This week I announced the upcoming serialization of my novel the Red, the Brown, the Green, which I’m very excited about. It’s a separate mailing list so please check that post for instructions on how to sign up. I expect to start sending out a chapter a week beginning in the third week or so of August.
People frequently ask me if I’d do a podcast, in part because they enjoy my appearances on them, which I do fairly frequently. The answer is probably not. I’m a writer, one who is self-consciously (and some say pretentiously) concerned with craft. I’ve been working hard to get better at writing prose for decades, and I think this work has borne fruit. I enjoy writing in part because I believe I’m good at it, and I don’t think I’m particularly good at talking. Besides, there’s too many podcasts already and it’s important to start with the man in the mirror.
But if somebody offered me money, upfront? Sure, I’d probably do it. I’ve been asked by several people to start a podcast with them, which is flattering, but it’s always a build-your-way-up situation, gradually getting listeners and starting a Patreon and eventually, hopefully, getting sponsors, after years of “like! share! subscribe!” I’m too old for that shit. Now, if Spotify came to me and offered to pay me to do one and would commit to publicizing it on their end, sure, I’d say yes. But I’d only be doing it for money, and besides… Spotify isn’t going to do that.
This Week’s Posts
Monday, 6/21/2021 - How is Power Distributed in American Public K-12 Education?
An overview of how our weird system of overlapping municipal, state, and federal control of public education works and came to be, along with a few thoughts on what forces might be shaping policy in an unhealthy way and what reforms are possible. Some people found this one to be too much of a review, and not enough of an argument. But I think it’s really important to bring people in on the ground floor of complicated realities that too much published writing treats as common knowledge.
Tuesday, 6/22/2021 - Yes, Harvard Could And Probably Should Enroll Many More Students, But Let's Be Realistic (subscriber only)
For subscribers, my take on the rising opinion that elite colleges should be letting in more applicants as teenaged populations rise. I’m in favor of it, ultimately, but like so many other reforms to higher ed, I find it quite insufficient to do what reformers say they want to do.
Wednesday, 6/23/2021 - Educational Assessments are Valid, Reliable, and Remarkably Predictive
This is my argument that a certain strain of attack on educational testing you see a lot these days - claiming that it’s somehow quantitatively invalid or fails to predict important future educational and life metrics. These arguments are simply, objectively false. There are many critical arguments that can be made about testing, some of which I have made and some I continue to make - moral arguments, political arguments, pedagogical arguments. But people feel the need to deny the statistical validity of these tests in order to deny an uncomfortable fact: that we know who’s going to be good at school and who won’t be at a very early age, and that almost all children stay in those places for the remainder of their academic lives.
Thursday, 6/24/2021 - Review of the Education Trap
A review of a book I admired more than I enjoyed and am glad I read but will probably not read again. Cristina Viviana Groeger’s first book discusses the way that education inevitably leads to cartel behaviors, and does so with a ton of information - maybe too much information. A strong argument I agree with packaged with a lot of stuff that fulfills Groeger’s incentives as a professional historian.
From the Archives
Recently I mentioned that education research frequently has endogeneity problems, and a couple of you emailed to ask what that meant. I was about to write up a new post when I realized that I had said most of what I need to say here, in the context of writing up a study about disciplinary measures and test scores. (I mention in the piece that the relevant Wikipedia article is terrible from a basic sense standpoint, so I get why people emailed.) In brief, endogeneity refers to a situation where two or more variables in your model have a quantitative relationship with each other but that relationship is not defined in your model. In other words, things are correlating in a way that the model doesn’t account for. It can wreak some havoc if you don’t adjust for it. Typically this problem is defined as an independent variable (a predictor) correlating with the error term, although I personally find that definition a little reductive. There’s a couple different types of endogeneity problems. One’s simultaneity - the classic example is that actors who are more attractive are perceived as better actors, and actors who are better actors are perceived as more attractive; you can see the causal dilemma here. Anyway, check out the post for some thoughts on endogeneity and a link to a much better resource than the wiki. Study itself is interesting too.
Song of the Week
A serial producer of haunting tunes, this one, and a favorite.
Substack of the Week
Kerfuffle by Leighton Akira Woodhouse
Woodhouse is a documentary filmmaker and writer who I wasn’t aware of until the last month or two, but I’m really glad I discovered him. His writing fits in the realm of, I guess you would say, woke-skeptical, as much of mine does. (The cheeky icon for his Substack, as you can see, is a pill that’s both red and blue.) I know that, even for many of my fans, that might make you feel a bit weary; this discourse is kind of tiring and there are some charlatans out there. (Liberals are right when they say that being anti-woke is often a con - I refuse to participate in the rabid overuse of the word “grift” - but then, almost all woke writers are even more transparently con artists than their opposites, a point liberals will never countenance.) Woodhouse has a unique perspective in a crowded field, though, one a little more thoughtful and a little less caught up in the day-to-day idiocy of culture war. I particularly liked his recent post on a favorite topic of mine, how Twitter ruins everything. His newsletter deserves more readers. Check it out, and check out this recent short documentary of his.
At the Existentialist Café, Sarah Bakewell, 2016
I have written in this space about how existentialism changed my life, by way of an inspiring professor. I did a lot of deep reading in the French existential tradition during and after college, and a little in the German. It changed my life. It truly did. What I always found frustrating was that, while I had plenty of recommendations - Ethics of Ambiguity, “Existentialism is a Humanism,” “L’Hote” - there wasn’t any overview that I liked to share, a beginner’s guide that I felt was reasonably comprehensive (including at least some engagement with Heidegger) and which recognized the literary and philosophical parts of the tradition equally, without being too intimidating or long. In 2016, more than a decade after I graduated from college, I got what I was looking for with this book. It’s remarkably detailed at less than 450 pages. I also find that I learned a lot, despite being familiar with so much of the source material, and yet it also strikes me as profoundly accessible for the novice. It’s really a remarkable feat, and an engaging primer on a fascinating and consequential intellectual movement during a fertile period of history. Check it out.
Comment of the Week
… at least coming from the perspective of the schools and their teachers/aides/admins, nearly two decades of constant changes, instability, and ruthless pay/benefits/job security cuts seemed to be the results of these tests. And the supposed upside, the renaissance of data-driven best-practices and all the other hyphenated buzzwords failed to materialize. Anyone remember teachers being forced to kneel under desks because their test scores didn't go up and then getting fired when the scores didn't go up again? How about the ATL scantron parties where district leadership just falsified the scores?
The tests themselves are not to blame, obviously. And they are not some warped instrument of white supremacy wielding western colonialist mathematics against black and brown bodies (to borrow the parlance). But they were the justification that schools heard again and again for what turned out to be a whole package of reforms that didn't work but made life in many schools much worse. This was especially true in the schools that were the lowest performers.
So you can see why testing gets lumped in with all the bad stuff. Justified or not, it comes from somewhere and it's not only unpopular because of what the testing reveals but also because of what the testing was used for. - James
That’s it! Navigating the mental health system on Monday, and hopefully a post about the pitfalls of arguing about definitions later in the week. Cheers.
This is rather late but I read Department of Speculation and Weather off your recommendation over the last week and really enjoyed myself after a long time only reading non-fiction, so thank you Freddie!
Hey Freddie, can you tell us your definition of "liberal"?
Because I consider myself a staunch liberal in every sense (that I know), and yet I almost never agree with the opinions that you assign to "liberals".
So I have no idea who you're talking about.