December 2, 2011
December 2, 2011
In 1928, the English economist Arthur Pigou coined the term “human capital” to describe investments in the acquisition and application of knowledge, asserting that these investments, just like traditional physical capital, were essential ingredients of economic production. Today, we might divide human capital into three major components. Education plays an important role in developing human capital, of course. Equally important is whether a society’s farms, factories, offices, and shops take advantage of its workers’ abilities through efficient management and the latest technology. And welcoming foreigners infuses a country’s stock of human capital with fresh energy and initiative.
Americans have long been deeply committed to building up all three aspects of human capital, even if they haven’t called it that. The United States pioneered the idea of schooling all children (as opposed to only the children of the rich); as early as 1890, it had more schools per capita than any European country, and 35 percent more of the population went to school than in England, France, and Germany, the next-best-educated large nations. American industry and agriculture were generally the first to harness the most advanced technologies in production, transportation, and communications, as well as the most apt to hire, pay, and promote workers on the basis of merit (see “Who Killed Horatio Alger?”). Continuously replenished by eager and well-assimilated migrants, the American workforce outshone its rivals in its high aspirations, openness to opportunity, and extraordinary diligence. All this paid off handsomely: by 1900, perhaps even earlier, America was the world’s most productive and prosperous nation.
There are signs, however, that America’s era of human-capital superiority may be coming to an end. That has disturbing economic implications. For one thing, the severity of the recent recession—and the limping recovery—can be attributed partly to deficiencies in human capital. For another, when economic growth eventually resumes, the condition of the country’s human capital will determine how well Americans profit from the recovery. A recent study from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) estimates that if the school performance of Americans born this year could be raised to the level of their higher-scoring international peers, the resulting U.S. economic growth would boost GDP by $41 trillion within 20 years.
Happily, Americans have always done their part by acquiring as much human capital as they can. What is left is for federal, state, and local governments to do their part by fashioning more effective human-capital policies.
Start with education, which has properly troubled the country since at least 1983, when the U.S. Department of Education published A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform. This explosive report charged that “the educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a Nation and a people.” The tide hasn’t receded much since then. In various recent international tests in mathematics, science, and language arts, American students scored about the same as they did in 1983, or only marginally better. As of 2009, the average college-bound student’s Scholastic Aptitude Test reading score was virtually the same as in 1983, and his math score was only modestly higher. American K–12 students spend less time in class than those in Europe and Asia do. And the volume of college remedial courses today is higher than in 1983.
Dominating the education-reform debate today are two broad ideas: increasing schools’ accountability and improving teacher quality. The No Child Left Behind Act of 2002, by far the most significant of the accountability initiatives, mandates annual testing of students’ performance, and by reducing federal aid to schools that perform poorly, it motivates immediate administrative responses to inferior test results. Though NCLB’s testing requirements were a leap forward in education reform, it contained a fatal flaw: allowing states to measure progress according to their own, rather than nationally normed, tests, which gave them a powerful incentive to escape sanctions by adopting weak ones.
As for better teaching, there is no proven way of achieving it. Most American teachers are trained in schools of education that impart limited teaching content and few useful teaching skills to their typically mediocre students—yet no teacher-quality initiative that I know of has targeted teacher-training programs. There is little evidence that raising overall pay levels increases teaching effectiveness, despite U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s recent call for big pay increases for teachers. The highly lauded Teach for America program lures smart graduates of elite colleges into teaching, but there is more to good teaching than intelligence; further, many TFA recruits view teaching as merely a career detour and leave after a few years. True improvement in teacher performance would probably require rewriting teachers’ collective-bargaining agreements to give administrators greater discretion in hiring, firing, pay-setting, and class assignments…
December 2, 2011
In July 2010, Hilde Hoogenboom, a professor of Russian literature at Arizona State University, sent an impassioned missive to Paul LeClerc, president of the New York Public Library, to protest the closure of the NYPL’s Slavic and Baltic division. It “was one of the best places to work in the world,” she wrote. Indeed, in the universe of Russian studies, the Slavic division was legendary. “I recall [it] as an agreeably dim sort of place, with a faintly reverential, almost cathedral-like ambience,” George Kennan said in 1987. Among its 750,000 items are the first book printed in Moscow, the “Anonymous” Gospels; a first edition of Tolstoy’s War and Peace; and John Reed’s collection of broadsides and posters from the Russian Revolution. Trotsky and Nabokov toiled in the division’s reading room. Václav Havel and Mikhail Gorbachev made visits of tribute.
Eleven weeks later, a senior NYPL official replied on LeClerc’s behalf: “If I may put this matter into its sadly grim financial context, in the last two fiscal years our budget has been reduced by $20 million and our workforce by 300 positions. While we recognized and prized the special cultural and scholarly resource that was the Slavic Reading Room, we simply could no longer afford to operate it.”
The New York Public Library, which comprises four research libraries and eighty-seven branch libraries, has seen other cutbacks as well. Since 2008 its workforce has been reduced by 27 percent. In a recent newsletter to library supporters, the institution reported that its acquisitions budget for books, CDs and DVDs had been slashed by 26 percent.
Despite these austerity measures, NYPL executives are pushing ahead with a gargantuan renovation of the Forty-second Street library, the crown jewel of the system. The details of the Central Library Plan (CLP) are closely guarded, but it has already sparked criticism among staff members, who worry that the makeover would not only weaken one of the world’s great libraries but mar the architectural integrity of the landmark building on Forty-second Street and Fifth Avenue, renamed the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building in 2008, following the Wall Street billionaire’s gift of $100 million. (Every staff member I spoke with demanded anonymity; a number of them talked openly about their fear of retribution from management.)
These are arduous times for public library systems. More people are using libraries during the economic downturn, but state and local legislators are steadily cutting their budgets. The American Library Association notes that since 2008, “more than half the states have reported a decrease in funding, with cumulative cuts averaging greater than ten percent.” Library systems of all sizes are under pressure. The Los Angeles County public library system, which serves 3.7 million citizens, faces a structural deficit of $22 million a year for the next decade. Budget cuts have forced the Seattle Public Library, one of the nation’s finest, to shut down for a week in late summer. Thomas Galante, CEO of the bustling Queens Library, which serves hundreds of thousands of immigrants in New York City, spoke reverently about one healthy and outstanding public library—in Toronto.
The man who must contend with the NYPL’s budget difficulties is its new president, a tall, amiable, casually dressed political scientist named Anthony Marx, who started at the library on July 1. Marx had been the president of Amherst College, where during his eight-year tenure he raised great sums of money and did much to diversify the student body. But obtaining the financial resources to sustain the NYPL in these lean and mean times is a task that’s sure to keep Marx tossing in his bed at night. (Personal reasons may also keep Marx from sleeping soundly: on the afternoon of November 6 he was arrested in Upper Manhattan for driving while intoxicated; his blood alcohol level was 0.19. He is scheduled to appear in court on December 9.) He faces an additional challenge with the CLP, devised by his predecessor and scheduled to be completed in 2015.
The centerpiece of the CLP—expected to cost anywhere from $250 million to $350 million—is the construction of a state-of-the-art, computer-oriented library designed by British architect Norman Foster, in the vast interior of the Schwarzman Building. To make space for this library within the library, the seven levels of original stacks beneath the third-floor Rose Reading Room—stacks that hold 3 million books and tens of thousands of adjustable and fixed shelves—will be demolished (the exterior of the building is landmarked; the stacks are not). When the new library is completed, patrons will be able to leave the building with borrowed books and other materials; for decades, those materials had to be used inside the library.
NYPL officials have grand hopes for their new high-tech circulating facility: it will be “the largest comprehensive library open to the public in human history,” LeClerc wrote in an internal NYPL publication in 2008. How will it be paid for? The City of New York will provide about $150 million for the project. The NYPL expects to raise another $100–$200 million by selling off two prominent libraries in its system: the busy (but decrepit) Mid-Manhattan branch library on Fortieth Street, and the Science, Industry and Business Library on Thirty-fourth Street, a research library that opened in 1996 to considerable fanfare…
December 2, 2011
I was standing, like a good Northwesterner, in the produce section of my locally owned organic-food supermarket—this was a couple of years ago, not long after I had moved to Portland from the New York City area—when I heard a voice in my ear.
“Excuse me,” it said. “You’re a Jew, aren’t you?”
My sphincter clenched. There were two ways this could go, and neither one was good. Either the guy I could now sense hovering at my elbow was a Lubavitcher, doing outreach among his fallen brethren (drawing them near, in the term of art), or he was a Jew for Jesus, hoping to tell me about the Lord. In the first case, I would sling the brushback pitch that I had learned to keep at hand for such occasions, amply familiar from life in New York. Ma ha’avodah hazose lachem? I would say: What is this worship to you?—the words of the Wicked Son in the Passover story. (“To you,” the Haggadah explains, “and not to him. By excluding himself from the community, he has negated the essential.”) In the second case, I would probably just start screaming and ripping up his pamphlets, as I did to a guy in the subway once. Christian missionaries tend to transform me into a kind of Semitic Incredible Hulk, a ball of ethno-historical rage. (A third possibility, that I’d been teleported back to Poland, circa 1941, and was about to be invited into a cattle car, I discounted as unlikely.)
As it turned out, the guy beside me wasn’t a Chassid or a Jesus freak. He was a typical 40ish Portlander—full beard, big sweater, innocent face. But his eyes were shining beatifically, and that’s what tipped me off to what was going on. I had come across this sort of thing before, back in my Israeli folk dance days. There was a certain kind of Gentile, a sort of earnest, clueless Jew-groupie, who would show up at the workshops just to soak up all the exotic yid energy. That’s what this guy clearly was, because he was gazing at me as if he’d finally seen a unicorn.Really, I thought, you’ve never met a Jew before? Well, this was Portland. Maybe he hadn’t, at least not consciously. Just being out as a Jew in this town, as someone once remarked, amounts to a political statement. But me—big nose, Levantine complexion, a certain sardonic set to the lips—I was out whether I liked it or not. So here we were, playing through a version of the classic scene that’s right up there in the tribal imagination with Lot’s Wife and the Burning Bush, the one where the camera pans around Annie Hall’s family dinner table to reveal Woody Allen in full Chassidic regalia.
“Uh, yeah,” I said.
“Hi,” he stuck out his hand. “I’m Kevin!” Pause. “Did you know that it’s Purim today?” I turned back to the vegetables, too stunned to reply. Purim? What did this goy know about Purim?
“No?” he said. “I guess you’re not that in touch with your heritage.”
Not that in touch with my heritage? Wasn’t aware it was Purim? I have neither believed nor have I practiced since being thrown out of yeshiva high school—the charge sheet reading, as I would later imagine it, gross insubordination and incipient atheism. But still, 30 years later, I can’t see a full moon without reflexively calculating the Hebrew date and reminding myself which holiday must be upon us. (April: Passover; September/October: Sukkos; January/February: Tu B’Shvat, the Jewish Arbor Day; August: Tu B’Av, very obscure, the Jewish Valentine’s Day.) It was March, and the moon had been a day from full the night before. Of course I knew it was Purim.
“It shines out of your face,” my persecutor went on. “It’s a great tradition. You should be proud of it!”
My face! My tradition! My God! If you forget you’re a Jew, my father used to say, the goyim will always remind you. But he was a Holocaust refugee, and I doubt that this is what he had in mind.
I was not the first Jew, it turned out, to feel a little conspicuous upon arriving in the Northwest. As with everything else in Jewish life, there was already a precedent. Not one but two of the leading Jewish literary figures of the postwar decades found themselves marooned in the region at the start of their careers, both of them victims of academic exile. Leslie Fiedler was hired by the University of Montana at Missoula in 1941. Bernard Malamud took a teaching job at Oregon State College (now Oregon State University) in the little town of Corvallis in 1949. Both were city boys from immigrant communities. Both felt like aliens in the region. Both stayed for years. And both lived to tell the tale of being Jewish in the Northwest: Malamud in A New Life, Fiedler in “The Last Jew in America”—titles that jointly reflect the complexity of the situation in which they found themselves.
When Malamud came to Oregon, as Philip Davis tells the story in Bernard Malamud: A Writer’s Life, he was 35, depressive, lightly published, stubborn, with a scuttled novel and 10 years teaching high school, a wife and young son, and nothing but an M.A. for credentials. Having few options or resources, he had applied for work at 200 schools, gotten offers from two, and chosen Oregon State over a college in New Mexico. Other than a few summers working in the Catskills and a few months as a census clerk in Washington, D.C., he had never lived outside New York. His world had been one of immigrant poverty, Jews and Catholics, City College, Yiddish, his father’s dingy grocery store on Brooklyn’s Gravesend Avenue slowly asphyxiating in the shadow of the El, and the desperate pursuit of intellectual and cultural aspirations—ideals as oxygen.
Corvallis must have seemed like the other side of the moon. Set in a bowl of farmland and forest between the Cascades and the Coast Range, the town, population 16,000, had lots of unpaved streets and not a single traffic light. There were no theaters, no art galleries, and only two or three decaying movie houses. Oregon State was a cow college, strictly practical: agriculture, engineering, and not much else that anyone took seriously. The English department, housed in a Quonset hut left over from the war, was treated as a service unit, drilling future farmers in grammar and composition. If you wanted to study the liberal arts, you had to go to the University of Oregon, down the road in Eugene. If you wanted to teach them, you could go and whistle—especially if you didn’t have a Ph.D…
December 2, 2011
This image has been posted with express written permission. This cartoon was originally published at Town Hall.