Cross About Cross Examination

Dear Negative Team:

I noticed a few things in that last tournament where I judged you collectively, and they’ve gotten worse over the course of the year.  So here’s a few pointers on how to win a ballot and maintain high speaker points when you’re delivering for me.

First, Political Capital is bunk.  You can refer back to George Bush’s claim that he had it and was going to spend it on social security reform (which went utterly nowhere) after his re-election to see this.  Any link stories based on political capital are lies.  The closest you can possibly come to making a political capital claim is to use the chunks of evidence that say “half of the senate would rather commit seppuku than vote for a plan like that” while claiming that the real-world-civics-education aspect of the debate should not assume fiat, only indeterminately high lobbying capacity.

Second, Bio-Power is bunk.  Stop wasting my time with it.  As long as services critical for life and health are paid for with Federal Reserve Notes — that is, the US Dollars that the US Federal Government supports and is the ongoing functional foundation of its legitimacy in our capitalist society — then the government cannot have more control over individuals than they already do.  The only question is whether or not the individuals actually need to convert the power to money before getting services or just go from power to services.  And this is a turn:  Corporations behave like sociopaths with no duties to anybody but their biggest shareholders and the use of paychecks and benefit packages gives them biopower over their employees that they exercise to the detriment of real people every time layoffs come around.  (See also Network: “There is no America.  There is no Democracy.  There is only IBM, ATT, ITT, and Exxon.”)  Neither the aff nor the neg is going to undo biopower by any means of policy, but the aff’s policy of shifting biopower away from the feckless corporations back to the elected government, of-by-and-for the people, helps to put the worst abuses of biopower in check.  And that, quite frankly, is what nationalized health care is supposed to be all about.

Third, Counterplans that Affirm the Resolution mean that the negative has ceded its advocacy.  Please stop running them.  If topicality is a voting issue for me, which it is, and I told you this, then you had better not be affirming the resolution.  I really wish at some point 2AC would stand up after hearing a different-agent “counterplan” and say “Yeah, they’re right enough.  We totally grant their counterplan.  But their counterplan affirms the resolution, so we’ve just aggreed that X should Y, so if you’d be so kind as to vote affirmative now we’ll stop wasting our breath and your time.  Thanks!”  Because I swear I’ll give perfect speaker points to somebody who can crystallize that tersely and perfectly and be done.

Fourth, the only reason topicality matters is because it determines whether or not the affirmative has affirmed the resolution.  If they haven’t affirmed the resolution, you get up there and say so and explain to me how and why and you win.  That’s all.  For the fear of dread Cthulhu, please stop claiming that not having to research non-topical cases is good for your education.  It isn’t.  It’s bad for it.  More things to research results in you having to learn more if you’re doing any research at all instead of just reading this canned claim that your education is harmed by being exposed to new and unusual things.

Fifth, if you’re running contradicting perspectives, please put some if/else conditioning in there so I know where you’re actually leaning and what you actually expect.  If you don’t do it, then I really hope that the affirmative slaps you with a double-turn and annihilates your cognitive credibility so that I can be pleased with the thought processes going into at least something I’m seeing.  Really, if/elsing is easy:  “We believe in this critique here, but you’ve said that you’re not keen on K so if you don’t like that then please consider this alternative…”  That’s it.  That’s all I’m asking for.  That little line is worth 2-3 speaker points on its own.

Sixth, please respond to the affirmative case as early as possible.  Lately I’ve been seeing a lot of bad off-case in the 1NC and the debate never gets back to anything said in the 1AC, meaning that the carefully constructed house of cards that is the affirmative’s case isn’t getting touched, much less summarily knocked down.  Maybe I’m biased because that’s what I’m good at, but really, if it’s going to flow through the round then can we cut the first eight-minute speech and just assume “1) Flowers, 2) Bunnies, 3) Rainbows” and go from there?

Seventh, and affirmative listen up, is Terminal Impacts.  I don’t believe in them.  You should’ve caught this from the first thing I said in my paradigm.  I’m sad that you didn’t.  The thing about terminal impacts is that they’re not going to happen based on any policies that just about anybody can lay out in about 30 minutes of “constructive” speeches.  This doesn’t mean that there aren’t harmful impacts, and I certainly will be wanting to mitigate harmful impacts — just because as a species we’re not going extinct (really we’re not) doesn’t mean that we’ve done anything to mitigate people’s suffering.  So for the negative, don’t think that the one thing you say against the affirmative (“we’re not going extinct!”) in any way turns the entirety of their case any more than the affirmative should have claimed that we’re going extinct or are in three different ways on the fast track to global annihilation anyway.

Finally, stop running Narrative K if you don’t have an opposing narrative of your own.  If debate is storytelling and you don’t tell me a good story, then you lose for not telling me a story and I drop your speaking points for wasting my time telling me that debate is storytelling which I already knew.  Really.  And per the previous point — once again, this is for both when you are affirming and negating — please, in the name of Eris, have a narrative that is better than “See Jane.  See Jane run from nuclear annihilation.  Run, Jane, Run!  Too late, Jane died horribly all because you voted for the other team.”  You have more time and more resources to work with to form a cohesive, coherent, dare I even say persuasive narrative than any other debate event you can participate in.  Please use it.

Sincerely,
That Guy With The Shaved Head

Update: Since very few of you have seen Network, a fabulously prescient film from the 1970’s, here is the relevant bit that you can use as a 2AC if somebody combines the Narrative K with the Biopower K to feed back the Corporations Are Bigger Than Government story.  The card should be labelled “Chayefsky, 1976.”

There are no nations! There are no peoples! There are no Russians. There are no Arabs! There are no third worlds! There is no West! There is only one holistic system of systems, one vast and immane, interwoven, interacting, multi-variate, multi-national dominion of dollars! It is the international system of currency that determines the totality of life on this planet! That is the natural order of things today! That is the atomic, subatomic and galactic structure of things today! … You get up … and howl about America and democracy. There is no America. There is no democracy.  There is only IBM and ITT and A T and T and Dupont, Dow, Union Carbide and Exxon. Those are the nations of the world today.  What do you think the Russians talk about in their councils of state — Karl Marx?  They pull out their linear programming charts, statistical decision theories and minimax solutions and compute the price-cost probabilities of their transactions and investments just like we do.  We no longer live in a world of nations and ideologies… The world is a college of corporations, inexorably determined by the immutable by-laws of business.  The world is a business…! It has been since man crawled out of the slime, and our children, … will live to see that perfect world in which there is no war and famine, oppression and brutality — one vast and ecumenical holding company, for whom all men will work to serve a common profit, in which all men will hold a share of stock, all necessities provided, all anxieties tranquilized, all boredom amused.

And that is both the true promise and the true threat of Biopower.  If you want to see it originally delivered by Ned Beatty to get a hint as to how you should be delivering it in round, it’s on YouTube.  Isn’t the 21st century wonderful?

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RzSj1yNZdY8]

Update #2: So most of the topicality I’ve seen has been related to who is getting social services (instead of on substantially increasing against apparently a standing budget of $557B) and while a lot of affirmative plans go extratopical in covering the designated demographic, there are some that go untopical.  And, as previously noted, when they go untopical, they have failed to affirm the resolution so “Aff” can’t be written on the ballot.  And the best way to describe that picture is to start with a Venn diagram like this:

So first of all, the actual population that is being targeted is massively smaller than the population that should be targeted, even before you take out the extratopical portion of the population that doesn’t need to be targeted.  This is true for illegal immigrants (about 13M), this is more true for Natives on reservations (about 0.8M) so the first question you bring out in cross examination — right after “what’s the intial cost of implementing your policy?” — should be “how many people are affected by your policy?” because both of those are substantial questions to form a topicality point of their own.  If necessary, follow it up with “and how many of them are in poverty?” but ideally it won’t be necessary because the better follow-up is “and why are they in poverty?” because the answer to that is going to fork into your claims that their policy won’t have any solvency and will, in fact, be an ongoing money-sink. (Note that if you’re listening carefully, the other team may read cards on why some of their target population is in poverty… and never even try to solve for it such that the solvency they’re hoping to get will leak right out through, oh say, failed infrastructure.)

But the real topicality argument is this:  The social services are not for people living in poverty.  If, for example, a policy targeting a population were implemented and then the subset of that population were to collectively win the lottery and cease being in poverty, they would still be receiving the increased social services based on the not-poverty qualification and the other team (not an affirmative position) wouldn’t be able to hide behind a facade of topicality.  It is merely circumstantial that there is any overlap between the targeted population and the topical population, and when the policy is passed by whatever branch of the federal government and then re-sold to the American people, it will be sold honestly and directly as non-topical.  “Poverty” may come up in justifying the policy, but probably not because the other team probably has barely mentioned it at all because that’s something they can’t solve for.

To re-clarify:  If the affirmative position fails to target people living in poverty because of their impoverished status, then you can hit them with this — and the less overlap there is, the easier it is to make this point stick and double it up with a substantially violation.  And remember to close your topicality argument with “Even if you believe that they’ve got a good case and a good policy, they have failed to affirm the resolution so ‘affirm’ is not a valid option for your ballot.”  If you’re really on the ball, you can use that to turn right around and say “But we don’t think that’s it’s that great of a policy because…” and start with a spending disadvantage before going on to non-solvency — “so you’ve taken the unfortunate increase in spending and gone nowhere with it, and haven’t even affirmed the resolution.”

Your Reproduction

Unusual disclaimer:  This post will probably make me sound hateful, or like a colossal elitist jerk — the latter of which I have repeatedly said that I am, so nobody should be surprised.  This post is not genuinely intended to cut, it is observational only.  I wish I had an idea of how to resolve these anomalies so that society could advance (ideally by concurrently rewarding excellence and mitigating suffering), but I don’t.  I’m just me.  And even if I sound hateful or like an elitist jerk, I’m still me.  So let me start by quoting somebody with a reputation even worse than mine.

The individual has always had to struggle to keep from being overwhelmed by the tribe. If you try it, you will be lonely often, and sometimes frightened. But no price is too high to pay for the privilege of owning yourself. –Friedrich Nietzsche

An unusual pairing of headlines generated a chunk of cognitive dissonance for me over the weekend.  The first was a report of yet another protest against the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision which effectively legalized abortion in the United States.  This was paired with concern about voting on a couple of tax increases.  A lot of the state-employed teachers and coaches I work with are concerned about taxes not going up, but some of them are concerned for their small-business owning relatives in case the taxes do go up.  The Oregonian has several shots of its own against the tax increases.

We’ll get back to the taxes, but first there’s Roe v. Wade.  This particular Supreme Court decision holds a special cold place in my heart because it tends to make people stupid (and I used to be one of them).  The ruling was not that “a woman has a constitutionally guaranteed right to an abortion” or even anything to do with choice or life.  The precise summarize ruling was that the work necessary to prosecute abortion would “violate the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, which protects against state action the right to privacy” — or put another way, if the state can’t reasonably expect that you are viably pregnant, then the state has no just cause to expect that your non-pregnancy is the result of having an abortion.  It is also worth noting that the Roe v. Wade decision also includes its own limiter, promptly following the line quoted above, noting that the state has “legitimate interests in protecting both the pregnant woman’s health and the potentiality of human life, each of which interests grows and reaches a ‘compelling’ point at various stages of the woman’s approach to term.”

The thing that really strikes me about Roe v. Wade — especially that last clause — is that it is why people who are very pro-choice should be very afraid of government involvement in health care.  Government involvement in health care increases the government interest in “protecting both the pregnant woman’s health and the potentiality of human life” and reduces the barrier between state and citizen such that there is less privacy to be violated should abortion be outlawed and prosecutions follow.  All it would take is a conservative court that could actually, and with reasonable legitimacy, cite the original precedent of Roe v. Wade to not overturn it at all, but instead adjust the legal implications to be in-tune with the new social status quo.  Then again, there are people who earnestly want government to subsidize abortions for the economically disadvantaged without realizing how close they’re coming to promoting eugenics.

Conversely, a lot of the pro-life people should be thankful for Roe v. Wade because Roe v. Wade’s staunch re-assertion of the right to privacy also allows people who are so desperate to become pregnant to do so in unnatural ways which run counter to at least several thousand years of natural selection, if not making headlines for their gross abuse of society’s generosity.  (Just for the record, if you ever have to choose between “life finds a way” or “mad scientists find a way,” bet on the mad scientists.)

The point here is that “abort or not” isn’t really the choice here.  The real choice is “parenthood or not” and the government is staying away from that decision, too.

Or it would be if it weren’t mired in that decision for reasons of tradition and future et cetera.  In much the same way the religious institution of marriage has been recognized by the state with special statuses and tax breaks, so has the very private, intimate (or personal in some cases) decision to raise children been marked in public policy from the public school system to the tax deductions that reduce the amount of funding schools get from the people who are sending their children to them.  This means, conversely, that the people with no children are being taxed an astonishing amount (compared to the lack of resource consumption) to subsidize public education for other people’s children given that the private nature of the decision to have children, which the government wants no part of.

There is some strange economy at work here.  Erik Naggum, in responding to Atlas Shrugged, claims that an open capitalist economy gives people something more desirable to do than procreate, so they’ll do it.

The single factor that best defines civilizations as they become richer and therefore offer more freedom, is that people procreate less and at a later age. Capitalism has proved to be inordinately effective in keeping people from procreating when they could not produce enough to feed and care for their offspring… By giving women something that it costs so much to give up by having children that they weigh the cost that having children is and decide against it, capitalist society has short-circuited the senseless wastes of procreation with wild abandon that have marred every pre-capitalist society that happened to overproduce.

Paul Graham, meanwhile, notes that kids produced in a suburban-oriented society are an economic liability to the society in question.

Now adults have no immediate use for teenagers. They would be in the way in an office. So they drop them off at school on their way to work, much as they might drop the dog off at a kennel if they were going away for the weekend… Teenagers now are useless, except as cheap labor in industries like fast food, which evolved to exploit precisely this fact. In almost any other kind of work, they’d be a net loss. But they’re also too young to be left unsupervised. Someone has to watch over them, and the most efficient way to do this is to collect them together in one place. Then a few adults can watch all of them.

The point behind this is these is that our capitalist society has no intention of having generally well-paid teachers due in no small part to the fact that the people who are making the most money and paying the most taxes either don’t have children or simply can’t put their career on hold long enough to pay that much attention to them because, if/when they do, the ongoing role of the public schoolteacher is diminished.

To clarify:  for the people who made the private economic decision to not have children, the public economic burden of educating children that were the result of other people’s private choices is a strange one.

And now the state is asking voters, of which I am one, if we should raise taxes on the people who are focused on making money — and probably not consuming so many state resources — to subsidize the (pejoratively pigeonholed) breeders’ so-called “public” education system (and, honestly, general budget).  Put that way, I’m really rather disinclined to agree to putting further fiscal support behind the state-entitled education system, especially since I know I disagree with its general educational priorities.  But the galling aspect of this is that there is no upper boundary on how much we may be asked to give to publicly mitigate private consequences — that is, subsidize the education of other people’s never-ending kids.  At a some point, freedom to choose must necessarily be read as freedom to choose the consequences and entitlements that scale to mitigate consequences prevent that point from ever being set.

I can only be and accept responsibility for being my brother’s keeper inasmuch as my brother, as a free moral agent, allows himself to be kept.  This is the point where all solvency breaks down.  But interestingly enough, this is also why making abortion illegal would not increase the net morality of our society.

Update: Going through the backlog on my RSS feed, we’ve got “Oregon State study says having fewer children is best way to reduce your carbon footprint.”  Of course, the other interesting thing is that “the rich” are having more children (The Economist from August 6, 2009 — subscription required at this point), representing a change in demography from the trend assumed above (particularly by Naggum) and further undermining the presumed necessity of having a fully public education system.

Revaluation FTWTF

The wonderful thing about standards is that there are so many to choose from.  The state of Oregon has (non-linear) standards for judging high schools, and they apparently rate Glencoe as Satisfactory.  But Glencoe’s reputation at the federal level is “Repeatedly missed targets, on ‘troubled’ list.”  Which really doesn’t hold with what Oregon says, and is rather opposite of the US News rating of the school (which the Oregonian is rather proud of).  See, they say that Glencoe gets a silver medal which is rather more than satisfactory and certainly not troubled.  Who’s right?  Well that probably depends on what you care most about.

So when we get to the Christian Science Monitor not doing a particularly stellar job of explaining “Why US high school reform efforts aren’t working,” we’re keyed to look for a line like “almost half of low-income high school students and their parents say that the primary mission of high school is to prepare them for college, only 9 percent of educators say that’s their primary task” which really highlights the disparity between expectations.

Traditionally, the college education has been viewed as a necessary-and-good step on the ladder of personal socioeconomic progress.  It has been woven into our cultural narrative and Matt Crawford covers it extensively in Shop Class as Soulcraft, which I’ve mentioned before and lays the groundwork of a counterpoint.  The counterpoint has been growing ever since the Dot-Com Burst at the turn of the century left a lot of college graduates trying to start careers that weren’t where they had been the year before.  And now we’ve got Fast Company, as a for-example, asking “Is College Really Worth It?” which is rather more gentle than Philip Greenspun or the Boston Globe’s calling-out of “The college admissions scam” (which we know, from Inside Higher Ed that I’ve referenced in “Valuation,” is partially a side effect of overzealous capacity expansion of universities but is also certainly a bubble effect as we have to rethink the knowledge economy).

So there are two especially glaring issues that are disrupting the dialog about the narrative.  For higher education, the simple fact of the matter is that not all college educations are created equal — the institutions, subject matter, and students all set the stage for unequal return on investment.  But what concerns me more is that our primary education systems are, from a legislative level on down, being told to ensure that we have No Child Left Behind… which conversely means that we’ve got a dearth of Children Actually Getting Ahead.  Public schools are being run with such an aversion to failure that the kids who are fairly well set up to achieve something are instead disenfranchised as “successful enough.”  Yes, I’ve yowled about this before, but the problem is that now we’ve got college professors complaining in the Boston Globe about their “lazy American students” and prompting a knee-jerk response about “lazy American teachers,” go figure.  Now there are numerous things wrong here (more with the latter than the former) but the thing that strikes me as odd as that the latter doesn’t realize that in as much as his complaint about “lazy teachers” covers the High School spectrum where kids are becoming bored instead of disciplined and focused, he’s got the exact same complaint as the college professor.  But the subtler similarity is that both the college professor and the guy who dropped out of college also both assume, per the cultural narrative, that people are supposed to go to college and continue with formalized secondary education.  The professor doesn’t even begin to suggest that perhaps some of her lazy students just plain don’t belong in her lecture hall.  And the person of dubious academic qualifications seems quite sure that the problem with the system is the people who have implemented it rather than anything more core to the system than that.

Anyway, the point behind all of the lazy people is that we’ve got so much common ground we don’t seem to notice that we’re all standing on it.  Our real problem is holding down specific goals, even as we share a vocabulary.  I noticed this a while back when one of my debaters mentioned that there were two years of AP English.  This surprised me at the time, but the New York Times confirms (via Patrick Welsh, a career educator and one voice among several) that advanced placement curriculum is changing:

In the last 10 years, Advanced Placement has become a game of labels and numbers, a public relations ploy used by school officials who are dumping as many students as they can into A.P. courses to create the illusion that they are raising overall standards and closing the gap between whites and minorities. In fact, they are doing just the opposite. And in the process, Advanced Placement has become the College Board’s cash cow as each year tens of thousands more students — or their school boards — fork over an $86 fee for each exam.

So the lingering mental model of AP curriculum that I recall from 12th grade apparently can be substituted with its modern counterpart in the same way that teachers can be substituted for, excepting that they can’t.

But meandering back a bit and on a tangent, what I found to be particularly galling about the “lazy teachers” article isn’t his apparent “I was wronged by the faulty people implementing a perfect cultural narrative and my socioeconomic success is my revenge” attitude, and it isn’t that he seems to believe that cursing the darkness and lighting candles are mutually exclusive activities, but rather that he thinks — sarcastically I’m certain, but the words are there — that the coffee provided to public school teachers (typically in the staff lounge, not the cafeteria as far as I know) in the United States is capable of motivating anybody.  Seriously.  If you think a cup of coffee is going to help, then let’s invest more in their coffee — because I can assure you that the unholy ashes of coffee-flavored substance that typically gets used is pretty much at the bottom of the economic bean-pile.  If coffee is going to help, then how about we start picking up some nice Ethiopian beans?  I’m polishing off a pound of Columbian from El Jordan which is really probably the nicest full-on coffee I’ve brewed since the Ethiopian Wondo, though the Rwandan Vunga was quite nice.  Of course, the best I ever had would be the Panama Geisha at Lava Java… which was sitting at $100 per pound.  But if that’s what it takes to ensure the future progress of our civilization through properly educated youth, then maybe it’s a small price to pay.  Except that it isn’t what it will take and I rather expect that everybody knows it and the terseness of the “wake up and smell the coffee” line is just another form of cursing the darkness because somebody thinks that lighting a candle is too damned hard.

Of course, there’s always the possibility that it is almost that simple.  So I could be wrong, and kudos to the chef who is doing something interesting with his 15 minutes of fame; sir, you do put a smile on my face.

And also, to be fair about the lazy teachers, there are reports of professors using PowerPoint in “the wild” as it were.  You would think that they might have heard rumors of Tufte’s work on the subject of PowerPoint, but evidently not.  Presumably no more than, oh say, their employers realized that they were issuing diplomas to felines.  So we are almost certainly seeing a decline in academic rigor in universities, which strikes me as little more than the first consequence of over-expansion (see above) and will be nothing compared to the shock and pain the industry goes through and entire colleges are culled out of existence because our cultural narrative becomes honest about how the value of a college education is speculative, not guaranteed.

So in the end (more because it is late than because it is over), there’s two things kids need to know about the modern education that is being inflicted upon them which I suspect I’ve said before or at least heard elsewhere:

  1. The goal of primary education is increasingly to ensure that anybody can pass it.  If you want to be somebody, you have to have higher standards for yourself than just “pass.”  There is no set upper limit to your success; there is no set speed limit preventing you from getting there faster.  If you think, for example, that you’re not learning chemistry properly, then go requisition a chemistry set and an experiment book.  It’s not rocket science, but it’s more than I’ve done with science lately.
  2. As far as college education goes, if you’re a smart enough and self-starting enough kind of person, then skip as much of the 100-level coursework as possible.  Even some of the 200-level coursework can be rather flat.  The best singular decision I made in college — which is to say that I made it once and never reconsidered — was to jump right into a (university mandated) philosophy course at the 300-level where the subject matter was focused and the professor actually cared about it… and the class only had a dozen or so students.

Hopefully this will be useful to somebody, but since it is now tomorrow, I’m going to downgrade my optimism to hoping that it’s merely coherent.

Reading Fiction

This post was originally written after judging a “Public” debate at a tournament last year. Having recently gotten several questions about Public debate form and style, I think I should probably re-post this as a short sample case. This is a simple, definitional-fact case, gussied up with a lot of pretty and congenial talk to build rapport with the judge(s).

This house believes that reading fiction is useless.

Of course, through a lens of existential autonomy operating within a de facto absurdist framework, nothing is particularly useful. People simply reading Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead won’t necessarily get more use out of it than Rosencrantz and Guildenstern would get out of being read. So that’s part of what we want you to keep in mind as we explain our position: it is up to the individual person to add value, or usefulness, to their activities.

By way of resolutional analysis, we’d like to point out that the resolution is using the word reading, which indicates an active, present-tense verb. It is the actual process of reading. It is not learning to read using fiction. It is not reflecting deeply upon and writing analytical essays of fiction. It is nothing more than reading fiction. And we’re going to talk about why merely reading fiction is useless.

So our initial point of contention is that merely reading is useless, regardless of whether the matter is fiction or non-fiction. If valuable action or thought follows the reading, then the individual may attribute use to that, but specifically to reading there is no particular use. After all, what use is there in reading any particular thing? The matter of the printed word never amounts to more than, as Hamlet summarized it, “Words, words… words.” Now it would be right to say that I’ve put Hamlet to use here, but it was not the reading of Hamlet, but rather the employ of Hamlet — and this distinction is important because far more people have encountered Hamlet, read Hamlet, been subjected to the tragedy of Hamlet, than have used it to construct an argument in a debate. So the point here is that reading is not the same thing as gaining use of, and as long as that distinction is clear — which, through an existentially autonomous lens it should be — we’re clearly looking to the affirmation that merely “reading fiction is useless.”

But through that lens of existential autonomy, you — being a well-read jury of critics — may be thinking “But I don’t read anything that I don’t intend to put to use!” and I do not doubt it. But consider what you read: do you read high-literature in order to gain enlightenment? Or do you read bestsellers to stay engaged in popular culture? No matter what your ultimate reason is, what the ultimate use you put the book to is, chances are that you don’t merely read any random fiction that happens to have a compelling cover, by which you know you should not judge the book. And this goes back to our point: that merely reading arbitrary and random “fiction” is useless. Even our bookworm friends that do buy any random tome that strikes their fancy admit that thtere is no more value in their reading habits than killing the time that would be passing with quiet futility anyway. Surely such fine critics would be at least honest in the scope of their limited amusements, and cede to affirm that the mere act of reading fiction, for nothing more than the sake of reading fiction, is useless.

This reminds me of a story one of my friends told me. A while back, the book Infinite Jest (by David Wallace) was quite popular. The book is a thick and difficult tome, but people were buying copies and presumably reading them. Well one guy bought it. And read it — all 1100-plus thick, twisted and convoluted pages of it. And when he tried to discuss the matter of the fiction with the other people who had been packing around or casting knowing nods towards their copies of Infinite Jest, he found that he was the only one who had actually read the book: everybody else had given up a couple of hundred pages in and was merely posing as if they had made it through the mammoth lump of fiction. And so, being foiled in what he hoped to achieve after reading the book, it is amusing — at his unfortunately illustrative expense — that reading the fiction wasn’t ultimately valuable to him, or even transitively valuable to any of his classmates that merely nodded and winked their way past it.

And thus we affirm that reading fiction is useless. The mere act of reading doesn’t contain any particular use. Some people may be able to assign value to reading, but not to something that they would merely and dismissively describe as fiction. And beyond that, the ex post facto value of the reading cannot be genuinely determined until after the fiction is read, not as a matter of the reading.

Economic Sanctions

Resolved: Economic sanctions ought not be used to achieve foreign policy objectives. That’s the next LD topic. Let’s see what we can do with just a bit of Wikipedia clicking…

Wikipedia states that “Economic sanctions are domestic penalties applied by one country (or group of countries) on another for a variety of reasons. Economic sanctions include, but are not limited to, tariffs, trade barriers, import duties, and import or export quotas.”

Additionally, “A country’s foreign policy… is a set of goals outlining how the country will interact with other countries economically, politically, socially and militarily… Foreign policies are designed to help protect a country’s national interests, national security, ideological goals, and economic prosperity.”

So the resolution is asking the affirmative to show why tariffs, trade barriers, import duties, et al, should not — due to a moral standard — be used to achieve foreign policy objectives which are designed to help protect a country’s national interests etc.

I suspect that the easy case for the affirmative to make is that economic sanctions on a country are designed to influence the policy maker — who is necessarily a despotic tyrant, or possibly a despotic oligarchy — to be nice to us. The evil-doer practically never notices because being the person with power over a nation has the perk of not having to suffer like your citizenry. So the nefarious head-of-state continues to live in luxury (and not submit to our will or succumb to our foreign policy objectives) while their citizens suffer from lack of economic interface with us. Tragic, right?

So why would we do it at all? It’s because we believe in the capability of those suffering citizens as humans and as citizens of their country. We believe that governments derive their just powers from the consent of their governed (it’s in our Declaration of Independence) thus if the current head-of-state isn’t willing to cooperate with our foreign policy objectives, then the citizens of that nation probably generally aren’t either. So if we can convince them — economically, without dropping bombs on them — that some regime change might improve their lot in life and they act on it, then our ideology about “consent of the governed” is upheld and if they don’t change their head-of-state, then there’s a measure of complicity in the head-of-state’s actions that we’ve thrown economic sanctions against. In other words: let them suffer because they’re not opposing their government that is opposing us.

Except that it doesn’t work so well. Economic sanctions against Iran, Iraq, North Korea, Libya, and — of course — Cuba all show that economic sanctions don’t bring about regime change. Generally they either help the people of the nation feel strong and independent because they don’t need our help to do as well as they’re doing, or the suffering citizens live in fear of their oppressive and well-fed government and its military. Really, when was the last time there was a successful coup d’etat that wasn’t executed by a nation’s military?

So the short of it is that the historically bad track record of economic sanctions for achieving major foreign policy objectives is pretty poor, with the mass of citizenry being the people who bear the brunt of the punative punishment for their government’s offenses. If Immanuel Kant — to poll a name at not-at-all random — were to examine this situation using deontological ethics, he would probably say that we’re not acting out of good will because we’re (at best) intending for people to suffer until they’re motivated to cause suffering to their government and (at worst) ignoring the humanity of the people who we will be causing to suffer as a means of altering the behavior of their government.

So, when looking at the ought-factor here, we see that we need to make a moral decision — and thus we’ll value Morality. And as the criterion for determining whether or not we’re acting in a moral fashion, we’ll refer back to Kant, citing this time his formulations of the Categorical Imperative which Wikipedia summarizes as

  • Act only according to that maxim by which you can also will that it would become a universal law.
  • Act in such a way that you always treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never simply as a means, but always at the same time as an end.
  • Act as though you were, through your maxims, a law-making member of a kingdom of ends.

And while the third one doesn’t really apply — we are talking about national and foreign policy here such that we are, effectively, law-making members — it is clear to see that we wouldn’t want economic sanctions against our nation and, more uniquely and distressingly, we can be seen as treating the citizens of foreign nations as a means to end certain policies of their government. Ergo, it is immoral to use economic sanctions to achieve foreign policy goals and we ought to not use them.

Of course, a canny negative speaker would stand up and ask if, since the affirmative is not actually a policy-maker, if they are only calling the behaviors of actual policy-makers immoral to win a debate and are, in fact, thus using the policy-makers — who are people — as a means to the end of winning a debate.

So if the negative were to take Kant and run with it, the negative would say that passing broad and preclusive judgment on the possible actions of other people without full respect for the nuances and humanity of their situation fails to pass the morality standards set by the categorical imperative: we do not want to rush to judgment on this matter or to disrespect the very human job and role of our policy-makers. Ergo, voting affirmative is immoral in this case and should not be done. Since the tab room won’t let you turn in a blank ballot, please write in “neg” instead.

The negative position relies on three elements here: First, Kamm’s Principle of Permissible Harm (see Deontology in Wikipedia again) which says that it is always morally permissible to do the least amount of harm. Thus, if a set of economic sanctions are being used instead of violence to prevent war against an intractable and non-cooperative nation such as North Korea or Iran, then it is possible that those sanctions are doing less harm than an alternative method to avoid significant net harms. In as much as the economic sanctions constitute a less-immoral practice, they must be accepted as morally permissible in order for a possibility for moral action.

Secondly, extending on that point, the affirmative fails to acknowledge the existence of foreign nations full of free moral agents who are choosing whether or not to act with or against our foreign policy objectives. We’re not simply slapping economic sanctions on nations because we’re the big rude hegemon of the world; we’re doing it because they are refusing to do something we need them to do in order to maintain a good, healthy, cooperative relationship with them. Both nations (and all citizens thereof) are free moral agents and to be treated as such we must acknowledge that their actions — inclusive of possibly responding to possible maleficence with economic sanctions — do not happen in a deontological bubble that we can judge to be immoral from this little half-hour debate round.

Third and finally, the affirmative isn’t really showing that people generally suffer from economic sanctions. Any independent and free nation can survive just fine even with economic sanctions in place against it. Cuba tenaciously continues to exist south of Florida despite an exceptionally long-running set of economic sanctions against it. Generally, and most commonly, people may not be able to get imported goods as cheaply or as readily as they otherwise might, but is — for example — a lack of computer CPUs (which are export-restricted due to cryptographic capabilities) really causing an immoral amount of suffering in the world? Not so much, no.

So let’s get real: economic sanctions are a barely effective way to pursue foreign policy objectives. They do not directly attempt to harm anybody and any suffering that might be felt in a nation subject to particularly stringent sanctions is almost certainly being felt because the economic sanctions have been set in response to threats of harm from that nation to the nation (or nations) laying out the sanctions while being in lieu of actual (and quasi-arbitrary) violence, thus making them morally permissible. Certainly more morally permissible than branding all of our policy-makers who frequently use some degree of economic sanctions or another in pursuit of foreign policy objectives as acting immorally for the sake of a debate round.

As a judge, I’d vote for the negative there. So I think the affirmative needs a different strategy.

So for something that’s coming a bit more out of left field, I’d say that economic sanctions ought not be used because using economic sanctions precludes corporations’ ability to autonomously fulfill their fiduciary duty to their stockholders.

Generally, as a society, we value fulfilling our duties. So when we say we value Duty, we’re using duty as “a term that conveys a sense of moral commitment to someone or something. The moral commitment is the sort that results in action, and it is not a matter of passive feeling or mere recognition. When someone recognizes a duty, that person commits himself/herself to the cause involved without considering the self-interested courses of actions that may have been relevant previously. This is not to suggest that living a life of duty precludes one from the best sort of life, but duty does involve some sacrifice of immediate self-interest.” (Wikipedia on Duty) The key thing to bear in mind is that accepting a duty is accepting a commitment that generally involves a sacrifice of self-interest.

Now you might find yourself thinking about “noble” right about now, and people heeding the call of duty. We don’t want to interfere with people acting out of a sense of duty or discharging their duties, so we’re going to use a very simple weighing mechanism here: who can avoid interfering with duties? We’re not necessarily trying to fulfill duties here — those who are called to or bound by duty are responsible for their duties — but we should not interfere with them any more than we would want somebody to interfere with us if we were so called or obligated.

And economic sanctions preclude corporations from fully carrying out their fiduciary duties to their shareholders.

Going back to Wikipedia (on “fiduciary duty”) “A fiduciary duty is the highest standard of care at either equity or law. A fiduciary (abbreviation fid) is expected to be extremely loyal to the person to whom he owes the duty (the “principal”): he must not put his personal interests before the duty, and must not profit from his position as a fiduciary, unless the principal consents… corporate directors, may be held to a fiduciary duty similar in some respects to that of a trustee. This happens when… the directors of a corporation are trustees for the stockholders…” Put another way, the constant duty of a corporation is to make money for the corporations’ shareholders, regardless of the personal interests of the people running the corporation. And economic sanctions against a nation alter the flow of free capitalistic trade, specifically preventing at least one (but usually many) corporations — both domestic and foreign — from fulfilling their fiduciary duties to their shareholders.

  1. Now the negative may object that a corporation is not a moral entity and thus failure to carry out a fiduciary duty is not immoral and thus fails to prove that we ought not interfere with it but: “Despite not being natural persons, corporations are recognized by the law to have rights and responsibilities like actual people. Corporations can exercise human rights against real individuals and the state, and they may be responsible for human rights violations. Just as they are “born” into existence through its members obtaining a certificate of incorporation, they can “die” when they lose money into insolvency. Corporations can even be convicted of criminal offenses, such as fraud and manslaughter.” (Wikipedia: Corporation) It is worth noting, however, that they are generally not considered to be actual citizens and, despite usually paying taxes, they are not considered to have an actual vote in democratic societies. I wouldn’t claim that this is taxation without representation at this juncture, but I would note that this explicit lack of representation disenfranchises the corporate duties and interest from national interests.
  2. The shareholder to whom the corporation is bound by fiduciary duty are, ultimately, people and thus breaking the discharge of the duty would constitute a harm to the people and thus be immoral.

An important example in this case is Halliburton. And while I shudder to hold Halliburton up as an example of moral behavior, it is hard to contend that Halliburton’s opening of a second corporate headquarters in Dubai — which was widely regarded as a transparent move designed to get around economic sanctions the United States placed on Iran — was motivated not by CEO David J. Lesar’s desire to be expatriated, but by their fiduciary responsibility to their shareholders to pursue profit and return on investment. They rightly set aside their self-interest to pursue the more-correct business strategy to carry out their fiduciary duty. And our economic sanctions against Iran created barriers that mitigated their ability to do so and increased the investment that they had to make to pursue this strategy, thus necessarily reducing their return on investment and harming Halliburton’s investors. We ought not do that.

Now the negative is probably going to stand up and say that we need some level of economic sanctions to prevent exporting weaponry to our enemies which, frankly, I have just justified. To this, there are two obvious responses:

  1. The black market will always supply our enemies with plenty of weapons, be they recycled, second-hand, or simply lost in transit on their way to our not-enemies. Economic sanctions are ineffective in preventing the flow of weapons; they only reduce the profit available for the discharge of the corporate fiduciary duty. Watch the movie Lord of War — it’s an eye-opener. But more importantly,
  2. The real problem isn’t the exporting of “goods” per se, but the exporting of devices that can do harm. If we didn’t allow the formation of corporations that exist to create things that do harm — if we didn’t make it possible for people to burden a corporation with a fiduciary responsibility to facilitate harming people — then we wouldn’t be nearly so worried about where they sell their wares. But inasmuch as we allow these corporations to exist and create these harmful products for the profit of the people who choose to invest in them (which may be considered reprehensible), then we must necessarily treat them as equals with other corporations that have identical fiduciary duties to their respective shareholders — so it’s still wrong to intervene in their discharge of fiduciary duties.

And the assured preclusion of proper discharge of fiduciary duties by corporations, foreign and domestic, when economic sanctions are used for any reason — to achieve foreign policy objectives or not — is why we ought not use economic sanctions. It is unacceptable to interfere in the discharge of legally codified duties.

But I suspect that a “foreign policy objectives are hegemonic evil” is going to be more common affirmative case than that corporation-friendly case there.  To which, the negative might respond with something like this…

  1. The usage of the ‘to’ places emphasis on the agent for focus of this debate. That foreign policy objectives are ultimately going to be achieved — regardless of their morality — is not in question.  What is in question is whether or not (or not or whether, actually) we ought use economic sanctions in the potentially protracted and/or protractable process of achieving them.  Point being that just because foreign policy objectives are bad things to have, achieve or pursue does not automatically warrant an affirmative ballot.  See,
  2. Per Kamm’s Principle of Permissible Harm, we can realize that economic sanctions are less immoral than other options — hegemonic assassinations, proactive wars, etc — to achieve the foreign policy objectives which will be achieved in some way, so it seems entirely possible that economic sanctions are the least immoral way to achieve these objectives and are thus the only way we ought to achieve them.
  3. Economic sanctions don’t even work to achieve those immoral hegemonic foreign policy objectives.  Really, look at Cuba, Iran, North Korea, Et Cetera.  But we like economic sanctions because they’re the least evil way to still feel like we’re powerful and hegemonic and in the meantime, the more-immoral actions which would more effectively achieve those evil foreign policy objectives are deferred while we wait to see if the less-harmful actions are effective.  They aren’t, but time marches on while they’re not and during that time, we’re less-immoral than we otherwise would be if we were taking more direct action.

So, on the whole, yes, foreign policy objectives are bad.  But we’re not debating that — we’re debating about whether there are better or worse ways to get to an agreed-upon bad ends.  (That’s the “to” in the resolution, remember — without that “to,” the affirmative isn’t topical.)  And what I’ve just told you is that economic sanctions are the laziest, least-effective, least-impactful, least harmful way that we regularly use to pursue those hegemonically bad foreign policy objectives and because it is the least-wrong thing we can do, economic sanctions are therefore the only thing we ought to do when we’re pursuing those bad ends — because simply not pursuing them is outside of the scope of this debate.

Of course, the negative shifting the focus of the debate should get a question in cross-examination related to the usage of “To,” which may be responded to by the negative thusly: “Your easily-affirmed interpretation of the resolution would be better stated as ‘foreign policy objectives ought not be achieved via economic sanctions’ which couples the ought-not to the achieve verb on the foreign policy objective, with economic sanctions being an incidental frame.  Our resolution, however, couples ought-not with use of economic sanctions; the achievement of foreign policy objectives being the incidental frame.  I expect you are trying to affirm the topical reading of the resolution, so that’s what I’m arguing against — but if you’re happy with being off-topic, I’ll happily drop my arguments since I don’t need to argue against something that doesn’t affirm the resolution.”

January 11, 2010: Going through old articles today, I ran across a list of corporations that have moved their headquarters abroad for (at least partially) tax reasons.

Valuation

One of the most heinous problems with value-based debate is that the kids who are actively doing it tend to not understand what a value actually is.  This problem isn’t restricted just to kids.  Ashley Merryman, writing for Newsweek, suggests that “US School Kids Are Doing Better Than Ever – But You Never Hear It” using graduation rates and tests and all of that stuff.  What she never does is correlate that to actual success in a competitive field, or demonstrate that the metrics she is providing have intrinsic worth.  Certainly scoring higher on A Test is going to be a prima facie good thing… but what makes A Test worth taking?  The question is outside the scope of the article, which really undermines its ability to be contrary to the usual doom-oriented thinking that most trolls (like me) engage in.  The closest she comes to providing a qualitative measure of things getting better would be claiming that “fewer colleges and universities even offer remedial programs than they did in decades past.”  I would generally expect that this is because colleges don’t want to have to offer those courses more often than their not being necessary.  First case in point would be Mr. Newell’s counter-claim that in 2001, 10% of students in Oregon’s state university system took remedial math.  But the other counter-point here would be that the selectivity of colleges has gone down due to freshman seats in colleges outpacing the increase of high school graduates.  The evidence is over here, with the key point being

The number of high school graduates in the United States, from 1955 to today, increased by 131 percent, she notes, but the number of freshman seats in the U.S. rose by 297 percent. “This suggests that the absolute standard of achievement required of a freshman who successfully competed for a seat was falling,” Hoxby writes… The number of college seats available to students who — judging by NAEP scores and college admission records — are only moderately or minimally prepared has gone up.

There’s two points to be made here, with the easier point starting a long chain that hooks into the second point near the end.  The easier point to make is that, when offered money to deliver “success,” people adjust their definition of “success” to make it more achievable — and this is especially true for cash-starved state education systems.  The Christian Science Monitor recently summarized a survey of “proficiency” definitions in “Student ‘proficiency’: What is your state’s definition?” which came back with disappointing results:

“A proficient reader in State A may be very different from a proficient reader in State B – even though those students may have the same academic skill,” says Peggy Carr, associate commissioner for assessment at the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), which released the study Thursday… The level considered proficient in 31 states didn’t even reach the “basic” level on NAEP. Not a single state had standards that reached NAEP’s “proficient” level… “This is a black box to most people,” Ms. Winkler adds. “The concept of proficiency is bandied about, … but there are a lot of ways and mechanisms states can use to make it appear they’re performing better than they are.”

Never mind the correlation that the Washington State Board of Health found between soda consumption and academic failure, as a nation we’re unable to define success at a level that is actually successful — let alone definitive.  But testing harder isn’t going to give us more learning or better education by itself.  Joel Klein, chancellor of the New York City Department of Education, explains to the Wall Street Journal that improving education requires motivating — frankly — smarter people to teach.

The most important thing is to bring to K-12 education college graduates who excel in math and science. Those countries that are doing best are recruiting their K-12 teachers from the top third of their college graduates. America is recruiting our teachers generally from the bottom third, and when you go into our high-needs communities, we’re clearly underserving them.

And this clearly echoes writing from Paul Graham which I’ve linked to elsewhere, even before we get into how lowered standards stifle gifted students — ignoring bizarre cases where you can’t tell whether the school is being dumb about the student or the student is being dumb about the cultural narrative.  My ongoing point, based on my as-a-student experience with mathematics teachers especially, is that we need more motivational teachers to help engage kids with subject matter.  Somewhere along the line, somebody boiled down “smart” to “IQ” which was never the right thing to do — but it fits on a PowerPoint slide! — and we now have to be reminded by New Scientist that the correlation between IQ and intellect is not absolute.

But the tests fall down when it comes to measuring those abilities crucial to making good judgements in real-life situations. That’s because they are unable to assess things such as a person’s ability to critically weigh up information, or whether an individual can override the intuitive cognitive biases that can lead us astray… “A high IQ is like height in a basketball player,” says David Perkins, who studies thinking and reasoning skills at Harvard Graduate School of Education in Cambridge, Massachusetts. “It is very important, all other things being equal. But all other things aren’t equal. There’s a lot more to being a good basketball player than being tall, and there’s a lot more to being a good thinker than having a high IQ.”

To put it another way, it requires more than latent talent to think; you also have to be engaged.  Po Bronson, who also writes for Newsweek, allegedly on the same column that started us off, appears to have  been surprised by this when he (mis-)wrote “Why Dumb Toys Make Kids Smarter” and lost most of his credibility with me.  The article in question isn’t about dumb toys at all; it’s about toys that don’t tout their educational benefits — in this case, collectible card games.  Po was previously unaware of how much directly-applied math and statistics kids are inspired to learn when competing with friends over zero-sum card games.  He is still, as near as I can tell, unaware of how to teach the less pleasant of economic realities associated with collectible card games — and I speak from my experience having been a kid who obsessed over baseball cards because Magic: The Gathering hadn’t been introduced quite yet, but boy was I a sucker for that, too, when the time came.  I shudder to think of the conclusions of Po’s slack-jawed drooling if I were to point him to the World of Warcraft Recount add-on which is, frankly, is really stinking awesome but utterly fails the directive of “Under no circumstances should you not solve a real problem” and thus needs to be taken as it is, and as limited as it is, because Po’s experience with Pokemon which his son abandoned of his own volition made Po realize

When it comes to kids, we often bring moralistic bias to their interests. There’s a pervasive tendency in our society to label things as either good for children or bad for children. Cultivating children’s natural intrinsic motivation requires abandoning all judgment of good and bad content. Society has a long list of subjects that we’ve determined they should learn. But learning itself is kick-started when enmeshed and inseparable from what a child inherently loves.

This may be a bit overstated, but is consistent with Mike Crawford’s claims about Shop Class as Soulcraft, in which he cites Doug Stowe making the much more precise assertion that

[I]n schools, we create artificial learning environments for our children that they know to be contrived and undeserving of their full attention and engagement… Without the opportunity to learn through to learn through the hands, the world remains abstract, and distant, and the passions for learning will not be engaged.

which, again, echoes links I’ve previously made to Paul Graham, and reminds me of my own experience with the public school system.  Simply put, any student who is merely smart (in the “quick-witted and/or clever” sense of the word, not necessarily in the “learned” and certainly not “wise”) can coast through through the continually diminishing standards of our public school system without ever developing the kind of motivation that they should have to maximize their value to society and civilization.  Put another way, most kids “value” education because people tell them that it’s the ticket to a better life, rather than because they love being educated, probably, I expect (based on my previous experience as a student and current feedback as a volunteer) because teachers that can share the joys of applied discovery aren’t the norm, and are further constrained by state-specified curriculum — which is why I’m happy-enough with my choice to be a programmer instead of a teacher at this juncture.

My volunteering with a local school is motivated by the belief — for which I have no actual evidence — that there is a statistical band of kids, probably between the 85th and 97th percentiles that are disenfranchised by doing well-enough such that they don’t warrant the kind of special attention that geniuses or failures or “socioeconomically underpriviledged” youth get in our society.  Intel recently sponsored a study that found that a lot of parents aren’t really involved in their kids’ homework — specifically math and science, in which, to be fair, I’m not involved in either — without regard for whether the children were socioeconomically underprivileged or not.  But this detachment between parents* in the real world and kids in contrived classrooms only serves to reinforce how contrived the classroom is and demotivate the child from appreciating the material so that it can be readily-known for real-world application later.  I have even seen this in debate cases written by one student who is sharp enough to apparently be bored out of his mind and thus doesn’t seriously consider the resolution on his way to writing something which is as outlandish as it is theoretically correct.  While the limits-testing he is expressing can be healthy, the limited amount of time spent in coaching and competition mitigates the actual learning he could be doing, both in his testing of limits and, when he (quickly) tires of that, plumbing the depths of the resolution as originally intended.

The consequence of the students who are good enough to be disenfranchised (no matter which of the multifaceted points of causation rouses the rabble at the moment) appears to be showing up in “Student-to-College Mismatch seen as Graduation-Rate Issue” which starts by pointing at the book Crossing the Finish Line.  This book “suggests that one reason so many academically talented students leave college without a diploma may be that they enroll in schools for which they are overqualified.”  The article goes on with some actual evidence, noting that

Among all North Carolina students who qualified on paper for a top-tier state school, the study found, those who chose the next-most-competitive level of school were 15 percentage points less likely to graduate within four years, and 22 percentage points less likely to graduate in six years… Some other experts have pointed out, however, that the findings do not take into account other differences among students, such as variations in motivation or drive, that could also explain the better outcomes for high-achieving students at the elite schools.

And I would agree, within the multifaceted nature of this issue, that “variations in motivation or drive” are absolutely the source of collegiate disconnection, and here we hook the second point on reduce college admissions selectivity.  Given a college that needs some moneyed students (or rather, parents) to pay full price for their education and some students to be support staff, as it were, that will provide the academic laurels that will inspire said moneyed parents to pay for the less academically capable students to attend the glorious institution — I’ve written about this — then the combination of “Oh, you belong here” and “Here’s a generous financial aid package to make it easy” are going to sucker fully-capable kids into enrolling in and filling seats at universities that are — frankly — not capable of fulfilling them.  Having survived four years of high school with the anticipation of moving on from the contrived, boring and sterile classroom, the prospect of paying any amount for four more years of boring, contrived and sterile lecture hall — which is how most freshman classes are; they don’t get better until the 300 level and above — may motivate students to quit.  Honestly, I expect the only reason I was able to get my 4-year degree from the university I did was because I got it in 3 years: I couldn’t have tolerated it for another year.  (And it was just as well — I got out of college and into a job just as the dot-com craze began to collapse.)

This reaction to underwhelming sterility is a reaction to an unnatural normality.  Going back to Mike Crawford’s Shop Class as Soulcraft, he writes “It is a rare person who is naturally inclined to sit still for sixteen years in school, and then indefinitely at work, yet… this has become the one-size-fits-all norm, even as we go on about ‘diversity.'”  And now we’re seeing the fallout in the quantity of people that aren’t sticking with the cultural narrative of getting a college education as being the absolute ticket to a better life.

So let’s look back to Ashley Merryman, who, in the context of a value debate, would almost certainly claim to value “education.”  There’s nothing wrong with that stance — I expect a lot of people would value education as a piece of the cultural narrative.  But what does it mean?  With deference to a Noah S. “Soggy” Sweat, Jr., let me say…

My friends, I had not intended to discuss this controversial subject at this particular time. However, I want you to know that I do not shun controversy. On the contrary, I will take a stand on any issue at any time, regardless of how fraught with controversy it might be. You have asked me how I feel about [education]. All right, here is how I feel about [education]:

If when you say education, you mean the transferring of knowledge and experience from an elder generation of our species and civilization to a younger generation, such that the younger generation is better-prepared to address and succeed in the world they inhabit and are to inherit, then I certainly am for it.

But if when you say education, you mean the blanket conferrence of state-approved homogenized cultural norms onto the vital and vibrant youth of our great nation in the taxpayer-funded isolation of structures and institutions which create the pejorative meaning of “school” until they have generally attained such age and conformity as they may be fit to serve the continuity of our civilization, perhaps in Iraq or Afghanistan, then I certainly am against it.

“This is my stand. I will not retreat from it. I will not compromise.”

But hopefully it shows how a shallowly held value can be readily twisted by the implementation of efforts to promote that value, how criterion and metrics can be skewed, and the fruitlessness of debating on the merits of achieving a value through any manner of action that can be described in a 16-minute case (inclusive of rebuttals) — with that final point being a bit of wisdom that we ultimately hope our debate geeks will all come to realize before they slack their way into something myopic that may mitigate the realization of their potential.

Update November 17, 2009: I’m afraid a lot of my education-oriented writings may come across as generally disparaging of teachers.  To be clear, I generally regard people who teach because they want to teach as having an abundance of good motives (required to make up for the lack of socioeconomic appreciation), but varying degrees of capability — and those with the most capability tend to get it mitigated out of them by bureaucrats reinforcing Parkinson’s Law and our lovely society misallocating resources for maximized ineffectiveness.  So when the New York Times runs a story about teachers selling lesson plans online, I have to generally say “Good on ya!” to the teachers that are doing good enough work to package and sell.  While I have a strong preference towards supporting the teachers that reinvest their revenue stream into either their classroom or their continued education, I have to say that I generally support this on the initial assumption that the career teachers that are successfully selling lesson plans and not currently reinvesting the revenue in the career have likely already spent more than their supplemental income on spare training or materials for their classrooms or specific students anyway.  The odd flip-side of this, of course, are the teachers who are buying these materials: given that selling is a sign of capability, then buying is necessarily an admission of incapability.  And when there is more incapability than there is capability in any professional, then they’re not really operating at the “professional” level, are they?  And these are the people — the football coaches actively misteaching history, the little old ladies extolling the virtues of not consuming poison or sharing venereal diseases as a “health” class, et cetera — that we actively rely upon to do a disservice to young people throughout the nation so that we not only don’t feel guilty about ignoring them ourselves but can also use to demonstrate a failing educational system that shouldn’t have more money thrown at it.  Rejoining back to the question of who I’m disparaging here, it would be the people whose (hypothetical) good intentions have outstripped their capacity for professional success — because the best of intentions do nothing to mitigate the worst of results.  Of course, the other issue is that of copyright on the lesson plans and, legally speaking, school districts can make claims that they own the copyright on those works as teachers are employed and salaried and so forth.  Legally, I expect this is correct.  I don’t believe that it is right, but it is legally correct.  And thus the people who are lighting candles instead of cursing the darkness only to find that the candle must meet union regulations and state requirements on where is goes and what it illuminates… become more unfortunate examples of good intentions being compromised by capabilities.

* Parents who may well be eagerly anticipating the day they can be emancipated from their children by the simple act of buying the burdensome offspring A Car! — yet another aspect of parenthood I don’t feel I’m missing out on…