Jane Haddam’s WordPress weblog

Archive for May, 2009

Reading and Writing

with 4 comments

Cherly asks why, in America, local community colleges don’t contract with local businesses to teach the skills those businesses need–but, of course, they do.

The problem is that, when it comes to communications skills, to the abilit to read and write coherently, the methods the community colleges, and the high schools, and the four year colleges are using generally don’t work.

An employer seeing a transcript from an unknown college as part of an applicant’s resume will have no way of knowing of that A in  English Composition means the applicant can write well, or can write competently, or can’t write at all.

The first time I ever heard of a composition course was when I was assigned to teach one at Michigan  State in the mid 1970s.  Before then, “freshman composition” had always meant, to me, an introduction to writing about literature course, with assignments in poetry, fiction and drama.  This is the kind of thing Robert is talking about when he complains about being forced to read Silas Marner.

Composition courses, though, often offer no imaginative literature of any kind.   At most, they might offer one short story here and one poem there in a section on how to write about literature.

The bulk of these courses are taken up with attempts to teach students to write coherent standard essays, and they don’t work very well for lots of very good reasons. 

The very first problem, of course, is that it is nearly impossible to teach somebody to write coherently if he can’t read coherently.   And most of the students I teach, even the good ones, cannot be properly said to be able to read.

This is not the result of having been bored by high school force-feeding of the  Canon.  Most high schools these days don’t bother with the Canon, and these kids have grandparents who learned to read very well indeed with that same force feeding.

The reason my kids can’t read is simple: they have no context, and because they have no context they don’t understand what’s going on on the page in front of them.

I’m not talking about some vast, expansive acquaintance with the literary Canon, or with the intellectual history of the West.  I’m talking about the very basic everyday common knowledge without which it is impossible to read  your way through the op ed page of even a mediocre newspaper.

Try this.  Identify the following:  Joseph Stalin.  Pearl Harbor.  1984.  David  Souter.

Most of my students could not identify any of the above.  At all.   The most common response I got to a request to identify Souter was that he must be the Craig’s List Killer.  Stalin is a complete blank to them, and 1984 is just a year in the mists of time before they were born.

Most of my students cannot place the US Civil War in the right century, and an alarmingly large minority of them don’t even know there ever was a US Civil War.   They’re vaguely aware that there was a WWI and a WWII, but they con’t know even approximately when they happened, or why. They’ve heard of Romeo and Juliet but not King Lear, and they’ve read neither of them.

They’re largely unaware that there was ever a time when women in the United States were penalized for getting pregnant out of wedlock, or a time when the law barred children so born from inheriting from their fathers.   They don’t know that the name for what they call “Christian” is, in the rest of the world, “Protestant,” or why anything would be called “Protestant.”  

I could go on like this, but you get the picture.  A student doesn’t have to be dealing with esoteric references to obscure literary works to find herself lost in a text.  These students will be lost in most texts. 

Which means that, if I get them on the college level and I want to teach them to write, I can’t do it by the most effective method, which is by getting them to read lots and lots of really good writing.  They won’t know what it means, and they won’t try to find out.  They’ll just skip over it and declare that it’s incomprehensible.

In case you’re wondering, they do the same with a lot of the popular culture they claim to like.   Green Day videos are as incomprehensible to them as essays by George  Orwell.  Their response is to shrug, decide they don’t care, and only pay attention to the music.

Still, I’ve now got a classroom full of kids who are supposed to be taught how to write in spite of the fact that they don’t really know how to read.  If I’m teaching in a contemporary American high school or community college (or even the bottom end of the four year colleges), I do this by standing in front of a classroom with 25 or so students in it and providing lectures, examples, exercises and finally homework to see if  I can bring them round to doing it.

What reading we do will come out of a textbook written specifically to be used in Composition classes.  These textbooks mean well, but they have one thing in common:  the readings they offer are mindnumbingly, soul crushingly dull.

Composition textbooks do not, in general, push a specifically liberal or conservative line.  They might be better if they did.  Instead, they present essay after essay that is “thoughtful,” “concerned” and “well-reasoned,” meaning that none of the readings ever does the print equivalent of raising its voice.

Almost all the essays are more or less contemporary, and almost all of them are more or less alike.  There are lots of entries from contemporary authors that talk about the problems of growing up Latino/native American/female/gay/Christian/Muslim/with an alcoholic parent.  The idea seems to be that the confessional style and a nearly fanatical concentration on the personal experience will somehow be “relevant” to eighteen year olds.  If the writers of these essays had more interesting lives, maybe they would be.

Other essays in these books present “reasoned arguments,” and the arguments are always studiously reasonable.  And contrary to the mythology, they don’t always present a single point of view.  I got a new textbook in my mailbox yesterday.  It included essays on the issue of divorce from both Barbara  Dafoe Whitehead and Stephanie Coontz, respectively the conservative and liberal voices of that particular public debate.

The best of the composition books out there, that I have seen, is called Current Issues and Enduring  Questions–and it’s actually published by  St.  Martin’s.  Yay!

But it”s the best because it provides some not very well reasoned essays, including one by Rush Limbaugh that absolutely blows the roof off the room.   Most of my students–this is blue state Connecticut we’re talking about here–don’t agree with  single thing he says, but they love the way he writes, because he is not thoughtful, or reasonable, or middle of the road.  He even gives some of them the idea that there might be some point in writing things afterall.

That said, at the end of the day, we’re left with that problem of context.  The reason Mary has so much better luck with the people she hires who have managed to make it through a four year college program is that–depending on the school–they’ve had four more years to build that context, to learn to read, and to therefore be in a position to be better able to communicate on any level.

But lack of context is ont a problem I’m going to be able to solve on my own in one semester when I’m faced with 25 students who are sitting in a room waiting for a “class.”   If you’re really going to teach these students to write, you’d do much better with a focussed tutorial system.

Give these kids one on one time with their teachers.  Have teachers personally explain all the corrections to essays.  Have the teachers monitor each draft.   Have the teachers change the course of the program to fit each individual student’s weaknesses–

Doing this sort of thing in a traditional school is virtually impossible.  And the schools are institutions with entrenched hierarchies and established procedures.   It’s hard to make them move in any direction at all.

The proprietary schools, on the other hand, move as fast as they need to to stay in businesses.  They can provide the kind of tutorial I’m talking about online, because one teacher can deal with forty students individually on line, and pretty much all at once. 

What’s more, they can respond to the kind of complaints that traditional schools cannot.  Got a teacher that’s just blithering on about his personal life instead of teaching?  How about one you gives As to papers he agrees with politically and marks down any he doesn’t?  How about one who doesn’t care what he’s supposed to be doing–teaching a skill–but wants to be doing something else he finds much more important, like making students away of global American hegemony or the need for more stoplights in the central shopping district north of town?

The faculty at proprietary schools do not have tenure.  There are no established “departments” and “divisions” setting policy on how courses are run or what their content should be.   That means the proprietary schools can focus on particular goals without distractions.

And I think that that’s where this system is going.   For students, the proprietary schools make much more sense than the traditional kind in all but a few cases.   They get in, they get their work done, they learn what is relevant to them and then they’re out. 

This sis not, of course, a real education, and it does not address the problem at the root of the confusion in American education. 

But the fact that it’s alread started up on its own means that the irrelevance of the present system and its replacement by something m ore workable, at least in this area, is coming sooner than you think.

Written by janeh

May 19th, 2009 at 9:40 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Sheff vs. O’Neill

with 4 comments

The title today refers to a law suit filed in the state of Connecticut over twenty years ago by parents of students in the Hartford Public Schools, demanding that Connecticut either provide equal funding for all the state’s schools or allow students from inner city systems (like Hartford’s) to attend neighboring suburban schools (like those in West Hartford).  The Sheff’s parents won the case, but as far as I know, nothing has come of the decision in their favor.

Here’s the thing–in the US public schools, the name of the game is retention and graduation rates.  The larger percentage of the pupils in your system who have high innate academic ability and/or serious parental support for academics (reading in the home, etc), the higher you can set your standards and still get the retention and graduation percentages you want.

Some of the suburban public school districts in the US can match or even outdo what the best of the private schools can offer–New Trier in Winetka, Illinois, for instance, or (yes) West Hartford.  Standards are high and rigorous.  Advanced placement courses are a way of life.  Graduates who go on to four year colleges top ninety percent.

The thing is, these schools are not really bucking the trends I’ve been talking about.  If the composition of their student populations changed, the chances are good they’d start dumbing down their curricula just like everybody else.  They can offer what they offer because accidents of geography carefully exclude the people–poorer, newly immigrant, from highly dysfunctional families–likely to bring their percentages down.

The same thing can be said of the private schools.  Opponents of school choice measures aer always declaring that actual outcomes–scores on standardized high-stakes tests–are no better for private schools (mostly parochial) included in choice plans  than for public schools in the same area, but they miss the point.  What parents buy is not really highe standards or different curricula, but different peer groups and different institutional cultures. 

In the US, however, I’d say that all but the most high-end of the private schools have the same problem the public schools do, and the same problem the universities do.  Exeter has a Classical Curriculum, where students can choose to study Greek and Latin the way their predecssors did a hundred years ago,  with more emphasis on modern math and science.  Most private schools, though, even good ones, either skimp on the Humanities or don’t bother to teach them at all.

My younger son was at a very high end country day school when he was being handed trivial silliness like Touching the Void.  I mean,  there’s nothing horrendously wrong with that book, but I could see no possible reason to assign it in an English class.  What he wasn’t being assigned was what I expected him to be:  Dickens, Hemingway, Shakespeare, Sophocles, something that had something to do with the intellectual history of the civilization he’s supposed to be inhabiting.

What’s more, the private schools are subjected to a pressure similar to the ones on public schools, except that instead of being brought by bureaucrats, they’re being brought by parents.  When parents spend $25,000 to send their kid to Wonder Prep, they don’t want to hear “not really college material.”  They think they’re paying to make sure their kid succeeds, and they therefore hold the school responsible for that success.

Some of the schools–back to Exeter, again, and Andover, and places like that–have endowments so large that they don’t have to care.  Most of them do have to care, and they bend when they have to.

But all of this simply comes down to what I started out with, which is that the schools–public, parochial or private–do not exist to do what we think they exist to do.  They do not exist to educate the next generation in any sense.  Instead, they exist as sorting devices for colleges and businesses, and as paper “evidence” of the community’s commitment to “inclusiveness,” and as babysitting facilities for busy parents. 

At the present moment, neither employers nor parents like me gets what we want from schools, public or private. 

But I don’t think the public school system has to collapse in one big heap for that to change.  I think it only has to wither away.

I don’t know what the situation is like in Canada or Australia, but the US has no pre-set national curriculum that all schools must follow or approximate.  Private schools are free to teach creationism or the worship of Cthulu, Einstein or Mother Goose, and they’ve got a SCOTUS case to back them up.

The other thing US families have got is the ability to home school without supervision in most states, and private schools that are not required to hire state certified teachers.  It does not take a lot of change or reform to make the mechanisms available for challenging the present system.

The harbinger of the end of the present system is the rise of the online proprietary (for-profit) universities, because they rise and fall by their ability to get people hired.  And that means they rise and fall by their ability to teach students the skills employers expect them to have.

It’s not quite accurate to say that employers are not trying to leave the system, but to reform it.  There’s a small proprietary school in my area that is working face to face with area employers to identify what those employers want and how to ensure that students get it.

If these schools get better results for employers, employers will prefer them, and since they’re not subsidized, they’re careful to meet the demand.  What’s more, they often provide new ways of approaching the learning of the skills involved–I can tell you, from experience, that it’s much more effective for most students to have their writing corrected and criticized in real time on line and one on one than to hand a paper into a professor at the front of a classroom with twenty students in it, take their C and shrug.

If the proprietary schools begin to take a significant number of students away from the lower ends of the four year and community college systems, what will go out with the wash is the Cultural Studies boondoggle.  Proprietary schools do not offer tenure.  They do not pretend to do research.  Their faculty exists to teach and to teach effectively, and random forays into the social construction of the gerund are not tolerated for long.

That will leave the four year colleges, if they want to survive at all, in a position where they either have to accept what they are (the way we transmit civilization down through the centuries) or die.

And that, you see, I find a very interesting prospect.

Written by janeh

May 18th, 2009 at 1:31 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

And Then…

with 10 comments

Well, I’d like to start by saying at I’m really impressed by Mique’s experiences quitting smoking.  My experience was hell on wheels.  Bill used to say that my quitting smoking was the hardest thing he ever did, including dealing with cancer.   I wrote an entire book I couldn’t remember, and I was a bitch on wheels for six months.

Yeah, I had withdrawal symptoms.

But–to get back to get back to Cheryl’s objections to the original post with which all this started.

Yes, I’m sure that if we ever had hard evidence that intelligence and/or ability distributions differed by race, some people would use that evidence as an excuse to declare one race inferior to another.

But I also think that some people are going to think some races are inferior to others no matter what the evidence is.

My problem is what happens in the US educational system–and I don’t know how far this is true of any other–when educational bureaucrats, community activists and random politicians run head on into something that seems to provide such evidence.

Note that I said seems.

This situation is a lot more complicated than it looks on the surface.

The “evidence” in question, the reality on the ground, is this–when we hold achievement levels steady (that is, when we demand a level of achievement at the same benchmark as, say, the 1950s high school did), half of all high school students fail to succed in reaching them, and that unsuccessful half is disproportionately composed of members of two particular ethnic/racial groups:  African-Americns and Latinos.

That this is in fact the case is not in dispute by anyone.  What is in dispute is what it means, and what to do about it.

What has been done about it is this:  the original standards of achievement have been declared culturally and institutionally racist, and have been changed.

And they’ve been changed significantly.  There’s a reason why colleges are now trying to inculcate the skills that used to be inculcated in high school–if we insisted on students having such skills before they graduated from high school, fewer students would graduate and a higher proportion of the population of black and Lationo students would be among those who didn’t.

If you’re wondering why more students are now graduating from college without those skills in spite of four more years devoted, at least theoretically, to learning them–repeat the steps above.

Now here’s my problem:  the above approach is wrongheaded on two separate levels.

The first and most obvious is its inherent and not entirely tacit racism.  Faced with the fact that African-American and  Latino students fail disproportionately to acquire high-school level skills in things like reading, writing and arithmatic, the response of the American educational system has been to assume that these students are incapable of learning and therefore to stop trying to teach them.

And, of course, it won’t work in a vaccum.  That would make the racism much too obvious.  So we’ve stopped trying to teach anybody, except for the top 10% or so in the better suburban districts. 

Everybody else is now graduating from American public high schools with about a sixth grade education.

My frustration here isn’t helped by the fact that I teach the products of these schools, and especially the inner city products of these schools, and I find a good third of the ones who end up in my remedial classrooms to be perfectly capable, just completely untaught. 

The reality of a system that cares more about what it looks like on the surface–look!  we get 80% of our minority students to graduate!–than what it is actually doing is the deformation, derailment and often destruction of the individual lives of capable, intelligent, and diligent young men and women whose only fault was a skin culor their teachers thought marked them as stupid.

But my frustration goes farther than this.  Part of my problem is that we aren’t bothering to teach large hunks of our fourteen to eighteen year olds.  But part of my problem is that our skittishness about clear standards is that it’s making it impossible to finding alternative routes to learning and demonstrating student achievement of those standards.

Which is why I think things like exit exams and “high stakes testing” (as in NCLB) are a gesture in the right direction, but not likely to get me where I want to go.

Look–why is it necessary to determine that some people are “above average” and some are “below average.”  Why bother, at least on the level of basic skill sets?

For high school, let’s set a list of standards–the ability to write a grammatical, coherent five paragraph essay that states and idea and develops it in orderly fashion;  the ability to figure the real cost of a house after mortgage interest payments and the real cost of a pair of schoes after credit card payments; the ability to understand the standard English prose of something on the level of an article in the Economist;  the provisions of the US Constitution including the  Bill of Rights–

Let’s establish a discreet set of standards like that, provide tests for them, and make those tests pass-fail.   You either do it perfectly, or you don’t.  The tests would each test something small and therefore the tests themselves would be short.  Students presenting such a pass grade on such a test would be able to assure employers that he had actually mastered the skill involved. 

And we could throw out the entire concept of “graduating” from high school. 

What’s more, if we made these tests takable at any point in a student’s career–when he’s twelve, when he’s been out in the work world for fifteen years–we would make it possible for students who do not thrive in the standardized classroom to find alternative ways of learning the skills and/or materials, and a way to demonstrate them.

All of my remedial kids are having a problem because their high school prep has been nearly nonexistent.

But some of them would not have learned even in decently functioning schools, often because there’s no way for a school to cope with (never mind overcome) home situations that border on the horrific–crack addicted parents, drive by shootings, incessant street violence, the kind of poverty that causes people to eat macaroni and margarine five days a week.

I am not advocating here that we should get rid of schools.  Sometmes schools are very important places for students in situations like these, especially if the school is well run.  That’s why desperately poor parents will twist themselves into pretzels to send their kids to parochial schools.  It’s not the curriculum–which in most places is matched with the public school one–but the environment, the stress on order and discipline and respect for authority, the modeling of a different way of life with different possible outcomes.

But making “success” mean the targetted demonstrating of specific skills and knowledge rather than the “passing” of a “course” would benefit just about everybody except the current employees of the school systems and universities–and there are more of us than there are of them.

Besides, the US has been first rate at defending the rights of parents to choose alternatives to the public education system, from Pierce vs. Society of Sisters on down.  That means we are able to make an end run around the institutions to an extent people in countries with national curricula established by law, for instance, cannot.

But on the road to getting there, we’re going to have a situation where larger proportions of African American and Latino students fail. 

We can meet that problem by trying to actually fix it, or we can do what we’re doing now, which is to assume (without ever saying so) that our minority students are incapable of learning even the basic skills necessary to life in a modern democracy, and hand them make-believe worthless diplomas instead.

Written by janeh

May 17th, 2009 at 11:35 am

Posted in Uncategorized

How It Works

with 4 comments

Let me start by trying to address some of the issues Cheryl brought up.

She says she’s never seen a number so low for the percentage of people who start trying to quit or enter rehab who actually end up clean and sober.

The benchmarks for that are actually fairly straightforward.  Nobody says “cured.”  They say “sober after one year ” and “sober after five yeas,” which is also how most reporting on the effectiveness of cancer treatments works.

As for research into the effectiveness of programs meant to combat addiction, it’s one of the truly Alice in Wonderland experiences of modern lie to look into it.  You’d think, given what an enormous issue this has become, that there would be a lot of it.

In fact, there’s almost nothing.   Virtually all the research cited for the effectiveness of such programs is, when you hunt it down, not proper research at all, but either entirely anecdotal or self-reported by the programs themselves by methods it’s literally impossible to figure out, since the “studies” give you no clue.

There are, as far as I know, exactly two properly conductive research studies ito the effectiveness of rehab programs.


But first, let me correct something.  I remembered the recovery rate at 3%.  It was actually 5%.  This doesn’t seem like much of an improvement to me, but here we are.

Anyway, of the two scientifically rigorous studies done of the effectiveness of rehab treatment for alcohol or drug addiction, the most famous is that done by George  Valliant, who followed 100 patients admitted to an alcoholism treatment clinic in Massachusetts for eight years, and then contrasted their outcomes with the outcomes reported in a number of studies which followed untreated alchoholics over time.

The result?  5% were reliably sober for the eight years, and 5% of the untreated alchohlics in the other studies also managed to stay sober over time.

In other words, very few patients managed to get sober and stay that way after treatment, and their percentage was no higher than that of untreated alcoholics over the same time period.

What’s more, for the few short years Alcoholics Annonymous itself tried to carry out scientifically rigorous studies on its success rate–between 1980 and 1989–it consistantly reported that the percentage of people who entered its programs who remained sober for six months afterwards without a break was…5% to 7%. 

And that was using a much shorter time period for declaring the program effective.  

What’s more, the AA studies consistantly showed that over 90% of all alcoholics who entered the programs simply dropped out before the end of a sinle year.

 Even ignorning the persistant suspicion among academic researchers that some of the rehab programs are simply making their statistics up, what you get when you look into the “evidence” is:  studies reported without any indication of their protocals or an opportunity to examine their raw data; and studies reported not as percentages of addicts free of their addiction, but percentages of additional addicts free of their addiction.

That’s because “this program found 50% more addicts sober after a year than that program” sounds a lot more impressive than “they got  out of 100 people sober for a year and we got 6.”

I think I know what the problem is in education–what it is we’re trying to hide by pretending that we’re actually addressing the problem–but I’m less sure with addiction treatments.   Maybe it is just a matter of feeling helpless and therefore trying desperately to pretend we can fix something that is both destructive and dangerous and that we as yet don’t actually know how to fix.

Because I’m pretty sure that is what it is with  cancer treatment.  We haven’t really come a long way in treating most cancers.  What we have done–and it is not negligible–is come a long way in detecting them.

Our methods of treating cancer are hamhanded and crude–slah, burn and poison, as one of Bill’s doctor’s put it–but the earlier you catch the cancer, the more likely the crude methods we have will do some good. 

With some cancers, we’ve gotten to the point where we can detect the disease before it’s actually started.  We can target “precancerous cells,” and that’s about as good as the news gets.  

A real cure for cancer, on the other hand, would require us to understand why cells become “precancerous” to begin with, and how to stop that from happening. 

But although I’m worried about the logjam created by failed programs and willful delusions in education and the treatment of addiction, I’m not worried about any such thing in cancer research.  Not only does n obody have a stake in pretending that we’re better at curing cancer than we are, the results of our failure to be better at it are present, documented and undeniable.  Dead bodies are dead bodies.   As long as people die from cancer, there will be pressure fro the public to make sure scientists go on looking for something that actually works.

Of course, we’re back to square one, in a way.   Deciding what “works” requires deciding what it is we want to do.

And I think we’ve gotten to the point, in the US at least, where actually educating anybody has become a secondary consideration, especially in K-12, but inreasingly in colleges and universities, too. 

And right now I’m using “educate” to mean “competently literate.”  It’s a low enough standard, and it requires only superficial acquaintance with the Great Tradition.

But I’ll get back to that–and the real problem that fears of racism have caused in US schools–tomorrow.

Written by janeh

May 16th, 2009 at 9:27 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Do What Works. Or, You Know, Not.

with 5 comments

Here’s the thing.  I’m a firm believer in the idea that everything that survives serves a function, even if it’s not the function we think it’s supposed to be serving. 

But the fact remains that a lot of what we do does not serve the function we say we want it to serve, and not just education as a skills-credentialing system.

Take, for instance, “rehab.”  Drug and alcohol programs, including AA, have a success rate of something like 3% after one year.  If only 3% of heart surgery patients survived after one year, we’d call that a failure, say we didn’t know how to do heart surgery, and go back to the drawing board to figure out something new.

But the news is even worse than it seems to be.  Among alcoholics and drug addicts who receive no treatment at all, approximinately 3% get sober and stay that way for a year, each year.

In other words, as far as we can tell, based on every verifiable, falsifiable and fully disclosed study ever done, rehab and twelve step programs have no effect at all on drug and alcohol use.

And yet, this society puts enormous resources into rehab programs.  Government and private insurance systems par for them.  Courts order participation as a condition of probation and parole boards insist on participation as a condition of granting parole.  

What’s more, every form of entertainment–movies, television, books, even comic books–puts out an endless stream of propaganda about how rehab and only rehab ever “cures” the “disease” of addiction, and all the stories and plays and films leave the impression that everybody who really puts their mind to the twelve steps will succeed.

To be fair, of course, the old system–blame the addict for his lack of self control and insist he lie up to his responsibilities and stop behaving badly–didn’t work either.  In fact, in those days, the number of alcoholics and addicts who managed to get sober and stay that was for a year was…3%. 

We know less about addiction than we know about cancer, and we know frighteningly little about cancer.  But that brings me to something else that we do even though it doesn’t work the way we say we think it does.

Anybody who has ever spent time in a facility giving chemotherapy or radiation treatments for cancer knows that success and survival rates are abyssmally low.  In some forms of cancer, they’re as low as those rates for successful rehab.  

Some forms of  cancer respond to the things we know how to do about cancer.  some forms do not.  We’re not really sure of why that is.   We go on doing what we do, even when we know it isn’t effective, because we want to feel we are doing something.

But cancer treatment has an advantage that neither educational credentialing nor rehab shares.  For whatever reason, it just isn’t enough for cancer researchers to feel that they’re doing something.  They keep insisting on finding a way to actually do something.

In education and rehab,  however, we have situatoins where we not only aren’t doing what works, but where what we’re doing is preventing us from finding something that does work.  Having reache our officially accepted “answer,” we have largely stopped asking the question.

With educational credentialing, I think that part of the problem is that any serious attempt to ask the question would require us to discard assumptions that we feel are not just true–actually, I think that large whacking hunks of us suspect that they’re not true–but morally imperative to hold.

One of those is the idea that ability, intellectual and athletic and artistic and anything else, is almost entirely a result of nurture, not nature. 

Part of the reason we hold so desperately to this assumption, which seems demonstrably untrue on its face, is that we fear that if we accept that ability is heritable, we will find that such heritability differs by race. 

What’s going on here is complicated.   I think that for a small percentage of the people clinging desperately to the “it’s all nurture” paradigm, the problem is that they already think that heritability differs by race, and that black and brown people are inherently stupider than white and Asian people.

This lands them in a terrifying position.  First, they think if it became socially acceptable to acknowledge what they believe to be true, then it would have to be legally acceptable to discriminate against people–to deny them opportunities in employment and education–by race.   Second, they’re fairly sure that the first thing would lead inevitably to the establishment of legally “superior” and “inferior” races, where slavery (at best) and genocide (at worst) would have to be redefined as morally and politically acceptable.

Part of the problem here is that these are people who cannot understand mathematical distributions–that is, they don’t understand that saying that “group X tends to be Y” tells you absolutely nothing about any individual member of group X.  Group X may tend to be Y, but this particular member of group X may be Z instead, and there’s no way to predict that from his membership in any group at all.

In other words, discrimination on the basis of race would still be a) incredibly stupid and b) morally wrong even if the heritability of abilities differed on the basis of race, because we would still have to approach every individual on the assumption that we couldn’t know, from his race, what his own particular abilities were. 

If we accept Kant’s most important categorical imperative–that we must treat every human being as an end in herself and not as the means to the ends of any other person–then we would still be obliged to treat Chuck and Nigel and Mark and  Su  Ling as Chuck and Nigel and Mark and Su Ling, not as black and white and Latino and Asian.

Nor would we be even pramatically justified in putting fewer resources into the education and training of any one race.  Distributions are distributions, but geniuses are wild cards, and the guy who’s going to finally actually be able to cure cancer could be born purple for all we know.

The other reason there’s so much resistance to accepting that abilities are largely heritable is less apocalyptic, but maybe more insidious–none of us wants to accept that we can’t “be anything we want to be” if we just put in enough time and effort.

The idea that it’s effort and not talent that counts, that all of us are born capable of achieving whatever we can imaine to achieve, is so deeply engrained in the American psyche that it can almost be said to be one of our founding principles.  It is, in fact, one of the basic assumptions of the entire Englightenment project, the idea that human beings, if they applied reason to the world and to themselves, could better both it and themselves.

There’s a lot of juice in that assumption, and holding it has a lot of upside.  If you honestly believe you “just can’t” do something chances are good that you won’t even try to do it.  And it’s people trying what they don’t know they can do that gets us democracy, antibiotics and the use of perspective in painting.

Progress comes from refusing to believe that we have to accept what is.  And yet, sometimes we do have to accept what is.  Neither the world nor the individual human being is infinitely malleable.   Nature sets limits on us all.  I could have worked my butt off for all my life, practiced and trained and done everything available to me, and I still would have ended up playing basketball less well than Michael Jordan would have if he’d spent all of his life in bed.

We’re not going to reform education unless we learn to accept that–and it’s possible that we can’t reform schools-based education at all.

Written by janeh

May 14th, 2009 at 10:30 am

Posted in Uncategorized

What Works

with 2 comments

So–Lymaree thinks the system isn’t working, Robert and Mary think it is.

I think it sort of is.

First, Robert is of course right–to a large extent, the purpose of demanding a degree has nothing to do with anything the applicant has learned, and everything to do with the fact that a meritocracy needs to at least appear to be making gatekeeper dcisions on a rational (objective) basis.

And we in the US have spent all the decades since WWII trumpeting the importance of “education” to getting a good job.  A good job meant, back then, something white collar rather than on an assembly line, something with the possibility of  moving up a hierarchy instead of something “dead end.”

In those days, the skills Mary is looking for were taken care of in high school, so that what a student needed was a high school diploma to qualify himself for training in various trades–and high schools had vocational courses

It’s true enough that hiring somebody with a degree means you’re more likely to get the kind of skills you want than hiring somebody without one, but this has less to do with what the person learned while studying the degree than with what he was already able to do.

And in a climate where close to sixty percent of the people who graduate from high school go on to some form of secondary education, almost everybody at least minimally competent at what used to be high school level work will have gone on somewhere.

But the problem is that some of the skills employers want are really important to them, and the degree no longer guarantees they’ll get those skills.

Running remedial seminars in writing and communications for businesses is the hottest ticket in academia today.  With the exception of a very few schools near or at the top of the heap, the fact that a kid has a degree no longer guarantees that he can write a comprehensible sentence, never mind a paragraph.

And that’s as true of majors in the hard sciences and math as it is of any other kind of major.

Obviously, businesses would need another sorting method, but it seems to me that a lot of those are possible–national exams run by private companies (like the SATs are now), or exams set by the businesses themselves.

I think a bigger issue is the fact that we do not want to accept that some people are not going to be capable of doing work beyond a certain level. 

And that’s one of the problems with meritocracies.  Traditional hierarchical socieites give individuals their places in the stream based on lots of different factors (birth, caste, whatever), almost all of which say nothing at all about the intrinsic worth, or even relative talents, of any such individual.

Meritocracies, however, sort people by what is supposed to be an objective method, and that method only “feels” right IF it’s the case that anyone who tries for the top can get there.

If some of us are born less capable than others, if some will never reach the top no matter what they do, even if they do everything right, then the legitimacy of a meritocracy is intrinsically in question.

So what we do is hide the embarrassing fact that some people do not seem to be able to grasp some things no matter what they do–by grade inflation, by dumbing down the curriculum, by a dozen different methods meant to hide the fact that some people are not learning what we’ve set out for them to learn.

Which is, by the way, how we got into this mess.

And I don’t know how to get us out of it.  I really don’t.

I know that the system as it exists is counterproductive.  I think a real education–that is, an education in the liberal arts (ALL of them, including the hard sciences)–is immensely valuable for anybody who can handle it.

But I don’t think such an education is a prerequisite for being good at accounting, for instance, or even at making movies. 

Right now, we’re wasting the time of thousands–tens of thousands–of people every day, and not only are we not approaching a more educated workforce, we’re actually making the workforce less educated than it would be otherwise.

I’m more and more of the opinion that schools are toxic to the kind of education I want people to have–that they actively discourage people from engaging in the Great Conversation, and on top of that they leave the impression that there’s nothing in the Great Conversation that would even be interesting to look into.

And, as I said when I started this, I’m more and more amazed at how many people who become truly extraordinarily succesful have not had standard educations, and how many of those have a better overview of the liberal arts (humanities AND social sciences AND natural sciences) than most graduates of even good universities.

But I think that bit where businesses have to send their new hires out to learn how to read and write means the end is a lot closer than Robert thinks it is.

Written by janeh

May 13th, 2009 at 2:19 pm

Posted in Uncategorized


with 12 comments

Well, to start, I want to say that I  didn’t mean to imply that the phenomenon  I was talking about–the tendency to do end runs around institutionalized systems of credentialing–was inherently American or inherently capitalistic.  It just is, and I think it’s an enormous advantage when we’re operating in a world where so many advanced industrialized countries seem to be held hostage by their credentialing systems.

I read through a number of European publications every week, and about a year and a half ago I ran into an article in Der Spiegel about the looming collapse of elementary education in Germany.  Americans, the magazine wailed, were able to face this same problem a couple of decades ago and make real changes.  Why was that?

Well, that was because American parents, frustrated at watching their children flail around ill served by whole language reading programs and “new math,” opted to take their kids out of the public schools and put them in private schools or parochial schools or home schools with different approaches to education.  That put pressure on the public schools to ditch what wasn’t working, and at least in some states (like mine) phonics was back in no time at all.

But the problem with defining this as a search for “results” is that it doesn’t quite get you where you want to go.  Whether or not the system you’re working with gets “results” depends on what its goals are.

People outside schools and universities tend to define “results” in education as “the vast majority of students will learn a, b, and c.”

The problem with that as a definition of educational goals is that it makes an assumption that is almost certainly not true–that the students in those schools want to learn those things, and that even if they don’t, it’s possible to make them.

We’re coming to the end of another term, and  I think I can say with confidence that even in most colleges these days, at least outside the top twenty, most students have no interest at all in learning what we’re requiring them to learn.  They resent it, and resist it, and see their job as getting credit for courses with as little imput as possible–and as little knowledge sticking with them to clog up their brains when it’s over.

Before we can ask whether colleges and universities are getting results, we have to ask what it is they’re trying to achieve.  And here’s the thing:  I think what they’re trying to achieve is being successful credentialing organs, places where lots of students lay down their money to get a piece of paper saying they’re certified to do whatever it is they’ve come for, or at least certified to tell an employer that they’re diligent, responsible and capable of carrying out assigned tasks with a decent amount of accuracy.

Because, by and large, that’s all employers are looking for from the degrees they insist on having before they hire.

That’s why, I think, it seems that all colleges and universities are looking for the same student.  When their job is not to teach anything in particular, but to certify that some young people are better than others at following certain kinds of rules, then of course there’s one kind of student their aiming to enrol.

Teachers know one thing that the general public refuses to accept–you cannot force a student to learn anything he doesn’t want to learn. 

This is true not only in the Humanities, and not only in h igher education.  When you have a room full of kids who don’t want to be there, see no value in what they’re being told they have to learn, and resent the entire process, what you get is what we have not only in American high schools, but in many American colleges as well.

Certainly some teaching methods work better than others, and some students learn more easily with some methods rather than others–all things being equal.  But all things are not equal. 

I can require every high school student to pass a course in civics before he’s allowed to graduate.   I can even require an exit exam so that I’m sure he knows what I want him to know–the structure of the federal government, the way the electoral college works, the provisions of the US Constitution, whatever–on the day he walks up to get  his diploma.

What I can’t do is insure he will retain this information six months later.  

And most of the time, I can’t even insure he knows it when he’s passed the course or the exam.  You’d be amazed at how well students can resist understanding what they don’t want to learn, and how good they are at finding ways to reproduce what looks like right answers on tests and quizzes while they’re still being clueless.

Personally, I think the American university system is collapsing, and that it’s going to go down in a smashing heap of dust a lot sooner than Robert thinks.  If it lasts in its present form for another twenty years, I’ll be surprised.

But I don’t think that’s because it’s not getting “results.”  I think it’s getting the results we’re asking of it. 

The problem is that it’s no longer serving any sensible purpose, and the results we’re asking of it are dysfunctional and wrong.

The first thing we have to do is accept, up front, that college degrees, and even high school diplomas, are not materially significant guarantees of any kind of employment-related “merit.”

If candidate A has a college degree and candidate B does not, candidate A is not necessarily more qualified for the job they both want.  That we pretend that he is, that he has learned something significant to his employment by spending four years hacking his way through College Algebra, English Composition, and  Multicultural Perspectives on Food.

And high school is worse.

One of thte problems with a meritocracy is this:  in a world where most jobs do not have immediately obvious measurable outcomes, we need a way to decide who “merits” the new job or promotion.

Real measures of merit are often squishy, especially on the lower levels of a ladder of responsibility.  They’re also very hard to document. 

High school and college attendance, and graduation, are very  easy to document, so instead of looking at real measures of merit we take these instead.

And by doing that we wreck any chance we have to offer widespread opportunities for real education, decrease the competence of the total pool of people we’re willing to hire, and generally make a mess of things.

Written by janeh

May 12th, 2009 at 9:03 am

Posted in Uncategorized

So Anyway

with one comment

I’m back again, sort of.  I’m finished blogging over at Moments in Crime, at any rate, but today I’ve been too messed up to actually get anything sensible written, or even thought about.

So, a couple of things.

First, the fortieth reunion of my high school class in coming up, organized largely by a woman whom I remember as being nice and kind of quiet, but who seems to have become, in the intervening years, something of a dynamo.  She’s got venues.  She’s got registration forms.  She’s got committees.  I’m intimidated, although I’d sort of like to go.

Second, Robert wrote me an e-mail asking me if I got the same impression he did, which is that colleges all seem to be looking for the same student these days.  And my answer to that is:  yes.  I do get that impression.  Exactly.

In fact, the high schools–the selective private high schools–seem to be looking for that same student, too.  And, for the life of me, I can’t figure out how.

There’s an article up on Arts and Letters Daily today that suggests that meritocracies create the need for large dependent classes for elites to champion and manage–without such dependent classes, elites have nothing to do, and no way to be elites.

So maybe that’s what this is about, and maybe that explains the confusing irrelevancy of academic work, on both the high school and college level.

Let me be clear–I don’t think that the study of Socrates, Plato, Leonardo and Bach is irrelevant.  But students don’t study those things.   It’s hard to know what they study.

If it was up to me, high school would consist of learning some basic things:  how the government works; how a mortgage works; how to figure out what your credit card is charging you; plus an overview of American culture and history and some smaller overview of the Great Tradition itself, just so that students know it’s there.

And college, as I’ve said, would be limited to learning the Great Tradition itself, with technical institutes meant to train people for specific practical careers.

But I don’t know what anybody is learning any more, any more than I know why they’re reading what they’re reading.  My sons, like my students, seem to spend most of their time “learning” scattershot information that connects to nothing else in the curriculum, and nothing much in the real world, either.

And students who do know the basic things you want them to know are not necessarily the ones who do well.  Every once in a while I get a kid who knows who’s on the Supreme Court and how the electoral college works, and he’ll be getting a C in history while the A is going to the girl who does a perfect Chicago citation list for her term paper on water policy in the Polk administration.

And I’ve said enough, by now, about how I feel about “English” courses.

If there’s a single reason why I have hope that Ameria is going to be all right, it’s that we seem to be able to make end runs around official policies better than other people do.  If you want to be a successful film maker in France, you get great grades in high school, you get into a good Polytechnic, and then you sign on for subsidies with the government.

If you want to be a successful filmmaker in the US, you get a camera and go make things until you find a way to get people to want to see them, at which point bankers will throw a lot of money at you in the hopes that you know what you’re doing.

I’ve known that all along, of course, but lately I’ve been truly astounded by how many really successful people in the US do not have standard enducations.  And not just actors and musicians, either.

I don’t mean they’re uneducated–Woody Allen, who flunked out of college in his Frenshman year, knows more about the Great Tradition han most graduates of Harvard–but that they lack the degrees, the formal institutional blessings, that we’re all supposed to have if we want to get anywhere.

And that makes me think about that article about the meritocracy, because I tend to think there’s a lot wrong with the meritocracy as well, if not the things the writer of that essay found to argue.

But I’m about to be thrown off this computer, so I’ll leave it until tomorrow.

Written by janeh

May 11th, 2009 at 3:33 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Just a Note

without comments

I haven’t disappeared.  I’m blogging at


this week.

Written by janeh

May 5th, 2009 at 12:22 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

The Sokal Hoax

with 2 comments

Ah.  Great.  I’d forgotten that one, and it’s about the best introduction to what I see as The Problem in the Humanities as I can find.

Sokal and his partner wrote a book about his experiences with Social Text, which was the journal that published his joke article, but even the name of the journal should tell you that neither the journal nor the people Sokal was dealing with were Humanists–that is, people working in the Humanities.

What Social Text is–or was at the time, I don’t keep up with these things–is the flagship publication of an academic movement called Cultural Studies, and it is just as much a denial of the content and significance of the Humanities as any rant about pointy-headed intellectuals by  Spiro Agnew.

Culture Studies is what happens when entire academic departments decide that the Humanities are supposed to be “for” something, and especially that they are supposed to be “for” forming “good” personal or political behavior.

The reality is this–the Humanities are the record of activity that is peculiarly and exclusively human.  Biology tells us very little about what it means to be a human being.  The best it can do is to tell us that our bodies behave the way most other mammalian bodies do, and maybe that, while we are doing philosophy,  a particular set of neurons is going off in our brains that probably produce the thought.

Biology cannot tell us what our lives mean, or how to face death and what to think of it, or what love is, or even what hatred is.   The reason the mind-body problem is as compelling idea as it is is that it seems to fit our lived experience of being in some ways separate from–and often antagonistic to–our physical existence.

The Humanities present to us the history of the ways in which human beings have faced these questions and the answers they have found for them.   The point of studying the Humanities is to understand the process, and to experience the range of human engagement in that process.   That tells us something about human beings–again, about what it means to be human, which is more complex and comprehensive than any individual can replicate in himself–that nothing else can tell us.

What it doesn’t ell us is “what should we be doing?”

For most of the important questions out there, human beings have come up with more than one answer.  And the answers they have come up with vary because of a lot of different factors:  realities on the ground at the time; the temperament of the individual doing the asking; the access the society and the person had to some kinds of information and not others.

The Humanities cannot tell you which of the options out there you should choose. At best, they can provide you with information you can use to make a decision, and the examples of systems other people constructed to make those decisions.  You might then want to use one of those existing systems of evaluation, or to construct one of your own now that you know how it is done–but whatever you do, the answer you get isn’t, and shouldn’t be, “the” answer, like the result of a quadratic equation.

For a lot of people, on the left and on the right, the problem with all this is that it doesn’t get them what they want–a course of moral formation for the young.  Robert is annoyed at the Humanities because they continue to include things he thinks are dead ends–like  Marxism.  

The Cultural Studies people felt the same way about the Humanities because they continue to include things the CS people felt were dead ends:  capitalism, individualism, gender roles.

Cultural Studies was invented as a way to ditch the Humanities for an ideological project, to approach the content of the Humanities–to the extent that it was approached at all–by assuming ones conclusions and trying to make everything fit.

For Cultural Studies, this was a project to prove that there was no reason to “privelege” Western modes of thinking, because all modes of thinking are “socially constructed” and therefore equally subjective.

Asolutely nobody who had actually studied the Humanities would make a mistake like this.   If anything, a thorough grounding in the Humanities tends to make people suspect (rightly, I think) that human nature is not infinitely malleable, but largely fixed, and that reality, far from being socially constructed, stubbornly refuses to get with our programs at all.  

Cultural Studies people rarely have any but the most superficial grounding in any Humanist field, and even their superficial groundings tend to be tendentious.  These are the people who, if they ever read a novel by Jane Austen, learned only to “unpack” it to show that she was a secret feminist and probably gay.  They know Shakespeare only as an exemplar of white male heterosexist Christian privelege whose work is mainly distinguished by anti-Semitism.  They haven’t read Chaucer at all, although they’ll happily tell you that the Wife of Bath is a “transgressive figure.”

The Cultural Studies people went after science for two reasons.  The first is personal pique.   Having given up any claim on the public consciousness by ditching everything that was valuable about their fields, they found themselves increasingly isolated in a world in which nobody was paying any attention to them any more.  When they looked around, what they saw was all the prestie and a lot of the money going to the sciences.

Thus was something called “physics envy” born.  If Cultural Studies was going to get itself taken seriously, then the guy i t had to knock off the top of the mountain was the natural scientiest.

The other reason Cultural  Studies went after the sciences was that the sciences were both uncompromisingly “Western”–that is, a product of the Western intellectual tradition, and no other–and uncompromisingly objective.  The foundation of the sciences exist in two assumptions:  first, that the universe exists outside ourselves and without regard to our wishes and second, that we can understand that universe if we study it systematically.

Actually, those two assumptions are also the assumptions of the study of the Humanities–which is why Cultural Studies people get particularly venomous on the subject of the Humanities.  The difference is that there is a huge scientific establishment in place that i nsists on the integrity of scientific approaches to research.  No such establishment existed in the Humanities after the 1960s.

It’s the Cultural Studies people who do the kind of jargon-filled nonsense Sokal exposed so well, and they do it without shame.  Of course, they also do it in isolation.  So many of these people are lodged in English departments that English has gone from being the department with the largest number of majors on any campus to one of the departments with the smallest.  

People who are actually interested in studying literature won’t go anywhere near most modern departments of English.

If you want to know what a  Humanist in literature actually does, let me suggest almost anything by George Steiner–Bluebeard’s Castle, The Death of  Tragedy, that kind of thing.

And if you want to look at some essays on the way in which Cultural Studies have nearly destroyed another Humanist area 9classics, this time) I’d sugest Victor Davis Hanson, et al, Bonfire of the Humanities:Rescuing the Classics in an  Impoverished Age.

Written by janeh

May 3rd, 2009 at 10:09 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Bad Behavior has blocked 1218 access attempts in the last 7 days.