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Sunday, August 30, 2009

Children can read any book they want. (Really?)

The New York Times, in yet another of its front page articles extolling improvements in education is very excited that: “Starting this fall, the school district in Chappaqua, N.Y., is setting aside 40 minutes every other day for all sixth, seventh and eighth graders to read books of their own choosing.”

Woo hoo!

You mean occasionally they will allow children to do something that they are actually interested in doing in school?

Not so fast.

Will students be able to bring in Popular Mechanics or even the New York Times? No, of course not. They will choose books approved by teachers. But, even this appalls the Times approved Bush appointee Diane Ravitch, who is always on the side of everything backward in education. She worries that no “child is going to pick up Moby Dick.”


The Times goes on to say that: “In the method familiar to generations of students, an entire class reads a novel — often a classic — together to draw out the themes and study literary craft. That tradition, proponents say, builds a shared literary culture among students, exposes all readers to works of quality and complexity and is the best way to prepare students for standardized tests.”

It didn’t take them long did it? Yea tests.

This is just more baloney intended to make the public feel like things are getting better in schools when In fact things are so bad that no one is happy (except maybe Diane Ravitch.) You can’t allow real choice in school because then you can’t test it to see what kids have done.

I once built a program meant to get kids to learn the geography of the U.S without really trying, as they searched around the country for stuff they were interested in. It worked quite well. Kids loved it and they learned geography.

Nope. Rejected. Why?

Because some students might go to California and others might go to New York. How would we test them? As soon as the tests appear innovation goes out the window. You mean kids would learn different stuff? Omigod!

In any case, this “choose what to read program” is an illusion. It is better than being force fed Moby Dick for sure but what it is the real goal? The Times says; “Letting students choose their own books, they say, can help to build a lifelong love of reading.”

That is the goal. Making kids read a lot in the hope that some of them will like it. Same as the math goal of shoving algebra down their throats in case any one likes it. Kids rarely like what you make them do, or am I the only who has noticed that?

Can you live a long and happy life without having a love of literature? I think so. It is important to learn to read but that does not mean, by any means, that one needs to read “literature.” If it isn’t obvious to people by now, literature will soon be ancient history anyway. While humans have always told stories and always learned from them, they have not always had “literature.” Novels have become common place for a very brief moment in human history and are now clearly being replaced by television and movies (for better or for worse, that is what is happening.)

Teachers and politicians hate this of course. What I hate is that the idea of discussing life choices and issues in getting along in this world, which is a positive benefit of discussing literature, can only be done by reading Moby Dick according to the experts. There are any other ways to do learn to think about life.

We have, as a society, lost the forest for the trees. While we could be teaching deeply about why they do what they do, instead we are teaching them to pass tests. We insist that they learn what was fashionable for the elite to learn a century ago. And we torture them and wonder why they drop out. Moby Dick indeed!

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

The "myth" of educational reform

The Obama administration is very busy bemoaning the "myths' that the general public believes about their proposed health care package. In a recent statement they mentioned myths such as: "About five out of 10 believe the federal government will become directly involved in making personal health care decisions." and "Roughly six out of 10 Americans believe taxpayers will be required to pay for abortions."

Who is to blame for the fact that the American public cannot separate truth from myth and cannot think their way out of a paper bag? Here is my best guess: the schools. The schools do not teach people how to think, how to discern truth, or how to figure out what the real agenda of talk show hosts might be. They learn algebra, and they analyze Shakespeare, and they memorize physics formulas, and still they can't think. Amazing!

Could we try teaching them to think so that they won't believe "myths?" Apparently not. Mr. Obama insists on a national curriculum and more testing on the same old crap. Rest assured Mr. President, that future Presidents will have to deal with these kinds of myths as well, because the students you will be creating will be just as incapable of thinking as the citizens that you have to deal with now on a daily basis.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Answering: “what should I go to school for?”

These days one can easily find out how people get to one’s website. My outrage column is often found via the question "what should I go to school for?" This question drives the answer seeker to my column on “why little girls shouldn’t go to school,” which is certainly not what they were looking for. (Of course, I don’t think little boys should go to school either, in case you were wondering.)

So, I thought I would attempt to answer their question since people keep asking it. The problem is that the question is ambiguous. They could be asking why go to school at all and they could be asking what should I study in school? As I have no idea which meaning predominates, I will take a shot at answering both questions. I will make the assumption that the people asking these questions are in high school and perhaps thinking about going to college

Why go to school at all?

In a society other than the one in which we live, this is a very good question. I think school, as it exists today, is a very bad idea. Still, I would be remiss in answering this question by saying drop out. Drop outs are viewed badly in our society. School is stupid, but dropping out is stupider. Why? Because, as one travels through life one accumulates a set of accomplishments. Quitting, no matter what you quit, is never a great accomplishment. Unless, of course, you quit for something better. If have a good plan that will net you something better and enable you to say I quit to start Microsoft or the equivalent, by all means quit. One learns very little of value in high school. Still the credential entitles you to a minimal amount of respect that you may need at some point. So stick it out if you can.

Now to the more important question. What should you study in high school, or more importantly, because there are more choices, in college? Let’s start with what you shouldn’t study. Study no academic subject. Do not study English, History, Math, Physics, Biology, or any of the other standard subjects that one always starts with in high school. Whoa! Did I really say that? Heresy. So, why not then?

It is important to realize that there are many myths in our society and that these myths are usually offered by people who stand to gain if people believe in them. The you must drink 8 glasses of water a day myth, for example, is offered up by companies that sell bottled water. In school the significance of studying literature, or mathematics, or history, or science, is offered up by those who teach those subjects, those who make a living testing those subjects, and more importantly by book publishers and others who have serious vested interests in selling things related to those subjects. In addition, the educated elite, having been educated in those subjects, can pooh pooh anyone who doesn’t know them and keep the high ground for themselves. If you don’t know what they know you can’t be much. This attitude has always been with us, in every society, but the subjects change. Sometimes the subject is religion, sometimes astrology, sometimes some secret knowledge that only the village elders have. These days it is literature, which certainly won’t last, mathematics, which makes hardly any sense at all in the age of computers, and history, which never made any sense since history is written by those who come out bets in the telling . Science seems to be making a big move these days. When I was young science was for geeks and those who knew it were looked down upon by the people who knew important stuff. Things change.

There is, not surprisingly, a serious lack of employment possibilities in those areas of study. So many people have been pushed to study those subjects that there is a serious oversupply of job seekers who were English majors, for example. It should not be possible to be an English major, but tell that to English professors.

So what should you go to school for? This is really an easy question to answer. First ask yourself what you really like to do in life, what you think about on a regular basis, whom you admire, and whom you wish to be? Only you can answer those questions. When you come up with answers, ask if there are jobs in that area. Be creative. Make up a job if you don’t think one exists. Ask what you need to learn to do in order to become a person who thinks about or does all day whatever it is you like to think about and do all day. Extrapolate up. If you like working on your car, maybe you would like working on airplanes or ships for example. If you like hanging out and talking, ask yourself who gets paid to do that (salesmen?). Find out where those who do what seems to be fun learned to do it. Often the answer is “on the job.” If that is the answer ask yourself how you can get a low level job in that area and work your way up. People learn by doing. Ask how you can start doing.

If you do need training to start doing what you want, find a community college that offers that kind of training. Most of all do not go to school if you have no inkling at all about what you think you would like to learn to do. Work for a while and start finding out more about the world, then ask the above questions again.

In the U.S. most people go to college immediately after high school. My experience as a professor was that those students who did something else, who went into the army, the Peace Corps, traveled around, worked for a while and such, made much better students in college. They knew why they were there. Do not go to school if the only reason you are there is to get a degree. Wrong reason. Know yourself first, then learn what you need to know that will make you become a person who you would respect.