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Monday, June 15, 2009

Duncan and Obama are actively inhibiting education change that is meaningful

Bill Maher made an important statement last week when he criticized President Obama for failing to do much to satisfy those who had voted for him.

"But when I read about how you sat on the sidelines while bailed-out banks used the money we gave them to hire lobbyists who got Congress to stop homeowners from getting renegotiated loans, or how Congress is already giving up on healthcare reform, or how scientists say it's essential to reduce CO2 by 40% in 10 years, but your own bill calls for 4%, I say, enough with the character development, let's get on with the plot."

But Maher left out education. How is our President doing on education? His education secretary has announced plans for national standards:

"This Sunday Duncan proposed a system in which schools signing on to the standardized benchmark will benefit from a $350 million pot aimed at assisting in the development of the new test needed to measure the potentially nationalized educational standards."

He has also announced his intention to lengthen the school day and school year with the express intent of helping students prepare for tests.

Or, to put this another way. The President has so failed on education already that his failures on banking, health care, and the climate pale by comparison, He has effectively said, to people like me, who are actually trying to make real change in the schools: forget your ideas about teaching modern subjects (like scientific reasoning, medical decision making, internet startups, or how to take care of a child) because we are going to continue to ram the algebra, US history, and science facts formulas view of education down everyone's throats and will actively prevent meaningful change. And forget learning by doing. There will be none of that. There will learning by memorizing.


I asked my sources in the White House. "We are trying to get re-elected here. The voters care about test scores." That is what they said. Really.

Bill Maher, you don't realize how bad it really is.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Why students major in history and not science

My 25 year-old niece offered to drive a friend of mine to the airport. As she was leaving she returned to get a bottle of water. She said she needed to stay hydrated. I asked her is she was planning on taking the long route through the Gobi Desert. She seemed confused. I told her to look up the 8 glasses of water a day myth on the web. She is a young lady who fights big corporations with her every breath yet she had bought into the bottled water company’s campaigns to make everyone carry water with them at all times. She was truly astonished to find out she was being manipulated.

I had less success with two other college students in recent weeks, both of whom had decided to be history majors because “history teaches you everything.” Now I have nothing against history or history majors, although I suspect that are way too many of them for the available historian jobs out there. But I couldn’t help but note that these kids had been sold history in the same way that my niece had been sold water. Every liberal arts college is desperately trying to stay relevant by selling the advantages of majoring in history or English to a group of young minds who have no idea how to make these decisions. The sellers look askance at practicality and tout students into their fields because if they don’t their departments would cease to exist. If no one majored in history there would be no history departments except at the most elite and wealthy universities.

Would this be a bad thing? It is easy to assume that this would be a terrible thing. We assume this because we see universities as repositories of scholarship and wisdom. If that is indeed what they all were all would be fine. But they are primarily places where young people start the rest of their lives. I asked one of these students what she loved about history and she replied that she really was only excited about astronomy. I asked why she wasn’t majoring in that (she attends a university where should do exactly that) and she replied “what could I do with that, discover another planet?”

There was no convincing her that the path she had chosen for herself was nuts. She planned to go to law school next – because it helps you think, she said– she does not intend to be a lawyer.

Universities are doing students a disservice by perpetuating ideas of what is worth studying that are really mostly intended to keep their most irrelevant faculty member employed. Science has been marketed badly and history has been marketed well. Business is marketed (and taught) terribly. Medicine is made so annoying to study in college that we have less doctors than we need. But we have plenty of history majors. Maybe it would be a good idea if universities stopped looking out for their own needs and starting acting more on helping students make decisions that are right for them and their actual areas of interest.

Of course this won’t happen. Faculties run universities and faculties are always interested primarily in maintaining the status quo.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

AI winter, AI history, and history in general

For some reason I found myself reading an article on line about AI Winter. AI winter was a clickable term and suddenly I found myself in a Wikipedia article with that title. I read the story and discovered that Marvin Minsky and I had invented that term in 1980 to describe bad events for AI that we expected to happen due to unwarranted exuberance by venture capitalists.

I remember worrying about that, and even running a panel on it at an AI conference but I didn't remember inventing the term. The next day, as luck would have it, I found myself sitting in a small office with Marvin Minsky (and others). I asked him who invented the term AI Winter and he had no idea. We began to discuss the events of those days and the fallout from AI investments at that time and had fairly different views of what had happened.

All this reminded me of the column I posted here a couple of months back about Lamar Alexander and his insistence on making kids learn history. History is very nice as long as it is true. I wonder how he knows what is true.