College Drop Outs

Don’t try this at home!  MWG is going to review a book review.  We have been busy with non-fiction this summer and we are not sure if we can fit another in.  The book in question is The College Dropout Scandal by David Kirp.  The review is at NRO: Fixing The College-Dropout Problem by James P. Sutton.

First thing we are going to do is change the terminology.  If you want to find out about the issue you want to search for retention.  Other than perhaps the custodians, everyone at the university is worried about retention.  The University of Wisconsin System has a web page for progress and completion as part of the accountability dashboard for the UW System.

We have two problems with the review.  One is the conclusion which manages to have two problems in one paragraph.  We’ve put each of them in bold:

Kirp has written an important book, highlighting an underreported problem. He’s lifted up the kind of institutions and leaders we need more of: those who leave behind the prestige contests of American meritocracy and quietly work for the common good.

Retention is the most heavily reported underreported problem in some time.  We can’t think of a Yogi Berra or Groucho Marx quote but we are sure there is one for this situation.  For state institutions, the governor, legislators, university board, university administrators, and faculty all are aware of retention.

We haven’t read the book yet but the second bold item doesn’t make any sense.  We don’t want meritocracy?  Or is American meritocracy different from regular meritocracy?  How do we know what the common good is if it isn’t meritocracy?  Can we ever determine what is the common good?  And, if so, how do we determine it with regards to retention?

The common good ties into the second problem.  What is the optimal retention rate?  Often folks seem to imply it should be 100%.  We don’t think so and think that retention is much like income inequality.  Almost everyone agrees that the Gini coefficient should not be zero or one but it is hard to agree on a correct solution.

As department chair we have been involved in these discussions about grading from both perspectives.  First, Faculty X flunked 60 percent of the students.  Second, Faculty Z gave no grades below B.  Both outcomes are worrisome and difficult.  The Faculty Z scenario resonates with many faculty members because they worry that all the concern with retention will lead to even more grade inflation.

We do know that better students are more likely to be retained.  You can go to to site we mentioned above on UW retention and try to guess admission standards by retention.  You will be pretty close.

Retention rates are like beer: at some point more is not better.

Sidebar: We can do a better job than our undergraduate program where they “motivated” us by saying, “Look at the person on your right and the person on your left.  One of the three of you will not be here for graduation.”  End Sidebar.

We need to be concerned about retention rates being too high where they devalue the diploma or too low where we waste resources. We need to consider retention in terms of admission standards. Retention rates were low when we taught at open admissions school.  One notable student there was a plumber.  He was an excellent student but he couldn’t hope to make as much, at least starting out, as an accountant.  We asked why he was in school and he said, “I was starting to think like a plumber.”

Everyone should be worried about retention of conservatives but perhaps only conservatives will worry about it.  The problem for conservatives is particularly acute because most retention problems come early.  Thus, it is a concern for conservative students that students usually spend their first two years in the dorms and studying what we called General Education.  Both the dorms and Gen Ed are hotbeds of progressive thought.  Perhaps Kirp has a chapter on it but we doubt it.

The real question is can retention be increased while maintaining standards?  Given all the emphasis on retention in the past decades we would be shocked if there was much room for improvement while maintaining standards.  Still the market produces many miracles so we can hope.




One Intersection And One Not

We just finished Kevin D. Williamson’s The Smallest Minority and as we were finishing that up we heard about Clemens Tonnies, the chairman of the Bundesliga soccer team Schalke who was attacked by the social media mobs that Kevin is writing about.  Let’s start with Kevin.

We really enjoyed The Smallest Minority.  Kevin creates some amazing comparisons.  It is hard (probably impossible) to find as literary a political book where Dante, Milton, and Shakespeare are crucial to understanding the text.  It is in turn nasty (Minos was a Cretan, Matthew Yglasias is a cretin), hilarious, insightful and crazy.  Sometimes it is all of those at once.  It is easy to guess who is the mad dog of Mad Dogs and Englishmen.  Be sure to real all the footnotes.  Twice.

Sidebar One: We rarely comment on why folks do things.  Rather we are more interested in what they do.  We are convinced that this book is the real Kevin.  We understand that it is easy to get fooled and that is why we rarely comment on why.  We often wonder why folks behave like they do on TV and radio.  Kevin is really enjoying the conflict about social media.  End Sidebar One.

The backstory is that Kevin was hired by The Atlantic and shortly thereafter fired because of a social media storm.  The book is Kevin’s generalization of the problems with social media.  Kevin is correct when he says we need discourse, a real discussion, to discuss our pressing problems.  Social media gives us anti-discourse.  We get slogans and attacks to stop discussion.  People do it because it works.

The book was a joy to read.  The literary bent, character assassination, and asides are great fun.  The Smallest Minority just didn’t resonate with us.  We didn’t buy the Shakespeare analysis but that wasn’t it.  Twitter, Facebook and other social media just isn’t that important to us. There is a lack of an intersection been MWG and Kevin’s book.  We don’t follow the recommendations to improve the MWG penetration following by tweeting and pictures.  We really appreciate our followers but we blog for our own benefit and so we don’t fill up Facebook (our only social media) with political stuff.  We are not sure social media is that important to the wider world.  Kevin didn’t do much to convince us on that account.

Then came Clemens and Schalke that made more of a connection or intersection for us.  These events didn’t completely change our mind but they did make us reconsider.  Here is  a summary of what happened:

Many fans had been calling on the 63-year-old [Clemens] Tönnies to resign over the comments he made on Aug. 1, when he told a public meeting in Paderborn that tax increases to fight climate change were wrong and claimed it was better to finance 20 power plants a year in Africa.

“Then the Africans would stop cutting down trees, and they would stop making babies when it gets dark,” Tönnies said in comments first reported by the Neue Westfälische local newspaper.

Tönnies, Schalke chairman since 2001, apologized for his comments

Of course, Clemens has stepped on at least three third rails of social media.  First, he fought climate change recommendations.  Second, he talked about Africa and (gasp) Africans.  Third, he apologized to try and sate the mob.  They cannot be sated.

OK, he is not exactly right.  What Africa needs is capitalism and Germany could use a little more.  Here is part of a story on Tanzania:

The real cause of that reduction is pretty straightforward: economic freedom. Tanzania has gradually dismantled the socialist or “ujamaa” economic policies enacted by the dictator Julius Nyerere, since he stepped down in 1985. Nyerere was widely praised by leftist intellectuals in developed countries for his sincere belief in socialism, relatively low level of corruption, and not intentionally slaughtering his own people like so many other dictators.

Dang. We got rid of the tab before we made the link and now we can’t find it.  To get back to Clemens, we agree with him that tax increases to fight climate change don’t make sense in Germany or elsewhere.  We also agree with him that economic improvement in Africa would be a good thing and it will require carbon emissions.

Sidebar Two: We have argued that a revenue neutral carbon tax that eliminates the gas tax is a good idea.  It is not a tax increase.  Sidebar Two.

Africa could use more and better power.  Our first priority would be economic structure rather than actual structures but Clemens has a reasonable idea.   Reducing the cutting down of trees is probably a good idea a way for Clemens to try to connect with the climate change folks.  It is not unreasonable to argue for more trees.  He spoke of the number of African babies.  So what are the fertility rates in African countries?  Glad you asked:

The vast majority of the countries in the world with the highest fertility rates are in Africa, with Nigertopping the list at 7.153 children per woman, followed by Somalia at 6.123 children per woman. The Democratic Republic of Congo, Mali and Chad follow at 5.963, 5.922 and 5.797 children per woman, respectively.

So the top five countries in term of fertility are all African.  Germany, on the other hand, has a fertility rate of 1.586.  We are not convinced that overpopulation is a problem but the climate change folks often suggest it is.  Clemens is using their rhetoric against them.  They should respond rather than call him names but, as Kevin points out, a name calling ochlocracy is effective in silencing people these days.

The Clemens story has not made fighting the ochlocracy a front-burner item for us yet. We could be trending in that direction.


The Conservative Sensibility

Earlier we discussed how George Will’s The Conservative Sensibility and how it reminded us of our realizing that we had something like that.  Of course it took us quite awhile to figure it out while George has always known.

We think that everyone should read it.  The world would be a much more pleasant place if Kevin D. Williamson’s ochlocracy (what) was reading George rather than battling on Twitter and other forms of social media.  Our sensibility prevents us from forcing everyone to read it and even misleading you about the joys of the book.  It is Mr. Will’s Opus.  Matthew Continetti at NRO gives a brief history of George in his NRO review of Sensibility.  The difference is that the movie is more fun and less work because you get to enjoy the creation of classical music while the book is all intellectual work.  Sensibility is 538 pages of philosophical argument before the acknowledgments, endnotes and index.  And there is little or no red meat to get the juices flowing.  Kevin has more on one page than George has in his book.

Sidebar One: Of course we have no way of measuring red meat.  But you know which book will have the phrase “All-Lesbian World Bowling Champion.”  End Sidebar One.

Reading George is going to be a challenge for everyone and, perhaps, beyond the skills of many.  We hope everyone would make the effort.  It is a challenge because George makes the arguments for both sides and shows us that picking conservatism is a closely run thing.  It is a challenge because philosophy always requires a leap here or there.  It is a challenge because George identifies conservative sensibility but he doesn’t define conservative other than we should be sure to include atheists.  These are quibbles but there are quibbles to be made.

We would like to focus our comments on judicial review and atheists as conservatives.  George says that the purpose of American conservatism is to preserve the American founding as reflected in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.

We were always confused about judicial activism.  We always thought that when judges “made” a law it was bad because they were unelected.  We were confused as to why eliminating an unconstitutional law was judicial activism.  George helps us understand that our sensibility was on track but it is more subtle because the Declaration of independence is one of the founding documents and, although the documents and human nature don’t change some attitudes do.  You do want to read the whole thing but you might want to read Chapter Four, Judicial Supervision Of Democracy more than once.

Like George we are a conservative atheist.  He describes himself as a low-voltage atheist.  We are close to George here but we like the simple term atheist for ourselves as opposed to anti-theist for the folks that oppose theists and theism.  We are not sure that anti-theists can fit in the conservatism tent but we really enjoyed George’s explanation of why atheists need to be part of conservatism.  As George puts it:

The argument of this chapter [number 9] is that not only can conservatives be throughly secular, but that a secular understanding of cosmology and of humanity’s place in the cosmos accords with a distinctively conservative sensibility.

Later on he distills it down to religion is helpful and important but not essential to conservatism.  We agree.  You might not.

Read The Conservative Sensibility.  It is worth the challenge.



Two Terrific Counterfactuals

We took the Lady de Gloves to see Quentin Tarantino’s  Once Upon A Time … In Hollywood while we were reading Alan Furst’s The Spies of Warsaw.  Our link is to all of Alan’s books because we have found all eight we have read to date to be outstanding.  Quentin’s movie and Alan’s book share at least three things: A counterfactual story, a joy of place and time, and a chilling villain.

Quentin has a bromance between Rick, the leading man played by Leonardo DiCaprio, and Cliff, his stunt double, played by Brad Pitt set against the backdrop of Hollywood in 1969 (movies, TV shows, ads, cars, and records) while the Manson Family (in case you didn’t know) threatens their joy.  Kyle Smith at NRO thinks Quentin spends too much time on atmosphere:

Tarantino stops the film regularly to linger on a montage of neon marquees fizzing to life, to cast his eye down a boulevard teeming with period cars, or to look at a 1969 television commercial. There must be scenes from close to a dozen movies and TV shows within the movie, some of them real, some fictitious, others combining forms by inserting today’s actors into vintage footage. Almost none of this drives the plot along. Tarantino just thinks it’s cool to re-create 1969 in a thousand different ways, and, with $90 million of Sony’s money to spend, he won’t be denied. He should have cut almost all of it and saved it for the boffins who buy Director’s Cut DVDs.  [Emphasis added]

We agree with Quentin and disagree with Kyle.  We don’t quite agree with Armond White.  It was beyond cool to us and we see it as advancing the plot. It is not that Matt Helm was a great movie or Jose Feliciano’s version California Dreaming was any good.  It is an excellent movie, because like Alan, Quentin reflected the time, the culture, and specific people.  The joy amps up the coming conflict especially as Sharon Tate enjoys her role in Matt Helm.   Perhaps we see it that way because we grew up in that era.  Or perhaps it was reading Alan’s evocative book when we saw the movie but we delighted in the atmosphere of both and the contrast between them. We saw the atmosphere as ratcheting up the tension.   In both cases we know that gruesome deaths are close by despite the joy of ’69 and the manners of ’38.  It is hard to imagine two more different places.  Alan and Quentin capture them beautifully.

Sidebar: Somewhere we saw a critic defending Quentin against other critics saying he should have shown the rest of ’69 including the antiwar movement and racial conflict.  The critic says Quentin can make the movie he wants.  We think there is a better explanation in that the movie needed just one villain, the Manson Family, against the joy of the times.  It is, as the title implies, a fairy tale.  End Sidebar.

Alan has the love story of Anna and Mercier set against the anxiety of pre-WWII Europe while threatened by the Nazis.  Both live in Warsaw but they travel all over Europe.  Mercier is a doubly wounded warrior who comes from a long line of French warriors.  In 1938 nobody would think the previous sentence was a joke.  He was physically wounded in battle and he lost his wife to the ‘flu.  He is thinking about retiring but as his “Cold War” starts to heat up he finds interest in his work and love.  The extraordinarily brief epilogue suggests that Mercier and Anna will be back. We hope so.

We can’t tell you about the counterfactuals other than we enjoyed both.  Watch the movie and read the book carefully so you don’t miss the important stuff.  We can’t create the counterfactual where we only do one of reading Alan’s book and seeing Quentin’s movie.  We encourage you to do both and recognize that they might be better if taken together.



Bill Nowlin On Tom Yawkey

As the Red Sox struggle in 2019 we decided that we needed to remember how difficult our first fifty years of Red Sox fandom was.  In fact, before we were born, the Red Sox lost a seventh game of a World Series and two American league playoffs within a four year period (1946-1949).  So we wanted to know about the most important owner for the Red Sox, Tom Yawkey and we were ready for the heartaches.

Bill Nowlin’s Tom Yawkey: The Patriarch Of The Boston Red Sox is an important book.  It is not a great book but it is an important book.  Part of the reason that it is not a great book is part of the reason it is an important book.  Tom Yawkey stayed out of the limelight.  He never wrote anything and he rarely said much.  Bill has done a great job of running down every lead and trying to understand Tom.  One shortcoming is a failure to have a discussion of Tom’s business interests.  It is entirely possible that there is nothing to find because all of the businesses are privately owned and there is nothing to find.  If that is so then Bill should tell us so.

It is an important book because Tom was one of the most important owners in baseball and yet he didn’t have a biography.  He is an important owner because he saved the Red Sox and Fenway Park.  The Red Sox were days if not hours from bankruptcy when Tom bought them.  Fenway was a disaster.  He is an important owner because he owned the Red Sox for 43 years and his widow extended that.  He is an important owner because his team was the last one to integrate.  We recommend that you read Bill’s book but we think you will not find it entirely satisfying but it will help you understand Tom because Bill has done an extraordinary job of research.

Sidebar: You are thinking that we are upset because he didn’t reference our stuff aren’t you?  Nope.  Bill could have gotten the price for Babe Ruth correct but that is about the only stone that he didn’t turn over.  End Sidebar.

It is not entirely satisfying because Bill has the details but not always the insight.  We will give you two examples.  The first one is relatively small but indicative of our concerns: Bill lets Bob Quinn off the hook for his disastrous ownership.  Bob owned the Red Sox for almost ten years from 1923 (he bought the team during the season) to 1933 before spring training.  During those ten years the Sox finished eighth (last) eight time plus seventh and sixth.  Bill buys the Wikipedia line (see page 2 where he adds the Great Depression) that:

However, the most important member of Quinn’s ownership group, St. Louis millionaire Palmer Winslow, died in [April] 1927. For the remainder of Quinn’s tenure as Bosox owner, the team was severely underfinanced. Largely as a result, Quinn’s tenure as owner was, statistically speaking, the darkest in [any?] franchise history. In 10 years, the Red Sox never finished higher than sixth, and were no closer than 25 games out of first.

Remember that deals for 1927 would have been made by April when Palmer died.  During ’25-27 (the third through fifth years of Quinn’s ownership) the Red Sox lost a total of 315 games when they only played 154 in a season. They were in baseball and financial disarray.  Palmer’s death seems insignificant.

Our second example is Bill fails to take the Boston baseball writers to task for describing Tom as an out of touch owner.  His research shows that Tom is listening to the games (sometimes over the telephone) from South Carolina and is well informed about the Red Sox and their farm teams.  Fake news started before Tom but it certainly had an impact on him.  The Boston writers tear into Tom as out of touch.  Bill has the information to take them to task but doesn’t.  Bill’s best moment of insight is when he discusses race and the Red Sox and takes the Boston papers to task for their failure to integrate.  It does not absolve the Red Sox but it puts the issue in its proper context.

We think you should read Bill’s book.  It has great information and some insight.  We wish it had more.


Dark Voyage With Alan Furst

We had the joy of reading another Alan Furst book: Dark Voyage.  The Dutch tramp freighter Noordendam goes back and forth from being itself and the Spanish Santa Rosa in the run up to the German invasion of the Soviet Union while its captain, Eric DeHaan deals with the Dutch, British, German, Soviets, and others.

Dark Voyage has the tight details of the ship, the vision of the ports (Alexandria, Tangiers, and Lisbon), with the background of a world at war.  And, of course, Furst is telling you all this in book nor.  Here is an example:

“Nobody can see the future,” Dehaan said, “But promises are sometimes kept, even by governments.”

There are interesting souls in Dark Voyage.  It doesn’t tie into an of the other Furst books so you can start with it.

Writing, Alan Furst, And Envy

In keeping with our recent discussions, now even our titles have a list of three.  When folks talk about money, fame, trophy wives or politics (whoops four) we are generally not susceptible to envy but we are for writing.  In Red Gold, Alan Furst

Sidebar: Red Gold is another excellent book in the Night Soldier series.  If you like the world weary adults in film noir then you will love the series. In fact, the protagonist in Red Gold was, and if he lives through WWII, will be a film producer. So far, most of the series is only loosely connected so you can jump in anywhere.   End Sidebar.

has our hero Jean talking to the commie Weiss during the WWII German occupation of France and:

Weiss smiled. “It should, logically it should but the world doesn’t run on logic, it runs on the seven deadly sins and the weather.  Even so we try to do what we can.”
“And it helps,” [Jean] said, “to have machine guns”

We wish we could write just one passage like that.  Here, on the other hand is a really good article at Unherd on the Tories and Brexit by Robin Aitken.  Of course, you should read it all but here is a sample:

Why should it be imagined that younger people, who inevitably know less than their elders, are better equipped to decide the country’s future? It is only in the modern era, and particularly in western countries, that we have come to flatter and fawn over the young, not because of their shining hair, good teeth and clear skin (all very desirable) but because they supposedly have insights denied to the old.

We enjoy both Robin and Alan but only the latter causes us envy.  We felt a guilty pleasure when we noticed that Alan wrote that Jean left the truck running and later came back and started it.  Ha, we would not make that elementary mistake!  It does bring us joy that we have nine more of Alan’s Night Soldier books ahead of us.