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:   

I’ve seen the studies that say grade-school homework is useless, but, precisely because I want these studies to be dispositive, I doubt them. I’d prefer to see my daughter drilling long division unto mastery instead of pondering the cognitive mysteries of Common Core math, whose deep inspiration seems to be Cubism. (“Now hold your worksheet up to a shattered mirror. Solve the problems from the perspective of the several shards.”) But what do I know? Maybe the built-in perplexities, the Common Core jostlings of the usual problem format, are the best way. Maybe the spiritual and mental anguish they cause is making my kids smarter, better students. Maybe this homework I hate is really necessary pedagogically.

All I can say is it better be, because the costs it imposes are real. And I’m not talking about lost time playing video games, or how it forces me to be a Bad Cop when I really want to be a Cool Dad (though scolding your kid for bewailing a homework assignment you’re secretly bewailing is something you have to get used to). When I order my daughter to quit dawdling and start her writing practice, the mechanistic paragraph she’s expected to generate in response to some question or prompt, the thing she’s normally in the middle of doing, the activity I’m typically interrupting for the sake of her language education, is reading.

(I like his use of the word ‘dispositive’ when ‘true’ would have worked – hey, it’s the New Yorker!)

Here we see another fine example of a Galileo Trap: who you gonna believe, somebody’s official theory or your own lying eyes? To his credit, Feeny sees the bad side of homework, the disruption of his kid’s enjoyment, the turning of parents into the enforcement arm for the school, the lesson that pointless make-work exercises outweigh our own interest, and are in any event the measure of our success, and, ultimately our worth as people.

But seeing all that, he’s still willing to entertain (at least, for the purpose of this essay) the possibility that it is all worth it. Even though the simple judgement, backed by the evidence right in front of him, would be that homework can’t possibly be worth the cost in disruption, disrespect and loss of peace that it causes, he must consider the possibility that some hidden thing is going on, even if he can’t see it. Now, Galileo turned out to be right – but the burden was on him to show us why we should believe the earth moves when it seems so still. Similarly, the burden is on the schools – and quite a burden it is! – to show that homework for 4th graders benefits them enough to outweigh the obvious costs. They do not get the benefit of the doubt – our own lying eyes do.

Sucking up all your child’s time and destroying family life *is the point* of homework and school in general. Education theorist back to Plato and Lycurgus, at least, have consistently identified the family *as the problem* – loyalty to and the morality of the family and tribe interfere with loyalty and obedience to the state. That’s why Sparta raised children collectively, why Plato makes destruction of the family central to his Republic, why Fichte‘s reforms specified that children be completely removed from their families as soon as possible and placed under the control of state trained teachers. If the state is running schools, and enforcing attendance with the threat, ultimately, of seizing your children and throwing you in jail, then you can be sure those schools are designed to achieve the state’s goals, not yours.

In America, it’s always been a question of means, not ends. As Fichte notes, many parents are not going to be willing to hand over their kids, so workarounds might need to be implemented until the population has been properly educated (1) enough to go along with it. Thus, in America, we’ve been bringing the temperature up on this particular pot of lobsters slowly for 150 years. Now, we’ve achieved the state where, even when teachers themselves recognize the obvious – that homework isn’t worth the stress – *parents* leap in to insist on it. Parents who have typically successfully completed a lot of schooling.  To challenge schooling, even just to challenge homework, is to threaten who they are.

What’s different—enough that one (Chinese-American) parent in Princeton can now reasonably call the town’s academic culture an “arms race”—lies in the colleges themselves, especially selective and prestigious ones. For the last thirty years the machinery of college admissions has solved the administrative problem created by America’s surfeit of smart and eager high-school students by inventing new, pedagogically empty ways for them to compete with one another, laying out new grounds on which they might fight one another. This solution is now its own expanding web of problems, to which the system it came from is currently hatching an ambitious new set of solutions.

The original breakdown of the population, as the Prussians who originally implemented Fichte’s vision saw it, was about 94% of people get trained as simple order-followers – soldiers, factory workers – and 6% get trained as managers and bureaucrats. Something approximating K-8 education would do for the order-followers, while the management team might need, roughly, the equivalent of high school and maybe some college.  Then there’s the fraction of a percent that actually gets to rule. They get the equivalent of Sidwell and Skull and Bones, from which some actual leaders come. These classifications parallel what Plato laid out as the iron, silver and gold souled classes in his Republic.

In America one way schooling was sold was as a way – the only way – to get ahead. Immigrants, desperate to climb out of poverty and give a good life to their kids, pushed them through school. At first, any schooling was a leg up, but as time went on, more and more schooling was required to get ahead. In 1900, only a small percentage of kids went to high school, where they learned subjects that now days are reserved for rather serious college students, such as Latin and Greek, Aristotelian logic and calculus. Colleges, and Universities built on the Humboldtian (Prussian) model, were for the tiny percentage of people intending to go into elite professions.

Now, a significant majority of people get through high school, about half attend some college, and about a third have college degrees. What do you(2) do when over half the population is trained as managers and bureaucrats? First, you try to reserve as much as possible the good, well-paying jobs for those with college degrees, regardless of if doing that job actually requires a college education (airline pilots, claims adjusters). That helps keep the ‘the more formal schooling, the better’ myth alive. Next, you’ll need to dumb down college so that all these high school kids can get in – thus, all the ‘studies’ degrees, and the idiotification (totally a word!) of many traditional subjects, such as English. Then, you dumb down the K-12 stuff as much as possible, so that there’s a material difference between a high school and college education. Ultimately, you create as many make-work ‘managerial’ type jobs as possible – DHS & TSA, anyone? – to ‘reward’ successful students with no skills whatsoever.

Finally, you need to keep refining the filters that select the pool out of which the ruling classes get their Alexander Hamiltons. Not everybody can get into Princeton, so you might as well choose those most willing and able to follow arbitrary and pointless application rules – that’s mostly what you want in Ivy League grads anyway. Which brings us back to the New Yorker essay.

The payoff for getting a college degree is no longer there in most fields. The cost far outweighs the benefits. On the low end, studies degrees are more likely to render their victims unemployable than get them a good job. High-tech, in particular Google, have broken the model at the other end by hiring people who can do the job, regardless of degrees.(3) While more and more money is poured into colleges by means of more and more debt public and private, less and less actual education is being delivered to more and more people, who can turn that education into less and less money, for the most part.

This is not a sustainable model.

What Dr. Feeny is worried about might well be death-throws. The college admissions bureaucracy may be swallowing its own tail, challenging people to reassess the value and viability of getting into an elite college. While the children of immigrants – often Chinese and Indian today – battle to the death to see who gets into Harvard, the sons and daughters of Clintons and Rockefellers have only one item of importance on their apps – their last names. And, after all that work to get in, those hard-working students end up working for the name-brand kids anyway.

  1. The go-to Fichte quotation:  “Education should aim at destroying free will so that after pupils are thus schooled they will be incapable throughout the rest of their lives of thinking or acting otherwise than as their school masters would have wished.” A population of such people can be counted on to do what they are told – which is the point.
  2. Just to be clear: there’s no one ‘you’ doing this, neither is there a giant, conscious conspiracy. What does happen is that, through the efforts of a small number of people, gatekeepers and filters are implemented that bias the environment in a certain way. For example, through the efforts of people like Mann and Barnard and their followers, education departments were established (most often without the slightest voter input) in all states and the federal government. Virtually all are lead and staffed by people with education PhDs. No one who disagrees fundamentally with those PhDs can ever hope to have much power within the official heirarchy. These PhDs trace back to Prussian universities, where they were created. If you have fundamentally different ideas about education, you will not get a job, let alone wield any real power. Thus, a particular path is chosen, and when ‘experts’ testify before Congress or propose education ‘reform’, what we’re getting is Prussian model schooling, and more of it.
  3. Really talented and focused people have always gone off and done their thing without a degree, but what makes Google different is that it’s just the kind of giant, high-profile company that, in the past, could be counted on to use degree status as a filter. That they don’t is almost as unnerving to the status quo as the University of California threatening to stop using SAT scores.
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Author: Joseph Moore

Enough with the smarty-pants Dante quote. Just some opinionated blogger dude.

4 thoughts on “Homework and the Galileo Trap”

  1. I’m going to be the guy to say it: If we don’t take Peter Singer seriously – and we shouldn’t – Why Plato?

    The more I learn about him the more loathsome he becomes. There are better philosophers than he. Good writer, though.

    1. Well, it’s one of those weird paradoxes that, if you take Plato seriously, you can’t take Socrates completely seriously. Plato does have Socrates say that children (and wives and husbands) should be held in common – but only after he describes the ideal state that is simple and moderate in its desires, and gets that rejected out of hand by his interlocutors. SO – he then describes a state that is luxurious, and only then goes nuts on the power of the state. So, as is so often the case with Plato, one is left to wonder: is he serious? is the whole Republic a subtle mockery of the Athenian desire for greatness (and luxury)? Is he pointing out the ridiculous extremes a state must go to to be just, once it goes down the path of luxury, and the wars that entails? Does he mock Athens by describing the ideal state as a lot more like Sparta than Athens? Is he just yanking chains?

      Yet, it seems clear that many people DO take it at face value – it is what makes up 80% of the book, after all. Plato always leaves me guessing. I’ve long said that the only dialogues wherein Socrates is speaking what he truly believes, straight up, no (well, not much) irony, are the Gorgias and the Apology.

      1. It just strikes me as really weird. The most useful philosophical ideas that Plato presented – or at least the most famous – are probably the concept of Platonic forms and stuff of that ilk. Other than that – and admittedly it’s a pretty big deal – how much can we rightfully take away from him?

        Even going by your analysis of him, it’s hard to say what we’re actually getting out of him. So let’s all just admit it: Plato is overrated!

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