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Tag Archive: NY Times

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.

The Communist Party was my Nurse Ratched

Posted: Monday, July 16, 2012 (11:49 pm), by John W Gillis


Movie Director (e.g. “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”) and Czechoslovakian expatriate Milos Forman had an op-ed in the NY Times last week, using his experiences under communism as a context for criticizing the use of the term “socialist” to describe President Obama:

The Communist Party was my Nurse Ratched, telling me what I could and could not do; what I was or was not allowed to say; where I was and was not allowed to go; even who I was and was not. Now, years later, I hear the word “socialist” being tossed around by the likes of Rick Perry, Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum, Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh and others. President Obama, they warn, is a socialist. The critics cry, “Obamacare is socialism!” They falsely equate Western European-style socialism, and its government provision of social insurance and health care, with Marxist-Leninist totalitarianism. It offends me, and cheapens the experience of millions who lived, and continue to live, under brutal forms of socialism.

Mr. Forman relates several anecdotes that paint a picture of just how disordered life was under Soviet domination, and how foreign it was to anything westerners experience as society, and at first blush, his seems like a very reasonable complaint. But when was the last time anyone sober suggested that Obama was trying to directly implement a Soviet-style order? Forman claims that Obama’s critics are “falsely equat[ing] Western European-style socialism … with Marxist-Leninist totalitarianism”, but that is an entirely false claim. I think the word “equating”, used in this sense, is one of the two or three stupidest words in modern parlance, but if Obama is being “equated” to anybody, it is to the Western European socialists whom Forman himself identifies by that very term! But he’s offended. Forman is either confused, or worse. After all, should we wait for him to criticize himself for calling the Western European-style practice “socialism”, when it clearly differs from Soviet-style communism? Does that usage also “cheapen the experience” of those who’ve lived under “brutal forms of socialism”? If we can’t call Obama a socialist without having to answer to the standard of Stalin, why don’t we have to answer to the standard of Stalin when we refer to the socialists whom Obama is actually “equated” to?

It turns out one can legitimately use the term “socialism” to refer to a whole trajectory of political thought and circumstance, some of which take on more brutal form than others. The point Obama’s critics bring to light, much to the chagrin of folks like Forman who don’t want to hear it, is that the, yes, socialist vision of Obama, and his Western comrades, differs from the brutal form of Soviet-style socialism in degree, not in kind – and that owing at least partly to method of implementation (what we could call evolution vs. revolution).

A later paragraph from Forman shows just how little he understands what’s at stake in the current struggle for America’s political soul:

I’m not sure Americans today appreciate quite how predatory socialism was. It was not — as Mr. Obama’s detractors suggest — merely a government so centralized and bloated that it hobbled private enterprise: it was a spoils system that killed off everything, all in the name of “social justice.”

Taking the ObamaCare debacle as a jumping-off point, do Forman, Obama, and the rest of the political left in America really not understand that the opposition to Obamacare is rooted not only in the valid fear of the thinly (if at all) disguised intent to hobble private enterprise through the centralization of government power, but also precisely in  disgust at the spoils system it inevitably creates, threatening to “kill off everything”, all in the name of “social justice”? Indeed, what a perfectly phrased indictment of the entire “tax and spend”, public-sector-centric, entitlements and subsidies mentality of the post-liberal left – whether American or Western Europe: a spoils system that kills off everything in the name of “social justice”. All we need now is a political movement aiming at establishing a classless society – one maybe where the “99%” decry the “inequality” represented by the “1%”, and begin the predative push to have them brought down to “our” level, and their un-equal privileges democratized… Forman, scarred by the crudeness of socialism’s full-bore frontal assault in Eastern Europe, can’t see it growing under his feet in the sophisticated West.

She delivered a devastating indictment of the entire U.S. political establishment

Posted: Friday, September 9, 2011 (11:29 pm), by John W Gillis


Quote of the Day for Friday, September 9th, 2011:

Anand Giridharadas, writing in the NY Times on Sarah Palin’s speech at a TEA Party event in Iowa last week:

Let us begin by confessing that, if Sarah Palin surfaced to say something intelligent and wise and fresh about the present American condition, many of us would fail to hear it.

That is not how we’re primed to see Ms. Palin. A pugnacious Tea Partyer? Sure. A woman of the people? Yup. A Mama Grizzly? You betcha.

But something curious happened when Ms. Palin strode onto the stage last weekend at a Tea Party event in Indianola, Iowa. Along with her familiar and predictable swipes at President Barack Obama and the “far left,” she delivered a devastating indictment of the entire U.S. political establishment — left, right and center — and pointed toward a way of transcending the presently unbridgeable political divide.

[…]

She made three interlocking points. First, that the United States is now governed by a “permanent political class,” drawn from both parties, that is increasingly cut off from the concerns of regular people. Second, that these Republicans and Democrats have allied with big business to mutual advantage to create what she called “corporate crony capitalism.” Third, that the real political divide in the United States may no longer be between friends and foes of Big Government, but between friends and foes of vast, remote, unaccountable institutions (both public and private).

I don’t know whether to be encouraged that someone publishing through one of the publishing heavyweights of the limousine liberal establishment finally looked past the left’s cartoonish caricature of Palin to actually listen to her ideas for a few minutes, or to be outraged at how the paper has played the mock-the-bimbo game all this time, only to turn around now and say “she did just get more interesting”, when in fact this speech in no way represented a departure from what she has been saying all along – at least since the end of the McCain campaign. Give me a break, pal. I’m not as stupid as you’d like to think.

The tragedy is that they’re dead

Posted: Monday, June 27, 2011 (9:25 pm), by John W Gillis


Quote of the Day for June 27th, 2011:

The New York Times’ Ross Douthat’s take on the Mara Hvistendahl book I posted on last Wednesday:

This places many Western liberals, Hvistendahl included, in a distinctly uncomfortable position. Their own premises insist that the unborn aren’t human beings yet, and that the right to an abortion is nearly absolute. A self-proclaimed agnostic about when life begins, Hvistendahl insists that she hasn’t written “a book about death and killing.” But this leaves her struggling to define a victim for the crime that she’s uncovered.

It’s society at large, she argues, citing evidence that gender-imbalanced countries tend to be violent and unstable. It’s the women in those countries, she adds, pointing out that skewed sex ratios are associated with increased prostitution and sex trafficking.

These are important points. But the sense of outrage that pervades her story seems to have been inspired by the missing girls themselves, not the consequences of their absence.

Here the anti-abortion side has it easier. We can say outright what’s implied on every page of “Unnatural Selection,” even if the author can’t quite bring herself around.

The tragedy of the world’s 160 million missing girls isn’t that they’re “missing.” The tragedy is that they’re dead.

My initial reaction upon hearing of this book was to be interested, but not interested enough to add it to my absurdly and hopelessly overgrown reading list, but the more I read about it, the more it appears that the author really did her homework, and that it might be worth a look.

Appropriately, Douthat seems concerned primarily with the complicity, unveiled by Hvistendahl, of self-righteous Western institutions in the propagation of the Orient’s “gendercide”, and I suspect that is not at all what the author had in mind, but the facts speak for themselves – eventually.

It seems also worth noting that the figure of 160 million “missing” (i.e. dead) girls is grossly understated as far as I can see, because it only refers to the delta from the imbalanced birth rate, not the total number killed, which would necessarily add a number approaching half the number of world-wide abortions, though one could argue that the others were killed for different reasons – as if that were important.

The lunatic fascist and socialist tyrants who were the dominant objects of public fear and loathing during the 20th century, it turns out, had nothing on the bureaucrats running The Rockefeller Foundation, Planned Parenthood, or the various liberal governments of the “civilized world” which oversaw the project of progress – not when it comes to the shedding of innocent blood for personal and political gain.

Almost 1,700 people had clicked that they “like” “General Rachid Ammar President”

Posted: Sunday, January 16, 2011 (8:22 pm), by John W Gillis


Quote of the Day for Sunday, January 16, 2011:

From the New York Times’ World News desk, in an article on the evolving – or devolving – political situation in Tunisia, following the sudden departure of long-entrenched President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali:

On Saturday afternoon, there were some signs that General Ammar himself may now have an eye on politics. On Facebook, a staging ground of the street revolt, almost 1,700 people had clicked that they “like” a Web page named “General Rachid Ammar President” and emblazoned with his official photographs.

While it’s encouraging that the unrest and ensuing power vacuum in Tunis have resulted in levels of violence that have managed to remain below the point of full-fledged conflagration – so far – the idea of Facebook “like” clicks being used as any kind of measuring stick of political legitimacy just strikes me as bizarre. Somehow, I think John Locke must be rolling over in his grave. I don’t see how this ends well.

Vicious charges made by people who claimed to be criticizing viciousness

Posted: Wednesday, January 12, 2011 (7:47 pm), by John W Gillis


Quote of the Day for Wednesday, January 12th, 2011:

New York Times columnist David Brooks, in a too-rare moment of lucidity, commenting Monday on the despicable liberal media spin on the Giffords shooting:

Keith Olbermann demanded a Palin repudiation and the founder of the Daily Kos wrote on Twitter: “Mission Accomplished, Sarah Palin.” Others argued that the killing was fostered by a political climate of hate.

These accusations — that political actors contributed to the murder of 6 people, including a 9-year-old girl — are extremely grave. … They were vicious charges made by people who claimed to be criticizing viciousness.

Yet such is the state of things. … We have a news media with a strong distaste for Sarah Palin and the Tea Party movement, and this seemed like a golden opportunity to tarnish them. …

I have no love for Sarah Palin, and I like to think I’m committed to civil discourse. But the political opportunism occasioned by this tragedy has ranged from the completely irrelevant to the shamelessly irresponsible.

I think Brooks misses the Left’s sly assault via this tragedy on the 1st Amendment, but I have to give him credit for bucking the mob of his fellows, and doing it early, before the backlash from an offended public – if this was published in the grey lady Monday, it must have been written no later than Sunday night. Besides, the aspect he instead focuses on is at least equally important, and he hits the nail on the head in terms of the viciousness involved. I don’t know how some of these people sleep at night…