Friday, February 14, 2020

Brooks Explains Education

Victor Sjöström, The Phantom Carriage (1920).

David Brooks all excited about his new proof that socialism doesn't work, because it doesn't account for the greatness of Scandinavia, contrary to popular opinion, and the unpopular reasons are wrong too ("This Is How Scandinavia Got Great"):
Progressives say it’s because they have generous welfare states. Some libertarians point out that these countries score high on nearly every measure of free market openness. Immigration restrictionists note that until recently they were ethnically homogeneous societies.
But Nordic nations were ethnically homogeneous in 1800, when they were dirt poor. Their economic growth took off just after 1870, way before their welfare states were established. What really launched the Nordic nations was generations of phenomenal educational policy.
See, the Nordic countries adopted the German concept of Bildung, a much larger and more holistic idea than the idea of "education", the "formation" of the whole person, not just training in the 1870s Scandinavian equivalent of STEM, but "the complete moral, emotional, intellectual and civic transformation of the person", which I think is not quite right—it's more the creation of the person: you don't want to take the preschooler and make her into somebody different, but to fully realize the flower latent within the bud. Also, of course, the Germans adopted it too, it's their concept, but they took some pretty alarming detours along the way which would complicate Brooks's argument in a way he'd prefer not to do.

That said, there's really something to this idea, if not to the icky language in which Brooks expresses it ("they helped students see the forces always roiling inside the self — the emotions, cravings, wounds and desires"), or to his focus on the "social trust" side of the equation over the critical thinking side.
If you have a thin educational system that does not help students see the webs of significance between people, does not even help students see how they see, you’re going to wind up with a society in which people can’t see through each other’s lenses.
No webs, please, but if it's possible to train kids to respect their own autonomy and recognize that of others (an aspect of Bildung is Einbildungskraft meaning "imagination", the power of representing the not-yourself inside yourself), to refuse to blindly obey authority and not try to willfully exert it, in favor of a mutual acceptance of other views alongside confidence in their own, that those kids are the building blocks of a pretty agreeable society,

But there's also a very big thing missing in this story, in the form of two words Brooks doesn't use anywhere in the column: "public" and "private". The Nordic systems are profoundly public school systems, created by governments (another word Brooks doesn't use, preferring to speak of "19th-century Nordic elites", to make it sound as if the work wasn't done collectively but by a scattering of upper-class individuals).

And the reason they didn't have the welfare states when they instituted the educational systems was that the education was a precondition. It took a couple of generations of holistic education to establish the "social trust" needed to create a welfare state. Bildung leads to socialism—or social democracy if you prefer, or what I just learned you can call "liberal socialism", after an expression emitted by a confused Nikki Haley the other day,
the idea of socialism emphasizing personal freedom that grows out of John Stuart Mill, John Dewey, John Maynard Keynes, and Willy Brandt, exemplified in the New Deal disposition for which the Greatest Generation fought and died (the United States pioneered public education in the 19th century, but white parents fleeing from school desegregation a century later kind of ruined it). Social trust enables people to agree to the "handouts" of the welfare state without that bitter fear of moral hazard, that the recipients might abuse it.

And the proof is that the opposite is also true: the spread of the conservative concept of market solutions for social problems has been having a negative effect on Nordic education especially in Sweden, with the development of a school choice voucher system introduced in 1992 and a network of privately run "free schools" competing for students:
In 2000, Swedish students performed well-above average on an international test called the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA). By 2012, they were below average in math, reading and science. Sweden had the steepest decline of any participating country over that time period. (There were 65 participating countries that year.) In 2015, the scores rose to meet international averages, but Sweden’s performance remains far below what it once was.
That's the worst, but a team of researchers led by Marianne Dovemark finds a process of decline in the social trust ideals all over the region brought on by school "choice" programs, developing social and ethnic segregation and differentiation, high dropout rates, and a loss in the tradition of equality:
The Nordic countries are often perceived as a coherent group representing the Nordic model of welfare states, with a strong emphasis on the public provision of universal welfare and a strong concern with social equality. But today we see a change in the Nordic model as part of a global knowledge economy. The aim of this article is to examine education in the five Nordic countries utilising three dimensions of political change: deregulation, marketisation and privatisation. We also analyse the parallel changes in relation to segregation and differentiation in education. The analysis shows that the themes related to deregulation seem to show fairly similar patterns and structures in all contexts. The emerging differences were discovered mainly in the themes of marketisation and privatisation. Institutional segregation emerges in all Nordic countries to different extents along the lines of these three processes, and we observe a simultaneous social segregation and differentiation with an ambiguous connection to them. Based on these findings, the question of what is left of the “Nordic model” could be raised.
The ideals Brooks keeps spouting off on, that make him feel so tingly and churchy, are liberal socialist ideals, and the policies he's always espoused are their enemies.

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