January 2, 2012
Recently I was asked at a public discussion of crime and punishment at which I was a speaker whether I thought it was right that the government (in Britain) had made it illegal for an employer to ask a prospective employee whether he had a criminal record and, if so, its nature and extent. This is a question that I have turned over in my mind, or at least let bubble away in my subconscious, ever since, for it in turn raises several interesting and important questions.
Most of the people in the audience, I suspect, thought that the rule was right, for it is both just and merciful (rarely are the two qualities so neatly conjoined) to give criminals who have purged their legal punishment a second chance. The idea of redemption is perhaps a legacy of Christianity even among those who are themselves not Christians. And the notion of forgiveness is especially attractive to people who do not want to appear primitively vengeful. Working as I did in a prison for many years, I often tried to put myself (mentally) in the position of a prisoner leaving prison: where would he go, what would he do, how would he keep himself in a way that did not involve crime?
With regard to the latter question, a couple of statistics are instructive. The prison department in Britain once published the ages at which adult prisoners were received into prison: 97 per cent of those who had committed burglary, and 98 per cent of those who had committed robbery, were between the ages of 21 and 39. This meant, or suggested, that criminality, at least of these two types, ceased spontaneously at the age of 40: assuming, of course, that it did not mean that the burglars and robbers had simply become more adept at crime and therefore evaded detection.
Crime in general is a young man’s game; but the fact is that if former criminals can keep themselves after the age of 40 by some legal means of other, they could have done so before the age of 40 also. In other words, their recidivism (for most of the criminals in prison are recidivists and not first-timers) is the result of a lack of will, not a lack of opportunity, even if, as has sometimes been suggested by those who want to ascribe crime to anything other than the decision of the criminal to commit it, the change in their conduct at the age of 40 is ascribable to falling levels of testosterone. In other words, no special efforts are necessary on behalf of prisoners leaving prison, even if nevertheless some such efforts ought to be made: eventually they will do everything for themselves.
But let us return to the questions of justice, mercy and forgiveness, tackling the latter first. The willingness and ability to forgive or overlook is essential to good human relations because we are none of us angels, we all do things we should not, and some of us even have habits irritating to those closest to us (in my case that of never passing a bookshop without buying a book, which my wife finds very irritating). If we did not have the capacity to forgive, every argument would end in divorce or murder, or at any rate in some very unpleasant consequence.
But it does not follow that what is necessary in some circumstances is necessary in all, any more than it follows that a medicine that is good for you in a certain does must be twice as good for you in double the dose (though I have met patients in my medical career who did believe that, often with near-disastrous consequences).
In order to have the locus standi to forgive, the harm that someone does must be done, at the very least in part, to oneself. If someone robs you in the street, I have no right to forgive him; only you have that right. Moreover, even if you do forgive the robber, your forgiveness, morally grand as it might be (though it might just as well be cowardly or pusillanimous), has no claim to determine the treatment of the robber by the law, any more than your vengeful feelings, if you had them, would have done. Revenge, said Bacon, is a kind of wild justice, which the more man’s nature runs to, the more ought to weed it out; the same might be said of forgiveness, except perhaps that wild would not be the qualifying word to use of the justice that would result from it. The law is instituted precisely to supersede the effects of incontinent emotion, whether it is of the punitive or sentimental kind.
Forgiveness, then, unlike mercy, has no place in the law. A pardon is not forgiveness, it is an exceptional act which in no way lessens the guilt of the pardoned.
Mercy is an implicit recognition of the imperfection and imperfectability of man, and that it is unreasonably rigorous to expect perfect behaviour of any featherless biped. As Hamlet said, if we were all treated as we deserved none of us would escape a whipping; it does not do, then, to administer justice as if no other virtue or desideratum than justice existed.
Those who think that employers should not have the right to ask applicants for jobs whether they have a criminal record lose sight of these considerations, as well as others. They believe that ex-criminals would find it harder to find employment if employers knew about their past, and that an inability to find work is one of the reasons so many criminals return to crime. But this is to suppose that ex-criminals have superior rights to those of employers who, in order to protect those rights, must blindly accept risks that they might otherwise not be prepared to run.
As it happens, even those who think that employers should not have the right to ask about job applicants’ criminal record do not believe this of every kind of crime. They do not believe that schools, for example, should not know anything of a prospective employee’s record as a paedophile. However liberal a person may be, there always one corner of his heart reserved for vengefulness towards at least one category of person…
January 2, 2012
Jonathan Steele of the Guardian must have access to privileged information if he can write knowingly that those responsible for last Friday’s alleged car bombings in Damascus were “almost certainly al-Qaida sympathisers.” If I were in the intelligence-gathering business, I would not entrust such sensitive information to a man who has previously suggested that secular parties in Tunisia were “manipulating Islamophobia.”
Steele might wish to revisit the Assad regime’s narrative that Bin Ladenist forces are now setting things off in Damascus in coordination with not only the Syrian opposition but the United States and Israel. Surely a Guardian contributor will have found it suspicious that Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem last week predicted that an al-Qaeda attack would occur in the country on the eve of the much anticipated arrival of an Arab League team of observers. Al-Moallem’s deputy, Faisal Mekdad, wasted no time lamenting his boss’s prediction come true: “On the first day after the arrival of the Arab observers,” Mekdad told the BBC shortly after the explosions were reported, “this is the gift we get from the terrorists and al-Qaeda. But we are going to do all we can to facilitate the Arab League mission.”
I love the use of the word “facilitate” in that sentence. As the prominent Syrian oppositionist Ammar Abdulhamid writes on his Syrian Revolution Digest blog, the whole purpose of Friday’s al-Qaeda Surprise story was to distract the world from witnessing yet another massacre in Idleb Province, this one focused on the village of Kafar Ouaid, where an estimated 95 people were killed in the time it took for Western eyes and ears to train on Damascus. Not that the Arab League requires regime prompting since the head of the delegation is General Mohammad Ahmed Mustafa al-Dabi, the former head of Sudanese military intelligence and the founder of the genocidal Janjaweed militiamen. (Al-Dabi’s former employer, Omar al-Bashir, is wanted by the International Criminal Court for war crimes and crimes against humanity in Darfur.) The sadism of this arrangement was well-caught by one Syrian human rights activist, who compared the delegation to a “rapist … act[ing] as a forensic expert assistant while examining the victim.” And wouldn’t you know it: al-Dabi has just toured the battleground city of Homs with his contingent of government minders and given this Levantine Sarajevo the all-clear: “There wasn’t anything frightening at least while we were there. Things were calm and there were no clashes.”
Would that the same could be said of the regime’s frenetically stage-managed, and at times grimly hilarious, response to the Damascus bombings, a vaguely successful campaign of cover-up and falsification that shows how limited Western attentions spans are still easily toyed with by totalitarians.
According to the Syrian state media, suicide bombers drove two cars rigged with explosives to points just outside two hard-to-reach facilities: the State Security Administration building and the Military Security base in Kafarsouseh, a neighborhood in central Damascus. These facilities are preceded by several military checkpoints, and any person or vehicle desiring access to them will need to carry a special permit. Cars also tend to be searched thoroughly before being able to roll right on up to the doorstep of secret police headquarters. When a terrorist attack is perpetrated, it takes oodles of man-hours of forensic analysis and data-gathering to determine the party responsible and the methods used. Not so in Syria. The regime’s Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA) reported in an impressive 13 minutes that al-Qaeda was the culprit and that a man called Munir al-Binjali “conducted” the attack. The only problem is, al-Binjali is alive and well in Saudi Arabia, not blown to bits in Damascus.
Ah, but temporal contradictions are no match for Baathist logic. Syrian television cut straight to one of its many dolled-up talking heads, who reassured a troubled nation of the “arrest of the terrorists who blew themselves up today.” …
Most of the problems with testing have one surprising source: Cheating by school administrators and teachers
January 2, 2012
Every year, the education magazine Phi Delta Kappanhires the Gallup Organization to survey American opinion on the public schools. Though Gallup conducts the poll, education grandees selected by the editors of the Kappan write the questions. In 2007 the poll asked, “Will the current emphasis on standardized tests encourage teachers to ‘teach to the tests,’ that is, concentrate on teaching their students to pass the tests rather than teaching the subject, or don’t you think it will have this effect?”
The key to the question, of course, is the “rather than”—the assumption by many critics that test preparation and good teaching are mutually exclusive. In their hands, “teach to the test” has become an epithet. The very existence of content standards linked to standardized tests, in this view, narrows the curriculum and restricts the creativity of teachers—which of course it does, in the sense that teachers in standards-based systems cannot organize their instructional time in any fashion they prefer.
A more subtle critique is that teaching to the test can be good or bad. If curricula are carefully developed by educators and the test is written with curricula in mind, then teaching to the test means teaching students the knowledge and skills we agree they ought to learn—exactly what our teachers are legally and ethically obligated to do.
Yet there are two senses in which teaching to the test can indeed be harmful: excessive preparation that focuses more on the format of the test and test-taking techniques than on the subject matter, and the reallocation of classroom time from subjects on which students are not tested (often art and physical education) to those on which they are (often reading and mathematics).
The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, for example, implicitly encourages educators to reallocate classroom time, because it requires testing in only reading and math (in seven grades) and science (in three). Researchers have yet to determine exactly what the effects have been in schools, but NCLB has created a clear incentive for educators who are worried about their schools’ performance to cut back on art, music, and history classes while devoting more time to reading, math, and science. (Since science results are not included in the school accountability calculations under NCLB, however, that subject may also get short shrift.)
What about all the time spent on schooling students in the techniques of test taking—how to fill in answer sheet bubbles, whether to guess or not, what to do when time runs short, and so on? This kind of instruction has been known to eat up weeks, even months, of class time during which students study old examinations or practice test-taking skills. It should occupy less than a day. The firms that write today’s standardized tests, such as the Educational Testing Service and CTB/McGraw-Hill, strongly discourage this kind of preparation, correctly arguing that teachers who spend more than a little time familiarizing students with test formats can hurt learning and test performance by neglecting to cover the subject matter itself. (As for the amount of time spent administering the tests, another source of complaints, it is insignificant. The tests required by NCLB, for example, are given once a year and take about an hour each.)
The evidence from commercial firms that offer preparation for college and graduate school entrance tests such as the SAT and GRE is clear on this point. Most companies, including industry behemoth Kaplan Inc., focus on subject-matter review. However, one firm, The Princeton Review, distinguished itself for years by arguing stridently that students need not master such material to do well. For a fee of several hundred dollars, it would teach test-taking techniques that it promised would increase scores. But dozens of academic studies failed to confirm these claims, and after sustained pressure from better-business groups, The Princeton Review agreed last year to pull the ads in which these assertions were made.
Why do so many teachers persist in extensive test preparation? Partly because they have been misled. But there is a deeper and far more troubling reason why this kind of teaching to the test persists: It sometimes works. And it does so for a very bad reason: Repeated drilling on test questions only works when the items match those on the upcoming test. But if those questions are available to teachers, that means test security has been breached. Someone is cheating.
Test security includes measures ranging from taking effective precautions against divulging any but the broadest foreknowledge of the test’s contents to educators and students to guarding against old-fashioned cheating when students take tests. It requires diligence both in proctoring test administration and in maintaining the “integrity” of test materials. For example, for a paper-and-pencil test, materials must be sealed until the moment test taking begins and students—and no one else—open their test booklets. Students should be the ones to close those booklets, too, with the completed answer sheets inside. Recent cheating scandals around the country, however, indicate how easily and frequently integrity is violated.
Unlike in most other industrialized countries, security for many of our state and local tests is loose. We have teachers administering tests in their own classrooms to their own students, principals distributing and collecting test forms in their own schools. Security may be high outside the schoolhouse door, but inside, too much is left to chance. And, as it turns out, educators are as human as the rest of us; some cheat, and not all manage to keep test materials secure, even when they are not intentionally cheating…