist claims. My husband has perhaps better responses to the bootlegger claims.
In modest enough fashion, Joseph Ashby recounts the ordinary but nevertheless impressive story of how he and his wife worked full time while putting themselves through college during the first year of their marriage. Despite all that, they were “resolved not to let schooling keep us from starting a family,” he remembers, so aside from classes he worked as a landscaper, she answered phones at a customer service center, and they conceived a child. “Our plan was simple: put in the heavy work hours while we could, pay off the car, set aside money for the pending baby, and save as much as we could after that,” he writes, so they got rid of their cell phones, washed clothing in the tub to save trips to the laundromat, studied rather than getting a full night’s sleep, spent long Saturdays mowing lawns, and otherwise lived as ascetic an existence as they could.
Baby arrived! Sleep declined. Then tax time came, and “we felt like something had to be wrong. Our tax liability (mostly payroll) was more than we had paid in rent over the entire year…” The experience caused the author to set out on a quest “to answer certain fundamental questions about government.” This being a book of essays about conservatism, you can imagine his conclusion: the tax burden is too high...n modest enough fashion, Joseph Ashby recounts the ordinary but nevertheless impressive story of how he and his wife worked full time while putting themselves through college during the first year of their marriage. Despite all that, they were “resolved not to let schooling keep us from starting a family,” he remembers, so aside from classes he worked as a landscaper, she answered phones at a customer service center, and they conceived a child. “Our plan was simple: put in the heavy work hours while we could, pay off the car, set aside money for the pending baby, and save as much as we could after that,” he writes, so they got rid of their cell phones, washed clothing in the tub to save trips to the laundromat, studied rather than getting a full night’s sleep, spent long Saturdays mowing lawns, and otherwise lived as ascetic an existence as they could.
Baby arrived! Sleep declined. Then tax time came, and we felt like something had to be wrong. Our tax liability (mostly payroll) was more than we had paid in rent over the entire year..... The experience caused the author to set out on a quest “to answer certain fundamental questions about government.” This being a book of essays about conservatism, you can imagine his conclusion: the tax burden is too high. But the faulty logic that Ashby employs to get there is problematic, especially if he hopes to persuade an educated audience of non-conservatives that he is right.
The essay’s personal narrative is weakened by the fact that a married couple with a child and both husband and wife qualifying as full-time students don’t actually face a particularly high tax burden, especially if they are making a typical customer service and landscaping wage.
[snip] Ashby then turns to various works about government to understand his dilemma, and he figures out that there are roughly two principal worldviews addressing justice and redistribution:
The first philosophy would seem to prohibit taxation entirely in a just society. The second philosophy is too vague to be usefully descriptive — what exactly is relative economic equality? — but however defined, neither worldview describes very well the philosophy that is the reigning consensus among many Americans: put roughly, some redistribution is justified to care for the least well off, but beyond that debt to society people are by and large free to keep what they earn and spend money on what they wish. The devil is in the details, and there are intense disagreements about degree, but it’s a glaring omission when you don’t include a middle ground so big it encompasses John F. Kennedy and Milton Friedman.
I have mixed feelings about some other sections of the essay; I'm more skeptical than Friedersdorf is, for example, that federal redistribution was quite so vital to helping people through the Depression. Also, while I respect Ashby's decision to have a child while young and lead the ascetic lifestyle necessary to support that choice, I am less convinced that his "personal story of self-reliance and delayed gratification" is one that "anyone in a similar position would do well to emulate." Deferring childbirth for a few years so that one can more easily afford a mere $3 or so per week for laundry (!) may be a perfectly defensible choice for many. Then again, we've already established that I have stronger hedonistic spendthrift tendencies than Conor Friedersdorf does. Still, however, an interesting read.
I appreciate much of Joe Asch's blogging about Dartmouth and specifically about Board of Trustees, but this post about the College's new academic trustee Annette Gordon-Reed was a bit off the mark. Specifically:
1. Asch notes that Gordon-Reed formerly taught at New York Law School, which he states is not affiliated with another undergraduate institution. He remarks a second time on Gordon-Reed's teaching career at an "unaffiliated law school." His point appears to be that she is somehow less qualified to be a good trustee than a law professor who teaches at a law school affiliated with an undergraduate institution.
I'm skeptical of that. I graduated law school less than three years ago myself; my husband is a legal academic who teaches at the same institution as Todd Zywicki; and I work as an advisor and assistant to yet another law professor in her capacity as a federal government official. So I spend quite a bit of time around the breed. And... from what I can tell, most law professors spent minimal time interacting with undergraduate faculty and students. They have more than enough to do within the four walls of their respective law schools. Indeed, gaining perspective on the needs of GMU undergrads might be especially challenging for Professor Zywicki, as the law school and undergrad campuses are half an hour's drive away from each other and very different places culturally.
2. I have mixed feelings about the omission of her recent career at NYLS. Yes, as Asch says, it's less impressive than the institutions where the others taught. On the other hand, lateral moves are common in the legal academy. Lots of people start out at a law school less prestigious than where they finally end up. It seems begrudging, a little bit petty, to hold her pre-Harvard career against her. Note also that while NYLS is not high-prestige, it's in a high-demand city, and so therefore might be more attractive to junior prawfs than a higher-prestige job in a remote location. Gordon-Reed's husband is also a lawyer, which might also have constrained her options higher up the academic totem pole.
3. The points about the D's different emphasis in covering the Zywicki/Smith elections aren't really fair either. Todd Zywicki was elected to the Board of Trustees in 2005 and Stepen Smith in the spring of 2007, before any of the D's current editors or writers matriculated as freshmen. Different editorial boards can have different priorities, and it's entirely possible that the current crop simply thinks that academic perspectives are more important than did their predecessors three or five years ago. It's also possible that both groups of editors are all flaming liberals, of course, and that they're hellbent on doing whatever possible to make liberal trustees look good and conservative ones look bad. Perhaps, but it's in better taste to give them the benefit of the doubt.
Since then, I have been carded twice. Once at my younger cousin's wedding, the second time at our own post-wedding reception. The bartender seemed somewhat embarrassed when he realized that I was the (presumably non-child) bride being honored. I am not sure exactly how many times total I have tried to procure alcohol in the last 51 days, but I think that that was two out of five occasions. The other three involved buying wine at Whole Foods in Arlington, ordering a beer at Harry's Tap Room, and taking a glass of wine from a bottle ordered by the table at a work dinner.
Pnin's dental hygienist also asked him on Day 33 of the marriage if I am pregnant yet. He explained that she is Russian and speaks to him in Russian, and that Russians tend to be more blunt about this sort of thing than are Americans.
I feel like this juxtaposition expresses something profound, but I am not sure what it is.
So I read the essayto which Amber linked a few days ago encouraging men to care more about their looks. I thought about writing something -- either here or at that thread -- in response,but Phoebe's response covered most of what I'd have said. That is: yes, heart of original essay writer in right place. At the same time, yes, the greater emphasis on women's looking good comes at a cost. At its most tragic, the female obsession with weight leads to hospitalization and even death from eating disorders. But even setting aside those extraordinary cases, as Phoebe indicates, there's a whole lot of garden variety neurosis among women who look perfectly fine that doesn't really do anyone any good. So, those points made, I left the whole alone in favor of rambling instead about the evils of the Ron/Hermione pairing.
But to another related issue, which I was mulling mid-long-walk-around the neighborhood this weekend: it's a shame that so much of the discourse around exercise in this country focuses around shaming and sin, rather than aesthetics. Mary Eberstadt's "Is Food the New Sex?" focused on our grimly Puritan approach to calorie intake. But the same neo-Puritan aesthetic permits "redemption" from the sin of eating: there's at least one gym named Redeem Yourself Fitness in the world, as well as handy-dandy chartstelling us precisely how many minutes of different forms of exercise will permit us to recover eating "sin" foods. Relevant numbers of Hail Marys and Our Fathers are not included.
The dominant aesthetic of gyms I've visited seems in line with this. I occasionally observe women circa age forty-five at mine, marching around with iron bars across the backs of their shoulders and/or occasionally with heavy metal chains around their necks, while a (no doubt expensive) personal trainer barks orders at them. Their faces have these looks of grim determination: they can do this, they will lose the weight! The whole aesthetic reeks uncomfortably of Jean Valjean's prison scenes in films of Les Miserables. (Stealing a loaf of bread, eating too much bread; perhaps all the same thing?) I find myself longing for crows' feet in a probably misplaced attempt at farewell to arms, to renounce nubility out of solidarity.
It need not be, of course. Physical movement can be beautiful. Just think of all of those lovely Greek nudes of gorgeous men partaking in sport!Murrayian elitist though it makes me, I can stomach yoga largely because I can look at least somewhat graceful while doing it. There's a connection, however weak, to thousands of years of Indian tradition. There's elegant bending and stretching. There is a noticeable lack of grunting, chains, and/or iron bars.
While I'm sure this is fanciful, it would be wonderful if Michelle Obama's much-discussed exercise campaign tried to infuse a little bit of much-needed Hellenism into our painfully Hebraistic national discourse on exercise. Though I'm sure I disagree with about 96% of her policy views, I'm happy to give her points for Jackie O.-esque glamor. So she might be an aesthete deep down. Unfortunately, her website doesn't leave me optimistic. The typeface and graphics are more blandly corporate PowerPoint than anything else, and the content is mostly nanny-state-esque finger wagging.
Not surprisingly, the private sector has been better at imbuing other sectors of the health movement with much-needed Hellenism. As Virginia Postrel has said about the successes of the locavore food movement: "The local-food movement's ideological parochialism would be dangerous if it were somehow enacted into law. But as persuasion, it tends to focus on the positive: the delights of local peaches and fresh cider, not the imagined evils of Chilean blueberries and prepeeled baby carrots. In this regard, it resembles the English Arts and Crafts movement of the late 19th century. William Morris, who is remembered today more for his wallpaper and book designs than for his social theories, didn't manage to overturn the industrial revolution. But he and his allies left a legacy of beautiful things. Pleasure is persuasive." Indeed: would that the exercise sector of the movement -- whether gently encouraging men and women alike to find new forms of delight -- would focus on same.
4. I should probably write something longer about this. But in the meantime, let me note that I suspect the author's right that most of the hostility directed at the right on elite campuses is directed at social conservatives rather than libertarians and that this all is kind of tribal and aesthetic. N.b. that *most* -/- all, and I did occasionally hear unpleasantness directed at libertarians when I was in such schools. But I think I had an easier time than did true believer social conservatives.
Here's another tale from my "men are from Mars, women are from Venus, but I am from Vulcan" file: Eugene Volokh has a summary of a Georgia appellate case involving a prosecutor who, mid-closing-argument on a murder victim's birthday, brought out a birthday cake and began singing "Happy Birthday" to the victim.
All 2Ls at my law school had to enroll in its Trial Techniques program, which culminated with us having to try a mock case in front of mock juries drawn from the local community. In contrast to real life, we student lawyers got to watch the mock jury deliberations and then got to listen to feedback from the jurors afterwards. A number of my jurors came from a paralegal program at a local community college, or something similar (I may be misremembering the details of what they were studying.)
Anyway, they had seen the birthday cake trial that Eugene wrote about on a field trip for their educational program. They LOVED it. Positively thought it was sheer brilliance. They understood that it was not our fake murder victim's birthday and so that we could not have literally done the same thing. But really, our performance had been disappointingly colorless by comparison. If we took home anything, it should have been the need for more drama.
I had an Advanced Con Law paper to polish that night, but I remember putting it off for a nice stiff drink. After a glass or two, I concluded, "Well, there's always civil lit. And blessed are those who wrote Rule 56 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure..."
I don't have an opinion on the substantive legal issues in the appellate decision itself to which Eugene linked. But for good or ill, I understand why that prosecutor decided to risk that stunt. And perhaps why the defense lawyer hesitated to interfere with the performance.
Pnin and I were discussing last night why it is that so few of the intellectual female characters prominent in pop culture wind up with equally intellectual guys. We started off talking about Hermione Granger from the Harry Potter series. Most of the other examples that came readily to mind -- Willow Rosenberg from the Buffy series, or Rory from Gilmore Girls -- didn't pair up with especially more intellectual boyfriends. It's all the odder because the "only when like marries like can there be any happiness" appears to explain many more pairings in our lives. Survey data also indicate that, inasmuch as educational attainment and intellectual orientation are related, our friends' experiences here are typical.
I suggested the need to develop characters and generate drama. The Willow plus Oz relationship helps the writer show her breaking out of her nerd girl shell to date a cool band guy. Ditto for Hermione and her dashing Qudditch player Herr Krum. But, Pnin suggested, why not then a guy who was intellectual *and* socially skilled or athletic? Most of us had an acquaintance like that in high school, right, so it can't be all that impossible? I scratched my head and couldn't come up with a good such relationship drawn from pop culture. It's true also that stable relationships make for uninteresting television or plot interest in a series of novels. But I can't think of many more examples in which intellectual heroines *end up* with intellectual guys either.
I'm not sure literary fiction is much better in this regard. George Eliot understood how to write intellectual female characters, perhaps better than any other female novelist ever has. Yet she has Maggie Tulliver die ignominously in a flood, and Dorothea Brooke's first marriage to the intellectual Casaubon floundered disastrously. She finds some happiness eventually with his much younger nephew Ladislaw, who has some intellectual inclinations, but that part of his personality isn't emphasized. On the other hand, I suppose Jane Eyre and Rochester count as a marriage of co-intellectuals of sorts?
3. This cookbook is excellent. It came in as a registry item, and I'm so glad it did. I don't know about other people, but I find it so easy to get excited about making interesting main courses and neglect side dishes. It's also nice that it's organized by season.
4. I had a request from a friend to write something about this Matthew Yglesias piece on law school licensing. I agree with the thrust of it. That is, it's good that the cartel is breaking down and that that is making it easier for the poor to get legal services. At the same time, we're in a weird intermediate period where the cartel hasn't quite broken down enough that aspiring lawyers have many cheap training options. The ABA accreditation rules still make law school wildly expensive for most. Many of the requirements that make legal education expensive, such as restrictions on what type of materials the law library must contain, probably do little to improve the education of lawyers. (Many of the specified materials on that list are available online for free or can be obtained easily online if the school provides student with Westlaw and/or Lexis access.) I hope things shake out so that a weakened cartel means less debt and lower salaries, but who could tell what direction the profession will wind up taking.