scene from the mortgage mess

24 May 2008

Francis William Edmonds, The Speculator (1852)
(Smithsonian American Art Museum)

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class unconsciousness

22 May 2008

Tom Johnson‘s ambition was big enough to account for him. To take one city and solve there the social, economic, political problems and so set an example to other super-business men of a job worth doing and to the world of a government as it should be–that was as understandable as the wish to make a million dollars. Especially since this business man already had his million plus. My petty suspicions of Tom Johnson vanished. He belonged in the class with Folk and LaFollette, Roosevelt, Seth Low, and Walter Fisher. He was on “our side,” the people’s; that was why the other side, the plutogogues, called him a demagogue. But I heard some of Tom Johnson’s campaign speeches in the infamous tent he moved about for meetings in parts of the town where there were no halls or where opponents closed halls against him. His “circus” speeches were indeed entertaining; he encouraged questions from the floor, and he answered them with quick wit and barbed facts; but those political meetings were more like classes in economics and current (local) history than harangues. The only just complaint of his enemies was that he “had gone back on his class.” This was said by men who almost in the same breath would declare that reform was not a class struggle, that there was no such thing as class consciousness, no classes, in America; and they meant it, too. The charge against Tom Johnson, Folk, LaFollette and, later, Rudolph Spreckels, of treason to their class, is an expression of our unconscious class consciousness, and an example of our appalling sincerity, miscalled hypocrisy.

(Autobiography of Lincoln Steffens, 477)

I hope at some point to write up some posts based on Lincoln Steffens’ autobiography, which I started reading out of an interest in what he says about journalism, but now seem to be reading more out of an interest in what it says about reform – or rather, about a variety of things that fall, not entirely easily, under the category of “reform.” But for now other things are taking priority over blogging, so I’m keeping to transcribing passages.


to speak a better English

14 May 2008

Kevin Drum writes:

This is one of the reasons I don’t blog much about education policy even though it’s an interesting subject. For all the sturm and drang, in the end nothing really seems to matter. After a hundred years of more-or-less rigorous pedagogical research, we still don’t know how to teach kids any better than we used to.

It may be that we’re not teaching kids any better but – especially when you look beyond the introductory levels – it’s clear that there has been quite a bit of progress in most of the subjects we teach kids. Arithmetic is still arithmetic, but mathematics has moved beyond where it was in the late 19th century (though I’d have to do a lot of learning to actually understand those developments). The same could be said of the sciences; there was a great quotation I saw online some time ago (but have never been able to track down since) from someone in the sciences that went something like: “It is sobering to think of how many students we’ve failed for not knowing things that later turned out to be incorrect.” And the social sciences may not, despite some claims to the contrary, be sciences in the way the life and physical sciences are sciences, but they’ve certainly progressed as well.

Even the humanities, where progress is harder to measure or even to define, are generally understood to have made advances. I confess that I’m not familiar enough with fields like English or Philosophy to be able to describe what counts as progress and what progress has been made, but if you look at history, at least, you’ll see that while interpretations have risen and fallen and sometimes risen again, and few have been overturned once and for all, history is also a cumulative endeavor and it’s kept on accumulating over the years with new sources, new types of sources, and new ways of looking at sources. We know more about the past in a lot of ways than we used to, even as we often disagree about what to make of that knowledge.

If there’s an exception to this trend it’s language – not, I should say, the study of language, which falls under the social sciences as linguistics, but language itself: a first language, second language, foreign language, whatever. (Note that the program that prompted Drum’s post was a reading program for kids: that is, a program teaching the English language.) Is the English I’m using right now meaningfully better than the English used in the late 19th century? Better than 18th century English? Is someone fluent in contemporary English more fluent in English than someone who lived in the 19th century and was fluent in the English of that era? (Let’s leave aside the entertaining possibility of being fluent in 19th century English while living in today’s world, something I hear can happen, to an extent, to people who’ve learned a language mostly from reading, or rather certain kinds of reading.)

It would be hard to say yes: English has changed, but those changes can’t really be understood as progress in the sense used above. The same could be said for just about any language, with the possible exception of ones made up from scratch. What one needs to know to be fluent – grammar, vocabulary, syntax – may change, but fluency remains the highest level of expertise (so to speak; “competence” might be a better word) one can acquire in a language.

I don’t really have anything to say about education policy or K-12 pedagogy, where language teaching is certainly not the only subject that hasn’t seen significant progress; I just think the way language differs from other subjects is interesting and Drum’s post happened to remind me of it.


from the sandbox to the ballot box

11 May 2008

John Adams saw this coming:

The same reasoning which will induce you to admit all men who have no property to vote with those who have, for those laws which affect the person, will prove that you ought to admit women and children; for, generally speaking, women and children have as good judgments, and as independent minds, as those men who are wholly destitute of property; these last being to all intents and purposes as much dependent upon others who will please to feed, clothe, and employ them, as women are upon their husbands, or children on their parents.

Society can be governed only by general rules. Government cannot accommodate itself to every particular case as it happens, nor to the circumstances of particular persons. It must establish general comprehensive regulations for cases and persons. The only question is, which general rule will accommodate most cases and most persons.

Depend upon it, sir, it is dangerous to open so fruitful a source of controversy and altercation as would be opened by attempting to alter the qualifications of voters; there will be no end of it. New claims will arise; women will demand a vote; lads from twelve to twenty-one will think their rights not enough attended to; and every man who has not a farthing will demand an equal voice with any other, in all acts of state. It tends to confound and destroy all distinctions and prostrate all ranks to one common level.

The full (I think) letter is here. It’s excerpted near the beginning of Keyssar, The Right to Vote, which, coincidentally I’m currently reading.


trainover country

7 May 2008

I’m a fan of rail service and I was glad to see Obama bring it up recently:

The irony is with the gas prices what they are, we should be expanding rail service … We are going to be having a lot of conversations this summer about gas prices. And it is a perfect time to start talk about why we don’t’ have better rail service. We are the only advanced country in the world that doesn’t have high speed rail. We just don’t’ have it. And it works on the Northeast corridor. They would rather go from New York to Washington by train than they would by plane. It is a lot more reliable and it is a good way for us to start reducing how much gas we are using. It is a good story to tell.

Notice that ellipsis after the first sentence? Both of the places where I initially saw these comments included it, but following the links I found a more detailed report of that Obama appearance. And it turns out those three dots hide quite a bit:

“The irony is with the gas prices what they are, we should be expanding rail service. [Begin ellipsis] One of the things I have been talking about for awhile is high speed rail connecting all of these Midwest cities – Indianapolis, Chicago, Milwaukee, Detroit, St. Louis. They are not that far away from each other. Because of how big of a hassle airlines are now. There are a lot of people if they had the choice, it takes you just about as much time if you had high speed rail to go the airport, park, take your shoes off.”

He continued to talk up Amtrak.

“This is something that we should be talking about a lot more,” Obama said. [End ellipsis] “We are going to be having a lot of conversations this summer about gas prices.


voting interests

4 May 2008

This raises – and by “raises” I mean “led me to think of, off-hand, for no particular reason” – a couple of questions to which I don’t expect any answers, but find interesting nevertheless.

1. In terms of platforms, who was Lincoln closer to: Douglass or Bell? It may be that many Bell voters would have moved to Douglas in a runoff, but is that what they should have done? (Leaving aside the fact that voters don’t always do what others think they “should” do.) Lincoln and Douglas are of course associated with disagreement and debates; Bell is not really known, but both he and Lincoln were former Whigs.

2. In the 1858 Senatorial race, who would have won a direct election: Lincoln or Douglas? (The state legislature still determined Senators back then.)