Foucault’s Swinging Experiment

We interrupt my ranting for one of those fun little historical items:

If you’ve heard of Foucault’s  Pendulum, you probably know it as that ball on the end of a long wire thing people set up in museums and observatories. Once in a great while, it knocks over a peg, proving that the earth does, indeed, rotate on its axis.

How? Pendulums, following Newton’s laws, will swing in the same plane, unless some force acts upon them to cause them do otherwise. But the plane of  Foucault’s pendulum slowly changes (in fact, it doesn’t seem to swing in a plane at all, but is observed to swing through a series of slightly curved surfaces.) By a fairly long series of logical steps, it is concluded that the only reasonable way to explain the motion of the pendulum is by the movement of the earth beneath it – it is considered too shocking of a coincidence for the movement to be exactly what would be expected if the earth rotated exactly once a day, yet to have some other cause. In fact, the pendulum also moves differently depending on the latitude in exactly the way it should, if the motion were caused by the earth’s rotation. There’s no other reasonable explanation

Big Whup? What makes this all very interesting is that Foucault demonstrated his pendulum – it was a sensation – in February, 1851.

Galileo died in 1642.

Continue reading “Foucault’s Swinging Experiment”

Great Colleges, Poor High Schools

Ever wonder how it works that our country has hundreds of great colleges admired all around the world, and yet has high schools and grade schools that are routinely disparaged in comparison to those of other countries and constantly said to need reform (and more money)?

As mentioned in an earlier post, up to 50% of the students admitted to elite colleges are placed in remedial classes in their freshman year. Keep in mind, these are kids who sport GPAs well north of 4.0, have taken many ‘college prepatory’ AP classes, and have spent thousands of hours doing homework – and they need remedial help to do basic college-level work.

So, how can it be that these kids a) have not mastered what the college considers basic reading, writing and math skills, yet b) are decorated veterans of high school, the best of the best?

A couple of ways to look at this:

– First, that high school doesn’t teach the skills you need for success in college;

– Second, that, for many students, this lack of skills isn’t damaging to their future academic success. Haven’t seen any numbers, but I imagine that the remedial classes do meet with some success – that at least some of the students who arrived on campus academically unprepared take the remedial classes and go on to succeed (at the very least, the college would be heavily invested in making sure that happens).

The important note here is that elite colleges routinely succeed in a year or less in teaching skills that 12 or more years of schooling before college – including successfully completed advanced placement classes – failed to teach.

There are a number of reasons colleges succeed at what are alleged to be the same tasks at which high schools, even and especially *good* high schools, routinely fail, even when we’re talking about elite students.  So what’s so different about how colleges teach things than how high schools teach them?

– Ratio of in-class time to out of class time: The most fanatical high school students approach 1:1 – 6 hours of class time to 6 hours of study outside of class in a typical day. College students run more like 1:3 – 2 – 3 hours of class a day, with 6 – 9 hours of studying for the more ambitious students.

– Flexibility: High school students are expected to put in their 6 hours of class time a day every day for 4 years. College students can adjust their loads and arrange their schedules to meet personal preferences and needs. The 5 and even 6 year college plans are available if need be.

– Freedom: High schools student have minimum freedom in their choices of what to study, with many required classes and few really free choices. College students have much more freedom to study what interests them.

So, to ask the obvious question: instead of endlessly tweaking pre-college educational models, why don’t we replace them with the tried-and-true college model that is the envy of the world? Way less time in the classroom, way more freedom and responsibility. This would also have the benefit of actually preparing kids for college, which the current model demonstrably fails to do.

This Week’s Song from Mass Review

Early Mass at Parish A today. The Entrance Song was a little C+ effort from freshman-year harmony and comp class called One Spirit, One Church:

We are a pilgrim people,
we are the Church of God.
A fam’ly of believers,
disciples of the Lord.
United in one spirit,
ignited by the fire.
Still burning through the ages,
still present in our lives.

1. Come, Holy Ghost, Creator blest,
and in our hearts take up thy rest;
come with thy grace and heav’nly aid
to fill the hearts which thou hast made.

2. O Comforter, to thee we cry,
thou gift of God sent from on high.
Thou font of life and fire of love,
the soul’s anointing from above.

My first consideration: Can I sing this song in Church? Answer: Yes. While the music – the new part, not the sadly maimed but still noble (like the battered corpse of a great man is noble) Come Holy Ghost – is execrable drivel, the words, while not quite rising to the level of doggerel, are not overtly heretical, and in fact are blandly orthodox.  So, yes, I sang my guts out on this tune – think of it as a musical hair shirt.

The most striking thing about this ditty is the dazzling cluelessness of the composers – do they not recognize the vast gulf in quality between Come Holy Ghost, with its instantly recognizable tune and lines of actual poetry like “come with thy grace and heav’nly aid to fill the hearts which thou hast made” and the infantile melody and insipid text of “We are a pilgrim people, we are the Church of God. A fam’ly of believers, disciples of the Lord.” It comes off a little like seeing someone blow their nose on the corner of a linen tablecloth.

(BTW: Just because some earlier poets got away with “heav’nly” doesn’t mean you get a pass on “fam’ly” – you gotta establish that you can walk up the hillside of Parnassus before you get to try the slippery slope of willful elision.)

In freshman music, it’s not unusual for a teacher to assign the task of writing a melody over the chord progression of a well-known song, or, slightly more advanced, a counterpoint of sorts to the existing melody – that’s what we have here. I give the student a generous C+ for effort – points off for 1) changing the time signature – Come Holy Ghost is in a swinging, inexorable 3, and suffers greatly from being shoehorned into 4 time; 2) the new melody is really, really, lame; 3) the new melody doesn’t blend stylistically with the old. This effort should have never moved beyond scribbles in a notebook headed for the trash at the end of freshman year.

Finally, the lyrics. Come Holy Ghost is a classic intercession after the model of the Psalms: you ask for God’s help and praise Him for his mercy and works. The new text (again: the writer read CHG and his effort and said to himself: yea, these new words really kick this up a notch!), OTOH, simply states how wonderful we already are – no intercession (what could we possibly need, given how rockingly happening we are?) no overt acknowledgment of God’s infinite glory and our need for His blessing and mercy.

Lame. It’s worrisome that so many composers think the purpose of sacred music is nothing higher than self-affirmation.

But not doctrinally evil, gotta give ’em that!

A little socio-geographical-religious background:

We live roughly equidistant from 3 Catholic parishes. I like the people and priests at all three. The liturgy is divinely efficacious in each church, which, I remind myself (sometimes through seriously gritted teeth) is the important thing.

A. Our official parish church, about 1.25 miles away, is the mother church for the area, currently housed in a no nonsense 1950’s era building lovingly remodeled to make no artistic or liturgical sense whatsoever. It’s ‘Built of Living Stone’ compliant, I guess, but then, BOLS is fairly strong evidence that LSD flashbacks are, sadly, not entirely a thing of the past within the community of people who write up stuff for the bishops. BOLS reads like something written by 70’s high school students sitting on the floor getting in touch with their feelings with a guy who dropped out of seminary and grew a beard. Other than that, it’s OK. We attend Sunday mass there about half the time. Three of our children were baptized there.

B. About one mile away is another parish, whose church design was donated, legend has it, by an architect from the community about 20 years ago. It’s of the multi-no-purpose-room school of church design, featuring a large unfocused square box nave-thing, comfy chairs, a claustrophobicly-overbearing ceiling that feels as if it could somehow fall on you at any moment (you’d be squashed like bug – you’d have to see it – it’s really weird-looking), and – a very nice Perpetual Adoration chapel off the main building. So, we almost never go to Sunday Mass there, but do often go to daily Mass on Saturday in a small innocuous side chapel, and do do a lovely middle-of-the-night Adoration shift there. I have nothing but affection for this parish, other than needing to avoid any activities in the main building for health reasons.

C. About 3 miles away is another parish housed in a large modern building that does immediately evoke the reaction ‘This is a Church!’ It’s peaceful inside. People instinctively behave reverently(ish) inside, by modern standards. Even though this building includes a little side chapel used for daily Mass and clearly intended by the builders to house the Blessed Sacrament, a saintly, clear-headed pastor a few years back took it upon himself to move the tabernacle from this chapel and put it right smack in the middle of the sanctuary. Not because he’s some sort of old-fashioned fuddy-duddy, but because he’s a convert from Protestantism, and knew very well *why* he’d converted. We go to Sunday Mass there about half the time.

I will not criticize the priests or general parishioners on this blog or anywhere else for that matter (private whining to my long-suffering wife excepted) because it is not helpful and is a near occasion of sin. Art, music, architecture and egregious liturgical practices I will comment on, in (I pray) a spirit of charity. For example, the charitable response to most modern music for the liturgy is to wish all copies to be cast into Gehenna strapped to a leaky barrel of lighter fluid. It would uncharitable to wish physical harm upon the composers and performers of such music. See? That works.

The Ultimate Homework Assignment – for Parents & Teachers

(aside: I could footnote the hell out of this, but since you can confirm what I’m saying here by spending about 5 minutes with Google, I’ll leave that part for you as extra credit’)

Case Study:

Over the last few decades, the homework load on school children has increased, to the point now where, on the one end, it is not unusual for high school students to spend 6 or more hours a night on homework and, on the other, for 3rd graders to get an hour or more of homework.

Recent studies indicate that homework contributes little (high school)  to nothing (grade school) to either short term (standardized testing results) or long term (doing well in college) academic success. Repeat, just to be clear: doing homework will contribute nothing to the academic success of grade school age children, and very little to the success of high school students. (Note: elite colleges currently assign up to 50% of incoming freshmen – that would be the freshmen with the 4.3 GPAs, a dozen AP classes under their belts and thousands and thousands of hours spent doing homework – into remedial math, English and writing courses. What’s wrong with this picture?)

Conversely, for children, getting enough sleep (8 – 10 hours a night) contributes mightily to academic success, not to mention general health and happiness.

Also, time spent in unstructured play, and especially time spent in quiet enjoyment of family life correlate very highly to both future happiness and academic success.

Finally, the price for homework is exactly and explicitly a reduction or elimination of time spent in unstructured play, sleep and the quiet enjoyment of one’s family (aside: anybody ever fight over getting a kid to do homework, or poison home life with worry and nagging over homework?).

Assignment: given the above, explain:

– why parents, teachers and administrators passionately argue for the importance of homework, even and explicitly when the above facts are made known to them;

– explain why teachers who unilaterally decide to eliminate homework are, without exception, derided and ridiculed by parents and other teachers, even when test scores in their classes IMPROVE.

Getting the answer to this question correct is the key to understanding the nature of educational dilemma we’re in.

Race to Nowhere, the movie

Website here.

Movie was good. Yard Sale of the Mind says: Check it out. Saw this movie for free with a bunch of parents, kids and teachers at a local high school. 30 minute comment period followed.

Honesty check – despite what I write below, I got choked up at several points in the movie. The emotions are real, the tragedies are real, and my heart went out to all the suffering kids and parents portrayed. So, please keep that in mind as I get medieval (you know, relentlessly and compellingly logical – just like they did in the medieval universities) on this movie, and especially on the audience.

Race to Nowhere is a documentary intended to get people to change their behaviors in order to reduce stress on school children. It tells us much more, and on different topics, than the creators consciously intended.

On the surface, it’s a 90 minute story of tragedy – of children whose childhoods, health and even lives are destroyed by the relentless pressure to succeed in school. Their parents contribute important interviews. Teachers and experts are also shown, some even brought to tears by their frustration and sadness with what they see happening to kids, but they are minor and largely irrelevant characters in this tale, used to voice a few key concepts.  At the end, we see a series of timid ideas scroll across the screen for making schooling a kinder, gentler people factory.

While the idea of change is actively promoted, it’s not too hard to see that change, to the makers of the documentary and, especially, the audience,  means the absolute bare minimum needed to make everybody feel better about doing the same old things. One teacher in the audience went to lengths to say that the issues in the movie were ‘complicated’ and later added that she’d asked her own classes, after viewing the trailer, if they felt stressed – and most of them said they did not. This teacher was evidently entirely immune to irony: presenting kids with the Cliff Notes (the trailer) of a very emotional movie, a movie in which a series of child psychologist speak at length about how hard it is for kids to talk to adults about emotional issues, then asking them a potentially embarrassing question in front of their peers – she gets the answer she wants to hear from kids who have spent years learning to regurgitate what their teachers want to hear.  Her cluelessness was truly awesome.

More about the audience later.

Continue reading “Race to Nowhere, the movie”