Book Review: The Electric War

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Mike Winchell’s book, The Electric War, tells the thrilling story of the battle over which current – alternating or direct – would send America charging into the 20th century. The narrative focuses on how three luminaries of the time — Thomas Edison, Nikola Tesla, and George Westinghouse — vied for dominance in the emerging field of electricity, and reveals how their distinct personalities contributed to their successes, failures, and legacies.

The Electric War is written for young adults but serves as a suitable primer on the War of the Currents for readers of all ages. While an exhaustive account of the topic could easily warrant hundreds of pages, Winchell pulls off an impressive feat with a comprehensive review that not only addresses all of the key events but also provides readers with incisive observations of the characters of three great men, and all in just 233 pages.

Writing with narrative flair, Winchell first introduces us to a young Thomas Edison. Young readers will likely delight in reading about exploits which have become part of the inventor’s lore. The good stuff is all here: Edison’s experimenting with chemicals on his friends, his industrious peddling of sundries to neighbors, his short, inauspicious exposure to public schooling, his raging curiosity, and, in a deft bit of foreshadowing, the curse of an obdurate self-assurance that all too often accompanies the stratospheric success of self-made men.

We next meet the enigmatic Tesla, where we realize, as is so often the case with history, just how tenuous our world’s narrative is. It’s hard to deny the hand of destiny when you learn that weather saved colonial soldiers from certain defeat in the American Revolution, or that an accidental discovery led to penicillin, or that Nikola Tesla, the man whose genius would lead to the ubiquitous electricity we enjoy today, might have been lost to history as a member of the clergy, had he not secured a promise from his father to study electricity should he recover from a serious bout with cholera.

Finally, Winchell introduces us to the formidable George Westinghouse, a man whose role in this story is two-fold. Without Westinghouse, Tesla’s alternating current would have stood no chance against Edison’s direct current. And without Westinghouse, the reader would lack a necessary foil to Edison’s underhanded, cutthroat business methods.

Like all good narrative nonfiction, The Electric War includes the relevant facts, but we keep reading for the characters. In Edison we have the villain, ruthless in business, demanding with his employees, boastful and manipulative with the press, and stubbornly refusing to admit error. Tesla is the naive genius, a sympathetic character whose idealism is continually exploited by selfish men while he lives out his life alone and ultimately in poverty. And Westinghouse is the hero, a man of unflinching moral character who doesn’t compromise his ethics when doing so could have been forgiven and who virtuously provides the world with not only a superior method of delivering electricity but also the five-day workweek.

The Electric War is a well-written, face-paced account of the race to light the world. With a structure bookended by the fascinating story of the first-ever execution by electric chair, readers seeking information about this time of ingenuity and entrepreneurship will not be disappointed. Winchell has delivered a compact yet thorough account of three titans of their age, and he’s done so while maintaining a narrative drive that zips readers through each chapter, not unlike a current through copper wire.

Rumors of Public Schools’ Death Are Greatly Exaggerated

These are scary times for those who support public schools. Legislators in most states are preparing the public for deep funding cuts. The federal government does not seem to be in a hurry to bail out states. The Secretary of Education continues her crusade to ram her personal affinity for private schools down everyone’s throats. There’s concern about just how many parents will feel comfortable sending their children back to brick-and-mortar schools. And on top of all of that, it’s likely that schools will be instituting changes to their operations, some of which will depress attendance and most of which will cost additional money that they will not have.

Enemies of public education smell blood, and they’re positively giddy about the prospects of a weakened public school system. Ryan McMaken, in an article titled “The School Closures Are a Big Threat to the Power of Public Schools,” tries to argue that emergency learning has exposed just how ineffectual and oversold our education system is. Based on the article’s comments, Ryan is hardly alone in his wishful thinking. McMaken starts by crediting COVID-19 for exposing the truth about school: It wasn’t actually “all that important after all.” His evidence?

“Yes, the schools have tried to keep up the ruse that students are all diligently doing their school work at home, but by late April it was already apparent that the old model of “doing public school” via internet isn’t working. In some places, class participation has collapsed by 60 percent, as students simply aren’t showing up for the virtual lessons.”

It’s unclear how that’s supposed to be damning to public schools. Schools have hardly covered up students’ low participation in virtual learning. Why would they? If students are getting just as much out of remote learning as they were out of traditional schooling, what incentive would the public have to return their kids to school instead of enrolling them virtual schools? It benefits public schools for distance learning to fail.

McMaken then defeats another one of this own arguments when he writes:

“Ironically, public schools have essentially ditched lower-income families almost completely even though school district bureaucrats have long based the political legitimacy of public schools on the idea that they are an essential resource for low-income students. So as long as the physical schools remain closed, this claim will become increasingly unconvincing.”

Public schooling hasn’t failed low-income families. Our society has. The fact that just 56% of households with incomes under $30,000 have broadband access isn’t the fault of schools; it’s the fault of capitalism. Schools are the one institution that at least attempts to level the playing field, but McMaken wants to illogically redirect blame away from policies he surely advocates toward schools.

But it’s the last sentence above that undermines McMaken’s argument. “As long as the physical schools remain closed…”. As long as physical schools remain closed, a lot of problems will persist. If McMaken is saying that remote learning stinks, he’ll find little disagreement from public school advocates. But to conflate what public schools have been forced to do with what they’ve always done is to make the exact opposite argument of the one you think you’re making.

McMaken seems to concede this, admitting that “Nonetheless, working-class and lower-income parents are likely to return their children to the schools when they open again.” So he’s then forced to consider how emergency learning has impacted middle-class parents’ perceptions of public schooling.

His main points here are that they have been previously happy to use schools as child-care providers and they enjoy extra-curricular offerings like music, sports, robotics, and the rest. If these extras are cut or curtailed, McMaken argues, middle-class parents might wonder what they’re paying for and they might take a closer look at academics, which they will find lacking.

“Even if schools open this fall, the reforms currently being pushed will ensure that schools continue to lack many of the amenities many have come to expect. If these reforms are adopted, students can forget about social events. They can expect shorter school days, and an ongoing role for online schooling. Team sports will be gone. Old notions of universal mandatory attendance and long days will seem increasingly quaint and old fashioned—or possibly even dangerous.

For many parents, this will just reinforce their growing suspicions that public schools just aren’t worth it anymore. Maybe they never were.”

It’s a curious argument because he seems to be saying that a new version of something that is less satisfying than a previous version confirms problems with the previous version. It’s like arguing Six Flags was always overrated and overpriced but waiting until they got rid of half their rides, closed the park three hours earlier, extended wait line times, and decided to no longer serve food to do so.

But McMaken’s biggest omission is the elephant in the room: the fact that our public education system is also America’s child-care system. This alone ensures its survival. Public schools are indispensable to most families for three reasons, none of which has anything to do with academics or extra-curricular offerings:

  1. Slow income growth combined with a socially constructed rat-race that makes it nearly impossible to maintain a middle-class lifestyle without both parents working, which means nearly all middle-class families need child-care.
  2. The prohibitive cost of child-care and the comparatively low cost of public schools.
  3. The fact that even those who don’t use public schools pay for them.

Schools, if they did nothing but provide a place for parents to send their kids while they went to work, would still be essential, which is why most people agree that our economy will never fully recover until they reopen.

It’s rarely recognized, and even more rarely acknowledged by fiscal hawks, many of whom rail against the taxes used to fund education, but public ed is an exceptional deal for parents. In my state of Michigan, the average annual child-care cost for 4 year-olds (data doesn’t exist for older kids because – that’s right – they go to school) is $8,890, or $741 per month, a figure that puts child-care out of reach for most low-wage workers and exerts enormous strain on middle-class family budgets, especially if they have more than one child.

To illustrate just how good of a deal taxpayer-subsidized child-care in the form of public schooling is for parents, Michigan’s K-12 budget for fiscal year 18-19 was $14.8 billion, not including local taxes (most of which are property taxes). It sounds like a lot of money, something enemies of public schools never fail to point out. But divide that figure by the 10 million adults living in Michigan and you get $1,480 per adult per year. That’s $123 per month. Add the $2,312 taxpayers with homes priced at the state median value pay each year in property taxes (only some of which goes to education), and you’re still only up to $316 a month, less than half of what they’d pay in child care costs if they’re only paying for one child.

Yes, funding is likely to be cut. Students might not be able to play football, or perform in the school play, or go to prom, or even see any more than half of their classmates for the next year. Traditional education, in whatever form it takes, won’t be what it was. Not all parents will send their children back to school.

But most will. Because to do anything else isn’t realistic or financially sensible.

Public schools have some problems. This coming year they’ll have more challenges than usual. But as long as our public system of education is also our child-care system, and as long as it continues to be a far more attractive deal than any other option, parents will continue to send their kids. Any prediction that public schools are knocking on death’s door is nothing more than wishful thinking by those who wish it were.

There Is No Good Reason To Return To School

Amid all of the debate about when and how America should reopen its schools, there has been little talk about why we should bother to at all. The arguments are familiar:

  • We’re exacerbating inequalities and widening the achievement gap
  • Staying home is bad for kids’ mental health and social development
  • We can’t restart the economy without reopening the schools
  • Remote learning is a poor substitute for in-person learning and it sucks in all sorts of small and not-so-small ways.

Those are in fact all good reasons to return to school as it was. But none of them are good reasons to return to school as it is likely to be.

While no one knows exactly what reopened schools will look like next fall, we can look to schools that have reopened for some indications.

Here’s what Quebec is doing:

Here’s an example from France showing what social distancing on a playground looks like:

source: BFM News Channel via Twitter

And in Scotland, the children of essential workers get to eat in the cafeteria but…well…saddest lunch ever.

Jane Barlow/Zuma Press

This isn’t about letting the perfect be the enemy of the good. No one should be demanding that students stay home from school until things revert to how they used to be. Some changes are going to be necessary. But it makes no sense to send students back to school if doing so won’t remedy any of the problems created by school closures and remote learning.

You’d be forgiven if after reading some of the reasons advanced by those in a hurry to reopen schools you believed that what gives us the best chance at closing the achievement gap is the mere presence of a teacher.

But at-risk learners don’t catch up to their peers simply by attending school. They learn more at school than they do at home because they get more attention and help there. But how much attention and help can teachers (or peer tutors) give if they’re required to keep their distance? How much reading improvement can we expect if teachers can’t sit next to a struggling reader? How is live teaching any better than virtual instruction if the teacher can’t walk over to a student’s desk and show them how to correct their misunderstandings? What measurable difference will attending school make for students who can’t get the very help we know they’re missing by not being at school?

And while it is unquestionably suboptimal for social beings to be locked inside their houses for months and likely even worse for kids, it’s hard to imagine how being confined to a desk for hours and having to play inside a chalk square on a playground is much of an improvement.

Why should we assume that placing young people in an environment of masked peers whom they aren’t allowed to approach will result in an improved mental state? And if adults are going to be serious about restrictions they’ll have to enforce them. It’s my deep suspicion that punishments for hugging friends, admonishments for encroaching on six-foot personal bubbles, vigilant surveillance of hand-washing and line spacing, daily temperature checks that send a recurrent message that everyone else is to be feared, and possible repeated school closures when someone inevitably catches the virus will not produce an atmosphere conducive to improved mental health.

As for not being able to fully open our economy, one wonders how parents have managed annual two-month summer vacations without destroying small businesses and corporate America. But even if we grant that the public school system’s most valued role is as a massive child care provider, the proposed solutions don’t remedy the problem. Sending students two days a week, sending half the students in the morning and the other half in the afternoon to make social distancing possible, employing some sort of virtual-personal hybrid model – none of these allow people with normal jobs to go back to work as they did before. Schools can only serve as daycare centers when they can watch students for at least the majority of parents’ workdays.

Yes, remote learning is substandard. It creates a bunch of nasty problems. But going back to school this fall is about risk-reward. And make no mistake, there is risk, as the 70 COVID-19 cases that have appeared in French schools within a week of reopening proves.

And given that in-person schooling won’t actually solve any of the problems associated with remote learning, it’s worth asking why we should return. Why would any country, district, or parent be in a hurry to pack their children off to school when going to school as it is likely to look won’t do much to narrow inequalities, improve students’ mental health, allow for meaningful socialization, or help reopen the economy? It’s not a good enough reason to say you want to go back to school because you hate remote learning, you miss your students, you pine for the recent past, or THIS JUST SUCKS.

Instead, we should consider what we will gain by doing so, and more importantly, what might we lose?

Right now, there’s no good reason to return to school. The rewards simply don’t outweigh the risks.

Why Teachers Should Reject Results-Based Accountability

We may be in the middle of a pandemic but Chester Finn is worried about the tests. He’s not alone. Education reformers like Finn who’ve dedicated the last couple of decades to test-based school accountability are nervous about the growing backlash that threatens to undo their considerable efforts.

Finn, in this article, acknowledges the many problems with our test-driven education system but concludes that it’s not really the tests that are the problem. It’s accountability. Teachers, like everyone else, don’t want to be responsible for their students’ results. He sees tests as nothing more than an unwelcome messenger and asserts that “if testing vanished but some other form of results-based accountability remained, educators would complain just as much—and work just as hard to recruit allies among parents and others to discredit them.”

Finn is right. Educators would complain just as much. We would enlist others to our cause. We would continue to stomp our feet, inveigh, and even strike against whatever results-based accountability system others would impose on us.

And we would be right to do so.

Why Teachers Should Reject Results-Based Accountability

In fairness, it should be noted that Finn doesn’t blame teachers, writing, “Nobody likes to be held to account for their results, particularly when embarrassment, inconvenience, and unwanted interventions, possibly even the loss of one’s diploma or one’s job, hangs in the balance. “

But what Finn fails to appreciate is the difference between being held accountable for that which is under your control and being held accountable for outcomes over which you have minimal influence.

There’s a difference between a teacher who is sanctioned for her students’ poor results and a restauranteur whose establishment is closed down because there are rats in her kitchen.

The father of our country, George Washington, understood that difference and acted accordingly. Ron Chernow, in his biography, Washington: A Life, writes:

Washington was always reluctant to assume responsibility without the requisite powers to acquit himself honorably. As he put it, “No person who regards his character will undertake a command without the means of preserving it.”

Chernow, Ron. Washington: A Life. New York: Penguin Press, 2010. Print. p 64

That is exactly why teachers should fight against any results-based accountability system.

In today’s world, teachers have been pressed into accepting responsibility without the power to acquit themselves honorably. They must take the students given to them. They must teach standards that they had no hand in selecting. They must use programs written by one group of detached content creators and chosen by another group of detached administrators. They must follow pacing guides. They must abide by an ever-expanding glut of regulations that at times impede learning. Some are forced to teach unimportant content in uninspiring ways. Most receive training that is inadequate to prepare them for the realities of the job they are about to attempt. Once hired, they are micromanaged, nitpicked, and second-guessed. And after all of their efforts, many of which they had little say in, they are judged on their students’ performance instead of their own.

This is why teachers must reject results-based accountability, no matter its form. How can one be fairly held accountable when so little of the results such accountability is based on is impacted by factors within an educator’s sphere of influence?

How can you blame teachers for poor student results when teachers have so little say in what they do in a classroom?

What George Washington wanted when he accepted a command is the ability to lead. If he was going to be judged on outcomes, he thought it only fair that he be given the autonomy and power to determine those outcomes.

Right now in America, teachers no longer have that autonomy and power. Until they do, teachers should reject any attempt to hold them accountable for what an education system that so systematically excludes them produces.

The Incredible Power of Daily Naps

A Sponsored Post by DisturbMeNot

We have all been there – it’s the middle of the day and our eyes feel so heavy that we simply can’t hold them open anymore. We are trying to fight this powerful feeling until it takes complete control over our bodies. Then we say to ourselves “I will close my eyes just for a second” and we wake up an hour or two later, completely refreshed!

If this happens to you often, don’t worry! Science has proven that naps can have a positive effect on our health. In fact, naps can help us decrease our chances of developing dementia, sleep apnea, narcolepsy, and restless leg syndrome. They can also give us the much-needed boost to be able to “survive” the rest of the day with higher levels of energy.

The best time and length of naps

According to studies, the best time for a nap during the day is between 1 pm (for early birds) and 3 pm (for night owls). The length may vary depending on what you need from the nap. For example, only a 10 to 20-minute nap can help you boost alertness. This so-called power nap can be a lifesaver, especially if there are deadlines involved.

On the other hand, a 60-minute nap can boost cognitive memory processing and help you be more productive while preparing for an exam or finishing a work assignment. In other words, by closing your eyes for only 60 minutes, you will save countless hours of trying and failing to focus on the task at hand.

And last but not least, a 90-minute nap can boost creativity, as well as the emotional and procedural memory. This can be very helpful for artists, when learning new skills, or when you simply feel the need for an emotional recharge.

The bottom line

As you can see, naps can be your hidden superpower! They can be the difference between passing and failing an exam, or finishing the work assignment on time and missing the deadline… Next time when you feel that your eyes are getting a little bit heavy, don’t reach out for the daily dose of caffeine. Instead, give in to this feeling and wake up completely refreshed and ready to take over the world!

If you want to learn more surprising and eye-opening stats and facts about sleep, make sure you check out this infographic, too!