30 May 2010

Greedy Physician Bastards

Filed under: Culture, Reflections — ktismatics @ 7:50 am

In pushing toward what passed as healthcare reform legislation, supporters from both parties promoted a core commitment: we want doctors to make treatment decisions, not government bureaucrats or greedy insurance companies. As this news story reminds us, doctors also contribute to the healthcare greed factor.

Medicare, the federally-run health plan for retirees, accounts for about 20% of all healthcare expenditures in the US. In effect Medicare functions as a government-run insurance company, negotiating contracts with doctors, hospitals, pharmas, etc. and reimbursing them for services they deliver to covered health plan members. By most accounts Medicare runs a pretty tight ship, incurring lower overhead costs than private insurers while delivering equal or better health outcomes. Medicare also costs less than private insurance. That’s largely because Medicare negotiates tough contracts, reimbursing the various provider sectors at lower rates than do private insurers.

The federal reform bill, in order to cover some of the costs of increased access to care, imposed fees on private health insurers, pharmas, and medical device manufacturers. The legislation also included some cuts in Medicare, specifically to privately-administered Medicare plans, home care, and selected hospital expenses.

Now comes the time for Congress to decide about Medicare reimbursement rates for physicians. A 21% cut had previously been agreed upon, but the effective date for implementing the cut has repeatedly been delayed. The doctors of course would like to see the effective date pushed back indefinitely or, better yet, eliminated altogether. Democratic Party leadership, including Obama and Pelosi, have assured the AMA that they will stop the pay cut. But the doctors and their lobbyists aren’t satisfied with that: they want other Medicare cuts mandated in the reform bill to be spent on an increase in Medicare physician reimbursement rates.

Just listen to this sob story cited in the linked article:

“In the past two years, (lawmakers) keep coming up to the deadline — or a little past it — and waiving the cuts for shorter and shorter periods of time, which makes us uneasy,” said Dr. Susan Crittenden, a primary care physician practicing near Raleigh, N.C. “The current uncertainty about what the fee schedule will be, and whether at some point there will be a 20 percent cut, makes it harder to accept new Medicare patients,” Crittenden said. Although government surveys indicate that Medicare beneficiaries’ access compares favorably to that of privately insured patients, doctors and patients say that’s not always the case. Crittenden’s practice takes very few new Medicare patients, since the program pays her medical group well below private insurers’ rates. “I like to take care of older adults, but I have rent to pay, and a staff to pay,” she explained.

Of course this sort of alarmist rhetoric is aimed at retirees and their lobbyists: get us more money or we’ll quit taking care of you. It’s a thinly-veiled extortion threat. In this human-interest vignette the Feds come off as the villains, while the private insurers are implicitly portrayed as the good guys. Because private insurers pay them a living wage the doctors are less anxious, able to pay the rent and the staff, able to satisfy their longing to take care of old people. Hey, whatever it takes.

I noticed that Dr. Crittenden makes no mention of her thwarted desire to treat poor people, whose Medicaid reimbursement rates are indexed at a discount even below the Medicare rates. Like many other doctors, she probably already stopped accepting Medicaid patients some time ago. Besides, there’s no political leverage to be gained by calling attention to poor people’s lack of access to care. Most voters believe that they’ll never become chronically unemployed, but they do look forward to a comfortable retirement in which their healthcare needs are taken care of.

Physician fees account for less than one-fourth of all US healthcare costs. However, doctors also control access to all the other expensive healthcare goods and services: they prescribe drugs and lab tests and medical devices, they admit patients to hospitals and long-term care facilities, and so on. Consequently, all these other industry lobbyists support the doctor-centered model of care, which of course means embracing the proposed increases in physician reimbursement.

According to this governmental report, primary care physicians in the US earn about $186,000 per year on average; for specialists it’s $340,000. Not surprisingly there’s a shortage of primary care docs nationwide, while the vast majority of med school students plan to train as specialists. Physicians in the US are paid more than 5 times the average wage; French physicians, in contrast, make a bit more than twice the national average. Is American doctoring worth it? According to most empirical studies with which I’m familiar, health outcomes and adherence to evidence-based practices are no better in America than in France. And, as has been widely observed, population health is worse in the US than in France.

Most physicians in the US work for themselves, either as individuals or as members of physician-owned group practices. They make money by working, and there are no outside investors who skim a share of doctors’ revenues as profit. In a sense doctors are the champions of an anarcho-syndicalist economy in which workers own the means and the output of production. Somehow I’m not sure I want a healthcare system controlled by these particular working-class heroes, any more than I want it controlled by the for-profit insurance companies or by the corporate employers who hire insurers to manage their employees’ health benefit plans.

28 May 2010

More Kenzie Art

Filed under: Reflections — ktismatics @ 11:07 am

In honor of our daughter Kenzie completing her third year of high school, here are three more of her paintings.

“Medusa” (acrylic) This piece won the “People’s Choice Award” at the Jared Polis Congressional Art Show earlier this month. Jared Polis is the U.S. Representative from our district. He made his fortune by launching an online greeting card company, so he’s probably always been into art. Polis actually attended the Show and handed out the awards, so Kenzie had a chance to chat with him a bit. He seems like a nice guy.

“Noche de los Muertos” (acrylic)

“The Bauble” (watercolor)

26 May 2010

Bachelor’s Degree Equivalency

Filed under: Culture, Psychology — ktismatics @ 3:18 pm

On a prior thread here, as well as in recent discussions at Perverse Egalitarianism and Hyper Tiling, it’s been observed that higher education is too often regarded as a consumer good, bought by students and sold by colleges and universities. For undergrads the most valuable educational commodity is the bachelor’s degree, required as an eligibility requirement by many employers and by graduate schools. The degree is bought in installments as it were: once you accumulate the required number of credit hours you get the sheepskin. Colleges charge a lot of money per credit hour, and the bill has to be paid by somebody — the government, the student, rich patrons of private colleges — if those credit hours are going to be credited to the student’s account. Even if a student takes on the formidable task of self-study, amassing as much knowledge as does a traditional college degree recipient, there is no badge of achievement to be bestowed on the autodidact. Only formally-accredited colleges and universities can award the bachelor’s degree, and they award degrees only to students who enroll in and pass the required number of courses.

But why couldn’t there be an equivalent to the bachelor’s degree?

There’s an equivalent to the high school diploma, at least in the US and Canada. Students who pass the standardized GED tests receive a high school equivalency certificate, accepted by most employers and by 95% of US colleges. That’s fairly remarkable, since the GED certificate-holder tends to carry a public stigma: it’s widely assumed that the GED betokens academic failure in high school, behavior problems that got the kid expelled, perhaps teen motherhood for girls. I’ve not looked into research about how well the GED kids perform at the next level; I do know that my cousin, who dropped out of high school and who eventually got her GED, later earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees.

On the other side of the spectrum, bright and industrious students can earn college credits while still in high school. High scores on standardized Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate exams and essays can be worth up to two years of college credit hours. The student pays a fee for AP and IB evaluations, but the price is minuscule compared to college tuition. Of course these courses aren’t free: they’re taught by high school teachers as part of their salaried job. But that’s interesting in its own right: these are successful teachers of college-level courses who typically have at most a bachelor’s degree in the subjects they’re teaching.

It’s even possible to earn an associate degree — the terminal degree awarded by community colleges — simultaneously with a high school diploma. Unlike IB and AP courses, these dual-enrollment programs don’t target the highest-aptitude students; rather, they’re intended for kids who, often for financial reasons, don’t expect to continue their educations after high school. Apparently the added challenge and incentive of the dual-enrollment option also tends to keep more kids in high school who otherwise would be at high risk of dropping out.

It’s not like a bachelor’s degree is some sort of standardized product. Requirements differ quite widely by school and by majors. Even within a particular school, two profs might teach the same course very differently, using widely disparate teaching materials, imposing very different expectations on their students. The high school AP and IB courses present far more uniformity than do the “real” college courses for which they serve as equivalents. “Real” college professors might deem this level of standardization a bad development, turning education into a production line that minimizes the importance of individuality among professors and students alike. Maybe so, but isn’t there always the danger of mystification and fetishization in claiming that the essence of one’s product cannot be reduced to formulaic specification and quantification, even when the very high price charged for that product is very precisely specified and quantified indeed?  Still, standardization can be done, and it is being done successfully in the case of AP and IB.

Why not take educational standardization even farther: not just two years’ of college credit, but four; not just an associate degree, but a bachelor’s degree? Let some panel of professors agree upon what should constitute adequate preparation generally and in specific subject areas to qualify for the undergraduate degree. Broadly specify the course curriculum and readings; organize discussion sessions either in person or on line; conduct standardized exams; have the experts evaluate the exams, essays, and theses. Students who qualify could earn a bachelor’s degree without ever setting foot in a traditional college lecture hall or, more importantly, without paying the exorbitant and always-increasing tuition expense. I’m sure the brick-and-mortar universities will want protect their product. Fine: call it a B.A. or B.S. equivalent then. If it’s done right, I think the word would eventually spread among employers and grad schools that the equivalent really is equivalent.

Still Not Persuaded

Filed under: Culture, Psychology, Reflections — ktismatics @ 6:15 am

When I woke up way too early this morning I was thinking, based on yesterday’s discussion of my last post, that I’m still not persuaded about the value of perpetuating the present post-secondary educational system. To dismantle all collective learning, relying entirely on individual self-study via books and websites: I agree, that’s not a very good alternative. But surely some some sort of mutual learning-teaching circuitry could be strung together.

Carl says that college students need motivation to learn and encouragement to keep trying, and I don’t doubt it. Everybody needs at least an occasional outside boost to their own inner motivation; everyone needs someone to help them believe in their own ability to do something hard if they keep at it. But couldn’t students motivate and encourage each other, without paying somebody else to do it?

As things currently stand, students surely do motivate each other to an extent in the classroom. But given the way the goals of the process are set up, education tends to devolve into a solo game. Each high schooler is trying to squeeze a few more points onto the GPA and SAT so he or she can compete for the highest-prestige colleges. And how do the students identify those desirable colleges? Mostly it’s by the cumulative GPAs and SATs of the students currently enrolled there. At least implicitly the aspiring collegians are expecting to join a cohort of their intellectual peers in a mutual learning environment. But then they get to college and it’s still mostly about squeezing a few more points onto the GPA in order to compete for jobs and grad school at the next level.

Schools and teachers have historically established communal enclaves that honor and embody the higher standards of truth, knowledge, thought, imagination. Students strive toward achieving those higher standards of learning; teachers demonstrate, encourage, and lead the way toward mastering the standards and pushing their boundaries even farther. All that is good. I’d just like to see the collective power of students to motivate and encourage one another be more effectively brought into play.

If investor-dominated capitalism perpetuates itself in the daily practices of everyone who participates in it, then the current structure and practice of higher education seems too willingly complicit in that perpetuation. If we want to move toward something closer to anarcho-syndicalism, it’s almost surely not going to kick in once the students leave school and take paying jobs. The workplace already presents a pretty compelling collective motivation: maximize corporate profits. From inside the corporate world it’s hard to resist, either individually or collectively, the persistent motivation and encouragement, not to mention the demand, to contribute to the bottom line. Something has to give, and usually it’s the workers’ shared commitment to standards of excellence. Clearly the marketplace dominance of money over excellence is a prime reason why so many of the brightest college students say that they’d rather not, striving mightily to stay as long as they can in the relatively idealized university environment. But the ivy-covered walls are being breached: funding gets squeezed, professorial jobs get scarcer, the universities seem more and more like industrial training facilities.

I suspect I’m being a bit post-apocalyptic in my imaginary overhaul of higher education, anticipating how the traditions and standards could be perpetuated if the money for higher education suddenly dried up. Would kids all go straight from high school into paying jobs, learning only what their employers require of them in order to contribute to the bottom line? Or would the higher learning standards still issue a call that at least some could hear and heed? Even if no money changed hands, could learners voluntarily band together to honor the higher standards, to strive together toward them, to push their boundaries? In short, could learning take place entirely divorced from the capitalistic flows of money and power, flows that are fueled by individuals competing with each other to further the interests of the investor class?

For an increasing number of prospective college students the apocalypse is already here, with the ever-higher price tag of a university education being out of reach. The economy has already collapsed through aggressive lending and excessive borrowing; even so, prospective college students are encouraged to take on massive student loans with the expectation that the investment will pay off later in the form of higher-paying career opportunities. In order to pay off those loans, the graduate is immediately locked into an economic climate in which earning the greatest amount of money takes first priority. And what if those jobs aren’t there in four years? Defaults, personal bankruptcies, the public footing the bill on piles of toxic federal loans. And if the jobs dry up, where do the higher tax revenues come from to cover those bad student loans? Borrowing, again.

Maybe in fantasizing a tuition-free, cooperative model of college education I’m being a kind of accelerationist, pushing toward the apocalypse. But I’m thinking, why wait for disaster to strike? Maybe an imagined post-apocalyptic scheme could be better than the one we’re trying to preserve. Talk is cheap; so are books: you could rig up a pretty powerful system with just those two components.

Of course nobody is going to hire me to redesign higher education, or any other industry for that matter, along the lines of an anarcho-syndicalist model. And God knows I’m no inspirational leader. I’m told that impractical ideologically-motivated schemes sap energy from making incremental improvements in what already exists. I have a hard enough time distinguishing between fiction and reality, between what could easily be and what couldn’t possibly be. But as I’ve said often enough before: hey, it’s just a blog post. I’d originally written this rant as a comment on yesterday’s thread, but it got too long. Now it’s a new post. I’ve already got yet another education-related post queued up, but I’ll stick this editorial commentary in here first.

23 May 2010

Stop Paying Professors to Teach

Filed under: Culture, Psychology, Reflections — ktismatics @ 6:18 am

Two people graduate from high school. Both are deemed adults by their society: they can drive, vote, rent an apartment, join the military, go to jail, get married. (Paradoxically in the US, they can’t drink alcohol legally.) They can reproduce. One of these two people goes to college; the other takes a job. The one who goes to college pays; the one who takes a job gets paid. They’re both learning something new, by means of written learning materials, guidance from masters in the field, discussion, self-study, and practice. After a year the college student has 3 more years to go until graduation; the one who took a job can do work at a professional level of competence.

Two people graduate from college. One goes to graduate school; the other takes a job. The grad student neither pays nor is paid; the one who took the job gets paid. They’re both learning something new, by means of written learning materials, guidance from masters in the field, discussion, self-study, and practice. After a year both the grad student and the one who took a job can do work at a professional level of competence.

Adults are capable of learning on their own, without having to pay professionals to teach them. They can read, think, discuss, ask questions of those who know more than they do. Teachers can be beneficial to adult learning, having greater expertise than the students. Teachers can also infantilize their adult students by perpetuating dependency relationships firmly established in childhood. Quantitatively or qualitatively, it’s not clear whether adult students learn better among themselves or under the supervision and tutelage of an expert.

Adult students can be useful to experts. Beginning by performing menial tasks, students can rapidly acquire the skills and knowledge required to attain some core competencies in their professors’ areas of expertise, even becoming active contributors to the professors’ research. It would seem a fair trade for the professors to guide the students’ learning in exchange for the students’ labor as research assistants. What about students who want only an overview of several academic disciplines, without gaining competence as a practitioner in those disciplines? Give them a set of standard reading materials and a forum for discussion and let them have at it. Or an advanced student who is attaining competence in that field can teach — just as grad students often do now.

I don’t see why college shouldn’t be organized like graduate school. No money changes hands. Students learn, gradually attaining competence in doing work in the fields they study. Professors do research, benefiting in their labs from the work their students gradually learn to perform. It’s still not quite as good a deal for the students as taking a paying job, but it’s better than having to pay their own money — or their parents’ money or the taxpayers’ money — to do something they could do on their own or in a cooperative exchange with professors that’s mutually beneficial.

Why isn’t college organized this way? In part it’s because a college degree is widely regarded as an entry requirement for higher-status, more enjoyable, better-paying jobs, and so spending the time as full-time learners eventually pays off financially. Also, there’s the intrinsic value of learning for its own sake, a value for which there is no financial reward. But why should students have to pay for these opportunities to learn and to advance their career prospects, rather than just putting in the time and effort? In no small part it’s because college professors don’t get paid enough to do the work in the fields of research in which they’ve attained expertise. They have to support themselves financially, in full or in part, by teaching. The government, which at one time covered the teaching expenses for college students just as they still do for primary and secondary school, no longer pays the full cost. That could have meant fewer professors handling larger class sizes in order to keep education free for the students. Instead it means that the students have to pay more and more out of their own pockets to cover their professors’ salaries.

In order to preserve this source of income, the professors and their administrators sell the value not just of advanced education but of the college degree. Adults can learn on their own, individually or collectively, but they cannot bestow a degree on themselves or on one another. Only universities are authorized to dispense this particular credential. If you want it, you’re going to have to pay for it.

Increasingly, areas of work expertise are transformed into areas of teaching specialization, while universities are transformed from research centers into adult education schools. In American liberal arts colleges and community colleges, the professors might not even be expected to do research: they’re paid to teach and only to teach. Maybe it’s always been this way. But does it have to stay this way? Let the taxpaying public finance the research that gets done in the universities (and recoup the return on investment, if there is any, rather than handing it over to industrial investors). Let the learning take care of itself.

20 May 2010

Put Teachers In Charge

Filed under: Culture, Psychology, Reflections — ktismatics @ 3:44 am

I’ve been posting quite a bit about teaching lately, much of it critical. It’s not that I dislike teachers (though I do, kind of, but let’s not get into that). Rather, I’ve been trying to decide whether I really believe that teachers rather than the government should make the decisions about educational policy and implementation. Facing tighter budgets, school administrators are making at-times draconian cuts to teacher salaries and staffing. Teachers and professors believe that they aren’t being adequately represented in the decision-making process, that the MBA types who run the show are more concerned about the bottom line and pleasing big-business constituents than about excellence in education. I’m inclined to side with the teachers. On the other hand, managers and pedagogical specialists and evaluators are workers too. Just because they don’t provide their services directly to the students doesn’t mean they’re the teachers’ enemies or that their expertise is useless to the educational mission. The point is to use the taxpayers’ money to educate students as effectively as possible. All the educational workers are competing for fewer resources these days; it’s not their fault that property values have sunk and unemployment has skyrocketed, cutting the two primary sources of school funding.

A brief organizational recap: In the US, primary and high school teachers typically work for the local School District, which is a form of local government. There are over 13 thousand independent school districts in America. The local School District finances education via tax revenues, typically a combination of local property tax and state income tax. Each school district is administered by a Board of Education, elected by the citizenry served by the district. The Board sets the overall educational policy and budget for the district, usually in collaboration with the state government’s Department of Education. The School Board hires a Superintendent to function as chief executive for the School District. The Superintendent need not be an educator; many are a professional administrators hired from the private sector. Typically the School Board defers to the Superintendent on overall District management, pedagogy, finances, hiring/firing, etc. In most School Districts the teachers are unionized, though union membership is not mandatory in all Districts and unionization may be banned by charter in selected publicly-financed schools.

Let’s say the economy sputters and the tax revenues decline at both the state and local levels. The School Board, representing the community at large, looks to the Superintendent to cut expenses. The Superintendent, typically a non-educator MBA type officed in a separate admin building, gathers pertinent info from admin staff and school prinicipals, then makes a decision. The teachers, two or three degrees of separation from the Superintendent, feel disenfranchised and out of the loop. They see teaching budgets being slashed while administrative overhead seems to have survived relatively unscathed. The Teachers’ Union makes an appeal directly to the School Board, but the Board defers to the Superintendent whom they hired for making just these sorts of decisions. Resentment and alienation builds among the teachers.

My inclination is to support a reorg of the educational system in which School Districts are run directly by the teachers as independent non-profit organizations rather than by the governmental School Boards. That way the teachers themselves can decide how to make the best use of the tax revenues allocated for education, rather than having government bureaucrats imposing these decisions on them. Let the teachers hire their administrators rather than vice versa; let them decide what sorts of evaluators and experts they need. The teachers can still make public pleas for more funding, but at least in hard times they’re collectively making their own decisions about salary cuts and which employees to let go.

My main concern about teacher-run school districts is that the teachers would be more concerned with preserving their profession and their own jobs than with doing the best, most cost-effective job of educating the students.

I’m not a teacher, so I’m not directly affected by the current turmoil in the schools. I do have a kid who attends the local public high school, though. From my kid’s perspective, I say the more teachers the better — whatever helps my Special Snowflake maximize her potential. But I’m also a local resident and so a contributor of tax revenues to the local School District. US public primary and secondary schools spend an average of over $10,000 per student. That seems like a lot to me, especially given the paucity of evidence linking money spent to educational effectiveness.

Teachers tend to resist systematic teacher evaluations, usually on the grounds that none of the evaluation tools adequately assesses the value of what teachers really do. But there are empirically validated, if admittedly imperfect, methods of evaluating teacher effectiveness, based both on student learning results and on observation of teaching process. Teachers’ unions protect existing jobs, even if it means keeping crappy teachers at the high end of the pay range just because they have seniority. But new laws in many states are mandating teacher evaluations, with financial penalties imposed on school districts that fail to act on the findings, which may require dismissing underperforming teachers. And that means union-busting.

I read about online schooling ideas and I think that maybe they’re a good way to reduce costs per student without adversely affecting learning. Local teachers typically resist online schooling, which creates an opportunity for investors to set up for-profit companies. These companies meet students’ and parents’ demand for low-cost online courses, charging prices equal to or higher than traditional brick-and-mortar schools, while paying their teachers less (non-union, on contract rather than salaried, fewer benefits). Then these schools collect their pro-rata share of tax revenues to pay for their services, with investors reaping profits at the taxpayers’ and public schools’ expense.

It seems that there ought to be a way for public schools to get lighter on their feet, more open to pedagogical innovation, more willing to change practices in light of research findings, with less antagonism between administrators and teachers, and with more support from the local citizenry. It would involve some sort of cooperative model built on a shared commitment among teachers, students, parents, and taxpayers to achieving the best and most efficient education for the most kids. And if the teachers’ unions want to protect less-effective teachers’ jobs, then the schools and the teachers will collectively have to figure out how best to compensate for these teachers’ failings so that the students don’t have to pay the price.

Despite the teachers’ resistance to change, I’d still prefer that they run the School District rather than political appointees. It’s the teachers who can make the best use of pedagogical innovations generated by researchers and by other schools around the country. The money to pay for the schools still comes from the taxpayers, and so the State Department of Education and the local School Board will still function as the citizens’ advocates, deciding how much money is available to the schools and evaluating how wisely that money is being spent in educating the community’s kids. That should include conducting meaningful evaluations of teaching practices and student outcomes. But the citizens and the governments would have to be willing to let the teachers figure out how best to make use of the evaluation data in order to do a better job.

19 May 2010

SAT Prep Courses Not Worth It (gasp!)

Filed under: Culture, Psychology, Reflections — ktismatics @ 7:31 am

Results on the standardized Scholastic Aptitude Test are required of students applying for admission at most American colleges and universities. SAT prep courses are a big business aimed at college-bound kids and especially at their parents. Fierce competition for getting into the best universities, aggravated by persistent fears of personal inadequacy, create the perfect market conditions for these courses. The Princeton Review (classy name) is probably the biggest vendor of SAT prep courses. In their material they claim dramatic improvements in SAT scores for kids who go through their program. Now, based on empirical evaluation, it turns out that — surprise — the purported effectiveness of the Princeton Review course is grossly exaggerated!

“Scott Kirkpatrick, president of the test-preparation services division of The Princeton Review, said that the company had been planning to shift away from an emphasis on score improvement independently of the Better Business Bureaus case, and that it is changing its focus to offer a more personalized approach to helping students improve in all areas. ‘Score improvement is not our core mission,” he said. “I don’t want us to be a test-prep company. We need to be an education company.'”

What a happy coincidence then that the empirical debunking coincides so closely to Scott and his buddies’ decision to rescind their public claims of enormous score improvements.

Practical implications of the evaluation: don’t waste your money on the prep course, make educated guesses on SAT questions you’re not sure of, take the test twice but not three times, and accept your strengths/limitations with whatever equanimity you can muster. If you do really poorly on the college entrance exams but you really want to go to college, apply to schools that don’t require the test.

In interpreting the results of the evaluation, do we infer that:

(a)  the test prep teachers and curriculum aren’t very good?

(b)  the test prep students are slackers who fail to take full advantage of the the course?

(c)  the SAT reliably measures something that resists teaching/studying to the test?

(d)  the $1200 prep course isn’t intensive enough — we need a more personalized $6000 prep course?

18 May 2010

French Farm Aid

Filed under: Culture, Reflections — ktismatics @ 8:38 am

Interesting economic news from France:

“Supermarkets have agreed to cut their profit margins on fruit and veg to help producers make ends meet… Supermarkets that do not follow the new rules will be sanctioned with a higher tax rate on the land they own.”

See the rest of the story here. In contrast to the dominance of corporate farming in the US, the traditional small family farm still predominates in France.

16 May 2010

The Faintly Odious Schoolteacher

Filed under: Culture, Psychology — ktismatics @ 3:14 pm

Following a line of thought introduced by Rancière, I was reminded of Theodor Adorno’s essay “Taboos on the Teaching Profession.” (I alluded to this essay in an earlier post about a bullying teacher.) Adorno considers the status differential between the “faintly odious” schoolteacher and the university professor who enjoys “the highest prestige.” First he notes the capitalist petit-bourgeois status distinction between the risk-taking independent professionals like lawyers and physicians vis-a-vis the bureaucratic functionaries, including schoolteachers, whose livelihood is assured. But universities are state bureaucracies too, with the tenure track offering lifetime security to the long-term university functionary — why isn’t the professor tainted with the schoolteacher’s odium?

For Adorno it’s a matter of power. Doctors and lawyers and administrators are delegated real power among fellow adults, whereas teachers wield power only over children, who aren’t accorded full legal autonomy and rights. As a consequence, the teacher’s “parody” of real power is resented by those over whom that power is exercised, meaning everyone who is or who ever was a schoolchild. But in what way is the university professor’s power more “real” than a schoolteacher’s? Is it just that university students are deemed legal adults, so they can escape if they like the power that the professor wields over them, the power that evaluates them and that may either grant or deny certain privileges accorded to those who get a university degree? I suppose so. Similarly, an adult worker can choose to quit a job that subjects him to the boss’ power, or to engage in some sort of dispute that subjects him to the lawyer’s and the judge’s power. I’m not persuaded of the difference: the power differential between worker and boss, disputant and judge, between college student and professor, is no more real, in the sense of being part of the natural order of things, than that between child and adult. It’s also no less coercive. The adult university student can quit school, but that decision forecloses career choices and imposes structural limits on economic gain. Are those consequences “real,” in the sense that the person without a college degree really is less qualified, or is the degree an artificial distinction imposed by social conventions? I think we’d all agree that, while the university is dedicated to learning, the degree itself is no more than a badge.

Adorno contends that the respected teachers, the successful teachers, the good teachers, are those who refuse to exert disciplinary power over the students. Instead, the good teachers subject themselves to the intellectual discipline of their academic specialties. “In other words,” says Adorno, “they are not bound to the pedagogical sphere, which is considered to be secondary and, as I said, suspect.” Bad teachers, by contrast, identify themselves professionally as teachers, as pedagogues.

“The problem of the immanent untruth of pedagogy lies probably in the fact that the pursuit is tailored to its recipients, that it is not purely objective work for the sake of the subject matter itself. Rather the subject matter is subsumed under pedagogical interests. For this reason alone the students are entitled unconsciously to feel deceived. Not only do the teachers recite for their students something already established, but also their function of mediator as such — which is like all circulatory activities in society already a priori a bit suspect — incurs some of the general aversion. Max Scheler once said that only because he never treated his students pedagogically did he have any pedagogical effect. I can only confirm this from my own experience. Success as an academic teacher apparently is due to the absence of any kind of calculated influence, to the renunciation of persuasion.”

So, the teacher who exerts power over the student practices a teacher-centered profession, while the pedagogue hopes to invert the power differential by being student-centered. Neither is effective, says Adorno. Instead, teaching should be knowledge-centered. The teacher or professor who actively pursues research in his field of scholarly expertise is in the best position to teach without getting caught up on one side or the other of a power differential with the students.

Still, there is a structural imbalance inherent in the student-teachers relationship. While students may consciously assert their equality with the teacher, Adorno warns that unconsciously the students tend to regard the teacher in parental terms, as an agent of the superego. The teacher who tries to be ultra-rational in his work is just falling into the counter-transference trap triggered by the students’ expectations, which often results in rigidity, tension, and awkwardness. Alternatively, the teacher might try to overcompensate by becoming “one of the gang” with the students, potentially veering toward anti-intellectualism. Instead, Adorno advises teachers to recognize the trap and to neutralize it by acknowledging their subjectivity.

“They should not repress their emotions only then to vent them in rationalized guise; instead they must acknowledge the emotions to themselves and others and thereby disarm their pupils. Most likely a teacher who says, ‘Yes, I am unjust; I am just as human as you are; some things please me, and some things don’t,’ is more convincing than one who strictly upholds the ideology of justice but then inevitably commits unavowed injustice. It goes without saying that from such reflections it follows directly that psychoanalytic training and self-reflection are necessary to the teaching profession.”

Adorno notes in passing that the pedestal of public esteem on which the university professor had traditionally stood is shrinking. Increasingly the professor is becoming “a peddler of knowledge, who is slightly pitied because he cannot better exploit that knowledge for his own material interests.” While Adorno believes that pulling the professors down from their lordly heights is a good thing, he regrets that the instrumental rationality of our times is reducing “spirit” to a commodity value.

14 May 2010

The Maîtresse Speaks

Filed under: Culture, Psychology, Reflections — ktismatics @ 8:58 am

When Kenzie was in the CM2 (which corresponds to the fifth grade in American schools and something else altogether in Britain), the survey of French history of course included the Middle Ages. Her teacher, Madame Brivet, explained feudalism in terms of an analogy that all the children could understand:

Medieval France was organized like our school. The Directrice is the Queen; we teachers are the Priests; your parents are the Lords. You, students, are the peasants. It does not matter how clever you are, how hard you work, how far you advance in your studies, how old you get. You will always be a peasant, and you can never hope to become anything above a peasant.

13 May 2010

Some Calculations on College Prices

Filed under: Culture, Reflections — ktismatics @ 8:20 am

The average price of private college tuition in the US for the 2009-10 school year (not including room and board) was $26,273.

Let’s say that the typical college student takes 15 hours of coursework per semester, and that the typical semester is 16 weeks long, with 2 semesters per school year. The price each student pays for in-class time = $26,273/15/16/2 = $55 per hour. Let’s suppose that, for every hour spent in class, the professor spends 2 hours outside of class preparing, marking papers, etc. So now it’s $55/3 = $18/hour that each student pays for his/her share of the professor’s time for teaching that class.

Dr. Jones is teaching a 4-hour class with 25 students enrolled. For that class Dr. Jones brings in $55 x 4 x 25 = $5,500 per week for 12 hours’ work. If Dr. Jones teaches 3 courses per semester, he will bring in ($5,500 per week)  x (16 weeks) x (3 classes per semester) x (2 semesters) = $528,000 per year. In doing so he will have put in 12 x 16 x 3 x 2 = 1152 hours of work. That’s a billable rate of $458 per hour.

A reasonable estimate is that, on average, professors (including assistants, associates, and part-timers) in US private colleges make about $55,000 plus benefits = $65,000 per year.

Divide this $65K annual pay by the 1152 teaching hours worked, and the teacher makes $56.42 per hour. That’s 56.42/458 = 12.3% of the billable hourly rate. If the private college students paid their professors at this rate, the annual tuition cost would be $26,273 x .123 = $3,237 per year. Of course the teachers and students would have to find someplace for the classes to meet, clean the place up after they’re done, figure out how to function without the administrators, etc.

11 May 2010

Who Needs Teachers?

Filed under: Culture, Psychology, Reflections — ktismatics @ 3:49 pm

I sympathize with the Boulder teachers, who face salary cuts and possible staffing reductions next school year. They argue, and in my opinion rightfully so, that since the school district’s top administrators are hired by the School Board, they don’t really represent the teachers’ interests. Instead, they impose a business model on education, cutting expenses designated for classroom teaching without imposing commensurate austerity measures on the managers and accountants and other overhead types who don’t directly contribute to the educational mission. On the other hand, the amount of money available for education really has diminished, a consequence of a general economic downturn that’s lowered the state and local tax revenues which are the only sources of funding for public schools. It’s possible that the electorate will vote for increased school taxes next year to offset the shortfalls, but I seriously doubt that the voters, facing their own diminished economic situations, will be in any mood to do so.

There are more drastic ways to reduce educational costs than incremental reductions in pay and in force. As I noted in a prior post, the school district has been experimenting with online courses. With no classrooms and with discussions taking place via blogs and emails, online teachers can be spread more thinly, reducing per-student costs. Then there’s home schooling, which costs the taxpayers nothing at all. I’ve not made a systematic study, but on a cursory review it’s evident that, in comparing course grades and test scores and student satisfaction, the e-learners and the home-schooled achieve equal or better results compared to students in traditional learning environments. I’ve also looked a bit at the impact of differences in teacher quality on student outcomes: again, the results aren’t at all persuasive that better teaching yields better learning. And despite all the advances in pedagogy over the past decades, standardized test results in the US remain steady.

Which brings me to today’s book report.

“In 1818, Joseph Jacotot, a lecturer in French literature at the University of Louvain, had an intellectual adventure.”

Joseph Jacques Rancière, former protégé of Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser, presents Jacotot’s adventure as a paradigm for educational overhaul in The Ignorant Schoolmaster: Five Lessons in Intellectual Emancipation (1987). In 1815 Jacotot, a celebrated scholar in France, found himself exiled to Brussels. Knowing no Flemish and having no motivation to learn it, Jacotot assigned his students the task of learning French by studying a bilingual French-Flemish translation of The Telemachy. Jacotot didn’t teach his students The Telemachy, nor did he teach French lessons; he simply told them to learn French by reading the book. Periodically he would ask the students how they were progressing, even though he couldn’t evaluate their self-assessments because he still knew no Flemish. Finally Jacotot asked the students to write, in French, what they thought of the book. The results proved enlightening to Jacotot: the students had learned French without being taught French.

Jacotot’s take-home lesson: it’s not only possible but preferable for a schoolmaster to teach subjects of which he himself is ignorant. Or, to paraphrase a popular slam on the teaching profession, those who can should do, those who can’t should teach. It’s like the Music Man forming a school band from scratch without being able to play a lick himself.

In the usual educational arrangement, the teacher is positioned as the Master of the subject and of explicating the subject to the student. This assignment of roles, said Jacotot, is predicated on an inequality of intelligence between Master and student, an inequality that reflects and perpetuates the hierarchical society which the educational system serves. Even progressives perpetuate the system by instituting one educational reform after another that attempt to redress baseline inequalities between the underprivileged and the elite, reforms that are doomed never to reach the goal of actually achieving equality. Instead of making equality the goal of education, Jacotot assumed equality as a starting-point. All children are perfectly capable of learning their native language without explicitly being taught: why can’t they learn another language, or mathematics, or philosophy, the same way? Give the kids a book and some time, make sure they’re not being lazy and inattentive, and voilà — the students teach themselves. A book is self-explanatory: why stick a Master explicator between the student and the book? The Master implicitly teaches students that they cannot teach themselves, instilling a passivity before recognized experts that’s liable to persist for a lifetime. And it’s in this way that the schools serve as an ideological apparatus of the state: the students’ passive dependence on the Master, the “stultification” of their will and attention, recreates and preserves the broader hierarchical social-economic inequality between the elite and everyone else. In contrast, the self-taught student is “emancipated.” Obliged to engage his own perfectly adequate intelligence rather than relying on the Master’s, the emancipated student enters an educational “circle of power” that includes himself, his fellow students, and his teacher in the joint exercise of intelligence among equals.

“Whoever teaches without emancipation stultifies. And whoever emancipates doesn’t have to worry about what the emancipated person learns. He will learn what he wants, nothing maybe. He will know he can learn because the same intelligence is at work in all the productions of the human mind, and a man can always understand another man’s words.” (p. 18)

“Man is a will served by an intelligence,” Jacotot asserted. Does this mean that the emancipated person who engages his will to learn can accomplish anything he wants? Yes, says Jacotot. Rancière cautions the reader that Jacotot’s teaching method

“is not the key to success granted to the enterprising who explore the prodigious power of the will. Nothing could be more opposed to the thought of emancipation than that advertising slogan… It is undoubtedly true that the ambitious and the conquerors gave ruthless illustration of it. Their passion was an inexhaustible source of ideas, and they quickly understood how to direct generals, scholars, or financiers faultlessly in sciences they did not know. But what interests us is not this theatrical effect. What the ambitious gain in the way of intellectual power by not judging themselves inferior to anyone, they lose by judging themselves superior to everyone else. What interests us is the exploration of the powers of any man when he judges himself equal to everyone else and judges everyone else equal to him. By the will we mean that self-reflection by the reasonable being who knows himself in the act. It is this threshold of rationality, this consciousness of and esteem for the self as a reasonable being acting, that nourishes the movement of the intelligence. The reasonable being is first of all a being who knows his power, who doesn’t lie to himself about it.” (pp. 56-57)

Equality of intelligence among individuals doesn’t mean identity in its application, such that each student learns the same things. Nor does a society comprised of emancipated individuals become an intelligent society. Jacotot’s vision for education and society — and Rancière’s as well — is an anarchism verging on libertarianism, in which individuals pursue their own individual pathways in a milieu of mutual support among equals. Says Jacotot:

“There is no pride in saying out loud: Me too, I’m a painter! Pride consists in saying softly to others: You neither, you aren’t a painter.” (p. 67)

Jacotot knew that the ignorant schoolmaster couldn’t successfully be instituted as a societally mandated model, with the accompanying insistence on certifications and standardized pedagogical techniques and evaluations. Emancipated education can’t be instituted; it can only be practiced, parent to child, ignorant schoolmaster to ignorant student, citizen to citizen.

“[G]overnment doesn’t owe the people an education, for the simple reason that one doesn’t owe people what they can take for themselves. And education is like liberty: it isn’t given; it’s taken.” (pp. 106-107)

8 May 2010

Life & Death of a Porno Gang by Djordjevic, 2009

Filed under: Movies — ktismatics @ 11:33 am

(Subtitles by Dejan Nikolic)

5 May 2010

Flagellant Processions

Filed under: Christianity, First Lines, Psychology — ktismatics @ 9:51 pm

“When the whip is raised, when leather, scourge, and cane strike against covered or naked flesh, we stand before a stage — a stage on which a ritual unfolds.”

So begins In Praise of the Whip: A Cultural History of Arousal, Niklaus Largier’s scrupulous chronicle of the curious practice of flagellation. While flogging has always been a popular method of punishment and torture, and while during the Lupercalia festival of ancient Rome women were whipped to ensure fertility, and although medieval Christianity was notoriously enthusiastic about penitence and penance, it isn’t until the tenth century that the disciplina of self-flagellation first appears in the annals of Christian asceticism. Even when practiced in eremitic seclusion, flagellation is intrinsically theatrical, for the act of self-abnegation is always staged for an audience of at least one: God Himself. But flagellation isn’t only an act of penitence; it is also, and perhaps predominantly, imagined as  a staged participation in the final scourging of Jesus that culminated in his crucifixion. In effect the flagellant’s blood intermingles with Jesus’ blood in a bodily re-enactment of the atonement. It’s in this sense of participating in Christ’s redemption that the public act of self-flagellation bears bodily witness to the Scriptural testimony. Enthralled by the multisensory image of the flagellant’s performance, the observer is brought through the inflamed imagination into an enactment of the Passion, where the torn flesh of the penitent commingles with the Word and the Spirit.

Largier traces the historical role of the intensely transcendent sensuality of flagellation through Ascesis to Erotics and finally to Therapeutics, these being the three main divisions of the book. While eventually we reach some risque bits and a few naughty pictures, I’m going to stick with ascesis in this post, because I learned about something I’d never heard of before. Did you know that there were flagellant processions during the Middle Ages? These were widespread popular movements that erupted not once but twice, eighty years apart. The first uprising of the flagellant processions began in 1260-1 in Perugia during a time of epidemic and famine; the second wave, in 1349-50, kept one step ahead of the plague that swept the continent.  Largier quotes at length from Hugo Spechtshart of Reutlingen, who witnessed some of the processions that erupted nearly everywhere in central Europe during 1349-50 and just as suddenly vanished.

“Priest and count, knight and serf participated… as well as monks, burghers, farmers, and professors… In those day, the flagellants moved about the land in great throngs. They tortured their bodies with gruesome whips whose effect was increased by the presence of knots in the straps. Whoever goes with them places himself under the sign of the cross, for as Scripture teaches us, all those who bear the cross are worthy and acceptable to the Virgin. They wore crosses on the front and back of their coats, also on the front and back of their hats… They even wear hats when flagellating themselves in a circle, so that… the cross is constantly before their eyes…

“They would spend each night in a different place, They stayed overnight at various sites, often quite impoverished ones, and would move about for a total of 34 days, since Christ spent exactly that many years on earth. The last day is only half a day, then everyone returns home.

“Once at nice and twice during the day, they tormented themselves with blows of the whip before the astonished crowd, and together they sang hymns while moving about in a circle and throwing themselves to the ground in the form of a cross. They did this six times, remaining on the ground each time until they had prayed two Pater Nosters.”

Bearing flags emblazoned with a cross, the flagellants, barefoot and clad in rags, would walk from town to town.  Until the 33½ days of their pilgrimage were completed the flagellants would neither bathe nor wash their clothes nor trim their beards. They were not permitted to ask for lodging, but could accept if a place was offered for the night. They were forbidden to sleep in beds or to associate with women.

“While on the path engaged in communal flagellation, they walked in side-by-side rows, like siblings, and sang songs as if they were scholars. As soon as they entered a place, the bells would ring and the people would stream out to gape at them and their fascinating terrible wounds. But they also came to beg of Christ the crucified, to fend off terrible and sudden death, and to give grace to the dead, peace to the living, and heavenly joy to the close of their lives… Crowds of men formed, and after a while they disappeared and no one knew any longer what had become of them.”

The flagellant processions made a significant impact on the towns they visited. Residents confessed their sins publicly, longstanding disputes were reconciled, thieves returned what they’d stolen, jails were emptied, slaves and captives were freed, exiles were welcomed home. Through strange behaviors, mass migration, egalitarian communality, and independence from most political and ecclesiastical authority, the flagellant processions constituted a radical if short-lived “deterritorialization” of medieval European culture.

Oh, and did I mention that this book was translated from the German by one Graham Harman?

UPDATE: Inasmuch as Graham linked to this post calling it a review, I’ll supplement my obsession over the flagellant processions with at least some review-like material. Briefly, I enjoyed the book and found it informative and stimulating. Largier spends more time describing than analyzing, but the wealth of material he’s assembled and the way he’s organized it maps an intellectual trajectory that’s self-validating. He doesn’t interpret, and implicitly condemn, medieval flagellation in terms of sublimated sexuality. Instead, he traces the gradual historic compartmentalization of a libidinal energy that a thousand years ago permeated body and spirit and imagination in a “conspiratorial connection” which, Largier contends, “became unbearable.” Phallic sexuality has thus become the only legitimate locus and interpretive context for erotic pleasure, including an odd variant like flagellation, while “the only place imagination is now allowed to occupy is the arts.”

Not having German myself, I cannot remark on the quality of the translation.

3 May 2010

Travelling by Monk, 2000

Filed under: Reflections — ktismatics @ 10:34 am

I was writing in my notebook about a Procession, assembling itself person by person, moving slowly through a beplagued medieval Europe and perhaps into the future as well, straddling the Apocalypse, when this piece came on the internet radio.

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