Archive for the ‘Education’ Category

Making a College Degree Worth It

May 22nd, 2015 2 comments

You hear a lot these days about how college is really not so important, that having a college degree often doesn’t get you a good job, and that going to college is just something people do because it is expected. And, you know, if you treat college as something where you do the minimum possible work to pass just so you can get a diploma, just a piece of paper to list on your resume—which so many students do—then I think that characterization is true. A diploma is nothing by itself. If college is nothing more than crossing a “to do” off your list, then it’s probably not worth it.

On the other hand, if you treat college as a way to actually learn things, as a means to acquire knowledge and skill, as an opportunity to explore and discover—it can be life-changing. If you go into a foreign-language program and really learn the language; if you study computer programming and really pick up the skill; if you take on philosophy and really discover a passion for it—these things will change you, transform you.

The catch: you have to try. You have to work hard. You have to pour yourself into it, and make it your existence for the years you are there. Because you don’t gain anything from just coasting. A banquet is useless if you just pick at your food; you need to devour it. With college, you can’t just experience it, take it in like you would a movie. College is not about people telling you things to remember. No one class is just about the class: each class is a starting point for something else.

If you take a Math class, don’t just run through the pages of problems and then forget about them. If you study Psychology, don’t just go, “Oooh, that’s interesting,” and leave it behind. Ask, “Where can this take me? What could I do with this?” Ask an instructor who knows the many fields that can spring from the work. If you find something that you do well at, go deeper, and find out what kind of careers call for this talent. Don’t worry that 99 out of 100 of these leads will end with something you don’t want. If just one leads to something great, that’s all you need. And it’s usually the last one you look at.

And don’t be shy about contacting professionals in a field you’re interested in. If you think architecture is something you may have a flair for, search out a professional architect who is known for really good work, and just tell them you’re a college student interested in the field and ask for an hour of their time. A lot of professionals love the idea of helping budding artists. They’ll know all of the best stuff to tell you and get you started down the right path. And don’t wait until you finished college to seek that advice—seek it out right from the start.

There’s an old joke about how many psychiatrists does it take to change a light bulb. The answer is, just one, but the light bulb has to want to change. College is like that. You have to want to change, to grow, to evolve. Just floating through gets you that piece of paper, but then you’re just a 22-year-old high school graduate with a piece of paper. Whee.

You know what gets you a great career? For one thing, knowing what you love, which you can discover in college. Also, skills to do that thing, which you can get started on in college. Not to mention discovering how much you can do if you take control over your work and make it yours. College can be the perfect place to develop all of this. College is a transition point, a launch pad for countless potential life journeys. That’s how you should look at it.

But you have to want it, you have to work for it, and you have to own it. If you do, then the diploma is nice, but what you have really gained in college cannot possibly fit on just a piece of paper.

Categories: Education Tags:

Literally Rewriting History

September 24th, 2014 1 comment

A school board in Colorado is considering the formation of a “curriculum committee” for local high schools that would review and filter the content of the schools’ U.S. History courses.

In what way?

…the committee would make sure that U.S. history materials “promote citizenship, patriotism, essentials and benefits of the free enterprise system, respect for authority and respect for individual rights. Materials should not encourage or condone civil disorder, social strife or disregard of the law. Instructional materials should present positive aspects of the United States and its heritage. Content pertaining to political and social movements in U.S. history should present balanced and factual treatments of the positions.”

The panel “would review curricular choices for accuracy and omissions, conformity to Jefferson County academic standards, and to inform the Board of materials that may reasonably be deemed objectionable.

The committee shall regularly review texts and curricula according to priorities that it establishes,” according to the Jeffco School board proposal.

The more you consider it, the more you realize that the description cannot possibly be defended. The board president claims that the proposal will in no way “change the history curriculum,” but if that were so, then what would a “curriculum committee” do? The whole idea of such a committee would be to revise and change the curriculum. In fact, the more you read the wording, the more apparent it is that whoever wrote it is almost certainly a Fox-News-watching Tea Party advocate. Nor should it surprise one that the people pressing this agenda are indeed Koch-backed conservatives being cheered on by right-wing pundits.

The proposal states that materials in history classes would have to “promote patriotism,” for example. How exactly do you do that? History is supposed to be an objective study of past events. It seems clear that if certain historical facts are deemed not to promote a sense of love for country, they would be revised to do so. Under this metric, one could easily presume that not only would national icons have their reputations brightened beyond factual descriptions, but anything in the history course which reflects poorly on the United States would be removed or reworded so that it would not appear that the United States did anything wrong. Political scandals, corruption, and specific wrongdoing by public agencies would be on the chopping block. The Tuskegee syphilis experiment, the internment of Japanese Americans during WWII, slavery, and the campaign of genocide against native Americans might all be suppressed under the review of such a committee. If the committee were to work to “present positive aspects of the United States and its heritage,” that could easily be interpreted as a license to whitewash history in general.

Then there is the “essentials and benefits of the free enterprise system,” essentially the ideology that private business should be free of state control and regulation—a very specific political tenet. Exploitation of child and immigrant labor, the history of labor unions and their positive effects, evidence of corporate malfeasance—all would likely be rewritten so as to glorify the idea of corporations as heroes, and any state regulation or intervention as meddling bureaucrats making things worse.

And “respect for authority”? What is that supposed to mean? Most political movements in our history, such as the Civil Rights movement, were based upon a respect for peaceful protest, but not a “respect for authority.” Besides which, the whole idea of education is not to create a class of subservient drones, but to develop minds capable of critical thinking and analysis, one basis of which is to question authority. Not to disrespect it outright—but questioning it could easily be classed as “not respecting” authority, and so removed from the curriculum.

As for the rule that the content of history courses must “not encourage or condone civil disorder, social strife or disregard of the law,” that pretty much means that labor unions, political protests, peaceful civil disobedience—essentially any protests against the status quo, which would include the suffragette movement, the civil rights movement, Occupy Wall Street, you name it. Naturally, these are progressive movements for the most part.

But then we get to the last item on the agenda: “Content pertaining to political and social movements in U.S. history should present balanced and factual treatments of the positions.”

You know what that means: someone read a history book, didn’t like how their favored positions were represented, and decided it was time to do a little rewriting. The Second Amendment was not about militia! Separation of church and state was not about secularism! “Balance” has become a new code word, one that allows for “both sides of the argument” to be presented. History texts look poorly upon McCarthyism and blacklists? Well, let’s see the other side of that argument, just to be balanced.

The real clincher that these are die-hard conservatives comes from a line from the proposal strangely not included in the report cited above: “Theories should be distinguished from fact.” That’s deep-red code, absolute dog-whistle language which just screams, “We’re angry, paranoid wingnuts intent on revisionism!”

Seriously, school boards should be outlawed. I mean that. Consider what they are: Bands of local citizens, mostly chosen in elections few people pay real attention to, who have absolutely no prerequisites for any knowledge or expertise regarding education, who nonetheless exert authority over and pressure professionals engaged in providing children with a quality education. These are not experts. They are all too often people with personal and political agendas.

Imagine the idea of a school board applied to any other profession. How about medicine? How would you feel if your doctor, your surgeon, were forced to follow the mandates of a bunch of yahoos elected by friends in your neighborhood while you weren’t looking, deciding what medicines should be prescribed, or how surgeries should be performed? Can you really say that wouldn’t scare the crap out of you?

And yet, somehow, this is the standard for education. Spiffy.

Categories: Education Tags:

Tenure Tempest

September 28th, 2013 Comments off

You hear a lot about teacher tenure nowadays. Tenure is bad. Teachers get tenure automatically and then are guaranteed a job for life no matter how incompetent they are. We see reports in the press about how tenure makes school systems worse.

So, it’s a real problem, right?

Let’s begin with the article I link to above. It comes from the Wall Street Journal—a conservative publication, now owned by Murdoch, so there is immediate suspicion of bias. Then the report it quotes comes from the National Bureau of Economic Research, often cited as “non-partisan” and “highly respected,” which just happens to always report that Democratic ideas are failures and conservative policies are the bee’s knees. I’ll get back to this later.

Instead, let’s look at tenure itself.

Do all teachers automatically get tenure? No. You have to get certified and then teach while being evaluated for 2 to 5 years, depending on the state. During this time, a teacher can be fired at will, without any reason whatsoever. At the end of the review time, you are either given tenure, or you are dismissed. If the school grants tenure, that means that the school, after years of review, feels that you are qualified. If you do not pass muster, then you should not be allowed to continue teaching, and the school should hire someone else who is. If an incompetent teacher gets tenure, then it is a clear failure of the administration to perform their duties.

Is tenure a lifetime appointment? Don’t teachers wish. No, it’s not. Teachers with tenure can be fired, and often are. It is important to understand that K-12 tenure—the issue everyone is talking about—is very different from university tenure.

Does tenure make it almost impossible to fire a bad teacher? If a teacher is performing badly, the school can fire them; they simply need evidence of the poor performance, which would probably take the form of evaluations and student performance relative to other teachers—in short, the very data that would inform a school of poor performance in the first place. There is often talk about how it costs huge amounts of money to go through the process. Maybe, in some states, that could be true, but if it is, then the answer is not ending tenure, but instead to revamp the system so that standard evaluation methods could be applied to the process. However, I have the feeling that most “expensive” terminations are padded with costs like the full teachers’ salary during the period of review. I also suspect that most “extremely difficult” terminations are over reasons that tenure was designed to prevent, namely ones that are not actually related to teacher performance.

So, if a teacher can be fired, what is tenure about? Simple: it means a teacher cannot be fired “at will.” The school is required to show cause and to go through the process of demonstrating that cause. Which is, to be honest, what every employer should be required to do with every job. The fact that this is not true is not indicative of fault in schools, but instead of faults in how we generally treat workers like disposable objects.

So, why is there such a furor over teacher tenure?

The answer is simple: teachers are a liberal constituency. If you are a liberal constituency, conservatives will try their best to destroy you, and failing that, to vilify you. They will manufacture false outrage over trumped-up scandals and drive you and your organizations into the ground.

Who are the biggest supporters of Democrats? Unions. Conservatives are rather blatantly doing everything they can to vilify and crush labor unions. People are made to feel that unions are run and populated by thugs and demand sweet, cushy jobs at the expense of the public.

Hollywood is a liberal constituency, so it is often denigrated, devalued, blamed, and dismissed by conservatives (until a movie star voices support for conservatives, at which point Republicans swoon and try to elect that person to some office or another).

Any city with liberal leanings is smeared. San Francisco, Detroit, Chicago, many cities in New England—all horrific bastions of sin and disgrace. You’ve been hearing a lot about “San Francisco Values” and “Chicago-style Politics.” You’ve seen how Detroit has been treated. They are not the “Real America.”

Minorities are also big supporters of Democrats. So guess who just can’t help insulting, smearing, and working against the interests of minorities? Who works day and night to slant election laws to keep minorities from voting? Who attacks immigration reform and blames illegal immigrants for society’s woes?

Young people are also Democratic constituencies, but they’re harder to target—and yet conservatives often do. Republican politicians are known for resenting college voters (remember Rick Santorum sneering at the idea of going to college?), with many conservative vote-suppression techniques aimed squarely at them. Some Republicans have started challenging student voting rights altogether.

Tenure is not a problem. It is simply yet another opportunity for conservatives to paint a liberal group as a scapegoat.

Categories: Education, Right-Wing Lies Tags:

Cheating at Corruption

April 4th, 2013 2 comments

There is quite a bit of concern over recent scandals involving school- and teacher-driven cheating on standardized tests:

The extent of the top-down malfeasance under Beverly Hall may be unprecedented, but as I report in this Slate piece, there is reason to believe that policies tying adult incentives to children’s test scores have resulted in a nationwide uptick in cheating. An investigation by the Atlanta Journal Constitution found 196 school districts across the country with suspicious test score gains similar to the ones demonstrated in Atlanta, which statisticians said had only a one in 1 billion likelihood of being legitimate. A 2011 study by USA Today of test scores from just six states found 1,610 instances in which gains were as likely to be authentic as you are likely to buy a winning Powerball ticket. Absent independent, local investigations of suspected wrongdoing—which are rarely conducted—we simply cannot know the full extent of the cheating, which makes it difficult to assess whether the United States ought to continue down the road of tying teacher and administrator pay and job security to kids’ standardized test scores.

There seems to be some focus here on the shock that teachers and schools are cheating. We hold teachers to a high standard (while we hold ourselves to low standard in terms of how we treat them), and cannot imagine that so many would do something so terrible as to cheat.

Furthermore, the assumption seems to be that these teachers are cheating to save their own asses, and the cheating is harming their students, using them as tools for selfish gain. Thus the question about tying pay and job security to testing, as if the testing itself were not at all in question.

And sure enough, there are cheaters, no question. There will always be people in any group who are more noble and more base. As with everyone else, there is a spectrum—some will hold to their principles no matter what, some will violate the rules for no reason, and the vast majority lie somewhere in between, and where we lie along this spectrum is influenced by our conditions. I covered this before in a post from eight years ago: as conditions intensify, more of us reach the conditions of our “price,” our necessary level of incentive to break the rules. More of us are primed to do wrong.

This is one reason why tenure is a good thing: it releases the pressure, the fear of harm, and thus dissipates the conditions that prime us to do the wrong things.

Take away tenure, tell teachers that they will lose their jobs if their students don’t perform to a standard, and those conditions intensify, and more teachers manipulate their environment to work the system.

One element that will further prime us to break the rules is the availability and strength of rationalizations. The easier and more convincingly we can come up with excuses for defying a system, the more we will do so.

Tying school funding to standardized testing offers excellent excuses. Teachers can very easily look at that system and believe utterly that it is arbitrary and meaningless, and therefore violating its rules is not an actual wrong, just a technical one.

They know that standardized testing is not a true measure of education. They know that it is a political tool, designed to win votes. They know that robbing a school or a district of funding because of it is in itself a wrong. (In fact, one could argue that the schools with the worst results need more funds, not less.) They know that teaching to the test, which standardized testing favors, can actually be detrimental to students. They understand that the quality of education is not something that can be so easily measured, and pretending to do so can emphasize the wrong things and de-emphasize the good.

It is amazingly easy to convince oneself that cheating on this system is actually a moral good.

And here is where immoral and moral behavior blend: most of these rationalizations are in fact correct; the system is indeed useless and corrupt in itself; and teachers face a crisis where they must choose between following a bad system and giving their students the best they can manage.

Yes, some teachers cheat because they fear losing their jobs. But many honestly cheat—yes, that is very possible to do—to best serve their students.

They are faced with the knowledge that losing funds for this school may indeed harm the students in their care, students these teachers have committed themselves, often times selflessly, to protect and nurture.

This is not helped by the fact that teachers know that their children can be further disadvantaged when other schools cheat, and they know that cheating is inevitable.

Imagine, for example, that the government decided that health care for children be parceled out on the basis of the child passing a test that parents could easily help their children cheat on. The children pass, and they get medical attention. They fail, and they get nothing when they fall ill. And it is apparent that there is little connection between the test and worthiness of medical attention.

You think most parents will not cheat? Of course they will. You’re practically forcing them to. You are creating a system which encourages cheating, rewards it—even makes it necessary if one cares for one’s children.

Now, you may think that the analogy of medical care based on an arbitrary test is absurd—but have you considered that it is not because the analogy is incorrect, but because standardized testing as well as tying it to funding is equally absurd?

The fault, in fact, lays not in the cheaters, but in the selfishly-motivated manipulators who created the unhealthy system in the first place.

Strange how that fact is far less discussed, as if standardized testing should not be questioned.

Allow me to segue into a related point: evaluation.

I got my graduate degree in TESOL at one of the best-rated schools for that department, and yet there was a glaring omission in that program: testing and scoring. I simply cannot remember many lessons or book chapters which trained us how to create testing materials and evaluate student progress. There was certainly no course on the topic; the courses we did have focused more on teaching and remained mostly silent on evaluation.

There may have been a reason for that: like teaching itself, evaluation is not a straightforward thing. There is no “correct” method. It is, as the old saying goes, more art than science.

Grading demands the application of a numerical value to performance—but how do you weigh the performance? This question invokes issues from the fundamental to the specific.

First of all, what is the purpose of education? To teach students skills to find and perform well at jobs, or to enrich their lives at a more abstract level? Do they need specific skills, or should we outfit them with general tools which can be adjusted to adapt to any situation? Some even question whether we should be teaching them critical thinking skills at all. The answers to these questions fundamentally alter how evaluation should be performed, and yet we cannot even agree on these basic goals.

Should students be rated on an absolute scale, or in relation to each other, or even based upon personal progress? If absolute, who sets the standard, and what is it based upon? If in relation to others, then in relation to what group—the immediate class, the entire school, the state, or a national average? Or should students be graded on how much they achieve relative to where they started?

In any one topic, how should different elements be rated? Is a student rewarded for simple, mechanical memorization skills, or the ability to analyze and understand, to perceive the principles behind something and apply those so as to come to a creative result? Should we prize narrow technical competence in a skill, or creative approaches? If a combination, the how to weigh the value of each?

Upon serious and objective consideration of all of these facts and many, many more, it is easy to see that evaluation is a deeply complex and irreducible process. Applying standardized testing to education is like trying to rate literature by counting vowels.

The answer to standardized testing “scandals” is to address the greater problems, and the first step to that is to recognize standardized testing for the abject failure that it is, to trash it and to start over again. This time, leave the politicians out of it, as well as monetary incentives, and make an honest attempt to address the problem objectively and systematically.

A good start at such a project would be to first establish why we have education in the first place, and come to a firm decision about what education is supposed to be for. From there, we can move towards more specific elements and work our way through the system. There will never be universal agreement, but at least if we can make the standards clear, we have some hope of doing a better job.

Categories: Education Tags:

Romney’s Education Sham

May 25th, 2012 7 comments

It’s all worded very prettily, but in essence, it comes down to this: move money away from public schools while leaving them burdened with the highest-cost children they will not be funded to handle; place even more emphasis on meaningless assessment tools designed to punish experienced teachers in the public school system; reduce certification requirements so that private schools can save money and increase profits, while removing regulation that would require these schools to meet minimum standards, all in a push to privatize education in a way that will effectively award billions of taxpayer dollars to profit-seekers looking to cash in.

All worded rosily as “choice” for the “best” schools while “ensuring” quality and “rewarding great teachers” and so on. But if you look past the BS language and think carefully about how this will be implemented in the real world, not to mention what is not said in these phony outcome scenarios, it comes out to basically the same answer: reward our donors instead of theirs.

Sadly, this is expected to be an area where he will be seen as stronger than Obama–not that Obama has been superlative in this area himself, but Romney, essentially forwarding the conservative line on education, will be far more destructive.

Categories: Education, Election 2012 Tags:

Hatred of Education

February 27th, 2012 2 comments

That’s what the far right wing seems to have. Every aspect of education, it seems, has been under attack from the right. Most conservatives want to abolish the Department of Education and consistently assert that funding of education is unimportant. Teachers are reviled for being overpaid and underworked—the precise opposite of reality—and teacher’s unions are a particular target of hateful invective. Despite inattention from parents, overcrowded classes and high workloads, funding shortfalls so bad that some teachers have to buy supplies out of their own pocket, and mandated testing which has little or no pedagogical value but does succeed in distorting curriculums and making teaching harder, it’s the teachers who get all the blame when students perform poorly.

Colleges, however, are under increasing fire from conservatives. Long seen as hotbeds of liberalism (funny how learning things makes you liberal), that impression is only getting worse—to the point where right-wingers are now openly hostile to the idea of a college education. We’ve seen the New Hampshire Republican who wanted to increase the voting age purely because students vote “foolishly”—solely because they vote disproportionately Democratic. Republican vote-suppression tactics are heavily aimed at the college demographic. But some go beyond that, actually believing that colleges nationwide are part of some overarching conspiracy to convert young people into godless liberals.

And now, we have a Republican presidential candidate who is buying into that particular conspiracy theory:

“President Obama wants everybody in America to go to college,” Santorum said. “What a snob!”

Yeah! That egotistical snob wants every kid to have a kaw-ledge eh-joo-KAY-shun! What an ass! Hey, and you know what else? Those people who want their kids to graduate from high school are pretty stuck-up too, aren’t they? And how about those politicians who want the people to have better-paying jobs? What kind of smug, conceited pinheads are they? The American people should stop being tricked by this arrogant elitism, and be satisfied picking crops, washing dishes, and flipping burgers! Anyone who isn’t is an big-headed, self-important, snotty know-it-all!!

Santorum started by saying some people don’t need to go to college: “Not all folks are gifted the same way. Some people have incredible gifts with their hands.” He then suggested there was an sinister motive behind Obama’s push to get more Americans in college classrooms.

“There are good, decent men and women who work hard every day and put their skills to the test that aren’t taught by some liberal college professor… That’s why he wants you to go to college. He wants to remake you in his image,” Santorum said. “I want to create jobs so people can remake their children into their image, not his.”

First of all, you don’t have to be “gifted” to go to college. The idea is to let everyone have a shot at learning more than just the bare minimum; many colleges (my own included) actually aim to enable kids who might otherwise have a hard time getting into college.

Second, Obama is not really suggesting that we make college mandatory—rather, anyone who wants to can go, anyone who doesn’t, doesn’t have to. For most of American history, it was something people aspired to; entire families had great pride in the first of their clan to get a college education. It has always been considered a landmark, a stepping-up. Not elitism—just a better chance at making something of yourself and giving your family a better shot at having a decent life.

Third, nobody should be trying to remake children in their own image. That’s not what educators do, nor is it what any education should be about. This kind of thinking is just the kind of arrogant, controlling egotism that makes many children miserable. Santorum does some common right-wing projection here; public and higher education, on the other hand, strive to enable the child, teaching them basic skills, and allowing them to make of themselves what they will. That’s what you’re supposed to do.

However, what’s most disturbing is the animosity towards knowledge—“facts have a well-known liberal bias!” More to the point, his rhetoric is all too reminiscent of minority or handicapped kids being told that they should learn to “work with their hands.” Even if not, then Santorum is still wrong—Obama called for young Americans to commit to “higher education or career training.

Santorum’s crowd, however, loved his rant:

“I thought that was brilliant,” said Angie Clement of Commerce, Mich. “Not everybody has to go to college. We need garbagemen, we need welders, carpenters.”

“Everybody can’t be equal,” agreed Paul Murrow of Milford, MI seated nearby. “Somebody needs to do the manual labor.”

Umm, I don’t think that we have any particular shortages in the fields of garbagemen or welders. Nor am I comfortable with the idea that manual laborers are somehow “unequal” to those who have a college education, a sentiment which seems to be what Santorum was attacking—but which it would seem these people feel is true more than liberals themselves.

Not to mention that a college education does not disqualify you for any of these jobs. Obama’s proposal for universal college education is not intended to turn everyone into a professor, lawyer, scientist, or researcher. The idea is that there is value in every person having the sort of training in critical thinking, exposure to history and culture, skills in reading and writing, and development in specific fields of their choice. Is it a bad thing for everyone to know more math, history, sociology, and so forth?

Apparently so—especially when that knowledge and training runs counter to the interests of conservative goals. Critical thinking is a particular focus of college curriculums which is also often absent from pre-college education. Imagine everyone having the training and ability to spot logical fallacies—the Republican Party could collapse! Or at least they’d have to work that much harder at peddling their bullshit. Conservatives, and their corporate patrons, much prefer a gullible, pliable majority they can herd as they desire.

Which transitions into Santorum’s personal focus: higher education as liberal indoctrination:

On the president’s efforts to boost college attendance, Santorum said, “I understand why Barack Obama wants to send every kid to college, because of their indoctrination mills, absolutely … The indoctrination that is going on at the university level is a harm to our country.”

Yep, can’t deny the man when he’s right. As an American college professor, I myself received training at the secret Communist Re-education Assessment Program (CRAP) which gave me the tools to brainwash students into liberal-minded simpletons. It’s all a conspiracy, I admit it.

Short of that kind of conspiracy theory, what remains is that the more knowledge you are given, the more liberal you are apt to become. He’s not saying that intentionally, of course, but it is effectively the same thing. Teach a kid to spot bullshit, and sometimes the young whippersnapper will actually start doing it.

However, Santorum’s greater worry is that college doesn’t have enough religion built into it:

He claimed that “62 percent of kids who go into college with a faith commitment leave without it,” but declined to cite a source for the figure. And he floated the idea of requiring that universities that receive public funds have “intellectual diversity” on campus.

So, according to him, kids go into these colleges but many come out less religious than before—so his presumption is that they’re being brainwashed.

It’s all about perspective, of course; Santorum comes from a fundamentalist strain which, in the light of day, makes some pretty ridiculous assumptions about reality based on ancient interpretations of texts not written to be employed in that manner.

So, perhaps, if you teach your kid that the entire universe is 6,000 years old, and then your kid goes to college and learns math, astronomy, and history—and then the kid comes home with the crazy idea that maybe the universe is older than he was originally taught… I suppose you might think your kid has been brainwashed, indoctrinated into some alien belief system.

Of course, from another perspective, one could possibly come away with the conclusion that kids taught about Jesus riding dinosaurs and that a child dying of diabetes is better served by prayers than insulin—that they might be kind of brainwashed to start with, and a college education might be a cure, not an indoctrination.

But that would be disrespectful of religious belief, and we cannot do that—no matter how bizarre, harmful, or clearly ridiculous that belief may be. We cannot allow children to be exposed to any ideas contrary to religious doctrine, because that would encourage intellectual diversity, which would—um, wait a minute. Did I just read above that Santorum wants “intellectual diversity”? Doesn’t that mean that you would welcome your kids being exposed to different ideas?

Of course, “intellectual diversity” is not meant to be taken literally; it’s a new code word, meaning “religious instruction,” just as Intelligent Design proponents started using the term “academic freedom” as a means of injecting Creationism into science classes.

So, Santorum is saying there is a deliberate “liberal indoctrination”—which is mostly just imagined or fabricated—and so he wants to create religious indoctrination to tip the scales. Just like conservatives fabricated the view that voter fraud is rampant and so, to protect us from this imagined threat, they instituted legislation which, quite coincidentally just happened to suppress the liberal vote.

Long story short: they don’t want your kids to be educated, they want them to be uninformed, gullible, churchgoing manual laborers. Non-union, of course.

Teaching the Controversy

April 11th, 2011 2 comments

First, creationists wanted creationism to be taught in science classes. When that failed, they re-styled their product as “Intelligent Design.” When that didn’t work, they evolved the strategy into “academic freedom.”

Their current tactic? “Teach the Controversy.” A new Tennessee proposal (PDF) that passed the state House:

(a) The general assembly finds that:

(1) An important purpose of science education is to inform students about scientific evidence and to help students develop critical thinking skills necessary to becoming intelligent, productive, and scientifically informed citizens;

(2) The teaching of some scientific subjects, including, but not limited to, biological evolution, the chemical origins of life, global warming, and human cloning, can cause controversy; and

(3) Some teachers may be unsure of the expectations concerning how they should present information on such subjects.

(b) The state board of education, public elementary and secondary school governing authorities, directors of schools, school system administrators, and public elementary and secondary school principals and administrators shall endeavor to create an environment within public elementary and secondary schools that encourages students to explore scientific questions, learn about scientific evidence, develop critical thinking skills, and respond appropriately and respectfully to differences of opinion about controversial issues.

(c) The state board of education, public elementary and secondary school governing authorities, directors of schools, school system administrators, and public elementary and secondary school principals and administrators shall endeavor to assist teachers to find effective ways to present the science curriculum as it addresses scientific controversies. Toward this end, teachers shall be permitted to help students understand, analyze, critique, and review in an objective manner the scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of existing scientific theories covered in the course being taught.

(d) Neither the state board of education, nor any public elementary or secondary school governing authority, director of schools, school system administrator, or any public elementary or secondary school principal or administrator shall prohibit any teacher in a public school system of this state from helping students understand, analyze, critique, and review in an objective manner the scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of existing scientific theories covered in the course being taught.

(e) This section only protects the teaching of scientific information, and shall not be construed to promote any religious or non-religious doctrine, promote discrimination for or against a particular set of religious beliefs or non-beliefs, or promote discrimination for or against religion or non-religion.

The language is actually quite clever; it goes to great lengths to emphasize “objectivity,” “critical thinking,” “explore,” “evidence,” “scientific theories”–making it sound like this is all about science and that there will be no funny business.

When you read the text carefully, however, it opens the door for creationism to be taught. Parts (b) and (c) effectively say that teachers can teach the controversies and administrators must assist them–that’s the door opening. Part (d) forbids administrators to prohibit teachers “helping” students to see the issues. This element is critical–it means that if a teacher, for example, were to introduce the subject in a way that greatly favored the creationist view, administrators would not be allowed to interfere. Note the language concerning “scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of existing scientific theories covered”; that’s code for allowing in creationist arguments that evolution is flawed.

Interestingly, it’s that last paragraph which is the real giveaway; while appearing, at first cursory glance, to be an assurance that this will not be used to promote religion, it is in fact the key to legitimizing religious doctrine as science. While it may be intended to smooth the law’s way when challenged in the courts, this part is really the slickest pro-creationist part of the bill. Some of it’s language is actually pretty bold; first, it classes religion right together with non-religion, placing them on an equal basis–meaning that religion gets equal play with secularism. Which, of course, is contradictory.

This comes from the view from a religious standpoint that secularism and atheism, seen from the distance of faith, are one and the same–that allowing no religion in a science class means that atheism is being favored. This is not true, of course–saying there is no god is just as non-scientific as saying there is one. But since fundamentalist religion in America today holds that what we observe and measure contradicts religious “truth,” reporting objective observations is, for them, tantamount to denying god, and so is atheist in nature.

Given the actual, true nature of secular science, placing secularism and religion on equal footing in a science class is just as bad as placing secularism and atheism on equal footing. Neither is secular; secular means that religious views, for or against, are simply not germane. This bill tears down that point, making science classes a referendum on religion versus atheism.

Note that the language also forbids promoting “discrimination for or against” either “a particular set of religious beliefs or non-beliefs” or “religion or non-religion.” When you recall that “discrimination” against religious beliefs is equal to not teaching creationism in the classroom, you can see the true purpose is to include religious doctrine where none was allowed before. Keep in mind that these people believe it is discriminating against religion when children are taught that the universe is billion of years old without the Young Earth Creationist view being given equal or greater billing. The “for or against” is also key–it again places religion on an equal basis with “non-religion.” “Non-religion” is, remember, what we usually refer to as “science.”

In case you think this may be the wrong way of looking at the bill, remember that this state legislature is not precisely averse to trying to get religion in the public schools any way they can. Amusingly, one of those legislators said this in reflection on the recent bill:

Rep. Frank Niceley, R-Strawberry Plains, quoted Albert Einstein as saying: “A little knowledge would turn your head to atheism, while a broader knowledge would turn your head to Christianity.”

Of course, Einstein, a non-observant Jew who said that he believed in Spinoza’s God, never said that. Nevertheless, it kind of tips this lawmaker’s hand as to his intent in passing the bill.

Anti-science rhetoric typical of creationists was also abundant from Republicans, and was just as ludicrous. Rep. Sheila Butt, R-Columbia, for example, makes this error-studded statement on why science cannot be trusted:

I remember so many of us, when we were seniors in high school, we gave up Aquanet hairspray. Do you remember why we did that? Because it was causing global warming. That that aerosol in those cans was causing global warming.
Since then scientists have said that maybe we shouldn’t have given up that aerosol can, because that aerosol was actually absorbing the earth’s rays, and was keeping us from global warming.

Umm, no. This woman appears to be going on a factoid she must have heard that aerosols help reflect solar radiation (not “the earth’s rays”). However, it was not the aerosols that were bad, it was the CFC’s in the aerosols, and they were not said to be contributing to global warming, but that they were depleting the ozone layer. Not to mention that we never gave up aerosols (you can still buy all manner of things in aerosol spray cans, as this woman seems to have overlooked), we only gave up the CFC’s in aerosols. And clearly, aerosols did not stop global warming trends. Scientists were not wrong on this; this woman, on the other hand, sounds like an idiot. And again, it reveals a clear anti-science agenda.

These are the people who wish to lecture us on and legislate “critical thinking” in science classes.

When looked at objectively, this bill is just as bad as all the other ones passed in recent years to get creationism back into the public schools. What is happening is that we’re getting the same old creationist proposals dressed up more and more deceptively, the authors hoping each time that the courts will have been sufficiently stacked with religious conservatives to allow for one of these to be approved.

Categories: Education, Religion, Science Tags:

Why the Academic FOIA Requests Should Be Denied

March 30th, 2011 2 comments

Not long ago, the Republican Party of Wisconsin demanded to see the emails of Professor William Cronon at the University of Wisconsin Madison, just a few days after Cronon wrote a blog post critical of the Republican governor of that state. Instead of being shamed by the blatant attempt to intimidate a scholar for exercising his freedom of speech, conservatives upped the ante and now a Michigan think tank is demanding email files on a number of other professors in that state.

They claim that the requests are legitimate because the professors, technically, are state workers and thus their files open to public review. They claim that it is not an act of intimidation because they are only looking for emails containing certain keywords. They even claim that it is the protests against their demands that are “chilling,” rather than the demands themselves.

Frankly, their claims are all self-serving and baseless. The requests should be denied out of hand for several reasons.

The first reason is academic freedom. Academics are often targeted by political figures and organizations, their jobs threatened for doing nothing more than speaking out. This is the key purpose of tenure, a hot-button issue in exactly this political debate–not as a cushy, union-based job security perk, but to protect academics from being punished for holding certain points of view that diverge from prevailing opinions, particularly those held in political circles. There is a long history of academics being punished, particularly in the form of career derailment, for the opinions they hold or the ideas they express, either publicly or in the classroom. The demands by political parties for private email records by educators regarding political matters is itself the best example why tenure should be protected and those making the demands should be censured.

The next reason is motives. Even if the request were made by a truly interested party for valid reasons, an open release of such academic records would still be questionable, with the matter instead best handled privately. For example, if an aggrieved parent of a student claimed that a professor was unjustly penalizing that student, that would at least qualify as a legitimate basis for a grievance which could, ultimately, lead to a limited private review of the email files of a professor. In the Wisconsin and Michigan cases, however, neither the parties asking for the information nor the purpose of their requests are legitimate to the context of the demand. The people demanding to see the professors’ emails are political entities, not parties with any legitimate interest in academic records, and the requests come immediately after the academics in question made public statements on issues that are politically sensitive–exactly the kind of situation where academic freedom is considered most relevant. The political entities’ claim that the keyword restrictions of the demands legitimize them instead prove the reverse; the keywords requested in the Michigan case, for example, are “Scott Walker,” “Wisconsin,” “Madison,” and “Maddow”–terms which reveal a blatantly political motive.

Furthermore, such records requests are supposedly intended to uncover malfeasance, but there is no–none, zero–indication that anything inappropriate was ever done by any of these professors, and the political nature of the keywords only serve to prove that the parties demanding the information are fishing for anything that could be used to discredit and otherwise harm the reputation of the professors regarding any political statements they made.

Finally, there is the issue of privacy. Not the privacy of academics making public statements, not even the privacy involved in the pursuit of academic freedom. But the privacy of students who expect full confidentiality regarding their academic work. The accounts in question are exactly those that would be used by the professors to communicate with students about the students’ work. The Michigan case, for example, involves all faculty members in the Labor Studies departments at Michigan State University, the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, and Wayne State University. Considering the keywords and the courses taught in the Labor Studies department, there is little doubt that the emails produced by such a search would include a great deal of correspondence with students over their essays, course work, grades, and even possibly could include material covering disciplinary actions (e.g., plagiarism claims) which are highly confidential and should, by no means whatsoever, be made public in any form.

In short, the demands made by these conservative groups are politically corrupt in their very nature, violate various ethical standards, and should not even be considered, much less granted.

The problem, of course, is that more and more, the conservatives talking points are being successfully sold as the New Truth. The very terms relevant to this issue have been twisted and turned to serve political ambitions and agendas. “Academic freedom,” in conservative circles, is nothing more than an end-run around constitutional prohibitions against teaching religious doctrine in the public classroom; they certainly will not respect the actual meaning or spirit of the term. Tenure, to them, is a cudgel that can be used to attack unions; it has already been at least partially redefined by the right wing to represent shiftless, incompetent, overpaid union-protected educators.

Worse, we now have a political climate in which conservatives feel comfortable doing pretty much whatever they feel like. Right-wingers are shamelessly and transparently lying about a variety of issues to make outright political attacks. Hidden-camera videos are heavily edited to mislead so as to take down organizations seen as liberal. False claims of voter fraud are fabricated so as to pass laws which would impede the ability of liberals to vote. Budget shortfalls are disingenuously said to be caused by overpaid teachers so that their unions, often supporters of Democratic causes, can be stripped of their power and influence. When a judge stops the law, Republicans simply ignore the judge–and the rule of law. Conservative officials advise “false flag operations” where faked assassination attempts can be blamed on political enemies. And college professors who dare speak their minds in public find themselves targets of political inquisitions.

We are not a fascist dictatorship. However, far too much of what goes on politically in our nation today bears far too great a resemblance to exactly that state. To which, the proper response would be shame; instead, conservatives simply blame those they seek to fraudulently vilify with the exact malfeasance they commit, with barely disguised smugness and contempt for propriety.

For them, fairness and honesty is for schmucks. They’re playing for keeps.

Because “News” Is All about Backing Your Side and Vilifying the Other Guys

March 6th, 2011 2 comments

This would be hilarious if it weren’t so depressingly normal. In the midst of his outrageous lie-spinning on the Wisconsin protests, Fox News “reporter” Mike Tobin claimed that someone in the crowd “punched” him in the arm. He knew that the Fox camera was being blocked and that what really happened was not broadcast on the air.

As it happened, protesters were filming also–and when the video was shown, it was pretty clear that a guy in a Santa hat simply tapped him on the shoulder. Though it could have been a pat. But a punch? Not even remotely close.

A little later, Fox host Megyn Kelly tried to play up the incident, one she did not witness, calling it an “assault.” When Tobin tried to walk it back a little, Kelly pressed even harder, insisting that it was, in fact, “battery.”

This is a tactic they have picked up: the side which has the violent thugs loses, so they do everything they can–use fake footage, exaggerate wildly, lie outright–to make people they don’t like seem violent.

Just for a little perspective, remember when the woman at the Rand Paul rally was grabbed, wrestled to the ground, and had her head stomped on by a Paul supporter? Did Fox call that an “assault”? Maybe “battery”?

Nope. It was a “scuffle.” A term they used repeatedly. “Assault” was only referred to in the context of legal charges, but the headlines were all about “scuffles.” Which sounds like something kids get into when they call each other names and maybe throw kid-punches at each other.

I wonder, if the Wisconsin protesters wrestled Mike Tobin to the ground and stomped on his head, do you think they would call that a “scuffle”? Considering that someone tapping his shoulder is “assault and battery,” somehow I don’t think so.

Similarly, Fox is pulling out all the stops in demonizing the Wisconsin protesters, repeatedly calling them “angry mobs.” However, when large crowds of bused-inTea Party protesters invaded town hall meetings in which Democratic representatives wished only to speak to their constituents and answer their questions, mobbing the events and angrily screaming as a means of shutting them down, did Fox call them “angry mobs”?

Of course not. They were “boisterous crowds” enacting “democracy in action.” Sometimes they were “rowdy” or even “antagonistic.” But an “angry mob”? Hell, no! Fox got upset when the term was used by Democrats. These were red-blooded American patriots, how dare you call them an “angry mob”!

But those teachers in Wisconsin? Very different story. These are scary people, folks. Lazy, greedy people who get off work at three in the afternoon and take the whole summer off. Yep, that’s actually what they’re saying, in their attempt to make school teachers sound evil and the cause of all our problems. You know who goes home at three in the afternoon and gets summers off? Students. Teachers, actually, stay much later than three o’clock, and when they do go home they have papers to grade and lessons to plan. And summers? Yeah, no teacher ever has summer duties. They all go to Florida and get drunk for three months at taxpayer expense. Yeah, that’s what they do.

Besides, those “angry mobs” in Wisconsin are all “professional protesters” who were “bused in” by mysterious, unnamed left-wing organizations. (Psst! It’s Jews like George Soros!) What makes them think this? Apparently, because some have signs that were well-drawn, even though not professionally printed, and otherwise, just the “sense” they get from the crowd. That’s the word from Bill O’Reilly and Mike Tobin, so it’s as good as gospel.

Watching them just makes one blanch at the feckless parody “news” reporting on the right has become, nothing but a sheer political BS brigade, just making crap up out of thin air. To make the protesters look violent, they took footage from a protest in California, complete with t-shirts and palm trees, and tried to pass it off as violence happening in Wisconsin.

What I found laughable was the fact that they made a big deal about protesters being “bused in”–not only are the protesters local, but when the whole thing kicked off, the ones doing the organized busing were the Tea Party activists–and I am pretty sure that Fox never dismissed them for busing people in, though that’s what they’re famous for.

When masses of Tea Partiers bused in from out of state were shoving and screaming and generally disrupting any attempt at Democratic politicians communicating with their legitimate constituents, they were patriots. When local teachers and workers try to hang on to their median incomes as the Republican governor attempts to send them to the poorhouse for purely partisan political reasons, they are frighteningly violent union thugs.

In other words, it’s all about the message. Because it’s certainly not about the facts.

iPads in the Classroom

February 6th, 2011 5 comments

Georgia is considering buying an iPad for every middle school student in the state. The deal with Apple would include setting up WiFi in all the schools, loading the textbooks onto the devices, and training the teachers. A test program at a private school worked well, and so they’re looking into it statewide now.

This really is what we need to be seeing. Tablets have been a long time in coming, and they really do have enormous potential. Many people I have spoken to in education are excited at the prospects. An iPad app, Inkling, is getting off to a slow start but now offers two textbooks we use at my college branch here in Tokyo. Whenever I demo the app to students, they are blown away. All of my textbooks on that little thing? I can highlight, take notes, share notes wirelessly, listen to audio and watch video? I can buy only the chapters I need? They love the idea.

The problem: publishers. Of course. They have a sweet deal with college textbooks, charging a steep premium and limiting used-book resale with constant edition updates, most of which are really not needed. Ironically, tablets could increase their profits even more–no more paper printing or shipping, no more unsold textbooks to deal with, no textbook resale at all, and they can probably sell with less taken out by the sellers than bookstores currently take. The problem is, they’re afraid to try something new, afraid that piracy will prevail and they’ll lose their sweet deal.

News flash, idiots: textbooks are already being pirated. And a lot of piracy takes place because publishers don’t make a good deal available as an alternative. If they don’t move to set the trend before the pirates (inevitably) will do, they’re going to pay the price. Hell, already in Japan, publishers are seeing businesses pop up–like this one, called BookScan–which scan books for people for as little as ¥100 ($1.20) a pop, maybe double that for an OCR’ed version.

I am pretty sure that if they opened the floodgates or flipped the switch or whatever, and got downloadable textbooks going full-speed, that a lot of students in my school would get an iPad right fast and start using that. hell, the ability to search text alone would be a big plus.

But no, instead we’re going to see the same crap we saw from the music industry, and now the movie and TV people. Like I said: idiots.

Categories: Education, iPad Tags:

Rewriting History, Literally

May 29th, 2010 3 comments

The conservative majority on the Texas state school board is pushing through a set of changes to History and Social Studies textbooks which present a view of these subjects more in line with politicized, right-wing thinking. The school board, made up of ten Republicans and five Democrats, is dominated by a conservative Christian bloc. None on the school board are experts in the field of History or Social Sciences, and have rejected the opinions given by those who are experts in those fields. The board is not interested in making changes across the board, but instead only in fields which have a political bearing. The changes reflect a definite bias toward conservative Christian biases. Therefore, it is blindingly clear that this is not a debate over balanced education, but rather the desire to dominate the education of children with political views rather than objective information.

Should you think this is exaggeration, then consider this board member as an example:

Board member Cynthia Dunbar, a graduate of Pat Robertson’s Regent University Law School and author of a book declaring that America’s founders created a theocratic government, opened the final board session with a prayer for “a Christian land governed by Christian principles.” She explained the ideology driving curriculum changes: “[N]o one can read the history of our country without realizing that the Good Book and the spirit of the Savior have from the beginning been our guiding geniuses. Whether we look to the first charter of Virginia, or the charter of New England … the same objective is present — a Christian land governed by Christian principles.”

Well, I’m glad the board members have no preconceived notions.

This will affect more than Texas: since so many textbooks are made for Texas’ large population, textbook publishers often apply these changes nationwide. This fact is not lost on the school board, the conservative members of which have obviously taken the cue from national conservative leaders and gone whole-hog with the now-popular out-and-out divisive wingnut strategy. That strategy is to claim a liberal bias which, if it exists, is mild, and “counter” it with such an outrageously one-sided bag of rabid right-wing polemics as to make one gag.

Among the proposed changes:

  • increased emphasis on the ideas of Confederacy President Jefferson Davis;
  • increased attention to Ronald Reagan and Newt Gingrich;
  • new entries on the NRA and Phyllis Schlafly, replacing removed entries on Kennedy and César Chávez;
  • requirements to study right-wing personalities such as Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity, but no requirements to study left-wing commentators;
  • critical analyses of “unintended consequences” of Title IX, affirmative action, and the Great Society;
  • change in terms used–e.g., “capitalism” changed to “free enterprise,” “imperialism” where applied to the U.S. will be called “expansionism,” and references to a “democratic” society are replaced with references to a “republic”–not because of the meaning of the words, but instead because of their connections to political parties;
  • slavery de-emphasized as a factor in the causes of the Civil War;
  • “slave trade” now referred to as the “triangle trade”;
  • insertion of critical analyses of Social Security and Medicare in the context of conservative critiques;
  • increased scrutiny of the idea of separation of church and state;
  • Thomas Jefferson’s role in U.S. history to be de-emphasized, while the roles of Christian personages such as John Calvin to be more prominent;
  • lessons framing the United Nations as detrimental to U.S. sovereignty;
  • watered-down coverage of the Civil Rights movement;
  • insertion of lessons regarding causes and key organizations of the conservative movement, including the Contract with America, the Heritage Foundation and the Moral Majority;
  • major political ideas examined under the paradigm of “Laws of nature and nature’s God”;
  • the image of Joe McCarthy will be cleaned up; and
  • where President Obama will be mentioned, he will be referred to, unlike all other modern presidents, by his full name–Barack Hussein Obama.

Well, these are hardly political at all, wouldn’t you agree?

All of this, of course, is supposedly to “remove the liberal bias” from existing education standards. In short, to counter what is claimed to be a perceived liberal bias, make the whole shebang blindingly conservative, knowing that the nation will tilt toward you.

Welcome to Fox Education.

The Internet As Literacy Tool

September 21st, 2009 2 comments

A lot of people decry the Internet’s effect on language, noting how lazy people are about grammar and spelling online, and how this seems to be spilling out into other areas beyond the Internet. However, they may just have that backwards: it could be that people are becoming more literate because of the Internet, and that the bad English you see might be the result of people writing regularly for the first time in their post-college lives:

“I think we’re in the midst of a literacy revolution the likes of which we haven’t seen since Greek civilization,” she says. For Lunsford, technology isn’t killing our ability to write. It’s reviving it—and pushing our literacy in bold new directions.

The first thing she found is that young people today write far more than any generation before them. That’s because so much socializing takes place online, and it almost always involves text. Of all the writing that the Stanford students did, a stunning 38 percent of it took place out of the classroom—life writing, as Lunsford calls it. Those Twitter updates and lists of 25 things about yourself add up.

It’s almost hard to remember how big a paradigm shift this is. Before the Internet came along, most Americans never wrote anything, ever, that wasn’t a school assignment. Unless they got a job that required producing text (like in law, advertising, or media), they’d leave school and virtually never construct a paragraph again.

But is this explosion of prose good, on a technical level? Yes. Lunsford’s team found that the students were remarkably adept at what rhetoricians call kairos—assessing their audience and adapting their tone and technique to best get their point across. The modern world of online writing, particularly in chat and on discussion threads, is conversational and public, which makes it closer to the Greek tradition of argument than the asynchronous letter and essay writing of 50 years ago.

I think they have an excellent point. As inane as Twitter can be, its 140-character limit forces one to be clear and concise–so much so that I have been toying with the idea of making students run sentences through Twitter before including them in essays. And several years ago, I wrote a blog post about how arguing on the Internet is a great (albeit painful) way to sharpen your argumentative skills. (That post is now included in a published college reader–almost ironic evidence to the point made here.) And I have always believed that the Internet is a subversive new media type that expands not just free speech, but the range of speech as well.

The point about audience and shaping one’s message is also important; this is something writing teachers try to impress on students, but have trouble because in school, the audience is usually just the teacher and no one else. It is hard to find a writing environment for students which is more varied than that.

There is no doubt that there is a lot of bad stuff on the Internet, bad influences on language and people’s use of it; but it may be that the overall effect is far more positive than anyone expected.

That Online Degree May Be Worth Something

September 18th, 2009 Comments off

When I was talking with my father about the online classes I am taking, he wondered how such coursework is considered in terms of reliability: after all, anybody could be taking these classes for you. Just as traditional correspondence courses may not be respected all that greatly because there are so many opportunities to cheat, so might online degrees be discounted.

But maybe not so fast–a new study suggests that online students may actually be more honest than their on-site counterparts. While the study is limited to counting people who admit to cheating rather than the actual cheating itself (as evidenced by there being more people who admit to helping others cheat than there are people who admit to cheating directly), the value is in the comparison of results between the two venues. Unless people taking classes on the ground have more motivation to admit to cheating than do online students, the results may be noteworthy.

Categories: Education Tags:


August 16th, 2009 1 comment

Just took my final exam for Intermediate Algebra last night. I don’t know the exact final score, but am pretty certain that I’ll be getting more than 500 of the 510 points the class tops out at, so, whew. I can honestly say it wasn’t achieved through remembering what I did last time–that was 20 or so years ago, and I literally forgot just about everything. This was a hard slog. Being (a) more mature and (b) a teacher helped a lot, as my study habits were somewhat improved, and I know much better what is important. As a student, you tend to just do what you’re told blindly, going through the motions of study because that’s what the teacher assigned, and then expect that you will magically know the material by the last page of the chapter. Instead, you have to focus on actually understanding the material, using the best techniques (proper note-taking, asking for help, etc.) for you to do so. If you finish a section and still don’t understand, then you can’t just go on–you have to re-orient and come at the material from a new angle. You can’t depend on the teacher as much as you do on yourself.

In any case, I can finally leave all that behind and spend the next two semesters in which I will take classes online focusing on actual computer stuff. Which is the whole reason why I’m taking courses again.

Unfortunately, the Intro to Programming course I was looking forward to has been taken off the roster for Fall, though it is offered through something called “BlendEd,” which is a regular on-site class where people can take portions of it–or all of it–online. I’m just concerned that I’ll be the only one doing it online, and effectively by myself. Hrm. There is another class I would take–Database Basics, which is not so terrible (I could use training in that), and it is online. We’ll see.

Now I can finish up the last business for my last semester of classes–the ones I teach, not the one I am taking as a student–and then get on to planning my classes (to teach) for the Fall.

Categories: Education Tags:

Geography 101, Fox “News” Style

July 30th, 2009 5 comments

Can you spot what’s wrong with this Fox News map of the Middle East?


This from the broadcast corporation whose entertainment division runs a show called “Are You Smarter than a Fifth Grader?” Who knew that the consolation prize was a job in their graphics department?

Categories: Education, Republican Stupidity Tags:

Back to School

June 25th, 2009 Comments off

This semester, I am taking Intermediate Algebra. True, I passed it about 20 years ago–I think I got a “B” in the class–but I remembered nothing at all from the class so long ago. Nowadays, I am a teacher at a college myself; I teach a survey course in Computers along with a few Writing courses here at our branch campus in Japan. But I want to extend my computer science credentials, and learn programming.

Now, for a long time, we were kind of cut off from the home campus in some ways, but in the past few years a lot more connections have been made. Recently, they made us part of the program where we can take courses with no tuition–a courtesy extended to full-time faculty. Being in Japan, the commute is a bit tough, but the college has an extensive range of online classes. So this semester, I decided to take Intermediate Algebra. Technically, I probably didn’t have to; my passing grade from years back might have sufficed. But it’s a pre-requisite for the programming courses, and I wanted to actually know the stuff I’ll be needing. So here I am.

This is the first time I have ever taken an online course; it’s not too bad. The main activity at home is to read through the text and try to understand; the main online activity is to take part in the discussion group, like a forum or bulletin board, but limited to class members discussing problems. We have to post at least three messages a week: one question, one answer, and one other post which could be either.

And, we just had our first test. The score just came back–100%. Woo hoo! Since my participation grade is also 100% so far, it’s going swimmingly.

As for the subject matter, I have always had a Math phobia. Strangely, I am not bad at all with numbers–I just get nervous around anything more than basic math. And I honestly cannot say that “it’s all coming back to me”; I don’t remember any of this from when I took it before. But I’m getting it.

It helps to have been a teacher: I know what makes for a good student. One important point is to not just read the text carefully, but to take careful notes on your reading. It’s too easy to read without really understanding, but if you summarize what you’re reading, you are forced to comprehend what you summarize, not to mention that it helps you to memorize things as well.

The same goes for discussion: when others have problems, jump in and try to help. I have found through experience that the best way to learn something is to teach it. I learned this as a college student, when I joined study groups where all the other members were non-native speakers, so I was constantly explaining to others; the lesson was reinforced as a teacher, where I found myself picking up new subjects required by my teaching much faster than I would have as a student. The basic idea is that if you explain something to others, it forces you to organize the facts and simplify things. If you don’t understand it yourself, you can’t teach it, and so you really have no choice but to get it straight and then spell it out.

There is, perhaps, another reason to do well: it would be kind of embarrassing to not do well in a class as a student while I am also teaching students in a class of my own. So I’ve gotta keep things up–midterms coming up….

Categories: Education Tags:

Sotomayor and “Proper English”

June 23rd, 2009 1 comment

The right wing, especially people like Pat Buchanan, have been attacking Sonia Sotomayor in many ways, one in particular by suggesting that Sotomayor got her academic credentials via Affirmative Action when she did not in fact deserve them. Buchanan recently said this at a conference to rebuild conservative political power:

Judge Sotomayor is up there at school in New York, she gets a scholarship to Princeton, she’s graduated with all these big honors and awards they said she never won. What’s she doing there in the summer? They said her adviser told her to read children’s classics so she can learn English better. How do you graduate number one in Princeton if you’re in the summer and you’re reading Rumpelstiltskin and Snow White? [laughter]

In other attacks, Buchanan added the idea that Sotomayor had to study “basic grammar” as well. More has been said on the topic, of course, but that’s the essence: Sotomayor’s English was so poor that she had to read children’s books in order to get up to speed. How could her English be so bad and yet she’s graduating summa cum laude at Princeton? Must be Affirmative Action, Buchanan concludes. More evidence of the liberals supporting minorities by helping them get undeserved credentials just because of race.

Naturally, that’s not the reality. Here’s the snippet from the New York Times article upon which Buchanan and the others base their argument:

She spent summers reading children’s classics she had missed in a Spanish-speaking home and “re-teaching” herself to write “proper English” by reading elementary grammar books. Only with the outside help of a professor who served as her mentor did she catch up academically, ultimately graduating at the top of her class.

Is this true? Well, in Sotomayor’s own words:

“First I found that my vocabulary and writing skills were poor and I didn’t know anything about the classics. … So during my college summers, I retaught myself basic grammar, learned 10 new words a day and set up a program of reading all the books I had missed.”

A ha! Buchanan was right! Sotomayor was illiterate! Hmm, let’s see.

Sotomayor was born and raised in the Bronx, but during her formative language years (age 0-6) she was in primarily a Spanish-language environment; she only became “fluent” in English after her father’s death. But still, she grew up in the U.S., went to schools where English was the language of instruction. Here’s WikiPedia’s summary of her early education:

For grammar school, Sotomayor attended the parochial Blessed Sacrament School in Soundview, where she was valedictorian and had a near-perfect attendance record. Sotomayor passed the entrance tests for, then commuted to, the academically rigorous parochial Cardinal Spellman High School in the Bronx. … At Cardinal Spellman, Sotomayor was on the forensics team and was elected to the student government. She graduated as valedictorian in 1972.

What can we glean from this? Obviously, she was no academic slouch. Her language skills were also probably not so bad; you don’t get through all that without the ability to speak English fairly well.

So, how do we reconcile Sotomayor’s statements about poor language skills and re-learning basic grammar? The answer is easy: it’s all relative. When she entered Princeton, she found that she could no longer get away with small errors in grammar or less-than-perfect choices in vocabulary. When she says “poor vocabulary and writing skills,” she means “poor vocabulary and writing skills by the standards of Princeton academic requirements.” That’s a pretty significant distinction.

What Sotomayor referred to was not that she was unable to string together sentences like “see Dick and Jane run with Spot,” but that she sometimes made subtle errors in grammar and word choice which in normal language are excused, but which in demanding academic prose can cause some difficulty. Her reading of childhood classics was likely more to learn the flow and cadence of words; her vocabulary building to learn greater variety, not the basics; all of this to recognize and use the subtle distinctions rather than the gross ones. She described (pdf) her English not as simplistic, but rather as “stilted and overly complicated,” and was sorting out the subtle differences between terms such as “authority of dictatorship” and “dictatorial authority.” Hardly Dick-and-Jane-level stuff.

A lot of the left-wing criticism of Buchanan and others tends to focus on which books Sotomayor read–she read Huckleberry Finn, not Snow White, they point out–but miss the whole fact that the “re-learning basic grammar” was not about how her language was poor or admission standards lax, but instead was about how strenuous and demanding her new learning environment was. Sotomayor’s story was not one of remedial education, but of an incredibly difficult and top-notch college program in which Sotomayor excelled so much that she graduated at the top of her class.

Some conservatives might still try to attack Sotomayor for her language problems–even if she wasn’t learning how to write “See Dick and Jane” level material, she still made mistakes, right? How do you get to call yourself literate and yet still make errors that don’t even stand up to those pansy-ass liberal-elite college standards?

Well, it turns out that even the English-only crowds sometimes make an error here and there. Here’s Pat Buchanan standing under a banner at his organization’s conference:

Amer Cause Conf

Note the spelling of “conference” in the banner. And keep in mind that these folks are taking jabs at Sotomayor’s English and going on about how the U.S. should shun Spanish and maintain English as the official language.

I think some tolerance for a certain level or error-making is in order here, don’t you?

Science, School Boards, and Texas

March 31st, 2009 1 comment

Recently, the Texas State Board of Education voted on new state standards for science education. This would not be a big deal except that this is one of the arenas where creationists are trying to get their religious dogma implanted as “science” in the classroom. While the board rejected language which would have required science teachers to discuss “strengths and weaknesses” of scientific theories–the latest code-wordplay creationists are using in their campaign to dismiss evolution and give credence to creationism–they did approve some of the creationist language.

One example was a requirement to “analyze, evaluate, and critique scientific explanations” based in part on “examining all sides of scientific evidence of those scientific experiments.” Again, sounds reasonable, but this language is not intended to actually analyze scientific findings honestly, but is instead language to open the door for creationists to allow their science teacher brethren to introduce faulty creationist critiques of standard scientific theories, or to force non-creationist teachers to cover such topics against their will. It is not surprising that, just coincidentally, topics that were at the forefront of this “analysis” were evolution and the age of the universe–the two areas most important to creationists.

One reason all of this has been happening in Texas is that the board’s chairman, Don McLeroy, is an unabashed creationist who can’t understand why those darned scientists are fighting all of this. “Somebody has to stand up to these experts,” he stated on a video; “I don’t know why they’re doing it.”

One of the issues McLeroy wants discussed is the “complexity of the cell,” a standard creationist argument against evolution. In barely veiled language, new standards bring up the idea that cells are too complex to have evolved by mere natural selection. The problem with this is that there has never been any scientific research which supports this idea. There is no evidence that in any way proves that natural selection is too “unlikely” to have built DNA and life itself. It is nothing more than intuition, a feeling–creationists look at the structure of a cell and simply conclude that it’s too complex to have arisen naturally. No statistical analysis of chemical reactions, no calculation of the mass of organic material over time considering certain chemical reactions, etc. Just, “that doesn’t look right,” and presto!–it’s science.

McLeroy also tipped his hand when he made a statement about why he felt genetics trumped evolution: “Genetics goes back to a Christian monk who did precise data.” This should not be too surprising to those who understand the views of some of the more extremist conservative Christians, who believe that nothing is of value unless Jesus figures into it somehow. To paraphrase the Mike Myers SNL sketch, “If it’s not Christian, it’s crap!” Like this “expert” on morality, two completely indistinguishable acts can be as different as saintly good and Hitler-level evil depending only upon whether or not they were done by someone with Christ in their hearts.

Then there was discussion on “sudden appearance” of new species in the fossil record, another standard creationist argument which essentially says, “if we haven’t found it yet, it doesn’t exist.” It is equivalent to waking up and looking outside to see the ground is wet, but because you didn’t witness the rain last night, then that calls into question the whole “rain” theory and so we should instead give serious consideration to the theory that god magically makes the ground wet overnight without precipitation.

This is one of the major problems with school boards: they are a political organization that can be populated with, well, anyone who can win a school board election. If you’re a conservative and see no problem with that, remember that Michael Moore’s first serious job was on a school board–to which he was elected at age 18. School boards can be populated and run by people who are not only not educators, but wish to use the education system to promote their personal, political and religious agendas. You hear talk about how you don’t want politicians to make decisions about your health care, but apparently with education, there’s no problem.

Seriously, school boards should be done away with, and serious educators–with the required qualifications you would expect in any profession–given the authority to decide curricula. The whole creationists-running-school-boards thing, from Dover to Kansas to Texas and beyond, is simply a running example of why this should be.

Categories: Education, Religion Tags:

A Person Should Let Their Language Live

October 12th, 2008 6 comments

An etymologist criticizes the use of the third person plural as an indefinite singular pronoun.

I’ve always been of the opinion that while rules are a necessary part of language, it is speakers who drive the rules, and not the other way around. Many who speak dialects which are associated with low education may be remonstrated by their teachers at school for speaking “ungrammatically” or using “wrong” language. The thing is, if the language a person speaks follows a set of rules, then there’s nothing wrong with it. “Ain’t,” for example, is perfectly appropriate so long as it is used consistently according to linguistic rules recognized by the group of people who use it. The double-negative is not intrinsically incorrect–it used to be acceptable in mainstream English, in fact–it just happens to be out of vogue.

Language changes. New structures are introduced and played with, sometimes at the fringe of society, and sometimes driven from its core. But it is people who decide what makes sense to them, what feels right, what they prefer to use. Complaining that the new structure does not follow what we have decided previously is not good enough.

Language is not grammatically or otherwise “correct” because it resembles language spoken in the past, it is “correct” because the majority of speakers agree on a rule and apply it consistently. That’s why I have less objection to the “new-cue-ler” pronunciation for “nuclear”–so many people use that pronunciation that it is now becoming part of the living language.

I use “they” or “their” regularly to refer to the indefinite singular chiefly because it makes sense to me, and sounds better. The context makes clear that I am speaking of a single person, so there is no danger of being misunderstood, and it neatly corrects an imbalance in the language which, for all of the whining about “political correctness,” nevertheless is much more accurate and far less grating gender-wise than the traditional form.

But the truth is, you don’t need these reasons to change the language; changes can be made on whim, and need neither rationale nor even internal consistency–as seems evident from much of the language now deemed “correct.”

You can rail against the use of new structures because you don’t like them, but you cannot say that they do not belong in a language because they don’t follow past example, or because you don’t like the logic or lack of same that the new structures represent. If people use them, that’s all that’s necessary.

Categories: Education Tags:

Lakeland Lectures: Tokkou

June 21st, 2008 4 comments

If you live in the Tokyo area or will be around next month–specifically July 23rd–then drop by my school, Lakeland College Japan, for a special event. We’ve started a lecture series at the college, and after two successes, we’re gearing up for a third which should be special. Mr. Tadamasa Iwai, 88, a former Tokkou-tai officer, will be speaking. The Tokkou were Japan’s suicide bombers during World War II.

Most Americans–and Japanese, for that matter–only know about kamikaze pilots, but there were more than just that kind of suicide soldier. The Japanese navy used suicide bombers in various ways. One was to use a mini-submersible, packed with high explosives, with a human being acting like a living guidance system in what was essentially a large, manned torpedo. Another was to outfit a diver with a pack full of explosives, place him underwater for hours on end, and when an enemy ship sailed past, have him explode himself against the ship’s hull. Illustrations of each:



Mr. Iwai and his younger brother were both swept up in the wartime fervor of the time, and in that fervor compromised their personal principles and ideals, and became officers in the Tokkou-tai. There, they help persuade other young men to join, compromising their own principles, and leading many to their deaths. After the war, both came to seriously regret their actions.

But what affected them more than one might have superficially thought was 9/11, watching those planes fly into the Twin Towers. One can only imagine how the Iwai brothers felt to see not only the action taken by those pilots, so dramatically public, so similar to those they themselves advocated more than half a century earlier–but just as destructive, the public reaction after the attacks, leading to a fearful and patriotic fervor so much like the one they were drawn into so many years before.

Additionally, the two were angered by the efforts of many Japanese right-wingers who romanticized the roles of Tokkou soldiers, using them as icons to encourage new generations of young Japanese to surrender their own personal principles and become weapons for the state. One manga artist named Yoshinori Kobayashi, for example, has created comics using images of the kamikaze as a way of today promoting “an altruistic spirit of selflessness” among Japanese youth, the kind that led to so much tragedy in wartime Japan.

In 2002, they published a book called “Tokkou,” subtitled (my rough translation) “The Story of Brothers Who Went from Students to Suicide Weapons.” Their primary mission is to speak to as many young people as will listen, and tell them the truth about what things were like, about what was done, and what it meant on a human level. To warn them not to allow themselves to be drawn into the same mistakes.

Frankly, this is a message that all too many Americans should hear. Not that we’re training suicide bombers–but that we are, instead, training our young men to become things just as bad, or worse, for the same reasons. One thought of what has happened at Guantanamo or at Abu Ghraib should be enough to drive that point home. Americans so driven by fear, so intimidated by the national fervor in a time of war, that we believe that almost anything is acceptable–from disassembling our Constitutional rights, to renouncing the Geneva Conventions, repealing Habeas Corpus, starting wars based on thin tissues of lies, and even torturing and killing people under the official banner of national security. Making the same mistakes all over again, allowing our own ideals, principles, and good judgment be compromised in the name of patriotism, security, and war.

So, if you’re in central Tokyo–that’s 7:00 pm, Wednesday, July 23, in the Shinjuku area–mark it down on your calendar. Here’s a link to the PDF file we have for the event, which includes a map to the lecture’s venue. The same information will be available on the lecture series’ web site as well (it hasn’t been updated yet). You should plan on coming 15 to 20 minutes early–I expect it’ll be SRO, so you’ll want to get there in time to grab a seat.

This is an event you won’t want to miss.

Categories: Education, Focus on Japan 2008 Tags: