Regression to the Mean

August 18, 2015

Social scientists have a phrase, “regression to the mean.” What they mean is that the law of averages eventually fells families, companies or countries that are doing better than average, and eventually lift those doing much worse than the average. Now for all of us who like to say the United States is the best in the world, there is a prospect to consider.

We could just get fatalistic; it’s going to happen so what can we do about it. But of course we didn’t succeed by fatalism. Americans escaped, trekked, traveled, by rickety sailboats and steerage and every other way imaginable to get here and then they cleared the wilderness and conquered the continent and then took on the world. No fatalism about that.

They didn’t stare at each other saying we can’t do or build this or that; they joined together or got the government to help. Until the fatalists took over. Reagan said government is the problem. Strange remark, from a man who either should have known better or did, because when he took over the U.S. Government was actually remaking the world, our world. Perhaps you didn’t know that the internet was developed by DARPA as a national security project to make up for a strategic weakness of the old fashioned telephone system. Or that the transistors that run everything you use were developed as part of a government war effort. There isn’t much that you and I touch that weren’t connected in some way to the government space effort.

I could tell that story for every American generation. Government that is devoted to the welfare of the people, began here. The banking system, the transportation system repeatedly rebuilt as new technology developed, schools and the university system, the list of government projects for us is endless – until we stopped trusting each other and our own government.

So how do we stay strong, healthy, and successful? Some think we do it by fighting everyone. They must have grown up in a very tough neighborhood. Those who crunch the numbers figured out a long time ago that arms are what economists call a deadweight loss. Sometimes you really need them but they contribute zero to the economy except for the research. And like the barroom brawler, everyone’s gunning for the top gun.

We got where we are because of our economy. You can look at the economic numbers and see when Germany got ahead of England and France and then when the U.S. surpassed Germany. It’s all in the numbers. Ever since that other fatalist, George Bush said “read my lips; no new taxes,” Americans have imagined that progress was free. But we got where we are because government did the things needed to facilitate what the rest of us could do, travel, save, study, communicate, ship, research and on and on.

But now America feels so poor that it can’t repair its infrastructure, can’t fix the cables, the water and sanitary systems, can’t fund its university system except on the backs of students who haven’t yet had a chance to earn a living. If America is truly that poor, it will regress to the mean.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, August 18, 2015.

Canadian Comparative Religion Case

May 19, 2015

I’d like to tell you about a recent decision of the Supreme Court of Canada regarding religious education.[1] Quebec has a “mandatory core curriculum” which includes a Program on Ethics and Religious Culture, to teach “about the beliefs and ethics of different world religions from a neutral and objective perspective” as the Court described it. It “requires teachers to be objective and impartial” and “to foster awareness of diverse values, beliefs and cultures.” The court decided that freedom of religion required Quebec to allow a Catholic school, to teach about Catholicism from a Catholic perspective, but the Court held that the school nevertheless needed to present other faiths in a neutral way, a position that the school largely accepted.

I understand the problems with the case. I understand that there will be difficulties interpreting and enforcing the decision and the law on which it is based, and in balancing the rights of the schools and the students. But it’s also very interesting.

It has always been legal to teach comparative religion or the history of religion in public schools in the United States. The so-called “wall of separation” has always been about fairness toward all the students, denying government the power to promote any religious viewpoint over others. It has not been about total exclusion from the classroom. Here’s what our Supreme Court wrote:

While study of religions and of the Bible from a literary and historic viewpoint, presented objectively as part of a secular program of education, need not collide with the First Amendment’s prohibition, the State may not adopt programs or practices in its public schools or colleges which “aid or oppose” any religion. [2]

We perceive “exclusion” from public places and programs because litigants typically want to promote a specific religion or doctrine rather than treat us to a display of inter-faith brotherly love. Multi-faith displays aren’t generally a problem – except for the promoters. Most Americans support that kind of basic fairness. And there is much to admire in what Quebec has tried to do.

Some congregations themselves teach their young people about the differences in the ways people pray, taking them as a group on tours of other houses of worship. Sometimes the little congregation where I pray plays host to such groups, a practice I admire very much.

I’ve felt lucky over the years to spend time at Chautauqua where religious lectures and services are programmed into the Amphitheatre, so even if you don’t plan on attending you may be mesmerized just passing by, as I was a few years ago hearing thousands of people in the Amphitheatre in this historically Protestant religious community reciting a prayer in Arabic as part of what they called their Abrahamic initiative, exploring the different faiths that have roots in the religious world of the patriarch Abraham and the ancient Hebrews. They explored it by including clerics from each of those traditions.

My college experience was similar – we had to go to services, regardless of whose, and programming in the main university chapel was ecumenical – so I heard some of the world’s finest theologians of the era, regardless of faith.

I came to appreciate the fact that the finest minds of most faiths understand the similarity of their religious worlds, and the identity of unanswerable questions with which we all struggle. Most of all I appreciate what unites us and the import of that unity for us all.

Given the rise of religious war and cruelty in many parts of the world, I can’t bring myself to take brotherhood for granted. It is the hard won prize of our America.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, May 19, 2015.

[1] Loyola High School v. Quebec, 2015 SCC 12 (2015), available at

[2] Epperson v. Ark., 393 U.S. 97, 106 (U.S. 1968) quoting McCollum v. Board of Education, 333 U.S. 203, 225 (1948).

Is it Still the Pledge in Arabic?

March 24, 2015

You’ve heard that high school administrators in the Hudson Valley apologized for having the Pledge of Allegiance recited in Arabic for one morning during National Foreign Language Week.

Americans are funny about language. The Founders of this country took pride in knowing foreign languages and visiting other countries. From the beginning until the twentieth century we had robust foreign language speaking communities in the U.S. The Army, until World War I, had regiments recruited by area, language, ethnic group, and race. As a whole, the Army was a tower of Babel and as late as the Civil War and Spanish-American War, people of all backgrounds, speaking many of the world’s languages, served in units with their own languages. Only in the twentieth century did the military break that segregation down, putting people into units without regard to their geographic, linguistic or racial background, expecting soldiers to learn the English they needed to know.[1]

Then there was the movement to prevent children from growing up with any knowledge of German. A pair of very famous U.S. Supreme Court decisions defended the rights of parents to have their children learn German. [2] Thank heavens that President Roosevelt knew German and read Hitler’s Mein Kampf in the unexpurgated German, knew how vicious Hitler was and did everything he could to prepare America to defend against him.

And of course schools didn’t teach Russian after the War. God forbid you could read what they were doing. And more recently Persian. Somehow, while we proclaim the superiority of our way of life and its attractiveness for decent people everywhere, we are afraid that if Americans become familiar with the language of dictators, it is us that need to be afraid, not the dictators. Yet to protect national security we might need to encourage familiarity with foreign languages, even languages of those with whom we have a beef.

In the case of Arabic, it is a language spoken by many more of the victims of the jahadis than the jahadis themselves. Arabic speakers come here for the same reasons that refugees come here from all parts of the globe – for safety, for a chance to survive, and because they know that some Americans are warm and welcoming.

Their knowledge and their skills are valuable here, both their technical skills and their cultural and linguistic knowledge. Like all peoples, including other Americans, most are decent, kind, and industrious and a much smaller proportion aren’t. That’s humanity.

So it’s not such a bad idea that we learn that the Pledge can be and has been recited in all languages, that people can signify their devotion to American ideals of freedom, equality, inclusiveness and welcome, in all languages. For a country that claims to be founded on principles of freedom and equality, we are amazingly unwilling to deal with people who say things a little bit differently than we ourselves. Our culture is surprisingly conformist. Ultimately that demand for if conformity, and the fear it reflects, threatens our future much more than Arabic.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, March 24, 2015.

[1] John Whiteclay Chambers, II, Conscripting for Colossus: The Progressive Era and the Origin of the Modern Military Draft in the United States in World War I, in The Military in American From the Colonial Era to the Present 297-311 (New York: Free Press, Peter Karsten, ed., rev. ed. 1986): Bruce White, The American Military and the Melting Pot in World War I, in id. 317-28.

[2] Meyer v. Neb., 262 U.S. 390 (1923); Bartels v. Iowa, 262 U.S. 404 (1923).

World-Wide Radiance of the American Melting Pot

February 24, 2015

In this world the grossest of inhumanity is euphemistically described as ethnic cleansing. The mutli-directional genocide of the old Yugoslavia has become routine. Boko Haram takes aim at education and at religious difference in Africa, targeting connections with America and the west. The Islamic State and al-Qaeda in the Middle East, with tentacles into much of the Muslim world, target whoever doesn’t belong and subscribe to their version of Islam or dare question their authority, They have targeted America, England, Spain, France Norway and counting. It is terrifying how quickly decent peace-loving communities have been dismembered and destroyed.

The past is prologue, but can’t be undone. The question is what do we do now. This is partly an ideological struggle because terrorists depend on recruits. How can we handle such a high-stakes ideological struggle? One aspect of that is at home.

Urging the U.S. Supreme Court to end segregation in Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 both the Democratic Truman Administration and the Republican Eisenhower Administration explained to the Court that our respect for people of all races, faiths and national origins were central to American worldwide success, especially in the fight against Communism.

Our melting pot and mutual concern and respect define the best of America. Our unwillingness to give in to bigots and bigotry, racists and racism, our willingness to see, confront and deal with bigotry and racism, our determination to stop it, make our strongest appeal. It is our tolerance, our neighborliness, our welcome to all from everywhere that makes us the shining city on a hill that our Founders hoped we would be. It is not our bloodlines but our coming together to make ourselves and welcome each other as Americans that makes us so. That e pluribus unum is what the world admires. They want our neighborliness; they crave the American idealism that gives anyone and everyone a chance to make a decent living and a decent life. They crave the welcome that glows from our melting pot.

People dream of America in corners of the world where they are crushed as if they are worthless except for the masters’ business, worthless unless they are of the masters’ bloodlines, worthless unless they have something to offer, at least a bribe. We need to keep the dream of the American melting pot alive both for their sakes and for ours.

Our American melting pot is more important than ever to the world we inhabit. But make no mistake it is crucial here at home. If the hatreds that once fanned the Old World and now fan the so-called Third World land on our shores, none of us are safe. We were all melted in that pot and we all live or die together. There is no safety in a cauldron. We have to sustain the values of our shared tolerant American culture.  For all our sakes. We are all beneficiaries.

I pointed out last week that the American melting pot, one of our most fundamental of institutions, was the result of very deliberate decisions to educate us all together, without regard to wealth, faith, gender, national origin or spoken language, and then, finally, without regard to race. And yet, the Court that once announced Brown v. Board of Education is not helping to preserve that centuries-old melting pot. Instead it is making it easier, in some respects even forcing us to re-segregate ourselves by race, religion and wealth.[1] By doing that, the Court is plunging a dagger into the heart of America.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, February 24, 2015.

[1] See, e.g., Ariz. Christian Sch. Tuition Org. v. Winn, 131 S. Ct. 1436 (2011); Parents Involved in Cmty. Sch. v. Seattle Sch. Dist. No. 1, 551 U.S. 701 (2007); Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, 536 U.S. 639 (2002); and see Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (New York: New Press 2010); Erica Frankenberg, Chungmei Lee and Gary Orfield, “A Multiracial Society with Segregated Schools: Are We Losing the Dream?”  The Civil Rights Project Harvard Univ. (Jan. 2003) available at (June 22, 2007).

American scientific capital

August 19, 2014

A panel at a national meeting of historians I attended was devoted to the relation between the study of history and STEM – science, technology, engineering and mathematics. One speaker explained that practical skills were widespread early in our history. Those skills, like surveying, sailing, or building canals, required both hands-on skills and the ability to perform calculations and experiment. American surveyors, navigators and builders were doing what we now call science and math, though they rarely got the credit. One surveyor wrote to a Frenchman around 1814 that no one was paying for astronomy, and no one was paying him for his astronomical investigations and calculations. But the speaker then pointed out that this gentleman was in fact being paid by the government for surveying and that his surveys required the astronomical observations he was making. He was doing the work, though not being recognized for it as his French friend would have been. Read the rest of this entry »

A Blessing on Both Their Houses

July 29, 2014

Listeners and readers of my commentary know that I have spoken out against what I believe is Israeli misbehavior. So I get flooded with one-sided petitions condemning Israeli behavior. To make myself completely clear, I see merit and fault on both sides. I will not sign one-sided petitions.

I am reminded of my conversation with a Palestinian student who argued with me that Palestinians have the right to kill Israelis, any Israelis, military or civilian, and they have no right to shoot back, only to accept their fate. I questioned him to make sure I was hearing him accurately. What he was making clear was the attitude, or brain-washing, that dehumanized the other side. That is the attitude we have to fight against. Read the rest of this entry »

For a Better Education

July 1, 2014

A recent headline read, “Slow Common Core.” For quite a long time there has been a backlash against anything viewed as “too tough” for our kids. That is a tendency of living in a democracy. Anything tough for our kids is bad but at the same time they have to get a fabulous education that will equip them for life’s challenges. So the solution is teachers who can make everyone learn painlessly. And therefore, if anything goes wrong it’s the teacher’s fault, not the student’s. Read the rest of this entry »


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 261 other followers