Homework and the Galileo Trap

Here is an article from the New Yorker about one dad’s struggles with making his young grade school children do homework, and the elite college admissions bureaucracy that creates this mess. It’s worth reading the whole thing. A local school superintendent in Princeton, NJ (Ha!) is trying to tone down the cut throat culture of schoolkids competing to get into college. Predictably, people who have been trained for 12, 16 or more years that your schooling defines your worth as a person object, as well as first and second generation Americans who come from cultures (the Chinese, for example) who are *good* at competing in this way. Why dumb it down and get all touchy-feeling? It’s a version of the Campaign Reform problem: the people who win in a particular system are very unlikely to want to change it in any ways that reduce their chances of continuing to win.

This little tempest occasions some deeper thoughts about education:

My ideas about schooling are pretty old-fashioned. Unlike the Deweyan progressives who’ve long dominated American education, I think drill and memorization are not just effective but entirely consistent with deep, holistic understanding. The only thing I’m sure I learned in my desultory high-school years is the sonnet prologue to “Romeo and Juliet,” which a frightening ninth-grade English teacher demanded I memorize, or else. I can still recite it, and do. (For some reason, knowing it by heart has not prevented me from understanding it.) I think the rigorous teaching of academic subjects is teaching “critical-thinking skills,” and teaching critical-thinking skills without those subjects is nuts.

Well, while he’s at least heard of Dewey, which makes him much more aware of education history than 99% of Americans, he seems to be laboring under the impression Dewey was in favor of “deep, holistic understanding”. Nooo, that’s not what Dewey was after, at least, not for those students who aren’t going to get into those elite colleges. He was in favor of making sure the many didn’t trouble their little heads about issues that don’t concern them, such as getting a liberal education, and instead were prepared to get in line on the Right Side of History(tm) when their betters told them to do so. Critical thinking skills might be turned against what your teachers are telling you, so we can’t do that except in the Orwellian modern sense in which it means “following orders” – the way it’s used in colleges today.

Be that as it may:    Continue reading “Homework and the Galileo Trap”

Education Reading Update & Thoughts

Currently finishing up Parish Schools (part 1 of my review here), and rereading A History Of Education In Antiquity. That’s a fascinating read, but very detailed and long (plus, my old paperback copy is starting to fall apart, and Amazon lists the cheapest replacement at $20 – sheesh!) 

Education of an Urban Minority: Catholics in Chicago, 1833-1965 arrived yesterday, and a quick perusal was not encouraging: a sociological study written in the 1970’s, when, after almost a century and a half of steady if not spectacular growth, the Chicago parish schools were starting to crater, just as the American Catholic educational hierarchy gave itself magisterial authority and decreed that all that awkward Catholic stuff about dogma and especially sex doesn’t really matter. Why, the introduction wonders, at this of all points in history, are Catholic parents no longer as interested in making the large personal and financial sacrifices required to send their kids to these school? 

Why, indeed. Too bad the period covered ends before Chicago public schools reached the logical apex of Dewey’s reforms by becoming at the same time the best paying and worst performing schools in the nation, thus presenting those Catholic parents with some pretty ugly choices.(1) So, it’s with a certain morbid fascination that I look forward to reading this book.

Still waiting for The Holy See’s Teaching on Catholic Schoolswhich will go to the top of the list once it arrives. Due any day now. 

Some observations:

A. Schools are about culture, not about ‘the Basics’, however those basics are defined. In the Greek schools of antiquity, the key texts were Homer – for over a 1,000 years, an educated Greek was expected to know his Iliad and Odyssey, and could recite long passages from memory. (2) Homer’s stories defined what excellence meant to a Greek – that was the point. And so on – Fichte, Mann, Dewey and that crowd are all about changing the culture. The supposed basics virtually never come up for discussion. (3)

B. Thus, fights over schooling are fights over culture. In America, the Protestant leadership wanted to impose Protestant culture on Catholic immigrants. Catholics built parish schools in which their own culture (especially and inescapably their own religion) were passed on.

The early years were full frontal assaults: In public schools, reading was taught from the King James Bible complete with Protestant commentary attacking the Church, largely Protestant hymns and prayers were used, and ‘history’ was told from the Protestant rabidly anti-Catholic perspective (some things never change!). Catholics objected, especially since they were not only required to send their kids to these schools, but were taxed to pay for them! (4)

Later, the efforts became much more sneaky.

C. The weakness exploited in America to move this agenda forward is the immigrant’s nearly frantic desire to fit in. Catholics, especially the Irish who have such a tragic history with government and culture, felt compelled to conform to anything American, as long as it wasn’t an open attack, to counter the constant accusation that Catholics couldn’t be real Americans. The graded classroom was presented as modern and scientific and above all American, so was very appealing. The anti-Catholicism built into it is subtle.

  1. Except, of course, for those gold-souled politically connected elites, who can send their kids to the local Sidwell school-equivalent.  For example, the  University of Chicago Laboratory Schools, founded by John Dewey, are feeder schools for the Ivy League – perfect! And in keeping with Dewey’s belief that it is a waste of time to teach the vast bulk of kids how to think for themselves, such schools, while touting their ‘diversity’, end up training only those who show promise of getting into elite colleges. A few blocks away, on the South Side, it’s an impoverished war zone. What about those kids? Oh, well, can’t make an omelette and all that – as Dewey himself mentioned in his defense of the vast carnage of the Russian Revolution.
  2. One of the fun things about rereading the Republic and the Dialogues in general is how much Socrates will quote Homer – and how his interlocutors took it for granted.
  3. Plato once even mentions that anyone who charges money to teach what any competent adult knows is committing fraud. Bingo.
  4. You probably thought public schools were secular. Ha! No more then than now. It’s just the underlying Protestantism that’s changed, evolving from Puritan to Unitarian to Progressive, which, historically, is what happened at Harvard and elsewhere. The one constant: belief that if only they were in charge and had enough power, they could make things right. I and my family and everyone outside the mold are, it turns out, problems to be fixed.  Schooling is the way to fix us!

Science! In the News

As always, just perusing the Google news science feed. First, the good stuff:

A. James Webb: Hubble successor maintains course OK, so sure, it’s a decade late and billions over budget – I don’t want to hear about it. This is about as cool as science gets. Remember how, when we* were kids, we’d look at pictures taken through earth-bound telescopes? While they were nice and everything, inspiring, even, once we started sending out space probes and those probes started sending back pictures, the pictures from earth-bound telescopes started looking not so hot. Then came the Hubble, the single coolest science project ever, and the source of a near-endless stream of dazzling, awe-inspiring glimpses of our universe.

Well, if we can get the Webb up and operational – tricky business, that – it will make the the Hubble seem like an abacus compared to a super-computer. The pictures should be a couple orders of magnitude more detailed, and pick up objects far too dim for the Hubble. Plus, it is to be put at a Lagrange Point a million or so miles from earth. And it has a giant heat shield umbrella to take the sun’s light and heat out. And the main mirror consists of 18 hexagonal segments, each of which has computer-controlled servos to bring all of them into common focus.

All this hardware has to fit inside a single rocket payload, then be carefully unfolded once on site. NASA has been carefully rehearsing the whole choreographed thing for years now – unlike the Hubble, if something ain’t right, you’re almost certainly not bopping out to fix it.

Just look at it!


 * for values of ‘we’ 45 or older

B. From the sublime to the ridiculous:

Bigger Brain’s Best, Study Finds Animals With Larger Brains Are Best Problem Solvers

First, they need a headline editor to cut that meandering mouthful down and properly click-bait the hook. Something like: Bigger Brained Predators Solve Problem of How to Kill and Eat You. Something like that.

This study offers a rare look at problem solving in carnivores, and the results provide important support for the claim that brain size reflects an animal’s problem-solving abilities-and enhance our understanding of why larger brains evolved in some species,” Sarah Benson-Amram, lead author of the study from the University of Wyoming, said in a news release.

In order to carry out their study, the researchers visited nine zoos, where they presented 140 animals from 39 different mammalian carnivore species with a novel problem-solving task. These animals included spotted hyenas, tigers, river otters, wolves, polar bears and arctic foxes. Each animal had 30 minutes to get food out of a closed metal box.  The animal needed to slide a bolt latch, which would open the door to the box, which contained the animal’s favorite food. Red pandas were given bamboo, while snow leopards received steak.

Not to be a pedant here – well, not any more than usual – but doesn’t evolutionary theory assert that animal brains evolved as a result of how well they happened to help the animal survive in a particular environment? So, presenting animals with a test that mimics nothing they’d ever have come across in their environment of evolutionary adaptation, and then seeing how well they ‘solve’ it proves – intelligence? There are a whole load of assumptions and a heaping helping of anthropomorphizing in there. And are zoo animals really representative? Would a wild bear take a different approach to a locked box than Bobo the Circus Bear who has spent a lifetime around people and boxes and locks? Inquiring minds want to know.

But, hey, now we don’t have to just *suppose* bigger brains (relative to body size) mean smarter animals (in terms of solving tests based on the kind of challenges human beings – thieves, for example – sometimes need to solve). Now, we have a study! Science! has shown!

Slightly more seriously, where are the parrots and crows and other smart birds in all this? They seem way smarter than their tiny bird brains might suggest.

C. Last week, posted about the idea that intelligent species have evolved all over the place, but just gone extinct due to climate change before they got the letter to us in the mail, figuratively speaking, and that’s why we have no evidence. I chose a particularly insouciant article, based entirely on the way-cool picture they chose to illustrate it.

Silly me. Here is a more serious article, which doesn’t even mention climate change per say, and goes out of its way to say that, given the native instability of planetary environments over time, it seemed to the researchers very unlikely that intelligent, or even multi-celled, life would evolve before climatological Snuffagedon. All that ‘we’re doomed by climate change’ hand-wringing seems to have been entirely in the heads of a few people writing under, let’s say, deadline pressures. This article has a few other interesting ideas as well.

Now, as speculative fiction, this is very cool. Asimov had a very similar idea in the Foundation series. But as science, it as much hogwash as the Drake Equation that formalizes the daydream that we have any basis at all to predict how common or uncommon life is out among the stars. So, for a college bull session or a SciFi writing group, cool. For real science, silly.

The Modern Emotionally and Morally Flat World

Over on Sarah Hoyt’s blog, Cedar Sanderson writes about the modern insistence on a flat emotional world: how we are not allowed to contemplate or even acknowledge that one might, in her example, be happy and sad at the same time. As a dad with 3 kids away at college, and whose oldest daughter is graduating, I’m happy and sad all the time. It is not only possible to have more than one emotion at a time, it may very well be the norm for adults.

This flattening of the emotional world is, I think, of a piece with the modern cool kids insistence on a morally flat universe, as discussed here. My comment on Sanderson’s piece:

Understanding complexity requires thought – and goodness knows where that might lead! Just as dating teenagers are advised not to get on the train unless they are going to Minneapolis, the Cool Kids in our colleges learn not to even start in with that thinking stuff. Slaves are all always sad – it’s much easier that way. Recognizing any complexity is just giving in to the Man, or something.

The same ‘thinking’ applies elsewhere, too. Morally, bad people are always bad, good people are always good. (That’s why the idea that rank and file Nazis were no worse than we are causes head to explode, or at least is certain to get anyone raising that point labeled a Nazi themselves lickity-split) Good people are victims; bad people are oppressing members of some hegemony or other. Thus, in our flat, flat, flat world, any happily married women, for example, are repressed no matter what they may tell you, and their husbands are evil meanies no matter what they do in fact.

And on and on – pick your topic, and the modern world will steam-roller any bumps out of it and hand it back, ready for use to justify any evil in the name of fixing whatever binary problem the now-2-dimensional world presents.

Chesterton often described the Church as wobbling through history, balancing all sorts of conflicts and seeming contradictions in order to achieve a sort of reckless balance, and becoming thereby something beautiful. His was a tremendously complex and paradoxical life, mirroring, as it did, the complex and paradoxical world we live in. It is in loving and living in such a world that joy is to be found.

Walk for Life: A Couple Thought Afterwards

I am not against abortion because I’m Catholic. One of the reasons I’m Catholic is because I’m against abortion, and the Catholic Church, however imperfectly here in America, has always stood against abortion.  I remember the day I heard about Roe-v-Wade. I was in high school, and my faith, when I had any, was weak.  My first thought: I’m next. Even at 14, I had an inkling of how the world worked at least in this one respect: people who want power never have enough of it. If, today, a few old men on a court get to create out of thin air a ‘right’ to abortion, which removes the right of the unborn baby to life, then tomorrow the gravity of that logic will inevitably pull others to create and remove other rights so as to better serve the interests of their herd.

We now have a ‘right’ to die, which removes, of course, any leverage those, near death or otherwise inconvenient, to insist on being cared for. Why? ask those who see their own lives as intrinsically meaningless, and can therefore hardly imagine a meaningful death.

Like most people my age, I have been around people, old and otherwise, as they have neared death – parents, a grandfather, sisters, in-laws, people I knew well, people I hardly knew. My father lingered for years as his mind ebbed away. It’s easy to say, and millions of people will say it, that his last few years had no meaning. One thing it did mean: other people had to step up and provide some care for a man who, whatever his flaws, had provided for a large family for decades. Giving such care once no repayment is possible is very meaningful – to the people giving the care. Such giving helps to make us something more than animals.

Euthanasia is just the tip of a vast logical iceberg, an iceberg inevitably drifting south. If, as Plato and Hegel say, life’s value is derived from the service we provide to the state, what happens when the state is reduced to nothing more than raw power? Someone might well reshape the state so that people like me – nothing special, except that I don’t follow orders very well unless they make some sense, and I don’t think History is Moving Us Forward in any inevitable sense, except chronologically – are defined out of usefulness.

This is not idle speculation. People who actually got the kind of power our current betters dream of having promptly used it to kill off around 110 million people in the last century, people who were of no service to the states they were using their power to make. Kulaks, Jews, Chinese peasants, Cambodians who could read, competent military people, Gypsies – and folks who just didn’t get in line fast enough, or who had or might someday have a vision of the state that didn’t include the current tyrant.

It may be small and selfish, but that was my first thought, scaled back to a 14 year old’s level of understanding. It is much better to hate abortion for the horror it inflicts upon, first and foremost, helpless infants, but also on mothers, families and basic human relationships. Ultimately, as we have so dramatically seen, it poisons the body politic, until civil discussion dies. Baring a miracle, it is only a matter of time before our opponents get enough power to use the state to silence us. Then, since their consciences won’t abide the continued existence of people whose disagreement shames them, further steps will be taken. Safe spaces mean nothing unless they can be enforced – and shouldn’t the whole world be a safe place?


2016 West Coast Walk for Life

West Coast Walk for Life 2016
Looking down Market Street. Most of the crowd is behind us in this picture. 
  • Vast crowd again this year. Estimates run about 60,000, which seems about right, but it is hard to guess when you’re in the middle of it. That would be the largest ever.
  • Lots of young people, including our kids: our middle son with a contingent from Thomas Aquinas College, and our 11-year-old. Our younger daughter made the DC March for Life with students from Thomas More College in New Hampshire. My eldest daughter has done the D.C. March for Life in the past; our oldest did the West Coast Walk while he was with us. In general, this is a movement of the young.
  • More counter-protesters this year, it seemed to me. I almost feel sorry for them, in a way: for the most part, the Walk consisted of thousands of healthy and happy people of all ages and of all races, and many, many cultures all walking peacefully down the street; the protesters looked and sounded like desperate nut cases. Of course there were exceptions, but I can’t believe anybody would get a much different impression if they just looked. Plus, pro-abortion ‘arguments’ are getting more shrill and insane by the minute. Something is coming to a head.
  • The city is beginning to mess with the Walk. A few years ago, they made sure some banners offensive to the walkers were flying on lampposts along the route; this year I heard rumor that they were being difficult about the permits for the buses (many people bus in). They also changed the route, although that was almost certainly coincidence – they are doing a lot of construction down by the Ferry Building, and so routed us around it. But it didn’t seem like they went to any trouble to make sure it was OK – the route took us a couple blocks south of Market, then just sort of petered out instead of being clear all the way to the Bay, which is what it has been in the past. Who knows, but it’s always been clear that they don’t like us much.
  • The Cathedral is at its best when hosting a big Mass.
Cathedral of St. Mary of the Assumption, San Francisco, looking up. 

When praying with thousands of people at a Mass with a couple dozen priests and 6 bishops and beautiful choirs, you can forget that you’re in a giant concrete box that looks all the world like an enormous washing machine agitator. It was lovely. Archbishop Cordeleone is a huge blessing for us.

  • The music was also lovely for the most part – organ, choirs, cantor, bell choir, with a nice mix of music, including a little chant and even a bit of polyphony – the Agnus Dei from Lotti’s Missa Brevis: (this is just a recording off YouTube, not from today’s Mass)
  • One nit to pick – please don’t imagine this in any way made the Walk measurably less awesome. Unfortunately, they almost ruined the ride at Mass (musically speaking only – sacraments work by working) with an inexplicably execrable closing hymn:

For the healing of the nations,
Lord, we pray with one accord,
for a just and equal sharing
of the things that earth affords.
To a life of love in action
help us rise and pledge our word.

All that kills abundant living,
let it from the earth be banned:
pride of status, race or schooling,
dogmas that obscure your plan.
In our common quest for justice
may we hallow brief life’s span.

You, Creator God, have written
your great name on humankind;
for our growing in your likeness
bring the life of Christ to mind;
that by our response and service
earth its destiny may find.

This bit of dizzying doggerel was penned back in 1968 (‘natch) by a Fred Kaan (Kaaaaan! I yell reflexively) a Dutch Congregational Minister (of course) who, as a Congregational minister, must dis the very idea of dogma and offer a vision of justice that gives people equal shares of the earth’s bounty.

These ideas present some logical problems. Sometimes, one must choose between justice and equality, as sometime what each is due isn’t the same for everybody. For example, if I get a piano, does that mean everybody, whether they want a piano or not, gets one? Oh no, I can hear the ghost of ol’ Freddy protest, I didn’t mean *that*. Well, how about writing what you did mean, then? I suppose the earth’s bounty includes apples, say, but not Apples? Kale, but not cars? Or do we not mean to make that distinction, either? Either way, people could get the idea from such sloppy writing that, if anyone has anything I don’t have that I want, I’m being treated unjustly – that’s an idea unlikely to promote all that peace and harmony we’re singing about in those other lines.

And let’s not even get into how, if a teaching truly is dogmatic (He spoke with authority, and not like the scribes, after all) then it can’t obscure God’s plan – dogma, insofar as it is dogma, is more properly said to *be* God’s plan, at least insofar as we can understand it. But hey, a Congregationalist believes that each congregation manages its own business, such as saying, if they so choose, what they believe. So, let’s not bicker about ‘o killed ‘o – this is a happy occasion!

In any event, any one who wants it can have my share of kale, and I’ll take any avocados anybody doesn’t want. Just to be clear, just in case.

Of course, there are mostly pleasant thoughts in this hymn – it’s not all mindless heresy. it just seems as if we could do better. Ya know?

  • I continue to dread doing this each year – I am not a protester by nature, even for a peaceful and mostly quiet protest. It has always worked out OK, but I dread them just the same. I would be ashamed not to attend, though.

Science! In Love With Its Dogmas

Mentioned before how ‘we don’t know’ is a perfectly fine scientific answer to many if not most scientific questions, especially in cases where, you know, we don’t know. For example – Question: Is there intelligent life on other planets? Answer: we don’t know. Could be, but maybe not.

But that, no matter how true, isn’t any fun! Besides, if we dogmatically believe that life springs up of its own accord and then strives toward intelligence until it gets at least as close as we’ve gotten, then the utter lack of evidence that this is so becomes a problem. Does life spring up wherever in the Universe the proper conditions prevail? Does life tend of its own to get smarter and smarter? Is the Universe full of planets with right conditions for life to emerge? Has intelligent life arisen untold thousands of times across the many billions of suitable planets over the billions of years the universe has existed? If you answered ‘Yes’, put down the Cool-aide and crack one of Feynman’s several fine books that talk about how science works until you are sheepishly compelled to admit the obvious: We don’t know. Could be, maybe not. Until there’s some evidence – little green men, radio broadcasts, alien relics – SOMETHING, ANYTHING – we must, humbly and perhaps sadly admit that, scientifically speaking, We. Don’t. Know.

I felt compelled to leap up upon this well-worn soapbox yet again by this:

Are we alone in the universe because all the aliens went extinct?

What, oh what, could have driven all the fuzzy, slimy, tentacled, carapaced, segmented, multi-headed, oddly colored  and really, really smart aliens to extinction? What tragedy could have caused this? Hmm? Maybe we could look at earth, and select whatever the current fads insist we should be most scared of, and then apply it to space aliens that our dearest dogmas insist exist despite no evidence?

(They did find a totally righteous picture, I’ll give ’em that.)

Space aliens!
They are mostly naked because it’s getting so warm! Probably all the C02 that rocket plane released in the upper atmosphere when it landed pushed the entire planetary ecosystem over the edge! Curse you, evil earthling! Curse you!

Yep. Climate change killed off all the aliens before they could swoon into our manly arms. Many news sources picked up this ‘study’ and its politically useful conclusions, but only one (that I saw) had a picture of a scantily-clad green space beauty with antenna growing out of her head, so we, like any red-blooded American male, went with it.

Sheesh. And besides, the Lex Luther equation (tm) is a much more scientifilicious explanation. Whoever thought that up is a genius!