Friday, January 19, 2024

on teacher pay...

From the persistent and nearly-universal shortages, we know that math, science and special ed teachers are typically underpaid. The chief cause is obvious: unions bargain with govt to keep pay the same between fields-- when equilibrium wages differ markedly between fields.

Of course, many people (subjectively) claim/imagine that they're "underpaid". One frequent oversight is to look at wages, but to ignore benefits, deferred comp, and job characteristics. Teachers have it [really] good on all three of these. Beyond that, the easiest answer is: go to a job that pays you what you're "worth" in the labor market. If teachers are generally underpaid, the chief cause would be what economists call "monopsony"-- monopoly power of the employer. (Note that this stems from govt's failure to enforce anti-trust laws against itself!) There would be reason to sympathy here-- except teacher unions forcefully lobby for this arrangement, wanting monopoly power over parents/children in the provision of K-12 services.

So, we have what we have now: expensive schools ($15,000 per child; $375K per classroom of 25) and claims about being underpaid.

Wednesday, December 20, 2023

excerpts from Tom Wolfe's "Hooking Up" (essays)

On AI, brains, etc.: "I hate to be the one who brings this news to the tribe, to the magic Digikingdom, but the simple truth is that the Web, the Internet, does one thing. It speeds up the retrieval and dissemination of information, partially eliminating such chores as going outdoors to the mailbox or the adult bookstore, or having to pick up the phone to get hold of your stock broker or some buddies to shoot the breeze with. That one thing the Internet does and only that. The rest is Digibabble." (76) Further, there's much more to life than intelligence and processing speed: "But if these inventions, remarkable as they surely are, have improved the human mind or reduced the human beast's zeal for banding together with his blood brethren against other human beasts, it has escaped my notice." (76) 

More on genetics, including references to Dean Hamer and "the gay gene"and the NIH's "Violence Initiative" (92): "The present moment resembles that moment in the Middle Ages when the Catholic Church forbade the dissection of human bodies, for fear that what was discovered inside might cast doubt on the Christian doctrine that God created man in his own image. Even more radioactive is the matter of intelligence, as measured by IQ tests. Privately—not many care to speak out—the vast majority of neuroscientists believe the genetic component of an individual's intelligence is remarkably high. Your intelligence can be improved upon by skilled and devoted mentors or it can be held back by a poor upbringing—i.e., the [photographic] negative can be well developed or poorly developed—but your genes are what really make the difference. The recent ruckus over Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein's The Bell Curve is probably just the beginning of the bitterness the subject is going to create." (94-95) 

On nature, nurture, and Neitzsche with his famous "God is dead" in 1882 and the prophetic implications: It was "not a declaration of atheism, although he was in fact an atheist, but simply the news of an event. He called the death of God a 'tremendous event', the greatest event of modern history." But he predicted that, as a result, the 20th Century would have "wars such as have never happened on earth" because "human beings would no longer have a god to turn to, to absolve them of their guilt; but they would still be racked by guilt...As a result, people would loathe not only one another but themselves. The blind and reassuring faith they formerly poured into their belief in God, they would now pour into a belief in barbaric nationalistic brotherhoods." He predicted that "mankind would limp through the 20th Century on the capital of the old decaying God-based moral codes. But then, in the 21st Century, would come a period more dreadful than the great wars, a time of 'the total eclipse of all values'. This would also be a frantic period of 'revaluation,' in which people would try to find new systems of values to replace the osteoporotic skeletons of the old." (98-99) 


On books (almost necessarily) as better than movies—but unfortunately, the death of novels (167-170): Today it is the movie directors and producers, not the novelists, who are themselves excited by the lurid carnival of American life at this moment, in the here and now, in all its varieties. It is the movie directors and producers, not the novelists, who can’t wait to head out into that raucous rout, like the Dreisers, Lewises, and Steinbecks of the first half of the twentieth century, and see it for themselves. It is the movie directors and producers, not the novelists, who today have the instincts of reporters, the curiosity, the vitality, the joie de vivre, the drive, the energy to tackle any subject, head out onto any terrain, no matter how far it may be removed from their own experience—often because it is so far removed from their own experience and they can’t wait to see it for themselves. As a result, the movie, not the novel, became the great naturalistic storytelling medium of the late twentieth century. Movies can be other things, but they are inherently naturalistic—and I suggest that this is precisely what their audiences adore most about them: their intense realism. 

In using the first two of these devices, scene-by-scene construction and dialogue, movies have an obvious advantage; we actually see the scenes and hear the words. But when it comes to putting the viewer inside the head of a character or making him aware of life’s complex array of status details, the movies have been stymied. In attempting to create the interior point of view, they have tried everything, from the use of a voice-over that speaks the character’s thoughts, to subtitles that write them out, to the aside, in which the actor turns toward the camera in the midst of a scene and simply says what he’s thinking. They have tried putting the camera on the shoulder of the that the audience sees him only when he looks in the mirror, and having him speak his thoughts in voice-over. But nothing works; nothing in all the motion-picture arts can put you inside the head, the skin, the central nervous system of another human being the way a realistic novel can. The movies are not much better with status details. When it comes time to deal with social gradations, they are immediately reduced to gross effects likely to lapse into caricature at any moment; the house that is too grand or too dreadful, the accent that is too snobbish or too crude. Which brings us to another major shortcoming of movies as a technology: they have a hard time explaining...anything. They are a time-driven medium compelled by their very nature to produce a constant flow of images... 

The American novel is dying, not of obsolescence, but of anorexia. It It needs novelists with huge appetites and mighty, unslaked thirsts she is right now. It needs novelists with the energy and the verve to approach America the way her moviemakers do, which is to say, with a ravenous curiosity and an urge to go out among her 270 million souls and talk to them and look them in the eye. If the ranks of such novelists swell, the world-- even that effete corner which calls itself the literary world-- will be amazed by how quickly the American novel comes to life. 


On genetics, eugenics, E.O. Wilson's work, and Dawkins' memes (80-86), including the irony that memes don't exist; the evolutionary gaps are enormous; and Dawkins reduces to an Archbishop of Fundamentalism who believes in "fairies, trolls and elves". 

There are three other remarkable chapters/essays in this collection: "The Invisible Artist" on artist/architect Frederick Hart; "The Rococo Marxists" (in Harpers); and the "Tiny Mummies" hatchet job on The New Yorker. 

Lost in the Cosmos (Walker Percy) excerpts

Percy (141) on science, art, religion, and transcendence: "In the age of science, scientists are the princes of the age. Artists are not. So that even though both scientists and artists achieve transcendence over the ordinary world in their science and art, only the scientist is sustained in his transcendence by the exaltation of the triumphant spirit of science and by the community of scientists...With the disappearance of the old cosmological myths and the decline of Judaeo-Christianity and the rise of the autonomous self, science and art—one the study of secondary causes, the other the ornamental handmaiden of rite and religion—were seized upon and elevated to royal highroads of transcendence in their own right." 

Percy (142-143) on the problem with art (and transcendence), especially for artists: "What is not generally recognized is that the successful launch of self into the orbit of transcendence is necessarily attended by problems of reentry. What goes up must come down. The best film of the year ends at 9:00. What to do at 10? What did Faulkner do after writing the last sentence of Light in August? Get drunk for a week. What did Dostoevski do after finishing The Idiot? Spend three days and nights at the roulette table. What does the reader do after finishing either book?...The most spectacular problems of reentry seem to be experienced by artists and writers. They, especially the latter, seem subject more than most people to estrangement from the society around them—to neurosis, psychosis, alcoholism, drug addiction, epilepsy, florid sexual behavior, solitariness, depression, violence, and suicide. Art, like science, entails a certain abstraction from its subject matter, albeit a different order of abstraction. And the better the artist, the greater the distance of abstraction. Thus, writers like Sidney Sheldon and Harold Robbins are as much in the marketplace as any other producer or seller. But writers like Joyce, Faulkner, Proust are able to write about the marketplace and society only in the degree that they distance themselves from itwhether by exile, alcohol, or withdrawal to a cork-lined room." 

Percy notes the use of sex would be used for "re-entry" (from transcendence)—and at some point, prophetically, that ordinary relationships (e.g., settling down with a spouse) would be insufficient (150), leading to (more) social problems with sexuality. "Suppose the erotic is the last and best recourse of the stranded self and suppose then that, through the sexual revolution, recreational sex becomes available to all ages and all classes. What if then even the erotic becomes devalued? What if it happens, as Paul Ricoeur put it, that, at the same time that sexuality becomes insignificant, it becomes more imperative as a response to the disappointments experienced in other sectors of human life? What then? Does the self simply diminish, subside into apathy like laboratory animals deprived of sensory stimulation? Or does the demoniac spirit of the self, frustrated by the failure of Eros, turn in the end to the cold fury of Saturn?" (186) 

Percy (157) asks "Who is the most obnoxious, Protestants, Catholics, or Jews?" Answer: It depends on where you are and who you are talking to—though it is hard to conceive any one of the three consistently outdoing the other two in obnoxiousness. Yet, as obnoxious as are all three, none is as murderous as the autonomous self who, believing in nothing, can fall prey to ideology and kill millions of people—unwanted people, old people, sick people, useless people, unborn people, enemies of the state—and do so reasonably, without passion, even decently, certainly without the least obnoxiousness. 

Percy on the "evolution debate" (162-164): "As unsatisfactory as the battle lines, as presently drawn, may be, one must nevertheless throw in with the modern evolutionist, if only for the reason that his position, if wrong, is in the end self-correcting, whereas that of the scientific creationist is not. The battle is, in fact, a marvelous waste of energy... 

Question: Why does it make scientists uneasy that it appears to be the case that Homo sapiens, a conscious languaged creature, appeared suddenly and lately—when scientists profess to be interested in what is the case, that is, the evidence? 
(a) Because scientists are understandably repelled by the theory of the special creation of man by God, in Biblical time, say 6004 B.C. at 11 a.m. on a Wednesday morning. 
(b) Because scientists find it natural to deal with matter in interaction and with energy exchanges and don’t know what to make of such things as consciousness, self, and symbols and even sometimes deny that there are such things, even though they, the scientists, act for all the world as if they were conscious selves and spend their lives transacting with symbols. 
(c) Because scientists are uneasy with discontinuities, even when there is evidence of such discontinuity in the appearance of man in all his contrarieties. Revealed religion has its dogmas, e.g., thou shalt not kill. But so does science: thou shalt not tolerate discontinuities. The question is which is the more entitled. 
(d) Because scientists in the practice of the scientific method, a non-radical knowledge of matter in interaction, often are not content with the non-radicalness of the scientific method and hence find themselves located in a posture of covert transcendence of their data, which is by the same motion assigned to the sphere of immanence. Hence, scientists operate in the very sphere of transcendence which is not provided for in their science. Given such a posture, it is not merely an offense if a discontinuity turns up in the sphere of immanence, the data, but especially if the discontinuity seems to allow for the intervention of God. A god is already present. A scientist is a god to his data. And if there is anything more offensive to him than the suggestion of the existence of God, it is the existence of two gods."  

Has the science on this changed since Percy wrote/asked this? (168-169) Yet the most recent assessments by responsible scientists are that the primatologists have either deluded themselves or at least made exaggerated claims. It now appears that chimps are not using language after all but are, rather, using signs and responses in order to obtain rewards (e.g., bananas). The basic elements of language are missing: symbols, sentences, productivity, cultural transmission. Now even some of the most evangelical primatologists have modified their claims. In short, it appears that chimps can’t talk, with either their voices or their hands. Or, as Sebeok puts it, animals have communication but not language. Yet the public perception is that chimps, and perhaps dolphins and the humpback whale, have crossed the language barrier. There are speculations about the mathematical and metaphysical knowledge of dolphins. For example, according to a recent newspaper account, the song of a humpback whale has ten times as many phonemes as does human speech. Question: Why do people in general want to believe that chimps and dolphins and whales can speak, and why do some scientists in particular want so badly to believe that chimps can speak that they will compromise their own science? 

Percy (in a footnote! on p. 201-202) crushing scientism and religious forms of fundamentalism: Sagan's book gave me much pleasure, a pleasure which was not diminished (perhaps it was increased) by Sagan's unmalicious, even innocent, scientism, the likes of which I have not encountered since the standard bull sessions in high school and college—up to but not past the sophomore year. The argument could be resumed with Sagan, I suppose, but the issue would be as inconclusive as it was between sophomores. For me it was more diverting than otherwise to see someone sketch the history of Western scientific thought and leave out Judaism and Christianity...Yet one is not offended by Sagan. There is too little malice and too much ignorance. It is enough to take pleasure in the pleasant style, the knack for popularizing science, and the beautiful pictures of Saturn and the Ring Nebula. 

Indeed, more often than not, I found myself on Sagan’s side, especially in his admiration for science and the scientific method, which is what he says it is — a noble, elegant, and self-correcting method of attaining a kind of truth — and when he attacks the current superstitions, astrology, UFO’s, parapsychology, and such, which seem to engage the Western mind now more than ever—more perhaps than either science or Christianity. 

What is to be deplored is not Sagan’s sophomoric scientism—which I think better than its counterpart, a sophomoric theism which attributes the wonders of the Cosmos to a God who created it like a child with a cookie cutter—no, what is deplorable is that these serious issues involving God and the nature of man should be co-opted by the present disputants, a popularizer like Sagan and fundamentalists who believe God created the world six-thousand years ago. It’s enough to give both science and Christianity a bad name... 

It is for this very reason that we can enjoy Cosmos so much, for the frivolity of Sagan’s vulgar scientism and for the reason that science is, as Sagan says, self-correcting. One wonders, in fact, whether Sagan himself has not been corrected, e.g., by Hubble’s discovery of the red shift and the present growing consensus of the Big Bang Theory [proposed by a Catholic priest, Georges Lemaître] of the creation of the Cosmos, which surely comes closer than Sagan would like to the Genesis account of creation ex nihilo.” 

Again, on the fundamentalists within religion and science (254): "Are these two preposterousnesses commensurate or incommensurate, related in direct proportion or unrelated? That is to say, which of these two propositions is correct? 
    (1) As time goes on and our science and technology advance and our knowledge of the Cosmos expands, the Judaeo-Christian claim becomes ever more preposterous, anachronistic, and, not to mince words, simply unbelievable. 
    (2) As time goes on and our science and technology advance and our knowledge of the Cosmos expands, the gap between our knowledge of the Cosmos and our knowledge of ourselves widens and we become ever more alien to the very Cosmos we understand, and our predicament ever more extreme, so that in the end it is precisely this preposterous remedy [the Judaeo-Christian claim], it and no other, which is specified by the preposterous predicament of the human self as its sole remedy."