Friday, August 29, 2008

Dissonance - Cognitive and Otherwise

This is the first (almost) full week of school for the boys.  For some reason they had a half day today.  The long weekend got even longer. The older one has all his buddies over at the house; I think there might be nine of them in total.  So I’m staying late at the office to keep out of harm’s way.  I almost always start writing a blog post in the morning, when I’m freshest and the ideas flow better.  I’ve got nobody here to go have a beer with – everybody else has taken off already and I can’t see hitting a bar by myself, just too depressing.  So, weird as this may seem, I’m blogging as an alternative, at least till I think it’s sufficiently subdued back at the ranch.

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With politics on the brain, the Times this morning asked a bunch of Old Hands about their behind the scene experiences at prior Democratic Conventions.  They vary in quality.  This one by Gary Hart is unbelievable.  If it’s true it shows why most of us can’t run for high office – we wouldn’t have the presence of mind.

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Just before writing this piece I read the “surprise” announcement that John McCain had picked Governor Sarah Palin of Alaska to be his running mate this fall.   The bit about the piece that got me is this.  Palin is a pro-lifer with five children of her own.  The last is only a year old.  She brought to term a child she knew ahead of time to have Down syndrome, rather than have an abortion.  One can only assume the child has special needs and is very much dependent on adult supervision.  Earlier in the week I watched this interview with Michelle Obama done by Judy Woodruff, where Obama says in no uncertain terms that the supermom concept is a myth, nobody can do it all.  If McCain-Palin win in November, does Palin outsource all her parenting to a nanny or does she become a stay-home Vice President?  How can the Conservative Right like either of those alternatives, as they seem to based on the quotes in the announcement article?

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I’ve got a copy of Declining By Degrees, which I’m reading to see if it is appropriate to use in a course I may teach next semester.  It is a collection of essays, with a common theme to be sure but where each can be read in its own right.  So I’ve been picking and choosing.  The day before yesterday I read the chapter by Arthur Levine.  There is a section in it about financial aid and access and about how Colleges have changed in their approach to awarding aid where first there has been a shift from grants to loans and second, even with grants there has been a shift from need based aid to merit aid.  Both of these make going to college more onerous for low income students.  And the data bear out that, indeed, College enrollments of low income students have been declining. 

The Democratic Convention made clear that the agenda at home is to restore The American Dream.  A good part of that is to make College accessible to all and to have a much larger fraction of the population matriculate and graduate.  Those goals seem noble to me.  So it would follow, based on the Levine piece, that we should advocate for a return to need based aid even if done unilaterally it means some of those students getting 1600s on the SATs go elsewhere. 

My older boy is a high school junior now.  He took an ACT prep course this summer and seems to have a reasonable chance to score quite high on that test.  He wants to go to College away from Champaign-Urbana and I concur with that preference; he needs to experience different environs.  There’s a reasonable possibility he’ll end up at a ritzy private college.  (I graduate from Cornell after starting at MIT.)  Even the top rated public universities are pretty pricey if you have to pay out of state tuition.  Realistically we can now afford about the first two years of such an experience for him and his younger brother too.  After that we’ll have to go into hoc.   I’ve thought about retiring in a couple of year when I’m 55, then going to work elsewhere so I can double dip income-wise, just to solve that problem.  If the kids got substantial merit scholarships because they were perceived to be elite performers in the classroom, that would be a welcome alternative.  So as a parent, I lust for our kids getting merit scholarships, especially if they opt to go to College away from home. 

Until this week I hadn’t seen the contradiction but now I wonder if that’s just being greedy – the altruistic preference would be to advocate for need based aid consistently and simply be willing to take on the additional debt.  (That’s the American way, right?) But, more honestly, I tend to think – take care of the family first and suspend societal concerns until those family needs are met.  On the other hand, if faculty collectively have that point of view and most of us are probably in the 90th percentile nationally regarding family income, doesn’t that smack of elitism?  I’m really struggling with this one. 

Maybe I should consider voting Republican.  And by the way, that course I’d be teaching is for Campus Honors Students

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Yesterday, I spent a good chunk of my idle time considering the word “cloying” after reading this column by Roger Cohen that I thought was on the mark.  In this case it refers to both Barack and Michelle Obama “dumbing it down” in order to show they’re just plain folks, to connect to the White ethnic voters who hold the key to this election.  If it’s agreed that this is what they were trying to do with the Convention, and perhaps what they will do with the entire remainder of the campaign, is this an approach that we early supporters can embrace?  It’s obnoxious for the smartest kid in the class to show off, sure, but do we really want him to pull his intellectual punches? 

There is a passage in that Levine chapter which deals with the Teaching and Learning Mismatch that seems apt.

Here is the problem. More than half of college students learn best by means of “direct, concrete experience, moderate-to-high degrees of structure and a linear approach to learning.  They value the practical and the immediate and the focus of their perception is primarily on the physical world.”  In contrast, three-quarters of the faculty “prefer the global to the particular, are stimulated by the realm of concepts, ideas, and abstractions, and assume that students, like themselves, need a high degree of autonomy in their work.”

Barack Obama was a faculty member.  So maybe it’s not a racial thing.  But does the candidate denying this tendency toward the academic way of thinking make sense? 

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I’m not ruling out racial motives in the voting.  But the economy seems to be in the crapper, at least for a good chunk of the population whom you might say are low to middle income.  As Paul Krugman makes clear in his column today, there is a stark choice to be made between the two parties on economic grounds.  And it would seem that in that dimension every working stiff would prefer what the Democrats have to offer, overwhelmingly so.  So why is this election a horse race?

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