Potpori

My crack Blog Post Title Mutation Team identified ‘potpori’ as possibly the lamest blog post title ever imagined. So I’m going with it. It was supposed to be ‘Sunday Potpori’ but then I didn’t get it posted. Join us here on Yard Sale of the Mind as we push the tattered edge of the lameness envelope into uncharted, ragged territory. We live to serve.

1 Lots of nice brickwork getting done. By end of the day, hope to have reached a more photogenic point, and so might post an update. I can just hear you squirming in anticipation! You need to stand up or wear more slippery pants.

2 Through working with the RCIA program the last few years, regularly run into concerns about posture and gesture at Mass – people want to know when to sit, stand, kneel, and so on, and are confused when not everyone at Mass does exactly the same thing, or just generally want to do it ‘right’. We always assure them that if they just follow along with what must people are doing, they’ll be fine, and at any event nobody (much) is going to care if they get it ‘wrong’. If they are still concerned, we point them to the instructions in the missalette.

All in all, this concern to do it right is seen as charming, but not all that big a deal, and we want the RCIA candidates to feel comfortable coming to Mass, not worried about getting every little thing ‘right’.

But is this right? It seems we have not only an instinct to worship, but an instinct to do it right. In Exodus, there are detailed instructions on how to build a proper tabernacle, the furnishing, tent, altars, even the priestly vestments, and what materials to use, correct dimensions where appropriate, as well as explicit and implicit descriptions of the rituals to be performed. These instructions were delivered after the Israelites had build and worshipped the Golden Calf, and received the 10 Commandments, which start off with the command to not have strange gods before the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. It is important to know there definitely are right and wrong ways to worship God.

The challenge for this next year, which will be starting formal meeting in about a month, is to find a way to address and nurture the candidates’ and catechumens’ instinct for worship without dismissing it trying to calm their anxiety.

3 Despite misgivings, I posted on Twitter about the 7th anniversary of our son Andrew’s death this past Saturday. While I started out on Twitter to follow SciFi authors, I follow and am followed by a lot of nice Catholics and other Christians as well. There is some overlap.

Tomorrow is the 7th anniversary of our son Andrew’s death. He was hit by a car on a rural Indiana road on a pro-life walk across America, 1 mo shy of his 21st BD.

He was a very good kid. I miss him & am honored to have been his dad. Ask for his intercession, tell me what happens— Joseph Moore (@Yardsale_Mind) July 19, 2019

I really don’t know what to make of this, because I truly do not understand Twitter. Over 30,000 people and counting have looked at that tweet, retweeting it approaching 100 times, lots of comments, approaching 1,000 ‘likes’, about 60 new people follow my Twitter account. This is like 3 orders of magnitude more views over my typical tweets; my typical tweets are also generally ignored (no ‘engagements’ in Twit-speak).

I have no idea what this means, but I trust Andrew is interceding for the intentions of all these people.

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This is not creepy at all. That nice lion wouldn’t hurt the cute little girl, right? At least, we can count on the nature flick people to edit it out when he does, like how when the wolves run down the little baby caribou, for all we know he then takes him out for a drink and a laugh. That whole disemboweling him alive part doesn’t make for family friendly programming.

4 This Sunday marked the end of our parish’s Summer Bible Camp. According to a tradition that traces all the way back to the Apostles Moonbeam and Kumbaya, all the kids who were roped into free daycare attended camp came up at the end of Mass, assembled in front of the altar, and ‘sang’ this year’s camp song, something about roaring. There were t-shirts with cartoon lions on them. What a coincidence that the live action remake of Lion King also happens this summer. Wow.

I give this here not as an example of liturgical abuse, but rather of, frankly, child abuse. It’s one of those things where people see what they expect, not what is there.

The audience laughed when a couple little girls did flamboyant roars at or near the appropriate spot in the song (there are always a couple 6 or 7 year old little girls in such a crowd who love being the center of attention – they almost all get over it); they clapped not once, but twice (upon the urging of the priest) to show – our appreciation? People, I imagine, saw just another school thing, just another moment when parents get to affirm and reinforce what the schools are having the kids do.

We had seat right up front, since those seats are designed to be easier to access for people like my 81 year old mother in law.

What I saw were 25-30 kids, all but 2 of whom were extremely uncomfortable being paraded before people they mostly don’t know. One boy, maybe 10? 11? stood as if catatonic, doing his best pre-teen I’m invisible act; another boy was fighting back tears and failing. Most were sheepishly doing absolutely the minimum movements the leader was trying to get them to do and mouthing the words, maybe half had an embarrassed smile.

And everybody in the pews smiled and clapped. You know how kids are. You just have to make them do stuff, sometimes. It’s good for them, you know.

Right. Like those boys are going to have fond memories of this summer, and develop a deeper relationship with our Lord, because they were humiliated into standing in front of people and pretending to sing a song.

Yet, this is the only kind of thing most people understand by ‘education’ – this is FUN education. The idea that adults should model and accompany children on their way to adulthood seems lost – instead, we inflict on them stuff no self-respecting adult would ever put up with. Kids are kids, and need kid time. But education, if it means anything, means helping them on their way to adulthood. What we inflict on them today doesn’t do that.

5. It is perhaps helpful to remember in this context that modern schooling has its roots in Fichte’s desire that Prussia have obedient soldiers who don’t spend any time thinking for themselves. The fundamental idea is to break down people as individuals, and turn them into, as Torry Harris put it, “…automata, careful to walk in the prescribed paths, careful to follow prescribed custom.” This is the goal of ‘substantial education’ in Harris-speak. The 1%, who are strangely never discussed, are presumed to decide what those paths and customs are. The Spirit having unfolded Itself to them, if they are Hegelians; History having raised their consciousness, if they are Marxists, such that, despite having their consciousness wholly determined by their class/place in the hegemony, they somehow have ideas that are not so determined. Hmmm.

In the military:

The first few weeks of military basic training is dedicated to breaking you down. During this period, you’ll find that you can’t do anything right. Even if you do it right, it’ll be wrong. Nobody’s perfect, and military drill instructors are trained to ferret out those imperfections and make sure that you know about them.

After you’ve been completely ripped apart, the real training begins — teaching you to do things the “basic training way,” without even having to think about it — you just react. If a military basic training instructor can make this reaction happen, then he has done his job.

From Basic Training for Dummies, copyright © 2011 by Wiley Publishing, Inc., Hoboken, New Jersey. 

Every wonder why getting the right answer or already knowing what it is the teacher is putatively teaching doesn’t get you a pass? It’s because the lesson in not the lesson. The only real difference: you can get out of the army after a few years, and you don’t need to pretend that military training is the sole measure of your worth. Schooling goes on for a decade and half, and you are expected to own the identity that school gives you.

6. Finishing up a bunch of books, and have several I need to start soon. Hoping to get a book-review-alanche going this week.

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‘Remedial’ College Classes

I took about 2 years of remedial college classes, although that’s not what they were called. I came to St. John’s College in 1976 from a self-identified college prep high school, St. Paul’s in Santa Fe Springs, CA, with a mediocre GPA but killer SAT scores. The reality is that, at that time, St. John’s was in a down cycle, so that anyone who submitted all the essays required to apply (in something like English, I imagine, but maybe that was too high a bar?) got in. That was about the most writing I ever did up to that point, the petulant whining of a kid who was convinced that k-12 had been a total waste of time and had heard the siren’s call of all those wonderful books.

I was about as ready for college, especially the 22-25 units per semester, no ‘easy A’ classes that St. John’s demands, as I was to perform brain surgery.

Almost bombed out. The subject that almost killed my college career was Greek, which also happens to be the ‘remedial’ class. If only I were enlightened enough to be ashamed of myself. Reading education history, I come across random stuff like this, regarding Mary Baker Eddy, founder of Christian Science, describing her course of study. Starting from before she was 10, and despite (?) being kept out of school:

My favorite studies were natural philosophy, logic, and moral science. From my brother Albert, I received lessons in the ancient tongues, Hebrew, Greek, and Latin.

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Mary Baker Eddy, a very well educated yet very loopy person. Education isn’t everything, but it beats the alternatives.

She was farm girl, the last of 6 kids, surreptitiously taught by her older brother, since her father thought her brain was too big for her. She evidently mastered them all. This was in the early 1800s.

Eddy’s case might be extreme, but the fact is that a nation of farmers and shopkeepers produced a steady stream of kids who knew Latin, Greek, and even sometimes Hebrew from a young age. Later, when the wedding of math and science had been successfully consumated, an educated kid also knew a bit of calculus, needed, for example, to understand Newton – who wrote in Latin.

Thus, the floor, the baseline, for someone wanting a college education was knowledge of Latin, Greek and calculus – because no self-respecting college was going to waste time getting kids up to speed with what farm girls and boys with any intellectual aspirations already knew.

But that changed. Ancient languages have been disparaged for some time now. In the topsy-turvy world of modern education, knowing ancient languages, far from being seen as the door to a wider intellectual and cultural world, is seen as sign you’re a narrow, musty specialist.

Thus, upon reaching St. John’s, I, like about 99.9% of modern Americans would, needed remedial Greek.(1) Having had no experience studying anything really hard, as in, you simply MUST memorize a boatload of rules and forms before you can make any real progress, I just about bombed out. I buckled down after being vaguely threatened with expulsion after my freshman year (“Mr. Moore knows no Greek,” I still hear my prof saying during don rags, the annual terrifying meeting where all your ‘tutors’ meet and talk about you as if you aren’t there. But you are.)

The happy ending, after a fashion: I really didn’t want to get thrown out of St. John – hey, reading all those books is really fun! – so I spent much of my sophomore year pulling late-nights with Liddell & Scott, a well thumbed tutti i verbi greci, and Sophocles, eventually writing a paper on Oedipus Rex tracing and commenting on every usage of verbs of sight throughout the text – it was good. Didn’t actually learn much Greek, but the paper won the day.

I’m still a terrible student, still know little Greek and less Latin, and could never have gained admittance to a real American college from 100 years ago. My respect for those who did graduate from real colleges is profound.

Back to today. One of my favorite education tidbits, often referred to here, is that about 50% of incoming UC Berkeley students must take remedial English, math, or both. Let that sink in: these are kids with 4.X GPAs, who took all the AP classes – and aced them – who had good SAT scores, who are the best of the best of best – but they can’t write or do math at a college level, as Berkeley imagines it. These kids are bright, so it should come as no surprise that the majority of them ace the remedial classes and go on to ‘succeed’ in their chosen fields.

I expect this percentage to go way down, not because students will suddenly start learning more math and better English before applying to Cal, but rather because Cal will move the goalposts and simply relabel what would have been remedial classes as something else, or eliminate or dumb down the requirements. It’s happened before – Latin, Greek and calculus, anyone?

The sad part, tragic, even, is not that so many need remedial training (however labeled), but that so many get degrees, including Masters and PhDs, without ever having their shortcomings remedied. Mine have not been remedied, alas, but I did get a peek into that larger world. It’s not all accessible to me, but I at least know it’s there.

To get college applicants to know Greek, Latin and math, all that needs to be done is to demand it -if kids 150 years ago could learn this stuff, so can kids today. We’re not born stupider today, we’ve been very intentionally and systematically made stupider. It starts with expectations.

Of course, that would result in many fewer people, under 10% I’d imagine, doing college. As giant, evil corporations, our fine colleges can’t have THAT. Why, if we gave the people what they needed and even in our better moments, wanted, we’d end up with a small population of college educated people and lots and lots of glorified trade schools. Which, in itself, would not be a bad thing.

I’d be in favor of trying to really educate everybody, starting at a young age, and then seeing how it comes out. Man’s gotta dream. Any real education starts with the utter destruction of pre-K – 12 schooling, the instrument by which we are made and kept stupid.

  1. Originally, when the Great Books Program was started, students took one year each of Greek, Latin, German and French. By the time I’d got there, they’d already throttled it back to 2 years of Greek and 2 years of French. To get into your Senior year, you had to pass a French reading exam, which I passed after the manner of St. Joseph of Cupertino: the text for the test was de Tocqueville, from a section I happened to be very familiar with. Lucky me? Still only know a little church Latin. Sigh.

College and the Big Evil Corporation Model

Here’s an idea to keep in mind when thinking about our wonderful universities and colleges: these ivy-infested institutions are, when you get right down to it, rich, evil corporations.

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Super rich titan of industry, or major university president? Why not both?

Now, this notion, like most things this simple, doesn’t explain everything about ‘higher education,’ but, if judiciously applied, should serve to weed-whack some really stupid ideas and clear the ground for some actual thought. Plus, it’s factually true, at least about the name-brand institutions. Harvard, the big dog, has a $38.3 billion endowment, $44.6B in net assets, and an annual operating budget of $4.5B. For comparison, General Motors has net assets of $55.2B.

So, here goes:

Giant heartless corporations try to convince everyone they simply must have their products. You’ll never get ahead if you don’t have a college degree. You want to be a failure, like George Washington, Lincoln, or heck, Harry Truman? You want to live like that poor trade-school educated welder down the street, who owns his home, is debt-free and can get another job in about 15 minutes if he needs to? That’s what will happen to you if you don’t get a degree! Even though it’s patently nonsensical, doesn’t just about everyone you know think a college degree is all but essential to the good life?

To keep costs down and control high, evil corporations sow uncertainty and insecurity among their workers, You’ve all heard the stories about how evil corporations use the threat of replacing workers with a fresh-off-the-boat immigrants, to keep them in line and keep them from demanding more pay and better working conditions? Talk to a college professor lately? They all know that there are hundreds of people willing and able to take their job if anyone on campus finds anything at all lacking in them. Colleges used to offer tenure; now, it’s rare, as most classes are taught by adjuncts and grad students in most colleges in most fields. Not only are those non-tenure track people cheaper, they send a message to the tenured profs as well: we got backup plans if you screw up.

Giant, evil corporations willingly sell cheap, inferior products whenever they can, to maximize profits. To be admitted to Harvard 150 years ago, back when profs got tenure and under 10% of people went to college, you needed to pass a Greek and a Latin exam – and a calculus test. A college education *started* from a baseline that far exceeds the intellectual achievement of most PhDs today. (FYI: Most PhDs today are in education and social sciences.) Since only a tiny fraction of any population is likely to have the inclination and talent to learn Latin, Greek and calculus merely to get in to a good college, for the last century or so, colleges have been dumbing down their offerings to make sure they sell as much product as possible.

The first step was education schools, which generally date back to the second half of the 1800’s. For the last 150 years, inferior students (of course, there are exceptions. I assume.) who could not make it in a traditional college (think: Liberal Arts/Great Books + math, science, music, art, where that Latin, Greek and Calc would be put to use) could major in education, even get a PhD by doing ‘original’ research, and then get faculty positions teaching the next round of unqualified students. Over time – I’m estimating the other shoe fell around 1990 – the unqualified/dumb people with PhDs in participation trophy fields outnumber professors who might have a real education in something, and begin to call the shots and simply quash any opposition. You get stuff like this, for example (H/T to Rotten Chestnuts).

As a business strategy, as a way to maximize profits, this ‘create majors unqualified/dumb people can do’ has been a big winner! All studies fields, plus the non-RAD fields like English, History, Sociology, Psychology and so on, exist primarily to take the money from people who would not otherwise be able to hack college. Comparing such degrees to what a university degree used to be (and still is, in a few Great Books schools and the more RAD disciplines in some major schools) is like comparing finger painting to a Raphael portrait. Which is why the super-well-educated college grad is likely to say the finger paining is just as artistic as the Raphael…

Evil, rich corporations use their political influence to get the government to act in their best interests, despite what is good for or desired by people in general. It would be just like an evil corporation to get the government to all but require their product, create an elaborate tax-payer subsidized finance scheme to put people into debt to buy their product, and then try to get the government/tax-payers to take the bullet when the product doesn’t perform as advertised.

Student loans, anyone?

Enough. I’ve got an Academic VORP follow-up essay I’m working on, but it required real thought. Plus, there were some very good comments I didn’t answer because I wanted to expand on them. Sorry about that. Anyway, it’s now 3 days since I’ve written about bricks. Count your blessings! I mean, um, thanks for reading this humble blog.

Academic VORP

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That would be Value Over Replacement Professor.

Background for those who lack the sports gene: Beginning in 1977, a guy named Bill James, a baseball fanatic with a degree in economics and a flair for statistics and writing, began compiling a slew of new metrics used to evaluate baseball players and teams. Over the decades since, he has become a widely recognized guru on this topic, and has inspired many followers and imitators.

Among James’ main goals was finding ways to statistically evaluate players using only objective measures. Historically, baseball players were evaluated mostly by feel, or by a few relatively arbitrary statistics: for example, batting average (hits/official at bats), home runs and earned run average (‘earned’ runs per 9 innings pitched). Batting average can vary a lot depending on who is hitting in front of you or behind you, and the field where your team is playing. Same with home runs, earned run average and other ‘box score’ stats: a lot of variables can give misleading numbers if not taken into account.

Crowds of smart people worked to address these and other issues. More and more variables got baked into the numbers. Eventually, people came up with the idea of a ‘replacement-level player’ – usually imagined as the equivalent of a player in the top tier of the minors, the guy a team would replace an injured major league player with. In other words, somebody just below what the team considers a major league talent. For hitters, VORP counts how many runs a player produces above what a replacement player would produce; for pitchers, it is runs prevented.

With a little more math, a team can figure out how much it is costing them to get or prevent each extra run by subtracting the minimal salary of a replacement player from what they pay the big leaguer, and dividing by VORP. Building on this basic idea – and there are evidently layers and layers of refinements and sophistication – you get Moneyball: you can figure out what actually contributes to winning, and what players and skills are undervalued relative to their contributions. By judiciously spending on what the other teams undervalue, you can up your team’s chances of winning while spending comparatively less money.

This process, which has taken over professional baseball, has had some tragicomic outcomes: teams discovered they were paying millions, sometimes, to players who added little or nothing they couldn’t get for cheap elsewhere, or had some guy in the minors whose skills failed some eye-test (subjective valuation) who was worth quite a bit in terms of wins. Age adjustments were added: for example, it seems a hitter’s ability to hit really fast fastballs, say 95+ miles per hour, falls off pretty dramatically starting in their early 30s. Thus, the value of young pitchers who throw very hard has gone up, and hitters entering their 30s has gone down. And a million other things. And, of course, aspiring player know all this, and work to shape their skill accordingly.

In the end, math wins.

It occurs to me that this sort of analysis should be applied to academia. I’d bet that maybe 80-90% of college professors have a VORP near zero – the next available candidate could deliver as much value as they do. It would seem that both the administration and the professors themselves understand this on some level: all those graduate assistants and adjunct professors are, in a sense, minor leaguers providing major league value at much lower cost.

This understanding also explains a lot of the psychology one finds among academics: they know, in their hearts, that a goodly percentage of the students in that graduate class they are teaching could do their jobs with no drop off in value from everyone else’s view. (The drop off in value from their own subjective view, of course, is enormous!) That’s why academics are so often touchy when challenged on even trivial matters, and so often disproportionately vehement in their prejudices views.

I once, years ago, came across an amusing summary of a study (obviously, buyer beware here) that found that academics were less emotionally developed than non-academics of the same age. The amusing part: the authors speculated that the cultivated habit of keeping an open mind tended to make academics less fixed in their beliefs, thus more easily disturbed by day to day events than the more relatively closed-minded non-academic.

Suuuure. That’s the ticket.

I propose, rather, that two factors might explain this phenomenon: first, that academia itself is a very tenuous environment, as most of the people in it know in their hearts that some punk could, and likely as not eventually will, replace them with no drop off in any performance anyone besides they themselves cares about, Second, such an environment is unattractive to more well-developed personalities, who want to get on with their lives instead of cultivating eternal adolescence. (1)

So, yeah, an academic VORP would be a good thing, for everyone except the zero-VORP professors out there. Maybe I should put together a grant proposal?

  1. Also, Critical Theory both attracts and creates miserable people. That could have something to do with it as well.

Subtle Poison

Yes, we’re talking about schooling.

The late John Taylor Gatto said that the greatest achievement of modern schooling is that people can’t even imagine doing it any other way. That state controlled age-segregated graded compulsory schooling is poison is a major point of this blog. But it’s not enough to make sure your kids never see the inside of a state school classroom by homeschooling them or otherwise keeping them out of the clutches of state education machine. We – including myself, here – must comes to grips with the damage, the subtle ways being immersed in a state-schooled culture has poisoned us. That this damage often shows itself particularly in those who actively reject state schooling, and even those who have themselves been spared from the age-segregated classroom. shows how deep the poison runs.

Consider:

To recap: Pestalozzi, back at the end of the 18th century, set up the first in a series of his experimental schools in Switzerland. He came up with the idea that the proper way to educate a child was to have experts (e.g., Pestalozzi) predigest subjects, reduce them to well-defined tactile steps, and to insist the child master step 1 before being allowed to attempt step 2. He had this fear that a child left to learn anything on his own or in some way not shaped by a teacher would be end up morally and intellectually crippled, prematurely proud of his achievements and dismissive of things he could not learn readily on his own, and, in general, unmanageable.

His method required a detailed curriculum with very specific goals. But most importantly, Pestalozzian education requires frequent and intimate guidance of the student by his teacher. (1) Fichte, when he delivered himself of a series of lectures on how the German Nation could resume its manifest destiny to become the ruler of planet (for our own unenlightened good, of course), latched on to the Pestalozzian method as THE key step. (no, really.) Not because it was particularly suited to teaching the child math or reading or other such trivia, but because by it the loyalty of the child could be removed from family, village and church and be fixed entirely on the teacher – a teacher trained and certified by the state!

See how that works? A child is only praised, only succeeds in school, when he does exactly what the teacher demands. The teacher is a certified product of a state education bureaucracy, expected to follow carefully prescribed paths and deliver kids ‘performing to grade level’. What the teacher then necessarily demands of the student is compliance with a detailed curriculum, with an arbitrary set of goals and timelines. A ‘good student’ – and what parent doesn’t want his child identified as a good student? – is thus one who does exactly what the teacher says. Nothing the kid does outside the classroom matters; success is defined as pleasing the teacher by passing tests and not making a fuss.(2)

A family might want its children to be nice to grandma, help out around the house, feed the chickens, learn the viola, make dinner, help dad plow the south 40, sing in the Sunday choir or a million other things. A kid in such an environment, as Fichte well knew, might not put the state’s interests first! School is meant to remedy that situation.

Yet you hear even homeschoolers talk about grade level, as if it is some sort of objective standard. What’s really happening: all those years of training in school, during which the parents learned that complying was the only measure of success, has lead them to seek the approval of the state even when rejecting state schooling! See? Our kids are performing to grade level! We are good parents! Just say no.

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Nice standardized kids in nice neat rows.
  • Age segregation is an unnatural horror. At no other time or place in our lives are we limited to interaction with only people of our own age, not a work, not in our families, not in church, not when just hanging out in public. At home, we share a life with people older and often younger than ourselves. The real, fundamental relationships we do not choose give meaning to our lives. Enforced arbitrary relationships do not.

Extra curricular activities – and notice how we call normal activities healthy people do ‘extra curricular’ – such as kiddie sports leagues and even musical and dance activities are almost always arranged by grade or age. Why? If you’re worried the older kids will make life harder on the little kids, remember that athletic and musical talents, just like academic talents, are not distributed fairly by age. Example: When I was in 8th grade, I was a mediocre basketball player; my two little brothers, in 6th and 4th grade, were comparative athletic freaks. When we played on the playground before or after school, all three Moore brothers played with the other 8th graders, because that was roughly their competence levels. During school, however, and on formal teams, they generally played with kids their own ages, and, from a competitive standpoint, dominated them. Point: in our free time, we did something fair, so that games were competitive and fun; in school, we competed with kids our age, which worked out fine for me, but not so good with the kids playing with my little brothers.

The same dynamics go on in the classroom, except the more precocious kids (and this classification changes from subject to subject and grade to grade!) get shipped out or ignored, or learn to make trouble to get some attention.

Yet, even outside school, parents tend to invest actual energy in getting their kids together with others their age, not recognizing that kids LEARN to play only with kids their own ages, both in informal and more formal settings. The stickball and touch football games in the street outside the house did not follow those rules. Great lessons in socializing are learned when older kids tone it down and little kids step it up in order to play together. Anybody with a big (happy) family sees this all the time.

  • You are not incompetent to teach your children. As Socrates said, anyone who charges money to teach children what any competent adult knows is committing fraud. Yet, somehow, we imagine some magic happens in educations schools, whereby the bottom 10% (generally) of college students get some superpower needed to teach our 6 year old that the ‘A’ in ‘ate’ says its name, or 3 times 7 is 21, or that June is abbreviated ‘Jun’.

Or do you think you need special training to understand what’s going on in Huckleberry Fin, oops, can’t read that racist stuff, um, Anne of Green Gables, no, too sexist, um, Chronicles of Narnia, nope, that whole God thing, um – well, what do you think they’re reading? Do you think they’re learning to think by regurgitating the one right answer found at the back of the teacher’s edition of whatever passes for reading materials these days?

Does the magic of state certification make a teacher better? How? It’s all part of the mythology of grade level: your kid, my kid, everybody’s kid needs to be in a group of 6 year olds when they’re 6 years old, and needs to have a state certified teacher to make sure they understand that only state certified teachers can teach them, to make sure that they perform at grade level like all the other 6 year olds. Because….

  • The management tricks of the classroom are not how we learn. OK, class, who can tell me what we discussed last week? How does the word micromanagement make you feel? OK, anybody else? I’m looking for another word. Don’t forget to raise your hand! Don’t speak out of turn. Wait to be called on. There will be a test.

Does it occur to you that nobody outside a classroom ever acts like this? If somebody were to come up to me and ask me what we talked about last week, and expected me to guess until I said what they wanted to hear – I’d put up with that?

Here’s another St. John’s College story: right off the bat, day one, we went to our first class, and found out that 20 people can sit around a table and talk about something without raising hands, with interruptions as long as they’re polite about it (you can be polite about interruptions, just check out the dinner table conversations in any happy family), that people will generally listen and take turns without any policing by the teacher.

Speaking for myself, I was not a particularly mature 18 year old, far from it, and neither were most of the other kids in my classes – and it took about 90 seconds to get the hang of it. You get better at it as you go along, but just wanting to hear what others think about something you’ve all studied, wanting to get your say said, and not wanting to be seen as a bore or a fool – these things go a long way toward cultivating civil discussion. Every Johnny I’ve ever talked about this with agrees that these civil, engaged conversations were what we all missed most about St. John’s.

Every time I go to a talk or participate in some sort of educational endeavor, I see people falling back into what are, essentially, crowd control techniques masquerading as teaching. Other lame schooling tricks no self-respecting adult should put up with include small group discussions on specified questions, on the assumption we can’t all just talk it over and need guidance to know what to think about; constant shifts from one thing to another, like changing topics or speaker or medium, on the assumption no one can pay attention for more than 5 minutes; attempts to take whole topics and predigest them down to itty bitty bits or just generally dumbing topics down in the dread fear that somebody might not get it, or, worse, get it in some non-approved way.

Without years of classroom training, no adult would put up with this treatment. Many, if not most, of us have been completely crippled by the whole participation trophy approach, where the class serves to create a group to which attendance is the only real achievement. But anyone who can actually do anything real will more or less consciously tune out these management tricks, just as they tuned them out for however much school they did.

These four things – there are others – are the poisonous residue of graded classroom education. They are tools of control, not tools of learning or teaching. If no competent adult would put up with it, no child should have to put up with it either. Yet, we really can’t imagine doing it any other way.

  1. Pestalozzi’s approach was seen by many – Einstein, for example, who attended a Pestalozzian school for part of his education – as a vast improvement over the rigidity, intimidation and physical discipline common in other schools. And who knows? Maybe young Albert lucked into great teachers. The point I’m making is, failing an outstanding and profoundly sympathetic teacher, this micromanagement of the child’s life will quickly become a bureaucratic nightmare – and such it has become.
  2. Fichte wanted all children physically removed from their families as soon as practical for the duration of their educations. Since this power grab by the state was too much even for obedient Prussians and Americans, or maybe too expensive, we’ve since settled on merely tying up virtually all of a child’s life with school, school activities, and homework, and reducing parents to mere enforcers of the school’s goals – you do help your kid with his homework every single night for as many hours as it takes, right?

Orwellian Euphemisms, pt 3: Modern Education, etc.

Modern Scientific Education is not modern – the basic ideas trace back at least to the late 18th century – has no basis in science, and is most certainly not education. Old-school ideological indoctrination would be a better name for it. As readers of this blog know, good old Fichte kicked off the current compulsory state schooling craze back in 1811. He took ideas from Pestalozzi, most importantly that the child needs to be lead step by step through a pre-digested curriculum by a trained teacher, never allowed to proceed to the next step unless and until his teacher approves, never allowed to study what he found interesting. He blended those ideas with what would be startling notions of the superiority of the German race – startling, that is, if we’d never heard of the Third Reich. But as mentioned here often, the particular goal, whether it’s a Puritan utopia, rule by the Master Race, training up useful idiots for the glorious people’s revolution or some other End Time fantasy, is something that can be changed with relative ease, once the mechanism of control is in place.

Thus, you get graded classroom run by state-certified teachers with state-approved curricula. Kids are thrust into grades based on age, not on what they know or are interested in – what could be less important, or, indeed more harmful than allowing the kid any say? Then, you make sure only state-certified teachers can teach them, very specifically keeping the parents out (1) of the picture, except as enforcers (homework, anyone?) of what they, the teachers, teach. What the teachers teach, what education schools filter for, is doing what you’re told. Ever notice that among the most common complaints teachers make is that they have to spend so much time on discipline that they have little time to teach anything else? The poor dears! They haven’t figured out that the discipline IS the lesson. Conforming, just as the teachers themselves did to get certified, IS the goal.

Curriculum warrants its own section of euphemisms:

No Child Left Behind: All children forced to the same low level of mediocrity.

Common Core: Elite fringe. Seriously, in what sense is Bill Gates, whose foundation funded this mess, shooting for ‘common’? In what sense are painful explications of one way among many to solve basic math problems ‘core’? (2)

Side note: once you start getting into the history of public education in America, one pattern stands out: how much of the public education project is carried out out of sight by unelected people. Just as Common Core was foisted off on people who had never heard of it until it was enacted, the war against parental control as manifested in one-room schools tended to be waged by nameless bureaucrats enacting regulations far from the public eye. Throughout the second half of the 19th century up through the early 20th, state level education departments were set up with minimal public involvement. Only people who’d gotten degrees from Prussian universities, or, later, only grads from the education schools those Prussian (Fichte-style) educators had set up, got appointed or hired. A homogeneity of thought completely at odds with the then-current American educational practices dominated. For example. This played well into a time-tested propaganda technique: make a change, or merely assert a change has been made, and answer all objections with the equivalent of stare decisis: this is settled policy! The time for discussion has passed!

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“What do you mean you’ve never been to Alpha Centauri? For heaven’s sake mankind, it’s only four light years away you know. I’m sorry, but if you can’t be bothered to take an interest in local affairs that’s your own lookout.”
  1. I’ve spoken to parents who volunteered to help in the classroom, and even some who did – I’ve not yet heard of an experience that wasn’t frustrating and trivializing to the parent, and uncomfortable for the teacher. This gets tried because simply baldly stated the truth – hand over your kids and get out of our way – is, as yet, a tough sell to a lot of parents. Progress on this front is being made.
  2. I get it that she’s explaining a method, but that’s one of a bunch of methods people with some feel for math might use, each rather idiosyncratic. Once you get the hang of math, you’ll come up with ways to solve the simple problems like this one in your head – but probably not that one. The mechanical version is straightforward – why not start there? What, if anything, is gained doing it this way?

Orwellian Euphemisms, pt 2: Critical Thinking

Not too long ago, perhaps when some god stirred in his sleep, the idea that America is usefully divided into front row and back row people seemed to have a brief moment of currency. Haven’t heard much of that noise lately, but then again I haven’t been listening for it. Or maybe the god fell back into deep sleep, who knows? At the time, it struck me as typical classist nonsense, looking for a way to separate the good, virtuous, and therefore justifiably successful from the bad, vicious, and therefore unsuccessful in a way most flattering to the presumed good people. I most likely reacted this way because I always sat in the back, and was always among the smarter and more ‘successful’ kids in my classes, so the distinction, such as it is, rang false.

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Those kids in the front there are obviously more intelligent and ambitious than those in the back, right?

Let’s back up: poking around, this idea seems to trace back to the work of one Chris Arnade. He’s an amatuer journalist/photographer who is a sort of secular saint by virtue of his leaving his job of 20 years as a Wall Street quant in order to hang with and photograph poor people. He was unhappy with the Wall Street culture; they also closed his area due to post Great Recession regulatory burdens, and he got a buyout and retired. (1) Starting around 2012, he began to publish his writings and photos, where he coined or at least popularized the idea of front and back row kids. He just recently published a book (disclosure: I have not read it).

The idea seems to be that the kids who sit in the front row of classrooms are the ambitious leaders who rise above such trivia as race, sex, religion and any brand of localism from nationalism on down, while the kids who sit in the back have no ambitions and are fettered by their failure to rise above race and sex, and cling to their Bibles and their loyalty to place. Kids who are ambitious and smart want to sit up front so that they don’t miss anything and get noticed; kids in the back just want to be left alone, and see no value in school. More or less.

The bastion of the first group is of course the Democratic party; the second group voted for Trump. This is evidently interpreted as a failure by Democrats to understand the less enlightened, and of Trump (diabolically?) capitalizing on that very lack of enlightenment. In other words, the smart, good people failed to understand the stupid, bad people, who then voted for Trump as one of their own – or something. It doesn’t quite make sense. In what sense are people who can’t understand people outside their tribe ‘smart’? In what sense are people who value home and God ‘stupid’? Makes a fellah wonder…

Today, however, I’m not here to criticize this particular flavor of bigotry. Rather, it just happens to illustrate today’s Orwellian euphemism: Critical Thinking. To be fully Orwellian, the euphemism must not only avoid saying what it really means, but must say the opposite of what it means. Thus, critical thinking as used today means mindless conformity, the kind of mindless conformity displayed by the kids who sit in the front rows and kiss teacher hindquarters for a decade and a half.

Just as our last Orwellian euphemism, Academic Freedom, might be expected to result in a wide variety of views being expressed without fear of repercussions, but instead results in a viciously-enforced uniformity of thought, Critical Thinking might be imagined as equipping the critical thinker with the tools to criticize, oh, schooling, say. Or his teacher’s political or social assumptions. Or the conclusions of his social class.

Nope. Critical thinkers don’t ever seem to get around to dredging up, let alone criticizing, their own deeply held assumptions, except when those assumptions – say, loyalty to God, family and village – contradict what their teachers think. Then, in the unlikely event the student were to push back (no chance those front row kids are pushing back – they have future careers and success to think of!) those core beliefs are not so much criticized as laughed off stage. The point of critical thinking, in practice, is to prevent any thoughts critical of the assumptions that underlie the attitudes and goals of the front row kids, while making rejection of those held (maybe – the case has not been made) by the back row kids a requirement for membership in the Kool Kids Klub.

If you were to ask any of Arnade’s current or former peers if they have good critical thinking skills, they would pronounce them excellent. And remain unable to understand those poor back seat kids, except through an analysis such as Arnade’s that runs no real risk of upsetting their own feelings of moral and intellectual superiority.

  1. According to Wikipedia, he’s also a socialist, of the ‘retire young from a mid-6-figure Wall Street job to pursue my hobbies’ style socialists. Wonder what those back row kids would think of that?