Regarding educational reform, I think there are two main dimensions to address: 1) Student socialization and culture, and 2) targeted student (and teacher) placement. (Though issues of teacher socialization and training are also relevant, in this essay I’m going to focus only on student socialization, which I think is the most critical issue in educational achievement; and, yes, in response to a comment to this essay on Facebook, that does include addressing parent socialization as well.) The issue of student socialization and culture involves how students are taught to be students and encouraged to engage in those behaviors most conducive to successful learning, both in the school and in all the years and hours outside of (including prior to) the school. The issue of targeted placement involves making sure that every student and teacher is placed in the environment most conducive to satisfying their particular needs (for students) and most able to exploit their particular talents (for teachers). In other words, neither students nor teachers are fungible (interchangeable) , and we need to stop acting as if they are.

Student socialization is really the critical factor in student success or failure: Those students who are better socialized to be good students will excel more certainly and in a broader array of contexts, whereas those who are not will require increasingly precise, expensive, and elaborate interventions (that are decreasingly successful) and will to varying degrees obstruct the education of those around them. Addressing student socialization requires both more attention to the role that time prior to and outside of the school plays in determining how students perform in school, and more attention to the role that kids play in encouraging/facilitating either educationally conducive or educationally counterproductive behaviors among one another both in school and out.

To address the socialization issue of what goes on prior to and outside the school, I think we need to implement a very robust volunteer tutoring and mentoring program, locally, statewide, and nationally. We have enormous social and professional resources, including a growing cadre of retirees looking for useful places to put their time and energy, and a huge need on the part of many students to be socialized into a sense of intellectual curiosity and how to feed the hunger for knowledge and comprehension that such curiosity instills. (To some extent, such socialization primarily requires careful nurturing of innate tendencies, because children are naturally curious.)

As for in-school, student mutual socialization, I worked on a research project years ago involving incentivizing mutual encouragement of positive behaviors in a target population (something I’ll call “group-mediated behavioral reinforcement”). The project was enormously successful, and can and should be applied to schools. We already have in Colorado programs like The Legacy Schools Project implemented by The Colorado Legacy Foundation, rewarding students for their own good academic work, but what if we extended such incentive-based programs to rewarding not only good academic work (e.g., passing an AP exam with a 3 or above, as Legacy does), but also helping others to do so as well, paying successful students for their recruits who also pass with a 3 or above? What you end up with is a positive pyramid-scheme of increasing numbers of successful students scouring the remaining student population search of recruits to train and assist in excelling academically.

Finally, targeted placement: We throw students with various and competing needs all together, and frequently don’t address any of their needs very well, particularly in failing schools. We need to identify student needs, and target their placement into schools that can specialize in meeting those needs. For instance, some of the most responsible and motivated students in the articulation areas of failing schools would benefit most from a college-like environment; others need military-like discipline due to the degree to which their own dysfunctional behaviors have become entrenched in them; and others still need more personal, emotional, and focused attention and nurturing. School choice does not really address this, because parents and students generally seek out the schools that they wish were right for them rather than those that actually are, or, in some cases, that satisfy needs and desires other than educational achievement. We need to find ways to target the assignment of students to schools in order to give them each what they really need, and to prevent those with incompatible needs from undermining the education of those around them.

“Targeted teacher placement” simply refers to the fact that we assign teachers too haphazardly, frequently  putting teachers with less subject area expertise but great technical and classroom management skills in high performing schools and advanced classes, and teachers with extraordinary subject area expertise but poorer technical and classroom management skills in behaviorally challenging schools and classes, losing the comparative advantage of both and setting both up for failure or sub-optimal performance (which in turn means that the students in both contexts receive educational services inferior to what they would have had teachers been more strategically and consciously placed).

Clearly, all of these recommendations raise a host of issues, primarily involving the tension between centralized decision-making and local autonomy. But identifying the most fundamental, underlying factors affecting educational success and failure is a critical component of any truly robust and ambitious plan for educational reform. It’s time to move past the superficial panaceas and start focusing on the real educational challenges we face and on developing richer, deeper and more structurally penetrating strategies for addressing them.

(See also Education Policy Ideas, Real Education Reform , Mistaken Locus of Education Reform, School Vouchers, Pros & Cons, A Colorado Teacher’s Perspective on Education Reform, American Universities: Two Dimensions on which to Improve)

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I returned to education and Denver Public Schools this year, after a five year foray into law and policy. I very vocally and rationally opposed SB191 when it was being debated by pointing out that it would do more to drive great teachers out of the profession and dissuade great potential new teachers from entering the profession than it would do either to weed bad teachers out or raise them up. In other words, it was going to have a larger effect on choking off the inflow and increasing the outflow of the most talented teachers (more than least talented teachers because more talented people generally have more alternatives in the competitive labor market) than it would have on removing or improving teachers who needed remediation or removal. I also argued that it focused on the one aspect of our educational system that was least broken –-the quality of our educators– while ignoring the factors that were most broken –what goes on outside the school building, years, and hours to socialize kids to be either successful or unsuccessful students.

My experience this year has overwhelmingly confirmed these observations. I started at West Generation Academy, an innovation school in DPS. Their plan sounded good to me, the passion of everyone involved appealed to me, and I wanted to be a part of it. The implementation was so badly botched that within weeks virtually every teacher there was desperate to get out. Many of the teachers (including me) have left, and the principal has resigned. The reason for this is that they assumed that they could accomplish everything in the building, without addressing the litany of issues affecting what would go on in that building, and without putting any discipline plan in place, and, as a result, it was complete chaos.

Now, at Abraham Lincoln High School, I see the most talented and passionate teachers talking about how the joy has been taken out of teaching, and how the micromanagement of teaching has crippled them and made them unable to teach effectively. More are talking about retiring early than ever before, when great, dedicated teachers were often reluctant to leave the job and children they loved.  I feel it myself, unable to do what I am best at –inspiring students with a sense of the wonder and adventure of life on Earth—because I am so bogged down in the bureaucratization of education, following a curriculum that teaches boring irrelevancies rather than inspiring insights, and engaging in practices that are like an off switch to whatever curiosity is left in these brutalized students’ minds. We are doubling down on the failed factory system of education, in a prime example of the doctor eagerly killing the patient.

Tom Boasberg (DPS Superintendent) came to Lincoln a couple of weeks ago, and answered one of the questions submitted to him. It happened to be mine. In reality, whether intentionally or unintentionally (I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt and assume the latter) he didn’t answer it but rather answered a similar question that I hadn’t asked. I wrote him to explain why the question I had actually asked was one that needed more attention. I also sent an email to two representatives of CDE who had come to roll-out our School Support Plan, to share with them my views, hoping that maybe this perspective I would like to see more integrated into our education policy could reach more ears with more ability to increase its salience in our education policy decision making. Those two emails (neither of which were responded to) follow below.

Email to Tom Boasberg:

Thank you for addressing my written question during your visit to ALHS today. I just wanted to clarify something that I think is very important, somewhat unique in the perspective being expressed, and may help inform a more nuanced approach to education reform. I apologize for the long email, but please indulge me; I think it will be worth your time. First, here’s the question again: 

How are we, as a district, going to preserve the comparative advantage that excellent teachers traditionally had in inspiring students, in pursuing spontaneous lines of inquiry that might arise in the course of instruction, of avoiding the overapplication of standardised approaches that might not be best suited to our particular grade level and population? And how are we going to stave off the loss of job satisfaction, the sense of despair and joylessness that is so apparently invading the minds and hearts of so many excellent teachers, who feel micromanaged and stripped of their ability to use their discretion to serve their students to the best of their ability?

I wasn’t referring to standardized tests so much, but rather standardized instruction. I don’t mind standardized tests particularly, as long as there is little pressure to teach to them (a potential problem with teacher evaluations increasingly based on their results). But I do have some concerns about standardized instruction. In some ways, i think it is the perfection of mediocrity.

Let me explain: My forte as a social studies teacher who spent years in his youth traveling around the world, who was a PhD student and college lecturer, who wrote a fantasy fiction novel, and who is now a lawyer and public policy analyst, is to take students on adventures of the mind and imagination, to incite their sense of wonder about the world, and to sometimes engage in spontaneous adventures that just emerge from our interactions, much as I do with my own nine year old daughter, who is “gifted and talented” and scores in the advanced range of standardized tests in all subjects. (And I think that her high performance is in large part due to these interactions.)

But, having returned to education this year after my foray into law and policy, I do not feel that my comparative advantage is being well utilized. This is no one’s fault, but a defect of our efforts to improve the quality of education, because we are focused on improving the performance of poorly performing teachers, but not attentive to preserving the special skills of teachers who have exceptional abillties of particular varieties.

I am in a PLC of fellow Geography teachers who aren’t particularly eager to adopt the games and simulations that I had developed in my previous teaching career, which leaves me more or less forced to teach in more conventional ways. My former joy in teaching is almost completely extinguished, and what I used to bring to my students I am no longer able to bring. They do not benefit as much from the energy and wonder and imaginative forays that was my trademark.

We may be lifting the lower performing teachers up, but we may also be pulling certain kinds of extraordinary teachers down. I think we need to work at preserving that spark of spontaneity, of imaginative innovation in the classroom, that some of our standardization of curriculum and instruction may be stifling. At least, it is stifling it in my case, and it breaks my heart to be in the classroom not fully liberated to do what I can do uniquely well. And Social Studies is the perfect discipline to allow such innovation and adventure in education.

I am passionate about education, not just as, or even primarily as, a vehicle for career success for our kids, but even more so as a vehicle for the growth of their consciousness and their spirits, their joy in the partcipation in the adventure of life on Earth, and yet do not feel that my own spirit is liberated enough to take them on that journey in the context of this new paradigm. And that breaks my heart.

Thank you for your time and attention.

Email to CDE representatives:

Thank you both for your excellent facilitation of our SST Reveiw Roll-out at Abraham Lincoln High School today. I want to take the opportunity to put on record some feed-back I have about the direction public education is taking in Colorado (and the nation), which will in some ways be familiar, but perhaps with a novel enough addition of nuance to be of value.

First, I think that it’s clear that the main variables differentiating highly successful students from unsuccessful students, and highly successful schools from failing schools, are found outside the schools rather than within them. That does not mean that what we do in the schools is irrelevant, or that we are therefore absolved of responsibility, but rather that, if we are serious about dramatically improving education in Colorado, we need to address the fundamental problems where they reside, and not focus all of our attention and resources on patching up the defects created by our failure to do address them where they reside.

We need to redefine education, from something that takes place in a school building during school hours and school years, to something that takes place everywhere, throughout the day, and throughout our lives. We need to redefine “schools” from the places where education more-or-less exclusively occurs to the focal places from where a less localized education is facilitated. And, most importantly, we need to stop killing the patient with desperate attempts to cure a cultural problem without ever actually addressing the cultural problem at all.

The main difference between highly successful suburban schools and failing urban schools is everything that goes on prior to and outside the school experience. It is primarily a function of socialization, in which more students in successful schools (wherever they are located, really) are better socialized to be successful students than in failing schools, creating critical masses that then create feedback loops amplifying either the success or failure of the school, and pulling students either up or down as a result. If we spent the resources we currently spend trying to “cure” education in the one place where it was actually somewhat functional -the schools themselves- and invested those resources instead into the place where reform is truly needed -the socialization of the children prior to and outside of the schools- we could dramatically improve educational outcomes in Colorado and America.

I understand the daunting political and practical obstacles to what I’m suggesting, but the consequence of failing to face those obstacles squarely and courageously isn’t just limiting ourselves to addressing educational challenges within the narrow confines of educational institutions, but actually harming the ability of those educational institutions to most effectively educate our children. Yes, we make marginal gains by all of this “scientific management” of education, by reducing it to its components and increasing the efficiency of performance of each component part (see “Taylorism”), but it is the perfection of mediocrity, and the prevention of true excellence, because truly excellent education is far more organic, far more inspired, far more spontaneous, and far more utilizing of the particular talents and expertises and knowledge and passion of the teachers who are truly the best and most effective teachers of all.

And it is precisely those teachers, those passionate, deeply knoweldgeable, charismatic teachers, who can inspire kids, who can ignite their sense of wonder about the world, who we are driving out of this new micro-managed, sterilized, oppressive paradigm of education, this attempt to save an institution we are in the process of killing, like Medieval doctors bleeding their unfortunate patients.

I want to be a voice for real education, for passionate education, for organic and inspired education. At the very least, let’s preserve some enclaves in which that organic, charismatic adventure can occur. My field, social studies, is one of those fields that should not be reduced to a mechanized and micro-managed discipline, but should be an enclave of wonder and adventure through which to ignite students’ curiosity. Let’s at least build more nuance into what we are doing, retain some of the spirit that we have forgotten to value, because we may raise test scores and increase graduation rates, but we are going to lose soaring souls in the process, and that is not a bargain we should feel compelled to make.

(See also Education Policy Ideas, Real Education Reform , Mistaken Locus of Education Reform, School Vouchers, Pros & Cons.)

Buy my e-book A Conspiracy of Wizards

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“Property” is a concept concerning the relationship of people to one another regarding objects that have value. It refers to who is included in the circle of people with a legal right to utilize or dispose of the object(s) in question, and who is excluded. The object, at least in any direct sense, is unaffected by these relationships (of course, it may be affected in terms of how it is utilized, destroyed or exhausted). While at first glance it might appear that property rights define the relationship between individuals and objects (both tangible and intangible), it really defines relationships among people by identifying who can and can’t exclude which others from access to or utilization of those objects (sometimes with the assistance of third parties authorized to enforce these rights).

Two essential truths about property are in tension with one another:

1) A market economy depends on well-defined property rights, and preferably extensive private property rights (in which the right to access and to exclude others from access is vested in a single individual), and a hybrid, predominantly market economy is the most robust producer and distributor of wealth yet discovered; and

2) Property is theft, especially historically.

Most Americans bristle at the second observation, usually assuming that it implies a denial of the first, even when both are stated. But the second observation is clearly accurate, though a bit paradoxical itself (how can property be “theft,” if “theft” presupposes the existence of property?). As a “first cause,” when a human being or group of human beings first encounters land or other objects that they lay claim to, this is the creation of property. Calling this first encounter “theft” is a bit of  a stretch: It can be depicted as “theft” from all other would-be claimants, since it is held by force against others unable to exert superior force, such that its possession isn’t a function of first encounter, but rather a function of greater might. But the “theft” really occurs once the force is exerted.

For the sake of argument, let’s consider this first creation of property to be the one instance in which property is not theft; if those who encounter first can hold it, let’s say they are entitled to do so. All other involuntary transfers, when someone takes property by force from another, can then be considered “theft,” and any subsequent transfers of such stolen property can be considered exactly that.

From prehistory into the modern age, territories have been possessed, defended, conquered, and expanded primarily by means of force. Probably no current tract of land is possessed primarily by the decendents of those who first encountered it. Probably every or virtually every current tract of land is either possessed by someone who is descended from, or was originally purchased from someone who was descended from, some individual or group who took that land from others by force. Thus, all land is stolen property.

There is a line from my novel, set in an ancient civilization, in which a warrior of non-noble birth who is leading an up-start army against the nobles of his own land tells his gathered soldiers before the decisive battle, “if we lose this battle, the nobles will shackle us in chains and label us criminals for doing ourselves what their great-grandfathers did for them.”

It’s not difficult to extrapolate from this objects other than land, since such objects are ultimately derived from the land in various ways (from mined ores, logged timber, and so on). If the land on which resources are found is all stolen property, then the resources exploited upon it are as well.

But that is then and this is now: Given that well-defined property rights, and particularly private property rights, are a cornerstone of a robust economy from which everyone, to varying degrees, benefits (in relation to the alternatives), what difference does it make? The difference it makes is that we stop pretending that property is a god-given right, and that its distribution at any given moment can be defended as somehow inherently just. Of all of the virtues that private property legitimately can be defended as providing, fairness is not, and never has been, one of them.

One of the defining characteristics of private property is the right to give it to whom one wishes at any time, including the right to devise to whom one wishes upon one’s own death. That means that people are born into an inequitable distribution of originally stolen property. Every baby at birth is born into a property-context not of their own making, not to their own credit or fault, which yet determines a great deal of what their opportunities will be. Such determinations are not just due to the direct material implications of the differential property-contexts into which people are born, but also into complex consequences of the property differentials, such as social and professional networks that parents have, the traditions and habits and attitudes associated with the possession and preservation of property that they transmit through socialization, and so on.

Many on the right today want to pretend that the persistent disproportionate poverty of some categories of people –most notably, Native Americans and African Americans– is due to failures of their own. But, while there are complex mechanisms by which this occurs, it is clear that the First Cause of that persistent disproportionate poverty is the fact that people from these categories are born into long chains of unpropertied lineage, chains that began with the theft of the land from those who occupied it when the Europeans arrived, and the importation and conversion of others from another land into property themselves.

There is another complexity, perhaps more salient but even less obvious, that renders the conceptualization of private property as inherently just and equitable a ruse to protect what is in fact quite unjust and inequitable: The fact that property, and wealth, are produced by social processes that involve complex, articulated in-puts and result in socially institutionalized distributions of the product of those processes. In other words, the political economy by which we produce and distribute wealth doesn’t distribute it fundamentally on the basis of merit, as some conveniently mythologize it to be, but rather on the basis of privilege, as has been the case throughout human history.

This system of distribution primarily on the basis of privilege functions through a variety of mechanisms. One such mechanism is that the occupations that receive the highest remuneration are the occupations that require the longest education. Since such education is expensive, it is more easily accessed by those who have the money to invest in it. Since wealth is inherited, and few have earned much on their own prior to entering into such advanced education, it is the wealth of one’s parents that determines the ease of access to the educational opportunities which position one to remain wealthy in the future.

But there are subtler aspects of this system as well, subtler mechanisms embedded within it. Not only are inequitably distributed material endowments transmitted from generation to generation, but so too are the inequitably distributed skill sets and cultural adaptations that are associated with that inequitable distribution of material endowments. Parents teach children how to cope with the world that the parents encountered and understood, and, even as times and opportunity structures change, the sub-cultural adaptations to past circumstances remain embedded in the lineage of socialization transmitted from generation to generation.

While some social mobility exists, and some individuals rise out of the most opportunity-deprived circumstances to achieve phenomenal success against the odds, the actual statistical rates of social mobility are far lower than what many imagine them to be, and the exceptional cases both fewer and less accessible than many imagine them to be. For every exceptional case, there are some set of particular circumstances that applied in that case to make it exceptional (e.g., the good fortune to find an exceptional mentor, an unsually fortuitous genetic endowment, etc.). The underlying fact remains that the opportunities available, on average and in the aggregate, between those born into poverty and those born into wealth are inequitably and unjustly distributed.

So the challenge becomes how to preserve the robustness of markets, which depend on the existence of private property, and at the same time mitigate the inequities and injustices inherent in the existence of private property. This is really what the development of the wealthiest nations, particularly over the last 80 or so years, has been all about: Spiralling toward some balance of robust markets dependent on clearly defined private property rights, and administrative interventions that both preserve the health of those markets and increase the equity of opportunity faced by members of society despite the inequities inherent in private property rights. (The fact that such interventions not only can be used to increase the justness of distribution, but also are necessary to maintaining the functioning of the market economies at all, is evident throughout the historical record, in which periods of underregulation have led to spikes in the concentration of wealth followed by catastrophic market collapses, most notably in 1929 and 2008.)

Though the two necessary functions of government in a modern predominantly market economy (i.e., preserving the efficiency and well-functioning of markets, on the one hand, and increasing the equitability of the distribution of opportunities and benefits produced by those markets, on the other) are closely intertwined, I am focusing only on the latter in this essay. The question is how best to mitigate the inequities of markets without undermining them (and, indeed, whenver possible, enhancing and invigorating them).

There are two areas which rise to the fore: 1) Improving real access to education, at all levels; and 2) heavily taxing inheritance. In fact, education, at all levels, should be completely publicly funded, and the way in which it can be completely publicly funded is through inheritance taxes with gradually rising marginal rates approaching 100% at the extreme heights of personal wealth. Obviously, this is politically impossible in America today, but is approximated in most other developed nations to varying degrees, with unambiguously beneficial results.

There is more involved in improving real access to education than simply making it free to all at all levels. It would also involve community development and related up-front investments which would increase the ability of those who are currently born into lower socio-economic strata to succeed in school, so that the opportunity available is a real one rather than merely a formal one. That is something I discuss in my essays on education (see. e.g., Education Policy Ideas, Real Education Reform , Mistaken Locus of Education Reform, School Vouchers, Pros & Cons, West Generation Academy, American Universities: Two Dimensions on which to Improve).

However we move forward, however we address the myriad challenges and opportunities facing us, it’s time we did so by letting go of the mythologies which insulate social injustice from scrutiny, and instead confronted our world and our social systems as they are, with both strengths and weaknesses, both virtues and shortcomings. There is much that works well and should be defended, preserved, and built upon. And there is much that doesn’t, which should be examined, analyzed, addressed, and improved upon. That is what the human endeavor is all about.

Buy my e-book A Conspiracy of Wizards

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As the Denver Post noted in two columns in today’s (Sunday, 3.18.12) Perspective section ( and, the value of a college education suffers from the lack of emphasis on the teaching ability of college professors. The fact is, universities hire and retain professors on the basis of their research and writing skills and efforts (“publish or perish”), rather than on the basis of their teaching skills and efforts. “Teaching colleges” are an exception to this rule, focused on teaching rather than research, but perhaps lose something in the bargain as well. Arguably, immersing young people in an evironment that is home to the most brilliant minds in the world, laden with cutting edge insights and the highest levels of cognitive activity, has a benefit not to be lightly dismissed. But the transmission of that brilliance to the students who fill the lecture halls needs to be accomplished in a manner a bit more intentional than mere osmosis. If we want our young adults to receive a high quality college education, we need to ensure that there is a system in place designed to deliver it.

American universities not only fail in the degree to which they ensure that they are effective educational (as well as research) institutions, but also in the degree to which the highly specialized enclaves of cutting-edge thought cross-fertilize one another. Careers are built on complete immersion in very narrowly defined and information-intensive academic microcosms. There are many benefits to this, but some costs as well. We have conceptually fractured reality into its tiniest components, but have done little to conceptually reassemble it. This affects not only the breadth and depth and quality of the insights achieved through this process, but also increases the distance between professors and students, turning too many professors, as Ms. Bullard noted in her collumn in The Denver Post, into “a disheveled man…mumbling half to himself.”

It’s tempting to capture these dual challenges with pithy oversimplification, stating that the remedy to these two problems is more specialization along the teaching/research continuum, and less specialization among the various content areas. Unfortunately, though I like the simplicity and balance of that statement, it fails to capture the reality of what I am proposing: I am really suggesting that we build more and better bridges, and more fully develop the regions that form their destinations.

We need a new emphasis on the specialization of teaching, but not a specialization which is completely detached from the academic vibrancy and richness that is the modern university. One way to accomplish this might be to hire teachers to teach, and research professors to do research, and to allow the two groups to overlap and articulate with one another both organically and by design. Those brilliant professors who are great researchers but lousy teachers can spend all of their time doing research. Those who are both great teachers and great researchers can spend some of their time on both, as is currently the case, but with a more balanced emphasis and more balanced rewards for excellence in each endeavor. Those who are great teachers but not particularly talented researchers, or not particularly interested in doing research, can be hired on exclusively as teachers.

It would be a professional expectation of all university teachers that they demonstrate the highest levels of expertise in their field, completely comparable to those of their research counterparts, and to be fully versed in what their colleagues are doing, including their colleagues who are engaged only in research. But it would also be a professional expectation that they become broadly, as well as deeply, educated, that they are aware of developments in other disciplines, even completely unrelated disciplines (“unrelated,” that is, by conventional modes of thinking).

Part of what professors specializing more in teaching could bring to modern universities is more cross-fertilization, more bridges among disciplines, helping students to learn not just the discipline that defines the primary class material, but also the connections between that discipline and others, between its insights and insights being developed in very different subject areas.

But teachers need to teach one another as well as those students who are seated in the classrooms and lecture halls. And research professors would benefit from more catalysts to the imagination and to the processes of inspiration and insight coming from other, sometimes very different disciplines. So I would add one more layer of innovation to our universities: A “Department of Interdisciplinary Synthesis.”

While we do not want to lose the benefits of the intense specialization which is so robustly producing such finely tuned and precise insights into the nature of the world and universe we occupy, we should seek to gain the further benefits of how these insights articulate with one another, form surprising areas of interdisciplinary coherence, generate surprisingly robust and useful understandings that not only cross disciplinary boundaries, but leap across disciplinary spaces that have heretofore been considered as wide a gulf as that between galaxies.

One basis for such interdisciplinary synthesis is Complex Dynamical Systems Analysis (what is often thought of as “Chaos Theory”). Rather than a focus based on subject area, it is a focus based on the choice of lens through which to understand subject areas. Complex Dynamical Systems Analysis has applications throughout all of the social sciences (see, e.g., my series of essays in the first box at Catalogue of Selected Posts), physics, biology and the life sciences, meteorology, philosophy, literature, and the fine arts (including music and visual arts), to name a few. It is, in a sense, a naturally-occurring cross-fertilizing cognitive enzyme.

Other such “enzymes” undoubtedly exist as well. Discovering and utilizing them would be a very valuable academic enterprise, one which currently occurs mostly on the margins of ultra-specialization rather than in the center of an effort to build bridges among those islands of thought. We live not only in a mind-bogglingly complex and subtle reality, the understanding of which benefits from extreme specialization, but also a coherent reality, the understanding of which benefits from synthesizing the products that extreme specialization. And the challenge is not only to produce and synthesize these products of human genius, but also to disseminate them, and allow them to extend more broadly into the population and to articulate more thoroughly with the genius of the many.

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Of all of the issues and challenges that face us as a society, our abysmal public education system is foremost among them. It’s not hard to identify the reasons for this failure: An archaic paradigm designed for another age and informed by a dehumanized assembly-line model that processes rather than inspires and mentors children; a ritualistic commitment to going through the motions rather than achieving excellent outcomes; a Kabuki Theater of faddish or merely time-wasting professional development and “sensitivity” trainings and purposeless faculty meetings; school improvement plans invested in and abandoned; an overwhelming administrative imperative of avoiding problems that constantly displaces any commitment to educational excellence; overpoliticized school district administrative and governance structures, focused more on ideological and power-consolidating maneuvering than on educating children; an anti-intellectual surrounding culture; a political zeitgeist emphasizing superficial and mechanistic “school reform” ideas which deepen rather than transcend the dysfunctional status quo and kick responsibility down the hierarchy toward those least able to address the structural problems involved; and the same political zeitgeist vilifying government (which school districts are) and starving them of much needed authentic public support. It’s a recipe for continuing and deepening failure.

What’s less obvious is how thoroughly within reach turning this around really is, how capable we are of transforming our public education system from one of the worst among developed nations to the very best in the world, bar none. We lack neither the human ingenuity nor material capital for doing so. Our children are in no way inherently less able to learn than the children of any other society. The challenge of inspiring and guiding and mentoring and educating our children from infancy through adulthood, and of thus liberating the genius of our populace to enable each to thrive individually and all to thrive collectively, is both the most critical and most tractable challenge we face as a society. (See Education Policy Ideas, Real Education Reform , Mistaken Locus of Education Reform, School Vouchers, Pros & Cons for some of my musings on education policy and education reform, and The Vital Role of Child, Family, and Community Services for a discussion of the related issues involving the social institutional and social emotional context that are students are embedded in.)

Human consciousness is the spark of divinity we carry within us, that magical, marvelous wonder that allows us to explore the universe with our minds, both the macrocosms and microcosms,  from the farthest galaxies and most distant times, to the tiny particles dancing into and out of existence and our own elusive inner-selves. It is a captive giant, whose freedom is both the ends and the means of all other human endeavors. It is a tool for our prosperity and spiritual fulfilment, and a source of profound joy in and of itself, the font of our stories, of our arts, of our humor, of our scholarship, of our appreciation and celebration of the world of which we are a part. It is the essence of being human. (See The Politics of Consciousness , Adaptation & Social Systemic Fluidity, The Evolutionary Ecology of Social Institutions, The Fractal Geometry of Social Change, The Evolutionary Ecology of Human Technology, The Fractal Geometry of Law (and Government), Emotional Contagion, Bellerophon’s Ascent: The Mutating Memes (and “Emes”) of Human History, Information and Energy: Past, Present, and Future for some discussions of the relationship between human consciousness and our social institutional and technological landscape.)

This is why I become so excited when I see those too few but so inspiring genuine attempts to realize our potential, to educate our children in the truest sense of the word, to commit ourselves not in some superficial or mechanistic way, but heart and soul, using all of our passion and talent as educators, all of the information and experience available, all of the tools that have been developed and ideas that are now emerging, thinking, imagining, innovating, designing, refining, implementing, improving, refining, modifying, constantly and tenaciously, making it happen.

West Generation Academy is just such a venture, led by a passionate and inspiring principal, imbued with vision and imagination and discipline and commitment, poised to make a dramatic difference both directly and indirectly in the lives of untold numbers of children, and of our society as a whole. Like a butterfly flapping its wings in the turbulent atmosphere, what reverberating ripples it will send out into the suchness are yet to be known. If the school achieves what it is so determined and so well equipped to achieve, it will be a force of nature, liberating the genius of children who will then have a reverberating impact of their own on the world around them, inspiring emulation that then produces new waves of reverberating, self-amplifying success.

The Generation School model is a complete revamping of the structure of schools, not an attempt to reform education by some shallow panacea that appeals to those who live in a linear and oversimplistic world, but rather restructuring the school itself, and its relationship to families and communities. It restructures the space in which education happens, the way in which education is delivered, the calendar and the schedule, the planning and implementation, all in response to the question “what works?” (See for discussion of specific design innovations, and for more information about West Generation Academy.)

But a good model is not enough by itself: Passionate, inspiring leadership is also required; a spirit and energy infused into the project, a zeal and joy and optimism and commitment to turning a vision into a reality. And, rallied by that leadership, recruited and mobilized by it, a team of individuals all similarly invigorated and committed is also necessary. Judging from the presentation I attended a couple of days ago, all of these elements are in place, or are being put into place, by Bob Villarreal at West Generation Academy. Whether the potential that I felt pulsating in that room comes to fruition or not is yet to be seen; but the fact that the potential exists seems to me to be an undeniable reality.

When good things are happening around us, when talented and dedicated people are striving to make a difference, it is incumbent on the rest of us to offer what support we can. We are all in this story together, and all should be striving to work together to write it well. If you live on the West side of Denver, or are just a highly engaged member of the larger community (as I am), consider finding your own place in this exciting and encouraging new endeavor, whether it is as a parent looking for the right school for your child, an excellent teacher looking for the right school in which to work, or a member of the community looking for local initiatives in which to invest your energy and resources. (One small way to show support would be to “like” West Generation Academy’s Facebook page:

Too often, those of us who are most politically and publicly engaged look for what’s wrong with the world and bemoan it, driven by anger and frustration, discouraged and disgruntled. But our real power lies in looking for what’s right with the world and nurturing it, cultivating the best sparks of positive change, blowing on them until they blossom into a brilliant blaze. West Generation Academy seems to me to be a glowing ember of great promise. Let’s lend it our own breath, our own inspiration, and help to ignite it into a roaring fire of realized potentials and expanding opportunities.

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It’s an odd title for a post on this social analytical blog, an odd sentiment for the perennial optimist with an impressive if unusual resume (see About Steve Harvey). But, as I’ve often said, and have even occasionally highlighted in my own case, we are not just disembodied minds cognitively engaging with an infinitely yielding world; we are also fallible and vulnerable human beings struggling with the sometimes terrifying challenges of life on Earth.

But I would not use this blog for this purpose, to address this theme, if it did not also serve some informative function, did not in some way contribute to the large, complex, multifaceted map of our social institutional landscape and our role in it that I am, brushstroke by brushstroke, attempting to paint here. Sometimes, broad understandings are best illustrated by particular examples, and as the voice of Colorado Confluence, it may be that all of my moods need to be expressed for this ongoing opus to develop most completely.

The irony is that the challenges I am currently confronting are trivial in comparison to those of most of humanity, and yet they are crushing me under their weight, particularly because I have an eight year old daughter who depends on me absolutely, and who I can’t bear to let down. We don’t measure our circumstances against global or historical standards, but rather against our own expectations, our own sense of what is “normal,” that of those similarly situated, and can, at times, jump out of Wall Street windows for losing what few ever dreamed of possessing in the first place.

The worst that is imminently threatening me and my family, at least for a while, is that we may have to sell our house and possessions and move into an apartment. But we love our home, our “Casa Azul,” with it’s brightly painted walls and beautiful little garden, as if it were an extension of ourselves, and losing it doesn’t even feel like an option I can contemplate. I can’t accept that it’s one I should have to.

As a teenager, I tried, with imperfect success, to take to heart Thoreau’s admonition in Walden not to live a life of quiet desperation, and not to come to the end of my days wondering if I had ever really lived. (Ironically, in Walden, he also mentioned the burden of having a costly house, the absence of which made one far freer, a lesson I had also lived by until starting a family.) After spending the first quarter century or so of my adulthood serving that commitment by pursuing my dream of writing an epic novel that would distill and express some aspect of the essence of our existence in beautiful and eddifying form, and doing so by pursuing experiences and studies that I thought would best prepare me to discover such a novel amidst the swirls and eddies of our collective consciousness, I’ve spent the last ten years or so (since the novel’s completion) in transition, seeking a path toward more robustly affecting human consciousness through the social institutional landscape which is its embodiment.

To do so, first I taught high school, then went to law school, then did some short contracts addressing child and family and mental health services. But I find myself now both unemployed (or nearly so) and apparently unemployable. The institutional world assumes I have no place in it because I dared to live a life which frequently deviated from the well-worn paths signalling to institutional actors a readiness to play a prescribed role in an adequately ritualized way.

At the risk of sounding bitter (which, unfortunately, I am, a bit, at the moment), little happens of great significance without imagination and a touch of bravado, and yet the institutional captains of social change cling to their unimaginative and safe check lists instead, and, by doing so, virtually guarantee that they will at best facilitate marginal improvements even under circumstances in which dramatic transformations are possible. That, of course, leaves me, with great talents and passion and a particular insight into how to ply those social systemic opportunities to maximum effect, and a desire to put all of that to work and to feed and house my family by doing so, out in the cold, almost literally, for not enough squares next to my name are ever checked off (though the squares next to my name that would be, were the producers of such checklists able to imagine greater possibilities, far exceed in value and scarcity and difficulty of being reproduced any of the superficial and easily rectified deficiencies that disqualify me). It’s enough to make one scream, which I am clearly in the process of doing, at least virtually.

I know, profoundly and absolutely, as most who have seen me in action or have read my musings know almost as certainly, that I have something unique and valuable to contribute to this human endeavor of ours, that I am able and eager to do so with intense discipline and contagious enthusiasm, and that my impressive but atypical resume is part of what recommends me for positions that that same impressive but atypical resume prevents me from getting.

It is that last fact that is driving me to the brink of despair. As I wrote recently on my Facebook page, I’m stuck in the mud on the road less traveled, hauling a cartload of esoteric cognitive wares. The night is deepening, the weather worsening, and those cherished trinkets serve no purpose unless I can get them to market, and get out of this desolate place.

Most recently (and the catalyst for this musing), I was invited first for a phone interview for a position that would be perfect for me, as the program director for an educational initiative whose logic I am intimately and professionally familiar with, and whose potential I am keenly aware of. I misread the signals, mistaking an invitation the next day to schedule an in-person interview, despite being told on the phone that such interviews would not be scheduled for a few more weeks, as an indication that they were particularly impressed with me, and wanted to move forward more quickly.

I decided to spend all of my limited political capital to seal the deal, excited and relieved to have finally found both the perfect position (which I had not yet encountered in a year and a half of looking) and an apparent reciprocal recognition that I was the perfect person to fill it (a recognition which, at least on their part, turned out to be illusory). I emailed friends and acquaintances who hold or had held public offices (including one U.S. Senator who generously came through for me), particularly those associated with education, executive directors of nonprofits and other prominent public figures, and asked them to contact either my interviewers or members of the board of trustees of the organization to which I was applying, which most did, effusively praising me. Some of them, I cannot ask again. Others, I’m embarrassed to continue to impose upon. It was capital spent and now depleted or diminished.

I arrived at the interview yesterday, unfortunately completely sleep deprived (unable to fall asleep at all the night before, something that rarely happens to me, but happened this time), only to discover my error; whatever the reason for the accelerated interview schedule, it was not some particular enthusiasm for me as a candidate. One of my interviewers, it seemed to me, was looking for candidates that satisfied the conventional check list, which I never do. I was thrown off, answered a couple of questions badly, became too animated when expressing my passion for the mission that the position represented to me, and was thanked at the end of the interview for my interest, and told that I would be contacted by the end of the week as to whether I would be invited for the next round a week and a half later.

I fell from the brink of salvation to the depths of despair in the blink of an eye. My dream job seemingly within reach was a mirage that shimmered and disappeared in the hot desert sun. I have been unable to recover from the disappointment. Even if, improbably, I am invited back for the next round, it was clear that the criteria to which I will be held are the criteria that discount me. My unique talents, my ability to rapidly learn whatever knowledge and skills are required, my passion and creativity and social institutional savvy, my leadership qualities and organizational acumen, all are irrelevant at the levels at which I must enter, because they’re qualities too valuable to be valued, in too short supply and too hard to measure to be placed on the check list of criteria to be considered.

So writing this is my therapy and my refuge. It is my note in a bottle, flung into the sea, giving me hope that maybe someone will find it and send a ship out to fetch me. When you find yourself stranded on a desert isle, you grasp hold of what hope you can.

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I had an epiphany during a panel discussion of Lobato v. State of Colorado (the Colorado district court holding that the Colorado public school system violates the state constitutional requirement that the state provide ”a thorough and uniform” public education system, and that vastly increased funding would be necessary to be in compliance with the state constitution) at the annual policy summit of CLLARO/CLF (Colorado Latino Leadership, Advocacy and Research Organization/Colorado Latino Forum): A constitution is unenforceable in a state that allows direct democracy, or what I call “government by plebiscite” (usually in the form of the initiative process, through which the polity can directly amend the constitution or pass legislation, entirely circumventing the state legislature), and therefore such direct democracy is ultimately incompatible with both constitutionalism and the rule of law.

The panel consisted of Lisa Calderon (the mother of one of the plaintiffs), James Eklund (an attorney for the state), Prof. Kelly Hupfeld (UC Denver Assistant Dean of the School of Public Affairs) and Liane Morrison (Executive Director of GreatEducation Colorado). Two of the panelists (Lisa Calderon and Liane Morrison) were advocates of and in agreement with the Lobato decision; one (Kelly Hupfeld) was academically fascinated by and apparently somewhat favorable toward the decision; and one (James Eklund) had the thankless and clearly not entirely heartfelt task of presenting the state’s opposition to the decision to an audience of progressives overwhelmingly on the other side.

The discussion revolved around the familiar issues of quality of education, deficiencies in funding, the constraining constitutional provisions of TABOR and the Gallagher amendment (which constrain Colorado state government taxing and spending power, and require the state to submit any proposed tax increases to the electorate for approval), and the question of whether the court overstepped its bounds and addressed what is properly “a political question” and therefore not within the competence of the court to address (a separation of powers issue). For the record, I’ll state that I’m agnostic regarding the central legal question involved in the decision (i.e., whether it was the court’s role to quantify in dollars what constitutes “thorough and uniform,” or whether that is a political question to be addressed by the state legislature), but wholeheartedly agree with the decision as a matter of public policy, and am glad to see it as a potential catalyst for much needed systemic change.

(As an aside, non-lawyers aren’t always familiar with, or interested in, the distinction between legal analysis, on the one hand, and social/political/economic public policy analysis, on the other. But this distinction is a vital one to constitutional government and the rule of law, and I think we’d be well-served to make it a more commonly understood aspect of our social institutional landscape, a goal, ironically, that could be more effectively met through a better-funded and designed public education system.)

Of the facets of Lobato directly discussed, the reference to TABOR and Gallagher comes the closest to identifying what I think is really the most essential issue implicated by this decision, though it was raised in too superficial and limited a way to identify that issue clearly. Some might take exception with this claim, arguing that the deficiency in school funding and subsequently in quality is the central issue, but I am not talking about the obvious and fairly easy to understand political ideological battle between those who, on the one hand, recognize that we have underfunded and underperforming schools, and those who, on the other, believe that less government is always better government (the latter delusion being one I address at length and in depth is a series of essays hyperlinked to in the fourth box at Catalogue of Selected Posts). Rather, I’m talking about the subtler and more structurally fundamental question of whether the rule of law and governmental accountability can exist in the absence of a government to be held accountable.

Though TABOR and Gallagher don’t eliminate government entirely, they do diminish its role sufficiently to raise this question, because compliance with the court order to dramatically increase public school funding is, in reality, virtually impossible for the government to accomplish without the electorate agreeing to it, and if there is no concise and identifiable population of people (e.g., the state legislature) that can be held legally accountable for refusing to obey the court order, how can the court order possibly be enforced? And if a court order mandating governmental compliance with the state constitution can’t be enforced, how can the state constitution be said to exist as a legally relevant and effective document? In other words, in circumstances when direct democracy makes the enforcement of court orders mandating constitutional compliance impossible, direct democracy is incompatible with constitutionalism and the rule of law!

Certainly, there are subtleties and complications involved in this analysis. Courts never have troops to enforce their orders, and I may be exaggerating to some extent the distinction between a state legislature choosing to ignore a court order and a populace choosing to ignore a court order. But, while the distinction may be less stark than I have made it, I think it still exists, and is still critically relevant: A state legislature consists of a very limited number of identifiable individuals who can be held directly responsible for violating a court order, while an entire electorate is comprised of a large population of ultimately anonymous individuals who can not be held directly responsible for defying a court order.

Many, perhaps most, court orders directed against governments require state expenditures to be carried out. Desegregation in the Civil Rights era certainly did, for example. Those who hold the purse strings are those who can be held responsible for either complying with or disobeying such court orders. If the purse strings are held too diffusely to hold anyone responsible, then such court orders are essentially meaningless, and therefore so are the laws they serve.

One can argue that while direct democracy is incompatible with a bill of rights which protects the rights of individuals from the vagaries of power, including the rights of minorities from the democratic power of majorities, it is not incompatible with a constitution, since a constitution need not include a bill of rights. A constitution might say, instead, that as long as majorities exercise their power according to a prescribed law, which is ultimately up to those same majorities to interpret, then the rule of law has been adhered to. But this is a sham rule of law, only marginally better than the “rule of law” created on the spot by the whims of a ruthless dictator (since even dictators hold power in part by dispensing favors to supporters who form with the dictator a ruling faction, and the tyranny of the majority is nothing more than such a faction that is at least one person –though never necessarily more than one person– larger than half the population).

In other words, such a “constitution” is merely a ruthless dictatorship of a bare majority over all others, always subject to the caprice of that majority, regardless of how that maj0rity might choose to exercise it. If such a majority decided to interpret its constitution to permit the execution on sight of everyone with green eyes, then that would be within the law as defined by this “constitutional” society. A law which protects only those who wield power, whether they are few or many, is no law at all, but rather naked tyranny.

In reality, constitutions not only protect minorities from majorities, but also majorities from themselves, since it is often the case that foolish fanaticisms, sometimes entirely organic and sometimes fabricated or fanned by and for a minority with resources to influence popular opinion, inform mass decisions that are self-destructive. A majority mobilizing its genius through a process of careful reflection and contemplation to guide and channel its future passions (i.e., by drafting a constitution) is likely to fare better than a majority which simply surrenders to its own ephemeral whims.

This argument is related to the argument by the plaintiffs in Kerr v. State of Colorado, a challenge to the constitutionality of TABOR under the U.S. Constitution, which “requires all states to have a Republican Form of Government embodied in a representative democracy” ( In the complaint, the plaintiffs reference Federalist #10 (by James Madison), which states:

From this view of the subject it may be concluded that a pure democracy, by which I mean a society consisting of a small number of citizens, who assemble and administer the government in person, can admit of no cure for the mischiefs of faction. A common passion or interest will, in almost every case, be felt by a majority of the whole; a communication and concert result from the form of government itself; and there is nothing to check the inducements to sacrifice the weaker party or an obnoxious individual. Hence it is that such democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property; and have in general been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths. Theoretic politicians, who have patronized this species of government, have erroneously supposed that by reducing mankind to a perfect equality in their political rights, they would, at the same time, be perfectly equalized and assimilated in their possessions, their opinions, and their passions.

A republic, by which I mean a government in which the scheme of representation takes place, opens a different prospect, and promises the cure for which we are seeking. Let us examine the points in which it varies from pure democracy, and we shall comprehend both the nature of the cure and the efficacy which it must derive from the Union.

The two great points of difference between a democracy and a republic are: first, the delegation of the government, in the latter, to a small number of citizens elected by the rest; secondly, the greater number of citizens, and greater sphere of country, over which the latter may be extended.

The effect of the first difference is, on the one hand, to refine and enlarge the public views, by passing them through the medium of a chosen body of citizens, whose wisdom may best discern the true interest of their country, and whose patriotism and love of justice will be least likely to sacrifice it to temporary or partial considerations. Under such a regulation, it may well happen that the public voice, pronounced by the representatives of the people, will be more consonant to the public good than if pronounced by the people themselves, convened for the purpose.

But the observation in this essay goes beyond that of Madison: Not only does representative (as opposed to direct) democracy temper passions and protect minorities from majorities, but it is ultimately indispensable to the very existence of the rule of law!

“The Father of the U.S. Constitution” understood the defects of direct democracy, and condemned those who advocated for it. A careful analysis of the effects of direct democracy demonstrate that it is fundamentally incompatible with the existence of an effective constitution and the rule of law. Ironically, once again, it’s precisely those who arrogate to themselves the mantle of defenders of the Constitution who are the ones against whom it must be defended.

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As some of you may have noticed, I went on one of my informal (self-)promotional campaigns recently on Facebook, posting links to my Colorado Confluence Facebook page on a variety of group sites (and some friends’ pages) that seemed like well-chosen places to do a little advertising. On one FB page I chose, “You know you’re a political staffer when…,” I was received with the reflexive vitriol that seems to have become an integral part of what passes for political discourse these days. Apparently, the sole purpose of the page was to complete the title phrase (though I saw plenty of posts that did not serve that purpose, without complaint), and my post was an act of “hijacking the thread” (the whole page being conceived of as a single thread).

One poster there complained that I should be dismissed for writing “impractical abstract bullshit” rather than manning the phones in order to move the political needle a little. That got me thinking (and pontificating): What is the relative value of my “impractical abstract bullshit,” and what is the relative value of manning the phones to move the polical needle a little (in competition, of course, with those of the opposite ideology, doing the same in the opposite direction). (I also threw in a long list of the other things I’ve been doing to affect the world positively, that might compare favorably to manning the phones….)

So, here are some of the things that economically, sociologically, and legally informed “impractical abstract bullshit” helps with, if you are involved in “politics” (which used to –and still should– mean the art of devising and implementing “policies”):

1) A popular mental health “consumer movement” idea called “money follows the individual” is burdened with the same flaw that the popular “school voucher” idea bears: It allocates money equally to individuals, thus leaving those with the greatest needs in a ghetto of underfunded and underserved extreme problems. (See School Vouchers, Pros & Cons)

2) School reform requires the opposite of current popular incarnations of it, with more attention to community involvement, more attention to holistic and integrated child development, and more attention to creating a culture of positive reinforcement through, for instance, designing school programs and policies which give students a stake in one another’s success. (See Real Education Reform and Mistaken Locus of Education Reform)

3) While we do have to create a trajectory in which our national debt is stabilized as a proportion of GDP, it is not the urgent problem that some pretend it is. In fact, new debt is being financed at a rate about equal to the rate of inflation, meaning that in real terms it is costless to finance. And our current entire national debt is equal to about one year’s GDP, which compares very favorably to the average homeowner, whose household debt in the early years of home ownership is equal to several years’ income. Also, the private sector, to which many conservatives bow as the model to which the public sector should aspire, relies on credit as the life-blood of its operations. (See The Economic Debate We’re Not Having , The Real Deficit , The Restructuring of the American and Global Economy , The More Subtle & Salient Economic Danger We Currently Face, and Why Extreme Income and Wealth Inequality Matters)

4) Popular attitudes toward “illegal immigration” in the United States sometimes parallels deeply discredited historical chapters of identifying reviled “foreigners” living within a nation, and seeking to remove them. While there are important differences between our current political situation vis-a-vis our undocumented residents, and the most infamous of historical chapters of mass xenophobic scapegoating (e.g., our directly targeted foreign population does not include descendents of immigrants, but only those who actually crossed the border after their own birth; and our treatment is not yet at “concentration camp” levels, let alone approaching genocide, though detailed knowledge reduces this gap to an extent that would surprise many, including a family detention center that made small children stand at attention for hours and urinate in their pants). (See A comprehensive overview of the immigration issue, Godwin’s Law Notwithstanding, and Basal Ganglia v. Cerebral Cortex, Basal Ganglia Keeping Score)

The list, of course, goes on (and on, and on, and on…; see Catalogue of Selected Posts), but the point here is that it pays to think about the world we live in; and think about the exact nature of the policies we are currently pursuing or advocating, versus the exact nature of the policies that a better informed and more reflective stance might support instead.

Apropos this discussion, I responded to Ed Quillen’s column in today’s Denver post (The Hazards of Nitpicking: with a discussion of the importance of getting the facts and analysis right, rather than merely engaging in the blind partisan warfare and ritualism that the critical poster on that FB page was so committed to. My DP comment (which for some reason does not seem to appear after the column on the DP website) is reproduced below:

Excellent point, Ed!

As a Progressive Blogger (at and person engaged, in many different ways, in our shared human enterprise, the only ideology I want to see anyone embrace is the one that acknowledges the limitations of our knowledge and understanding, and commits us to strive to be reasonable people of goodwill working together to confront the challenges of a complex and subtle world.

I cringe just as much when I see a Progressive leap to some insufficiently supported conclusion, or cling to some insufficiently justified assumption, as when I see a conservative do it, because it is just as counterproductive to our collective welfare (more so, in some ways, since it squanders the opportunity to define ourselves as something other than blind ideologues opposing other blind ideologues).

The real political divide isn’t between the Right and the Left (or Libertarians and “Statists,” or whatever substantive dichotomy you might want to define yourself by), but rather between those who, on the one hand, are committed to applying reason to reliable evidence in service to human welfare, all things considered, and those who, on the other, want to engage in blind ideological warfare, relying on cheap and irrelevant shots, shoddy or false information, poorly reasoned arguments, and cynical and base methodologies of all sorts, ranging from mindless marketing of candidates and policies to disingenuous smear campaigns to simply inventing facts to suit one’s ideological convenience, in service to the displaced goals of advancing an insufficiently examined ideology rather than advancing the interests of humanity.

Ed, there is no message that needs to be repeated as frequently and as forcefully as the one you’ve reiterated in this column. Thanks!

As a global tumbleweed finally come to rest in South Jeffco, Colorado (Southwest Denver suburbs), I appreciate all the more the wonders of my new home, the place where my seven-year-old daughter was born and is growing up. Even in my nomadic days, I knew that I would one day relish seeing the same houses and same trees, same walls and same garden, same faces and same places, day after day, year after year, recognizing the marvelous in the mundane. I’ve always savored the familiarity of those favorite haunts I’ve settled into for longer stretches, or returned to frequently, and sought that familiarity even in the briefest of one-time visits, recognizing that a traveler who does not connect with the world he wanders only brushes across its surface, forever passing it by.

I recall several times, on my travels, being in the most exotic of third world villages, watching local eyes widen in wonder when I told them that I was from Chicago (“Al Capone!” most would immediately shout, having an iconic character that is synonymous for them with that far-off place veiled in legends of its own). The world is a vast and richly colorful story, our own lives and locales no less so than any other. Like beauty, how fascinating a place or slice of life is is a matter of perception, and there is considerable value in perceiving it more rather than less liberally.

But I am well aware of how often we forget to see the world through the eyes of a traveler, or of an extraterrestrial anthropologist, or of a primordial human being animating his or her surroundings with spirits of the imagination. What a loss not to be able to see in a wilderness river the singing nymphs dancing their way from mountain springs to surging sea, or in the mist-shrouded woods the mystical forces whispering to the human soul! So too the human narrative of which we are a part, so full of subtlety and complexity, of passions and aspirations, of strife and folly and occasional triumphs of great courage and generosity, is our own shared Odyssey, as we navigate between the Charybdises and Scyllas of our voyage together through history.

It is difficult for me to see the world in any other way, as some mundane drudgery or mere slog through life. The sound of a gentle breeze fluttering the new leaves of spring, or the ferocious wind howling like a hungry giant; the chirping of birds and laughter of children; even the murmur of passing cars or jet stream of passing airliners overhead; all constantly awaken my sense of wonder, my sense of joy to be a part of this marvelous, ultimately inexplicable existence of ours.

I try to teach my daughter to see the world in the same way, with games and stories and humor and shared curiosity. We can bring our own surroundings to life, by imagining the red-rock formations just over the Hogback along Coyote Song Trail in Ken Caryl’s South Valley Park as magical creatures petrified during an ancient epic adventure, sentinels who will remain at their posts until eons of wind and water wipe them away.

As a teacher, too, in Denver and Jeffco and Littleton, I tried to inspire my students to see the world through wondering eyes. When we speak of public education policy and education reform, we need to remember how important this goal is, seeking to transcend the ritualism of education, the rote drilling and shallow aspirations so many consider to be its essence, and make it instead a celebration of life and an inspiration to the mind and soul. The mechanics of how to accomplish this are important, but they are more “organics” than “mechanics,” something that arises from an institution that we must have the wisdom to ensure remains much more than the sum of its parts.

When we reduce education to something less than that, to a mere factory of curriculum conveyer belts along which we shuttle our children, exposing them as much as possible to assembly line teachers performing automated functions, lost in the Kabuki Theater of professional development programs and faculty meetings and parent-teacher conferences and narrowly, mechanically, and generally dysfunctionally defined “accountability,” we reinforce and reproduce our loss of imagination and concommitant loss of the deeper intellectual talents that imagination alone can foster. For a sense of wonder provokes a hunger for knowledge and insight, one that grows only more ravenous the more it is satisfied.

Finally, as a politically engaged advocate for interacting with our social institutional landscape as conscious and compassionate participants in its endless formation and transformation, I am increasingly convinced that that same sense of wonder is what serves us best. Many dismiss politics as something squalid and base, some remote appendage to our shared existence that we have to hold our nose and reluctantly tolerate. But it can be a rich and delightful celebration of life, a vehicle for our imaginations and aspirations, a major keyboard accessing the “word processor” we vie to type our narratives into as we write our shared story together.

Here in Colorado, I discovered state and local politics for the first time, and have found it to be surprisingly intimate and accessible. While many seem to think of our government and its officers as some remote “other,” that is a matter of choice, for there are numerous opportunities to participate in it, to be a part of it, as responsible and motivated members of a popular sovereignty should be. Such participation should not just be a matter of making noise and clamoring for the respective conflicting false certainties we hold, but also listening and learning, becoming informed and developing increasing awareness of the nuances involved in governing ourselves wisely.

When Aristotle said that “man is a political animal,” he meant, in Greek (referring to the polis, the classical Greek form of the political state), that we thrive best by being active members of our community. We can do this by getting to know our city, county, and state representatives, by attending events and listening to speakers, by engaging both with those who think like us and those who don’t, and by embracing the multi-faceted wonder of our existence.

We humans have such an enormous capacity for creating either great beauty or great ugliness together, of realizing our potential in service to our expansive humanity or of surrendering it in service to our animalistic and destructive urges. Which we do in any given instance is less a function of whether our ideology is “the right one” or not, and more a function of whether we see the world through wondering eyes. Wisdom arises from wonder, and well-being arises from wisdom. Let’s all wonder our way into an ever-improving future.

Click here to learn about my mind-bending epic mythological novel A Conspiracy of Wizards!!!

(The following is a series of post on the Denver Post comment board for a recent tangentially related column by Tina Griego. The column, and the entire exchange of comments, can be found at This column brings to mind SB 126, Colorado ASSET. The students that Tina profiles here are similar to many that I encountered as an ELA (English Language Acquisition) social studies teacher in Denver Public Schools several years ago, most of whom were undocumented immigrants.

SB 126 has no fiscal note (it costs taxpayers nothing; in fact, it brings in revenue for our state universities). We offer kids a path to productivity rather than to desperation and criminality, the latter choice having a much different fiscal and social note for us to pay.

To highlight the inhumanity of our current attitudes toward undocumented immigrants (people whose only crime, like humans throughout history, was to migrate from destitution toward opportunity), I could go into the horror stories I encountered while doing a legal internship with Rocky Mountain Immigrant Advocacy Network and, briefly, with a private immigration lawyer, stories like that of a detainee in Park County who lost limbs due to a staff infection and inadequate conditions and treatment, or of a young diabetic deprived of his insulin by clueless guards while his mother was frantic and helpless over the fact that they were in effect killing her child just for having been taken across the border as a baby. There are others, as bad or worse, and it’s tempting to tell them, but my experience as an ELA teacher is more directly relevant.

Teaching ELA is an unbelievable experience. These are great kids. Most good teachers love their students, but there’s an extra innocence and sweetness about so many ELA students, that connection is really amplified, in both directions. I felt ready to do anything I could to help my ELA kids over the hurdles they’re facing. A few of them were among the very best students anywhere, in every way, the kinds of kids that excel both in terms of commitment and in terms of just plain good nature. Several of my ELA students, whose faces I can still see as I type this, were kids who I felt then, and feel now, simply deserved a chance to succeed in life. And, given that chance, they would pay back the society that provided it a thousand fold.

Tina Griego is right: These children, many of whom are the product of people who found there way here to give their children greater opportunities in life, offer us hope for the future. We, in turn, need to refrain from depriving them, and us, of that hope.

dlprobert wrote: It costs the taxpayers the money that is discounted giving illegals in-state tuition. It costs the schools those funds!! Don’t say it costs us nothing, how dare you!!
No, it brings revenue into the schools. In-state tuition, minus the public subsidy that other state residents receive (which is how the bill is drafted), brings in more revenue to the schools than is spent on the students who are paying it. Since in almost all cases they wouldn’t have been able to pay out-of-state tuition, there is no “opportunity cost” of not having charged them the higher amount. This is simply an economic fact.
dlprobert wrote: All of those horror stories you mention could be avoided, had they stayed in their home country an applied to come here legally, waited their turn, like real LEGAL immigrants do. We, the TAX-PAYING AMERICAN CITIZENS, are tired of the coddling of illegals. We want current immigration laws enforced!! We don’t need any new rules!
1) The waiting list for current citizens of Latin American countries is upward of 20 years, even with a close relative. There is no “turn” to be waited. The real alternaitve is between migrating toward opportunity, or not migrating toward opportunity. Humans, all through history, have migrated toward opportunity, the lines drawn in the sand by past conquests and wars notwithstanding.

2) Illegal immigrants pay more in taxes for fewer pay-backs than citizens and legal residents, on average. This is another economic fact.

dlprobert wrote:That is what this TAX-PAYING AMERICAN CITIZEN would like to see, not the same old blather your keep throwing at us about how unjust America treats illegals (it’s obviously not bad enough, they keep coming).
My “blather” about a commitment to humanity rather than a mere self-serving antagonism to it is “blather” more of us should be “throwing” at each other, far more often and consistently.
dlprobert wrote: Then let them wait 20 years…their other countrymen did!
Really? Do you know the history of North American migration and demographics, not to mention American immigration law? First of all, Texas and most of the American West and Southwest belonged to Mexico before it belonged to the United States, until the latter prosecuted a series of opportunistic wars and anexations in order to acquire it. A large portion of the Hispanic population of this part of the country is descended from those who resided here before it became a part of the United States; in other words, the border crossed them. The words “colorado, arizona, california, nevada, los angeles, San Diego, San Francisco, Santa Barbara, las vegas…” are all Spanish for a reason. (And the iconic American Cowboy is actually of Latin American derivation.)

More recently, we have utilized various immigration policies to bring in cheap labor when it served our purposes, and try to remove it when it didn’t, frequently dividing and disrupting families in the process. We created the flow of people from south of the border, cultivated it, trying to turn it on and off like a spigot at our convenience, another source of chattel for our exploitation.

Most of that population is predominantly indigenous in its ancestry, descendents of the Indians belonging to that larger population we conquered and displaced, and to a large extent simply massacred, to acquire the wealth we now enjoy (a fact that Hitler cited with admiration, as a justification for his own policy of “lebensraum”). That wealth, produced on stolen land, was produced for centuries with the assistance of imported and abused human chattel from Africa.

You’ll notice, also, that I had said that even those with close relatives have waiting times of over 20 years; those without close relatives can’t immigrate, period. And for those who are lucky enough to have a 20-some year waiting period, their main purpose, that of providing their children with better opportunities, is undermined by the wait, since those children will be adults, and will have to get in line themselves at that point!

America has many admirable qualities, and has, at times, strived to be a gift to humanity. But we are also burdened with our fair share of horrible acts of violence against others, and those you disparage now are both descended from our earlier victims, and are in many ways just the latest incarnation of the disposable labor we have so long cultivated and exploited.

dlprobert wrote: We have no more room in our budget for any more! I’m sorry, but the US can only handle so many immigrants. That is why we have immigration in the first place!
Actual economic analyses, rather than arbitrary claims in service to blind inhumanity, tells a different story. Most analyses hover around the conclusion that illegal immigration is an economic wash nationally, though the geographical distribution of costs and benefits is uneven. Undocumented immigrants pay taxes, and are denied some of the services they pay for. They solve a fundamental demographic problem in America (the worker-to-retiree ratio), perform some jobs that there really are not American workers willing or able to do (primarily in the agricultural sector), keep consumer prices low and perform a vital function in our overall economy. This debate, which we have had throughout our history, has never been about our capacity to absorb newcomers; it has always been about the bigotry and xenophobia of those who are already here.
dlprobert wrote:Illegals cost the state of Colorado over $1.5B annually….that’s a fact.
No, it’s not a fact. Those who have ever done any honest work in the field acknowledge first that we have no firm numbers, for a variety of reasons. Second, the range of conclusions tends toward zero. Third, you’ve obviously cherry picked a number that some propagandist generated for your convenience. It has absolutely no basis in reality.
dlprobert wrote: The money they earn is sent to their real home countries! In fact, the reason El Presidente came here cryin to Obama was, if we started enforcing our immigration laws, the loss of billions to the Mexican economy!
They send a significant portion of their earnings to their home countries, where their wives and children and parents are struggling to survive, while they live spartan lives working long hours here generating wealth in our economy. Improving those foreign economies is also good for our own, in a variety of ways, but, more importantly, it is good for humanity, which is the responsibility of all human beings, even the exceedingly fortunate ones who live in the world’s wealthiest nations.

In your orgy of belligerence, you’re anxious to impose a lose-lose scenario on all of us, hurting ourselves in order to punish others for daring to do what humans have done throughout human history. Let’s focus on what my original post was all about: Providing undocumented teenagers with a chance to succeed in our society. The alternative is not, as you imagine, deporting them: The costs of doing so, even ignoring the astonishing inhumanity of it, are far, far greater than any estimation of the costs of not doing so.

The real question is how to manage the costs of a 12 million strong undocumented population in America. You have a choice between pushing them into destitution, even those who are most capable and dedicated to success, breeding predators rather than contributing members of society, or, more intelligently, offering roads for success, by which we all benefit.

There are those in America, as in many other times and places, that are lost in a fog of ignorance and belligerence, viewing the world through a lens of neatly separate nations and races, of “us” and “them” defined along a variety of dimensions. Such people are the authors of genocides, of enslavements, of brutal conquests and exploitations and oppressions. Then there are others, also in many times and places, who recognize that humanity is undivided except by the lines in our own imaginations, that we share a fate, an on-going endeavor, and fare better when we face it with reason and mutual goodwill rather than with irrational belligerence and hatred.

It’s time for people to start choosing which of those groups they wish to belong to with more wisdom and compassion than many here are doing now.

dlprobert wrote: You said…it was war…and to the victor go the spoils!
Thank you for being so transparent about your orientation. You are steeped in the notion of violently despoiling others in service to yourself and your tribe; I am steeped in the notion of thriving, cooperatively, in service to humanity.

dlprobert wrote: I choose to be anti-illegal immigrant, like a majority of TAXPAYING AMERICAN CITIZENS are!

And I choose to be a reasonable person of goodwill, as all of us can and should choose to be.

dlprobert wrote: Look Steve, I am really not trying to be an a__

Fair enough. Then let’s have an informative discussion about all relevant considerations and factors.

First, it’s important to note that this conversation didn’t begin as a blanket defense of “illegal immigration.” My personal view, for a variety of reasons, is that the more open the borders (here and elsewhere), the better. This is beneficial to humanity on several levels: It leads to greater global wealth (by removing barriers to the free flow of the factors of production); it increases global distributional justice (by openning up opportunities to earn a larger piece of the pie for those currently with smaller pieces); it creates more cross-cutting ties among nations and peoples, thus preparing us to better deal with our proliferating global rather than national problems and challenges; it reduces the increasing disparity between the wealthy enclaves in the world and the impoverished mass of humanity, almost entirely by raising up those who are somewhat poorer rather than by bringing down those who are somewhat richer, which is not only more humane, but also helps avert a future that is otherwise guaranteed to be full of horrible violence aimed against those rich enclaves, which will be increasingly unable to stem the tide of humanity demanding global structural changes.

But one doesn’t have to agree with this view to agree that we have a practical problem concerning how to assimilate (or remove) the 12 million or so undocumented residents of this country. Removal, as I’ve already pointed out, is simply too expensive (even ignoring the inhumanity of it). By any calculation, the costs far, far, far exceed the benefits. Fiscally and economically, it is simply completely impractical. Added to that is the fact that you would witness something akin to the Nazi round-up of Jews in 1930s and 40s Germany if that were the path we choose to go down. We would, indeed, become a global villain, and would be historically remembered as such.

That’s what happens when people think primarily in terms of “nations” rather than in terms of “humanity.” The Germans of that epoch, you might recall, justified their actions by recourse to nationalism; they were concerned with the welfare of the German people, and with ridding Germany of a foreign element that they considered a burden on their national welfare. It was irrational of them; they couldn’t have been more wrong. And it is irrational of us; we couldn’t be more wrong today.

The reality is that we have a deep historical link to the people you misidentify as mere invaders. About a third of our contiguous territory was a part of Mexico before it was a part of the United States. Many Hispanic residents of that third are descendents of people whom the border crossed rather than of people who crossed the border. We have purposefully exploited the porous border to the south to our benefit, and have created a population that we consider inferior and disposable. “Legally” or “illegally,” they are a part of our nation and our society, and we have a moral oligation to them.

More importantly, for the purposes of this conversation, our own self-interest depends on assimilating those undocumented people. If we want to improve our control of the flow, so be it. But the notion that we should control it by punishing those who are here in order to make our country less attractive to those who aren’t is sheer folly, both because it turns us into something we should not be striving to be, and because it breeds an angry, rebellious, opportunity deprived shadow population that will only, as a result, impose a real cost and burden on our nation, rather than the imaginary one of today.

dlprobert wrote: America cannot continue with it’s handouts to people that are not in this country legally

The notion that those who come here illegally are greater recipients of “hand-outs” than other members of this society is not only mistaken, it is backwards. Yes, some social services (e.g., public education and emergency room treatment) are not withheld from undocumented residents of this country, but most are. They cannot collect on social welfare and economic security programs (e.g., medicaid, unemployment, welfare, social security, etc.). As a result, unlike American citizens and legal permanent residents, if they’re not working, they simply leave. There’s no point in being here, paying for a higher cost of living while receiving no income. So they are virtually all employed, always paying sales taxes and usually paying income taxes (since they generally need to use fake social security numbers to work) for programs that they can’t collect on. They make a vital contribution to the economy, which is why the labor market places such a strong demand on them.

dlprobert wrote: but it’s still ILLEGAL

There is legality, and there is morality, and there is reality. It was once illegal for a slave to escape from his or her master in this country, or for anyone, in any part of the country, to harbor such an escaped slave. In the name of that law, slave owners could send out slave hunters into non-slave states to recapture escaped slaves, and, abusing that law, those slave hunters often captured free African Americans living in free states and sold them into slavery in the south. Legality clearly is not the final word on “right” and “wrong.” So, those of us who recognize moral defects in current laws have a moral obligation to struggle to change those laws in order to cure those defects.

Beyond legality and morality, there is reality. The reality is that humans have always migrated away from destitution and toward opportunity, regardless of the nature or legal status of the invitation they may or may not have received. Jews ended up in Germany as a result of a diaspora, not a German invitation; does that justify the Holocaust?

We create our nations, give them geographic definition, and create laws by which to govern them, but we do not dictate the underlying dynamics of human existence. We live in a world of far greater global interdependence than nationalists would like to admit, in which the plight of others is and will be our own, and violently so tomorrow if we do not recognize it as morally so today.

dlprobert wrote: Those that won’t even try to assimilate…I have a real issue with that. I’m a veteran and when I went to a foreign country, I made it a point to learn the basics of the native language, not only to get along, but to also fit in.

Good for you. You are the exception among Americans, but not among those of other countries. I’ve lived and traveled abroad for over eight years of my adult life (including two stationed in Germany with the U.S. Army, and over two living in Mexico). I’ve known ex-pat Americans, and travelers and tourists, as well as those of other nations, and we are by far the most disrespectful, imperialistic sods out there. Many Americans abroad not only don’t know the language of the country they are in, but are downright offended when citizens of other countries, in their own countries, don’t know English. “The Ugly American” is a term that evolved in light of this dynamic.

As a veteran, I’m sure you recall the phrases “back in the world” and “going back to the world.” That’s how American service members refer to the United States, denegrating other countries (including European allies) by implying that they aren’t even a part of “the world.” America is the whole world in this formulation; other places are unreal, inferior, less worthy of recognition or acknowledgement. So, let’s not decry the imagined cultural insensitivity of those who come to this country and continue to speak their native language (or continue to speak the language established here before we forcefully anexed this region).

And, lets’ be honest: While some first-generation Hispanics who reside here don’t know much English, the impression that that is the  norm is reinforced by selective perception. Most learn more than “the basics” of English. I detect a bit of an attribution and confirmation bias in your above characterization: You didn’t claim fluency; might it be that your “basics” of those other languages, of which you’re so proud, represents a comparable level of language proficiency to the failure to learn English you detect in others?

There are basically two ways to see the world: In terms of “us” v. “them,” or in terms of humanity. We will all benefit in the long run, enormously, the more we gravitate toward the latter orientation and leave the former one on the dust heap of history, where it belongs.

Click here to learn about my mind-bending epic mythological novel A Conspiracy of Wizards!!!

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