Splintering of the Left and Why the Left is Still a Dominant Force

Whenever I get a break from teaching I default to two activities, exercise and watching quality TV. There is not a lot of quality television.  I am a very fit 50 year old.  LOL

However, I have at least found a reasonable recommendation service: TasteK;d, and it was from a three minute browse on TastK;id that I discovered a Danish show Borgen recommended by fans of the Wallander.  If you have not seen Wallander then get it on DVD.  Even on a crappy old vacuum tube television set the cinematography and all-around production quality is brilliant, and the stories are not too bad either if you do not mind a lot of nasty psychopathic characters in your crime dramas.

Borgen, the Danish TV series

Borgen = PGD ~ “Pretty Good Drama”. Produced by Camilla Hammerich for the Danish DR1 network.

But the thing about Borgen that got me writing this little recommendation is the way the political landscape portrayed on Borgen mirrored quite amazingly closely the landscape in my home country New Zealand.  It also mirrors fairly closely Great Britain, Australia and Canada.  I am not familiar with other countries political systems, but my suspicion from this small sample is that many countries, perhaps a majority, are tending towards a multi-party system where coalitions need to be formed, where the right-wing parties consolidate most power through their internal unity, and where the left-wing parties are almost completely fractured, but still have remarkable influence.

Since I am a mathematical physicist and IT lecturer, I am not by any stretch a fount of wisdom on political matters, but my father was a New Zealand MP and he loved discussing world politics.  He was also a chief negotiator for the Bahá’í World Community based in Haifa Israel, where he had to deal with a sometimes hostile Israeli political system.    So I picked up a lot from him.  Thus, while I will not write here at length, I would like to make a few pithy observations and hopefully get some readers to respond or go away and do a thesis or write articles or books on these topics.  I also like to hope any decent lecturers on political science are observing and debating these ideas in their courses with their students.

The main cognitive dissonance I get from my sparse survey of world politics is that the leftist political parties are badly fractured and yet their ideologies are the more forceful and powerful.  Why is this?  How is it possible? What might it be indicating for the near future (50 to 100 year horizon)?

Here are a few of my summary observations:

  1. Right wing parties tend to stay unified and thus consolidate power, my thesis would be that this is due to a general right-wing or conservative-minded mentality (more on this below).
  2. Left wing parties are badly fracturing, particularly when any two-party system goes multi-party (usually due to a constitutional change from first-past-the-post to a more proportional representation system), and my thesis is that this a prototypical left-wing psyche.
  3. In multi-party democracies the Libertarians also tend to get precipitated out of both the left-wing and right-wing dominant parties.
  4. Although political legislation and executive power probably lies predominantly with right-wing conservatism (witness the USA despite their President), nevertheless, the world is unerringly moving more and more towards old-fashioned progressive and leftist policies and ideologies.

Forget for a moment about the incongruence of the phrase “old fashioned progressive”.  I will hopefully explain what I mean by that in what follows.

What I hope to illustrate in my brief discussion to follow is a vague feeling that the psychological factors which underlie each of the above observations seems, to me, to highlight the good in each brand of political ideology.  Moreover, the emergence of these distinct trends and differences points to a potential for a healing of the bad-old ways of 19th and 20th century democracy, which tended to be horribly corrupt and “democratic” in name only, not serving the people, but serving more faithfully corporations and wealthy interests.

You will have to fill in a lot of the details yourself I warn you!  I do not have time to write a major thesis here. But I think just a  few words under each heading should be sufficient for anyone to go away, do their homework, and fill out the bulk of the over-arching thesis I am presenting in proposal.

Also in what follows it might be hard for American readers who tend to think “socialism” is a dirty word.  In my lexicon “socialism” is simply a nature of politics that uses collective resources to help those in great need.  Thus, almost every single country has socialist health care, almost without exception. Taxes from people who never use health-care go towards subsidizing the costs of health-care for the poor.  Broadcast television is another great socialist system.  So is the school education system in most countries.  Normal garden-variety socialism exists all over the place in the USA.  When we in New Zealand talk about socialism we tend to think of schools and hospitals, police, law courts, and never any hint of Marxism or Communism creeps in.  The Communist failure was accepted in New Zealand probably back around 1948.  We do not have any hang-ups about left-wing socialism.  We accept the good of modern socialism and have long ignored as irrelevant to any modern consumer culture any potential threat from the corruptions and inhuman inefficiencies of communist style social centralization.

Finally, for any extremist readers, I personally think the spoils of evil and corruption are fairly uniformly distributed across the political spectrum.  There might be statistically more socialists imprisoned than conservatives but only because of extreme times like the McCarthy era in the USA or the radical feminist era in the UK and elsewhere and for the communist “red conspiracy” theorists who once held political or judicial power in many countries.  There is also a bias on the left since Trade Unions were often infiltrated by organized crime, and there is no way that Mafia or other crime organizations can be considered left-wing or right-wing.  They are basically wingless.  And would utilize any existing power structure at the level that they could usefully infiltrate and corrupt.

Objectively, and with an even-handed look into all the possible biases and miscarriages of justice over the last few centuries, I think one would find no significant correlation between political belief and corruption or crime, and instead only a correlation between power and corruption (I might be wrong, I have not looked into any such research).  Each side of the political spectrum likes to believe their’s is the more honest and just side, but I would guess there is no objective evidence for such beliefs.  There are just good and bad people who seek power, and the more power they gain the worse people’s ethics seem to become, if for no other reason than the purely banal fact that with more power one can “get away” with more slight of hand and wrong-doing even if for pure motives.  What’s more, with some people who gain inordinate power, they often will not even realize they are evil.  Indeed, maybe often they are not in themselves “evil”, and it is only their incompetent or ill-considered actions that are evil.

Hopefully that last paragraph clears a  little bit of ideological fog to make what I am about to write a little easier to glean.

Conservative Unity

A number of studies in psychology have documented the (by now commonly understood) phenomenon of right-wing conservative fear.  Conservative react with measurably more disgust to images that are violent and horrific, while left-wing proponents are far more calm & cool when faced with disgusting or psychologically disturbing images. See “Unconscious Reactions Separate Liberals and Conservatives” by Emily Laber-Waren, Scientific American, 1 September 2012.  See also, “Fear of Ebola Could Make People More Likely to Vote Conservative”, by Alice Robb, in The New Republic, October, 2014.

Conservatives tend to react to aggression and hostility with a military sort of mentality.  They circle-the-wagons, hold down the fort, and adopt defensive postures.  This is not, or even remotely, only in physical aggression circumstances. It is a general psychological trait of conservatives that per-determines a lot of their decisions and actions in the everyday world.  But there is a beauty in these traits.  Despite many personal differences and internal strife and implementation debates, conservatives tend to have a remarkable ability to remain united in the face of onslaught or in-party friction.  It is an admirable character of a conservative mind-set that liberals and progressives and radical find almost impossible to replicate. This strength of conservative movements in general (and yes, here and in what follows I am making deliberately sweeping generalizations that should in no way be attributed to any particular individual human) will help conservative opinion remain a strength in politics for as long as I can foresee.

This is important, because as the world moves inexorably more towards left-wing and caring pro-socialist capitalism, the loss of hard-line conservative opinion would be a terrible blow for democracy and representational government.  Socialists need to be reigned in by fiscal conservatives from time to time.  Corruptions in centralized power structures (like our current schools) need to periodically be released form the tyranny of social conformance and allowed to burst free and explore new and innovative options that require a more libertarian mind-set.

Left Wing Diversity

Socialist and left-wing thinkers tend to have a greater tolerance for outside views and do not automatically revert into defensive modes when threatened. This is often perceived as a political weakness. It also tends to make left-wing minds less worried or fearful of internal debate and dissension.  Left-wing parties also tend to have deserved reputations for division and an inability to see-through hard line decisions.  This is a natural psychological trait in general for people who favour the political left.  It is characterized by higher diversity of opinion, higher tolerance for dissension, and weakness in resolve and a tendency for disunity.

But I think the disadvantages of the political left are becoming less important.  Multi-party politics has split the left-wing big parties, so they no longer hold anywhere close to parity against the dominant right-wing parties.  But in a multi-party proportional representation system this is not such a problem.   Conservatives may have primary power, but not in brute force of numbers, only by virtue of being the dominant party.  Numerically the combined left, green, progressive and centrist liberals dominant over most right-wing parties.  We see in the USA where the electoral college system results in a de facto two-party system that the left wing and right wing are roughly balanced.  And the USA is a very conservative country by in large, owing perhaps to it’s strong Christian puritanism cultural history.  If the USA was to become truly multi-party and electorally proportional then I suspect the Republicans would remain almost intact, the Democrats would lose a huge amount of their numerical force, but leftist and progressive centrist parties would spring up, preserving the rough left versus right balance.

These left-wing weaknesses are thus not fatal.  Indeed, the tolerance for diversity and the more fractious in-fighting nature of left-wing circle politics is a vital, and perhaps even necessary, character needed for a political movement that seeks more rapid change and innovation then the conservative right.  Change is dangerous, it requires minds that are less fearful of strife and more able to tolerate dissension.  The right-wing mindset by nature can never fully embrace such internal chaos and conflict necessary for the sound debate and research of new ideas and potentially disruptive innovations.

Libertarian Precipitation

Republicans want to be free from fear and doubt.  Socialist desire to be free from poverty and want.  It is no wonder these opposing camps in politics are at odds.  Those who feel more of a psychological need to be free from fear are those who are already wealthy enough to not have concerns about basic needs and shelter and immediate security, they tend to be conservatives. Those who cannot even afford to worry about national security, because they are struggling to survive, tend to be socialist or left-wing (although the USA populace seem to have major departures from this otherwise world-wide trend in political demographics, see “What’s the Matter with Kansas” by Thomas Frank).  In-between there are libertarians, who may be either wealthy or poor but who in any case value liberty and freedom to “do whatever the hell they please” above other worries like safety or accruing of personal wealth.  These are all heavily stereotyped descriptions, but I am justifiably making them for the sake of very general arguments.

The general argument is that when a country changes from a two-party to a multi-party style of election and/or governance, then the libertarians tend to divorce themselves from the parental support of their innately preferred branch of the left-right political spectrum, and they then crystallize out into their own political force fields. Usually extreme in free-market philosophy, they can also have elements of intellectual anarchism, which is not the popularly believed system without rules, but is a more benign philosophical idea that countries and communities should be run by egalitarian cooperative principles and not by a leadership hierarchy.  Everyone contributing, everyone who participates, is a leader in an anarchic system.  Far from leading logically to chaos, an anarchy can be a rather beautiful system.  But we are yet to see anarchy operate anywhere effectively on a  global governance scale.

But despite the flaws in implementing pure libertarian principles, libertarians still have many important principles that can be used to balance and guide other mainstream political ideologies.

There are even some highly effective and proven micro-implementations of libertarianism.  Not in politics, but in business.  The Free Software movement is the best example I know.  It is wildly successful and has shown itself to be a truly beautiful and efficient model for how an anarchic style of operation can be effective when the purpose is to create a complex system of products that no one person can maintain or oversee.   One exception might be the Linux kernel project.  The Linux kernel does have it’s leader, for sure, but the model (the Cathedral style of software development) is still basically a libertarian type of model, allowing many developers to contribute, without bias, provided they have the proven skill.  The Linux kernel is a type of meritocracy more than an anarchy, but it is heavily libertarian in flavour nonetheless.  But there are thousands of other free open-source software projects they basically prove that anarchy or libertarianism can be an effective system organizing a society, in fact a world-wide virtual society

The idea is that when they can free themselves from the shackles of a two-party system, libertarians have a stronger voice.  They are no longer beholden to any traditional stifling party power structure, they no longer need to tow any particular party-line, but can instead organize themselves along whatever style of libertarianism they espouse.  This clarity of political voice from an important sub-section of society is a wonderful advancement in world civilization.  There is little worse for idealism in politics than having good ideas that are drowned by noise and never heard.

Irrepressible Progressive Movement

I have to confess I am not strong on knowledge of the differences between left-wing socialism and progressives.  My characterization would be that traditional left-wing parties tend to be more entrenched in their brand of socialism, whereas progressives are more like the amorphous apolitical class I will mention below in the Epilogue.  My thesis concerning progressives was merely that their collective stream of ideology seems to be where the world is heading.  Partly this is because Progressives borrow from intellectual popularism, using popular academic and scientific opinion to drive through parts of their agenda.  Partly it is because they can align with conservatives on fiscal responsibility and safety and defense matters, and partly because they can work with green movements who are concerned with environmental protection, and they can work with both libertarians and greens on political and social freedom.

It also seems that Progressive politics is almost by definition the style and content of politics that is a majority popular trend.   People are sick of the old, they want fresh and new ideas, and that almost defines what it is to be a Progressive in politics and society.  So I think it is almost vacuous to point out the the progressive political movement is advancing irrepressibly.  Because it advances by definition.  Whatever trend in politics is current, then that is virtually what we would call “progressive”.   This is probably a gross characterization and oversimplification, but I think it has enough of a kernel of truth to be all that I need to write on the topic.  My main summarizing point which links to progressive politics is in the Epilogue.

Epilogue: Rise of the Amorphous Apoliticals

Although not in my list of five observations above, I think another thread in world politics is the emergence of young people who are almost entirely apolitical.  They borrow an ideology from the left, from the right, from the central, from the anarchic, from the libertarian, as they see fit, to suit their needs or current thoughts.

This is a very healthy brand of millennial citizen.  There have always been people who are capable of sympathizing, or even empathizing, with either end or middle of the political spectrum.  These have, in the past, tended to be “free thinkers”, or outsiders, or academics who pursue truth and impartial judgment.  Such people would often be looked down upon as “having no principles”.  But this was the exact opposite.  Free thinkers have higher principles than any ideological allegiant party people.   Their allegiance was never to any political party of ideological brand, but to truth and justice and egalitarianism.  There are plenty of people within the political parties who are such free thinkers too, they are not always total outsiders. They have the ability to work with anyone who has a reasonable fact-based or rational opinion. That is because facts and rationality are open to debate and are immune from hard-line ideology.  The mistake of politically biased operators in thinking that free thinkers “have no principles” is a failure to note that their (the free thinker’s) principles are in fact blatant and far higher and nobler ones, devoted to truth and wisdom rather than any particular policy.

Also, I wrote above that in the bad-old days democratic governments were a farce, they served corporate and wealthy interests, not the people.  The thing is, most people will think this has never changed, and in fact may be even worse today than in the past.  So really we have bad-new days.  But I would disagree.  Today we have much greater transparency, the ills and sicknesses of political systems are more exposed to the light. So naturally we think it is getting worse.  But the more light gets shed on politics the more sick it will seem until we cross over a putative phase transition in politics, and politics becomes less corrupted by money and more driven by people who want to serve the community and who would rather not be in power.  They would be reluctantly elected.  There will be an end to commercial political advertising and campaigning because political parties will become irrelevant and people will be voting for individual representatives, using a person’s character and individual history to inform their vote, not a political party agenda.  This is not naïve Pollyannarism, since you can see the signs and trends for yourself.  Look at the power and influence of social media.  This is not controlled by governments or security institutions.  It is genuine power wielded by ordinary people.  But it is only a dim start.  There is a thousand-fold, maybe even a million-fold increase in political action and luminosity that the Internet and social media still could develop, and I think will inevitably develop.

In this new millennium I think the argumentative fractious nature of most party-political systems are making people psychological ill.  There is less tolerance for politics.  More and more youngsters get their news from shows like The Daily Show than from stolid ratings-driven mainstream news media.  And I think this is how world politics is trending, slowly, but surely.  I would not be surprised if in 50 to 70 years from now there is at least one major democracy that switches to a party-free political electioneering and governance system.  There is already one major world-wide community using a party-free electoral and governance system.  I wonder how long before this system is more widely known and catches on in the public sphere.

 

 

 

 

 

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“You want me to grade ya? Well, you gotta’ ask yourself, do you feel lucky … well do ya punk?”

Semi-annual exam grading this week. I am trying to migrate more each semester to journal portfolio grading. This semester I managed to get approval for exams worth 0% of course grades. But I made them Pass/Fail, which is probably a bit rough on students. So I also had an “earned pass” criteria, which meant students had to complete weekly journals, forum discussions, and homework quiz sets, to “earn a pass” in case they failed both exams. This works quite well.

The downside is that with 15 weeks of journals to review and forum posts to read and send feedback on, for every student, the total hours I spend on assessment exceeds the time I am being paid for lecturing. (It is about 450 hours for a class of 60 students. And I estimate I am only paid for 60 hours of assessment work, because that is all the office time I am given to submit grades after final exams are over. And it seems to me most other lecturers work some magic to finish their grading in about 12 hours, I do not know how they do it.)

So I am going to request next semester for dropping exams altogether, and instead getting quality control through short weekly tests in lecture class where exam conditions will be simulated. This will force me to grade tests each week, so at the end of term the exam grading will not take so long. But it does not reduce the assessment hours, in fact I think it will increase my overall work burden. So I will also need to scale back journal portfolios to bi-weekly instead of weekly. I will also probably need to make the short tests bi-weekly too, since, with 120 students, grading tests each week will overload my hours.

The problem is not that I dislike being under-paid for my work, I could care less about money. What I do not like is wasting time and not being able to spend more time on research and course quality improvements and developing better educational software. Actually, I do not consider assessment a waste of time. But it is tedious and depressing work sometimes. So I really just think I personally need to be smarter about how I allocate my time, and overloading on assessment is decreasing the time I could be spending on course quality improvements, so ultimately I am hindering improving student learning by spending too much time on assessment.

That’s enough moaning!  What I really want to blog about today is the problem with tests and exams as assessments, and some of the issues of freedom in learning that are stifled by tests and exams, and how to do things better without abandoning the good uses for tests.

edu_FreedomToLearn_BertrandRussellSo ok, I think I have been subjected to enough education to exercise my opinion!

To get you warmed up, consider what you are doing as a teacher if you have a prescribed syllabus with prescribed materials and resources and no freedom of selection for students.  When students are not permitted to fire up Firefox or Chrome to search for their own learning resources, what is this?.  What you are doing then is called censorship.  And that is probably the most polite word for it.

edu_censorship_GeorgeBernardShawIn the past it was not censorship, it was in fact liberation!  But times have changed.  Teachers used to be the fountains of wisdom and guidance.  They would gather resources, or purchase textbooks, and thereby give students access to a wide world.  But now there is no need for that, and teachers who continue prescribing textbooks and using the same resources for all students, they are now ironically the censors.  They are limiting student freedom.  The Internet has changed the world this much!  It has turned liberators into censors overnight.  Amazing.

So please, if you are a teacher read this and share it. If you are studying to become a teacher then please do not become a censor.   Learn how to give your students freedom and structured guidance.  If you are already a teacher please do not continue being a censor.

Teaching to the Tests, “Hello-oh!?”

One interesting thing I have learned (or rather had confirmed) is that university teaching is far superior to high school teaching in a few ways.

  • You, the lecturer, get to structure the course however you want, provided you meet fairly minimal general university requirements.
  • Because of that structural freedom you can teach to the tests! This is a good thing!

“What’s that?” you say. How can teaching to the tests be a good thing? Hell, it is something I wrote dozens of paragraphs railing against when I was doing teacher training courses, and in later blogs. And despite not liking to admit it, it is what most high school teachers end up doing in New Zealand. It is a tragedy. But why? And why or when and how can teaching to the tests actually be a good thing?

The answer, and I think the only way teaching to tests is natural and good, is when the teacher has absolute control over both the test format and the classroom atmosphere and methods.

First of all, I like using tests or exams to get feedback about what basics students have learned. But I do not use these results to judge students. A three hour exam is only a snapshot. I can never fit in all the course content into such a short exam, so it would be unfair to use the exam to judge students who did well in learning topics in the course that will not appear in my exam papers. And students could be “having a bad day”, if I tested them another day their score could go up or down significantly. So I realise exams and tests are terrific for gathering course outcome quality information. But you are a bit evil, in my opinion, if you use exams and tests as summative assessments. Summative assessments should be feedback to students, but not used for grading or judgemental purposes. Instead, the only fair way to grade and judge students is by using quality weekly or “whole semester assessments.

Secondly, if a teacher is biased then “whole semester” assessments (like journal portfolios) can be terribly insecure and unreliable. So you need to try to anonymise work before you grade it, so as to eliminate overt bias. And you might think you are not biased, but believe me, the research will tell you that you are most certainly biased, you cannot help it, it is subconscious and therefore beyond your immediate conscious control. But you can proactively consciously control bias by eliminating it’s source, which is knowing which student’s work you are currently grading.

You can later think about “correcting” such anonymised grades on a case-by-case basis by allowing for known student learning impairments. But you should not bias your grades a priori by knowing which student you are grading at the time. A’ight?! Biased teachers are well-documented. Teachers need to be close to students and form strong relationships, that is a proven good learning requirement. But it works against accurate and unbiased assessment. So you need to anonymise student work prior to grading. This could mean getting rid of hand-written work, favouring electronic submissions.

If you use tests wisely you can use them as both student and teacher assessment vehicles. Students should not feel too much stress with short weekly tests. They should not be swatting for them, the tests should naturally extend learning done in class or from previous weekly homework. If you control the format and content of tests then you can design your teaching to match. So if you like highly creative and cognitive learning styles you can administer cognitive testing with lots of imagination required. If you prefer a more kinesthetic learning style for another topic you can make the test kinesthetic. You can suit and tailor your teaching style to naturally match the topic and then also the follow-up tests.

This sort of total control is not possible in schools under present day state-wide run standards-based exams. That’s why such exam regimes are evil and inefficient and terrible for promoting good learning.

With teacher-run lessons + tests you get the best of all worlds. If one teacher is slack, their students get disadvantaged for sure, but they would anyway under a standards-based regime. The difference with teacher-run courses is that the teacher’s exams and course content can be examined, rather than the students getting examined, and so ultimate education quality control rests upon the administrator who should get to examine the teacher resources and test formats and content. That’s the way to run state-based exams. You examine the teachers, not the students.

There can even be a second tier of filtering and quality control. The school itself can assess the teacher quality. Then slack teachers can be sent to state-wide authorities of assessment. We need to remember the state employees are the teachers, not the students. So we should at least first worry about assessing teacher quality, not student quality. Our present schools systems, around the world, backwards all this have. 😉  I know educators mean well. But they need to listen to Sir Ken Robinson and Alfie Kohn a bit harder.

So in the foreseeable future, sadly, I will not be returning to secondary school teaching. Never under the present national standards regime anyway. It basically would make me an ordinary teacher. But I have extraordinary talents. The NZQA run system would effectively dull my talents and would mask them from expression. Under the current NZQA system which most schools are mandated to follow, I would be a really horrid teacher. I would not be teaching to the tests, and my students would likely not acquire grades that reflect their learning.

It is not impossible to teach students creatively and with fun and inspiration and still help them acquire good grades under NCEA. But it is really, really hard, and I am not that good a teacher. The real massive and obvious flaw in New Zealand is that teachers think they can all do this. But they cannot. They either end up teaching to the tests, and their students get reasonable grades, but average learning, or they buck the system and teach however they damn please and their students get poor grades. I would guess only about 1% or 3% of teachers have the genius and skill and long fought-for expertise to run a truly creative and imaginary learning experience and also get students who can ace the NCEA exams.

If, as a nation of people who love education, we cannot have all teachers be the geniuses who can do this, and if it requires exceptionally gifted teachers to do this, then why oh why are we forcing them to use the NCEA or similar exam regimes? If you do not have all teachers being such geniuses, then, I think, morally and ethically you are bound to not using a standards-based summative assessment system for judging students. You instead need to unleash the raw talent of all teachers by giving them freedom to teach in a style they enjoy, because this will naturally reflect in the brightness and happiness and learning of their students. And to check on the quality of your education system you must assess these teachers, not their students.

The tragedy is, for me, that I think I would enjoy secondary school teaching a lot more than university lecturing if the free-to-learn system I propose was in place. The younger children have a brightness and brilliance that is captivating.  So it is a real pleasure to teach them and guide them along their way.  These bright lights seem to become dulled when they become young adults.  Or maybe that’s just the effect that school has on them?

*      *       *

So, the thing is, I see no reason why high school teaching cannot be more like university teaching. Please give the teachers the control over both their course style and their assessments. This will make everyone happier and less stressed. Test the teacher quality ahead of student quality at the national level. Make education about empowering students to discover their interests, and not to follow by rote the content provided by the teachers. And definitely not content dictated and remanded by a state-run government institution. If the government desire accountability of schools, they should look at teacher quality, not student quality. With good teachers you can trust them to get the most from their students, right! That’s a statement not a question!

There are many good references I should provide, but I will just give you one that hits most points I made above:

edu_FreedomToLearn_Rogers

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