James C. Banks

Archive for June, 2011|Monthly archive page

A Tribute to Fatherhood

In Uncategorized on June 21, 2011 at 1:19 am

Father’s Day always gets a spate of appreciative or nostalgic treatments.  It is perhaps the one day when we all remember that fatherhood is distinct from parenthood in the same way that motherhood is unique.  It is the day when everyone remembers that fatherhood is, in the words of Robert Hayden, a “austere and lonely” vocation.

To say that fatherhood is austere and lonely is counter-intuitive; it is true that these words better fit the lifestyle of many single and uncommitted males.  The world has changed also.  Women are common members of the workforce (and, in the next few decades, might become even more common); “work” no longer denotes a physical challenge and the cubicle has replaced the assembly line.

Cultural norms have changed even in conservative communities.  While women of the Latter Day Saint movement still, by and large, remain in the home, Baptists and Catholics have accepted that wives can be part of the workforce as long as they are centered on the homestead.  But even while America’s attitudes have changed in relation to the vocations of motherhood, fatherhood has remained largely the same vocation that it was in 1900. Society is (rightly) no more tolerant of a family man who spends all of his time lounging around the house than it was during the time of the Greatest Generation.

Raising children has become, and will probably remain, a much more difficult task than succeeding in the workforce, but this doesn’t change the fact that every weekday fathers confront a world which most individuals would rather forego altogether–rising to noisy alarm clocks, commuting miles to jobs which might either be exhausting or unfulfilling, cutting grass and repairing damaged door frames or appliances on Saturdays and Sundays.  It is understandable why women should have wanted to join the workforce, particularly as technological advances made jobs more available.  Nonetheless, fathers have never had the choice to join the workforce in the way that women have had in the past thirty years: Fathers never chose to join the workforce; it was their titular duty to do so.

It still is, and this is why the appreciative essays on fatherhood that I read every year, while repetitive, have not diminished in relevance.  Happy Father’s Day!

Thoughts on the STEM Forum

In Uncategorized on June 18, 2011 at 2:21 pm

The Office of Naval Research knows how to host a conference–or at least how not to disappoint.  Along with the regular rubber chicken platter, they served up clams and seafood; a rarity at social gatherings in Washington.  A fine testament to the efficiency of America’s armed forces.  Having said that, I must say that their forum on the future of science, technology, engineering and mathematics education was conventional and anti-climactic.

Nothing new emerged from the proceedings.  Specters of the usual villains were brought forth so that the elite masses could hurl their collective derision upon them: school boards wh0 want to maintain local autonomy, politicians who refuse to raise taxes, Hollywood producers who cast Barney Fife rather than Brad Pitt as a microbiologist.  Most of these explanations either are not based in reality or are beyond the scope of policy to change:  The country spends more on education now than it ever has before, yet the more it has spent, the less it has done; and if this is not an attempt to sex-up science, I don’t know what is.

A more fundamental problem I see with the overall scope of the conference, though, is that it is difficult to gauge precisely how many STEM employees America will need in the future.  American innovation and prosperity has more to do with a free people’s demand for consumable products than with a highly educated workforce.  Furthermore, there are a great many STEM-educated individuals who are out of work.  This is probably less the case with engineers, but the demand for biologists and chemists ebbs and flows depending upon the stability of the healthcare or pharmaceutical markets and other factors.

An under-educated population is cause for countless troubles in a nation like Portugal, but there are also former Soviet republics that have too many over-specialized individuals–many of whom become postdoctoral fellows in American institutions.  There is no obvious career for a STEM professional whose specialization has grown irrelevant due to technological progress.

The U.S. Navy and other STEM educators are working much harder than is necessary to solve the problem.  The solution is not to go out into the world and find students who might, at some point down the line, be interested in STEM careers but rather to find those who are already in STEM careers and enhance their expertise.  The armed forces are full of technicians and mechanics with extensive job training and no fear of machines.

Based on this fact, try a thought experiment: About how long would college take if there were no academic breaks, no remedial classes, no electives . . . just basic and advanced science or mathematics classes?  Since the first two years are, more or less, occupied by remedial classes and external electives–since our education system (correctly, I think) requires university students to learn literature and history as well–it is possible to eliminate two years of classes right off the bat.  Then, there wouldn’t be summer vacation either, so, at a bare minimum, it is possible to teach a student an undergraduate degree’s worth of physics in eighteen months through total immersion (for instance, a recruit’s workday could be a mixed eight hour period of classes and research.)

This would probably require some internal drafting in the military, but most soldiers are not asked if they want to do a tour of duty in Iraq or Afghanistan before being assigned to these theaters.  If finding qualified STEM recruits is so challenging that the military is having difficulty filling the workforce, then it is time to stop searching for them and start making them.  It will require rethinking our education system and re-evaluating credentialing systems, but the university system–which attempts to mass produce thinking scholars in a factory-like assembly-line style–is poorly suited for filling a STEM workforce; the university is (and will remain) great, but we need a vocational training school to meet the challenges that lie ahead.

California or Californias?

In Uncategorized on June 2, 2011 at 12:28 am

Walter Russell Mead has an interesting post on California, the failed state.  He points to the recent Supreme Court decision, Brown vs. Plata, as evidence that California has exceeded the point of any redeemable governability:

Let there be no mistake: when you produce so many criminals that you can’t afford to lock them up, you are a failed state.  Virtually every important civil institution in society has to fail to get you to this point.  Your homes and houses of worship are failing to build law abiding citizens, much less responsible and informed voters.  Your schools aren’t educating enough of your kids to make an honest living.  Your taxes and policies are so bad that you are driving thousands of businesses away.  Your management systems must be fouled and confused to the max for you to create something so dysfunctional, so wildly beyond your means, that the Supreme Court of the United States (wisely or foolishly is another question) starts to micromanage your jails.

This argument is perfectly true in theory, though it might not be entirely reflective of California’s present situation.  As the Economist recently pointed out, locking criminals up is not the only way of dealing with crime.  Crimes such as theft, forgery or marijuana use could be addressed with hefty fines instead of prison cells.

But more interesting is Professor Mead’s proposed solution to California’s ailments:

The only hope I can see is to break it up.  California’s core problem is that it has outgrown the constitutional model we have for it.  California is too populous, too diverse, too complicated to flourish as a single state.  Unless we carve this beast into something like five more compact and manageable states, Californians will never have decent representative government at an affordable price.

If California had been on the East Coast, or if it had entered the Union at any time other than the crisis years before the Civil War when slave states jealously worked to minimize the number of free states, the idea of making it one state would have looked absurd from the start.  As it is, the constituent parts of California have almost nothing in common.  Northern California is more like Washington and Oregon than like anything farther south.  The neighborhood of San Francisco Bay has its own history, character and interests that set it off from the rest of the state.  Greater Los Angeles, the Central Valley and the Far South centered on San Diego also have what it takes to be successful and happily governed states on their own.

I can see the benefits of this sort of schism—not the least of which for economy.  Whereas potential states like the Bay Area (which would probably call itself something like Ginsburgtopia) would be freer to pursue their own economic preferences, they would also have to take more responsibility for these preferences and pursue a more business-friendly climate as they would now have other states with which to compete.

This situation would also give the respective states the ability to renegotiate public sector union contracts, as the Golden Bear State would no longer exist (where else but California and Illinois need such renegotiation more?).

But all of the above-mentioned reasons are also reasons why any such schism would be strongly opposed.  The task of allocating responsibility for public sector pensions funds would, in itself, be a bureaucratic sinkhole.  And this is only at the state level.

At the national level, the issue would become even more vitriolic.  Breaking California up into five different governments would have little to no effect on the Republican majorities in the House (and might actually lead to greater majorities, if the Republican states that came out of the schism attracted entrepreneurial individuals from northern California and Los Angeles).

But the demographics of the U.S. Senate would be strongly affected in the opposite direction: Los Angeles and San Francisco would remain solidly Democratic, as would northern California.  The San Diego region would probably become a swing state and the San Bernardino Valley would be a fairly solid Republican lock.

Republicans would probably only agree to such a measure if they were given something in return.  The State of Lincoln, perhaps?  This is unlikely, but, more importantly, while the schism solution may make sense with a single case like that of California, it would set particularly bad precedents for policy at the national level.

While this solution probably would not set off a rampage of federal legislators seeking to break temporarily ailing states into smaller—collectively more influential—units, it would certainly demonstrate that national parties can benefit from local failures: Like the immigration issue, it would pit different levels of federal government against one another.

California may be ungovernable and—for all of Professor Mead’s skepticism of reform— Sacramento needs to think about discharging many of its responsibilities to counties and cities.  But while there may be room for more stars on the flag, there is not room for more seats in the senate.