Wednesday, July 21, 2010


Today I set out to distribute some consent forms and talk some parents into sending their sixth grade children to 3 weeks of Summer School, 3 days a week. The deal is that under-prepared children have flooded Dominica's Secondary Schools since the imposition of universal secondary education. This has resulted in a frustrated student body, increased violence, and the decay of the overall academic culture of the nation's secondary level institutions. The first child's grandmother told me that the family works during the vacation, and that her grandson is unlikely to learn anything at the summer school.

I was upset by this. My reaction was a compilation of frustration with her stubbornness, despair that she was probably right (the child is twelve years old and cannot read or write), and some personal embarrassment emanating from her lack of trust in my ability to assist the child, compounded by my own doubts in the same. The next parent I talked to was enthusiastic and appreciative. Her son is somewhat better off as far as academic achievement goes. I was still feeling a bit down despite the positive response from this parent.

I dropped in on a family that lives just down the road from the Village Council's Office. The mother of the family was washing dishes and clothes with the help of her daughter and a girl who has been staying with her, a niece or maybe just her daughter's friend. Her eldest son and his friend were sitting in the living room playing their respective guitars. Her two younger sons were outside on the road, investigating crabs they had just caught.

The guitar playing son has recently moved out of the home, renting a small house for him and his guitar partner. I purchased a set of strings for the kid after I found him in his unfurnished 'apartment,' laying on the floor strumming a guitar with four strings. I've seen him carrying the guitar around since then. The scene of him and his buddy strumming out church songs together cheered me up. When I saw two certificates were on the wall that the mother had received from some adult education programs I had organized, I had the inspiration I needed go track down the rest of the parents for the Summer School.

Sunday, July 18, 2010


My mind works in a way that seems to trend away from the nitty-gritty. For an example pertinent to the subject of this post, consider contrasting methods of teaching reading comprehension. I would instantly get bogged down in assessing comparative merit on grounds of efficacy. Failing the availability of hard numbers demonstrating the superiority of either method, I would presume variance in learning propensities would call for the implementation of both methods.

My justification would cue the keen observer to my preference for a less efficient but more egalitarian distribution of resources. One method may be better suited for students with innate reading abilities, more likely to benefit from strengthening such abilities and with greater overall prospects for future success. The other method may be better suited to students who experience more difficulty in processing language. Visual learners may be better suited to develop comprehension skills by direct exposure to text, while oratory learners may benefit from listening to stories read aloud. In a community populated by a high proportion of illiterate parents, visual learners with access to books will succeed at a higher rate than oratory learners.

Who do we target? There are a number of considerations. Instead of digressing further into considerations as to the likelihood of children with illiterate parents to learn to read at all, or the cost of making books available to those children while literate families are more likely to be able to afford books on their own, I would sooner abstract to policy level considerations regarding the trade-offs between increasing the availability of books to students and a campaign targeting adult literacy. Evaluating myself as a resource, I would quickly conclude that I was better suited to aiding policy decisions of this sort than making the in-classroom decisions regarding proportional implementation of various teaching methods (where the reality is more biting: Teach this girl here, today, as best you can).

I don't see the student in front of me. I see the hundreds of students like her, and calculate teaching decisions based on the hypothetical policy level implementation of that decision: What decision would best benefit those hundreds of students? I ask myself this question before assessing the individual needs of the child standing in front of me. This is what I mean when I say my brain trends away from the nitty-gritty. Perhaps I don't want to be responsible for the consequences the decision will have on Patricia. I am more comfortable with the impact of a decision on the students of St. Andrew's Parish as a whole. Some will benefit more than others, and I want to augment aggregate benefit. I am almost irritated by case-by-case assessment. However, I am not in the position to be making such decisions. Wherever my talents actually lay, I am in the field, for better or worse, and I have to deal with Patricia.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

A pleasure to serve

On Friday I was discussing the Brazil-Netherlands match with some fellas at a bar in town. I was arguing that Kaka got selfish in the last ten minutes. My co-commentator retorted that the real reason Brazil lost was that the referees were biased in "all you favor." It was a "what do you mean, 'you people'?" moment about which laughs were had afterward. That's the difference in racism here. We can laugh about it. This was pointed out to me by a friend of mine recently.

Twelve score and four years ago, a group of rich land owners decided they didn't want to pay taxes to the British, or kiss British asses every time they wanted to make a move. They conjured up some rhetoric about liberty, inalienable rights, and equality (though some of them most assuredly believed in these notions through and through, those beliefs had rested largely inert for lack of utility) and stirred up an army of sorts. It's hard to know how fair this characterization of the causes of America's war for independence is. The constitution certainly does embody those ideas, to a certain extent. At that time, we had a sizable slave population and shared the continent with perhaps millions of indigenous people. There was certainly no dream, at that point, of an ethnically diverse people, peacefully coexisting. Extermination and/or enslavement was the order of the day. The constitution does seem to have catered for a reasonable pluralism when it comes to ideology and theology (the society may have been less tolerant than the legal writing).

The Romans dreamed of a republic from time to time. People had written about it for well over a century. We finally had one: A democratic republic. Today, we have an ethnically diverse population and our ideologies run the spectrum, as do our religions. The dream that we can coexist peacefully and prosperously is a bold one, historically speaking. The dream that we can find a functional degree of political unity is a bold one. The dream that tolerance and power sharing can be efficiently productive is a bold one. Whatever shapes the American dream has taken over the years, it has always been about a living, breathing society that would learn and grow. That we have done so for 234 years is no small achievement, and we ought to feel proud as a people on this day.

Thursday, July 1, 2010


Trolleys are fun when you take one around Chicago with a bunch of your buddies and binge drink. Trolleys aren't fun when they're runaway-flying down a track towards a fork, on one side of which is trapped one innocent person and on the other side of which are trapped five. You can throw a switch to decide which innocent(s) get(s) splattered. So you choose the one innocent. But what if you have to throw him in front of the trolley to save five others? The response changes here. Most people don't approve of this. And neither do I. The only thing wrong with that is thinking that the two positions are inconsistent. Our moral intuitions are inseparable from our intuitions regarding appropriate and fair norms of social cooperation. If you get stuck in the first trolley travesty, throw the switch! It's the least you can do. We can trust you to make that decision. However, the picture gets much darker in the second trolley travesty, if we start sanctioning the decision making authority of individuals to throw people in front of trolleys. Inevitably, we're going to get some wrong. "Oops, I coulda sworn there were five innocent people stuck on that track and that the only way to save them was to throw Travis in front of the the trolley! How did I know it was just a repair crew and they were gonna move out of the way, or that Travis body would do nothing to slow the trolley?"

These mistakes could just as well happen with the switch throwing, you might argue. I have turned the five innocents into non-innocent repairmen. No fair. Well when I'm standing next to you and we're thinking about the best way to handle the trolley travesty, I don't want to be stuck in the situation of preemptively throwing you in front of a trolley. Herein lies the subtlety I want to introduce. Throwing Travis in front of the trolley may be the right thing to do, just like throwing the switch to kill Travis if he is stuck all alone on the tracks. The thing is, we are averse to this decision because it sanctions vigilantism.

Imagine a crowded street witnessing the trolley travesty take place. 50 people are watching the impending doom of five innocents. Travesty a) they all leap to throw the switch, it is thrown by the closest person, Travis dies, end of story. Travesty b) 25 people turn toward 25 other people, they grab each other, and throw each other in front of the trolley. 50 people die. This does not unfairly alter the scenario, it merely points out the different logical consequences applying subtly different principles.

Keeping the scenario the same, let's say Travis and I are alone to watch the trolley travesty. We both turn to each other and struggle to throw the other in front of the trolley. Perhaps we both die, or perhaps we fail and five people die. Suppose we do the noble thing and we both decide to jump in front of the trolley. We both die. Also, this calls for a lack of regard for ones own life, also an intolerable norm for social cooperation.

To sum this discussion up, to see an inconsistency in taking a different position in travesty 1 than in 2 is to fail to recognize that we subconsciously apply Kantian reasoning:"Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it become a universal law." Nevertheless, this reasoning leads to the wrong decision. Throwing Travis in front of the trolley is the right thing to do, but we don't think in act-utilitarian calculations, we think in terms of social cooperation. More on that distinction later.