Cultural Literacy

November 11, 2010

I learned from Matt Ladner that you should never pass up an opportunity to see a performer who is thought to be excellent, even if you aren’t particularly interested in that performer’s work.  It’s just great to see someone be excellent at what they do.

With this lesson in mind I went to see Merle Haggard last night at the Walton Arts Center.  He may not quite sound or look like this:

But he still has it and you can sure see why people think he is excellent.

In Fayetteville I’ve seen Itzhak Perlman, Steve Martin, Fiddler on the Roof, Shakespeare, The Trey McIntyre Project, and much more.  Now I feel like my cultural literacy is more complete.

The 21st Century Will Be HUGE!

October 20, 2010

‎(Guest post by Patrick Wolf)‎

Schools of the 21st Century need to do lots and lots of things.  That is the message from local experts impaneled by the teacher education sorority here at the University of Arkansas.  Summarizing the guidance from the panel, the Northwest Arkansas Times writes:

Students today need stronger foundations in foreign languages, physical education and the arts to participate and compete in a global economy, several panelists said Tuesday.

At the same time, schools need to be more responsive and tolerant to diversity, focus on higher educational standards and to be more effective in the use of data to better understand student learning, said Springdale School Superintendent Jim Rollins.

Schools also need a stronger foundation in multiculturalism because by 2030, research indicates more than half of all students will be non-white, Rollins said.

Later in the article, a professor is quoted as saying that our elementary and secondary students need a strong foundation in physical education, since they may end up working in a foreign country where people have to walk a lot.

I support foreign languages (though I speak none fluently), physical fitness (though I am a bit hefty), the arts (though I can’t draw to save my life), diversity (though I am a straight white male), high education standards (though I have a Ph.D. from Harvard), and data-based decision making (though I don’t always follow the projections when setting my fantasy football lineup).  These are all desirable things for students.  But are they all equally desirable?  Don’t we need to prioritize and make tradeoffs?  After all, children are only in school an average of 6.5 hours out of each school day.  If everything is important, isn’t nothing important?

The laundry list of supposedly required 21st Century skills articulated by the panel reminded me of the “Mountain of a Man” in Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life.  Upon entering a fancy restaurant, he refuses the offer of a menu, instead ordering plate after plate of everything.  What does the 21st Century diner need in a meal?  He needs steak, chicken, salmon, pork chops, tofu, arugula, tomatoes, yams, French fries, paella, gumbo, wienerschnitzel, lutefisk, roast turkey, pumpkin pie, carrot cake, and some more steak and salmon for good measure.  He also needs a larger restaurant staff to prepare all of these foods and serve them to him during his meal.  Can you say, “administrative bloat?”

The result of lacking discipline in selecting foods to eat is obesity and, in the movie, the Mountain of a Man explodes after a waiter insists that he cap off his bacchanal meal with “a wafer-thin mint.”  The clear message is that we have to make good choices and set priorities.  We can’t have everything.  As John Chubb and Terry Moe originally argued in Politics, Markets, and America’s Schools, a problem with education policy set by local experts through political bodies like school boards is that everyone has their own educational hobby-horse.  Each contributor to policy making will insist that their pet program get adopted.  The result is a curriculum like the Mountain of a Man — massive, bloated, and utterly lacking in discernment.  Eventually something has to give.

How do we set educational priorities if lots of things are worth learning?  One solution to the curricular and administrative bloat that comes from local experts and officials designing education is to allow the educational programs of schools to develop organically based on feedback from the choices of parents.  As parents we want our students to develop many skills and master many subjects, but we also realize that the opportunities are not limitless and children need to focus on what is important for them.  Parents who strongly value the arts would gravitate towards schools that emphasize the arts.  Parents who instead think that science and math are the most important subjects would be attracted to ESTEM schools.  Parents who feel that physical education is the most important skill for the 21st Century would send their children to ancient Sparta.

Schools would adapt to the choices of parents, offering more programs in areas of excessive demand and fewer programs in areas of lesser demand.  Although education experts might warn us that curricula driven by parental choices might be intolerant of diversity and devoid of rigor in areas such as reading, writing, math, and science, I have seen no evidence that such worries are valid.  The research on school choice and tolerance actually indicates that tolerance and a variety of other civic values tend to increase when parents are allowed to choose schools.  I’ve spoken to many low-income parents in focus groups and all of them want their children to develop mastery of core competencies.  Many, but not all of them, also express a desire for their child to learn a foreign language or develop as an artist or musician.

The point is that parents have views of what educational programs are best for their children that differ from each other and from many of the experts, but those views tend to gravitate towards rigor in traditional and important academic areas.  If we let parents choose schools, thereby pressuring schools to provide programs that are responsive to those preferences, we can’t be certain what we would get but it probably would be quite reasonable.  Our children wouldn’t get everything on the menu, but what they would receive from a 21st Century education driven by parental choice would likely be both nutritious and delicious.  Plus, nobody would have to explode.

They Can’t Help It

October 13, 2010

Politicians lie.  Bless their hearts, they just can’t help it.  There are things that they want and they’ve discovered that it is much easier to get those things if they don’t tell us the whole truth.  And on some level we don’t really mind their lies.  We want them to get things done and we’ve just grown accustomed to it.  Besides, we all lie — at least about small things to facilitate daily living.  So who are we to expect better from our politicians?

But maybe we should hold our politicians to a higher standard of truthfulness.  After all, they do have a legal and moral responsibility to us.  And their fibs have a much broader impact on other people than the lies of us regular people because they have power over the rest of us.

I’ve been thinking about all of this as I’ve been watching the machinations of local politics in Fayetteville.  If the politicians were honest they would just announce that they want to raise our taxes, reduce spending on the popular trail system, and don’t really advocate for the interests of most businesses.  But politicians can’t just tell us what they want.  They have to lie.

Earlier this year city officials asked us to approve a referendum allowing the portion of the HMR tax that was dedicated to the development of parks to no longer have that restriction.  They assured us that our parks won’t get cut.  They just wanted more “flexibility.”

At the time I predicted that the “flexibility” they were seeking was to cut park development spending, including for further construction of our wonderful trail system.  Sure enough, that is exactly what Alderman Bobby Ferrell proposed yesterday.  According to the Northwest Arkansas Times, “Ferrell suggested cutting money budgeted for trail improvements…”  I could have told you that they were lying when they said they only wanted “flexibility” over HMR tax proceeds, but then again I actually did tell you.

And no one should be fooled by the falsehood that Steve Clark, the head of the local Chamber of Commerce, advocates for the interests of businesses.  He doesn’t.  First, the Chamber only represents existing businesses, not future businesses.  Unfortunately, existing businesses often favor regulations and other barriers to entry that would protect them from competition from yet-to-be-created businesses.  There is no greater supporter of government-enforced monopolies than businesspeople.  So, no one should confuse the Chamber of Commerce for an organization that advocates free-market policies that facilitate business formation and growth.

Second, Steve Clark doesn’t even appear to represent the existing businesses in Fayetteville.  He and the Chamber clearly didn’t do a good enough job of advocating for local businesses to convince enough of them to pay the voluntary dues to keep him and the Chamber in the lifestyle to which they are accustomed.  So, they convinced the city to tax businesses to pay the Chamber. Yes, they called the tax a “business license fee,” but that is just part of the honesty-challenged pattern. Steve Clark doesn’t really work for local businesses.  He works for the city since a large chunk of his salary is paid by the city and not by voluntary dues to the Chamber.

If you don’t believe me that Steve Clark really represents the interests of city government and not business interests, just listen to what he said in support of the latest proposal to increase the city’s property tax. According to the Northwest Arkansas Times: “Steve Clark, president of the Fayetteville Chamber of Commerce, said avoiding major cuts in city services, such as fire, police and sanitation, are his main priorities when it comes to finding ways to balance the budget.” (emphasis added)

I thought that protecting city worker jobs was the main priority of their unions or the politicians beholden to those workers.  Advancing the interests of business is normally the main priority of the Chamber of Commerce, but I guess that changes when the Chamber staff effectively become city employees along with the police, firefighters, etc…

“Lie” is such a strong word that we have developed more polite terms for this regular behavior by politicians.  We call it “spinning” or “packaging.”  We have these more polite terms because it is probably unfair to expect politicians to avoid distorting or shading the truth altogether.  They have to do it to get what they want done.

The problem is when we no longer recognize what is spin and what is truth.  If we get fooled into believing that “flexibility” means something other than “cutting” and that the “Chamber of Commerce” necessarily means “business interests” we are the ones to blame, not the politicians.  It’s part of their job to lie (or spin) and it is our job to be suspicious.  Unfortunately, our local media and elites are overly credulous.

All Shook Up

May 4, 2010

(Guest Post by Brian Kisida via Mid-Riffs)

Some of you may have heard that there was a small earthquake in Northwest Arkansas last week.  What you may not know is the reason.  Well, it turns out that earthquakes actually have nothing to do with shifting tectonic plates.  According to an Iranian government official and cleric, earthquakes are women’s fault, specifically women who do not dress modestly (think burqa).

Iranian cleric Hojatoleslam Kazem Sedighi was quoted as saying “Many women who do not dress modestly … lead young men astray, corrupt their chastity and spread adultery in society, which increases earthquakes.”

If you’re keeping up with current science, then you already know that Pat Robertson discovered that gays and lesbians were responsible for hurricane Katrina, and that the earthquake in Haiti was a result of their pact with the devil.  Of course, a major differnece is that here in the US we are free to make fun of Pat Robertson-types.  In Iran, these types of lunatics run the government.

Here in the U.S., many women tested Sedighi’s theory by conducting a massive “Boobquake.” News reports claimed that the Boobquake failed to trigger an earthquake.  I guess they failed to notice the small one that hit NWA.

Then again, the local quake could have been our own fault.

Book Review in WSJ

December 15, 2009


I have a review of the book, Boom Town, in today’s WSJ. It was odd reading a book about prejudices that seemed to contain so many prejudices of its own. Here’s a snippet:

If Ms. Rosen had wanted to identify resistance from white, rural Christians to diverse newcomers, she should have distinguished between Arkansas’s politics and its business and social life. Businesses like Wal-Mart and Tyson are progressive engines of diversity because they will recruit and hire able workers of any color or religion. The only color they see is green. Social integration has gone smoothly because local residents, assisted by religiously backed norms of politeness, have been generally welcoming. Unlike business, politics is a zero-sum game. Good-old-boy politicians in Arkansas (or anywhere else) are more likely to think that if they share power with newly arrived groups, they will lose some of their own. The few politicians we read about in “Boom Town” illustrate this point, trying to pit low-income whites against Hispanics. Clearly, they would rather be king of the Lilliputians than share a larger empire with the area’s newer residents.

The Case for Israel

November 23, 2009

We had a screening of the film, The Case for Israel: Democracy’s Outpost, Saturday night in the newly constructed Temple Shalom in Fayetteville, AR with comments from the producer, Gloria Greensfield.  It was a huge success.

There were nearly a hundred people there of whom about a third were from pro-Israel Christian Churches.  As certain segments of the Jewish community have gone wobbly on Israel, the support of the Christian community is becoming more important.

But the most important reason that the screening was a huge success is that it was probably the largest pro-Israel gathering in a college community dominated by the anti-Israel King Fahd Center for Middle East and Islamic Studies, created with an $18 million gift from the Saudi Arabian government.  The King Fahd Center along with the Omni Center for Peace, Justice, and Ecology host a few anti-Israel conferences each year.

The oddest thing about these King Fahd and Omni Center events is their singular focus on human rights abuses by Israel.  Yes, the government of Israel along with the governments in the US and all other democracies can work on improving how they treat their own and other people.  But if we really wanted to address human rights abuses wouldn’t we be paying a whole lot more attention to the flagrant oppression perpetrated by the dictatorships governing every other country in the Middle East?

In Saudi Arabia , Iran, Gaza and elsewhere in the Middle East (but not Israel) homosexuality is a crime sometimes punished by death.  Religious and political dissent is almost entirely repressed in Saudi Arabia, Iran, Gaza, and elsewhere in the Middle East (but not Israel).

Shouldn’t progressives who value freedom for homosexuals as well as religious and political minorities (as I do) be devoting much more energy protesting other countries in the Middle East?  And shouldn’t people who value democracy and human rights (as I do) praise those countries in the world where such values exist and are implemented (even if very imperfectly) rather than concentrating the bulk of their energy denouncing those countries?  It’s as if we have gone through the looking glass and up is now down.

The Echo Chamber of Public Input

September 17, 2009

The Fayetteville school board and district leaders fully supported a plan that was soundly rejected by the voters this week.  How did school officials so badly mis-read what voters wanted?  It’s especially puzzling how school officials could have seriously misjudged their constituents given the years of deliberations, countless hours of public meetings and charrettes, and even a commissioned opinion poll.

Unfortunately, these countless rituals of public input are exactly what misled school officials to support an unpopular plan.  They were misled because these rituals of public input are better indicators of the views of the self-selected, small minority of people with the most intense (and often the most extreme) preferences than they are indicators of what the electorate would want.  School officials mistook the opinions of this self-selected few as the voice of the people. 

School officials also hired consultants to lead these public conversations, but in doing so they were steering discussions in a pre-determined direction.  Bringing in education consultant Tony Wagner and requiring all school employees to read his book steered the plan toward a high school divided into small learning communities.  That idea didn’t come from the voters.  It came from certain school officials, was made the topic of discussion in schools and community events, and then was echoed back to school officials. 

Similarly, the design “charrettes” led by consultants from New Orleans were not truly open brain-storming sessions about a new high school.  If they were, how did several small break-out groups independently arrive at the same Trail of Tears design concept? 

There is nothing inherently wrong with holding public discussions on important decisions or with bringing in expert consultants to inform and direct those conversations.  The problem is in falsely believing that what results from those discussions is in fact the opinion of the community.  They are more like echo-chambers, repeating back the preferences that school officials had going into them.

But school officials saw the community discussions as a sign of general public support for their vision.  They even went so far as to describe the plan that was developed from these events as “The People’s Plan.”  And then when asked why voters should support the millage, the advocates and editorial writers told us that it was The People’s Plan and had come from us so we should support what the community had developed.

This People’s Plan campaign strategy almost felt like bullying.  If you weren’t among the tiny, minority of atypical people who could spend evening after evening in community discussions, you had lost your chance to have a say.  It was time for you to get in line and support what the involved people had already determined.

Perhaps for this reason opponents of the millage stayed generally quiet during the campaign.  Yes, there was a handful of active letter writers and a Facebook group with fewer than ten members, but there was no organized opposition, no “vote no” yard signs, and a string of elite (even if tepid)  community endorsements.  But in the privacy of the voting booth, people clearly felt free to open-up and clearly say no.  Once the result had been announced, opponents discovered that they weren’t so isolated, and Facebook pages began to light-up with people explaining their reasons for opposing the millage despite their commitment to education and their understanding of shortcomings of the existing facility. 

The solution is not to hold even more public input rituals to scale back the cost of the project but leave all other decisions in place.  Presumably, the $116 million price tag followed from all of the design and policy decisions that had preceded it.  If all of the design and policy goals could have been met for a lower cost, why wasn’t the initial millage for a lesser amount?

Instead, the solution is to stop the echo-chamber decision-making of meetings, charrettes, and consultants, and start with real leadership.  School officials should step-up and tell us what they think would be educationally desirable at a reasonable cost.  Of course, it is difficult for them to gauge what the community would consider a reasonable cost without public input, but the election result has given them better feedback than any town-hall discussion or charrette ever will.

Superintendent Vicki Thomas is particularly well-positioned to offer her vision of our educational future.  She bears no responsibility for the development of the failed millage plan and can start with a fresh slate.  We hired her to lead our schools and leadership is what we need.  She has enough information from voters and past public meetings to assess the community’s priorities.  Now she can give us a new plan and convince us that it is what she thinks is best, not what she thinks we told her to say.

Millage Defeated

September 16, 2009

For those readers of JPGB who care (and I mean to include both of you), the Fayetteville millage was defeated by a margin of 59% to 41%.  You can get the latest news and analysis at Mid-Riffs.

Holy Crap!

January 28, 2009


Fayetteville has been hit by an incredible ice storm that has knocked us out of commission.  Above is a photo taken by Brian Kisida of his street near the university.  Everyone should appreciate power and heat while they have it.