Wednesday Night #1436

People want to be led

As President Obama was giving his address to Congress on health care just before Wednesday Night convened, our Chairman – who had taped the speech – introduced the topic by asking those gathered around the table what they would say, if they were in his place.  Beryl Wajsman led the discussion underlining that the President must speak to Americans’ compassion, making the establishment of an equitable health care system the crusade for this generation. while at the same time making it clear that the plan would not place additional budgetary burdens on the nation. Similar comments from others were a somewhat startling reflection of precisely the themes and points that Mr. Obama made. Overall, Wednesday Nighters agreed that the speech was exceptional in every respect; in particular it was noted that he had pointed out individual Republicans – including Orin Hatch, Charles Grassley, John McCain – who had made major contributions to  previous  legislative initiatives to improve aspects of healthcare coverage. Nonetheless, there is disappointment that the administration has not structured their arguments in favor of the reform as well or as cogently as they might. On the other hand, the Obama strategy of first giving Congress the opportunity to develop proposals (which has resulted in virtual gridlock) may prove to be the necessary step that will enable the administration to direct the final result through the Senate.
We, in Canada, as in most of the industrial world, recognize the inverse relationship between age, earning capacity and state of health.  The American public has consistently demonstrated its compassion for the disadvantaged throughout the world in other areas and so it is difficult to understand its resistance to the introduction of universal health care.  President Obama is encountering great difficulty in introducing universal Medicare, clearly beneficial in so many countries, into his own country.  Recognizing that with the possible exception of the military, Americans distrust bureaucracies, the President has been careful to deny the belief that his plan would create a new gigantic bureaucracy, using the softer term, insurance.
It is not so much that the American public does not receive adequate health care coverage.  A majority of the population is covered either by Medicare, Medicaid, Veterans Administration and/or private insurance. However, most of the people benefiting from this coverage are not the heavy hitters/decision makers, and do not influence decisions regarding  the present system, which is dominated by big Medicine and big Pharma is uncompetitive and wasteful.  Massive lobbies appear to be succeeding in spreading fear on the basis of perceived creeping socialism.  There is little if any relationship between relative cost and health statistics in the United States.  Aside from the unfavorable cost/benefit ratio, the availability of insured health care is very dependent on whether and where the individual is employed.  What remains to be seen is whether President Obama’s skills and logic will prevail over self-interest and skilled lobbying.  Part of the problem may be that the health care planners are probably, in large part, in that stratum that benefits most from the present system. Furthermore, physicians in the U.S. profit from the system and would be loathe to see their incomes reduced in the interest of reducing overall costs of the system. This in turn introduces the cost of liability insurance, a major consideration for American doctors.

Quebec parallels
The fear of overarching bureaucracy, so prevalent in the U.S., unfortunately appears to be a feature in Québec (52% of those involved in health care are bureaucrats, not front-line deliverers), not only of our otherwise excellent health care system, but of other areas of public intervention as well.  The most recent plan to establish a chain of regulated health clinics — First of new health-care clinics launched in Quebec — will most probably not achieve the desired results because the planning will be done centrally and the biggest problem facing Quebec is the dearth of family physicians (the shortage is estimated at 700).  The definition of means rather than results is dependent on only the intellectual capacity of the planners to the exclusion of those on the front line.  This appears to be slowly being recognized by some in the school system.

Education The process of learning is a very social activity
Having three individuals with experience as School Commissioners at the table, along with teachers, professors and a highly articulate student made for a particularly lively and informative discussion of Québec’s recent concern about the school dropout rates — Quebec targets school dropouts with a targeted graduation rate of 80%  by 2020.
The new 13-step plan announced today includes smaller class sizes at elementary schools; early targeting of children with difficulties; more homework help; and more resource teachers at high schools. The project is certainly worthy as the success of the current student population in future life will impact the society in which they will live as adults.
However, it will undoubtedly be planned centrally, without recognizing the intellectual capacity, experience and motivation of the stakeholders including the teachers, unions and students.
The key problem is that the pedagogical structure of the Ministère de l’Éducation is totally irrelevant, having nothing to do with teaching skills and certainly does not encourage student engagement.
Another issue is the difference in culture between the French and English systems; in the former, a) the teachers are far more likely to stay after school and participate in extra-curricular activities; and b) teachers tend to direct their efforts towards students’ needs, rather than simply completing the material. At the CEGEP level, there is another distinction between Aglophone and non-Anglophone students; it is much harder to stimulate interest among Anglophones in non-university (vocational) education, with professional certification.
Marina Boulos’ guest, Ellie Shuo Jin, a first-year psychology student at McGill, added her perspective as a recent high school graduate, emphasizing the positive effect/motivation of extra-curricular activities on students who are not strong academically, but may regain self respect by doing well in the non-academic, less structured aspects of school, and consequently continue to attend school, rather than dropping out.
Today’s youth are growing up in a world very different than that of the adult population at all levels in the hierarchy including parents, teachers, bureaucrats and legislators. The manner in which they learn, their problem-solving skills are different, in some respects surpassing the comprehension of adults. Power Point, for example, may have greater impact than live teaching, lectures or textbooks.  By recognizing these differences it may be possible to ensure that today’s children will be able as adults, to make their optimum contribution to society, whether it be through trades or professions, instead of dropping out of school because of decisions made at a distance by people of a previous generation.
Teaching is moving from content-oriented to concept-oriented, e.g. how do you solve problems with what you are learning – thinking through and solving a practical problem, rather that taking notes in a classroom and regurgitating the information in an exam. This approach, in the opinion of one experienced educator, has a reasonable chance of working and solving the problem of students’ boredom. However, while the approach works well in technology, application is very difficult in social sciences.
Drop-out rates are high in the later teen years, but there is a positive trend of return to CEGEP-level education amongst the 25 and older group; thus CEGEPs are being encouraged to expand their continuing education programs. Another segment is the immigrant population which often arrives with skills, but requires training in a Canadian context. Quebec has identified this need and is working towards successful integration of these people into the work force.
There was lively debate over whether all students should be exposed to all disciplines, but those who really have no aptitude for a subject should not be humiliated,  simply excused (like those who have a ‘tin ear’ for music). The downside of this approach is that it can lead to highly regimented streaming quite early in school. On the other hand, it may foster a return to the subject in later years when the individual is differently motivated. There was agreement however that it is a teacher’s passion – and ability to communicate that passion – that will make learning a joy, or at least an enjoyable challenge.

Tudor Johnston’s “Survival Skills for scientists“, now going into a second edition, aims to  provide young scientists, from physicists through to sociologists, the counsel and tools that are needed to be their own agents and planners, to survive and succeed, hopefully even thrive in science.

T H E   I N V I T A T I O N

If you do not read any other explanation of what to many of us is an inexplicable wave of hateful opposition to President Obama’s initiatives for healthcare reform and to improve education, please read The President and the Vigilantes. Interestingly (perhaps tellingly) this extremely astute commentary on the current situation in the U.S. is written not by yet-another political observer/talking head, but a Yale Professor of Literature.
Manuels scolaires en retard en 5e secondaire

Trois semaines après la rentrée, les élèves de cinquième secondaire n’ont toujours aucun manuel de mathématiques, de sciences ou d’éthique et culture religieuse approuvé par le ministère de l’Éducation (MELS), a constaté La Presse. L’application de la réforme – pour laquelle il faut du nouveau matériel didactique – est pourtant obligatoire jusqu’à la fin du secondaire, cette année.
As classes resume in earnest, we thank Brian Morel for alerting us to a debate which we hope will not go much further. Incidentally, it is a topic at our West Wing’s September session as well.
Jack Lightstone: University research grab would be a ‘national disaster’
“When the leaders of five large Canadian universities recently went public to lobby governments to concentrate research spending at their schools, one implication was that the funding would be diverted away from other universities. This policy would be so completely wrongheaded that it would be dangerous for Canada.” And on the same topic: A really bad idea from the intellectual elite (Gazette editorial); the McGill Tribune doesn’t think much of the idea either – A tiered funding system will stifle competition What were those universities thinking? And they excluded Waterloo from their Gang of Five! Why some schools don’t want a Big Five monopoly on research makes some interesting points. According to McGill’s Heather Munroe-Blum, nothing so nefarious was intended, but we confess to finding her explanation Coherent vision for Quebec and Canada somewhat opaque
While we agree with Jack Lightstone, the Gazette and just about everyone else that the above is a bad idea, we are much more worried by the rabid reaction to President Obama’s public initiative to encourage education. Politico explains [ School speech backlash builds] what has been happening:
School districts from Maryland to Texas are fielding angry complaints from parents opposed to President Barack Obama’s back-to-school address Tuesday – forcing districts to find ways to shield students from the speech as conservative opposition to Obama spills into the nation’s classrooms. The White House says Obama’s address is a sort of pep talk for the nation’s schoolchildren. [Education Secretary Arne Duncan: Obama’s back-to-school message is responsibility] But conservative commentators have criticized Obama for trying to “indoctrinate” students to his liberal beliefs, and some parents call it an improper mix of politics and education.
If you want to know what all this manufactured fuss is about, here is the advance text of the Obama Back To School Speech on Huffington Post, along with other coverage – the comments on the HuffPost page are worth a glance – from what we read there, we can give thanks that not everyone in the U.S. is totally unhinged.
While on the topic of Education, Professor Stanley Fish has a fine three-part series in the NYT on “What should Colleges Teach? ” that addresses the topic nearest our heart, the fact that so many North American students are not taught composition (such a lovely old-fashioned word).  Please read it and exert your influence wherever you can bring it to bear. We have all deplored the inability of the young – and not-so-young – English speakers to coherently (yes, that’s a split infinitive; sometimes they are useful) – let alone grammatically – express themselves verbally or in writing  in their first language. The same is true of many Francophones – is it true of Hispanics?
On a much brighter note, we would like to remind you of the great work of the Fondation universitaire Pierre Arbour in fostering higher education for exceptional students at the Masters and PHD levels, and the different, but equally inspiring  initiative of Gabriel Bran Lopez, whom some of you met earlier this summer, and his Youth Fusion Jeunesse that establishes partnerships between high schools and universities to counter high school dropout rates, by creating and implementing projects that motivate youth and keep them interested in school. Their partners (announced last week) now include the 7 institutions of higher learning, 3 School commissions and … and. It’s a great story
Meanwhile, here’s something we should really be concerned about: Surge in Homeless Pupils Strains Schools … a national surge of homeless schoolchildren that is driven by relentless unemployment and foreclosures. The rise, to more than one million students without stable housing by last spring, has tested budget-battered school districts as they try to carry out their responsibilities – and the federal mandate – to salvage education for children whose lives are filled with insecurity and turmoil. –  Are there any figures for Canada?
As soon as the President has weathered the Back-to-school storm, on Wednesday, he makes his big speech to Congress on Healthcare Reform.  There is no lack of dissident voices – some as off-the-wall as Sarah Palin with her death panel theories (we had to mention her) –  and, as this is a keystone of Obama’s platform, we can expect – and will continue to monitor – ongoing, and no doubt, vicious debate.
On other topics

Tony Deutsch is (needlessly) worried that he failed to convey his message regarding bank funding and suggests that the Economist does a better job. We may respectfully disagree, but are pleased to point you in the direction of Getting banks to improve their funding profiles will not be easy. Obviously the G20 finance ministers were listening as the FT reports that G20 calls for better capital buffers at banks and, while we are on the topic of the economy, we will add two items.
The first is Paul Krugman, who continues our debate of economy wonks and wonky economies  with his long piece in the NYT Magazine How Did Economists Get It So Wrong? – we were happy to see his reference to behavioural economics and look forward to reactions.
We presume that everyone has absorbed that Canada’s Flaherty unsure about 2013-14 balanced budget ?
The FT carried this story last Friday: Libya demands local chiefs for joint ventures  – Libya will require all foreign companies to appoint Libyan chief executives to their joint ventures. Amidst all the shock and awe, maybe there is a lesson for Canada here?
Speaking of lessons for Canada:  this item, China Oil Deal Is New Source of Strife Among Iraqis may offer some pertinent considerations for the blue-eyed sheiks of Canada; it seems that (surprise!) the Chinese have brought in some 100 nationals and few jobs are being offered to the locals, and nor is the region receiving any infrastructure benefits.
Finally, for those who are as fascinated as we by the mystery of the “Arctic Sea”, all has been revealed Missing channel pirate ship carried Russian arms for Iran -we can’t wait for the movie! [Update: Russian Foreign Ministry has denied this report]

2 Comments on "Wednesday Night #1436"

  1. Tom Degan September 8, 2009 at 6:37 am ·


    Just sit back and relax, folks. Barack Obama is only performing a routine presidential duty that has been performed by presidents for generations. There’s nothing to be afraid of. He’s not trying to turn your babies into mini Marxists. This isn’t the Trotsky For Toddlers program. The president of the United States merely wants to have a heart to heart talk with the children of America about the importance of a good education, that’s all. I promise you, we Progressives do not believe in evil, subliminal messages. Chill out!


    Just kidding.

    Tom Degan
    Goshen, NY

  2. Tudor Johnston September 9, 2009 at 10:04 am ·

    Type your comment here.
    Re: Wednesday September 9th
    Diana post on Sept 8th
    Comments on several topics in the one message)
    The things that I think are worth spending some time on are
    (1) Stanley Fish (How to help university students learn to communicate cogently in print)
    (2) How to create an effective way to control banks so the last disaster won’t happen again.
    (3) Paul Krugman (How could the economists get it so wrong?)
    On the big 5 Canadian grab for research money, whether a trial balloon rapidly withdrawn or a misinterpretation by MacLeans’s Magazine, it’s dead in the water, so let it sink.
    On School speech backlash:
    Frankly, reveling in the American Republican Rage Rhetoric is a waste of time for Wednesday nights, even if if it allows us to feel oh so superior.
    On Stanley Fish re teaching of composition teaching: The intent is excellent but unless compulsory very few would take such a course except for those who don’t need it. I don’t think content-free composition is very useful. I learned much of my writing skills not in the “English” class (~ “Please, please like the English I’m forcing you to do.”), but by doing history essays at LCC for D.S. Penton. I’d like to see classes on communicating clearly in writing and in paying attention to how you come across to the reader.
    Bank reform difficulties as described by the Economist: It is pretty opaque to the non-expert in finance. It seems to me that the problem is very fundamental: How to regulate prudence when the investors scream for maximum returns until the bubble burst. My guess is that we were saved by the fact that that our oligarchic bank system colluded in in not going overboard, something that can’t happen when there are so many banks that the collusion cannot be maintained.
    NY Times Krugman “How did the economists get it so wrong?” EXCELLENT! The real economy is far messier than the toy theories that only apply in calm periods when everybody is more or less on the same page. How to do better is very very difficult, but clearly behavioral economics is the most realistic aspect that should be pushed hard.

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