Tag Archives: Education

Monday’s Mtg: Should children be raised with gender-neutral expectations?

For some reason this group never does parenting or children-related topics, except indirectly via some of our education discussions. So, I am glad Bruce thought of this one. We can ask Bruce, but I believe concern over “gender-neutral” parenting styles is of concern to many conservatives and traditionalists. Some kind of worry about messing up kids with liberal social engineering theories, undermining biologically-determined gender norm, and/or devaluing masculinity, I think.

I guess it depends on what raising kids in a “gender-neutral” way means. I don’t think very many people are actually trying to rear their children without a gender identity. But, a lot of young parents seem to be interested (at least rhetorically, to researchers and pollsters) in raising their kids in a more gender neutral environment in the sense of:

  • Not passing on harmful gender role stereotypes.
  • Not hooking their kids on gender-stereotyped clothing, toys, play activities, etc.; and
  • Not instilling sexist cultural norms.

I am in a mood lately to broaden the range of topics we discuss. Our political discussions are very high-quality, IMO. But, maybe next schedule (TBD, for March – June or July) we can experiment with some new areas. Here is a little introductory material on what gender-neutral parenting can entail and a few pro and con discussions.



NEXT WEEK: How should government incorporate scientific advice?


Monday’s Mtg: The Uses and Abuses of “Pop Economics.”

Rich suggested this topic. I wish I had, because I think it is one of our most important topics in years. The way basic, introductory-level economics has been abused to make bad national policy has been a pet peeve of mine for many years.

Sure, all rhetoric in politics is kept sound bite and bumper sticker-friendly. (Not to a fourth grade level like Trump’s rhetoric, perhaps, but still.) And, everybody does it. “Our borders are unguarded/open.” Liberals aren’t patriotic. Neoconservatives love war.

But, when it comes to rhetoric –and policy, too – concerning economics, something much, much more pernicious goes on. It has been called the problem of “Econ 101ism” or “Economism.” Economism, to quote the coiner of the term, is “the misleading application of basic lessons from Economics 101 to real-world problems, creating the illusion of consensus and reducing a complex topic to a simple, open-and-shut case.” For years I’ve seen way too many politicians (and their pundit and journalist enablers) use over-simplified – and thus often inaccurate – Econ 101ism as a kind of Gospel that fully explains how the world really works. They use its “lessons” to show what correct government policy has to be and anybody that disagrees doesn’t understand economics.

Everybody does Economism sometimes. Liberals sometimes indulge in it when thinking and talking about international trade and, less often IMO, about macroeconomics (govt spending levels). But, as the articles below explain better than I will on Monday, there is something about Econ 101’s easy, breezy, oversimplified analysis of how markets work that easily seduces conservatives.  All those pretty supply and demand curves leading to ideal equilibriums without ever a need for government interference.

Again, I don’t mean this topic to be about economic polices and rhetoric that I think are wrong.  I mean it to be about those that are wrong for one particular reason: They are based on a belief that the highly simplified textbook explanations of how markets work should tell us all we need to know about what policies should be.  Econ 101ism, to me, is too often a shield for preferences that based on other things, like ideology and moral beliefs. .

I’ve tried to keep the linked readings fairly easy and, well, breezy. They oversimplify, too, but get the idea across.


  1. What does Econ 101 teach about how markets and govt interference in markets work? What important things does it gloss over?
  2. In what big ways can well-meaning political advocates misinterpret the lessons of Econ 101?
  3. How do the lessons of Econ 101 get misused by politicians; i.e., what is Economism?
  4. What are some good examples of Economism in action on the Right and Left?
    –> In tax policy? Financial regulation? Trade? Wages and labor markets? Health care? Education?
  5. How can seductive rhetoric based on Economism be effectively countered?
  6. What’s the “other side” POV here? Is Econ 11ism not a big thing?


Conservative use of Econ 101ism

Liberals use of Econ 101ism –

Special Topics in Econ 101ism –

NEXT WEEK: What beliefs have you changed since you were young?

Monday’s Mtg: What does “cultural literacy” mean?

Sometimes my topic ideas are not too well thought out. This one came out of several articles I read recently (in the links) that argued we should revive the idea of a shared American cultural literacy.  Cultural literacy is the common knowledge necessary for good citizenship and mutual understanding in a society. Promoting it would involve our educational system focusing on teaching young people a certain set of facts and concepts about history and civics/government, art and literature, religion, geography, and so forth. Adoption of the Common Core and other educational standards spurred this renewed debate over the merits of a common cultural literacy, as have rapid shifts in American demographics, the rise of social media, and other factors. I thought it would be a nice break from our polarizing political topics.


It’s not just that the cultural revanchist Donald Trump got elected president by promising to speak for (some) Americans that feel culturally disrespected and to restore a decidedly pale-hued lost national greatness. I had forgotten that the concept of cultural literacy was controversial when it was first introduced in a book by a British American academic in 1987. Some progressives opposed the idea flat out, arguing that anything that smacked of a state-sanctioned list of approved cultural knowledge would be more oppressive than instructive. Conservatives, already up in arms over the rise of multiculturalism and historical revisionism, pushed back.

We got a taste of how this conflict still rages a few weeks ago when we discussed what U.S. school children should be taught about history.  I am sure that any movement to revive cultural literacy in today’s political climate would get sucked right into the culture wars.

Complicating cultural literacy further is the way we share cultural information (and values and resentments) these days via social media. Maybe cultural norms and changes get transmitted faster or more efficiently. Maybe it’s liberating and promote tolerance. Ha, ha. As those of us that have lost Facebook friends over Trump’s election can attest, the Internet also Balkanizes culture (especially resentments).

Given all of these crosscurrents, I’m not sure yet how Civilized Conversation should approach the idea of a 21st century American cultural literacy. Ponder these discussion questions and I will see you on Monday.


  1. What is “cultural knowledge?” Whose culture / what knowledge? Can cultural values be separated from mere facts?
  2. What is cultural literacy and why did Hirsh argue its importance? Why the furious opposition and ardent defenders?
  3. Is there really a big conflict between cultural diversity and common cultural literacy?
  4. Are the ways we transmit cultural values and knowledge changing nd does it matter?
  5. What principles do you think should guide search for common cultural info/concepts/values? Who should decide?


Next Week (Nov 28):  How do progressives interpret the Constitution?

Monday’s Mtg: What should U.S. school children be taught about history?

I think you will all be amazed at what a fascinating – and controversial – topic the teaching of history in American schools has become.

History curricula have changed a lot since most of us were in school. First, as I will explain in my opening remarks Monday, just based on California’s (900-page!) teaching guidelines, history requirements are more demanding and thorough than what I was taught. I’m not sure kids learn a greater quantity of facts. But, in parallel with other efforts to teach young people critical thinking skills, history and social science these days have a heavy focus on analytical concepts, comparative analysis, and independent thinking.

Second and of much noisier political concern is the assault on, or perhaps the long overdue replacement of, the standard narrative of U.S. history we absorbed. The one that saw U.S. history as a slow but steady triumphant march of democracy and progress that emphasized the actions and POV of the dominant White majority. Over the last 10-20 years, academic historians, political and social activists, school boards, and state legislatures have rewritten large parts of our kids’ history textbooks/instruction to be more inclusive, less triumphant, and more critical (honest?) about our past.

Now, the United States famously has no national educational standards, not even for math and reading much less the more politically-sensitive social sciences. Most states don’t even have state-wide educational standards for history, leaving it all up to individual school districts. There are no Common Core history standards.

But, there are some forces converging us towards common history instruction nationwide. All U.S. students must take an identical standardized history test in grades (I think) 5, 8 and 11, thanks to No Child Left Behind. But, the brand new Every Student Succeeds Act has made how states use those tests voluntary, reversing the intent of NCLB. The College Board, the giant non-profit testing organization, has its own recommended Advanced Placement history standards which many (some?) states/districts use. California is one of 17 states with statewide history requirements and it just did a huge revision of them.  Confused on who requires what? Me, too. I’ll sort it out better by Monday, but my point is there is some consensus on what American kids should be taught about history and very specific requirements in our state.

Also, everybody’s a critic of what standards do exist. Conservatives hate CA’s newly-revised, “leftist” history curriculum. Progressives hate the ways the College Board revised AP history in response to conservative complaints. There are Right versus Left textbook wars in many states, especially since 2010 when Texas introduced some um, bold changes to how textbooks cover the Civil War and Segregation.

So, I thought this would be a great topic for us, though I don’t think our entire discussion should be reduced to politics or squeezed into right-versus-left framing. There are a lot of thought-provoking but less partisan social, cultural, and even pedagogical issues we can get into. And there’s world history and the historical part of civics education, too.

I’m especially excited to do this topic now because in September I got the chance to lecture several local (Helix, Mount Carmel) high school social studies and speech classes on various topics. These modern high school students were an impressive lot. A great deal is expected of them academically and they work very hard. Let’s honor them by having a great discussion of this – I told you so – really interesting topic.

Below are some optional readings on what current history educational standards are and why they are controversial. My opening remarks will be limited to trying to summarize what kids are supposed to be taught about U.S. history in California under the just-revised curriculum. Also, we have a new topic list to be handed out, thanks to Linda and Aaron.


Next Week (Oct 10): Will America’s death penalty fade away?

Monday’s Mtg: Do We Need Universal National Service for Young Americans?

National service is an old idea that’s getting new life, including at some pretty high political levels. Requiring every young American to devote 1-2 years to a job helping their communities and their country was briefly considered after the military draft was ended in 1973. But, the idea never really got much traction, in large part because no one liked that it would be mandatory or could think of that many public service jobs to fill.

National service got new life in the 1990s. A 1994 law proudly signed by President Clinton created AmeriCorps. A small voluntary program, AmeriCorps finances and facilitates 75,000 public service jobs for young Americans. Other federal service programs. Like Teach for America, also were set up. Candidate Barack Obama made expanding national service opportunities a plank in his agenda in 2008. His Serve America Act authorized up to 250,000 jobs in AmeriCorps, but Congress refused to fund it. National service has been just one part of Obama’s ongoing – and little noticed – effort to resurrect the old-fashioned (and once-bipartisan) concept of citizenship. Emphasizing both the individual rights and mutual obligations of being an American is a theme he has returned to again and again throughout his presidency.

Now, Democratic presidential candidates hoping to succeed Obama have upped the ante, embracing expanded national service in one form or another. The most ambitious plan is Martin O’Malley’s, but Hillary Clinton wants to provide debt-free college education in exchange for national service. (Bernie Sanders has not matched these promises, specifically, but he surely favors federal support for full employment and public service jobs.) Just last month (12/15), Congress closed some of the funding gap for AmeriCorps and other national service programs, with some Republican support.

But, of course, most Conservatives HATE the idea of national service, even voluntary service. The GOP-controlled House of Representatives has tried repeatedly to abolish AmeriCorps and zero-out all national service funding. They argue that national service is potentially coercive of young people and that the programs add no value.

So, national service will be a campaign issue in 2016, especially if the GOP refuses to come up with any ideas for lowering college costs. I thought it would be useful for Civilized Conversation to go over the basics of the Dems’ national service proposals and pros and cons of the issue.

Discussion Questions –

  1. WHAT: What federal national service programs exist now? AmeriCorps, Teach for America, SeniorCorps, etc. What help do they give and for what kinds of jobs?
  2. HOW USFUL: How do we know whether these programs are worth their cosrs; i.e., that they add value without duplicating what’s already available to young people seeking service jobs?
  3. PROPOSALS: Who is proposing what kinds of expansions of national service? How would the programs work?
  4. PROS/CONS: Arguments for and against expanding the programs.
  5. POLITICS: Do people care enough about this to matter in 2016 election? Will it turn out young voters for the Democrats?


Next Week: Is American democracy at risk of unravelling?


Monday’s Mtg: For-Profit Colleges – Market Niche or Scam?

The Obama Administration’s higher education policies are among its least well-known. But, they’re a big deal and about to get bigger. Yesterday we learned that Obama will announce in his State of the Union address an ambitious new proposal to expand Americans’ access to community college.

The new program’s goal will be to make going to community college basically tuition-free! In participating states, the feds would pay ¾ of the costs (which average over $3,000 per year) and participating state governments the other ¼. Not only would this be revolutionary, it would seriously affect the fate of for-profit colleges, the subject of our discussion this week. Going to a for-profit college (like Strayer, University of Phoenix, ITT, etc.) is one of the main alternatives to community college, so this proposal is basically an assault on this controversial industry.

Another accidentally well-timed CivCon topic! But really, even without this announcement, for-profit higher education has been a huge issue for a long time. Obama has been trying to reign in abuses in the industry for years, bitterly opposed at all stages by Republican Congress. I’m just finishing up a book that deals with all of these issues, too, so we have a lot to discuss.

The private, for-profit college industry has exploded in size in the last 20 years, and it’s grown much more controversial, too. The number of for-profits has quadrupled since 1993, to over 1,200, and the number of students they enroll has grown by 80-fold, to 13% of all college students. Some of them are gigantic, highly-profitable nationwide, NYSE-listed, companies. They are advertised on TV and radio around the clock.

The controversy involves a for-profit education’s very high cost to students and the government via student loan defaults, and seroious questions about the quality of the education they provide. These schools charge much more than all but the most expensive private but non-profit universities (like Cal-Tech or the Ivies). And, close to 100% of for-profit college students borrow from federal student loan programs to pay their tuition (average $32,000). Yet, they default at much higher rates than other students. This default rate and other evidence suggests that students may not get a high-quality education for all of that money they, and we as taxpayers, fork over. Most studies show graduates of for-profit colleges earn less than other graduates, too, although it’s not a slam dunk that poor instruction is the reason.

I want to do a lot more on Monday, however, than bash for-profit colleges and the (mostly GOP) politicians that defend to the death everything they do. Defenders of the for-profits raise some important points. They say our higher education system does a poor job of educating just the kinds of students they specialize in educating: Non-traditional students, especially those that are low-income; older, with jobs and even kids; and first-in-their-families college students. Strayer and Grand Canyon are just innovators using the private sector to do what our political system won’t do. They enroll students quickly, offer flexible class schedules and more on-line classes, and vocationally-oriented curricula in growing fields like health care and information systems.

I’m dubious this is true on a large scale. Still, my point is that there are many bigger issues here. The discussion questions below list a number of them. I’ll start our meeting as I usually do, by explaining a few basic facts about the for-profit college industry, the reasons it has grown so quickly, and the main controversies surrounding it.


  1. History as a guide: What is the history of federal government support for going to college or trade school? Were for-profit schools always a problem, and if so, what was done about it that we could learn from today?
  2. Recently: Why has the for-profit college industry exploded in size in the last 20 years? Was it just marketing hype chasing all of that federal money?
  3. Prosecution: What are the worst problems/abuses of for-profit colleges?
  4. Defense: What arguments are used to defend the industry? Does it serve a legitimate market niche, even if poorly? If they serve students poorly and bury them in debt, why do so many students go there?
  5. Solutions: How has the Obama Administration tried to reign in the industry’s worst abuses? Why has it been so hard to do, and what does that tell us about how and how well our political system functions?


Problems with for-profit colleges –

The Other Side –

Solutions –

Next Week: Are we an over-medicated nation?

Monday’s Mtg: Sex Education – What Works and What’s Right?

Most of us haven’t thought about sex education since we were its targets back, oh, let’s say roughly 20 years ago.  But, sex ed remains alive and well in America’s culture wars, state by state and school district by school district.  Polls show that most Americans want their kids to receive some form of sex ed, and about 85% of students do.  Yet, ignorance about sex and its consequences (both bad and good consequences) is rampant among young people.  Young Americans ages 15 to 24 represent 25 percent of the sexually active population, but acquire half of all new sexually transmitted diseases.  Although the U.S. teen birth rate has declined to its lowest levels since data collection began, we still have the highest teen birth rate in the industrialized world, with 3 in 10 girls getting pregnant at least once before their 20th birthday

What’s wrong?  Is it the fault of not enough or poorly-taught sex ed?  Well, fewer than half of the states require that schools teach sex education at all, and a majority require it to stress abstinence.  Abstinence-only sex ed has been a fervent cause of many social conservatives in the last decade or two, even though studies show it just doesn’t work.  Yet, surely abstinence-only should not be blamed for Americans’ sexual ignorance, since our teen pregnancy and STD rates have been high for decades. Abstinence-only gets all of the media attention and scorn from liberals, but there are other controversial aspects of sex ed, too.

As an instant, Internet-made expert on this topic, I’ll start us off on Monday by explaining what’s required in sex education in most states.  Then, I’ll summarize the biggest controversies about the teaching of sex ed that I’m aware of, including the one over abstinence-only.  I think sex education is a great vehicle for debating a lot of fundamental issues in American politics, such as the plusses and minuses of local control and the opinion of experts versus the wishes of the public.


  1. WHO decides whether and how sex education is taught in the United States?
  2. WHY is sex education taught?  What is the goal?  What should be the goal of it?
  3. WHAT do they teach in today’s sex education and  how?  How much variation is there?  What moral values are taught along with the facts?
  4. EFFECTIVENESS:  Does sex education actually work?
  5. ISSUES:  What is controversial about sex education?  Is it just religious conservatives that object to the way sex education is done, or do others have a problem with it, too? à  How is/should the science of what works be balanced with parental rights and local preferences?


Abstinence only wars –

  • Key:  Abstinence only does not work; but abstinence plus other instruction does work. Recommended.
  • Studies found a lot of inaccurate info in abstinence-only curricula, including some crazy stuff..
  • The Republican Party’s official position us that all sex education programs should be replaced with abstinence only programs.

More Controversies –

  • Contraception:  Should schools dispense contraception, including Plan B, without parental consent, like New York does?
    –> Does this go too far?
  • Homosexuality:  Nine state prohibit the teaching of homosexuality or require that it be mentioned only to condemn it.
    –>  What exactly should they teach about LGBT?  What if the local community thinks differently?
  • Pleasure:  Should sex ed teach about pleasure?  Yes, says this very progressive view of how to teach sex ed.
    –> Do you agree?  Should parents be able to opt-out?
  • 2,000 protesting parents just got a sex ed textbook pulled in Fremont, CA.

Next Week:  Richard Nixon’s presidency, 40 years later.

Monday’s Mtg: How Politically Biased Is Academia?

This one’s another great topic idea from Bruce. You may not know it, but the alleged left-wing bias of academia and its influences is a huge issue in conservative circles. It’s spawned a lot of pushback and activism, from creating student groups devoted to fighting discrimination in the classroom all the way to the Right creating its own large-scale infrastructure of universities and think tanks. The idea that the liberal bent of college professors and the university establishments biases research, indoctrinates students, and discriminates against conservative academics and students is an article of faith to conservatives.

But, how true are these accusations? Sure, college professors are pretty liberal, especially in humanities and social sciences programs, and we all remember our really liberal college professors. But, a little reading shows this bias question to be more complicated than it seems at first blush. First, what exactly do conservatives mean by “academia?”

  • Who? Do they mean just the professors or just the tenured ones? What about adjunct professors that now predominate at most colleges? What about all of the administrators and other people that run the huge educational establishments that support the profs? And, what about all of those research centers – many of which are partly or wholly privately-funded – that are everywhere on campuses these days?
  • Where? Is “academia” only the elite universities that drive the directions their fields take and educate the most accomplished students, or should we add in state schools and community colleges that educate the vast majority of kids? What about for-profit colleges, that enroll 11% of all college students? What about the Right’s own college and think tank system, like Liberty Baptist U., George Mason (libertarian), Heritage/Cato/AEI, et. al.?
  • Which fields? Just the humanities and social sciences? What about the hard sciences, engineering, and business?

Second, what do we mean by liberal? Professors’ party affiliations and voting preferences are easy to measure, and they’re overwhelmingly Democrats in most fields.  But is that the same as bias? What about the social science fields dominated by post-modern, deconstructionist paradigms?  Is any professor teaching the standard canon in such fields teaching biased material whether they intend to or not?

Third, what is “bias” as opposed to fact-based belief? Do conservatives have the evidence to prove that professors are teaching liberal opinions masquerading as facts or science?  But, does “liberal academic bias” sometimes just mean, “things conservatives disagree with?”

Lastly, is the hardest question to answer, IMO: Where’s the evidence that liberal academic bias harms anybody? Maybe it does.  But, how do you measure the effects that biased teaching has on students?  In a similar vein, is the lack of politically conservative professors in (most of) academia proof enough of discrimination? Worse, how on earth could one prove that the results of academic research itself are being skewed in an ideologically-biased direction? Like I said, great topic.

I’ll open us up on Monday by summarizing a few studies that have been done recently on academic bias. Then, I’ll try to take us through the questions I’ve posed so we can explore this issue a little bit systematically.  I’m looking forward to hearing from people that have strong views and know more than I do about this.


One Side

Other Side, or at least some “Howevers” –

Next Week: Is it time to abolish the death penalty? (2-hour executions anyone?)

Monday’s Mtg: Is Education Just About Getting a Job Now?

Dean, our double-Master’s degrees in liberal arts member, asks if education is just about the Benjamins these days. Certainly, the worst recession in living memory has concentrated the minds of young people. Add to that the skyrocketing cost of college and the growing need for technical skills to hold many jobs, and you’ve pretty much turned college (and vocational education) into a bloodless transactional affair for most young people these days.

But, is college as something more – a voyage of self-discovery, a place for creating good citizens, etc. – really dying out? Dean will open our meeting with his brief take on this question, and then we can discuss it. I’m particularly interested in people’s personal stories and experience on this one, a la the first discussion question, below.

Discussion Questions –

  1. What kind of education did you get? Was it in the liberal arts or in another field that we typically think of as lower-paying? Why did you make this choice? What did you get out of it and what did you give up?
  2. How many people get a liberal arts education these days compared to the past? What has caused this change?
  3. Is there really a monetary disadvantage to a liberal arts education? What, if anything, compensates for that?
  4. What about from a societal perspective? Do we need liberal arts to form good citizens and well-rounded adults? Should our educations system go out of its way to revive liberal arts?

Links –

What is the purpose of education?

What is a liberal arts education?

  • Definition of the liberal arts: “Academic disciplines, such as languages, literature, history, philosophy, mathematics, and science, that provide information of general cultural concern.”
    Notice it includes sciences and math. But, most people probably exclude these when they think of the liberal arts, and I think we should, too. This lets us focus on the debate over a softer, generalist education versus a highly technical one that produces immediately marketable skills.
  • A list of the many, many fields considered to be within the liberal arts.

Critique and defenses of a liberal arts education –

NEXT WEEK: Jim Z. on, The Case For and Against Woodrow Wilson.

Monday’s Mtg: Are Schools Prepping Our Kids for 21st Century Jobs?

I’ve been trying to get us to talk more about education  and other topics that don’t quite this group’s demographic profile.  I thought this week we would try to come at it from another angle, the angle most people day-to-day care the most about:  What should schools be prepping kids for in the new century?  What knowledge, skills, and abilities should America’s young people be equipped with to make it in this new world of work that our country is creating, for good or ill?

Originally, Jim had suggested that we try to do a field trip before this meeting to one of the local “high-tech high schools” in the area.  Sorry.  I forgot to try to set it up.  Maybe another time, since they appear to allow campus tours.  Instead, I’m linking to several very interesting articles  on the alleged “new” skills that, in a networked, collaborative world, will matter more and more in the future.

But – the other direction angle –  I thought I’d start with a little intro on what jobs might be available in the next ten years  and beyond.  The Labor Department and the private sector study this all the time.  Then, using the links, I’ll tick off the alleged knowledge, skills. And abilities schools may need to help teach today’s kids to give them a fighting chance in tomorrow’s American job jungle.  Then, the usual mass agreement I’m sure.

I love topics and debates that are future-oriented.  They stretch us.

Discussion Questions –

  1. What kinds of jobs are likely to be available in the next 10-20 years for today’s young people?
  2. What do these predictions tell us about  where our economy and society are heading?  Is it someplace good for most Americans, or just for the educated elite?  Is the answer to this problem really outside of education policy?
    à  FYI, our Nov. 25 topic is, “are we too pessimistic about our economic future?”
  3. What KSA (knowledge, skills, abilities) will young people need to get and hold these jobs, and to advance in stable careers that keep them in the middle class?
  4. How can schools teach/encourage these KSAs?  Where else could young people acquire these skills (vocational, on-line, on the job)?
  5. How do we measure schools’ success or failure at all this?  Testing?  What else?
  •  My idea is to have future topics on some of these new education tools, like on-line learning and for-profit colleges.

Links –

Where will the jobs be?

  • Mainly in 6 sectors:  health care, business services, leisure and hospitality, construction, manufacturing, and retail.  Ponder how many of these jobs will be low-wage!  I recommend.
  • Longer study of where the jobs will be, from USN&WR.

What KSA’s will they require?

How should schools teach these things?

Wait a minute!


NEXT WEEK, featuring a guest speaker!  How should the Federal Reserve help the economy?