Saturday, March 17, 2018

Review: The Ghostway

The Ghostway The Ghostway by Tony Hillerman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Hillerman always crafts a tight mystery interwoven with the beautiful landscape of the southwest and the traditions of the Navajo. The Ghostway is no exception. Many of Hillerman's novels are also part meditation on what it is to be Navajo, and here we see Chee's internal struggle with his own Navajo identity get highlighted by foil of those he encounters in trying to solve the mystery: traditional Navajo, uprooted and un-rooted LA Navajo, and white people.

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Friday, March 16, 2018

Review: American Emperor: Aaron Burr's Challenge to Jefferson's America

American Emperor: Aaron Burr's Challenge to Jefferson's America American Emperor: Aaron Burr's Challenge to Jefferson's America by David O. Stewart
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Aaron Burr is a fascinating historical figure. A revolutionary war hero. He presages the modern politician. He very nearly beat Jefferson for the Presidency in 1800. In the infamous duel, the sitting vice-president kills Alexander Hamilton. Under two murder indictments, he finishes his term and presides over the senate, including the impeachment hearing of Judge Samuel Chase. If that’s not enough, he spends the next five years essentially trying to become emperor of Mexico and probably more. He narrowly avoids a conviction of treason and then spends another five years in Europe trying to get a European power to support his plans to take over Mexico (in between his many romantic dalliances). Finally, he returns to New York only to lose the only two people he probably cared about: his daughter and grandson. He lives until 80 in what had to be a lonely and disgraced life.

Burr was charming and convivial, but also a power hungry, manipulator who most likely was conspiring to take over all of the North American continent and make himself an American Napoleon. Unlike Napoleon, though, there was no underlying political ideology motivating Burr. Burr’s motivation is best captured in the Hamilton musical: “I wanna be in the room where it happens.” Burr just wanted to be _the guy_. He wanted to be admired and loved, he wanted to be in charge.

And he almost succeeded.

The audiobook was performed well by Andrew Garman. It starts with the set-up for the Hamilton duel and takes you through the rest of Burr’s life. The author spends a lot of time and detail on Burr’s “western expedition” preparations and the subsequent treason trials. It provides a fascinating look at the leading lights of the founding era through Burr’s often unsympathetic eyes.

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Friday, March 09, 2018

Review: The Case Against Education: Why the Education System Is a Waste of Time and Money

The Case Against Education: Why the Education System Is a Waste of Time and Money The Case Against Education: Why the Education System Is a Waste of Time and Money by Bryan Caplan
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Bryan Caplan’s new book is a devastating and depressing take down of the education system. Caplan argues that the education system does little to educate and that most of the gains we see from education are not linked to what students may learn. If he’s right, then most of the current education system (K-12, higher ed) is a colossal waste. There are, nevertheless, important liberating elements (at least for me as a higher ed teacher).

There is a lot Caplan covers, and I won’t touch on most of it here. I’m going to focus on a few key things that struck me as the most important and interesting. Agree with his conclusions or not, Caplan presents us with an important argument about education with which we need to deal. Refreshingly, he’s very open with the data and even provides links to the spreadsheets for people to play with the data and assumptions themselves. One gets the sense he would love to be disproved about the disvalue of education.

First, the devastation and depression. The basic theme of the book is this: college graduates, on average, earn 73% more than high school graduates and Caplan wants to explain this earning premium. It needs explaining because, as he argues, very little of it seems to be tied to what college graduates learn in college. The view that the premium is tied to the training and skills learned in college is what Caplan calls the Human Capital view. You go to college, learn a bunch of stuff, and this makes it so you are more likely to be hired into a good job and earn more. Caplan argues that this conventional view is largely mistaken on a few counts: students don’t learn that much or remember much of what they do learn; and what they learn is not usually a skill relevant for the job. (If you are skeptical of this, read the book and evaluate his data and arguments.)

One of the things that has convinced me that the human capital view is not accurate is that college dropouts are not in a much better position (for hiring and earning) than high school graduates. For example, at ASU you need 120 credits to graduate. If you earn 119 credits but skip that last credit hour, your hiring and earning potential is just slightly better than the high school graduate with 0 college credits. That’s hard to square with the human capital view. You earned 99% of the degree and so if the college premium was due to what you learn you should be a lot closer to the college graduate than the high school graduate. Unless, as Caplan quips, we teach all the important skills in that last credit hour.

Caplan shows that a huge chunk of the college premium is just having the degree—not what you learn while getting the degree. This is the Signaling view. The college degree signals important information to potential employers about your employability: intelligence, conformity, and conscientiousness (discipline, work effort, punctuality). Crossing the finish line of the diploma takes some reasonable amount of intelligence. Going to (and graduating from) a traditional four-year college shows your willingness to conform to social norms and expectations. Lastly, it shows, at a minimum, that you were able to follow enough directions and show up to class on time enough that you were able to pass enough classes to get the degree. Caplan argues that these signals make up about 80% of the college earning premium.

One might say, ok, fine signaling is most of the premium, but education is still worthwhile because it broaden student’s horizons, awakes them to new possibilities, spurs the imagination beyond the mundane, and teaches them deeper thinking and conceptual skills that they can use to become better citizens and human beings. Caplan’s response: Wishful thinking. That’s want we education to be. It’s what for academics like myself and Caplan it partly was. It’s just not what it is for most people. For most students: they don’t want to be there and they aren’t prepared to be there. And even so, their horizons and imaginations don’t actually get broadened all that much anyway.
Caplan acknowledges that this sounds cynical and elitist. But, as he argues, it is about what the data shows. Maybe a different education system could fulfill the broadening horizons myth, but education in this world and in this structure doesn’t even come close. Based on my near two decades of teaching in universities, I’d have to agree. I like to think I’m expanding student’s horizons and improving their thinking; that I’m exposing them to new and exciting ideas. And there are a few students for whom this is true. But most just ask if it is going to be on the test and can we get out of class early. Maybe I’m just a crappy teacher or have mediocre students. But Caplan’s data suggests otherwise: no matter the teacher or the school this is the norm.

In this way this is depressing: what is the point of my job? Am I just wasting my time? But it is also liberating. It frees me to focus on the students and ideas in the here and now. It’s not about job prep or their future: it’s about engaging ideas with students who are interested right now. I can focus on what I find exciting and cool. The students who are also engaged can come along. Those who aren’t, aren’t really missing out on anything important to them. They can just move along the signal chain on to something that does interest them.

One of the counters to his critique that Caplan looks at is this. Sure, students aren’t going to use categorical syllogisms on the job or find much use outside of history for learning how to interpret original historical sources. But the abstract thinking skills they learn when doing these things is something that will be important in their lives and jobs. It’s hard to teach these abstract thinking skills directly, but they can be picked up by studying logic, history, chemistry, etc. Call this the abstract thinking argument. It’s an argument I’ve made in the past when trying to sell students on philosophy. Caplan looks at the education psychological literature and argues that there just isn’t any empirical evidence for the abstract thinking argument. I’m not that convinced he’s right on this.

Now, I haven’t look at this literature, but based on the what Caplan says about it, I’m not sure it works to show the abstract thinking argument doesn’t work. He looks at what is called “transfer of knowledge.” Do students who learn the scientific method, use the scientific method outside the contexts in which they learn it? In other words, do they transfer the method over from their chemistry classes to using it outside of chemistry? The evidence, Caplan says, is no, they don’t. And that might be true (I see versions of this in which students don’t use the writing skills they learn in composition classes in other non-composition classes such as my philosophy classes). But this seems different from the abstract thinking argument. The transfer of knowledge evidence seems to be about specific skills or methods. But I’m not sure it applies to learning abstract processes of thought like logical thinking.

Here’s an analogy. You learn dribbling in soccer and that isn’t applicable outside of soccer. But running as a skill is broad athletic skill that is used across many sports (and beyond). I am concerned that what Caplan has shown is that dribbling is not transferable but then using that as the claim that there is no evidence that running is transferable. If abstract thinking skills are more like running with wide usage, then Caplan’s evidence misses the mark.

The policy implications of Caplan’s book are intriguing. The most important one, I think, is the need to develop and encourage different pathways for students. There are students for whom the traditional college experience is perfect: they will succeed at it, enjoy it, and reap the benefits from it. But it is not and should not be the path for all. Apprenticeships, technical education, and vocational education are other options that would serve the needs and interests of many more people—and have greater payoff for the broader society and not just the individual who is better able to get a job and earning a living.

There is a lot in Caplan’s book that is worth looking at and thinking about it. Some of which is probably wrong. I surely don’t agree with all his arguments or interpretations of the data. What I think is most important about the book is that it calls for us to look at education as it is, not what we wish or hope it to be. If we want to get education to what we wish it could be, we have to deal with the reality of the current system and not pretend it is something else.

Caplan calls himself an educational whistleblower. His whistleblowing will, I hope, lead to more conversations, and more realistic conversations, about education.

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Tuesday, March 06, 2018

Review: Riot Act

Riot Act Riot Act by Zoƫ Sharp
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is a very good follow up novel. The structure and unfolding of the plot is not identical to the first novel and Sharp continues to develop the Charlie character. The setting of northwest UK works really well. I typically end up spending some time on Google maps checking out the locations. I also like that they don't Americanize the spellings or slang; it would really detract from the story telling if they did that. I am not sure, however, about the Sean Meyer character and how he'll get integrated into the story. I get the idea of introducing a love interest, but I don't want that to overshadow Charlie and her story.

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Friday, February 16, 2018

Review: The Industrial Revolution

The Industrial Revolution The Industrial Revolution by Patrick N. Allitt
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Professor Allitt is great. I've listened to several of his courses, he's a great lecturer: informative, humorous, and balanced. This history of the industrial revolution does a thorough job of explaining the historical precursors, the key individuals involved, and the progress and effects of the revolution up through contemporary times. The first half of the lectures are focused on the developments in Britain. The second half moves into the US, Europe and then the industrialization of other parts of the world. There are focuses on important inventions: the steam engine, automobile, flight, electricity. Allitt also looks at the impact of industrialization on the art, politics, economics, war, and the environment.

I highly recommend this course -- and any course by Professor Allitt.

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Wednesday, February 07, 2018

Review: My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel

My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel by Ari Shavit
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

There are many hard truths in this book; things that cannot and should not be ignored. I don’t always agree with Shavit’s conclusions about how to deal with these truths or what they mean in the bigger picture but I think it is important that they be faced. These sometimes myth-busting, sometimes disturbing stories pose deep challenges to those who, like me, grew up on the standard Jewish-American discourse about Israel. That is not to say it is revisionist or offering a history that was previously unknown. But what Shavit is able to do is put a human face on all sides of the history of Israel. This makes it harder, for example, to downplay or dismiss a tragedy as just an unfortunate consequence of a war. It makes the tragedy personal and thus much more real to the reader. (That said, this very poignancy can also distort one’s thinking about the issues by pulling too much at the personal—this is a paradox of thinking about these kinds of issues. You can’t ignore the personal for the sake of a comprehensive, principled account, but bringing in the personal has a way of putting too much on weight on the personal stories at the expense of objectivity.)

Shavit’s journey through the history, demography, and geography of Israel is deeply personal. It is not a detailed work of history or policy analysis. Shavit selects certain points of history and certain individuals and tells us their story. In many ways it is, necessarily, incomplete and piecemeal. What ties the book together is the way that Shavit brings these threads together to form his vision of the past and potential future of Israel.

Shavit seems to be writing this book to answer questions about Israel: Why was Israel necessary? How did it get built? What impact did this have on the people in Israel (Arab and Jewish alike)? How has Israel survived and flourished? How has Israel (and Israelis) changed over decades of its existence? What explains these changes? What do these changes and the forces behind these changes mean for the future?

I don’t think one walks away from this book with definitive answers to any of these questions. One gets a sense of Shavit’s answers—but given the personal nature of the book these are not offered as _the_ answers and Shavit doesn’t present us with arguments to justify these answers. But the necessity of raising these questions and thinking about them is what makes this book important.

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Thursday, January 04, 2018

Review: Winner Takes All

Winner Takes All Winner Takes All by Robert Bidinotto
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The third in what is now a trilogy, Winner Takes All, deals with questions about justice and revenge through an exciting and compelling story. While I enjoyed the novel, I think I preferred the first two better. The story meanders a bit in the beginning as Bidinotto sets the pieces. The plot is more wide-ranging, with more players and elements, so he needs to do this. But it took me a bit to get into it. Personally, I found the subplot of the relationship between Annie and Dylan to be at times distracting. The relationship is important; it humanizes and grounds Dylan. But their interactions were often just a bit too on the nose for my taste.

Nevertheless, the second half of the book cooks as Dylan unwinds what is going on and figures out how to stop it. Dylan is a bad-ass; part Batman, part Jack Bauer, part Jason Bourne. Fans of this genre (Child, Silva, Thor, Flynn, Baldacci) will like it.

From the intellectual side, Bidinotto works his idea of the master narrative into the plot. It drives the motivations and decisions of both the good and bad guys in the novel. The protagonists struggle explicitly with the apparent conflicts of integrity, justice, morality, and the law in a corrupt world. It is important for how the characters individually resolve or deal with these conflicts to understand how they see themselves and how they see the world: their master narrative.

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