Good reads: Growth we missed, Berlin's awkward fit, and where kids know best
This week's long-form good reads may change your perspective on the effects of the Great Recession, the importance of geography, and how to measure the quality of a teacher.
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Location, location, conversation?
Is all of this really about geography – weather, terrain, position on the planet? Author Robert Kaplan argues that ideas and politics get far more credit than they deserve.Skip to next paragraph
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In the end, history’s hand is guided by the lay of the land. Mr. Kaplan’s book “The Revenge of Geography” is reviewed by Adam Gopnik in The New Yorker. Kaplan argues for the influential role of the desert in the Iraq war, water sources in Middle East politics, the marshes that protected Venice in the Middle Ages, the historic German drive for territory to grow, Russia’s exposure to invading hordes from the east, Afghanistan’s field position in the Great Game of Central Asian commerce.
All interesting, but ultimately Mr. Gopnik isn’t buying it. “Once, the sight of a Viking prow coming down a river was as terrifying a sight as any European could imagine. Now the Scandinavian countries are perhaps the most pacific in the world. Whatever changed, it wasn’t the shape of Scandinavia.” Rather, it was the shape of Scandinavian civilization. “Conversation shapes us more than mountains and monsoons can.”
Let students grade the teachers
Most agree that a key to prosperity is the quality of education, and a key to education is the quality of teachers. But how do we know who the good teachers are? That question is politically fraught. But it turns out that we may have been making it too hard. Amanda Ripley in The Atlantic probes research on one simple strategy: Ask the kids.
With stunning consistency, it turns out that students as young as 5 can answer questions about their teachers that assess the effectiveness of teachers more reliably than any other measure.
The right questions matter. This is not a popularity contest like the rate-the-professor websites at colleges. The questions that track successful teachers ask whether students in class behave, respect the teacher, stay busy and don’t waste time, learn a lot almost every day, and learn to correct their mistakes. Some school districts are trying out such surveys. What matters, in the end, is what they do with that information.
Much ink has been spilled over the breezy incompetence of the Bush administration’s post-invasion management of Iraq – some of it by then-Washington Post reporter Thomas Ricks. But the civilian leadership was not the whole problem, argues Mr. Ricks.
In The Atlantic, he argues that the ineptitude of the Army’s generals themselves is part of the picture. He contrasts the current culture of mediocrity in the most senior ranks to the culture of accountability during World War II. Then, failing generals were quickly relieved of duty, and that happened often. It almost never happens any more, and not for lack of incompetent generals, in Ricks’ view. In the Iraq war, there was never really a strategic plan or a grasp of the nature of the war the US was fighting, he writes. And the generals who should be providing that strategic view were busy micromanaging and thinking tactically like sergeants.
The good news, ironically, is that the “tactical excellence” of enlisted soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan have given some cover to the “strategic incompetence” of their general officers.