left to the mercy of parents
April 23, 2012, 10:09 pm
Filed under: brave new world, the sweet life | Tags: , ,

The French Renaissance essayist Montaigne had this to say about homeschooling:  to practice it is to abandon our children to foolish, indiscreet and ill conditioned parents.  Better to instruct them in the way of the law because the wellbeing of the state depends on it.

Plutarch is admirable throughout, but especially where he judges of human actions.  What fine things does he say in the comparison of Lycurgus and Numa upon the subject of our great folly in abandoning children to the care and government of their fathers?  The most of our civil governments, as Aristotle says, leave, after the manner of the Cyclops, to every one the ordering of their wives and children, according to their own foolish and indiscreet fancy; and the Lacedaemonian and Cretan are almost the only governments that have committed the education of children to the laws.  Who does not see that in a state all depends upon their nurture and bringing up?  and yet they are left to the mercy of parents, let them be as foolish and ill conditioned as they may, without any manner of discretion.

Michel de Montaigne, Of Anger

smart Finns

How not to educate.

It seems the Finns are the envy of the world for their successes in education.  Which isn’t remarkable on its face; when you study systems using metrics someone has to come out on top.  What is remarkable is that the ideas that the Finns hold dear for educating their kids are almost to a one, the opposite of the ideas we Americans believe to be important.   I’ll take the risk of oversimplifying and describe the difference – see the article below – as: they believe in educating all equally, where we believe in making our kids compete to achieve.

I assume much of our belief system comes from what I’ve begun to understand is market fundamentalism.  The American sciences of management and marketing have gone viral and are infecting areas of life that they are not designed to mix with.  In America, CEOs are writing education policy.

The article excerpted below makes it quite clear that the policies at play in America are not working.  So the evidence is out there, now to hope that it gains traction.

I’ve broken out some of the ideas in the following two paragraphs, and excerpted a quotation from the article below.

American system:  long hours, exhaustive study, rote memorization, test constantly, track performance, rout out ‘bad’ teachers, reward ‘good teachers, foster competition, involve the private sector, let people choose their school.

Finnish schools:  less homework, more creative play, no standardized tests, no sense of accountability,  distrust of competition, no lists of best schools, cooperation, equality trumps excellence.

Here is the excerpt:

Compared with the stereotype of the East Asian model — long hours of exhaustive cramming and rote memorization — Finland’s success is especially intriguing because Finnish schools assign less homework and engage children in more creative play.

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in the name of imagination
October 20, 2011, 9:12 pm
Filed under: brave new world, unseen world | Tags: , , , ,

vital and indispensable

Take the L train from Union Square home to Brooklyn, or the 1 to the upper west side, or pretty well any train from where you work downtown to where ever you live, and look at the advertising.  It’s targeted to the rider demographic and it’s a sign of the times.  And times are rough:  people are going back to school to ride out the recession and to retool to position themselves better in a harsher market.   The subway cars are full of ads for colleges and universities.

The whole scene is a microcosm econosystem.  The car you’re in was designed to get workers to offices.  Ever notice how bad service is on the weekends and at night?  That’s because its prime purpose is to move workers back and forth from their offices.  The ads for education fine tune the purpose of the car:  in addition to getting you to work, the MTA will also help you find the degree program you need – and take you there to boot.  And after you’re successfully degreed it will, of course, take you back to work again.   One stop shopping.

Education is for money so you can enjoy purchasing a good life for yourself.  Or is it?

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hemming and hawing
February 14, 2011, 5:03 pm
Filed under: the sweet life | Tags: , , ,

In a competitive world, it’s a liability to be thoughtful.  Takes too much time.  People are cleaning up and moving on while you’re still wrapping your head around and making sense of and coming to grips with.  Shall we stop the world and let you off?  And how do you propose to fill out your timesheet?

Here is a teacher who demonstrates to her class the difference between mere mental strength and mental character.  The former computes and then decides – done.  The latter negotiates a treacherous terrain:  weighs conflicting options, hems, waits patiently, debates internally, haws, recalibrates biases, welcomes uncertainty.  And it ends with wisdom.  It’s a good definition, and – because of its difficulty – a better way to practical strength of mind.

Ms. Taylor was always reminding the class of how limited her grasp of any situation was. “Sorry, I get distracted easily,” she’d say, or, “Sorry, sometimes I jump to conclusions too quickly.” In this way, she communicated the distinction between mental strength (the processing power of the brain) and mental character (the mental virtues that lead to practical wisdom). She stressed the importance of collecting conflicting information before making up one’s mind, of calibrating one’s certainty level to the strength of the evidence, of enduring uncertainty for long stretches as an answer became clear, of correcting for one’s biases. As Keith E. Stanovich, a psychologist at the University of Toronto, writes in his book “What Intelligence Tests Miss” (2009), these “thinking dispositions” correlate weakly or not at all with I.Q.

David Brooks, Social Animal

rush to the bottom
January 24, 2011, 6:23 pm
Filed under: brave new world, the sweet life | Tags: ,

Following is a letter I posted in response to an article on the rocketing cost of education in the UK.  I felt the columnist didn’t talk about the deeper costs of loss of accessible education in a free society.

My letter:

I remember reading an essay in a Literary Criticism class in my undergraduate university called Does Literature Humanize? I like Mr Fish’s essay but he doesn’t say enough about the consequences of these changes to the British system. Poor, underprivileged people won’t be educated, which is insane and tragic and backward, but there are other consequences.

I have come to believe that the humanities do humanize which has huge implications for civilized life. After all, someone has to say killing Iraqis in an unjust war is questionable policy, or that executives making 20,000 USD a day is an unsustainable and inequitable state of affairs etc. And it’s not going to be people who have ‘invested’ in ‘training’ at an expensive ‘ivy league’ and are cashing in by buying themselves more houses and more cars. It’s going to be people who have had their heads and hearts cracked open by all the wisdom of the ages written in all of the great books that we are made to read in our liberal arts schools. There are real consequences if we lose humanities knowledge: a coarse, hardscrabble vision of living, a rush to the bottom, thug leadership, more fear. Real consequences.

-Letter to the editor, New York Times, The Value of Higher Education Made Literal, Stanley Fish

the university of Erasmus, Newton and Darwin
January 19, 2011, 1:05 pm
Filed under: brave new world, the sweet life | Tags: , ,

Influence peddling at a University contradicts the essential mandate of a good institution, according to this letter.  A masters student at the University of Cambridge posted a thesis that criticized a local credit card company’s product, which tried to have it censured.  The head of the university’s Security Engineering department had this to say in response.

I’m afraid the centuring business woman wasn’t wrong  about the gap between a normal University’s mandate and actual operations:  our universities are crawling with conflicts of interest between parties with fundamentally different missions.  The power of the department head’s letter is the take no prisoners restatement of what it means for an important institution to remain high minded and relatively pure.  That way, scholars and faculty can say challenging and new things without fear of reprisal.

From the head’s letter:

Second, you seem to think that we might censor a student’s thesis, which is lawful and already in the public domain, simply because a powerful interest finds it inconvenient. This shows a deep misconception of what universities are and how we work. Cambridge is the University of Erasmus, of Newton,and of Darwin; censoring writings that offend the powerful is offensive to our deepest values. Thus even though the decision to put the thesis online was Omar’s, we have no choice but to back him. That would hold even if we did not agree with the material! Accordingly I have authorised the thesis to be issued asa Computer Laboratory Technical Report. This will make it easier for people to find and to cite, and will ensure that its presence on our web site is permanent.

–from a letter to Melanie Johnson UK Cards Association by Ross Anderson FRS FREng Professor of Security Engineering, University of Cambridge

the degradation of intelligence
January 18, 2011, 7:33 pm
Filed under: brave new world | Tags: , , , , ,

I was wandering with a friend through a lower east side neighborhood in Manhattan, having just moved into town and relishing each new street and bar and topic that came up as we ambled along and talked.  He had moved to the US three years prior, and I had been here – in another city – for over ten years.  But now I was new to New York and he was my guide.  Too, he was a confessor of sorts for me to test my ideas about the strangeness of life in America.  And so on that day I made some generalizations between bars, including one about my bafflement about our love affair with dumbing down, our anti intellectualism.  His answer surprised me both for how quickly he reacted and for the content.  I asked, why do I always feel like I can’t have an intelligent conversation with anyone, friends, acquaintances, colleagues?  He said, because in America you have to pay for your education.

This is George Monbiot on the degradation of intelligence in the US. Regardless of personal politics, it is a topic worth taking a dispassionate look at.  Topics include fundamentalism, darwinianism and slavery.  A really clear if biased discussion of a big problem for a society that continues to describe itself as free.

From the article:

Like most people on my side of the Atlantic, I have for many years been mystified by American politics. The US has the world’s best universities and attracts the world’s finest minds. It dominates discoveries in science and medicine. Its wealth and power depend on the application of knowledge. Yet, uniquely among the developed nations (with the possible exception of Australia), learning is a grave political disadvantage.


Susan Jacoby’s book The Age of American Unreason provides the fullest explanation I have read so far. She shows that the degradation of US politics results from a series of interlocking tragedies.

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banking education

This excerpt from Paulo Freire‘s Pedagogy of the Oppressed is a discussion of techniques of education while also being a broad critique of how conservative societies are run.

He says that institutionalizing a false separation between those who ‘know’ and those who ‘don’t know’ debases and enslaves whole classes of people in our society.

He defines knowledge as a continuously restless and symbiotic and necessary inquiry between student and teacher and teacher and student.

He reveals for what they are an educational elite who prescribe and enforce a mythology of ignorance on a supposed uneducated under class, thereby maintaining their own place at the top.

He offers the hope of a system of education in which teacher and student are reconciled.

I have taught at the university level for over 10 years.  My best students were always capable of the symbiotic relationship with me that Freire describes.  However there is always, in every class, strong evidences of the passive student who has been pushed down and made to memorize and regurgitate and obey.

This book was published in the late 1960s – 50 years ago! – and is amazingly topical.  That a simple classroom could hide beneath it’s innocent exterior such scandal.  Can you imagine how different our lives would be if we publicly identified the corruption of banking education and upended it?  A flowering of creativity, an outpouring of new knowledge, new institutions with new agendas, new and interesting kinds of conflict, stuff we’ve never seen before.  What about you?  What differences can you see?

Here is Freire’s excerpt —

Education thus becomes an act of depositing, in which the students are the depositories and the teacher is the depositor. Instead of communicating, the teacher issues communiques and makes deposits which the students patiently receive, memorize, and repeat. This is the “banking’ concept of education, in which the scope of action allowed to the students extends only as far as receiving, filing, and storing the deposits. They do, it is true, have the opportunity to become collectors or cataloguers of the things they store. But in the last analysis, it is the people themselves who are filed away through the lack of creativity, transformation, and knowledge in this (at best) misguided system. For apart from inquiry, apart from the praxis, individuals cannot be truly human. Knowledge emerges only through invention and re-invention, through the restless, impatient continuing, hopeful inquiry human beings pursue in the world, with the world, and with each other.

In the banking concept of education, knowledge is a gift bestowed by those who consider themselves knowledgeable upon those whom they consider to know nothing. Projecting an absolute ignorance onto others, a characteristic of the ideology of oppression, negates education and knowledge as processes of inquiry. The teacher presents himself to his students as their necessary opposite; by considering their ignorance absolute, he justifies his own existence. The students, alienated like the slave in the Hegelian dialectic, accept their ignorance as justifying the teachers existence — but unlike the slave, they never discover that they educate the teacher.

The raison d’etre of libertarian education, on the other hand, lies in its drive towards reconciliation. Education must begin with the solution of the teacher-student contradiction, by reconciling the poles of the contradiction so that both are simultaneously teachers and students.


The capability of banking education to minimize or annul the students’ creative power and to stimulate their credulity serves the interests of the oppressors, who care neither to have the world revealed nor to see it transformed.

-Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed

the banks of the seine
June 9, 2009, 7:48 pm
Filed under: the sweet life | Tags: , , , ,

Here is a description of the consuming role education played for those lucky enough to get it in the Middle Ages in France.  Education was tied to the church but was broad enough to include, beside theology, medicine, law and the arts.  It was worth giving over everything for; a consuming passion.  For the student, in a very real sense, knowledge became home.

the wandering student, passing from Laon to Chartres to Angers, or to some obscure monastery made temporarily famous by a new teacher, would come at last to the banks of the Seine … There he would seek out, or drift to one master or the other.  There, as often as not, he stayed.

-E. R. Chamberlain, quoted in A Traveller’s History of Paris, by Robert Cole.