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”

Photo Essay #1

At Mass yesterday, saw this on the lower shelf of a side table:

The first thing that came to mind:

Or even:

Because, after all:

would take some serious horsepower to move.

Then this came to mind:

You know, the political statement of those otherwise secretive people who find our roads, in their current state and extent, just fine. Maybe this ‘DO NOT MOVE THIS ALTAR’ sign is a similar guerrilla protest?

But, alas:

When I turned around, there came into view this attractive, fairly  sturdy table, done up to be used as an altar.


Hard to picture a sheep, or Isaac, laid upon this, let alone sufficient kindling to reduce said victims to ash. Which would reduce the table to ash as well. So the imagery wasn’t totally working for me.

Grand Sweep of History, part III

5) It helps if you can imagine what events looked like to the people at the time.  An example from within living memory – imagine you’re a German shop keeper, mechanic or accountant in 1936. Are you saying to yourself: “I think I’ll support this Hitler fellow because he’ll launch a massive doomed war that’ll cost millions of my fellow Germans their lives, and march 12 million Jews, gays, gypsies, communists and the people that stand up for them to the gas chamber”? Or, rather, are you thinking “We need a strong leader in these desperate economic times, somebody not afraid to stand up to the enemies of a strong Germany and do what needs to be done! Enough of these limp-wristed wind bags we’ve been electing lately!”? Or – what? The first way of thinking is not only almost certain to be wrong in almost all cases, it paints Germans as monsters. We’re not monsters – so we comfort ourselves – so we needn’t worry that we’d fall for the kind of rhetoric Hitler used. Right?

Here’s an extreme case. By no means am I claiming this is the whole story, but it’s a big part of the story that is routinely omitted from popular discussions:

Imagine your country has been invaded and conquered by a ruthless foreign army. During the early stages of the occupation, any sign of opposition to the regime gets you promptly executed, including simply clinging to the ancient culture you’ve inherited. Many thousands have died. Order is brutally imposed and enforced.

Neighboring countries narrowly escape conquest. They hear the horror stories as refugees stream into their territories, and, in the few places where the enemy has been repulsed, they can see for themselves how the conquered peoples have been treated. They are both terrified and horrified. They mount a counter-attack.

The battle rages for years. Whenever conquered territories are liberated, the newly freed people flock to the cause. Finally, after a long and bloody war, the invaders are defeated.The celebration is deafening, the heroes immortalized in story and song.

As is the case in every war, there were collaborators. Understandably, the people who resisted, and who fought and won the war, loath them. Lynch mobs break out. People die. Worst of all – and this also happens in every war – men of bad will start flinging accusations around, and use the post-war emotions as a means to get unpopular people killed, and their wealth seized.

The local religious authorities reluctantly get involved. They attempt to set up some war trials, in order to keep innocent people from suffering mob violence. At the same time, there were plenty of real collaborators and sympathizers, people whose cooperation helped keep the enemy in power. These people, when found, are handed over to the authorities. Over the course of several years, several thousand people are convicted and handed over to death.

This is a pretty accurate high level description of the Islamic conquest of Spain, the Reconquista and the Spanish Inquisition (at least, the parts of the Inquisition that took place during and immediately after the Reconquista). Sure, there’s more to the story: the trials under the Inquisition radically fail our ideas of fairness (although they looked pretty good by comparison to their historical antecedents), it’s very likely that many of the trials were motivated by revenge, greed, bigotry, and so on, and, once the Islamic invaders felt more secure, they did lighten up on the summary execution thing, the legendary flowering of Sephardic Jews took place under their rule. (Of course, this is the very thing that got Jews in general labeled collaborators – because many of them, by all accounts, certainly were. However sympathetic we are to the tough spot Spanish Jews found themselves in, it’s also important to see things from the viewpoint of the Christian Spaniards as well.)

Picture This

You’re an Israelite, you’ve been wandering in the desert for 40 years, and Moses is laying it on thick before letting you cross over into the Promised Land. He reads the entire law, out loud, while you and your buds are standing there, concluding in Deuteronomy 30:19 with:

“I call heaven and earth to record this day against you, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing: therefore choose life, that both thou and thy seed may live.”

So, now what? You’re leaning a bit toward Life, but, being shrewd, you’d like to look over the merchandise, do a little comparison shopping. And that bit about ‘seed’ has you a little confused.

What to do, what to do?

Evidently, head on down to your local Orchard Supply Hardware, and head directly to the –

Problem solved!

Mafia, You-Fia, We’re All Fia!

Years ago, reading a book wherein was described how Things Got Done during the Roman Empire (this book, here) it dawned on me – I’m slow on the uptake, sometimes – that traditional social structures are more often like the Mafia than anything else.

No, really. See:

– power resides in a pater/don/prince who acts as judge and enforcer;

– us peons must appeal to the pater/don/prince if we want anything done;

– interactions between unequals are characterized by elaborate obsequiousness;

– there are no police (i.e., people employed by the government empowered to use force to bring about compliance with laws with no regard to persons). Sometimes, there are people wearing police uniforms, but they’re not police so much as private troops;

– the pater/don/prince retains his power through a combination of political maneuvering, the granting or withholding of favors, the calling in of debts incurred through the acceptance of favors, threats and, if all else fails, violence;

– since his power largely devolves to his ability to grant or withhold favors, he is very jealous of this power – anyone who gets anything done on his turf without going through him becomes by that fact alone his enemy, someone to be put back in line or crushed;

– a corollary: the pater/don/prince cannot allow anyone to imagine for a moment that they can do with out him. That’s the most dangerous idea of all. The most they can be allowed to imagine is replacing one don with another – dangerous, sure, but still within the model, so to speak;

– under a Mafia-style government, turf wars will be almost constant – with neighboring dons, with uppity locals

– it is almost unheard of for a Mafia-style government to describe itself in those terms. Even actual Mafias tend toward the ‘it’s just business’, ‘we’re doing what is necessary to maintain order for everybody’s benefit’, ‘tragically, violence was unavoidable’ type of self-description.

So, see what I mean? The scary part is that, not only are there lots of Mafia-style governments out there (Saudi Arabia, almost all African countries, Mexico, and on and on) but tired democracies (as Chesterton points out) tend to slouch towards the expediency of a strong man.

Grand Sweep of History, part II

4) Look at the rocks and junk. People, especially the over-educated, have a weird tendency to overlook the facts on the ground. But about the only undisputed historical evidence we have is the physical stuff prior ages left lying around.

Examples: Old churches in Europe. They’re all over the place. Big ones, little ones, in every city, little town and village.  We can conclude 2 things: first, that really motivated people built them – can you imagine what it was like to haul and carefully stack huge rocks until you’ve got a cathedral? Without power tools, trucks, cranes and so on? Second, the people must have really loved these buildings. How do we know that? Because, stone buildings take some serious maintenance work every century or so to keep up, an in places where people have built things that are not loved, they strongly tend to get ‘mined’ for materials by subsequent generations. You can see what’s left of ruins of buildings that were not loved everywhere – typically, not much.  (the Pyramids are so massive that a couple millennia of re-purposing has so far mostly just stripped off the nice smooth surfacing. That, and the population hasn’t been motivated to build giant stuff in the desert lately. The locals have not consistently loved them.)

There’s lots to argue about European history. But the facts on the ground say: those Europeans really loved their churches.

Another: Aztec ruins. Here, again, people must have been very motivated to build those pyramids. They’re still around because modern people have decided they’re interesting – charge admission, can’t climb on them anymore or chip off souvenirs.  But they’re effectively deserted – the locals don’t use them for their intended purposes any more. They’re nothing like the churches, which are still maintained and used for their intended purpose by the people in the neighborhood.

So, we can safely conclude, based on the facts on the ground, that, for the most part,  local people loved and still love their churches in Europe, but Mexicans don’t love their pyramids in the same way. It seems churches and Aztec pyramids are different, and people feel differently about them.

It may seem that this is too obvious to point out, but it bears keeping in mind, as people seem to routinely get confused about this when arguing about the evils of the Church and what a pity it is that the Aztecs were snuffed out. The rocks on the ground don’t support that thesis.