Impressions on Re-Watching Battle Royale

Re-watched the film Battle Royale last weekend. This is the first time in nearly a decade (!).

It holds up pretty well, but the experience of watching farther removed from high school is different. Young watchers are clearly supposed to project themselves into Shuyu Nanahara. Watching it now it’s clear that in many ways Shogo Kawada and Teacher Kitano are more interesting characters.

Talk about making someone feel old…

The book’s pretty good, too.

Both the book and film are less shocking than United Red Army, which actually happened.

The Enemies of the Federal-Academic Complex

The Federal-Academic Complex is that collection of bureaucrats and researchers that set the educational agenda in the United States. The Federal-Academic Complex does this through understanding the mechanics of education, while being empathetic to the concerns of educational stakeholders (such as parents and employers).

The Federal-Academic Complex has enemies of two classes. The first is composed of conservatives and Republicans who are generally hostile to public spending. One member of this class is Sen. Chuck Grassley, as I described previously. Conservative/Republican opposition to the Federal-Academic Complex is concentrated among an ideological minority in both movements, and I will not address it further in this post.

The second class of enemies is composed of teachers. Teachers and their front organizations (the NEA, the AFT, the NPTA, etc.) used to set the education agenda. Because teachers were unable to education children and were unable to act empathetically to others, they no longer do – that is the role of the Federal-Academic Complex.

An example to teacher hostility to the Federal-Academic Complex is this tweet by Diane Ravitch:

Tax breaks for rich Princeton, pennies for public colleges

Ravitch’s comment is in reaction to an article by Richard Vedder that notes successful universities are successful, in part, for their success in attracting alumni support and federal research grants.

Teachers unions and similar groups do not care how academia works. They simply want to demonize academia (a successful part of the American social fabric) to rescue their own position in public elementary, middle, and high schools (a failed part of the American social fabric).

How Academia Works

Professors, like most people, respond to the incentives of power, influence, and money.

The institution of tenure reduces uncertainty regarding money, and focuses the incentives on power and influence.

Power in academia comes from the number of bodies a professor has under him. These bodies might be apprentices (graduate students he advises), journeymen (post-docs who have a PhD and work at the lab, or staff researchers), or simple workers (lab technicians, etc).

Influence in academia comes from the extent to which one is successful in influencing one’s peers. This is typically measured in terms of influence scores, which are a product of how often the academic is cited, weighted by how important of a publication he is cited in.

The best route to both power and influence is to earn grant money. For example, consider a professor who receives grant money from a federal agency. Some of this money goes to equipment, but the majority goes to employing several graduate students to work on this large project. Likewise, with this funding, he and his team will be writing numerous articles using the latest techniques on very large data sets, and can be expected to quickly become influential in that area. Because these graduate students have him both as an employer and as an academic adviser, when they graduate with their own doctorates, they will be experts at creating ways to detect bad standardized tests (after all, it’s what they’ve been doing for years), in a few years his influence on their careers will be apparent, and they will likewise go about working on similar problems — citing him and each other as they go along.

Because both power and influence are social activities, people and location matter. Grant-funding agencies typical consider an individual’s prior work, and an institution’s prior history of receiving grant funds, in making distributions. An individual who has previously earned grant money and delivered what was promised is more likely to win a grant, all other things being equal, than a researcher who hasn’t. Likewise, an institution that has a history or providing the foundations for success (is it possible for the researcher to actually hire the projected number of assistants quickly? are research facilities available for the work to actually be conducted? etc). This is true whether the institution is quasi-federal, like the National Science Foundation, private, like the Gates Foundation, or private, such as a corporate sponsor.

Peer-reviewed attempt to be blind to the writer. Nonetheless, the editor and the reviewers are public, and the more one knows of their concerns (what are the important questions of the day? what issues must be taken as assumptions? etc.), the more successful one is likely to be. Access to other researchers, both on-site, through personal networks, and through travel to professional conferences, are thus critical.

The importance of location means there is a fierce competition to be a faculty at a large research institution. Bias in working with others in academia is as self-destructive as bias in taking clients in law or in any eat-what-you-kill situation, and you’re spending your time and resources on a luxury rather than a necessity. I’m sure there’s bias in both, but that bias would be most pronounced on those who have found a steady-but-dull existence at the bottom of the heap.

Racism is a disease of the poor. Political bigotry is a disease of the weak. Life is better at ‘big’ schools because you are learning from winners of the system who are focused on expanding their power and influence, instead of acting as tinpot dictators.

The Class War

My friend Mark Safranski of Zenpundit recently discussed class resentment in the context of education reform

The mostly lower middle class, status-anxiety rage against teacher’s unions has it’s root in being an obstacle to forcing teachers to accept second-class citizenship and artificially low standards of living for the benefit of every child except their own. A system that also depended on free-riding a national labor force sharply segregated by gender. That component of creaming a talent pool with limited options is never returning, no matter what happens to unions

Mark is right on several key points.

  • The Conflict between Parents and Teachers is most acute lower in the economy spectrum
  • The Conflict between Parents and Teachers is related to economic anxiety
  • Teachers will not willingly sacrifice their will being for the good of society
  • The Conflict between Parents and Teachers is partially a result of encouraging women to have careers beyond teaching.

Teachers formerly were the central actor of the educational system. That role has been taken & is being took over by the federal-academic complex. The proximate reasons for the collapse of the positions of teachers is that teachers do not understand how to educate children and their are not empathetic to other stakeholders.

The ultimate cause, however, has to do with the lobotomization of the teaching workforce in the United States. The historical pay scale for teachers way high enough to attract ambitious and educated workers because the economic system of the United States funneled women into teaching on the basis on non-cash rewards. While it would be possible to pay teachers like professionals, the integrated workforce means the cash cost of this would be quite high, and I doubt it will happen.

This lobotomy added a new stress to American families: it was now harder to find a good school. The same desegregation that lead to the collapse of the American teaching profession also allowed more mothers to leave the home, go to work, and use that extra income to purchase access to a better school district. Of course, other women did the same, which bid up the cost of good schools and lead to an increase in general misery. In a competitive market higher prices caused by greater demand should lead to better production. Unfortunately, the American teaching monopoly was already in a cycle of incompetence and lack of empathy, so such an improvement did not happen.

Like most economic stresses, the problems caused by the low quality of the American teaching workforce hit the working poor and lower middle class the hardest. The lumpenproletariat simply does not care about the quality of education, while the well-off spend a lower fraction of their incomes on securing a good school district. The anger felt by these against teachers — who are protected from evaluation by their employers and have summers off – is real, and it has material causes.

Teachers find themselves in a bad position. Their workforce quality is probably not high enough to become more competent or more empathetic. And as Mark mentions, they are not selfless, and don’t want to see themselves or their families hurt. Thus they fight the losing fight against all the forces in the world, and soon they themselves will leave the scene as a force capable of great things.