Write Like Lincoln

Like all writers, my writing students struggle with vagueness and wordiness. Inevitably, wordiness is built into our initial drafts because they reflect our speech, and when we speak, we routinely spin our wheels.

As we eliminate written words that don’t contribute to phrases, phrases that don’t contribute to sentences, sentences that don’t contribute to paragraphs, and paragraphs that don’t contribute to the whole, our ideas get traction, and readers better understand what we’re communicating.

In the Gettysburg Address, Abraham Lincoln, in ways that people still marvel at, only needed 270 words and just over two minutes to reiterate the principles of human equality espoused in the Declaration of Independence, proclaim the Civil War as a struggle for the preservation of the Union, and espouse the principle of human equality for all citizens.

Wordiness is a by-product of laziness. Seven score and ten years ago, it would have been far easier and quicker for Lincoln to write a longer address.

If one of the greatest speeches in U.S. history is the length of this post*, why do I routinely take two or three times as many words to communicate much less lofty things? Because I don’t always make time to, as one Kalispell Montana high school English teacher puts it, “put every word on trial.”

Word limits, whether imposed by one’s self or others, are one of the best ways to learn to write more concisely. Once we learn to write more concisely, we can turn our attention to vagueness. I’d elaborate on that challenge, but I’m out of words.

* a tribute to Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, this post is exactly 270 words

Give Poor Students Computers and Watch Nothing Happen

What happened when researchers gave computers to randomly selected California schoolkids whose families had no computer at home? In short, nothing.

Matthew Yglesias reports:

. . . kids reported an almost 50 percent increase in time spent using a computer, with the time divided between doing homework, playing games, and social network. But there was no improvement in academic achievement or attendance or anything else. There wasn’t even an improvement in computer skills. At the same time, there was no negative impact either. The access to extra computer games didn’t reduce total time spent on homework or lead to any declines in anything. They broke it down by a few demographic subgroups and didn’t find anything there either. It’s just a huge nada. Nothing happening.

More Yglesias:

We know that kids from higher-income households do much better in school than poor kids. But that of course raises the question of why that is exactly or what one might do about it. . . If access to home computers was associated with improved school performance, that would be strong evidence that simply fighting poverty with money could be highly effective education policy. The null finding tends to suggest otherwise, that the ways in which high-income families help their kids in school don’t relate to durable goods purchases and may be things like social capital or direct parental involvement in the instructional process that—unlike computers—can’t be purchased on the open market.

Forget the “may be”. That is how high-income families help their kids in school. We also know kindergartners begin school with serious differences in vocabulary based upon their parents’ socio-economic status. Some kids luck out with two parents, one who might stay at home with them. When they’re not napping, they’re talking. Less television, more talking, much more extensive vocabulary. Think of that above-average age 5 vocabulary as kindling in the fireplace of formal schooling.

“Direct parental involvement in the instructional process” takes many forms. When I went to my youngest daughter’s first field trip when she was five, at a local farm, there were 24 pipsqueaks and 36 parents. We had the kindergartners and animals outnumbered. High-income parents volunteer in their children’s primary schools, they regularly meet with their teachers, they read to their children at night, they (especially grandparents) buy them books by the bushel, they organize school fundraisers, they make sure their school is well supplied, they monitor homework, and they hire tutors, counselors, and related specialists when something is amiss. Most recipients of that type of care think, “I don’t want to let them down.” Think of that resolve as the matches in the fireplace of formal schooling.

Social capital is the network of already well educated people—both within and outside one’s family—who collectively create positive momentum in well-to-do families. Often, it’s subtle, nuanced, and indirect. College-related stories are told at dinner, a new job or promotion is discussed, older siblings succeed. Achievement is assumed. At other times, it’s anything but subtle and nuanced as when a family member or influential family friend asks acquaintances in high places to grant an interview, internship, or job.

Given this dilemma, conservatives argue that spending more money on low-income students is pointless. Progressives draw a different conclusion. We gladly accept the Right’s premise that equal opportunity is essential, but we point out what they conveniently ignore. We can’t have equal opportunity writ large if young people don’t enjoy equal educational opportunity.

And since schools don’t have the wherewithal to level the pre-natal to before school playing field, or balance parent school involvement, or equalize social capital, it’s imperative that school’s compensate for societal inequalities that are not the fault of low-income students. If free computers aren’t that answer, what is? Some possibilities: smaller classes, the best teachers (who usually teach the best students); summer remediation programs; community-based internships and mentors; and longer school days/years.

All of those together won’t close the academic achievement gap. At best, they’ll partially reduce it.

Rolling the Dice

As noted Monday, in the U.S. today, the top 20% most wealthy citizens own 84% of the wealth and the top 1% own 50%.

Is that sustainable?

I wouldn’t think so, but the “have-nots” haven’t taken to the streets yet and serious crime is down in most major metropolitan areas. And curiously, quite a few of the eighty percenters are opposed to increasing the taxes of the top twenty percenters. In fact, I’m guessing a lot of the TEA Party is made up of bottom eighty percenters.

Maybe they see themselves joining the top twenty percenters sometime soon. Recent research would suggest they’re delusional because social mobility is extremely low in the U.S. right now, even lower than in most other developed countries in Western Europe. Our perception of our country as a bastion of social mobility is not even close to reality.

Maybe the top twenty percenters have cast some sort of Nancy Grace, sports, reality-television based spell on the bottom eighty percenters that keep them from asking questions about equality of opportunity let alone agitating for a saner redistribution of wealth. Just keep watching Survivor Nicaragua, Monday Night football, and wondering whether Lindsey Lohan is in or out of jail and don’t worry about our proportion of wealth.

How else can you explain a situation where four people say to sixteen, we’ll take 8.4 of every 10 units of housing, health care, vacations, dining out, cars, insurance, savings, etc. and the sixteen of you figure out how to divide up the remaining 1.6 units.

How long can this go on? What eventual ripple effects can we anticipate from this growing gap between the “haves” and “have-nots”?

What’s Your SSQ?

Social science quotient.

Probably not as high as it could or should be because we’re shaped by Ron and Don.

The “Ron and Don Show”  is a popular Seattle-area radio program on 97.3 FM that I occasionally tune into during NPR fundraising campaigns and sports talk commercial breaks.

Their success isn’t accidental, it rests on great names, radio voices, personalities, energy, chemistry, and pacing, all topped off with a laser-like programming focus on whichever individual is deemed most interesting each particular day: the barefoot bandit from Whidbey Island, the Bellevue City Council person who got mauled by a black bear, the police officer charged with deadly force, the college student that committed suicide.

Ron and Don hammer away at each individual’s story for hours on end and we eat it up because we always have been and always will be suckers for detailed stories well told. Even better when the stories are somewhat sordid and make us feel better about our lives.

But we’re out of touch with the effect of the Ron and Don-like media shining its spotlight so continuously and narrowly on individuals.

The cumulative effect is we’re utterly unable to think sociologically about pervasive patterns and themes among groups. Put differently, we can’t take stories of individuals and extrapolate about what they do and don’t represent in terms of larger social scientific trends.

We’re intellectual weaklings.

Here’s two non-Ron and Don stories from last week that I offer as a social science quotient quiz. Determine your “SSQ” by using a scale of 1 to 10. Assign yourself a “1” if these findings completely surprise you, a “10” if you were already familiar with the studies and the findings, and “2’s” through “9’s” for points in between.

Story one is available here. An excerpt:

Harvard and Duke Biz school professors Michael Norton and Dan Ariely asked over 5,000 Americans about US wealth distribution and how it should look if things could be changed.

“Respondents vastly underestimated the actual level of wealth inequality in the United States, believing that the wealthiest quintile (20 percent) held about 59 percent of the wealth when the actual number is closer to 84 percent.” Studies show current US wealth inequality is near record highs, with the top one percent of Americans estimated to hold around 50 percent of the nation’s wealth.

Story two—available at Slate.com.

The U.S. imprisons more people in absolute numbers and per capita than any other country on earth. With 5 percent of the world population, the U.S. hosts upward of 20 percent of its prisoners. The country’s incarceration rate has roughly quintupled since the early 1970s. In 1980, one in 10 black high-school dropouts were incarcerated. By 2008, that number was 37 percent.

For extra credit, submit your score via the comment section.

If our scores are low, as I presume they will be, it’s not Ron’s and Don’s fault. They don’t have a dog in the “individual versus collective thinking” fight I’m outlining. All they care about is that more listeners tune into them than NPR and sports talk. And their winning formula elevates the individual at the expense of social scientific understanding because we tune in and don’t demand any more from them.