Thursday, January 31, 2019

Is Kalman Literate?



My son, Kalman, is a talented four-year-old. He can write his name. He knows his letters along with their sounds and can put them together into words. He possesses a growing list of basic words that he can recognize on sight. In essence, he fully grasps the theory of reading. Does this mean that he can read? It should be obvious that the answer is no, but to defend that position requires some work.

If we are to define reading as a set of facts to be memorized and repeated on a test then one would be hard-pressed to deny that Kalman can read. If Kalman was not preparing for kindergarten but was instead facing the prospect of being held back in first grade on account of his reading ability, I would be tempted to make the case to his teacher that, when properly coaxed, Kalman can perform acts of reading.

What Kalman lacks is the focus to be able to string words together into sentences, paragraphs, and eventually the first book that he will one day read on his own. I imagine that, as he gets older, he will gain a longer attention span. This, combined with an expanding list of sight words, will create a virtuous cycle in which he becomes more comfortable reading. His reading successes will increase his self-esteem when it comes to reading and allow him to focus longer on his reading, making him an effective reader.

There is no simple way to jump-start this process. I read with him every night and we make a game out of him pointing out words on the page. We talk about the story and the characters and Kalman knows that I love books almost as much as I love him. Because these exercises are at the center of a healthy parent/child relationship, Kalman does not see this as a chore forced upon him. On the contrary, this is his special time with his Abba. God willing, this exercise will continue for years to come with Kalman slowly taking over the reading and perhaps start reading to his younger brother Mackie. In the meantime, progress will be slow because there is no particular thing that I can teach him to suddenly make him a better reader. All I can do is create an environment for "happy accidents" to occur. This is essentially what my mother did with me and I credit her with teaching me how to read more than any of my teachers.

If reading is only a small part theory and is mostly the ability to focus, then evaluating reading skills becomes very problematic. Schools present the twin problems in that their settings are artificial and can be distracting to students. At the same time, it is possible that students, when pressured, will demonstrate skills in short bursts to satisfy requirements even as they will not be able to apply those abilities in the real world.

With reading, it is clear that being able to do it a little is of minimal value. Either you are honestly comfortable reading for extended periods of time without having someone standing over your shoulder to coax and threaten you or you are not really literate. This is a source of much of the trouble in our educational system. Once students reach the fourth grade, they need to truly be comfortable readers and not simply able to demonstrate certain basic skills when it is demanded of them. Without this, a student is doomed to float through English just passing but not actually learning anything in a way that is meaningful. Hence, despite modernity's claim to have eradicated illiteracy, we live in a world of functionally illiterate adults.

This has implications well outside the realm of reading. Consider that our entire K-12 education system is built around being able to master information just well enough to pass a test in the near future without any regard to whether the student has truly mastered the skills to apply what they have learned. This may explain why most people forget the vast majority of what they learned in school. Perhaps students would benefit if education was restructured so that schools had fewer requirements, but demanded a greater level of mastery in order to pass. For example, what if, in order to pass high school math you did not have to go past algebra but needed to be able to get an A on it.

The lesson that I would want Kalman to take from his experience learning to read is that no matter how smart, IQ wise, he is, he will always lose out to people who may lack his IQ but are able to focus. If Kalman could exchange several IQ points for better focus, he would probably be reading by now.

Kalman is a moderately intelligent little boy, who has four physicians in his immediate biological family. He has been raised surrounded by books and by parents who actively read. He is precisely what you would expect from such a child raised in such circumstances. I have high hopes for him. He is smart enough that I am confident that he can succeed in any field he chooses. Thankfully, he is not a genius. If he were, he might be tempted to believe that it is possible for him to accomplish something worthwhile without hard work. Success is built on a willingness to move ahead day after day even when no tangible progress can be seen. If that is going to happen, it helps to have some love in your corner. 


Monday, January 7, 2019

Finding Something Good to Say About Louis Farrakhan



In this past week's Jewish Journal, Rabbi Robin Podolsky has an article "Why I Will Walk With the Women's March." Podolsky comes across as someone with very different values from me and with whom I disagree with. I can still respect her, though, recognizing that she comes to her conclusions by applying her non-satanic principles consistently. I oppose the Women's March because I believe that it is not serious about opposing Trump. If it were, then it would have focused on reaching out to anti-Trump people on the right in a bid to create to build a broad coalition capable of bringing the president down. Instead, it is a Trojan Horse designed to offer moral cover for black nationalists and Islamists. Despite the growing evidence in support of this view, I recognize that I am not in a position to lecture supporters of the March. Beyond the fact that I identify as a man, I am outside of the value system of even the more moderate marchers. Hence, any criticism I might offer, regardless of its factual correctness, would be seen, and rightfully so, as an attempt to bring in my own Trojan Horse. 

The author acknowledges that March leaders like Linda Sarsour is a supporter of BDS but accepts that one can do so without being an anti-Semite. I agree with her up to a point. It is possible to hold views and support policies that are seen as harmful to particular groups without being guilty of bigotry. That being said, I find it useful to employ a two-strike rule. You are allowed the one issue but then you have to be really cautious. 

For example, you can support legal discrimination against without being a racist as long as you make a point of acknowledging that blacks have good grounds to be suspicious of you and therefore you make an effort to find ways to be helpful in other areas, say police brutality. A person who does not go through such a mental process, whether or not they actually are racist, demonstrates that black concerns are not a high priority to the extent that he does not care whether he is thought of as a racist. As such, the black community is justified in treating that person as a racist. (This is distinct from calling out someone as a racist, which is usually counter-productive when it comes to actually combating racists as opposed to virtue-signaling.)

Similarly, I am willing to grant anti-Zionists the benefit of the doubt as long as they bend over backward to make sure they are not associated with those who make the jump from anti-Zionism to blatant classical anti-Semitism. One thinks of the example of Alice Walker and her "discovery" that the source of Israel's crimes is the Talmud. Of greater concern than, whatever bone-headed comments might have been made behind closed doors, is the fact that the Women's March leadership does not see it as a priority that Jews do not see them as anti-Semitic despite being willing to wade into "controversial" territory such as BDS. They believe that they will not pay a price for such inattention and the terrifying thing is that they might be right.  

This brings us to the Reverend Louis Farrakhan, who has provided security for Women's March events despite being a rabid anti-Semite. One might think that it would be a simple thing to cut ties with the man. (It is not like he even identifies as a woman.) The fact that the Women's March leadership has been willing to hold on to Farrakhan, despite paying a heavy price for it to the point of putting the entire movement at risk, indicates that black nationalism, even when it turns to anti-Semitism, is not simply an allied movement but a critical aspect of the Woman's March's real purpose.

Podolsky attempts to empathize with those sympathetic to Farrakhan. She quotes Adam Serwer:

[Blacks have] seen the Fruit of Islam patrol rough neighborhoods and run off drug dealers, or they have a family member who went to prison and came out reformed, preaching a kind of pride, self-sufficiency, and entrepreneurship that, with a few adjustments, wouldn’t sound out of place coming from a conservative Republican.

Having acknowledged the good that the Nation of Islam does in black communities (in essence the old "but they are nice to their mothers"), Podolsky attempts to Pontius Pilate the left from any responsibility for Farrakhan arguing that he is really a conservative with a "touching faith in unregulated capitalism despite what it never did for his people."

To be clear, I am skeptical as to how pro-market Farrakhan really is. In my experience, what liberals mean by "unregulated markets" is anything to the right of Elizabeth Warren. If you think that banks and hospitals are capitalism run amok, you are either incredibly ignorant or mendacious. What I find interesting here is how Podolsky is unable to appreciate the relationship between the Farrakhan she likes, who helps lower crime in black neighborhoods, and the Farrakhan who might not actually be a sworn enemy of capitalism. So instead of relying on government police, with its record of violence against blacks that is anything but history, Farrakhan has the Fruit of Islam operate as a private security force that helps clean up neighborhoods as well as helping out the Women's March. Even most libertarians struggle with the idea of private police. If Farrakhan has already gotten over that hump, should it surprise anyone that he is open to private enterprise in a wide variety of spheres of life?

Somehow capitalism is supposed to be to blame for what is wrong in black society. Ignoring the issue of police brutality and how the government repeatably fails the black community, the whole point of the Women's March was supposed to about opposing a government problem. If we can turn Trump once again into a crooked sexist real-estate developer and reality-tv host that would be a victory. Trump only became a problem when he entered the government. 

Should this convince anyone to not participate in the March? Podolsky has clearly made her bed and is willing to lie in it. She assumes that intersectional politics rooted in a desire to keep capitalism in check will help the unfortunate. She, therefore, is willing to give the benefit of the doubt to opponents of Israel and anti-Semites. Maybe she is right. Hopefully, she will at least march with a guilty conscience. 


Thursday, January 3, 2019

2018 in Reading



Here is a shoutout to some of my favorite books, whether on Judaism, history, education, or science-fiction, that I read this past year. 

Judaism

Hasidism: A New History. Ed. David Biale.
This book reminds me of the famous H. H. Ben Sasson Jewish History as a large single volume with multiple people writing different parts that summarize where the scholarship stands at a particular moment. This is not an easy book, but, certainly, one the repays careful reading. On a personal note, my father's favorite shul, Emunas Yisroel, gets a paragraph as an example of how Hasidism can function without a formal rebbe. 

The book about Chabad messianism by a former professor of mine not named David Berger. Wolfson exemplifies an argument that figured prominently in my dissertation on Jewish messianism that, at the heart of rabbinic Judaism, there is a thin line between the spiritualization of messianism and its elimination. Reading Wolfson has helped me make sense of a line of Chabad apologetics I have run into in personal conversations in which the Rebbe was a successful messiah if we just properly understood what messianism is supposed to mean. 

This is one of those books designed to generate conversations/pick fights. One can make a fair case that Cardozo is a heretic from Orthodox Judaism in the sense that, even if his beliefs cannot be refuted merely by appealing to the source material, there is something about his thought that subtly undermines an aspect of Judaism that is necessary to its identity. Critical to Cardozo's claim to legitimacy is the assumption that there is exists a constituency of halakhicly serious Jews who do not identify as Orthodox or at least might become serious if only they could be presented with a more flexible less morally tone-deaf version of halakha. I fall into the former category but have never gotten the sense that you could build a community around people like me. The Conservative movement is collapsing and I fail to see where there exists a market for a more traditional but still not conventionally Orthodox version of the movement. Perhaps things are different in Israel. 

American History

The Years of Lyndon Johnson by Robert A. Caro.
I have read three of the four volumes. I still need to read the really big one on LBJ's years in the Senate. These books are the real-life version of the kind of politics you see in House of Cards. 
Much like Richard Rothstein’s Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America, Caro seems caught between his heart and his head. Both writers feel a compulsion to insist that the New Deal protected the common man from big business or blacks from segregationists. At the same time, the actual story they are telling is how New Deal politicians were corrupt and in bed with the worst sorts of business interests and segregationists.  

One of the challenges of history is to get your mind wrapped around the idea that people thought differently. Here, we have a critical part of the story how the J. S. Mill understanding of free speech came to replace the more traditional one of William Blackstone, which only stopped the government from arresting people before they publicized an idea but not afterward. The Blackstone model while keen on protecting the people's ability to have the information needed to make use of their vote, did not value diversity or believe in social progress. The group in charge believes that they are right and oppresses their opponents. If a minority is willing to undergo martyrdom for their beliefs, maybe one day they will seize power and turn the tables on their oppressors. Ultimately there is no wider value system built around freedom of expression beyond the letter of the law. One advantage of this position is that it does not require you to rely on the intellectual honesty of your opponents that if you allow them to spread their ideas, they will allow you to do so in turn. In a world in which both the right and the left accuse the other of hypocrisy when it comes to free speech, it might make sense for both sides to drop Mill and replace him with the narrow legalism of Blackstone.  

Classical History

Here is another book that asks you to rethink terms you take for granted. In this case, wealth, poverty, charity. Brown's larger project has been to map out a period of late antiquity from the fourth through sixth centuries in which Rome did not suddenly become Christian and come to a violent end leaving the Middle Ages to come out of the rubble. In this book, Brown charts how one goes from a pagan Roman understanding of wealth as something to be spent for the benefit of the city in order to gain honor to donating to the Church to earn a reward in heaven. This also involves the invention of the poor as a trans-urban class with their paradoxical states of blessedness and pity/contempt. Libertarians will find inspiration in considering how the modern welfare state, as the product of a post-Christian world, is the heir to this same paradox when confronting poverty. This book will also prove helpful to readers of Deirdre McCloskey's Bourgeois series trying to understand her argument that bourgeois values are a product of the eighteenth century as Brown offers us a distinctly pre-modern unbourgeois understanding of wealth. 

Spirituality

In looking over the ruins of the conservative movement in the wake of Donald Trump, one needs to consider the failure of the conservative intellectual tradition that made this possible. In order to reconstitute such a tradition, conservatives will need to go back to educating a class of intellectuals from the foundation up. This means literature, which sets the agenda for the imagination. Dreher provides a good example of what it means to read literature from a religious perspective. In addition, we have a powerful memoir of a difficult and ultimately tragic family life. Dreher's family reminds me a lot of my own in that my parents and siblings have made different decisions in our lives and, no matter how much we love each other, it is the kind of love best conducted at a distance. In contemplating the challenge facing conservative intellectuals trying to affect the modern imagination, see also Alan Jacobs' Year of Our Lord 1943, which takes a critical look at the failed attempt by Christian thinkers such as C. S. Lewis to influence the course of post-war culture as it was being born.     

What I Believe by Leo Tolstoy.
If you think of Tolstoy as simply a writer of long melodramas involving Russian aristocrats, welcome to the other later and highly subversive Tolstoy. Here is the Christian Tolstoy at war with all Churches, particularly the Russian Orthodox one. If you have trouble understanding how any serious spirituality will inevitably threaten any religious establishment, here is a good place to begin. What I found particularly intriguing about Tolstoy is his brutal consistency as a pacifist. He recognizes that pacifism will not end oppression nor lead to peace on this Earth. On the contrary, as a Christian, Tolstoy embraces martyrdom as the endpoint of his pacifism. Furthermore, Tolstoy is an anarchist and does not dance around the fact that, forget about the military, no true Christian can allow themselves to serve on the police, in the legal system or hold any political office.  

Education (Politics)

For fans of Jordan Peterson and the whole school of "owning the libs," here is a better alternative. This is a book that could have simply been a polemic against Social Justice Warriors and probably would have sold more copies if it did. Haidt and Lukianoff, perhaps because they are not creatures of the right nor are they trying to ingratiate themselves with the right by offering it a pat on the back, are able to implicitly attack the campus left with avoiding the trap of left vs. right. This may not sell books but, in the long run, this is how you reach out beyond your echo chamber and influence people.

In a similar vein, I recommend Sen. Ben Sasse’s Vanishing American Adult and Them, which deal with the failure of modern American education to create proper pathways to adulthood and how this has contributed to our current politicized discourse. In examining the origins of this politicization Yuval Levin’s Fractured Republic points to the fact that both the right and the left show a certain nostalgia for mid-20th century America. He argues that the social revolutions of the period such as the civil rights movement and the counter-culture were made possible because they were working off of the strong social cohesion of the 1950s. In essence, both liberals and conservatives want to go back to a part of the 50s while ignoring an essential aspect of what made that culture possible. All of this literature owes a debt to Robert Nisbet’s Quest for Community, which argues that Enlightenment relativism has cut off the very branch that it relies on to make itself possible.  

One of the frustrating things about trying to make the case for not sending my kids to school is that defenders of conventional education operate as if the burden of proof is not completely on them. Instead, they turn around and make unicorn arguments premised on assuming that schools actually do what they are supposed to. I am then challenged to explain how my admittedly flawed alternatives can possibly compete with their ideal system. The key to reading Caplan is to not whether you find his figures convincing. Rather, it is to recognize that it is even possible to seriously question the value of conventional schooling. The moment you find Caplan even vaguely plausible then a crushing moral burden has been placed on defenders of education. Either they produce evidence to justify spending billions on education (the kind of evidence that would convince people to throw similar kinds of money on pharmaceuticals) or they must step aside and allow for the separation of education and state.   

Autism

Some of you may have noticed that I have stopped referring to myself as an Asperger. In recent years, the reputation of Dr. Hans Asperger has taken a downturn as more information has surfaced indicating that he was a Nazi collaborator. Sheffer offers another nail in the coffin for anyone still wanting to hold on to the belief that Asperger was a humanitarian physician trying to protect special needs children from being murdered. Beyond the question of Asperger's clear guilt, the book illuminates a certain conservative collectivist mindset that valued being amiable with the status quo as a critical part of social intelligence and ultimately of one's value as a human being. Such a perspective made it frighteningly easy for people who were not Nazis to become full collaborators and wash their hands of the affair afterward. 

Science Fiction

Skyward by Brandon Sanderson.
In a break from the dense worldbuilding of the Cosmere, Sanderson tries his hand at a fairly conventional YA novel essentially featuring a Katniss Everdeen as a fighter pilot. This is a book that was predictable and should have been lame where it not for the fact that Sanderson is a master subtle dash of humor writer, something that is easy to lose sight of in the shadow of his world building. Jerkface could have easily been a straw-man villain but he is actually kind of sweet even if it is still fun to hate him. Keep an eye out for the computer M-Bot, who snuck up on me as my favorite character largely because he is an autistic type character who is allowed his "humanity." 

Star Wars: Lost Stars by Claudia Gray.
I believe that the Force, with its struggle between the light and dark side, is essential to Star Wars. One of my concerns with Last Jedi was that it tried to refashion Star Wars without Jedi and Sith. That being said, this book, like Rogue One, did a magnificent job even though it is also guilty of trying to get away from the Force. I guess it is possible for a Star Wars book to be good without necessarily being a good Star Wars book. That being said, it is great to see the original trilogy from the perspective of "regular" people on the ground. Also, Gray deserves credit for what she has added to the Star Wars universe in that she has effectively written an apology for the average imperial soldier. The two main characters are teenagers who wanted to get off their home planet, make something of themselves while improving the galaxy along the way. So they ended up in the Imperial Academy and became imperial pilots. If a few imperial bad apples commit war crimes, that does not make the Rebellion innocent, particularly as the Rebellion does not offer a clear way forward as an alternative to the Empire. In the end, one of the characters defects to the Rebellion but that comes across as a personal decision that does not lessen our sympathy for the one who stays with the Empire.