Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Things Money can't buy

In his remarks about education, last week, Pres. Obama offered support for the idea of paying teachers more if their students had higher scores on standardized tests like MCAS. Educational reformers have recommended merit pay as a method for improving American education for a while now. It seems commonsensical. If you pay your cleaners minimum wage they will do a minimal cleaning job. Pay them a bit more and they will have some incentive for working harder. Get a cheap yard clean up service and they may cut your grass but not trim the edges carefully. Pay a little more and you may find that your yard looks better.
So why would that not work with teachers? Mowing lawns, cleaning offices or houses is not a job you do because you love mowing lawns or cleaning. You do it for the money. If that is what you do it for, you may well work harder to get more money. But we don't do everything we do for the money. Other things matter. Few people get married for money; we don't have kids for money. We don't have friends for money, or knit or sew or cook good meals for family and friends. Some people are fortunate to have work that they love. Yes, they get paid and often would like to get paid more but since they love the work, they do it as well as they can even if they do not get paid as much as they would like.
Money matters; money is important. Especially if you are always short, always balancing debts and bills, however hard you work, money is a major problem. But it is not the only thing that matters. Doing things well matters. If you are fortunate to have found a good doctor, she will take as good care of you as she can even if you do not pay her extra. If you are fortunate to have found a good mechanic he will not work harder on your car than one anyone else's if you offer him more money. He wants to be proud of his work. Yes, he wants to make a decent living but that is not all he cares about. He cares about doing good work. The same of the doctor. Yes, she wants to earn a decent living. But she wants to make sure that she takes as good care of her patients are she possibly can.
Many people in America think of going to school as a way to making more money. What you do in school is “ get a degree.” In order to do that, you need to get good grades in your classes. In order to do that you have to pass exams by remembering what the teacher said. Notice, that in this picture of school there is no mention of education. Education is different from getting a degree. Education involves learning. Learning involves acquiring information, but more importantly, it involves becoming interested in a subject, wanting to know whatever you find out about it. Getting an education is learning to be curious and finding out what you can do to satisfy that curiosity. It means learning to read, to research and to do so critically. It means to learn to ask questions, to formulate answers, to look at different answers to a question and figuring out which is more likely to be right.
Good teachers do not primarily raise the scores of their students. They try to educate them, to arouse their curiosity, to do whatever they can to make their students want to be educated, to be curious about the world, to be eager to learn more. But teachers who did not get educated themselves, who themselves do not care to know more, who themselves never learned to be curious and to ask a million questions cannot convey that to their students. That means that teachers who went to school to get a degree, by passing courses, so that they could earn more than their parents are not equipped to educate their students because they never received an education themselves.
Here is where Obama's proposal comes in. As long as we treat education as a means of making money and think the teacher who gets paid more is going to be a better teacher, we mix up two quite different values: making money and getting an education.
Yes, by all means lets pay teachers better. They deserve it. But if you want to improve education, you need—among many other things—teachers who are deeply interested in knowing their subjects who can communicate excitement about learning because they themselves are interested in learning. You need to raise a generation of teachers who like books, who like science, who like math, or art, or music, who will teach these areas with genuine interest because knowing these things made their life better, and who want to communicate their own interest and excitement to their students.
Teachers who believe that education is good only for making more money are not themselves educated and therefore cannot educate anyone else. We need teachers who regard education as important for its own sake who would—if they could afford to do so—teach for nothing because education and educating are, for them worth while ways of spending good chunks of their life. Of course they too need to eat and they make their living teaching but teaching, for the good teacher, is about a lot more than making a living.
So if we want to improve education, let's talk about education and leave money out of it. It would be good to pay teachers a decent wage. It is hard work even if you are not very good at it. But paying teachers a decent wage is not going to improve education. Improving education will require teachers who are educated, who are eager to learn and who want to communicate their excitement about learning.

Friday, March 6, 2009

How to respond to terrorists and terror

The newspapers report a sharp increase in anti-Semitic events in England. A week earlier an opinion survey in all of Europe discovered high rates of very traditional anti-Semitic prejudice. Many people, when asked, agreed that the Jews were running the world economic system and, by implication, were responsible for the current worldwide economic crisis. This is very traditional anti-Semitism. The Jews are despised for their commercial successes and are blamed for whatever goes wrong in the world.

Without any doubt, the current surge of anti-Semitism is, in part, a response to a widespread perception that Israel's treatment of Palestinians is completely out of proportion to the provocation, that the recent attack on Gaza that killed 1400 Palestinians was in no way justified by the 14 Israelis who died. More generally, the Israeli response to Palestinian resistance has seemed too many people quite disproportionate to the provocation.

The leadership in Israel as well as of prominent Jewish organizations elsewhere bears some responsibility for this upsurge in anti-Semitic manifestations in response to the actions of the Israeli government. Israeli and Jewish leaders everywhere always respond to any criticism of Israel by crying “anti-semitism." They have, all along, tended to confuse criticisms of the policies of the State of Israel with blind prejudice against all Jews. The world believes them and reacts to Israeli excesses with traditional anti-Semitic outbreaks. But the two are, of course, quite distinct.

But it would be utterly callous to end here. We do not know what it is like to live in Sderot or Askelon, two Israeli towns that are regularly the targets of rockets fired by Hamas from the Gaza strip. We do not really understand what it is to live in a small country in the part of the world where it is acceptable for leaders and followers to proclaim that you and your state should be utterly destroyed.

We do not know what it is like to be a Jew in Israel, but we do have some experiences likes theirs. 9/11 taught us a lot about the experience of terrorism. Most us were deeply frightened even though that was quite out of proportion to the actual events. I live at the edge of Worcester, where the city fades into the forests that cover most of New England. Did I have reason to expect a terrorist attack on my street, or even on Worcester? Once I think about it, I can see that there was occasion to sorrow for the victims in New York, in Washington DC, and in a field in Pennsylvania. But there was no call for being afraid.

But that's what terrorism is intended to do and does. It frightens people—not only the actual victims but everyone else because you never know what will happen next. Fear extends in large waves from the actual event as waves spread out from the rock dropped into the water.

That fear is not only uncomfortable to those terrorized, it makes them act utterly irrationally. We had an overwhelming feeling that we had been attacked, that we “needed to do something” preferably something to show our power ( perhaps in order to assure ourselves that we had nothing to fear) to show the world that we would not be attacked without responding with massive violence—as Israel did in Gaza.

Seven years later it is clear that that was a terrible mistake. Americans were scared; Congress gave the President the power to do anything he chose. The result are more than 4200 American soldiers and additional civilians dead in Iraq as well as hundreds of thousands Iraqis. We needed to punish the Taliban in Afghanistan for not handing over Osama bin Laden. Seven years later we do not have Osama bin Laden and the Taliban control most of Afghanistan. In the intervening years a lot of Afghan civilians died and some US and allied soldiers. We have spent huge sums of money we cannot afford. The world is a more dangerous place than it was in 2001.

When you allow fear to direct your thinking, you are bound to act irrationally and only do a great deal of harm to yourself and others. Leaders in the US as well as in Israel and Palestine are overmastered by fear. Politicians like to run on platforms encouraging popular fears because that is one way to get elected. Right, Left and Center in the recent Israeli elections agreed that they needed to be super-tough with the Palestinians. Hamas and Hezbollah get a lot of support because they are tough and will not compromise, even if that leads to the destruction of a $1billion worth of housing and many, many lives in Gaza in the recent war. Politicians on both sides played the fear card; they encouraged the population to be as irrational as humans get when they are afraid.

That's what George Bush did and the current administration is not doing much better with its plan to escalate the war in Afghanistan.

In Israel and in Palestine there are people who have overcome their fear and think clearly about the prevailing conflicts. Moreover, they act on their thinking; they have joint projects. They actively work for peace. If the new administration is serious about new departures for America's role in the Mid-East, Secretary Clinton and President Obama and Senator George Mitchell, President Obama's envoy to the Mid-East, must seek out the small groups of people who have overcome their fear, who are courageous enough to work with their supposed enemies—Israelis working with Palestinians, Palestinians working with Israelis. Talking to the leaders will be talking to more people who are committed to violence for political profit or because they too, drown in fear. They are unable to produce a solution because like all fearful people, they only know how to lash out in their panic and perpetuate fear and violence.

If we can do any good in the Mid-East we need to seek out those people who quietly and persistently, with great courage and reasonableness join those of the other side who are serious about peace, we need to support them and hold them up as models of what is possible.

That means that we too need to stop acting violently from fear and find the courageous peace makers and ally with and support them.