New York Times Displays Appalling Insularity and Parochialism in Roundtable on Arizona Shootings

24 01 2011

Since Jared Loughner shot Representative Gabrielle Giffords and 19 others at a Safeway in Tucson, there has been a vigorous debate in the US over whether the use of violent metaphors and images in political speech played a role in encouraging a mentally unbalanced young man to kill. What does American history tell us about the relationship between violent acts and the political acrimony of the day?

The New York Times asked seven historians what they thought of this question. The historians, many of whom are specialists in the more violent periods of US history, had some interesting things to say. However, I think the roundtable discussion could have  been better had some historians of other countries been invited to comment. The seven historians are citizens of the US who study the US. An international perspective would have been valuable. The whole roundtable struck me as far too parochial and inward-looking. My reading of the situation is that the NYT reporter who organized this article was a bit lazy and decided only to contact historians with US phone numbers. Fair enough, but it might have been helpful to speak to historians in US universities who were born abroad or who study other countries.

Possible questions to ask include: Why were there so many assassinations/kidnappings/terrorism in western Europe in the 1970s (Red Brigades)? Why has that region become much more peaceful recently?  Did the use of violent metaphors in political speech in the Weimar Republic contribute to the endemic political violence of Germany in that period? Why does Canada, a country with widespread ownership of hunting rifles have a much lower murder rate than the US? Why are political assassinations so infrequent in Canadian history and much more common on the other side of the border?

Here are some questions the lazy-ass NYT reporter should have tried to have answered. It is disappointing that the NYT a newspaper read by the cosmopolitan elite of the US and which has an international edition on its website would be so parochial in this regard.

The University Dropout Rate

10 09 2009

Yesterday’s New York Times carried a story about dropout rates at U.S. universities. David Leonhardt provides some interesting statistics regarding the proportion of students admitted to university who actually graduate. At elite universities, the vast majority of students admitted will graduate with a degree within six years. However, at universities where the admission standards are lower, the dropout rate is far higher.  Leonhardt writes that while the U.S. “does a good job enrolling teenagers in college, but only half of students who enrol end up with a bachelor’s degree. Among rich countries, only Italy is worse”. He argues that the college dropout rate is a major reason why measurably inequality in the United States has soared in the last few decades and economic growth has slowed.

This article has generated a great deal of online debate, (also see here and here and here) with some people questioning Leonhardt’s rather bold assertions that the high college dropout rate is a _major_ cause of rising inequality and slowing growth. Clearly, a high dropout rate isn’t a good thing, but is it really what’s driving these broad economic trends? I’m inclined to be a bit sceptical of this part of his argument. Leonhardt appears to be using a bit of hyperbole in the interests of bringing our attention to what is an important issue.

As a professor at a Canadian university, this article raises several questions. (I was struck by the paucity of cross-national comparison data in this article, aside from the token reference to Italy at the start. I must say that this article displays the typical United States parochialism).  Anyway, I’m left wondering whether there is similar data for Canada that would allow us to estimate the dropout rate at Canadian institutions of higher education? (There is a definitional issue here, of course, since college has a different meaning in Canada). Which Canadian universities and provinces have the highest dropout rates?

The sources cited in this article include: Failure Factories, from the right-leaning American Enterprise Institute, and Crossing the Finish Line, a new book from Princeton University Press. You can watch an interview of the lead author of Crossing the Finish Line, William G. Bowen, by clicking here.


I’ve discovered some sources re the dropout rate in Canadian universities. The Maclean’s survey of Canadian universites contains data on retention rates. The Ontario Council of Universities provides information on both retention and graduation rates. In February 2008, the Ottawa Citizen carried a story about “first-year flameouts” and what universities are attempting to remedy the problem of low retention rates.