One sentence can pull you out of an entirely fine essay

By Godot13 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

I actually agree with most of what Fareed Zakaria writes in his Washington Post op-ed “Why America’s Obsession with STEM Education is Dangerous“.  We need balanced, robust, well-rounded education, not narrow business-driven training.  It will take many different vantages points to see solutions to the problems we face in this hardest century of human history.  Students of mine often express shock (and perhaps a little betrayal) when they complain about, say, their history teacher and ask me “Don’t you think it’s just a waste of time?” only for me to reply that it is one of my favorite subjects.  As a physics guy, I obviously think we need more and better science teaching, but I also think we need more and better teaching in the humanities and the arts.

Having said that… boy, does this one sentence put me in a slow burn:

No matter how strong your math and science skills are, you still need to know how to learn, think and even write.

It angers me that Farakaria, with a vast platform, falls into the stereotypical thinking that these skills — learning, writing, thinking — are somehow not part of the math/science pool.  In actuality, of course, scientists, engineers, and coders practice those skills constantly.  While there are surely scientists who cannot write, there are English majors with the same problem.  STEM thinking isn’t the only kind of thinking we need, but it is thinking.  It is both disingenuous and insulting for him to imply otherwise.

I know it’s a small piece of a larger argument, but it still rankled me.

What explains the waning influence of research blaming black poverty on black culture

Vox has an article purporting to explore “The real reason research blaming black poverty on black culture has fallen out of favor”.  And it’s fine so far as it goes, but it still dances around the reality.

Why has “blaming black poverty on black culture has fallen out of favor”? Because the same dire straits and dead-end traits show up among the non-college-educated White population: increased parental absenteeism, increased substance abuse, socioeconomic lock. Since it would obviously be crazy to deduce that these problems are intrinsic to White culture, it’s no longer fashionable to assign a genetic driver to them. In reality of course, the actual lesson is: Take away good-paying jobs and educational opportunity, and — shocker! — families and communities feel stressed, leading to more disorder.

http://www.vox.com/2015/3/26/8253495/moynihan-report-liberal-backlash

College Admissions Hunger Games

Today the NY Times published an Upshot op-ed called “For Accomplished Students, Reaching a Good College Isn’t as Hard as It Seems“.  It’s one of those article that seems to say more than it does.  It doesn’t actually support the conclusion it asserts.  Saying that roughly the same percentage of “top students” still get admission to elite schools is almost self-evidently circular, and does nothing to dispute the notion that “college admissions has become a Hunger Games-like tournament”.  In the Hunger Games, the same number of winners happened each year — but the competition wasn’t always the same.  And what constitutes a “top student” could (and does!) vary from year to year without creating more of them.

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Review: Doctor Who Season 8 Episode 7: “Kill the Moon”

Ugh.  This hasn’t been a great season, and this is far from the best.

Let’s begin with the very-overused flash forward.  It’s getting kind of old.  Used well, it can be very effective.  But Doctor Who isn’t using it very well.  They’ve used it as a cheap dramatic tool.  Actually the episode was full of cheap dramatic tools: The arbitrary countdown timer; the introduction of two characters whose sole purpose — almost literally — was to die to ratchet up the tension.

Perhaps the most telling flaw was the absolutely shameless theft of the idea behind Jack Williamson’s “Born of the Sun”, namely, that the solar system bodies were really eggs waiting to hatch.  That was awkward in the golden age of pulp, and here it’s just recycled pulp — and not even done as well!  The biology is ludicrous and the conclusion laughable.  And though I know Doctor Who is not hard sci-fi, I nearly choked on the idea that the egg was just gaining mass.  First of all, 1.5 billion tons would not be nearly enough to generate Earth-like gravity, much less world-ending tides.  Second, of course, an egg starts off with its full mass, which is merely converted by the embryo into, well, more embryo.  It doesn’t magically spawn new mass.  The not-quite-spiders are just icing on the screwed-up biology cake, of course, and hardly worth mentioning, since their only role was to pose a false threat and kill the hapless Mexican miners and the two men of the expedition.

Clara is faced with a terrible choice and attempts to punt.   (Turn off the lights?  Really? What about the half of the planet in daylight?  Who’s going to turn off the lights — individuals?  Electric companies? Governments?  How will it be waited, by population or by lumens?  Luckily, of course, every single human on Earth votes to kill the creature, so at least there’s no awkward need for balancing ayes and nays.)  She decides to kill it, then decides not to — and is then mad at the Doctor for making her decide.

“It was cheap, it was pathetic ; it was patronising.”  Here, at last, I can find something about Clara Oswald with which I agree.  Oh, wait, she wasn’t talking about herself.  I think her anger is incoherent and forced.  I think she sounds like a spoiled child who, as the Doctor says, hasn’t even taken the training wheels off yet.  The emotion of her fight doesn’t ring true to me, and I share the Doctor’s befuddlement if only in trying to understand why I should care that she’s upset.

Up until now, Clara has been meh.  Now she’s small.  The Christmas special really can’t get here soon enough.

Review: Doctor Who Season 8 Episode 1 “Deep Breath”

I finally got around to watching Season 8 Episode 1 (“Deep Breath”) of the revived Doctor Who.   It’s the first one with Peter Capaldi as the Doctor.  (What do we call him, anyway?  Is he the 12th Doctor, even though we know that Matt Smith‘s 11 was really the twelfth?)  So it’s probably worth a few words.

Warning: This will be rife with spoilers for which there will be no further apology.

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What is a library?

I am far from the first to ask this question in an increasingly-electronic age, and I am sure that my answer will be far from unique.  But my wife and I have batted the question around a couple of times and I wanted to get my thoughts down.  The proximate cause of our discussion was an meditation on the large space allocated to the library in the school where I teach, the dusty and ill-utilized books moldering there, and the concern that the library might come to be seen as “wasted” space.  The thought of a college-prep school without a library seems equal parts worrisome and absurd, yet it’s hard to argue in favor of the proposition that the stacks continue to serve their traditional vital role in education.  Can the library be saved when books have fallen out of favor?

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The persistence of “factory”-style schools

Frederick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute asksWhy Do ‘Anti-Corporatists’ Defend Factory-Style Leadership?”  There’s a lot in there I’d like to respond to; here’s my first swing at it.

It’s easy to blame hidebound educators for educational malaise, and some of the blame lands justly. But you cannot begin to understand the problem until you realize how strenuously parents resist any change that means their kids aren’t learning it the way they did. If education “looks different”, it is distrusted and undervalued. (Witness the growing backlash over Common Core.)

Continue reading The persistence of “factory”-style schools

Pat Buchanan is an idiot

Sorry for being so obvious.  But I’ve read his latest ill-informed anti-immigrant screed and couldn’t stay quiet.

Buchanan’s thesis is that we were once a unified country but now since 1960, we’ve been in decline.  First off, it’s a little suspicious that the magic time was exactly when Pat Buchanan (born in 1938) had just reached majority age.  Nearly everyone looks back on their twenties as the halcyon days.  It’s the moment you first achieve independence from your parents, when you come into your own agency, and when you (most likely) start paying attention to the world around you as if you were a part of you.  That is, how the world is becomes your frame of reference for how the world should be.  But really that’s just the drug of nostalgia, and it’s no different than Homer Simpson declaring that “rock attained perfection in 1974 — it’s a scientific fact”

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Buchanan then pivots to alerting us to the existential threat to America poised by unaccompanied children fleeing violence.  He of course invokes sainted Ronald Reagan of blessed memory: “For, as Ronald Reagan said, a nation that cannot control its borders isn’t really a nation anymore.”  I’m not exactly sure how he squares that with the open borders of the Roman Empire, or the British one, or indeed, most of US history.  But whatever.

Buchanan also invokes the Federalist papers and John Jay’s comment that “Providence has been pleased to give this one connected country to one united people – a people descended from the same ancestors, speaking the same language, professing the same religion, attached to the same principles of government, very similar in their manners and customs. … ”  This might have made good propaganda, but I’m fairly sure that Jay’s words would have irked the already-numerous German, Scottish, Irish, Danish immigrants who had fought in the Revolutionary War to help establish this nation.

Buchanan asserts “We were not a nation of immigrants in 1789″, which is just laughable.  Heck, Andrew Hamilton — another of the authors of the Federalist Papers — was an immigrant to these shores.  While many of the colonists were born in America, many had travelled here.  And above all of that, you might want to ask a Native American, who might remind you that all the White guys were immigrants or recent descendants of immigrants.

Buchanan also says “The republic of the founders for whom Jay spoke did not give a fig for diversity. They cherished our unity, commonality and sameness of ancestry, culture, faith and traditions.”  This certainly makes one wonder about the long, drawn-out, sometimes-vicious fights in the Continental Congress between (usually) the New England and the Deep South contingents.   Oh, also all that time and effort spent trying to square the circle on the South’s “peculiar institution”.

This brings up the largest hole in Buchanan’s argument.  We used to be all one happy, unified, uniform family?  What drugs is he on?  Look at the treatment of any minority population in the US (and, hey, we do actually have some and always had): the Native Americans, the Blacks, the Chinese.  Heck, look at how the Irish were treated.  It’s a little hard to swallow that we were a unified culture.  Instead, we had the in-power culture (more or less the WASPs), who then simply declared that other cultures were backward, uncivilized, and plain old irrelevant.  Buchanan’s reasoning boils down to “There was only one culture — as long as you ignore all the other ones.”

It is nice that Buchanan admits, obliquely, that maybe not everything was rainbows and unicorns:  “And though the civil rights movement had just begun, nowhere did black peoples enjoy the freedom and prosperity of African-Americans.”  That’s right, in the magic year of 1960, White culture finally started to grudgingly offer some semblance of fairness to the Black population, a mere century after the bloodiest war in American history and the abolition of outright slavery.

Quibbling with Attorney General Eric Holder’s assertion that America is “a fundamentally better place than we were 50 years ago,” Buchanan laments that nonetheless “We are no longer one unique people ‘descended from the same ancestors, speaking the same language, professing the same religion’.”  But the fact of the matter is, we never were.  You can only pretend that we were by ignoring the reality, twisting the history, and unlearning the lessons.  You can only pretend we were when you define “real America” as “exactly and only the small patch of ground I grew up on”.

As evidence of how far we’ve fallen, Buchanan lists a bunch of things:

We are from every continent and country. Nearly 4 in 10 Americans trace their ancestry to Asia, Africa and Latin America. We are a multiracial, multilingual, multicultural society in a world where countless countries are being torn apart over race, religion and roots.

We no longer speak the same language, worship the same God, honor the same heroes or share the same holidays.

But he says these like they’re bad things, whereas I think they speak to the enduring strength of this nation, to adapt, persevere, and improve itself — to strive always to become a “more perfect Union”.  For someone who sings of “American exceptionalism”, Buchanan misses what makes us exceptional:  Not the fortuitous vast natural resources, or the particular spot of earth on which we stand, or the world’s oldest free trade zone or the world’s oldest constitutional republic, not a fictitious single language or single culture.  We are a nation of peoples, a weird and wonderful dream bringing together cultures, and languages, and experiences, and hopes and aspirations from all that humanity has to offer.  America the nation is an idea, not a place or a people.  And that is largely unprecedented and ambitious.

 

A final comment:  One of the things that so disturbs Buchanan is that “Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee are out of the pantheon”.  And I say, Yea! to this, and good riddance.  The triumph of the American spirit is that we can finally reject these traitorous and seditious, fundamentally dishonorable men who abandoned the United States and its Constitution, not to mention their own sworn oaths, in a parochial construction of duty to defend a heinous state founded on the noxious principle that some humans have, as a divine right, the right and even obligation to own other human beings.  (If you’re one of the revisionists who want to argue that “the Civil War wasn’t about slavery”, I suggest you read the ordinances of secession, or indeed, the Constitution of the Confederate States.   See also an analysis of slavery in the Confederate constitution, or a similar analysis.)

Thoughts on teaching, politics, life in general