Category: PowerBlog Ramblings

Blog author: ken.larson
posted by on Wednesday, July 13, 2011

In the opening scenes of the classic movie version of Thorton Wilder’s play “Our Town” the narrator tells us that the newspaper boy we are watching toss papers onto the porches nearby will go on to college — an ivy league college I recall — but is sent to Europe during WWI and dies. “All that education for nothing,” he laments.

Naomi Riley has written another book about academia. The large type on the book jacket reads “The Faculty Lounges”  but under that banner is the book’s real warning: “… and other reasons why you won’t get the college education you paid for.”

That second part is addressed to the payer, and in most cases, the payer is mom and dad. So if you’re a mom or dad you’d best take a look at this offering from Ms. Riley while the kids are still in grade school and start your homework lessons on where you’re likely to get the best bang for your buck. Because although Riley offers good suggestions and a smattering of potential improvements to the business plans of America’s college and university campuses, they aren’t likely to be implemented on any large scale by the time little Jimmie or his sister is ready for college. The wheels of the academy turn slowly.

In a recent column reflective of his tv shows, John Stossel remarks, “What puzzles me is why the market doesn’t punish colleges that don’t serve their customers well. The opposite has happened: Tuitions have risen four times faster than inflation.”

That reality and more is provided in Faculty Lounges but not by tv personalities. No, the sources of Ms. Riley’s information in many cases are members of the education establishment themselves. And they’re not very forgiving in the criticism.

But Stossel’s comments are poignant. As consumers, parents and the children they finance through four or more years of college tuition, room and board are getting screwed to put it bluntly, or at least defrauded, and nobody seems to care about the protection these consumers aren’t getting. Certainly not the education industry.

You can only get the full picture by reading the book but I can tell you that faculty tenure and the unreal situation it nurtures is a big piece of why college costs so much and continues to get more expensive. Imagine having a workforce that agreed to work Monday, Wednesday and Friday from 10 am to 2:00, notwithstanding the time it takes for lunch? But despite that work schedule continues to be paid like a full time 40 hours per week employee. Now imagine having an entire workforce of such folks but a physical plant with classroom space based on a capacity that is suited to having students in the rooms from 8 am to 5 pm. In business we call it underutilized plant capacity. It’s the reason you have a night shift or swing shift when business is booming.

In the surreal world of academia, such concepts would never be discussed. Instead, buildings continue to be built, new departments funded and staffed, and tuition raised, raised, and raised again. Where will it end? A tilting point is often reached when mom and dad, facing financial calamity or at the least really tough times, tell little Jimmie to find a job and put college on hold. That’s what happened to my mom and dad in 1932. They met and were married a few years later.

One thing stands out in the many anecdotes in this book and that is how the undergrads financially support the graduate programs. If you know someone who has been accepted or is participating in a PhD program you might have also been told that the tuition, room and board and a stipend were part of the deal. Of course these opportunities are only available to really bright kids but still, haven’t you wondered who’s paying the bills. Well, it’s you and your undergrad. And who’s taking care of the tenured professor’s classes? one of his grad students. And not getting paid for it either. That’s a good reason to think twice about little Jimmie attending the prestigious university with the myriad of researching scholars.

For many, tenure or lifetime job security is what makes the academic life palatable. Yet many use the “academic freedom” argument to make their case. Liberals argue that they’d never survive proposing their enlightenment theories without the protection of tenure. Conservatives argue that they’d never be able to come out of the political closet without tenure. Both making this case in a country that links its founding to freedom of speech, assembly, faith. It makes you wonder if anybody could pass a civics test — teacher and student alike.

Of course all of this talk of college, money and careers has been the subject of the month of June since school calendars were first printed. Books rush to the shelves and abound on how to get into college; is college for everyone; the missing “core” curriculum; and is it all worth the money. But until we consumers really start to push back, it’s likely that for many schools, nothing will change despite the revelations and suggestions like those in Riley’s book. And it’s parents who have to lead here. And either way prepare their children for life with a eye on the unexpected and the common sense to avoid danger.

In April a Yale senior astronomy and physics major was found dead in a college lab. She was working alone during the night with a machine tool — a lathe — and somehow her hair which was long and dangling had been wrapped around the spinning chuck and she had either choked or her neck was broken. Some, reacting to the tragedy, blamed Yale for not sufficiently supervising her.

“All that education for nothing.”

Blog author: ken.larson
posted by on Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Chester E. Finn Jr. served with William J. Bennett [The Book of Virtues et al] in The Department of Education under President Reagan from 1985 to 1988 — that point in Reagan’s presidency when the talk of shutting down the Department had been abandoned.

Bennett has often quipped about his tenure while SecEd as one where he stood at the ship’s wheel turning it from starboard to port all the while not realizing that the cables connecting the wheel with the rudder had been removed. It’s a good way to explain how massive amounts of money get spent in the bureaucrat’s effort both at State and Federal levels to educate kids with a consistent result that kids emerge from public schools in great numbers functionally illiterate.

And we’re talking here about a lot of money. K-12 public education spending in the U.S. with the Obama stimulus added in will total $667 Billion this year or $13,340.00 per public school enrolled child.

Those nearly two million kids who are home schooled and win spelling bee championships are likely wincing at that number since their parents get back virtually nothing of what they pay to the tax man.

Lately we’ve used test scores to validate and measure the public school failure, and those who still head large bureaucracies have tried to tweak their systems with new plans. Bush tried “no child left behind” and Obama’s Chicago friend Arne Duncan is touting “Race to the Top.”

Just off vacation where one hopes to get refreshed, Chester Finn from his pinnacles at Hoover Institute and Fordham Foundation has published a piece at National Review Online that has me confused. He’s a friend on a lot of issues but after reading “A Constitutional Moment for American Education” I’m thinking that Checker, a welcomed nickname, has been to one too many teacher’s conferences.

First let me explain that I’m seeing almost everything government does these days through the dark glass of Obama’s attempted seizure of American social and industrial institutions. He’s trying to nationalize us. So yesterday when I was informed shortly after reading Finn’s piece at NRO that a part of the Obama Health Industry takeover included S224 the “Education Begins at Home” scheme, my heart skipped a beat. Here’s why.

The Obama “health” plan provides “Grants to States for Quality Home Visitation Programs for Families with Young Children and Families Expecting Children” [p. 840] and provides for “coordination and collaboration with other home visitation programs and other child and family services, health services, income supports and other related assistance.” Do you see the dots I’m connecting? In California such a home visitation service already exists, financed by Rob Reiner’s [Meatball] cigarette tax money. It’s cradle to grave control.

Finn’s essay is meant as a reflection of what spurred on the Founding Fathers from the days of The Articles of Confederation to passage of The Constitution — a period he describes as “political invention combined with …. nurturing” which he overlays on the conundrum American education finds itself in today. So far okay, right?

But here it gets interesting because Finn sees traditional K-12 “local control” as obsolete and frail, ill suited to urban mobility, mired in parochial assessments. At the same time he sees a President’s education mottos and marketing schemes doomed to fail because they inevitably are only trying to “make the old system work better” — and I agree with that part.

Yet Finn wants us to take characteristics that drove our Founders toward Constitution which he lists as Imagination, Statesmanship, Courage and Adaptation and apply them to a scheme of National Standards and Measures and the replacement of school “districts” with an array of “virtual or national operators.”

And he inserts into the “adaptation” paragraph a nod to Judicial power that in my opinion is one of our major problems — a concession to opinions from appointees rather than a reliance on representatives for whom we vote. Almost all proposed laws these days are passed by Congress and legislatures with vague directives from those rocket scientists to “let the courts sort it out.” Our law making is a mess and one of the reasons that few of the Congress who voted last spring on a law to penalize executives who were to receive bonus money during the bailout debacle were bothered that The Constitution forbid “ex post facto” laws. These people don’t read the bills they vote on; they don’t read The Constitution. They can’t pass a civic literacy test.

So, where goes Federalism in Finn’s suggestions? Is Checker so blind as to not see that the failures of the education system in America are the failures of the public, state run education systems?

Those Founders who managed to put our country together included John Adams who had been taught at home and with neighbor children under the guidance of divinity graduates until he went off to Harvard and sat for the bar. Most in the country were taught at home and in urban areas at parochial schools up until that time when modernity grabbed hold of our lives — until that time when The Enlightenment took hold of education and under the guidance of progressive liberals made it “public.”

In his book Surprised by Hope, N.T. Wright reminds us that politicians generally gain their inspiration from the false notion that they can lead us to Utopia with promises of scientific advance and wider education. But Wright reminds us that “the utopian dream is in fact a parody of the Christian vision.” We will not be made perfect by hard work and study; but only with God’s grace.

Professor James Tooley‘s new book The Beautiful Tree is reviewed at NRO by Dan Lips. It’s a story of an emerging new kind of school in places like India and Africa and the developing world where desperately poor citizens recognize the value of an education and on their own have created a private market for it separate of the state. And it’s working.

Just another instance where elites in The United States of America have something to learn from the natives.

Blog author: kschmiesing
posted by on Friday, May 8, 2009

What’s wrong with populism? Nothing, necessarily. But, to hazard a tautology, populism is only as good as the people. I think this territory was covered pretty well by Alexis de Tocqueville, whose view was in turn covered pretty well by Sam Gregg in his commentary of a couple weeks ago:

“The American Republic,” Tocqueville wrote, “will endure until the day Congress discovers that it can bribe the public with the public’s money.”

As Sam notes, Tocqueville cited the importance of religion as a bulwark against the drift to despotism. I don’t think it’s any accident that there is a public policy lean toward socialism at the same time as a perceptible weakening of religious adherence. The relationship is complicated (plenty of liberty-loving agnostics; plenty of Christian socialists), but at the level of generalization, religion (Christianity in particular) fosters centers of authority and action that are independent of the state and resistant to tyranny. It encourages virtue and concern for the common good. In short, it promotes those traits that might drive populist sentiment and action in helpful rather than harmful directions.

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Monday, May 4, 2009

Last week Arthur C. Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute, made the case for “ethical” populism. Speaking of the Tea Party phenomenon, he writes,

the tea parties are not based on the cold wonkery of budget data. They are based on an “ethical populism.” The protesters are homeowners who didn’t walk away from their mortgages, small business owners who don’t want corporate welfare and bankers who kept their heads during the frenzy and don’t need bailouts. They were the people who were doing the important things right — and who are now watching elected politicians reward those who did the important things wrong.

There are of course many variations on a theme, ranging from Brooks’ “ethical” populism, to Dreher’s “crunchy” conservatism, to blatant political pandering.

But the challenge for conservatism, so often understood to be an elitist political philosophy focused on privilege, is to properly deal with populist phenomena. So this week’s PBR question is: “What is wrong with populism?”

Writing on the Big Hollywood blog, Dallas Jenkins asks the question: “Why are Christian Movies So Bad?” Jenkins, a filmmaker and the son of “Left Behind” novelist Jerry Jenkins, points to a number of telling reasons for the glaring deficit in artistic accomplishment, what you might call the dreck factor, that is evident in so many films aimed at the faithful. Jenkins’ critique points to something we’ve been talking about at Acton for some time: the need for conservatives to understand and master the art of narrative, not just the rhetorical skills that have served them so well in politics and policy. Jenkins says:

The problem is that everyone knows good art should always put story and character above message. Message films are rarely exciting. So by their very nature, most Christian films aren’t going to be very good because they have to fall within certain message-based parameters. And because the Christian audience is so glad to get a “safe, redeeming, faith-based message,” even at the expense of great art, they don’t demand higher artistic standards. So aspiring filmmakers who are Christians have little need to perfect their craft, and Christian investors have little need to spend a lot of money because the message is going to be most important anyway. Add in the fact that the average heartland Christian couldn’t care less what a critic thinks — if anything, they assume they’ll feel the opposite of a movie critic — and you’ve got even less incentive for Christian filmmakers to be obsessed with quality.

Or, as producer Samuel Goldwyn has often been quoted as saying, “Pictures are for entertainment, messages should be delivered by Western Union.”

Does the left make “message” movies? Sure, all of the time (think of just about any George Clooney picture). And these agit-prop productions frequently bomb. But Jenkins is is correct in pointing out that generally speaking the cultural right still hasn’t mastered even the rudiments of cinema storytelling. This is a grave problem because America’s chief myth making industries — feature films, television entertainment, book publishing, popular music — are largely the province of the cultural left. Then again, if you’re in that camp, you could plausibly argue that, “We’re just better at this stuff.”

The power of narrative lies in its ability to reach the whole person, the heart and the head. It begins by creating an effect on the emotions — moving a person — and can register indelibly in human memory. Thus, narrative can serve as a powerful means of communicating ideas, but not primarily in message form. It works at a deeper level, sometimes tapping into the mythic consciousness of an entire people. That is why narrative is essential for political mass movements; once you get the hearts and the minds of the people excited, you can then move their feet in the direction you want them to go. Most recently, this political narrative form has been used artfully by candidate and now President Barack Obama (see “Obama and the Moral Imagination”). (more…)

Blog author: kschmiesing
posted by on Tuesday, April 28, 2009

No, conservative and Christian are not synonymous, but in the context of the cultural impact of Hollywood, there’s a lot of overlap. For Christians interested in engaging this field by pursuing both technical and moral excellence, there is an outstanding organization called Act One.

Blog author: jcouretas
posted by on Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Writer Andrew Klavan, picking up on a theme he addressed at Heritage Resource Bank, posted an essay titled “Toward A New American Culture” on his Pajamas Media blog, Klavan on the Culture. Excerpt:

We need to build a New American Culture, and turn our backs on the culture of the state. We need to stop according respect or credence to reviews and awards that are used as social engineering tools to force the culture into anti-American state worship. We need to build an infra-structure of funding, review attention and awards to give praise, purpose and prestige to those artists who stand outside the MSM’s climate of opinion.

It would be wrong to say too much about what such a New American Culture would look like. Individualism is the very essence of both conservatism and art. But I think we can say that such a culture would reflect and uplift the values and perspectives that made the west and America the greatest and freest places on the globe; it would put forward an image of man as our founders knew him to be, flawed and sinful yet capable of striving toward dignity and salvation through self-reliance and sacrifice. It need not be—it should not be, in my view—squeaky clean or restrained by some new Hays Office production code of what the audience should be allowed to see. Sensationalism, sex and violence have been part of the arts since art began. Artists are entertainers, after all, not policy wonks.

In truth, there is only one essential principle our new culture needs to remember and embody and it’s this: liberty is better than slavery. This principle alone implies a moral order and a human purpose. It makes a small state better than a big one. It makes America better than, say, Saudi Arabia. It makes a religion based on “love thy neighbor,” better than one based on submission. This principle alone will guide us away from mealy-mouthed self-abasement to balanced self-criticism and praise amidst our search for the dignity, strength and morality befitting free men and women.

Blog author: bwalker
posted by on Tuesday, April 28, 2009

We welcome guest blogger Bruce Edward Walker, Communications Manager for the Property Rights Network at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. This week’s PBR question is: “How should conservatives engage Hollywood?”

It is true that liberal depictions of dissolute and immoral behavior are rampant in modern cinema and justified as the desired end of hedonistic tendencies, but conservative critics too often come across as cultural scolds, vilifying films and filmmakers for not portraying reality as conservatives would like to see it. For many conservative critics, the only worthwhile contemporary movies made are adaptations of C.S. Lewis’ Narnia series or those that feature Kirk Cameron in a starring role. The verisimilitude inherent in all compelling storytelling is neglected in favor of presenting idealized worlds in which a clearly defined good always overcomes easily identified evil.

Such an approach is simplistic and insults those of us that can recognize the presence of moral themes in the works of Graham Greene, Flannery O’Connor and Tom Wolfe, and don’t automatically blanch at cursing, violence, sex and nudity when it serves a real dramatic purpose. Humanity, of course, is fallen and it’s foolish to expect conservative audiences to respond only to films that depict all marriages as salvageable, all protagonists as heroic metaphors for Christ and all heroines as virgins until the wedding night. Reality teaches us that these scenarios are the exceptions rather than the rule.

Felix culpa – the fortunate fall from whence one can experience God’s grace – is the phrase St. Thomas Aquinas used to explain how God allows evil to exist in order to allow for the greater good of His redemption. For all the decadence he depicted, for example, French poet Charles Baudelaire was perceived by none other than T.S. Eliot as still entering the Church albeit through the back door. (more…)

Blog author: jcouretas
posted by on Monday, April 27, 2009

One of the more interesting discussions at last week’s Heritage Foundation Resource Bank meeting in Los Angeles was the “Hollywood Conversations” session with screenwriter and novelist Andrew Klavan and Lionel Chetwynd, a writer, producer and director. Both men pleaded with the gathering of conservatives — social, political, economic — to stop beating up on Hollywood ad nauseam and to do more to support good work by conservatives.

Here’s the gist of the argument from a recent Klavan interview on Big Hollywood:

We have to just take it as given that the mainstream venues are against us, the awards won’t go to us, the reviewers will attack us — sometimes without even admitting why. We have to speak up for ourselves, we have to review each other, honestly and fairly, we have to buy the books that stand up for what’s right-assuming they’re good, assuming they do what they’re supposed to do, entertain, tell good stories. We have to understand that the media is our enemy — the enemy of the American idea, our founders’ ideas — and we have to make our own arts, and celebrate our arts and reward our arts. And then we’ll see who wins in the marketplace.

Both Klavan and Chetwynd said that there are far more conservatives in Hollywood than most people imagine. Yet the conservative think tank, cultural and political culture does little to recognize and encourage them. Compared to the cultural left, conservatives in entertainment have few award ceremonies, prizes, and regular reviewers who support good projects. As an example, they cited the recent HBO film “Taking Chance” as one work that deserved far more attention on the right than it got. The story, about a military escort officer accompanying home the body of a Marine corporal killed in Iraq, drew 2 million viewers and became the most-watched original movie to debut on the network in five years.

A scene from HBO's 'Taking Chance'

A scene from HBO's 'Taking Chance'

Andrew Breitbart, the founder of Big Hollywood, told the Resource Bank blogger session that Hollywood conservatives practice a “big tent” inclusiveness with none of the internecine feuds so common in Washington. He predicted that more conservatives would “come out of the closet” in Hollywood (he has 200 bloggers on his site) but that they could use a lot more support from the wider conservative movement.

This week’s PBR question is: “How should conservatives engage Hollywood?”

Share your answers in the comments section and look for answers from PowerBlog contributors throughout the week.

Blog author: clarson
posted by on Thursday, April 23, 2009

It is our pleasure to welcome guest ramblings on the PowerBlog, and we are happy to feature this contribution from Catherine Claire Larson, author of As We Forgive, the subject of this week’s PBR question.

I wasn’t able to include it all in my book, but I’ve been greatly impressed by the groups which are wedding reconciliation work with micro-enterprise. World Relief has an essential oil business that is enabling Hutu and Tutsi to work in reconciled community, Indego has their basket weaving enterprise that is doing the same, and Prison Fellowship Rwanda has been involved with a cattle operation, while Land of a Thousand Hills works with coffee plantations. It strikes me that by creating economic opportunities where interdependence is vital, they are really creating ideal environments for reconciliation and restoration. I wasn’t ever able to track it down, but one of my friends shared that her college professor did his dissertation in Reconstruction era history of America. He concluded that in areas where interdependence was more vital to survival that racial reconciliation happened at a more rapid pace. Intuitively, that seems to make sense. I’d love to see the research though.

Additionally, for a very good read on how social conditions contribute to reconciliation, take a look at the book Amish Grace. It documents the Nickel Mine school shooting, along with several other acts of violence that have happened in the Amish community. What’s interesting is how that society’s normal emphasis on forgiveness creates conditions where radical grace seems to happen almost naturally. It’s an interesting case study, although obviously far removed from most social situations. But I still think there are take away lessons.