Sep 25, 2015

Possible Books for 2016

Books Relating to International Organizations

The Guardians: The League of Nations and the Crisis of Empire by Susan Pedersen. 4.3 stars, 592 pages (407 pages before the Appendices). Here is the author discussing the book on C-SPAN.
At the end of the First World War, the Paris Peace Conference saw a battle over the future of empire. The victorious allied powers wanted to annex the Ottoman territories and German colonies they had occupied; Woodrow Wilson and a groundswell of anti-imperialist activism stood in their way. France, Belgium, Japan and the British dominions reluctantly agreed to an Anglo-American proposal to hold and administer those allied conquests under "mandate" from the new League of Nations. In the end, fourteen mandated territories were set up across the Middle East, Africa and the Pacific. Against all odds, these disparate and far-flung territories became the site and the vehicle of global transformation.
In this masterful history of the mandates system, Susan Pedersen illuminates the role the League of Nations played in creating the modern world. Tracing the system from its creation in 1920 until its demise in 1939, Pedersen examines its workings from the realm of international diplomacy; the viewpoints of the League's experts and officials; and the arena of local struggles within the territories themselves. Featuring a cast of larger-than-life figures, including Lord Lugard, King Faisal, Chaim Weizmann and Ralph Bunche, the narrative sweeps across the globe-from windswept scrublands along the Orange River to famine-blighted hilltops in Rwanda to Damascus under French bombardment-but always returns to Switzerland and the sometimes vicious battles over ideas of civilization, independence, economic relations, and sovereignty in the Geneva headquarters.
Ralph Bunche: An American Odyssey by Brian Urquhart. 4.07 stars (Goodreads), 512 pages (458 pages of text). Here is an article on Dr. Bunch with two short videos.
A superb narrative biography of the international diplomat and racial pioneer―the basis for the acclaimed four-part PBS TV series. Ralph Bunche was instrumental ― sometimes at great personal risk ― in finding peaceful solutions to incendiary conflicts around the world, while at the same time he was never far from the realities of racial prejudice. Bunche rose from modest circumstances to become the foremost international mediator and peacekeeper of his time, winner of the 1950 Nobel Peace Prize and key drafter of the United Nations charter. Drawing on Bunche's personal papers and on his many years as Bunche's colleague at the UN, Brian Urquhart's elegant biography delineates a man with a zest for life as well as unsurpassed integrity of purpose. 
Scandinavian History

A Warrior Dynasty: The Rise and Fall of Sweden as a Military Superpower, 1611-1721 by Henrik Lunde. Only available in hardcover. 3.9 stars, 320 pages. 
This book examines the meteoric rise of Sweden as the pre-eminent military power in Europe during the Thirty Years War during the 1600's, and then follows its line of warrior kings into the next century until the Swedes finally meet their demise, in an overreach into the vastness of Russia. A small Scandinavian nation, with at most one and a half million people and scant internal resources of its own, there was small logic to how Sweden could become the dominant power on the Continent. That Sweden achieved this was due to its leadership―a case-study in history when pure military skill, and that alone, could override the demographic and economic factors which have in modern times been termed so pre-eminent. Once Protestantism emerged, via Martin Luther, the most devastating war in European history ensued, as the Holy Roman Empire sought to reassert its authority by force. Into this bloody maelstrom stepped Gustav Adolf of Sweden, a brilliant tactician and strategist, who with his finely honed Swedish legions proceeded to establish a new authority in northern Europe. Gustav, as brave as he was brilliant, was finally killed while leading a cavalry charge at the Battle of Lützen. He had innovated, however, tactics and weaponry that put his successors in good stead, as Sweden remained a great power, rivaled only by France and Spain in terms of territory in Europe. And then one of his successors, Karl XII, turned out to be just as great a military genius as Gustav himself, and as the year 1700 arrived, Swedish armies once more burst out in all directions. Karl, like Gustav, assumed the throne while still a teenager, but immediately displayed so much acumen, daring and skill that chroniclers could only compare him, like Gustav, to Alexander the Great.
HENRIK O. LUNDE, born in Norway, moved to America as a child and thence rose in the U.S. Army to become a Colonel in Special Forces. Highly decorated for bravery in Vietnam, he proceeded to gain advance degrees and assume strategic posts, his last being in the Plans and Policy Branch of Supreme Headquarters, Allied Powers Europe. After retirement from the Army he turned to writing, with a focus on his native North, and given his combination of personal tactical knowledge plus objective strategic grasp has authored several groundbreaking works. These include Hitler’s Pre-Emptive War, about Norway 1940, Finland’s War of Choice, and Hitler’s Wave-Breaking Concept, which analyzes the controversial retreat of Germany’s Army Group North from the Leningrad front in WWII. 
A Family of Kings: The descendants of Christian IX of Denmark by Theo Aronson. 4,5 stars, 428 pages (378 pages of text).
In 1863, Queen Victoria decreed that Edward, Prince of Wales, should marry Princess Alexandra, daughter of the obscure and unsophisticated heir to the Danish throne. The beauty, grace and charm of Prince Christian's daughter had prevailed over the Queen's intense dislike of the Danish royal house, and had even persuaded the embarrassingly difficult Bertie to agree to the match.
Thus began the fairy-tale saga of a family that handed on its good looks, unaffectedness, and democratic manners to almost every royal house of modern Europe. For, in the year that Alexandra became Princess of Wales, her brother Willie was elected King of the Hellenes ; her father at last succeeded to the Danish throne; her sister Dagmar was soon to become wife of the future Tsar Alexander III of Russia; and her youngest sister Thyra later married the de jure King of Hanover.
A Family of Kings is the story of the crowned children and grandchildren of Christian IX and Queen Louise of Denmark, focusing on the half-century before the First World War.
The Sea Wolves: A History of the Vikings by Lars Brownworth. 4.5 stars, 300 pages. Selected
In AD 793 Norse warriors struck the English isle of Lindisfarne and laid waste to it. Wave after wave of Norse ‘sea-wolves’ followed in search of plunder, land, or a glorious death in battle. Much of the British Isles fell before their swords, and the continental capitals of Paris and Aachen were sacked in turn. Turning east, they swept down the uncharted rivers of central Europe, captured Kiev and clashed with mighty Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine Empire.
But there is more to the Viking story than brute force. They were makers of law - the term itself comes from an Old Norse word - and they introduced a novel form of trial by jury to England. They were also sophisticated merchants and explorers who settled Iceland, founded Dublin, and established a trading network that stretched from Baghdad to the coast of North America.
In The Sea Wolves, Lars Brownworth brings to life this extraordinary Norse world of epic poets, heroes, and travellers through the stories of the great Viking figures. Among others, Leif the Lucky who discovered a new world, Ragnar Lodbrok the scourge of France, Eric Bloodaxe who ruled in York, and the crafty Harald Hardrada illuminate the saga of the Viking age - a time which “has passed away, and grown dark under the cover of night”.
Lars Brownworth is an author, speaker, broadcaster, and teacher based in Maryland, USA. He created the first history podcast, "12 Byzantine Rulers", which Apple recognized as one of the 'top 50 podcasts that defined their genres'. He has written for the Wall Street Journal and been profiled in the New York Times, who likened him to some of history's great popularizers. His books include "Lost to the West: The Forgotten Byzantine Empire that Rescued Western Civilization", "The Normans: From Raiders to Kings", and "The Sea Wolves: A History of the Vikings".
Ivory Vikings: The Mystery of the Most Famous Chessmen in the World and the Woman Who Made Them by Nancy Marie Brown. (Hardcover, but not too expensive.) 4.7 stars, 288 pages.
In the early 1800's, on a Hebridean beach in Scotland, the sea exposed an ancient treasure cache: 93 chessmen carved from walrus ivory. Norse netsuke, each face individual, each full of quirks, the Lewis Chessmen are probably the most famous chess pieces in the world. Harry played Wizard's Chess with them in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. Housed at the British Museum, they are among its most visited and beloved objects.
Questions abounded: Who carved them? Where? Nancy Marie Brown's Ivory Vikings explores these mysteries by connecting medieval Icelandic sagas with modern archaeology, art history, forensics, and the history of board games. In the process, Ivory Vikings presents a vivid history of the 400 years when the Vikings ruled the North Atlantic, and the sea-road connected countries and islands we think of as far apart and culturally distinct: Norway and Scotland, Ireland and Iceland, and Greenland and North America. The story of the Lewis chessmen explains the economic lure behind the Viking voyages to the west in the 800s and 900s. And finally, it brings from the shadows an extraordinarily talented woman artist of the twelfth century: Margret the Adroit of Iceland.
More Iberian History

The Portuguese: A Modern History by Barry Hatton. 4.2 stars, 256 pages.
Combining history and anecdote, Barry Hatton paints an intimate portrait of a fascinating country and its people
Portugal is an established member of the European Union, one of the founders of the euro currency and a founding member of NATO. Yet it is an inconspicuous and largely overlooked country on the continent's south-west rim.
Barry Hatton shines a light on this enigmatic corner of Europe by blending historical analysis with entertaining personal anecdotes. He describes the idiosyncrasies that make the Portuguese unique and surveys the eventful path that brought them to where they are today.
In the fifteenth-and sixteenth-century Age of Discovery the Portuguese led Europe out of the Mediterranean into the Atlantic and they brought Asia and Europe together. Evidence of their one-time four-continent empire can still be felt, not least in the Portuguese language which is spoken by more than 220 million people from Brazil, across parts of Africa to Asia.
Analyzing present-day society and culture, The Portuguese also considers the nation's often tumultuous past. The 1755 Lisbon earthquake was one of Europe's greatest natural disasters, strongly influencing continental thought and heralding Portugal's extended decline. The Portuguese also weathered Europe's longest dictatorship under twentieth-century ruler Antonio Salazar. A 1974 military coup, called the Carnation Revolution, placed the Portuguese at the center of Cold War attentions. Portugal's quirky relationship with Spain, and with its oldest ally England, is also scrutinized.
Portugal, which claims Europe's oldest fixed borders, measures just 561 by 218 kilometers. Within that space, however, it offers a patchwork of widely differing and beautiful landscapes. With an easygoing and seductive lifestyle expressed most fully in their love of food, the Portuguese also have an anarchical streak evident in many facets of contemporary life. A veteran journalist and commentator on Portugal, the author gives a thorough overview of his adopted country.
The Last Crusade: The Epic Voyages of Vasco da Gama by Nigel Cliff. 4.4 stars, 560 pages (421 of text)
Historian Nigel Cliff delivers a sweeping, radical reinterpretation of Vasco da Gama’s pioneering voyages, revealing their significance as a decisive turning point in the struggle between Christianity and Islam—a series of events which forever altered the relationship between East and West. Perfect for readers of Endurance:Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage, Galileo’s Daughter, and Atlantic, this first-ever complete account of da Gama’s voyages includes new information from the recently discovered diaries of his sailors and an extraordinary series of letters between da Gama and the Zamorin, a king of modern-day Kerala, India. Cliff, the author of The Shakespeare Riots, draws upon his own travels in da Gama’s footsteps to add detail, authenticity, and a contemporary perspective to this riveting, one-of-a-kind historical epic.
Prince Henry the Navigator by Sir Peter Russell. (Expensive new.)  4.6 stars, 502 pages (364 of text)
This enthralling life of the legendary fifteenth-century Portuguese prince, Henry the Navigator, is the first comprehensive biography in more than a century. Examining the full range of the prince's activities as an imperialist and as a maritime, cartographical and navigational pioneer, Peter Russell shows that while Henry was firmly rooted in medieval times, his innovations set in motion changes that altered the history of Europe and regions far beyond.
Spain and the Independence of the United States: An Intrinsic Gift by Thomas E. Chávez. 4.7 stars, 330 pages.
The role of Spain in the birth of the United States is a little known and little understood aspect of U.S. independence. Through actual fighting, provision of supplies, and money, Spain helped the young British colonies succeed in becoming an independent nation. Soldiers were recruited from all over the Spanish empire, from Spain itself and from throughout Spanish America. Many died fighting British soldiers and their allies in Central America, the Caribbean, along the Mississippi River from New Orleans to St. Louis and as far north as Michigan, along the Gulf Coast to Mobile and Pensacola, as well as in Europe.
Based on primary research in the archives of Spain, this book is about United States history at its very inception, placing the war in its broadest international context. In short, the information in this book should provide a clearer understanding of the independence of the United States, correct a longstanding omission in its history, and enrich its patrimony. It will appeal to anyone interested in the history of the Revolutionary War and in Spain's role in the development of the Americas.
The group was quite interested in reading about the history of Catelonia, especially given that it recently elected a pro-independence government which is expected to call a referendum on independence in the near future. Neither of the following two books fully seemed to fit the bill, and we were asked to see if a more suitable history of this region of Spain could be identified.

Catalonia Is Not Spain: A Historical Perspective by Simon Harris. 4.8 stars (Amazon)/4.55 stars (Goodreads), 300 pages.
How much does the world know about Catalonia and its role as a great medieval empire and one of Europe's first nation states? In Catalonia Is Not Spain: A Historical Perspective author Simon Harris takes the reader through 1,000 years of Catalan history focusing on the Principality's often difficult relationship with Castile-dominated Spain. This insightful and balanced history gives an insider's background to the current political situation and why Catalonia is currently deciding whether or not it wants to be independent from Spain.
Simon Harris has lived in Barcelona, capital of Catalonia, since 1988, where he is a university-level teacher of English and translator. His main writing topics are Catalan history, language and culture. His first book, Going Native in Catalonia. was published by Native Spain in 2008. He self-published Catalonia Is Not Spain: A Historical Perspective in late 2014. He is currently working on a biography of Catalan president Artur Mas centered on the Catalan independence movement, which he plans to self-publish in spring 2015.

Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell. 4.14 stars (Goodreads), 304 pages.
“One of Orwell’s very best books and perhaps the best book that exists on the Spanish Civil War.”—The New Yorker

In 1936, originally intending merely to report on the Spanish Civil War as a journalist, George Orwell found himself embroiled as a participant—as a member of the Workers’ Party of Marxist Unity. Fighting against the Fascists, he described in painfully vivid and occasionally comic detail life in the trenches—with a “democratic army” composed of men with no ranks, no titles, and often no weapons—and his near fatal wounding. As the politics became tangled, Orwell was pulled into a heartbreaking conflict between his own personal ideals and the complicated realities of political power struggles.

Considered one of the finest works by a man V. S. Pritchett called “the wintry conscience of a generation,” Homage to Catalonia is both Orwell’s memoir of his experiences at the front and his tribute to those who died in what he called a fight for common decency. This edition features a new foreword by Adam Hochschild placing the war in greater context and discussing the evolution of Orwell’s views on the Spanish Civil War.
Ghosts of Spain: Travels Through Spain and Its Silent Past by Giles Tremlett. 4.3 stars, 400 pages.
"Part modern social history, part travelogue, Ghosts of Spain is held together by elegant first-person prose…an invaluable book…[that] has become something of a bible for those of us extranjeros who have chosen to live in Spain. A country finally facing its past could scarcely hope for a better, or more enamored, chronicler of its present."--Sarah Wildman, New York Times Book Review
The appearance, more than sixty years after the Spanish Civil War ended, of mass graves containing victims of Francisco Franco's death squads finally broke what Spaniards call "the pact of forgetting"--the unwritten understanding that their recent, painful past was best left unexplored. At this charged moment, Giles Tremlett embarked on a journey around the country and through its history to discover why some of Europe's most voluble people have kept silent so long. In elegant and passionate prose, Tremlett unveils the tinderbox of disagreements that mark the country today. Ghosts of Spain is a revelatory book about one of Europe's most exciting countries.
Late Addition to the List (Angus Deaton just won the Nobel Prize for Economics)

The world is a better place than it used to be. People are healthier, wealthier, and live longer. Yet the escapes from destitution by so many has left gaping inequalities between people and nations. In The Great Escape, Angus Deaton--one of the foremost experts on economic development and on poverty--tells the remarkable story of how, beginning 250 years ago, some parts of the world experienced sustained progress, opening up gaps and setting the stage for today's disproportionately unequal world. Deaton takes an in-depth look at the historical and ongoing patterns behind the health and wealth of nations, and addresses what needs to be done to help those left behind.

Sep 14, 2015

Our Kids: There is a Generation of Poor Kids Today With Little Hope for a Better Tomorrow?

On the evening of 9/9/15 eleven members of the club met to discuss Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis by Robert D. Putnam. As usual we met at the Kensington Row Bookshop (3786 Howard Ave, Kensington, MD 20895)

Background on the Book

A great American myth is that any American child can rise to the top of the society in business, government or fame. Author Putnam quickly establishes that while some poor American kids in the past have indeed risen as the myth suggests (e.g. Ford and Edison, Lincoln and Jackson, Frederick Douglass), it has been likely in America that a child born to upper class parents would grow up and attain above average status and that a child born to lower class parents would as an adult be below average status. What has been true is that over its history the USA has grown rapidly economically, and that that growth has enabled the average child to be better off economically than his/her parents, as well as to live longer and more comfortably.

The thesis of Our Kids is that an important and unfortunate change has taken place in America society since 1970 (and indeed since 1959 when author Putnam graduated from high school). Upper-class. well-educated parents still can feel optimistic for their children, but the children of poor, poorly educated parents are likely to grow up poorly educated and thus themselves of limited opportunities in life. The socio-economic distance between college graduates and those with high school or less schooling is increasing. Putnam goes on to indicate that Black and Hispanic upper class parents can be optimistic for their kids -- that he believes that the discrimination is socio-economic, not racially based.

The book notes that neighborhoods have become more segregated in America in recent decades: upper class neighborhoods have uniformly richer, more educated residents, lower class neighborhoods have uniformly poorer, less educated residents; there is less mixture than in the past of rich and poor, of more and less educated in the same neighborhood. Upper class neighborhoods differ from lower class neighborhoods having more effectiveness of parenting, better schooling (but not bigger school budgets inputs) and better community social capital available to bringing up kids -- all to the benefit of the upper class kids.

The book includes a chapter on Port Clinton where Putnam graduated from high school. It then has chapters on families, parenting, schooling and community; each of these chapters focuses on a specific place: Bend (Oregon), Atlanta, Orange County (California), and Philadelphia. A final substantive chapter is titled "What is to be Done". The location specific chapters have narrative sections based on extensive interviews that were carried out as part of the research. The author and his assistants interviewed young people and their parents, where one set of parents in each location had college educations and the other set had high school or less. Interviews include African Americans and Hispanic Americans as well as whites. These chapters also have analytic sections, drawing on a wealth of statistical data tracing trends from 1970 to the present.

A final chapter begins pointing out that child poverty in the United States is a huge drag on the economy. Each year we allow it to persist costs us in lost productivity, increase crime and added medical costs. The opportunity cost to the nation of tossing away the potential in these kids is measured in trillions of dollars. Our democracy works less well because the poor kids are not educated properly in citizenship. Most important, we have a moral responsibility to see to the education and development of all our kids. Putnam, in a final chapter, offers a number of practical steps that could be taken to reduce the problem and help save at least some of these kids.

Robert D. Putnam is a distinguished Political Scientist and academic. He is the Peter and Isabel Malkin Professor of Public Policy at Harvard University. He is a member of the National Academy of Sciences and the British Academy, and past president of the American Political Science Association. He has received numerous scholarly honors, including the Skytte Prize, the most prestigious global award in political science, and the National Humanities Medal, the nation’s highest honor for contributions to the humanities.  He has written fourteen books, translated into more than twenty languages, including Bowling Alone and Making Democracy Work, both among the most cited publications in the social sciences in the last half century.  His 2010 book, co-authored with David E. Campbell, American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us, won the American Political Science Association’s 2011 Woodrow Wilson award as the best book in political science.

Source: Also found on Robert D. Putnam's website
Some Things Shared with the Group by means of the Internet Before the Meeting

The following are listed in the order they were shared with club members:
  • "According to the annual Kids Count Data Report, which ranks states based on the well-being of children living there, about 3 million more children were impoverished in 2013 than in 2008, an increase of 3 percent that brings the total number of children in poverty to 16,087,000."
  • "Several of you have asked me why I post quotes from the 1830s, 1910s, 1930s, and 1960s and early 1970s. It’s because in those four periods Americans reasserted power over financial elites that threatened to usurp our economy and democracy. Unlike societies that have succumbed to fascism, communism, totalitarianism, and violent revolution when their people become frustrated and fearful, America reforms itself. That’s what we did in the 1830s when elites accrued unwarranted privileges, and we abolished property rights for voting, enabled small businesses to incorporate without legislation, and fought off a national bank; between 1901 and 1916 during the Progressive Era, when we established a progressive income tax, enacted pure food and drug laws, and split up the giant trusts; during the New Deal of the 1930s, when we created Social Security, unemployment insurance, a minimum wage, a 40-hour workweek, and required employers to negotiate with labor unions; and in the 1960s and early 1970s when we enacted Civil Rights, Voting Rights, Medicare and Medicaid, the Environmental Protection Act, and the Federal Election Campaign Act." Another wave of fundamental reform is on its way." Robert Reich
  • Video: "U.S. Schools Still Segregated"

  • We see occasional charts of the distribution of income, but it is hard to understand just what a specific chart means. This data from the Urban Institute seems to clearly show that the rich are getting richer and the poor, not so much!
Criticisms of the Book

It was suggested that Port Clinton was not typical of 1950s America, or at least not as typical as Putnam seems to think. The book's survey data suggests that almost all of Putnam's 1959 Port Clinton graduating class went on to college; most American kids did not go to college in 1959. Members described the experience of their own classes (which of course graduated over a wide time span) ranging from few to the vast majority of classmates going on to college; the sub-culture shared by students in each specific school seemed to make the difference.

Some members were very concerned with the lack of job opportunity for new college graduates in the USA today and since the beginning of the Great Recession, especially those with new grads with technical degrees. This seemed in direct contradiction to Putnam's position that American kids of University educated parents are likely to get good educations and do well economically. Thus, several members reported recent experience of relatives and friends who had long searches for jobs. Some of the blame was directed to personnel offices that recruit using formal lists of job prerequisites, especially where comparable training exists that would equally qualify candidates. (Requiring specific university classes might indicate a job is wired for a specific candidate.)

It was noted that many such jobs now seem to be going overseas, especially computer and Internet related jobs to India. A member noted that the best Indian university technical training is very good, entry in those programs very competitive, and one now finds superbly qualified Indian students enrolling in MIT as a backup for their first choice school, such as an Indian Institute of Technology. Still, the lower pay of Indian workers may be in many cases the reason that American firms hire them.

It was also noted that while the children of well educated black and Hispanic parents may do well in school and life, that does not mean (as author Putnam seems to suggest) that racism is not a major problem. Black and Hispanic kids are much more likely to be the children of poor and poorly educated parents than are white kids. Moreover, the blacks and Latinos are more likely to live in poor and racially segregated neighborhoods. We felt that racism is still a major factor explaining why so many of our kids get poor educations and limited life choices.

Discussion of the Book

There appeared to be a consensus in the group that author Putnam has not only identified a little understood but very important problem in American society, but has developed a serious data base to support his thesis. This is an important book likely to bring the problem to wide public attention.

Joe's comments perhaps deserve to be underlined. He was for many years a high school teacher and councilor, and spoke from deep knowledge and concern.

  • He emphasized the importance of extra curricula activities, especially sports, in drawing kids from poor neighborhoods into interest and performance in school. 
  • He also led the discussion of the importance of training more kids to work in good jobs that need to be done, but jobs that may not have a lot of prestige; these might include the jobs of carpenters, welders, plumbers. masons and other skilled trades. He mentioned how satisfying it was for some of his former students to work in these service jobs (students who came back to school to talk to him). Joe had great difficulty getting either his teachers union or his school interested in vocational education. 
  • Joe contrasted his experience in Gonzaga High School (many years ago) with that of current students; Gonzaga set a very high standard of scholarship, and dropped students who did not meet that standard; Joe's class was reduced by half over the high school years, but Gonzaga's grads were superbly trained for college. 
  • Joe entered the county school system teaching Latin and Greek, Latin being required in those days decades ago. 
  • He also mentioned he is going to Pat Conroy's party in a few weeks; Conroy was one of his first high school students and Joe was apparently the first teacher who recognized Conroy's gifts and encouraged him to consider writing as a career. 
  • On one occasion he was interrupted by a student asking for immediate attention. The student had been living with his mother, but she on a trip decided she would move in with a man she met and leave her son on his own. He had no money and would soon be helpless. He had nowhere to turn but the school counselor. Joe was on the spot. That kind of problem is all but impossible for any school to handle.
  • Joe commented on the heavy demand for end of year testing imposed by corporate testing agencies such as that which gives the Advanced Placement tests; this outside testing demand has made end of year tests for normal classes more difficult for schools and students. Another member mentioned that it has been especially difficult for New York students, who are also expected to take Regents Exams to qualify for the more prestigious Regents high school diplomas, exams which are also given at the end of the school year.

Author Putnam provides a list of reforms that he believes would improve the situation. Some examples, with our criticisms are:
  • Suggestion: Contraception and other means should be used to delay women from having children. Response: Teen pregnancy rates have been going down for some time.
  • Suggestion: More cash should be provided to poor families, especially families with children. Response: The social safety net has been frayed in recent decades, especially by the reforms that linked government assistance to work. Is there the political will to do this? (There was great resistance in many states to expansion of health insurance to the poor with government subsidies.)
  • Suggestion: Provide more well-designed, center-based early childhood education. Response: Bringing in professionals to communities with high levels of unemployment has its own problems.
  • Suggestion: Move kids from poor neighborhoods into schools in good neighborhoods; Response: How feasible is this? It raises logistics problems especially for poor, single-parent families that have few resources. Such efforts sometimes raise resistance from the educated families that have moved into expensive neighborhoods so that their kids can go to schools with motivated peers and high rates of college entrance for their graduates.
  • Suggestion: Extend school hours to provide more opportunity for extra-curricula activities. Response: We have been shocked by the trend to charge students to participate in athletics. 
  • Suggestion: Provide more vocational education: Response: This has been a hard sell to teachers and to school boards.
  • Suggestion: Provide more community college alternatives and cut back on support for for-profit schools living on students paying fees with student loans. Response: The Obama administration has proposed the community college expansion, and there has been some success in policing the for-profits, but not enough.
  • Suggestion: Provide mentoring programs. Response: Well prepared mentors are hard to find; are the kids who most need them likely to accept mentors?
Putnam also suggests investing in poor neighborhoods and moving poor families with kids to more affluent neighborhoods with better performing schools.

More General Issues of Feasibility

Economic: We discussed the general economic situation of the country, from the increasing concentration of wealth and income, to the impact of globalization reducing the availability of good jobs for people with high school or less education, to the impact of the Great Recession that began in 2008. None of these economic realities bode well for the future of kids from poor neighborhoods.

We also discussed the decay of the U.S. social safety net. For example, the Clinton administration's change of welfare policy to provide assistance to low income working people; the change seems to have put a lot of people back to work, but that was when there were jobs available for people to fill.

There was sympathy expressed for the poor woman head of household with children to raise and care for, and no support from the kids' biological fathers. Theirs is really a tough life, often lived in poor neighborhoods with high crime rates and massive drug problems.

Basically, improving the lot of poor families, and thus the opportunities of their kids, depends on the economic health of the county and the distribution of income. If these are not conducive to progress for the poor, individual initiatives may not be feasible or may not greatly improve the general situation.

Political: The quotation from Robert Reich above suggests that the country gathers the political will for change to improve the lives of the least advantaged every several decades; the most recent were the progressive era of the 1910s, the New Deal of the 1930s and the Great Society of the 1960s. Can we hope for such a moment to come soon to save our kids? That is the question.

It was pointed out that there are great schools in the United States, such as Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Virginia. We also know that there are a lot of American kids in substandard schools. The current Congress does not seem capable of improving the national K-12 system, nor to have the political will to legislate to solve the educational problems of our poor kids. Recent changes in the interpretation of the Constitution (corporations have rights of free speech as persons) and changes in campaign financing law tend to concentrate power in the hands of elites, perhaps making it harder to achieve pro-poor reforms.

There are huge differences in the performance of kids on national examinations among states. Look for example at Arizona with below average student performance on all NAEP tests versus Massachusetts with above average student performance on all of the same NAEP tests. Is there any likelihood that the state governments in states with poorly performing students will have the political will to bring their kids up to the national standard?

At the local level, one of the reasons for the segregation of highly educated people into neighborhoods with similar college grad neighbors -- leaving less educated folk in their own segregated neighborhoods -- is that the college graduates seek schools where their kids can be expected to do well; they know that such schools have highly motivated students likely to come from such neighborhoods. Busing of kids from poor families and poor neighborhoods into the good schools in the affluent neighborhoods has not been politically popular with the more politically active folk in the highly educated neighborhoods.

Cultural: One member held that the book showed that the culture of those living in the least educated neighborhoods had changed in the last several decades: families were less stable, single parent households more common, gangs infested some poor neighborhoods as did drugs and drug dealers. Social capital was reduced in these poor neighborhoods, and now was much less than in the comparable neighborhoods of 1970 or the 1950s. Kids brought up in these poor neighborhoods approached school with terrible attitudes -- that studying was to be criticized, that education would not benefit them, that they should enter sexual behavior early. A member pointed out that the kids would defend these values; another that of course that was true in that children would always tend to defend the attitudes prevalent in the culture in which they are raised. The original member suggested that inducing desired cultural changes on a national scale was very hard; the current culture had evolved over decades and quick progress in improvement of cultural attitudes would neither be quick nor easy.

Final Comments

This was an unusually lively and productive discussion, with many members participating.

Members agreed that this was not only an important book, but one that was readable and that would raise people's understanding of a new and important problem faced by our society. One member has already bought four additional copies of the book to distribute to friends.

A member posted related material on his blog: