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Tag Archive: Education

The MSM has embarrassed itself to a near-fatal degree

Posted: Friday, August 31, 2012 (11:26 pm), by John W Gillis


Quote of the Day for Friday, August 31st, 2012:

Who better than J. E. Dyer to inspire me to rekindle my moribund blog, in a blog post entitled Are the American voters idiots?, which ultimately tackles several of my favorite hobby horses:

There were so many reasons to know in advance that Obama would be a poor president.  Yet many of the voters were taken in by the media hype surrounding Obama.  The president’s associations and recorded statements were played down.  The record was there for a number of investigative authors to find, from Michelle Malkin to Stanley Kurtz and Aaron Klein.  But the mainstream media presented a very selective picture of the Democratic candidate.

The MSM, in fact, has embarrassed itself to a near-fatal degree with its remarkable coverage of the Obama administration, whether it is amplifying the cries of “racism!” that erupt whenever there is criticism of the president, or credulously reporting whatever the administration puts out, word for word, as if there is no previous record or any set of facts to be counter-checked.  (The latter pattern is especially strong when it comes to reporting about defense and national security.  Reporters have regularly retailed administration talking points about the unprecedented “shows of strength” the Obama administration is making, when a little research would reveal that the US had already been doing whatever the “unprecedented” thing is, for 5, 20, or even – in the case of North and South Korea – 60 years.)

There has been a tremendous growth in vague, elliptical, and/or tendentious narration of what’s going on in the nation and the world.  The people can be pardoned for being tired and confused.

But the inability to distinguish fantasy-news and talking points from reality is a product of the US education system.  That system has taken millions of people with plenty of native smarts and indoctrinated them with a set of ideological trigger-concepts, all while declining to teach them to think critically.  Developing judgment through critical thinking is one of the hallmarks of adulthood, and the US education system has been making that harder for Americans, rather than fostering their abilities.

I have this lingering sense, which I honestly suspect is nothing but delusion, that the producers of mainstream “news” product really are making themselves progressively (!) more and more irrelevant by alienating their audiences with increasingly transparent cultivated stupidity, and un-reflexive progressive bias and partisanship. I hope it’s not just the projection of wishful thinking on my part. And although I agree with her assessment of the typical results of the US education system, I think the actual contributions of the schools to those results might entail a smaller and more collaborative role than Dyer seems to be suggesting. The entertainment industry plays no small part, independently of the schools, as does the overall entitlement ethic of society.

Dyer’s article gets to that in its own way later on, where she speaks critically of “the modern American pathology-network” of dependencies, addictions, disorders, and despair. She remains confident in the redeeming value of the free exchange of ideas in the public square, though the history of progressives and other leftists in power does not fill me with the same confidence that the square will remain open for dissent indefinitely.

Mathematics is used as a hoop, a badge, a totem

Posted: Sunday, July 29, 2012 (12:42 pm), by John W Gillis


Quote of the Day for Sunday, July 29th, 2012:

Andrew Hacker, in today’s New York Times, asks: Is Algebra Necessary?

Peter Braunfeld of the University of Illinois tells his students, “Our civilization would collapse without mathematics.” He’s absolutely right.

Algebraic algorithms underpin animated movies, investment strategies and airline ticket prices. And we need people to understand how those things work and to advance our frontiers.

Quantitative literacy clearly is useful in weighing all manner of public policies, from the Affordable Care Act, to the costs and benefits of environmental regulation, to the impact of climate change. Being able to detect and identify ideology at work behind the numbers is of obvious use. Ours is fast becoming a statistical age, which raises the bar for informed citizenship. What is needed is not textbook formulas but greater understanding of where various numbers come from, and what they actually convey.

What of the claim that mathematics sharpens our minds and makes us more intellectually adept as individuals and a citizen body? It’s true that mathematics requires mental exertion. But there’s no evidence that being able to prove (x² + y²)² = (x² – y²)² + (2xy)² leads to more credible political opinions or social analysis.

Many of those who struggled through a traditional math regimen feel that doing so annealed their character. This may or may not speak to the fact that institutions and occupations often install prerequisites just to look rigorous — hardly a rational justification for maintaining so many mathematics mandates. Certification programs for veterinary technicians require algebra, although none of the graduates I’ve met have ever used it in diagnosing or treating their patients. Medical schools like Harvard and Johns Hopkins demand calculus of all their applicants, even if it doesn’t figure in the clinical curriculum, let alone in subsequent practice. Mathematics is used as a hoop, a badge, a totem to impress outsiders and elevate a profession’s status.

It’s not hard to understand why Caltech and M.I.T. want everyone to be proficient in mathematics. But it’s not easy to see why potential poets and philosophers face a lofty mathematics bar. Demanding algebra across the board actually skews a student body, not necessarily for the better.

math1Interesting essay, and at first blush I’m inclined to agree with the author that advanced math requirements in schools sets an artificial barrier to success that ultimately does more harm than good, because of the effects on otherwise-skilled learners who end up being alienating from success in the broader educational enterprise – though I wouldn’t call basic algebra and geometry advanced math. I also agree that advanced math skills are of little to no use in most career vocations, including most professional vocations (though I doubt many philosophers, unlike poets, would see such skills as extrinsic to their craft). math2In fact, I’m inclined to think that the modern emphasis on math and science in education is a large part of the problem with contemporary education, and not part of its solution. And Hacker gets the difference between education and training, sees that advanced math skills acquisition is really more the latter than the former, and laments the lack of truly educational components in the typical math curriculum.

But Hacker’s view is too utilitarian for me; too focused on the value of advanced mathematical training for job performance or for the works of citizenry. I think there is more intrinsic value in the exercise of intellectual rigor than he seems to want to allow. It seems to me that the real problem is that our approach to credentialing (not our approach to education, per se) creates this albatross, which would be avoidable in a system with a more finely organized and meaningful process for tracking and articulating the abilities and accomplishments of students, whether at secondary or post-secondary levels. A degree system that could identify, on an on-going and not a static basis, student accomplishment levels across a range of potential subject areas would not only be much more useful both personally and socially, but would also allow institutions to establish much more meaningful minimal accomplishment requirements in various disciplines, as well as more sensible degree requirements.

My biggest regret isn’t that I didn’t learn Fortran, but that I didn’t study Dante

Posted: Saturday, January 7, 2012 (11:34 pm), by John W Gillis


Quote of the Day for Saturday, January 7th, 2012.

Virginia Postrel, posting at Bloomberg yesterday in a piece called How Art History Majors Power the U.S. Economy, on the misguided but largely unexamined tendency of many critics of higher education to apply a supposed realpolitik of utility to the evaluation of programs and curricula, becoming in the process shadows of the smug, short-sighted central planners they typically scorn:

The students who come out of school without jobs aren’t, for the most part, starry-eyed liberal arts majors but rather people who thought a degree in business, graphic design or nursing was a practical, job-oriented credential. Even the latest target of Internet mockery, a young woman the New York Times recently described as studying for a master’s in communication with hopes of doing public relations for a nonprofit, is in what she perceives as a job-training program.
[…]
The critics miss the enormous diversity of both sides of the labor market. They tend to be grim materialists, who equate economic value with functional practicality. In reality, however, a tremendous amount of economic value arises from pleasure and meaning — the stuff of art, literature, psychology and anthropology. These qualities, built into goods and services, increasingly provide the work for all those computer programmers. And there are many categories of jobs, from public relations to interaction design to retailing, where insights and skills from these supposedly frivolous fields can be quite valuable. The critics seem to have never heard of marketing or video games, Starbucks or Nike, or that company in Cupertino, California, the rest of us are always going on about. Technical skills are valuable in part because of the “soft” professions that complement them.

The commentators excoriating today’s students for studying the wrong subjects are pursuing certainty where none exists. Like the health fanatics convinced that every case of cancer must be caused by smoking or a bad diet, they want to believe that good people, people like them, will always have good jobs and that today’s unemployed college grads are suffering because they were self-indulgent or stupid. But plenty of organic chemists can testify that the mere fact that you pursued a technical career that was practical two or three decades ago doesn’t mean you have job security today.
[…]
The skills that still matter are the habits of mind I honed in the classroom: how to analyze texts carefully, how to craft and evaluate arguments, and how to apply microeconomic reasoning, along with basic literacy in accounting and statistics. My biggest regret isn’t that I didn’t learn Fortran, but that I didn’t study Dante.

While Postrel focuses primarily on what we could call the economy of institutional higher education – and makes some excellent points concerning the unexamined potential of unintended consequences stemming from the growing chorus of calls for the marginalization of humanities studies for the sake of promoting technical learning – she opens up some other aspects of the problem as well, which seem lost on most of the respondents in the combox. The whole idea of judging education for its practical utility and economic results reflects a deep poverty of understanding what education is all about – moreover, of what human life is all about. It’s not that I think professional training is not important, just that it’s not education, and it does not serve the economies of either training or education to conflate or confuse them.

One commenter correctly notes that our institutions of higher learning have become outsourced training providers for the business world, and what he doesn’t explicitly add to that is that these training costs are wholly socialized from the perspective of businesses that benefit from it (the costs being moved onto a combination of the trainees, the government [taxpayers], and other grant providers). I would argue a step further: that these institutions have largely been balkanized by ever-increasing federal government funding over the past 65 or so years into production facilities geared to produce an ideologically compliant and functionally useful citizenry supporting the on-going consolidation of the power and wealth of the governing class. This could not be farther from the purposes of education or its institutional manifestation. Going back to Dante would surely be a step in the right direction, though we could always start with Newman.

College as a way to babysit 18-year-olds is not very efficient for anyone involved

Posted: Sunday, June 5, 2011 (7:36 pm), by John W Gillis


Quote of the Day for Sunday, June 5th, 2011:

Naomi Schaefer Riley, writing in the June 3rd Washington Post, on the value of a modern college education, and the disconnect exposed by PayPal’s Peter Thiel when he recently thumbed his nose at the university system:

Executives at U.S. companies routinely complain about the lack of reading, writing and math skills in the recent graduates they hire. Maybe they too will get tired of using higher education as a credentialing system. Maybe it will be easier to recruit if they don’t have to be concerned about the overwhelming student debt of their new employees.

Employers may decide that there are better ways to get high school students ready for careers. What if they returned to the idea of apprenticeship, not just for shoemakers and plumbers but for white-collar jobs? College as a sorting process for talent or a way to babysit 18-year-olds is not very efficient for anyone involved. Would students rather show their SAT scores to companies and then apply for training positions where they can learn the skills they need to be successful? Maybe the companies could throw in some liberal arts courses along the way. At least they would pick the most important ones and require that students put in some serious effort. Even a 40-hour workweek would be a step up from what many students are asked to do now.

If tuition continues to rise faster than inflation, and colleges cannot provide a compelling mission for undergraduate education, we may move further away from Obama’s vision of education and closer to Peter Thiel’s.

It seems to me there are few areas of public life more dysfunctional than the la-la land of higher education (well, maybe the K-12 public school system…). The “Obama vision” referenced here is the widespread vision, shared among the cultural elite (especially the professorial class), of universal higher education, which, like most every “progressive” idea, sounds wonderful – if you are naïve enough to believe the utopian hype without bothering to think through the nuts & bolts of the details, and understand their consequences.

The reality is that as the reach of “higher education” spreads deeper into society, both the relative and objective values of higher education plummet toward irrelevance – much to the detriment of most of us, but especially of the least capable in society, who find more and more vocational possibilities being pushed out of reach in the credentialing game, and yet much to the benefit of – surprise, surprise – the professorial class, who find themselves with ever increasing power in the marketplace, and the liberal governing class, who see higher education as the next frontier for state domination over the intellectual/spiritual/religious formation of its subjects, having already accomplished a virtual monopoly over the formation of youth from near toddlerhood through adolescence.

The mind is dulled, not fed, by inordinate reading

Posted: Tuesday, March 8, 2011 (9:23 pm), by John W Gillis


Quote of the Day for Tuesday, March 8th, 2011:

More from A. G. Sertillanges’ The Intellectual Life, from the section “Reading” in the chapter “Preparation for Work,” on “not reading much” as a prerequisite to intellectual vitality:

What we are proscribing is the passion for reading, the uncontrolled habit, the poisoning of the mind by excess of mental food, the laziness in disguise which prefers easy familiarity with others’ thought to personal effort.

The passion for reading which many pride themselves on as a precious intellectual quality, is in reality a defect; it differs in no wise from the other passions that monopolize the soul, keep it in a state of disturbance, set up in it uncertain currents and cross-currents, and exhaust its powers.

The mind is dulled, not fed, by inordinate reading, it is made gradually incapable of reflection and concentration, and therefore of production; it grows inwardly extroverted, if one can so express oneself, becomes the slave of its mental images, of the ebb and flow of ideas on which it has eagerly fastened its attention. This uncontrolled delight is an escape from self; it ousts the intelligence from its function and allows it merely to follow point for point the thoughts of others, to be carried along in the stream of words, developments, chapters, volumes.

Can you imagine what this guy would have had to say regarding television?

As unintuitive as this thought might seem at first blush, I quickly recognized its truth as I read through it. I cannot deny, for example, that when I am feeling mentally lazy, I reach for something to read – so I won’t have to think too much. At its worst, that amounts to web browsing. At best, it means making headway in a book, but at times like those I tend to avoid the books I’m grinding through in favor of something either light or novel (or both), and the fact that I’m inclined to doze off while reading unless I’m mentally sharp at the time just further proves the point.

And then there’s truly useless reading (Sertillanges even says of newspapers: “defend yourself against them” – Amen, I say!), about which I’ll say nothing more than that Sertillanges’ proscription is a useful parallel to my occasional snarky reply to the invariably breathless claim that education is an important and necessary good: It might be important, but it’s not good. An education in virtue is an important and necessary good, yes, but an education in evil is an education neither necessary nor good, and one I wouldn’t wish upon anyone. The distinction is important.

A Masters in Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da?

Posted: Tuesday, February 22, 2011 (10:43 pm), by John W Gillis


So, a Canadian woman, Mary-Lu Zahalan-Kennedy, has earned the world’s first graduate degree in Beatles music. Is there any possibility left that the worldwide university system retains so much as a shred of its former dignity and gravitas – or relevance?

Mike Brocken, founder and leader of the Beatles MA at Liverpool Hope University, said the postgraduate degree makes Zahalan-Kennedy a member of a select group of popular music experts.

"Mary-Lu now joins an internationally recognized group of scholars of Popular Music Studies who are able to offer fresh and thought-provoking insights into the discipline of musicology."

Lord knows there are plenty of angles here for comedic exploration, but for giggles, can anything really top the professor’s conceit that how, finally, after proper designation as Masterly degreed, this woman is “able to offer fresh and thought-provoking insights into the discipline of musicology"? Oh, my. Well, maybe, maybe not – but at least now she has a ticket to ride.

Revitalizing Catholic Education?

Posted: Wednesday, January 5, 2011 (11:40 pm), by John W Gillis


On this feast day of Saint John Neuman, the great champion of Catholic education in America, I want to give a shout-out to St. Jerome’s Catholic Classical School in Hyattsville, Maryland. This school, like so many other modern Catholic parochial schools, was facing almost certain closing not long ago. A recent article from insidecatholic.com tells the story of what happened after the archdiocesan consultation at the parish in consideration of the school’s future:

Multiple parishioners approached [school principal] Donoghue and [pastor] Father Stack, arguing that what the parish needed was a more rigorous curriculum and authentic Catholic spirit. One of the loudest of these voices was that of Michael Hanby, a professor at the John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family. Hanby had lately been introduced to a local homeschooling community’s miniature school, known as the Crittenden Academy, which had inspired him to write an essay describing his philosophy on the subject. That November evening, attending the consultation and listening to the parish’s presentation, he recalls thinking, "I’m not sure that the school they just described is really worth saving."

Following the meeting, Hanby sent a letter saying as much to Father Stack, including a copy of his essay on education and emphasizing that "a wonderful birthright [was] being denied" the children of the community. Students needed, he argued, "to love thinking and to have something noble to think about," but Catholic schools had instead "drifted toward a public school model." His essay, Donoghue recalls, presented "a good analysis of where Catholic education had gotten off track," and she was impressed with its proposed remedies.

The parish had the sense to abandon the sterile and futile public school framework for their school, and go back to the future to adopt a classical model of education for K-8. The apparent result has been a vibrant, successful school which incorporates the reality of God in Christ into the fabric of life, overcoming the bizarre dissociation modernity imposes between creation and Creator by treating “religion” as if it were one among several more interesting “subjects” occupying compartments in the life of the analyzed self.

Truth be told, I’ve been disappointed with my experience with my local parochial school, Saint Paul’s in Wellesley, because it has long struck me as being not a whole lot more than a public school with a Catholic veneer – such as First Friday Masses, and “religion” classes daily, instead of weekly CCD fiascos – errr, classes. I know there are other important differences – mostly things that one happily won’t find at Saint Paul’s, plus an overall vastly higher level of behavior from the children – but there’s still so many arrows left in the quiver. What Saint Jerome’s is doing, I truly hope represents the beginnings of a broad revitalization of Catholic education in the US:

The curriculum emphasizes the conviction that human culture expresses the natural desire for God, and that Christianity is therefore historically and culturally decisive. Curriculum committee member Rebecca Teti says, "Jesus Christ is the Lord of history, and God is the author of truth, beauty, and goodness. We wanted kids to see their unity, their connectedness to all people, and the goodness [Catholic] culture has brought to history."

Hanby adds, "Christ cannot ultimately be the center of students’ lives if He is not at the center of history and existence and if He does not satisfy the longings implanted in them. The public-school-education-plus-religion-class model ends up reinforcing the impression that religion has little to do with real life. We wanted to overcome the separation of faith and life by showing how profoundly Christ and the Church have affected history and culture — and by giving students something better to love."

Mandating Two More Years of Vapid Futility?

Posted: Sunday, December 12, 2010 (11:46 pm), by John W Gillis


Quote of the Day for Sunday, December 12th, 2010:

Boston Globe staff writer James Vaznis reporting on the latest round of hand-wringing concerning the performance of urban public school districts in the state:

Within Boston, the state identified 40 percent of eighth-graders at risk of not earning a high school diploma with their classmates in 2014. But that estimate may be low, Boston public school officials said. The district’s graduation-tracking system, which, unlike the state’s, examines several years of data and grades, indicated that just 19 percent of this fall’s ninth-graders were on track academically.

The biggest ticket being advanced to address this predicament? Raising the legal drop-out age from 16 to 18! So saith a “special state commission” in a recommendation commissioned last year, and presently under examination by Gov. Patrick’s office and “key legislators.”

Imagine that! Mandating two more years of vapid futility for kids who, according to this report, have by eighth grade been suspended from school as many as 30 times, and who average – average! – a 25% absence rate.

How can any sane person think that requiring indifferent – if not hostile – teenagers to sit in a public school classroom for two additional years is going to be of any “educational” benefits to the kids in question, or especially to the other kids who actually want to be there to learn something? The only ones who’d benefit from something like this are the liberal social engineers whose workloads and paychecks would be beefed up with additional public expenditures: school teachers, case workers, social workers, probation workers, etc.

Of course, it would also give everyone involved the opportunity to throw their hands up in the air and say:”We did everything we could… we have no idea what went wrong!”

A Vicious Conception of the Whole Purpose of Education

Posted: Tuesday, November 23, 2010 (5:58 am), by John W Gillis


Quote of the Day for Tuesday, Nov 23, 2010:

An encore: J. Gresham Machen, this time writing in The Presbyterian, February 7, 1918, on the waning of Greek & Hebrew knowledge within the (protestant) ministry of his day (quoted from Dr. Rod Decker’s NT Resources Blog):

jgmachen

“The real trouble with the modern exaltation of practical studies at the expense of the humanities is that it is based upon a vicious conception of the whole purpose of education. The modern conception of the purpose of education is that education is merely intended to enable a man to live, but not to give him those things in life that make life worth living.”

It would be easy to say that nothing much has changed in the past 90 years, but I think this modernizing, flattening, utilitarian tendency in educational (mal)practice has actually been accelerating – and I don’t think that assertion would meet much serious contention. Modern education exists to equip a man to make a living, but not to make a life. And I don’t see any improvements on the horizon.

People often ask me what I’m "going to do with" my Theology degree, should I manage to complete it. Well, I’ll give thanks for the gift of time to pursue it… Will that suffice?

One of the Deadliest Enemies to Liberty that Has Ever Been Devised

Posted: Monday, November 22, 2010 (4:30 pm), by John W Gillis


Quote of the Day for Monday, Nov. 22nd, 2010:

A double-quote day.

First, in honor of John F. Kennedy on the 47th anniversary of his assassination:

A nation that is afraid to let its people judge the truth and falsehood in an open market is a nation that is afraid of its people.

Second, J. Gresham Machen (1881-1937) testifying before the joint Senate Committee on Education and Labor, and House Committee on Education, February 25, 1926, on the proposed establishment of a Department of Education, specifically here addressing the alleged benefits of national educational standardization that would result from such an establishment:

I believe that in the sphere of the mind we should have absolutely unlimited competition. There are certain spheres where competition may have to be checked, but not when it comes to the sphere of the mind; and it seems to me that we ought to have this state of affairs: That every State should be faced by the unlimited competition in this sphere of other States; that each one should try to provide the best for its children that it possibly can; and, above all, that all public education should be kept healthy at every moment by the absolutely free competition of private schools and church schools. A public education that is faced by such competition is a beneficent result of modern life; but a public education that is not faced by such competition of private schools is one of the deadliest enemies to liberty that has ever been devised.

[…]

As I say, I think that when it comes to the training of human beings, you have to be a great deal more careful than you do in other spheres about preservation of the right of individual liberty and the principle of individual responsibility; and I think we ought to be plain about this — that unless we preserve the principles of liberty in this department there is no use in trying to preserve them anywhere else. If you give the bureaucrats the children, you might as well give them everything else as well.

Given the mock horror and contemptuous sneers with which the political & media establishment greeted Sharon Angle’s suggestion during the latest election cycle to dismantle the Department of Education, what do you suppose they would have made of this guy? Of course, he was a New Testament scholar, which probably would have disqualified him from addressing the Congress under 1st Amendment principles in our day. The whole (fairly brief) testimony is worthwhile reading; I’m not sure how stable the link will turn out to be…