Sunday, December 23, 2007

The strangeness of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer

Only this year did I stop to ponder the opening lines of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer:

You know Dasher and Dancer
And Prancer and Vixen,
Comet and Cupid
And Donner and Blitzen.
But do you recall
The most famous reindeer of all?

Hold on: these kids "know" the likes of Comet but might have forgotten Rudolph? And you can't say they're just working up to knowing the big one because they would have to "recall" the acknowledged "most famous reindeer." Nonsense and bollocks and humbug.

But we let that pass. Here's the part I've been thinking about more:

Then one foggy Christmas Eve
Santa came to say
Rudolph with your nose so bright
Won't you guide my sleigh tonight?
Then all the reindeer loved him ...

My first thought was that this is a prototypical nerd's fantasy, the dream of a world in which gaining the favor of a parent or teacher results, instantly and without explanation, in attaining the love of one's peers.

Maybe there's something to that reading, but I've come to a more universal one that I like better: that the song is less about the child's perspective than the adult's--the parent's. This is the fantasy of beholding a child subjected to laughter and name-calling and transforming the social world into one of approval and love. What power could a parent or teacher desire more, and what power is less attainable?

At this moment, the Santa myth meets the Christmas story in a beautifully complicated way: Santa's approval of Rudolph involves the God-like prevention of social wounds; the Christmas story has God subject God's child to the world's woundedness. And at some level, they both raise the problem of preventable even: until a moment of dramatic redemption, Santa and God both allow suffering they ostensibly have the power to stop.

The Rudolph story may gain its greatest complexity and interest, and its strongest connection to the more complicated mythologies of Christmas, when we imagine Rudolph going to bed Christmas night, exhausted and happy and loved, and wondering what will happen if the next Christmas Eve brings a clear sky.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

The Iowa Democratic Caucus, Education, and Poll Reporting

This morning's Washington Post has a routine article about the paper's latest political poll in Iowa. The main thrust of the story is equally routine: Obama has a small lead, but everything will come down to turnout. As an Iowa caucusgoer myself, I scraped up enough motivation to click to the second page of the story and found this paragraph:

Considering other turnout factors brings no additional clarity. Age and education are two key predictors of caucus participation, with older and more highly educated people disproportionately showing up to vote. While Clinton outpaces Obama among older voters, particularly those aged 65 and up, Obama outperforms her nearly 3 to 1 among those with an education of a college degree or more.

THREE TO ONE? Obama is outpolling Clinton three to one among college grads? I am gobsmacked: I've read a lot of coverage of this race, and I would guess that I've seen a hundred times as much coverage of race and gender as education level. Yet there it is: alongside relatively tiny differences in other areas, an enormous gap based on one variable that almost nobody is talking about. Note that the gap isn't even the main topic of the Post's own paragraph: the gap is presented as a turnout factor, not as the crucial difference between the Iowans who prefer Obama and those who prefer Clinton.

In this race, the education level of voters also seems to work against some of the race's main narratives; for example, given the Clintons' alleged association with cultural elites, would we have heard more about this story if the numbers were reversed? Do we even know how to talk about Hillary Clinton as someone who connects with common people but flops among college graduates? I'm not sure we do.

But I also wonder whether this case illustrates a blind spot in political journalism more generally. I imagine so, at least to some extent. It might be easier, and it seems to me more conventional, to talk about political preference in terms of race, gender, and age than education. If I'm right that there is such a blind spot, does it relate to ways in which we do and don't discuss social inequality in America?

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Book review: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, J. K. Rowling

I largely agree with Stephen King’s advocacy of the merits of J. K. Rowling: the Harry Potter novels—especially the later ones—manage a combination of imaginativeness and pacing equaled by few other writers. While acknowledging Rowling’s achievement, however, and counting myself among the deeply absorbed readers of the series to the end, I want to comment on my dissatisfaction with its last installment.

The primary flaw of this book lies in its cavalier dismissal of the moral complications involved in the use of extreme force. This dismissal violates the values of Rowling’s make-believe world, returning the reader to everyday relativism with an anticlimactic thump. From the beginning, the books led us to understand that the wizarding world operates with a code roughly analogous to, but fundamentally different from, human theories of justified violence and war. The wizarding system of morality draws a clear line between minor offences and three Unforgivable Curses: those that murder, torture, and enslave others. The rules of wizarding set the limits of legitimate violence with a specific, strong prohibition.

In Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Harry crosses the line, unequivocally and shamelessly torturing an enemy with an Unforgivable Curse. The situation allows Rowling the opportunity to grapple with the moral difficulties of just war theory: if wartime requires good people to act immorally—even unforgivably, by conventional standards—how do we assess the human consequences of just war for the perpetrators as well as the victims of violence? The novel’s answer: no sweat! We win! The narrative forgives the supposedly unforgivable in advance, framing the action to encourage rooting for Harry to go ahead with it already, and then never hints at any consequences of Harry’s choice.

This choice to deflate the problem of unforgivable curses is one example of the novel’s larger inability to play by its own rules. Two other problems both contribute to the cheeriness of the epilogue, which trades epic complexity for cuteness. The simpler of these is the logic by which Harry claims the elder wand. The climactic duel between Harry and the incarnation of ultimate evil turn on the results of an ordinary skirmish in which Harry has disarmed Draco Malfoy and thus gained ownership of the elder wand, though Draco does not possess the wand at the time. By this reasoning, anybody who disarms Harry becomes master of the world’s most powerful weapon, but nobody seems interested in trying.

The more complex problem involves the logic of sacrifice. Harry’s ability to save a world by embracing his own death parallels the Christian myth of sacrifice in many ways, and, not coincidentally, it runs into some of the same logical problems. The Christian version of redemption by sacrifice has caused theological trouble for millennia. Why does the sacrifice of one being redeem the sins of others? Doesn’t that redemption require some kind of deal in which Satan accepts the trade? If so, why does an omnipotent God have to negotiate? If not, why does an omnipotent God have to sacrifice anything, let alone God’s only child? The story gains great emotional power from the idea of sacrifice, but explaining the necessity for and nature of the sacrificial transaction requires some seriously complex theology because common sense doesn’t do the trick. The complexity of the problem is a danger sign for the novelist who would take Christian sacrifice as a model for a plot.

Rowling’s version borrows the Christian mystery of sacrifices that protect other beings from evil, but Rowling removes the complicating factors that make the Christian story so interesting and troublesome. Harry is only mostly dead, for one thing, and his victory is disconcertingly complete. Whereas the whole series of Harry Potter novels drew its energy from the suggestion that dark wizarding came not only from Voldemort but also from every character’s susceptibility to temptation, the Battle of Hogwarts allows Harry a total victory. Voldemort’s literal death is unsurprising, but his metaphorical death in the elimination of evil people and even significantly evil thoughts at the end of the book provides cheap, simple satisfaction. The book sidesteps the central question of the Christian story of victory through sacrifice: why does evil persist after the redemption?

Hence the lack of occupations in the epilogue, where the central characters wallow in domestic bliss with no jobs or, more importantly, vocations. I know Rowling has assigned them work in post-publication interviews, but I’m enough of a formalist to say that’s cheating: the key issue is that the end of the last book doesn’t provide a substantive logic for continued conflict, and the epilogue flows smoothly from that lack of conflict. If you’re going to posit the continuance of evil (or, say, the homosexuality of a leading character), you need to make it work in the book—and the book ends, “And all was well.” As much as I enjoyed reading these books, and that is very much indeed, all is not well when an epic ends without grappling with the persistence of evil.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

For my convenience

Here's a great moment in technology. I just got an email that was sent to the whole faculty. It begins, "For your convenience, I have attached a PDF file of this email."

I admit that I couldn't resist opening the file to confirm that statement. Yup: it's a PDF of the same formatting and text of the email. Perhaps next time, we could also receive an image file of the PDF of the email.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Polls and the Iowa Caucuses

As an Iowan who experienced the Democratic caucus last time around, I'd like to offer a perspective that sometimes attracts a little coverage (as in this 2004 piece) but then disappears for a long time.

When you go to the caucus in Iowa, the first stage of the process is like a live, public primary: each candidate has a designated space, and his or her supporters go to that place. But then a viability rule kicks in: any candidate with less than 15 percent support (or more, depending on the situation) is declared non-viable, and his or her supporters go other groups.

Based on today's poll numbers, therefore, a typical precinct will see everybody but the Big Three eliminated right away. Your Richardsons or Bidens might survive in a precinct or two, but every precinct will have a significant chunk of voters, probably somewhere between 15 and 30 percent, who aren't able to support their first-choice candidates. If Iowa remains close, those voters could play a large, even decisive, role in determining the state winner. This two-stage process will reward candidates with broad support and low negative ratings--the ones most likely to be the second choice of those Dodd supporters who need to find a new horse to ride on caucus night.

My guess is that the caucus process will result in Obama surpassing expectations based on his pre-caucus poll numbers, but that's just my guess. My main point is that anyone considering the possibility of a candidate catching a wave in Iowa should consider the poll numbers in the context of the caucus process.

Monday, October 01, 2007

A bizarre argument for arts education

I'm a big fan and proud veteran of public-school programs in the arts, especially music. Because I wish school arts programs well, I hope they enjoy better supporting arguments than this one, offered by Ellen Winner and Lois Hetland in the Boston Globe. (Winner and Hetland teach at Boston College and the Massachusetts College of Art, respectively.)

Starting with the big question, "Why do we teach the arts in schools?" Winner and Hetland argue, in brief,

1. The common claim that the arts make students "smarter" (or higher achievers) in other subject areas has not held up to scrutiny.

2. However, arts classes are valuable in another way because their teachers tend to use techniques that develop "life skills" such as critical self-examination more than teachers in other classes.

3. This "arts-like approach" can be adapted to teaching other subject areas.

That last step is the kicker: if the only demonstrable benefits of the "arts-like approach" can be exported straightforwardly out of the arts classroom, why should we bother with the arts classroom as anything but a transitional space, where certain (not very revolutionary) teaching techniques are examined and extracted until the arts themselves become wholly unnecessary?

Again, I write as a supporter of arts education, but the logic of this article, ostensibly in support of the cause, constitutes one of the most effective attacks on it that I have encountered.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

The informal economics of class size at Grinnell

I was involved recently in an Internet discussion of the effects of class sizes in public schools. If you have followed such discussions, you can guess how this one went. When data from studies finding very small effects resulting from very large investments in smaller classes came up, the teachers in the discussion protested mightily, offering tales of the difficulties of teaching huge classes in the present system. My own teaching experience also leads me to think of class size as an important factor. Here, however, I want to sidestep the normal policy debate to share my experience watching students negotiate the marketplace of course registration at Grinnell.

For starters, let's note that Grinnell students tend to be a politically liberal bunch who chose to attend a school that aggressively advertises the smallness of its classes; I'll wager almost all of them, if asked in abstract terms, would say that they value small classes as a policy objective and a personal preference.

Now here's what I mean about the marketplace of course registration. Let's say you have 50 students who can choose between two sections of the same class. The students choose in order, always knowing the current enrollment of each section. For whatever reason, they believe that the teacher of Section A is preferable to that of Section B.

We can model this easily. If the students all believe that class size is the only value worth considering, the two sections will each end up with 25. (#1 will chose Section A because the sizes are equal and the teacher is preferable, then #2 will go to B, #3 to A, and so forth.) If the students all believe that teacher quality is the only factor worth considering, you'll see 50 in section A and 0 in section B. More likely, you would actually see some kind of weighted preference, where students consider both factors and begin to choose section B as section A gets bigger--a 40-10 split would indicate a weaker preference for small classes than a 30-20 split.

In other words, the bigger the variation in freely chosen class sizes, the more weight students are putting on teacher quality relative to class size. The enrollments in the sections give you a lot of information about the population's values.

Viewing the choice from this perspective reveals that students tend to accept fairly large differences in class size before they let it trump perceived teacher quality. That's why every secondary school I know of (public or private, in any social setting) tries to make switching sections extremely hard. We can't know what choices students would make, but the barriers to switching imply a widespread assumption that left to their own devices, the students would choose exactly the model that some libertarian economists propose: bigger classes with the best teachers.

At Grinnell, students can often make exactly that kind of choice among sections or (more often) among classes that perform the same function in their course plan. Based on what I've seen, I would say that Grinnell students value perceived teacher quality much more than class size, to the point where most will readily become, say, the 21st person in the desired section rather than the ninth in another. I have seen students make switches because they value lower class sizes, but only in the most extreme cases by Grinnell standards (switching from, say, a section of 40 to one of 13), and even in those cases, very few students make the switch. I'm sure there are contrary anecdotes out there, but having seen a lot of preregistration numbers, I'm confident in asserting the general pattern.

I don't mean to imply that the Grinnell model would apply to other educational situations. I understand the problems with that translation. But I find this situation interesting because it involves a set of people making decisions that don't seem to match their abstract values.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Ask me for my opinion

If I saw this result (or an analogous one) in a public opinion poll, my faith in the public's opinion would rise tenfold:

Q12: How closely have you been following 
developments in the war in Iraq?

96% very closely
3% closely
1% a little
0% not at all

Q13: Would a near-term pullout of American forces
help or harm Iraq and its residents in the long term?

1% help
2% harm
97% don't know