Socialist maths

The recent decision by the state of Florida to ban a slew of mathematics textbooks from its schools because of their links to banned concepts has attracted much attention. The website Popular Information has pored through the banned texts to try and suss out what the verboten ideological content might be. Some books seem to have impermissably encouraged students to work together and treat each other with respect. Another may have set off alarms because it included, among its capsule biographies of mathematicians, some non-white individuals.

I’ve always wondered, though, why it’s not considered problematic that books persistently teach the concept of division with problems that require that a fixed amount of wealth — 10 cookies, say — be allocated equally among a group of children. No consideration of whether some of the children might be smarter, or work harder, or just be closer to the cookie jar, and thus be entitled to a larger share. Pretty much the definition of socialism!

(More generally, it always fascinated me, in my years spent as an observer on the playground, that it was taken for granted that toddlers were always being pressured to share their toys, and learning to share was seen as a developmental milestone, where we do not expect adults to be willing or able to share anything at any time.)

Examination socialism

I was talking with someone recently about the bizarre British practice of allowing the A-level exams to be set by competing exam boards. It’s bizarre because of the well-known agency problems in examinations: The customers are the schools, whose interest is in high marks, not in effective exams. So we get government ministers persistently fulminating against watering-down of exams.

This is typically presented as a capitalist approach, reflecting the British enthusiasm for market-based solutions instead of big government. In fact, while this solution has the trappings of capitalism, it suffers all the theoretical and practical defects of socialism. As I understand it, those who theorise the superiority of capitalism tend to focus on the diffusion of decision-making to the periphery, where the expertise resides, and the virtues of aligning incentives with goals, which is far more efficient than central planning. Then comes the bracing effect of competition to achieve those goals.

In this case, the natural incentives of those looking to make a profit by selling their product to schools are clearly misaligned. Yes, they can fruitfully compete on accuracy and speed of marking, but the essential content and rigour of the exams is a race to the bottom. (This might not be the case if they were providing distinct qualifications, that might be competing for influence with universities. There is the competing International Baccalaureate, adding an extra level of complexity, but the multiple exam boards are supposed to be producing evaluations of the same qualification, the A-levels. We have a similar problem with university degrees, where there seems to be a pious fiction that “first-class degree” is an absolute standard, whether from Imperial or London Metropolitan; but this is clearly not taken very seriously.) The bottom is set by elaborate government regulations — central planning — and all the competitive ingenuity goes into formally hitting those standards while maximising the marks. (I don’t know if this is really true; but that is what you would predict, theoretically, and it would explain the downward spiral of A-levels.)

Problems with the subjunctive [for German grammar enthusiasts]

I’ve noticed that web publishing has generally degraded proofreading standards. Still, it’s shocking to see Der Spiegel, a bastion of the German language, making two errors in conjugating the subjunctive in a report on the negotiations over the new governing coalition in Germany:

Was wäre ihre Alternative? Eine Koalition mit den Acht-Prozent-Grünen, bei der die Zahl der Ministerposten für die Union zwar größer, die inhaltlichen Kompromisse aber weitgehender ausfielen würden? Die Union wurde sich in einer solchen Konstellation Unsicherheit mit einkaufen.

I’m genuinely appalled. But no more than I am by the SPD maneuvering itself into this position by continuing to boycott Die Linke. They’re like those proverbial Japanese soldiers still hidden away on an island thinking the war is still going on. Except the SPD is the last one still fighting the Cold War. Or the war for the purity of the socialist cause.

Schools, socialisation, Socrates and circumcision

Another unusual juxtaposition. This one was inspired by a thought-provoking rant by Alison Benedikt at Slate, titled “If You Send Your Kid to Private School, You Are a Bad Person”. It’s a commendably forthright statement of an extreme position in an argument in which all sides usually beat wildly around every possible bush. (It’s not the most extreme possible position, which I take to be the position of the makers of this film. Benedikt specifically opposes even banning private schools.)

I have some sympathy for her argument, which can basically be summarised (I hope I’m doing it justice; the article is definitely worth reading in full) in two major points:

  1. Wealthy and well-educated parents have an obligation to all children, not just to their own. Keeping their children in state schools will induce them to apply their power and learning to improve those schools for everyone.
  2. As regards your own children, they’ll be all right even in a crappy school. You’ll make up for the deficits at home. And the crappy public school will teach them lessons about society and citizenship that they can’t get anywhere else.

I don’t think either of these statements are entirely wrong. But in arguing for point 2, Benedikt writes

I went K–12 to a terrible public school. My high school didn’t offer AP classes, and in four years, I only had to read one book. There wasn’t even soccer... I left home woefully unprepared for college, and without that preparation, I left college without having learned much there either. But guess what the horrible result is? I’m doing fine. I’m not saying it’s a good thing that I got a lame education. I’m saying that I survived it, and so will your child, who must endure having no AP calculus so that in 25 years there will be AP calculus for all…

Is the argument here that the economic game (or, at least, journalism) in America is so badly rigged, that a child of middle-class parents doesn’t actually need an education to get a decent job as a journalist. All she needs is a college degree, and there are plenty of institutions who will happy to hand her one, despite the fact that she arrived woefully unprepared, and left having learned almost nothing. Or is she exaggerating? Or is she an exceptional autodidact, whose experience doesn’t necessarily translate well to the vast majority of other children. Continue reading “Schools, socialisation, Socrates and circumcision”