Bill Gates Bought Me a Beer (ED in '08 Bloggers' Summit)

Someone told the organizers of the Ed in '08 bloggers' summit about The Harriet Tubman Agenda and this blog got an invitation. Thanks for the beer and cool event-labeled paraphenalia, Mr. Gates. I owe you. Here goes.

No, I didn't fly Honolulu to DC and back for the blogger's summit. The invitation came after I'd already booked Northwest from Honolulu to Memphis to attend my niece's graduation from Rhodes College, from Memphis to Minneapolis for a week in the woods along the Cascade River (Damn, those woods are cold. Deep, too) with my older sister, then a second-cousin's graduation from Adams-Friendship HS in Wisconsin.

What's the big deal with graduation? I only went to my HS graduation because they made me, and I didn't go to my college graduation. All parties involved took my departure as cause for celebration. Certainly, my experience isn't universal. Others have their own, and better, reasons to celebrate. My neice, the college grad (History), is off to teach English to Sri Lankan youngsters, and the HS grad is on to college. Good on them, I guess.

Viewed from Hawaii, the angular separation between Memphis, DC, and Grand Marais isn't much. DC wasn't much of a change in the itinerary, so I added that detour. The organizers promised Newt Gingrich and Joanne Jacobs, which sounded interesting. Then they began to fill the schedule with bloggers from the Huffington Post, Daily Kos, and the establishment media, and the detour began to look less attractive. Sunk costs are sunk, however, so I tried to keep an open mind.

The organizers were generous, courteous, and efficient. Thanks Holly, Mark, and the guy whose name I forget. Sorry. I didn't take a lot of notes. The staff of the Palomar Hotel supplied this wanderer with guidance. Thanks, all.

Day 1. Saturday. Cocktail hour and film.

I spent the cocktail hour cowering in a corner, nursing a beer and admiring the sharp clothes and easy sociability of everyone else. The screening of Two Million Minutes offered the chance to sit in dim light and enforced silence. The makers of Two Million Minutes, a film about the waste of time and talent in US high schools relative to the schools of China and India, followed six students, a male and a female in each country, through their daily routine. They interviewed economists and entrepreneurs who discussed the causes and consequences of the systematic differences between student motivation in India and China, on the one hand, and in the USA on the other. Maybe the economists' dire predictions of US decline will prove correct, but I am not convinced that exceptional performance at the top end of the academic scale matters all that much. The performance of the US economy from 1800 to 1900 suggests otherwise. Richard Arkwright, James Hargreaves, and Thomas Highs were homeschooled or only marginally schooled. Cyrus McCormick was homeschooled. Thomas Edison was homeschooled and went to work at 13. Hyram Maxim left school at 13 and apprenticed. A legal regime of secure title, freedom of association and freedom of contract, and a relatively transparent, small, and honest government matter more than exalted performance by academic stars. The Soviet Union created world-class mathematicians and physicists, and look where that got them. Bill Boryk, who visited the Russia before the collapse of communism, described life in the Evil Empire as "PhDs living in the stone age".

Day 2. Sunday. Panels, lunch, and a conversation with Joanne Jacobs.

The powers behind the Ed in '08 conference recommend three repairs to the US school system: standards, qualified teachers, and time to learn. This will more likely move US academic performance backwards. The major system insiders, the teachers' unions and their allies, will use the "standards" and "qualified teachers" imperatives to enhance centralization of the US education industry. Enhanced "time to learn" means students will have less time to pursue their own interests, outside the failed command economy of the government school system. The largest cost of the compulsory, tax-funded US school system is the opportunity cost to students of the time they spend in school.

One speaker bucked the tide. Newt Gingrich spoke during lunch and extolled self-paced instruction. He endorsed technology and institutional innovations which free students to pursue their own interests and to advance through the required curriculum at a faster pace than the prescribed 12 years to college.

Joanne signed a copy of Our School for me. I gave a copy of these charts to Newt Gingrich as he passed our table.

The weather in DC was fine. I did not meet an unfriendly soul in DC. The man at the National Airport visitors' information desk, the clerks at Motel 6, the bus drivers, and the young man waiting for the bus outside MacDonalds, who left Stockton, California to escape the gang temptation, were all helpful and friendly.

I did not have time to visit any monuments or museums, and flew out at 7 a.m. Monday.

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