Saturday, November 27, 2010


This is a post about education policy. New York Times columnists David Brooks and Tom Friedman, among others, insist that we need to concentrate as a nation on improved educational achievement, because that’s what jobs are requiring. Everyone knows our numbers suck, and Tom and David want us to concentrate on education, and they think parents need to be proactive with motivating and disciplining their children. This is the future, they say, and if we are inattentive, our nation will suffer severely. I agree.

There must be many, many reasons our achievement numbers suck. The outrageous proposition that education is a jobs program, propounded by risk-adverse teachers unions, is an attractive culprit, because they set self-interest against the public good. But I’m wondering if some of the reason lies in what I call the Warm-Heart/Cold-Mind dichotomy (WHCM, which sounds like a radio station.)

WHCM was presented to me most cogently in medical school. As a young liberal, with two classmates I started the Public Health Club, and Dean Robert Ebert assigned Dr. Dieter Koch-Weser to advise us. For our first session he assigned us a couple of articles that presented a dilemma of public health policy that, truthfully, I wasn’t ready for.

It is heart wrenching to imagine or to see babies and children dying from malaria. Some projects eradicated malaria in local areas. What happened when they stopped this suffering? Well, the ultimate results were not so great, it turned out. Evil though it was, malaria kept the population in check. Absent malaria, overpopulation ensued, and the suffering was worse than ever. I don’t remember the details of what actually ensued, but take my word for it – the cure caused more suffering than the disease.

As I say, I wasn’t ready to handle the conundrum – what does one do, then? Koch-Weser didn’t have any specific advice on that either, as I recall. But it was a memorable session – after all, it was 45 years ago and I remember the moral turmoil and policy confusion it caused in me.

Other liberals were confused, too. My Public Health Club co-founder, Carol Wolman, who had actually been to Africa, said that African doctors treated those in the cities and didn’t do public health, which would save ore lives, because they were short-sighted, and couldn’t resist taking care of the sick person in front of them. It could be a case of WHCM, but she probably neglected the fact that Africans who got to be doctors were from the wealthy class, and went back to treat the wealthy. Just a liberal confusion, I guess, with “mirror thinking” that others think the way we do.

In Africa in the late 70’s and early 80’s there was mass starvation. The response was food airlifts. Wrong and fuzzy-thinking, said an article in the New York Review of Books. If you save the children and don’t provide for more food production domestically, it will just happen again and be worse and create even more suffering. As it happened, I think there was more food production, and now AIDS has taken care of winnowing the overpopulation problem. Maybe the article was wrong; maybe too cold hearted and not hopeful enough that the future would actually experience advances that could support a larger population. Or maybe not.

Then as a pediatrician I saw what happened in the Intensive Care Nursery. Severely premature babies had literally a million dollars spent on each one, with profits to the hospitals that built the biggest and best ICN’s, and large salaries for the neonatologists and many pediatricians becoming neonatologists, hundreds of thousands spent for later rehabilitation, only a rare baby without deficits..Triumphs, yes, but lots of failures, and immense total costs, and resources drained from other, less dramatic areas.

So, to education policy. Years ago, they closed our neighborhood, fully-integrated school because it was “too good,” literally. The School Board made it into some kind o a magnet school where no one from the neighborhood goes any more, and where it doesn’t attract envy for being too good. God forbid someone should achieve.

Last year Berkeley High proposed that many math and science AP classes be abolished, the resources to be scattered to the underprivileged and underachieving groups in an unspecified way. It came within a whisker of being passed.

More generally, how much money are we spending on remedial education? A lot. Any Nobel Prize winners emerging from that expensive enterprise? If I were the father of an autistic kid I would certainly appreciate the tens of thousands of dollars that the school districts would be paying for one on one treatment. I can understand the power of the autism lobbying groups who want their children cared for. But still.

Have you had a friend or relative become a teacher for the developmentally delayed (aka, retarded)? A noble enterprise, to be sure. But the apogee of civilized achievement? At what opportunity cost?

So, you can talk about the weakness of the parents who do not value education for their children and make them turn off their cell phones and study instead. You can talk about the importance of caring for each child. You can say that a society is measured by the way it treats its weakest members. As a pediatrician I have a certified warm heart.

But as a cold-hearted public policy analyst, seems to me we most urgently need to support our best, and our next-best, and our third-best, those with the highest potentials. We should be able to do all of it, true. We spend too much on Pentagon waste, true. We could redo our entire educational menu and upgrade the quality for all, true.

That ain’t gonna happen. India isn’t going to do malaria control and agricultural reform and population control and educational upgrade all at once, and we’re not going to do defense reform, governmental efficiency upgrade, health care priority reform, and educational reform all at once, either. No long bombs, only three yards and a cloud of dust. So, when Tom and David tell us where our priorities need to be, are they going to say anything about our caring for the developmentally delayed and the autistic, or are they going to concentrate on getting parents to turn off the TV’s? Are they going to talk about liberal, warm-hearted groups that form what an objective observer would call special interests?

Back atcha, guys.

Budd Shenkin

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