Archive for the ‘Education’ Category

The President’s Speech and the First Day of School

Written by Henry L. Chambers, Jr. on September 9th, 2009

President Obama gave a wonderfully supportive and challenging message to schoolchildren yesterday.  That there was ever a debate over whether students should see the speech in school is tmpphpxmhLC7silly and tells us quite a bit about the divides in this country.  However, the debate regarding whether the speech should have been shown on the first day of school – some schools did not return to classes until yesterday – is more interesting.  Some, including many in Henrico County, Virginia, where I live, argued that the first day of school is too hectic to be interrupted with a message of support from the President of the United States.  If the argument is serious, rather than an attempt to avoid dealing with the merits of the speech, it is troubling.  Teachers, parents and children are required to expend a significant amount of effort before the first day of school ostensibly to make sure that everyone will be ready to learn on the first day of school.   Though the first day of school is always hectic, so are late-opening snow days and many other days.  The task for schools was to get schoolchildren together for 15-20 minutes to watch a message of encouragement from our First Role Model.  If that is a monumental or impossible task for school officials, I shudder to think what would happen if a real emergency occurred on the first day of school.   Similarly, I am surprised that school administrators would readily admit their logistical limitations to parents given that some school districts – such as Henrico County’s next door neighbor, the City of Richmond – did not find the presentation of the speech terribly onerous, with some schools even hosting dignitaries who encouraged students in the same vein as President Obama.

Can the Democrats be Liberated “from the cult of neoliberalism”?

Written by Robert Justin Lipkin on August 4th, 2009

Check out Michael Lind’s piece in If I understand him correctly, this is what he means by neoliberalism, a political perspective opposed to progressivism: “New Dealers and Keynesians are wrong to think that industrial capitalism is permanently and inherently prone to self-destruction, if left to itself. Except in hundred year disasters, the market economy is basically a sound and self-correcting. Government can, however, help the market indirectly, by providing these three public goods [environment, healthcare, and education], which, thanks to ‘market failures, the private sector will not provide.” Cick here to read the full piece.

Sotomayor and Race

Written by Rebecca Zietlow on June 4th, 2009

Given the years of virulent racism that minorities in our country have faced throughout our history, it is a bit shocking to see right wingers like Newt Gingrich and Rush Limbaugh accuse Suprefinal-4.jpgme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor, the first Hispanic ever nominated to that Court, of being a “racist,” based solely on one remark that she made in a speech seven years ago.   On this subject, I highly recommend Charles Blow’s recent New York Times editorial, “Rogues, Robes and Racists.”   As Blow notes, there is no evidence in Sotomayor’s life, legal career or judicial record of her ever acting like a racist.  Blow contrasts Sotomayor’s record with that of Chief Justice John Roberts, who was reported by Newsday magazine to have made racist and sexist jokes while working in the White House for the President Reagan.  What is most significant is that Roberts didn’t just talk the talk, he has spent his entire career walking the walk, working to roll back the civil rights gains of women and minorities from the 1960s and 1970s.  As Bobby notes below, quoting Jeffrey Toobin, Roberts has continued this pattern as Chief Justice, ruling against criminal defendants, non-white civil rights plaintiffs (he ruled in favor of the white plaintiff challenging the use of race to avoid the re-segregation of Seattle public schools) and plaintiffs suing corporations.  Does that mean Roberts is a racist?  Not necessarily, but as Blow observes, there is a heck of a lot more evidence of his racism than there is of Sotomayor’s.

Blow’s editorial is so powerful and eloquent that I really don’t have much to add.  What I can add, however, is a bit of context to the speech that has gotten Sotomayor into so much hot water.  In a speech during a symposium on Latino judges, hosted by La Raza Law Journal, Judge Sotomayor said that “I would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn’t lived that life.”  Why would Sotomayor say such a thing?  It is clear from reading her speech that Sotomayor was asked to comment on how her experience as a Latina woman colors her perception of issues on the bench.  This subject is understandable given the Critical Race Theory roots of the La Raza publication that hosted Sotomayor’s speech.  At the risk of over-simplification, one theme of critical race theory is questioning the assumption that law is neutral and un-biased, and examining the ways in which our laws reinforce the existing power structures in our society, including the privileging of the concerns of white people, men, and the rich.

I have no idea what Sotomayor thinks about critical race theory, but it is clear from her speech that she is responding to this CRT critique of the law.  In her speech, Sotomayor describes her personal experiences as a “NewYorkrican” and acknowledges that these experiences have an effect on how she sees the world.  But in a much less quoted remark at the end of the speech, Sotomayor goes on to observe, “I am reminded each day that I render decisions that affect people concretely and that I owe them constant and complete vigilance in checking my assumptions, presumptions and perspectives and ensuring that to the extent that my limited abilities and capabilities permit me, that I reevaluate them and change as circumstances and cases before me requires.”  That’s the most we can hope for from any judge, and Sotomayor’s judicial record reflects the fact that she has been pretty successful at it.

In his majority opinion striking down two local school districts’ attempts to use race as one factor in school assignments in order to reduce racial stratification in the public schools, Justice Roberts famously noted, “the way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.”  I agree with Roberts’ sentiment, but I also agree with the Critical Race Theorist view that race discrimination is more complicated than Roberts’ remarks suggests – that we are all affected by unconscious bias.  Given the choice between Roberts’ overly simplistic remark and Sotomayor’s sophisticated evaluation, and the choice between their records on racial issues, I prefer Sotomayor.

Elite Law Schools as a Prerequisite to the Supreme Court

Written by Robert Justin Lipkin on May 19th, 2009

      Should Supreme Court Justices receive their legal education from an elite law schools?  What about the thousands of graduates of non-elite law schools who arguably can bring diversity to the multi-faceted questions of social policy the Supreme court decides?  The real question, in my mind, is this: Is it obviously the case that an ace from an elite law school who is arguably deficient in social skills, judgment, the capacity to emphasize, and other moral virtues, no doubt difficult if not impossible to quantify, is necessarily or even highly likely to be superior as a judge to a pretty good student from a non-elite law school who demonstrates these moral or personal virtues? 

        No question, we don’t always have to choose between these qualities.  But the fact that we immediately jump to embrace to an “excellent record” which almost always means an elite background suggests we’re not very serious in exploring the moral or character virtues non-elite students might have. And these virtues are almost always produced or enhanced by life experiences that often the elite students lack.

        Of course, this discussion is directly related to the jurisprudence of judging. If rules and abstract questions of the nature and interpretation of laws is, for the most part, the extent, of judging, then perhaps elitism is the only reasonable path to pursue. But if these constitute only a part of good judging, then the uncomfortable discussion of what other elements are necessary to good judging, like, empathy, should be a required exercise.  To put the point in general terms, if empathy and other human virtues are required elements in good judging, is it obvious or even plausible that students from elite schools have more empathy because they excel in “objective” criteria?

        Perhaps, in the end an elite education, clerkship, and background as a judge or a highly successful lawyer are considered so important by those who possess these qualities because they control entry into many of these legal institutions and will naturally perpetuate their own power.  This might be cynical, but sometimes we can learn from cynical reactions to entrenched attitudes and practices.

What is a public high school?

Written by Henry L. Chambers, Jr. on December 10th, 2008

For the second year in a row, the Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology was named the best public high school in the nation by U.S. News and World Report.  Though ranking any high school as the single best in the country is somewhat pointless, it is fairly clear that Jefferson is an exceptional high school where its students get an exceptional education.  However, it is unclear that the high school is public.  The school is administered by the Fairfax County Public Schools System.  However, it uses selective admissions to create its student body.

That a school is administered by a public entity may lead some to conclude that a school is public.  Indeed, one may argue that who pays the bills and who controls a school in the only determinant of whether a school is public or private.  Certainly, that is how most determine whether a college is public or private.  Maybe the same rule applies to schools at all level.

However, historically, the distinction between private schools and public schools has been that private schools choose their students while studentstj_logo_sculpture.jpg (or their parents) choose public schools by moving to or continuing to live in a school’s district.  That might seem to suggest that selective admissions is at odds with public education.  However, some might fairly argue that as long as a student is not denied an education at his neighborhood school creating a county-wide public school with selective admissions that exists separate from the web of neighborhood schools is not inconsistent with public education.  However, they may also concede that the county-wide public school more resembles a private school embedded in a public school system supported by public money than a neighborhood public school.

However, at the end of the day, whether a school resembles a public school or a private school may not matter as long as public school systems realize that their obligation is to provide superb educational experiences to all of their students.  Surely there will always be opportunities for public school systems to create special schools that teach a particular curriculum to students with interests that are off the beaten path.  However, that should not be an excuse to provide subpar neighborhood schools.  Excellence can be achieved in purely public neighborhood schools if such excellence is demanded and rewarded.  The hope is that we as a society will continue to demand excellence through neighborhood schools that are public through and through.  Nonetheless, whatever the structure of the school, Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology deserves all the praise it can stand.

In a 4-4 Decision the Supreme Court Upholds the Second Circuit Decision’s in Favor of Learning Disabled Kids

Written by Robert Justin Lipkin on October 17th, 2007

A Supreme Court decision critical to the educational rights of disabled kids was handed down last week. “The Supreme Court on Wednesday let stand a ruling that the New York City school system must pay private school tuition for disabled children, even if the parents refuse to try public school programs first. But the justices are likely to take up the issue again soon, with nationwide implications. The justices split, 4 to 4, in the case of Tom Freston, the former chief executive for Viacom, and his son Gilbert, with Justice Anthony M. Kennedy taking no part. The tie meant that a 2006 ruling in Mr. Fresto’s favor by the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, in Manhattan, stands for now. But it has no effect outside the circuit, which covers New York State, Connecticut and Vermont.” To continue reading this article click here. Our treatment of learning disabled children is scandalous. Often states would rather choose to pay the costs of litigation than to create viable programs for these kids. Education has become the responsibility of the states. Yet, here is another example why many observers believes that federalism–the balance of power between the federal government and the states–should shift markedly toward the federal government. States have a grim record of protecting the interests of anyone except powerful elites. The federal government doesn’t do much better. However, if we shift to the federal government for this service, at least progressives would have one opponent rather fifty.

Criticism of Bollinger Continues

Written by Robert Justin Lipkin on September 30th, 2007

President Bollinger’s insulting remarks when introducing his guest, the Iranian President Mahmoud Amhadinejadin are now generating some heat. Finally, more self-reflective individauls are expressing dismay Here are some critical paragraphs in today’s NY Times: “Bollinger’s remarks assuaged some vehement opponents, including Jacob Kriegel, an activist student leader who called the comments an ‘appropriate’ rebuke. But others likened Bollinger’s comments to offensive and embarrassing schoolyard taunts, and some students are circulating a petition demanding an apology. ‘He went overboard in trying to balance a response to a criticism by being insulting,’ said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, who originally opposed Ahmadinejad’s visit. Rashid Khalidi, director of Columbia’s Middle East Institute, views Ahmadinejad as a publicity hound but said that ‘once you bring someone to the university, unless this is just a cockfighting ring, a certain level of discourse should apply.'” at Criticism of the disgrace at Columbia.

As ECA has stated previously, there are four central elements in the complaint against President Bollinger’s conduct. First, President Ahmadinejad is a danger to peace in the region and a fortiori to world peace. He and Grand Ayatollah Ali Kameni must be carefully watched by the world community. Second, President Bollinger was clearly entitled not to invite him to speak or even to withdraw the invitation once it was proffered. Third, President Bollinger was right to have forcefully refuted some of the more outlandish claims Ahmadinejad is known to have made. But finally, once Bollinger invited Ahmadinejad and Ahmadinejad accepted, Bollinger was bound by elementary decency not to insult his guest. Nothing else is even relevant to the application of elementary decency in this context, let alone can Ahmadinejad’s outrageous conduct justify Bollinger’s reprehensible remarks. One either believes in elementary decency or one does not. If one does, Satan himself warrants courtesy treatment if invited as a guest to speak at Columbia. In not affording elementary decency even to someone who is justifiably viewed as a world pariah, Bollinger disgraced the university he leads.

No Homosexuals in Iran? No Courtesy at Columbia University!

Written by Robert Justin Lipkin on September 27th, 2007

One surely must wonder why the Grand Ayatollah Ali Kameni, Iran’s Supreme Leader, sanctions President Ahamdinejad’s successful quest to make Iran a world pariah. Mr. Ahmadinejad’s outlandish remarks suggests that he may simply be divorced from reality. First, he insisted that the Holocaust never happened. Then incredulously he described an experience he had while addressing the United Nations General Assembly. Here are his remarks: “One of our group told me that when I started to say ‘In the name of God the almighty and merciful,’ he saw a light around me, and I was placed inside this aura. I felt it myself. I felt the atmosphere suddenly change, and for those 27 or 28 minutes, the leaders of the world did not blink. And they were rapt. It seemed as if a hand was holding them there and had opened their eyes to receive the message from the Islamic republic.” This is scary. Does he really believe this? Does he expect us to believe it? Now he claims that there are no “homosexuals” in Iran.
Of course, don’t forget his arrogance reached the stratosphere when he declared that Israel should be wiped from the face of the earth. Does he actually think the international community would permit this, whatever Israel’s serious shortcomings. Next, he told Scott Pelley on 60 Minutes that, as a Muslim, he cannot lie. That’s unfortunate. Because, if we cannot explain Mr. Ahmadinejad’s remarks as lies, then the only reasonable conclusion is that he is riddled with severe psychological pathology that may bring chaos to the region and to the world. Acquiring nuclear weapons, if that’s his intent, in the hands of Mr. Ahmadinejad is surely intolerable.

But the solution is not to ridicule or shun Mr. Ahmadinejad. We must engage him in dialog courteously, no matter how distorted that dialog will initially be. The raison d’etre of engaging one’s enemy in dialog is that sometimes the very process of conversing converts unreasonable enemies into somewhat less unreasonable ones. At least, that must be the hope. Mr. Bush has squandered seven years of diplomatic possibilities by his inability to appreciate cultural differences or to understand international diplomacy.

President Lee Bollinger, of Columbia University, the Iranian President’s host at a speech on Monday, has added a troubling wrinkle to this affair. It is one thing for a member of the media or blogosphere to castigate, even to insult, the Iranian President. It’s quite another for a host to do so. I’m mystified that no one, of whom I’m aware, has condemned as I do, President Bollinger’s introductory scold replete with personal insults. Bollinger blasted Mr. Ahmadinejad as “a petty and cruel dictator,” “ridiculous,” “astonishingly uneducated” guilty of making “absurd comments,” lacking “intellectual courage,” having a fanatical mindset,” “preposterous,” and revolting? These epithets might all be true, but it was disgraceful for Bollinger to refer to his own guest in such a scurrilous manner. I do not know whether there were negotiations between President Ahmadinejad and President Bollinger prior to the event, creating an informal protocol permitting each to say about the other absolutely anything each man wished. But, if the Iranian President was unaware of the ground rules–including Bollinger’s freedom to insult him–then the Columbia President simply ambushed Mr. Ahmadinejad. If so, Mr. Bollinger exhibited the worst of American belligerence and disrespect for salient values of civil discourse, values that should define our greatness as a republican democracy.


President Bollinger position is right. Iran’s leadership is a danger to freedom and decency everywhere. He could have said so without the barrage of insults. Indeed, Mr. Bollinger’s remarks might have had a better chance of influencing Mr. Ahmadinejad and the Iranian people without gratuitous name-calling. Don’t get me wrong, I have absolutely no admiration for Mr. Ahmadinejad. But I do stick to an old-fashioned rule of courtesy: Don’t insult your own guests. President Bollinger cravenly condemned Mr. Ahmadinejad without cost to himself or to Columbia in the public’s eye. Indeed, Bollinger’s performance thrilled many unreflective Americans. Mr. Bollinger’s remarks were beyond the moral pale. Even though the substance of Mr. Bollinger’s remarks was accurate, the form he chose to express them revealed an opportunistic crassness that is unbecoming to a university president hosting a foreign leader.

Stanley Fish on the Seattle and Louisville Equal Protection Cases

Written by Robert Justin Lipkin on July 14th, 2007

Check out Stanley Fish’s piece in today’s NY Times. Fish frames the issue of the recent Supreme Court decision as follows: “But the underlying issueis whether the court should be attentive to history and the societal consequences of its decision, or should turn a blind eye to those consequences and attend only to the principled protection of individual rights.” So one has a right not to be discriminated against on racial grounds but no right to have the lingering consequences of systematic legal and institutionally entrenched racism mitigated if doing so burdens anyone else. Fine chance for remediation. And, of course, in higher education all forms of discrimination are okay except admission programs that consider race a factor. I wonder who benefits from such discrimination. According to Fish Justice Stevens’ view is that “Brown and the 14th Amendment were not responses to an abstract principle of equality, but efforts to redress a historical injustice inflicted on one race by another.” You don’t redress that injustice by barring attempts to mitigate its consequences.” Both American racism and Roberts’ form of constitutionalism will not be cured until we realize that one doesn’t remedy 400 years of legally embedded racism by wishing it away. Nor do you cure this problem by shouting truisms such as that ending racism requires nothing more than ending racism. No, the cure can be formulated only be found by nuanced judgments of practical reasoning taking into account the motives and consequences of constitutional principles. Are such principles absolute? Of course, not. But then absolutism must be anathema to a constitutional democracy. Nuance and context are the name of the game. We play this game reasonably well except when it requires us to sacrifice.

Conference at Louisville School of Law

Written by Robert Justin Lipkin on July 12th, 2007

Check out the announcement of the first annual conference–Law,
Ethics, and the Life Sciences
–at the Brandeis School of Law on October 26-27, 2007. Here’s the description.

Half a century ago, C.P. Snow identified a debilitating clash between competing literary and scientific cultures. To this day, abiding cultural divides cripple public understanding of a wide range of scientifically sophisticated issues, from global climate change and biodiversity loss to childhood vaccination, embryonic stem cell research, contraception, abortion, and end-of-life decision making. This conference aspires to span all of these subjects, and others, without regard to internal boundaries within law, ethics, or the life sciences. Environmental law, health law, food and drug regulation, biotechnology, law and behavioral psychology, and evolutionary analysis of law share a common scientific core. The best path toward understanding that core lies in embracing the similarities among these legal subdisciplines.

In a word, or rather in four words, this clash reveals “the fact/value distinction,” which has challenged legal and ethical inquiry at least since David Hume. This distinction, or rather dichotomy, contends that facts and values are categorially different. That is, they operate in entirely different conceptual categories. One can neither derive prescriptive judgments from descriptive ones nor define the former in terms of the latter. Hume’s “Is-Ought Fallacy” and G.E. Moore‘s “Naturalistic Fallacy” provide the grounding of the fact-value dichotomy.

This presents a problem for the relationship between law and ethics, on the one hand, and the life sciences on the other. The life sciences tell us what is possible, while law and ethics inquire about what is good and how we ought to live. The fact-value distinction insists that never the twain shall meet. For instance, the fact that stem cell research can cure diabetes does not entail that we should engage in stem cell research. Curing diabetes might be good, but at what cost? This question cannot be answered without considering what values might be compromised by engaging in stem cell research, for example, destroying human life. All of the above legal and bioethical controversies cannot be resolved or usefully discussed without first providing an awareness of the fact-value dichotomy. This does not mean the fact-value dichotomy has no critics. Indeed, Philippa Foot and Hilary Putnam have critically examined the force of the dichotomy. The point is that questions about the relationships between law and ethics, and the life sciences must deal with the fact-value dichotomy before engaging other central issues in this relationship.

The conference promises to be an important step in the continuing national conversation about two areas that will become considerably more important as technology in the life sciences becomes more sophisticated.