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Another New Book Available: States of the Union, The History of the United States through Presidential Addresses, 1789-2023

Mount Greylock Books LLC has published States of the Union: The History of the United States through Presidential Addresses, 1789-2023.   St...

Sunday, May 30, 2021

Requiem for an educational system

 It occurred to me the other day that although I am quite sure that I knew who Jonas Salk was by the time I was eight or nine and had received three doses of his vaccine, I do not know the name of a single scientist who participated in the development of any of the COVID-19 vaccines.   Science has changed.  Salk went from medical school to a position as a researcher at the medical school of the University of Pittsburgh, where he set up his own lab and developed the vaccine with the help of grant money from various sources.  Drugs nowadays are one of our biggest businesses and corporations develop them according to corporate priorities.  That is why they would rather (usually) spend their money working on drugs that will alleviate chronic conditions, rather than desperately needed new antibiotics that could cure new and dangerous infections or vaccines that will prevent us from getting sick in the first place.  COVID showed that these corporations can rise to the occasion when a worldwide emergency arises, but they have not done so to combat the increasing threat of post-surgical infections.

While looking into Salk, however, I noticed something else: his educational background.  Salk was born to Jewish immigrants from the Russian empire in 1914 in the greater New York area.  He attended Townsend Harris High School in New York, perhaps at that time the most competitive of all the New York public high schools, since it crammed four years of high school into three.  From there he went to the equally competitive and free City College of New York, and to medical school at NYU, which according to the wikipedia article was the only medical school in the area without a strict Jewish quota. That got me thinking of the role of such schools in the development of the United States, and thanks once again to cyberspace, I found all the information that I needed very quickly.

Let's start with Salk's high school alma mater. Townsend Harris, a late-nineteenth century diplomat, had founded the Free Academy of New York, the ancestor of City College, and the school named after him was open from 1904 to 1942 when it closed for budgetary reasons. It was revived in 1984 and is a magnet school today.  Its alumni, in addition to Salk, included Nobel prize winners Herbert Hauptman and Julius Schwinger; authors Paul Goodman, Herman Wouk, and Sidney Kingsley;  musicians and lyricists Howard Dietz, Ira Gershwin, Frank Loesser and Richard Rodgers; actors Clifton Webb and Edward G. Robinson; and political figures Justice Felix Frankfurter of the Supreme Court, Senator Robert Wagner Sr., and Adam Clayton Powell.  

The Bronx High School of Science has been operating far longer, and its list of prominent alumni is equally impressive.  It has never been merely a science school, and alumni include journalists Joseph Lelyveld and William Safire, who had long careers at the New York Times; other writers such as E. L. Doctorow, the literary critic Harold Bloom, the journalist Martin Peretz, and the historian Kevin Phillips; Secretary of Defense Harold Brown; SNCC leader Stokely Carmichael (later Kwame Toure); the singer and actor Bobby Darin; and Herbert Stempel, who had to throw his last match to Charles Van Doren on Twenty-One.  

And before we leave New York, let's take a look at Salk's other alma mater, City College.  In addition to a number of people we have already met, its alumni include the financier Bernard Baruch, New York Mayors Abraham Beame and Ed Koch, public intellectuals Daniel Bell, Irving  Kristol, Nathan Glazer and Irving Howe, Henry Kissinger (who attended only briefly before switching to Harvard after the Second World War), actors Judd Hirsch, Zero Mostel, and Eli Wallach, engineer George Washington Goethals (who built the Panama Canal), and authors Walter Mosley, Bernard Malamud, Upton Sinclair, and Mario Puzo.  Hunter College was once the female partner of City College--both are now co-ed--and its alumni have included Congresswomen Edna Kelly and Bella Abzug, Nobel Prize winnders Gertrude Elion and Rosalyn Sussman Yallow, and actors Ellen Barkin, Ruby Dee, and Esther Rolle.

The oldest high school in what is now the United States is Boston Latin, whose alumni include Cotton Mather,  Benjamin Franklin, John Hancock, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and a number of members of the Adams family, as well as generations of Boston aristocrats (Lowells, Cabots, etc.) who found it more than adequate for their children.  More recently they include abolitionists Charles Sumner and Wendell Phillips;  Joseph P. Kennedy and John Fitzgerald, the father and maternal grandfather of JFK; CNN correspondent John King; anti-terrorism specialist Richard A. Clarke; and actors Christine Elise and Julia Jones.  

These lists tell me, at least, that these public institutions did an extraordinary job of giving gifted young people the opportunity to develop their talents and prepare themselves for success in a wide variety of fields--exactly what American education is supposed to do.  What has happened to them now?

CCNY and Hunter abandoned their role as elite academic institutions many decades ago.  Their tuition remains one of the lowest in the country--$6,930 for New York state residents and $18,600 for out-of-staters.  

The competitive high schools of New York and Boston, meanwhile, have come under enormous pressure to change their admissions processes in recent years because their competitive examinations produce student bodies that are almost entirely Asian-American or white, with only a few students from the black and Hispanic communities that make up the majority of their districts.  In Boston, where I am more familiar with what is going on, the pandemic, which made in-person testing impossible, became at least a temporary excuse to start admitting students based upon even distribution around the city.  While I regret this decision, I also recognize that Boston Latin has not been the nearly pure meritocracy that it once was for a long time.  Expensive test preparation does play a big role in who gets in.  In addition, I was very disturbed to learn some years ago that many of the white kids at Boston Latin, and some others undoubtedly as well, spent the first 8 years of their education in private schools.  I personally would have no objection to restricting admissions to public school students, but legally, that might be impossible.  In New York, admission by examination to three elite high schools has been for some time required by state law.  In recent years the number of Asian admits has been steadily increasing and the number of black and Hispanic ones has fallen to new lows.   Something similar, by the way, has just happened in Fairfax County, Virginia, where its elite Thomas Jefferson High School--whose student body has also been dominated by Asian-Americans in recent years--is being forced to admit a representative demographic mix, which will in that county work mainly to the advantage of white students. 

I think that for two reasons, it will be extremely difficult to maintain public educational institutions that choose students based solely on intellectual performance in today's United States--much less to create new ones.  There are two related reasons for this.  One is that with inequality at historic highs--and with inequality more and more correlated to levels of educational achievement--the stakes of getting into elite institutions seem so high that political pressure to make them broadly available will increase.  Fewer and fewer Americans are satisfied with being ordinary--and not without cause. The second reason is that at least two generations have now been socialized to value group identity over individual identity.  The idea that we can create a society in which every individual can rise according to their talents has given way to a vision of competing groups, in which the wrong groups have been winning for too long.  Significantly, that view is strongest within American higher education.   This will work to the disadvantage of the kind of young person that Boston Latin, Bronx Science and the rest were designed for.  Writing Baseball Greatness, I discovered that among 20,000 men who had played in the major leagues since 1900, about 100--.5 per cent--were much better than anyone else.  I think the same is true of any complex field of endeavor, and certainly of intellectual endeavor.  A tiny minority of very gifted people is, I truly believe, scattered almost at random throughout our society.  The meritocratic schools were the best means of identifying them and allowing them to develop their talents for the good of us all. The example of Jonas Salk is one of many suggesting that they worked.

Saturday, May 22, 2021

Caste and the Constitution


For some time, a good friend of mine has been asking me to read the book Caste, by the journalist Isabel Wilkerson.  In response I have been making my way through it.  Wilkerson argues, essentially, that black Americans, like Jews in Nazi Germany and the Untouchables in India, have been defined by their societies as inferior beings, subject to any indignity.  Wilkerson’s book includes 388 pages of text, with sweeping historical claims in almost every paragraph.  It presents a particular form of critical race theory, which has become mainstream in the last few years.  A full analysis of her claims and sources would require a book as long as hers.  I can’t possibly undertake it, but I think that I can identify some essential weaknesses in her argument and approach that undermine her central point:  that the assignment of black Americans to an inferior caste has been, and remains, the foundation of American social and political life. My own study of history has persuaded me that this is only half the story.  The many attempts by whites to consign blacks to inferior status have always had to contend with an opposite view embodied in the founding documents of the United States, which proclaimed that all men were created equal and, in the federal Constitution, made no separate mention of whites or blacks, or for that matter of men and women, but only to “persons.”  American history tells the story of a long struggle between those two views—one in which victory ultimately goes, again and again, to the universal one.

Slavery, Wilkerson reminds us again and again, existed in what became the United States for more than 200 years.  (She recognizes that there is a controversy over whether the Africans who landed in Jamestown in 1619 were in fact slaves as we came to understand that term.  I have read in another authority that they were only held to service for the remainder of their lives, and that hereditary slavery as we know it was not defined in Virginia until the 1650s.)  She says repeatedly that the white colonists created a particularly cruel form of slavery in which the slaves had no rights and were entirely at the mercy of their masters. I shall return to that point in a moment, but first I want to broaden out our perspectives a bit.  Wilkerson wants us to believe not only that caste was a feature of early American civilization, but also that it was created by the slaveholders, and that slavery was the only manifestation of caste with which that civilization had to deal.  Those last two arguments, I think, are highly questionable.

The original slaves who arrived in Jamestown were on a Spanish ship that had blown off course.  The Spaniards and Portuguese had been bringing African slaves into the Caribbean and South America for many decades by 1621.  Slavery was endemic in the ancient world and was surely practiced in much, if not most, of the globe in previous times, but the western European states had not only outlawed it, but ended serfdom, by the 17th century.  When their colonists in the Americas revived it, they tried to stop it, but the great distances involved made that impossible.  Slavery was not, therefore, a phenomenon particular to the American colonies, and the institution was already fighting against new intellectual and political trends that eventually defined the modern world as we know it.  Against the background of those trends, slavery was an aberration—which was why it was not destined to survive.

Wilkerson also chooses not to mention where the slaves came from, and how they had become slaves.  She refers at one point to the Europeans having kidnapped them from Africa, but that was not what happened.  The Europeans purchased the slaves from Africa, where warring tribes customarily captured, enslaved and sold members of other tribes.  (The original 1970s television version of Roots got this wrong: the producers of a more recent cable television version deserve credit for getting it right.)  Slavery was eventually abolished in the Americas before it was abolished in West Africa, and it survived in Mauretania into the late twentieth century.  It was not, in short, a sin unique to what became the United States, or even to the Americas.  It is a millennia-old feature of human civilization, which modern civilization fortunately came to reject and to eliminate.

This, however, is not all.  Like so many other critical race theorists, Wilkerson insists that the white-black distinction is the fundamental divide within American society and the key to the identity of both blacks and whites.  It is not merely a caste divide, it is the only significant caste divide (except, it seems at times, for the divide between men and women, which she seems to believe is also highly significant.)  In fact, the whole American experiment attacked caste in the very important ways in which it structured European society in the early modern period, and the greater significance of the founding of the United States is that it created a Constitution and a legal system which did not recognize traditional orders.

Although the European societies of the 16th-18th centuries were racially homogenous, they did not treat their inhabitants equally.  Nobility, clergy, and the common people had different legal status and were subject to different laws.  They (like black Americans in much of the post-1865 South, as Wilkerson points out) were excluded from particular occupations, and often from meaningful political participation.  From their very beginning in the 17th century, the New England colonies, at least, created societies and political systems without meaningful class distinctions among different men.  Their towns governed themselves in town meetings in which every man voted, and no one enjoyed immunity from either taxation or the common law. Although an aristocracy of slaveholders developed south of the Mason-Dixon line, with fateful political and social consequences from then to now, the colonists eventually made their revolution in the 1780s based upon the very radical idea of equal legal and social rights. Today’s critical race theorists—and many feminists as well—insist upon seeing those principles as a sham because their impact was not yet universal.  In fact such principles had to start with a more limited application—but the sweeping terms in which the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution and Bill of Rights stated them were bound to create pressure for a general one, as indeed they did within another half a century.  Those principles, not slavery or racial prejudice, gave the founding of the United States its greatest historical significance.  Because of their power, they inspired Europeans as well, first in France in the 1790s, where their application did not lead to democracy, and then throughout Western Europe, to varying degrees, in the nineteenth century.  In the twentieth century those principles played a key role in bringing European colonial empires to an end.

And despite Wilkerson’s ceaseless attempts to convince of the contrary, those principles did from the beginning of the United States affect how many Americans saw slavery.  They led the northern states to abolish the institution in the years immediately following the American Revolution.  They led the leaders of the Constitutional Convention—including the Virginian James Madison, a slaveowner himself—to refuse southern requests to put some explicit recognition of slavery within the founding document.   Despite what Chief Justice Tawney claimed in the Dred Scott decision in 1857, many northern states accepted black people as citizens, as two brilliant dissents to his opinion pointed out at the time.  That was not all.  In Virginia and Maryland, many slave-owners set their slaves free in the wake of the revolution, the Congress abolished the international slave trade as soon as the Constitution allowed it to do so in 1807, and many looked forward to the institution’s disappearance.  A great change, alas, occurred with the advent of the cotton gin, which made slavery far more profitable, and with the advent of a new, post-revolutionary generation in the South, many of whom really did decide, as Wilkerson says, that slavery was a positive good and the foundation of their civilization.  In the 1850s the southern political leadership tried to impose that view on the national government—but the result was the election of Lincoln in 1860, the secession of most of the slave states, the Civil War, the Emancipation Proclamation, and the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments proclaiming equal rights for all—the legal destruction, not the affirmation, of the principle of caste.

That was not, of course, the end of racial oppression or inequality in the United Sates, and I shall turn to Wilkerson’s treatment of later periods in a moment.  First, however, I would like to raise some questions even about her characterization of slavery in the American South, some of which involve her comparison with the fate of Jews in Nazi Germany.  She refers to plantations as labor camps and claims that their black inhabitants lived under a regime similar to that of Nazi labor camps.  She also says, again and again, that masters exercised absolute power, amounting to life and death, over slaves.  That was not true.  In his classic, beautifully documented history of slavery, Roll, Jordan Roll, Eugene Genovese established that the murder of a slave was a serious crime in the antebellum South, in rare instances even punished with death.  And while the Nazis in their labor camps purposely starved inmates to death (partly because, after the Second World War broke out, they did not have enough food supply to feed everyone under their control), the slave population of the southern US was the only such population in the Americas to show significant natural increase.  One can acknowledge these facts without in any way excusing slavery, just as one can note the statement of W. E. B. DuBois, a founder of the NAACP, a great historian, and old enough to have known many former slaves, that “of the humanity of large numbers of southern masters there can be no doubt.”   And this leads me to the biggest flaw in Wilkerson’s book, her treatment of white folks.

That the United States has given birth to large numbers of hard core white racists is not open to doubt.  Such people enjoyed brilliant political careers in much of the American South in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries—at least until the 1960s—not in spite of their openly professed racism, but because of it.  And such men, as Wilkerson argues, did impose a lower-caste status on black people for 80 years after the Civil War, including segregation, denial of opportunity, and denial of political rights—all enforced, intermittently at least, by violence, including lynchings.  The US also produced racial theorists in both the South and the North who proclaimed white (or Anglo-Saxon) superiority in the early 20th century.  Racist attitudes have been too common throughout American history and although they are much less common today, they are still too influential. And Wilkerson, quoting historian James Q. Whitman, shows how Nazi planners designing the first round of anti-Jewish legislation in 1934 drew upon precedents from southern states.  For the last fifty years, however, things have been going in the other direction. Even in the South, the legal badges of caste have disappeared, and nonwhites can be found in the upper reaches of all professions.  We simply are not the same country that we were in the 1950s when racial barriers were starting to come down.

 Unfortunately, because of the way that Wilkerson cherry-picks her evidence, her book (and not only hers) gives the impression that white racists are not only common in America, but they are and always have been typical, or even archetypal, speaking for the essence of what it means to be white in America.  If that were true, we would have had a Constitution defining citizenship as a white prerogative, we would not have fought the civil war, and we would not have passed the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments—much less the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.  Wilkerson’s selectivity extends even to anecdotes from her own life.  Early in the book (p. 59), she describes a series of interviews she did at leading retail establishments in Chicago for a story she was writing for the New York Times.  “The interviews,” she writes, “went as expected until the last one.”  The last interview subject knew that he had an appointment with a reporter from the Times, but refused to believe that it was her, because she was a black woman.  That was rude, ignorant, and racist—but why is he so much more significant than all the other subjects who cooperated willingly and evidently without surprise?  Only because he is the one she can cite as evidence of white America’s hopeless, enduring racism, coded subconsciously, she claims, into all our brains.  There are other such incidents in the book, and they are infuriating—but are they typical? 

The same tendency to filter data through a damning lens occurs in other parts of the book. On p. 111, in a chapter on endogamy—restrictions on interracial marriage—she states that 41 of the 50 American states eventually passed laws making intermarriage a crime.  Although she elaborates on this in a source note on p. 409, she does not give any source for the statistic.  An excellent Wikipedia page actually shows that 44 states had such laws at one time or another—but it also shows that 12 of those states had repealed those laws in the 19th century, and fourteen more between 1946 and 1967.  Only 16 such states—all former Confederacy or border states, plus Oklahoma—still had such laws when the Supreme Court finally struck them all down in 1967.  

Some months ago, I heard Coleman Hughes, an extraordinarily wise young man, remark that under the new orthodoxy on race, certain breakthroughs for black people are held to be impossible—but when they occur nonetheless, we are told that they have not changed anything.  Wilkerson’s long discussion of the election and re-election of Barack Obama fits this pattern.  He won, she argues, partly because of the economic crisis, and partly because his white ancestry allowed members of “the dominant caste”—that is, all white people—to identify with him.  Then, she says, came an enormous backlash against him, fueled by white anxiety over the loss of power.  The Republican opposition to Obama was certainly intense, but it would have been at least equally so against Hillary Clinton, his major rival for the nomination, had she been elected.  And it did not prevent Obama, of course, from winning a solid re-election victory in 2012.  Wilkerson responds to that by documenting the extreme reaction of Rush Limbaugh and a few other whites. And frankly—there is no way I can avoid saying this—she welcomes the election of Donald Trump as proof of her view of the hopeless racism of white America, its terror, as she sees it, of the moment in 2042 (predicted) when whites will no longer be in the majority.   The book evidently went to press well before the 2020 election, in which a substantial swing of white voters back towards the Democrats outweighed a shift towards Trump among nonwhites and gave Biden a very solid plurality of seven million popular votes.  I doubt however that it would have changed her attitude. “Regardless of who prevails in any given election,” she writes, “the country still labors under the divisions that a caste system creates, and the fears and resentments of a dominant caste that is too often in opposition to the yearnings of those deemed beneath them.”

“Caste is a disease,’ she writes, “and none of us is immune.  It is as if alcoholism is encoded into the country’s DNA, and can never be declared fully cured.”  This is also the view of Ibram X Kendhi, who believes we need a Department of Antiracism composed of “experts” like himself to vet all federal, state and local legislation for signs of racism, and of Robin DiAngelo, who views racism, as Coleman Hughes has noted, like original sin.  They call for massive re-education campaigns at least moderate our supposedly incurable disease.  The question for me is, is this supposed cultural, deeply embedded psychological racism the key to understand the United States?  Or have we always had within our own political and intellectual tradition all the tools we need to fight it?  That is the question that we must all now fight out, and I have been delighted to find that there are younger Americans, black and white and Hispanic and Asian, who also reject the prevailing orthodoxy.

Sunday, May 16, 2021

The Biden style

 Traditional liberals of a certain age, like myself, have been disappointed too many times in the last 50+ years to get too excited about anything too quickly.  Liberalism seemed to be in the ascendant in 1965, but the Vietnam War, economic disruption and racial conflict reduced the Democratic vote by more than 15 percentage points four years later, and only four times since 1964 has a Democratic presidential candidate won a majority of the popular vote.  Bill Clinton moved the party into the center, signing NAFTA and "ending welfare as we know it," and Barack Obama passed up the opportunity to try to restore a safer, saner financial system after the 2008 crash.  Yet I felt enormous encouragement yesterday when I read an article in The New York Times on how Joe Biden makes decisions.  It told a very interesting story, both generationally and historically.

The Silent generation attended college in the greatest intellectual era of American higher education, before the events of the late 1960s began a long decline.  It is not clear how much Joe Biden reads, although he certainly had plenty of time for it spending four hours a day on AMTRAK during his Senate career, but the article tells us that he loves discussion and data.  In contrast to presidents like Johnson, Reagan, and George W Bush, who liked short meetings without much debate, he interrogates his advisers for an hour or two.  More importantly, he is not satisfied with pat or jargon-filled answers. "Let's talk plain English here" is one of his refrains, according to the article.  His top aides have learned that they must prepare very carefully indeed for meetings and that they are supposed to investigate issues with the same determination that he does.  He was rather angry, apparently, when senior aides at a meeting on the situation on the southern border had to admit that none of them had been down there to see what was happening themselves.  The article also suggests that while some of his aides may owe their jobs in part to their demographic, their identity will not serve them as an excuse in office.  He was reportedly very angry with HHS Secretary Xavier Bercerra when Bercerra could not answer questions about the care of migrant children.  

Like Barack Obama, Biden has drawn on the Boom generation for much of his Cabinet. Obama appointed  Hillary Clinton, John Kerry, Eric Holder, and Larry Summers, and Biden's Boomers include Merrick Garland, Janet Yellen, Lloyd Austin, Xavier Bercerra, Alejandro Mayorkas, and Tom Vilsack.  Yet while Obama's Boomers had far more Washington experience than he did, Biden's have had less, and he remembers the US before the Boomers began to disrupt it.  He is apparently insisting that they make their policy case based upon facts--a great leveler, potentially, in our deeply divided world. 

For various reasons, the mainstream media has adopted the position--also popular in academia--that politics are a simple matter of right and wrong that allow for little debate.  Michael D. Shear, Katie Rogers and Annie Karni, the authors of the Times story, expressed distress that Biden had taken some time to think about allowing more refugees into the country.  Like so many of us in our 70s, Biden apparently feels too old to worry too much about current political or intellectual fashion.  His careful, data-based approach to policy is what the nation needs after decades of partisan, faith-based debate, and I deeply regret that we couldn't find anyone under 78 to re-introduce it.  Biden is the first, and surely the last, president from the Silent generation  If he can find a way to make his approach clear to the younger generations, he can perhaps get our politics back on track after nearly three decades of Boomer-dominated political decline.

Saturday, May 08, 2021

The Unprecedented Republican Party

 I have written many times here, and remarked in semi-public forums, that Donald Trump's election in 2016 marked the collapse of our political system, since neither party could find a candidate who could defeat a dishonest, intellectually challenged and infinitely ambitious demagogue.  I had naturally hoped that his sound defeat by Joe Biden in the last election might mark the restoration of a sound political order.  I was wrong.  The imminent purge of Liz Cheney from the leadership of the House of Representatives (which will almost certainly be followed next year by the loss of her seat in the Republican primary), the flood of new state laws designed to make it possible for Trump or another Republican to win their electoral votes in 2024 even if they once again lose the popular vote, and the blatantly fraudulent recount of Maricopa County that is now taking place in Arizona leave no doubt that we face a grave new political threat.  The Republican Party remains the personal fiefdom of Donald J. Trump, and it is enforcing uniformity and loyalty to an unprecedented degree in American politics.  It is also reinforcing its absolute rule in a significant number of states. The next two elections, I think, will trigger new constitutional crises.  And unless Donald Trump is convicted of a serious crime in the next three years--and perhaps even if he is--the 2024 Republican nomination appears to be his for the asking.

The Democratic base now consists of two groups:  well-educated liberal professionals, and urban minorities   It no longer includes significant numbers of midwestern industrial workers or farmers who made up part of its base from the 1930s into the 1970s.  Thus the Democratic Party is no longer competitive in 21 states of the union.  In states including Ohio and Wisconsin, Republicans control much or all of the state government and have used gerrymandering to cement their power.  They will do the same this year and next in response to the recent census. 

And the Republican leadership, such as it is, is now paying the price for the establishment of primaries in the first two-thirds of the twentieth century.  Primaries came along in an era of progressive consensus, when the differences between the parties were relatively narrow.  Now, in an era of unprecedented partisanship, they guarantee victory for the most extreme Republicans almost all over the country.  Donald Trump remains the idol of those Republicans.  Mitch McConnell drove the nail into the coffin of the Republican Party as a responsible organization (though not necessarily as a successful one) last January when he decided not to round up enough Republican Senate votes to convict Donald Trump of high crimes and misdemeanors--even though  he knew he was guilty.  He evidently thought he didn't have to worry about him anymore.  He was wrong.

Having been busily working my way through the whole of American political history for the last 14 months, I can say with some confidence that no party has ever been quite so monolithic as the Republicans right now.  In the wake of the Civil War the Radical Republicans controlled Congress but they could not prevent about half a dozen Republicans from voting to acquit Andrew Johnson in 1868 and saving his presidency.  The post-civil war Democratic Party came closer.  Not a single one of its members in Congress voted for either the 14th or 15th amendments.  Many Democrats had supported the war for the union, but none of them, at that point, supported racial equality.  Their leadership however was relatively weak because much of it was discredited by its equivocal attitude during the war.  From 1868 through 1884 their presidential candidates included three New Yorkers and one union general, in an effort to broaden their appeal.  There is not the slightest chance that today's Republican Party will nominate such a candidate in 2024.

Nor is there any precedent that I can think of for the imminent purge of Liz Cheney.  Twice in my lifetime, in 1959 and in 1965, House Republicans voted out their leader by narrow margins, with Charlie Halleck defeating Joe Martin the first time, and Gerald Ford dethroning Halleck the second.  Both of those changes, however, followed disastrous electoral defeats, and neither turned on ideology.  The Republican Party made significant House gains last fall, and is poised to take over the House again in a year and a half, but that isn't making it any more latitudinarian.  

In the states they control the Republicans are busy passing legislation to make it possible for Trump, or possibly another Republican, to steal electoral votes in the way that he could not do last fall.  This is not merely a question of making it harder for urbanites to vote, or giving Republican poll-watchers more opportunity to intimidate voters at the polls.  Those measures could, and should, be effectively countered by  Democratic organization.  They are also giving Republican legislatures the right to make the ultimate judgment, in their states, of who has won.  And right now, the Arizona Senate has authorized a recount of Maricopa County--Phoenix and the surrounding area--by a partisan Trumpist organization.  If it finds an 11,000-vote discrepancy--as it may very well do by some fraudulent means--it will become Republican dogma that Trump really won that state, and others in which a similar recount has not been attempted. On his new blog, Trump has already referred to himself as the President of the United States. 

For the second time in our history, our great crisis (1861-8 or so, and 2001-to the present) has left us with a deeply divided, evenly balanced political system.  In both cases that has favored an extraordinary growth in corporate power.  In the first case, it was not possible, ultimately, to restore functioning democracy throughout the country, since black voters in the south lost their votes.  Our democracy is ow hanging by a thread, with one major party showing no interest whatever in its fair and impartial functioning. For decades now, Democrats have hoped that Republicans  might recover their sanity, as Democrats see it, and accept a common vision of the 21st century.  It hasn't happened--and it isn't happening now.

Sunday, May 02, 2021

What has happened to higher ed

 In 1950, about 6.2% of the population of the US had a college degree.  By 1969, when I got my degree, that had increased to 10.8%.  By 1982, when the last Boomers were graduating, it was 18%.  By 2003, when the last Gen Xers graduated, it was 27.3%.  In 2018 the last Millennials graduated en masse, and by then the figure was 35%.  This looks like a great success story, and I'm sure many college administrators would tell you that it is--but it isn't.  

Why not?  In classical economic theory, when demand for a product increases, the price falls thanks to economies of scale.  In this case the reverse has happened.  Since the late 1960s the price of an elite education at a private school has increased more than threefold, even adjusting for inflation.  That has given children of wealthy families a bigger edge in the admissions game, and in life, than they had back then, because the best schools need to keep replenishing their stock of wealthy alumni.  I haven't researched figures for the best state universities, but many of them seemed to have risen much more in price--the UC system in the mid-1960s charged no tuition at all, but now charges $14,254 for resident tuition, about $44,000 for non-residents, and another $20,000 for health insurance and room and board. As a result, debt per student, which was $7,170 2020 dollars in 1970 ($1,070 in 1970 dollars), has now reached $30,000 per student.  That's per total student--not per borrower.

Remarkably, no one, as far as I know, has undertaken the research necessary to figure out exactly why the price of college has gone up so much.  Drawing on the example I know best, Harvard, I think I know, broadly speaking, the answer.  There are now far more faculty and far more administrators per student than there were then.  The number of full-time history faculty at Harvard increased from between 30 and 40 in 1965 to 47 in 2017, even though the size of the student body hardly increased at all and the number of history majors fell by more than 80%.  Several other leading universities and liberal arts colleges that I looked into for my autobiography A Life in History showed the same pattern.  Meanwhile, Harvard now has 10 vice presidents--only one of whom appears to be directly connected to education--who make an average of at least $300,000 a year.  There were no vice presidents in the mid-1960s. 

Meanwhile, the education the money buys--in the humanities and social sciences, at least--has gotten much worse.  That is partly because of the increase in the scale of higher ed.  It takes a very rare person--regardless of race, gender, or sexual orientation--to make a great college teacher, and there have not been enough of them to go around.  In addition, graduate students are discouraged from undertaking ambitious projects and encouraged to focus on a very narrow slice of history, which does not train them to teach undergraduates.  Making a financial virtue of necessity, many schools have decided not to pay mediocre faculty living wages, and large numbers of students are taught by adjuncts at many colleges and universities (although not all.)  Today's Boston Globe includes an article by Nicholas Tampio, who teaches political science at Fordham, complaining about a bill introduced by two of the finest Senators we have, Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island.  It would generate data on the economic worth of a college degree, based both on the institution and on the subject in which the degree is granted.  Tampio is worried that such statistics will drive more students away from the humanities and social sciences.  In fact students have already deserted the humanities in droves because they have become so dominated by issues of gender and race.  I have checked Tampio's own page on the Fordham web site, and his own courses seem to attack important questions from a traditional perspective--but he must know that political scientists like himself are increasingly the exception, and that quantitative analysis and rational choice theory have largely taken over his discipline, with soporific results.

The combination of vastly increased costs, largely financed by long-term debt, and mediocre education may account for the remarkable anger among today's undergraduates and professional students, which I wrote about last week. Students know at some level that they are being taken advantage of, and it makes them angry. They are also worried about their future in an increasingly cruel, winner-take-all economy.  Encouraged by some faculty, some (including many white students) readily decide that their enemy is a racist, sexist, and gender-based oppressive university and society.  I understand their anger but I think they have picked the wrong target.

Higher education is just one of several professions--including law and medicine--which has used its critical role in society to expand and achieve more wealth and power at the expense of everyone else. That is the theme of a remarkable book by Daniel Markovitz, a Yale law professor, The Meritocracy Trap.  How these trends can reverse, I do not know--but I suspect real change will have to come from the inside, not the outside.