Wednesday, November 12, 2014

America in Decline: A very readable but bleak portrait

Author: Bob Herbert
Publisher: Doubleday, 10/7/14

Note: I received a free review copy of this book from Amazon Vine.

I started this book eagerly and tore through the first half. Herbert paints a powerful picture of various ways in which America has gotten off course, and he makes his account very readable by including the stories of individuals to support each chapter. So we don’t just hear about how infrastructure is crumbling and needs a huge injection of cash to get up to an acceptable standard, we also hear about the personal experience of a woman who survived the collapse of the I-35 bridge in Minneapolis. This makes for a very compelling narrative.

Everything was going well until just over halfway. I really enjoyed Herbert’s first chapter on education, where he vividly describes the devastation wrought by draconian budget cuts. So it came as a surprise to me when he started the following chapter with the claim that American education is actually perfectly fine. Test results showing that American students lag behind others have nothing to do with the quality American public education, he says, but are instead just a result of the fact that America has more poor students than other countries. Poor students tend to do poorly in school too. It follows that there’s no point in trying to improve the quality of education; we have to address poverty first.

I understand why he’s saying this. He’s basically repeating the position of Diane Ravitch, an education advocate who deeply opposes the current focus on charter schools and standardized testing. I’m actually very sympathetic to this position, at least in part: I do think that excessive high-stakes testing is destructive and results in teaching to the test without actually improving learning outcomes, and I do think that charter school policies, which somehow allow charter schools to get rid of disadvantaged students so that their overall scores look higher, are extremely problematic. I believe that reducing poverty is important too. But I have no idea how this critique of certain aspects of educational reform leads to the conclusion that there’s no room for improving education at all, so we shouldn’t even try. Surely Herbert’s previous chapter, about the problems with funding cuts, implies that education would be improved by restoring funding, for one thing. This seemed to be a case where Herbert’s position was established beforehand, and he was just going to stick to it, without actually providing careful argumentation to support his case.

The situation got even worse in a later chapter, when he turned to a critique of online schooling. I’m sure most people would agree that online schooling isn’t an ideal learning environment for most children, since there’s a lot of value in face-to-face interaction, even beyond the educational. But I thought Herbert’s arguments against it were terrible: he cites test scores showing that students don’t do as well at online schools, and then mentions the defense given by an executive of one of these online schools: the students who choose online schooling are generally not the best and brightest; they tend to be lagging behind even before they start, etc. In other words, it’s an issue of adverse selection bias.

Somehow, Herbert misses the fact that this is the exact same argument that he himself gave in support of American public schools: he said that poor test results don’t reflect on the quality of teaching, but are just the result of a comparatively disadvantaged student body. When the argument supports his position (American schools are okay), then it’s valid; when the argument supports another position (online schools are okay), then it’s invalid. This is extremely shoddy reasoning. Herbert doesn’t even bother to refute the argument made by the proponent of online schools, instead trying to attack his credibility by pointing out that he earns $5 million per year as the CEO of this online schooling company. (This is another theme running through his book: successful money-makers are generally bad. Again, I agree that the distribution of wealth needs to be drastically reformed, but I don’t think highlighting the wealth of an individual serves as a refutation of that person’s ideas.)

The strange thing is that I tend to fall on the same side as Herbert on most issues. I’d like to see a more equal society, with more spending on infrastructure and less on war; I’d like to see students receiving a good public education, in an atmosphere free from antagonism and high-stakes testing, rather than studying at for-profit online schools. But I’d also like to read a book with solid argumentation, not one that relies on the assumption of a sympathetic reader.

This is a book about black and white, right and wrong. There’s no room for nuance in Herbert’s bleak portrait of America in decline. This is all well and good, up to a point. You can easily find yourself reading along in agreement, nodding at Herbert’s arguments and lamenting with him the decline of the nation. But it only takes one area of disagreement to start questioning the whole edifice. In my case, it was his blithe argument that America’s schools are just fine, and the only way to improve their results is to pull more students out of poverty.

I’m sorry, but I’ve been the smart kid in a public education system that caters to the lowest common denominator. I’ve graduated high school with an A+ average and found that I wasn’t prepared for my university math classes, where the top students had attended private schools or came from other countries. I fully believe in fighting poverty, but poverty isn’t the only problem with the American education system. Real-life issues just aren’t that simple. There isn’t one “solution” that will fix American education once and for all, and by promoting that perspective (“my way or the highway”), Herbert is just adding to the toxic atmosphere surrounding educational reform. I’d much rather see support for multiple evidence-based improvements.

After reading this book, I still believe that money should be spent on infrastructure rather than war, that cuts to education funding are bad and out-of-control corporate lobbying is worse. Basically, this book has reinforced the ideas that I had going in. It did also make me much more aware about issues involving the military, like the use of more powerful explosives that result in multiple amputations and astronomically higher costs for veteran health care. But for the most part, this isn’t a book that you read to be informed or challenged. It’s a book that you read to reaffirm your existing perspective, and it does that pretty well, up to a point.

But even if you do agree with everything that Herbert says, you may occasionally find that you need to put the book down just because it’s so bleak. I could only spend so much time reading about how horrible everything is before I needed to take a break. I was particularly struck by the contrast to Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn’s recent book A Path Appears, which I also read recently and which takes a very optimistic evidence-based approach to making a difference in the world. Herbert does end on a note that’s not quite despair, though I wouldn’t really call it optimism: he says that if citizens as a whole decide that the status quo is unacceptable, then change can eventually come about, as it did with emancipation, the suffrage movement, and civil rights. But the details of how to get there aren’t quite clear. Unlike Kristof and WuDunn’s encouraging presentation of multiple paths to a better world, Herbert’s book lives up to its title in conveying a sense of an America that’s hopelessly lost.

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