Monday, July 17, 2017

Words: Another Argument for a Real Education

We were talking about Education for several years, and I was limping along, trying to explain why some things I was doing were not working, and why both teachers and students are frustrated by the process of education, with the education system we have.  And then Trump happened.

You see, one of the most enormous problems we have in explaining things to each other is words.  A lot of the time, if we're talking about recipes for Strawberry Pie, or something relatively simple like that, there is no difficulty.  What you mean when you say Strawberry is probably pretty close to what I mean by that word, and what I mean when I say pie is pretty much what you probably mean.  (Even here, there's some room for confusion, especially if you've never really made or eaten a Strawberry Pie, but more on that later.  Much later!)

Many of those who have gone to college are likely to suspect that the reasons why being President so confuses Donald Trump is probably education.  But wait; he has had a college education: a Master's degree from the University of Pennsylvania, if we're to believe the news reports.  What has gone wrong?

Why did such a large number of people jump on board the Trump Wagon?  Again, the culprit might seem to be education.  But are we sure?

A significant skill one learns in a quality education is to use words with precise meanings.  What does education mean to you?  The obvious answer is that in college one learns a lot of things, and so it depends on which of those things we're focusing on.  We have to have a major, and we could have a minor, and any number of general education courses, and we could take all sorts of electives, which are neither for your major or your minor, but just for the heck of it; and we could play varsity athletics, and so on, and so forth.  Which of these does one mean when one talks about someone being educated, and someone else not being educated?

The skill that the Trump Administration and all its beleaguered members seem to trip over, is that of using the right word in the right place.
They read the Constitution, and they don't understand the words.  Of course the Founding Fathers meant different things than we do when they said "The right to bear arms," or when they use the words "All men are created equal", or similar expressions that must be understood in context.  Even experts in constitutional law disagree in how these terms should be applied: whether we must take them as they would have been understood in the 18th Century, or whether we should use them in some sense that has been translated to the 20th or the 21st century, where Arms could mean anything from a Flintlock to a Bazooka.  But there appears to be confusion in understanding the meaning of even quite unambiguous language.
Then, they look at an understanding that does not have the force of law directly, but does so indirectly, such as the proscription against retaining control of a business that can profit because of the owner being President; it does not seem illegal.  This is a different kind of blindness.

Almost more important are the words that are needed to exactly explain what the administration is thinking.  Trump thinks of speaking as merely spewing advertising copy.  He is accustomed to addressing an audience that has, up to now, been perfectly satisfied to take at face value his words that "It's going to be great.  It's going to be the best you ever saw."  But at least a few of his followers are now ready for two things: One: How exactly is it going to be great?  and two:  Can we have some input into it?  The hallmark of a great administration is its ability to explain to the public what they're planning to do, and why.  And How.

A third sort of skill, and unfortunately many college graduates never quite get this, is that a good education should make it easier for a young person to understand and deal with ever increasing levels of complexity.  Every year, the kids are able to tolerate less and less complexity, until colleges are driven to stick simply to the syllabus of high schools.  Unfortunately, the area of Business Management is notorious for being one in which there is no real penalty for those who want to oversimplify things.  This is especially true if one has a lot of money to throw around, because one can always buy one's way out of trouble.  Trump's numerous bankruptcies send up a red flag to those who know: Trump has not taken into account where things could go wrong.  Things could go wrong when trying to set up a casino.  How much more can things go wrong when trying to set up health care for a nation of 350 million people?

There is very little that stands in the way of Medical Insurance Companies raising their premiums as high as they like.  This is America; businesses are allowed to make profits, and Health Insurance companies are businesses.  But yes, there are a few regulations (far too many, in the view of the Insurance Industry) that hold back the rates to levels that just barely make it possible to afford them.  Big businesses must find ways of paying the ridiculous premium rates that the Insurance Industry demands, to allow them to take home the profits to which they have become accustomed, and now everyone must pay the premiums, under "Obamacare", not just the chronically sick folk.  Then there is the pre-existing condition problem, Medicare and Medicaid, and prescription drugs, and the Death Committees, and so on.  And of course, Family Planning.  It is complex.  But to someone who has merely a business degree, almost any complexity is too much complexity.

What about the complexity of International Relations?  Once a bunch of politicians (whose only claim to fame is that they have wealthy friends) take control of any government, they get into a spiral of systematic oversimplification that leads to (1) reduction of services, (2) escalating racism and xenophobia, and maniacal nationalism, all in the name of (3) reducing taxes, all of which is supposed to (4) give business a shot in the arm, but which instead leads to cultural chaos and civic unrest and general alienation.

Almost any time Trump says something to a foreign leader, it seems to cause unhappiness somewhere else, not least right here in the good old US.  What is this, he's probably thinking, I can't hardly say anything without bothering somebody!  Nobody seems to be happy with his banning Islamic visitors wholesale.  Nobody seems to be happy with his choice of Secretary of State.  Nobody seems to be happy with how he deals with Russia, and those jokers seem to want to fool around with US elections, something that seems never to have happened before.  And though the fooling around was in favor of Trump, the president is not happy with all that.  Every time he pokes the balloon on one side, it pops up on another.  Welcome to international diplomacy.

What exactly is alienation? It is a condition where a person does not understand the motivations of another person.  A lack of empathy of frightening proportions.  Back in the early fifties, when McCarthyism was in high gear, half the people empathized with the socialists, including those who viewed Franklin Roosevelt's social and economic reforms as lifesaving, while the other half considered any sort of social welfare as driven by communist influences.  Over a decade, half the population was determined to go into Vietnam and do some serious communist butt-kicking, while the other half was aghast at the prospect of having to go into a foreign country and kill people who seem to have a perfectly good right to choose a communist government if they wanted to.  What we ended up with was acute alienation, where personal values were so different from person to person that young people simply could not subscribe to the values of their parents.  Today, too, the Democrats are preoccupied with Trump and his offspring meeting with Russians.  These meetings, in my view, are really insignificant.  The important things are the new Health Care bills.  They cannot be any better than the existing ACA a.k.a. Obamacare, which does not prevent the Insurance Industry from ripping off the people anyway.  But I can hardly conceive the GOP being any tougher with the Insurance Industry than Obama was.  We cannot have decent affordable health care until Insurance Companies are all shut down, and obviously replacing their services with a government-run agency simply means Medicare for all, which nobody minds, except that the GOP would view that as total defeat.  However, though many of us have difficulty subscribing to the values of Trump supporters, we do not elevate this phenomenon to the point of calling it alienation.

There are other things that education provides apart from an appreciation of language, and a degree of comfort with complexity, but sufficient unto the day are the evils thereof, as a great man once said.

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