Monday, June 28, 2010
Tuesday, June 22, 2010
Sixty-nine years ago today, the Nazi armies started their surprise invasion of the Soviet Union. I was a boy of fifteen at the time, and my strongest memory of the day was this: I was wondering what the (American) Stalinists would say to THAT ! Well , right on cue and within hours, they changed their front organization "American Peace Mobilization" (which advocated staying out of the war) to the "American People's Mobilization" (which demanded and full and energetic participation in the war).
Now, sixty-nine years later, a new detail has captured my interest. Hitler's proclamation to his people on that June 22 (read on the radio by Goebbels -- see the video above) contains the following interesting passage:
As early as 1936, according to the testimony of the American General Wood to a committee of the American House of Representatives, Churchill had said that Germany was becoming too strong again, and that it therefore had to be destroyed.Let us say, for the sake of argument, that there was indeed an "American General Wood" who testified in Washington in 1936. (In that year Stanley Baldwin was prime minister of Britain, who preceded Neville Chamberlain, who preceded Winston Churchill ... but let that pass). What relevance would that have to the Nazi invasion of June 1941 ? It seems that Hitler meant to suggest that this statement from the horse's mouth, as if "by his own admission," would prove, in and of itself, the evil intentions of the British empire.
Hitler was not in the habit of supplying supporting footnotes to his declarations, so now I can only guess at the grain of truth that may be involved here. (I have not made a thorough search of all the scholarship on Hitler's statement). In that period there was indeed a retired Brigadier (one-star) General Robert E. Wood of the US Army, later chairman of Sears, Roebuck and, more importantly, a leader of the America First Committee. So I surmise that Wood may have appeared in Washington in 1936 to speak for his isolationist agenda. What he may or may not have known about Winston Churchill at the time would be anyone's guess. In any case, his testimony would hardly qualify as reasonable evidence concerning Britain's war aims five years later.
Now fast-forward to 2009. Israel is engaged in battle with Hamas in Gaza, and a New York professor, Rashid Khalidi, finds that another general, this time an Israeli, had some years before spilled the beans about Israel's "real" war aims. Here again there are words allegedly from the horse's mouth, so to speak "by his own admission," etc. As I pointed out at the time, even if an Israeli general had said years before what Khalid attributed to him now, that would hardly have been proof positive of what Israel tried to do in Gaza. As it turned, Khalidi's alleged quotation was so completely distorted that what he reported was the contrary of what the general had in fact said. The New York Times, which published Khalidi's statement to begin with, was forced to publish a retraction. (Khalidi himself, however, never retracted and never explained.)
(Click here to see my series of four previous posts on the Khalidi affair, giving all the details)
Now, for those folks who specialize in communication with the dead, can we get Mr. Hitler to retract his reference to "General Wood," or at least explain ? That is not likely, but no less likely than getting Professor Khalidi to do the right thing.
Thursday, June 17, 2010
Let us say that a hospital were to institute incentive-based accountability for doctors as follows: 1) improvement in patient health is to be measured strictly by the numbers; 2) these numbers are to consist exclusively of fever measurements; 3) the more patients improve on fever charts, the more the doctors get paid; 4) whenever patients do not improve by a certain quota of temperature degrees, the doctors are fired to be replaced by newer, younger, more compliant and therefore "better" doctors.
What would happen under this system ? First, doctors would find ways of lowering temperatures (alcohol rubs, etc.) without improving underlying conditions. But even if temperature figures were not to get gamed in this way, any improvement in fever scores could not reasonably be interpreted as improvement in the overall health of the patients.
Well, let us hope that no such "accountability" scheme will ever be used in a public health setting. But in education ? As Diane Ravitch points out in her brilliant new book "The Death and Life of the Great American School System," it is exactly such misleading "accountability" that has taken over our education system.
First, standardized tests (which, like the fever thermometer, certainly have a place if intelligently used) are systematically gamed by teachers and administrators to get desired results. Even where used without deceptive intent, they cannot possibly tell us about the total quality of instruction.
Second, the extraordinary growth of charter schools has weakened the public education system. And nobody has shown that charter school results are superior to public education.
Third, gimmickry has taken over some of our largest school systems. Michelle Rhee, the young new chancellor of schools of the District of Columbia, symbolizes the new belief in quick fixes. With all of three years teaching experience of her own, she has formulated her educational philosophy as follows: a pupil's home background is irrelevant to education; neither poverty nor health nor parental input play any role; nor does a teacher's own background or education. Some teachers are just more effective, she holds, and it is these teachers she wishes to promote. All the others she fires, or tries to fire. Obama (who sends his own children to a very expensive private school) is among Ms. Rhee's many fans. Has her system worked, even in terms of higher test marks ? Not yet, as far as anyone can tell.
But the biggest bombshell of the book is its penultimate chapter, The Billionaire Boys' Club. Guess who is primarily responsible for pushing these pernicious ideas and for financing their adoption ? Among the three prime villains there is one I had up to now thought of as among the angels: Bill Gates of Microsoft, or rather Bill Gates of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Neither he, nor his associates of the Walton and Broad foundations, practice any of the precious accountability that they demand of others. Here are the ultra of the ultra rich, dispensing billions with profligate abandon, dominating educational practice through ill-advised projects, but with nary a side glance at the deeper issues involved in educating our children.
On these broader issues of educational philosophy, Ravitch has all the right instincts (see her last chapter), but she lacks depth. John Dewey, one of the towering figures of American educational thought, is not found in the index. And when it comes to multiple-choice tests -- the be-all and end-all of the new fixers -- Ravitch only skims the surface of necessary criticism.
OK, she hasn't quite written the book I would have liked her to write. But what she has done is giving us a tremendous wealth of detail on what goes on, and especially on what does not go on, in America's schools. For that she deserves our gratitude.