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Archive for November, 2010

I’d Like To Teach The World To Sing

with 3 comments


While we’ve been going over the morality stuff, I’ve been reading a tiny little book called On Painting, by Leon Battista Alberti.

These days, we wouldn’t even call it a book, or, if we did, we’d publish it with big type and lots of white space.  My Penguin edition only makes it to the almost-book category with an extensive introduction, plus a whole bunch of notes and that sort of thing.

Alberti, though, wasn’t writing these days.  He wrote in the early Renaissance, and this little book represents the first time anybody had tried to produce a theoretical explanation of painting. 

And it was an enormously influential book, too, informing the work of Piero della Francesca, among others.  Alberti published it in both Latin and the vernacular Italian to make sure it could be read by actual practicing painters as well as by scholars, and it was.

Later, it informed the work–both in painting, and in writing–of Leonardo da Vinci. 

Alberti is an interesting character in some ways.  His writing had enormous impact on the actual practice of painting and architecture in Florence and Rome in the Renaissance, and yet he was not a very successful painter or a very successful architect.  These days, I suppose we’d call him an idea man.

But here’s what always struck me–and does still–when I picked up this book to consider reading it:

There’s a lot of math.

Alberti was successful as an idea man, I think, because he was good at doing something both the Middle Ages and the (at least early) Renaissance valued:  presenting all the aspects of “learning” as a single coherent whole.

I put “learning” in quotes like that to signal something:  for Alberti and his contemporaries, art and architecture, painting and sculpture, music and poetry, chemistry and astronomy, philosophy and theology,  were all “sciences.”   It hadn’t occurred to anybody that these were different kinds of things with different rules, or that they might ever be in conflict.

Maybe because the Christian church was as much the child of Rome as it was of Jerusalem, Christian thinkers tended to stress–from the very beginning–that there was no incompatibility between “learning” and religion.  Augustine declared that any time we think we’ve found a contradiction between science and scripture, we’d misread scripture.  He probably find today’s Christian fundamentalists completely stupefying.

Or maybe he’d just find them heretics, since they’ve separated from Mother Church.

The real point here, however, is that there is a lot of math in Alberti’s book because Alberti is working to prove that painting has its foundation in mathematics, and especially in geometry. 

The idea was to discover the underlying harmony, the essential coherence and design, under the apparent diversity of temporal things. 

That there was such harmony, that there was such coherent design, was a central intellectual truism for the ancient Greeks and largely accepted by the Romans.  The Christian Middle Ages adopted the idea because it fit so well with Christian theology.  A benevolent God would not produce unintelligble chaos for us to live in.  We could know God–if only in outline–by knowing his works.

Along with this conviction came another one, and that was that you could understand nature by understanding what it was for.  Each thing, each person, each blade of grass and rock and stone and star and cat, had its proper place and function in the world. 

Morality, then, could be discovered, by understanding what man’s proper function was and what it would take to follow it.  This was the sense in which both Aristotle and Aquinas assumed that any man, using his reason, could discover–not invent but discover–the moral law by honest and sustained inquiry into the nature of it.

I want to stress that “discover.”  Mique wrote yesterday that he thought morality was “made by” us, but I don’t think it is.  I don’t think we can invent morality.  I think we can only discover it.  I think we discover the laws of morality in the same way we discover the laws of physics.  It’s out there, beyond our ability to change it, waiting for us to figure it out.  We’ll never know it perfectly and with finality.

The classical world would, of course, have been astonished at the idea that knowledge would always be tentative or that we’d never come to an end of needing to know more, and the Middle Ages and the Renaissance wouldn’t have liked the idea either.

But that matters less than the fact that the assumption that all of Creation was essential one–that all knowledge was connected to all other knowledge, that the whole fit together like a jigsaw puzzle–provided a basis for both Medieval moral philosophy and Renaissance forays into our kind of “science” that has now been largely lost.

Because one of the things that has definitely happened–one of the things that helped kick start the scientific revolution–is the entrenchment of the idea that the various branches of human learning are radically separate.  Nobody who writes about art these days would bother to spend 3000 words explaining its foundation in mathematics, because nobody who writes about painting these days would assume that painting was founded in mathematics.  Isn’t that one of the stereotypes about the art major?  Can’t do enough math to balance his own checkbook.

I think what has me reading all this stuff at the moment, though, is that I’m beginning to think we’ve lost something in the fragmentation.

There are certainly advantages–good, practical advantages–to at least starting with the assumption that fields are radically separate.

But I think that what started out as methodological fragmentation has become existential fragmentation.

That is, I think that we started out separating fields because that provided us with a good method to pursue research.  Then we forgot it was just a method, and came to be something we automatically believed to be actually true about the nature of the world we live in.

And the more I think about this, the more absurd it seems. 

If, like me, you do not that there is any world other than this one.  If you don’t think there are “supernatural” beings or ghosts or miracles–

Then coming up with an explanation of how a world came into existence with no rhyme or reason to it, no underlying patterns, no necessary connections between its parts–

Is going to be a lot harder than justifying blood liquefying every January in an Italian church. 

For any atheist, the interconnectedness of all things, including all fields of human endeavor, ought to be a given.  And it ought to be a given without the scientistic assumption that we are making the supreme kind of sense when we engage in absolutist reductionism.

Blech.  I’ve started tripping over myself.  It’s that time of the morning.

I’ll get back to this the next time I post, and in the meantime I want to do only two things.

First, to point out to JD that I do, indeed, mean to say that no technologically advanced civilization existed before somewhere aroung the Renaissance, but 1880 would be a good bet, too–why wouldn’t I say that?  It’s true.

The real cut-off, for me, isn’t the germ theory of disease or antibiotics per se, but the point at which human beings stopped assuming that death was always around the corner, that any of us could be “taken” at any moment, for no reason anybody could make out.

And that was indeed helped along by the germ theory and by antibiotics, but actually starts with the first big public health pushes a little earlier.

But I’ll say again what I’ve said here before–nobody living now can understand the way in which people in earlier times faced the possibility of death.  None of us have ever lived in that kind of world.  And that kind of world is different in kind–not just in degree–from what came before.

The second thing is to make the little statement about POSTING COMMENTS TO THE BLOG:

If you try to post a comment and can’t, then try to register a password and end up getting the error message

            Invalid Registration Status

please e-mail me, and we’ll get you into the system manually.

So far, at least four regular contributors have had this problem, and I’m a little worried about new people with no experience of how the system usually works.

So if it happens, it’s just the program screwing up.  E-mail me–if you don’t have the address  you can use the contact form on the web site–and we’ll get you signed in.

Thanks.  Sorry for all the fuss. 

Written by janeh

November 18th, 2010 at 6:58 am

Posted in Uncategorized


with 3 comments

Which is what we’ve got a lot of outside my window.  I’ve started sitting around wishing plaintively that we’d have just a day or two of half decent weather so that the cold, now mostly on the way out, won’t just come back again.

Of course, there are students, so there’s that.

I’m feeling, this morning, a little flabbergasted.

The ten commandments, the most famous moral code in the world, is suddenly not morality at all, but “rules for behavior,” which is somehow different from morality.


A moral code is a set of rules for behavior.  That’s what it is. 

I’d say that those rules always have an objective basis in the facts of human nature, relative to the teleological framework they’re meant to express.

In other words, morality isn’t anything we want it to be, willy nilly, because we feel like it on Thursday.

It’s the engineering for a specific project–to obey the will of God, to provide the greatest good for the greatest number, to recognize the status of human beings as radically individual…

There are a lot of proposed teleological frameworks, but the teleological frameworks are not morality.   Morality is the rules for human behavior, derived (objectively) from the facts of human nature, meant to express those frameworks.

The study of human nature is the science.  Morality is the engineering.  The teleological framework is the decision of what to build:  a bridge, a house, a road, a garden.

Back a few posts ago, I said it drove me crazy when everybody started jumping the gun, going from the first steps in this outline to the last.

And that’s what going for the teleological framework is–it’s the end point of a longer discussion. 

But it’s very important, I think, to keep the various strains of the discussion separate. 

The teleological framework is not morality.  It is the decision about what kind of morality to have. 

But there’s nothing odd about this, and nothing peculiar to philosophical questions.  The laws of physics won’t tell you if you should build a bridge or a house, and neither will the rules of engineering.  Before you know what the proper rules are, you have to make a decision to build something in particular.

But the laws of physics remain objective, as do the rules of engineering.

But here’s the thing:  I don’t think the choice of a teleological framework is entirely subjective, either. 

For one thing, for all the superficial variety, I think that the available teleological choices are actually rather small, and the available teleological choices that will not result in what is essentially a form of suicide are even smaller.

For one thing, as I said, even if we look at just the rules, there’s actually less variety in them than there seems to be on the surface.

Part of the problem is that societies tend to throw everything but the kitchen sink into their “morality,” including a lot that isn’t actually morality at all.

In most areas of study, we prune away this kind of thing and define the field.  For some reason, we just accept anything anybody anywhere says is “morality” and then fret that there’s nothing but chaos and nothing makes any sense.

I don’t know why we do this. We don’t find it difficult to see what makes this sort of laisseiz faire attitude counterproductive in most fields.  We don’t care if the Strange Colorful Hill People declare that finding the spiritual dimensions of toothache is a form of chemistry.  We don’t declare that it’s impossible to know what chemistry really is since the SCHP feel this way.  We just point out that they’re wrong, and why, and get on with it.

That said, there are indeed some moral rules that are close to universal, and that are universal in every literate society.  As somebody pointed out, there’s always a version of the Golden Rule.  There are also almost always strictures on the sexual activity of women (not always of men, but always–until very recently, and then only in the secular West–of women.) There are rules against murder, and theft, and rape. 

And these rules come in varieties, yes, and the terms of defined differently–when murder is murder and when it is not, for instance.

But the real differences between the basic level of moral code isn’t in the idiosyncracies in those codes.

The idiosyncracies are largely explained by something else:  by how and what the codes define as “human.”

The human race has been remarkable consistent about what behavior we owe other human beings.

Where it has been varied is in the field of people who are defined as actually human.

When you begin to look at the anthropology that way, you find far less variation than you’d think. 

Aristotle had a point–and so did Aquinas.  There does seem to be some kind of internal clockwork in most people that tracks the moral law, a kind of basic conscience.

What there isn’t is a universally acknowledged, single definition of “human being.”

And now it’s raining, and I’ve got to run.

Written by janeh

November 17th, 2010 at 7:11 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Will, Free and Otherwise

with 7 comments

I’m going to just sort of wander around today.  For one thing, I writing from school, where I’m supposed to be having office hours.  Actually, I am having office hours.  It’s just that nobody is here, and nobody is going to be here.  So I’ve got to think of something to do with myself.

To respond to Lymaree, first–“minimizing pain to conscious beings” is not a moral rule.  It’s a goal-statement–a teleogical premise.  Once you have that premise, you can THEN devise moral rules that will bring you closer to realizing it.

But the moral rules will have an objective basis in human nature.  If you study human nature, you will eventually find out what rules you need to install to make it more likely that people will reach the goal of “minimizing pain to conscious beings.”

To go back to the bridge–there are objectively based rules for building a bridge, but the decision to build a bridge does not need to be itself objectively based. 

I’ve said it before–what most of you have a problem with is not the objective basis for morality, but the objective basis (or lack of it) for teleology.

And, I’m sorry, I don’t find that a legitimate objection to the fact that morality has an objective basis.  Morality is rules for individual behavior, and those rules will be objectively derived from human nature or they will be wrong (and unworkable).

But we don’t say that there is no objective basis for the rules of engineering because the decision about what to build–bridge, house, road, gigant unicorn statue–is not compelled by those rules, or by any rules.

Teleology–the decision to build a bridge instead of a road, to build a healthy human being with long life in a society that provides him with science and technology–is another issue.

And I don’t think it’s as arbitrary as most of you want it to be. 

But it’s a different discussion.  It has nothing to do with whether or not morality (moral rules) have an objective basis.

That said, morality is about the individual and politics is about societies.  Of course, individual morality will impact the way a society functions.  It has to.  A society in which most people feel that rape is morally justifiable will function differently than one in which it is considered unjustified in any case, no matter what the laws are.

But.  A society very often must a) not legislate moral wrongs and b) actively tolerate moral wrongs in order for it to function well. 

For instance–

A society that desires to be a nation of free people cannot use its government to enforce the use of the blood and skin and bone (actual physical body) of one person for the use and benefit of another against that first person’s will.

That’s the functional definition of slavery.  And, of course, they can try it–but they screw themselve up badly in the long run when they do try it, they retard their own progress (see history, universally–no slave state has ever developed significant science of technology), and they eventually come to a point where the contradiction kicks their butts.

See Gettysburg.

But if the government cannot compel me to put my body to the use of my neighbor for the sake of his need for a new kidney, it equally cannot compel me to put my body to the use of a fetus in my womb. 

The analogy is exact–either I’m a free human being whose body may not be used without my consent, or I’m a thing to be put to the use of other people whether I like it or not.

But although that is, I think, an unassailble politic argument against government interference in the decision of a woman to abort a pregnancy, it is not a moral argument in favor of abortion.

In fact, I could make a very good moral case that abortion is never justified except possibly to save the physical life of the mother, and even then I think it would be iffy.

There are lots of cases like this, most of them considerably less contentious than abortion–and lots of cases in which the law deals with areas that are morally neutral.

The perceived morality or immorality of something should never be the reason for enshrining it, or enjoining it, in law. 

That’s why, if you’re going to talk me out of my support for gay marriage, you’re going to have to convince me that it would in some way endanger the functioning of the Republic, not that homosexuality is morally wrong.

I’ve got no idea if I’m being clear.

I often think I am, only to find later that I seem to be talking right past people. 

I’ll get to the teleological thing later–but “I do not see any objective way to decide that we want a humane society instead of a cannabilistic one” is NOT evidence against the objective basis for morality.

Morality–moral rules–are means.

Teleology is about ends, and that above is a statement about ends, which is a different issue.

But not quite so random as it appears.

But more on that later.

Let me recommend a book:  The New Road to Serfdom: A Letter of Warning to America, by Daniel Hannan.  I’m having a very good time with it.

And remember.  If you have trouble making COMMENTS and get that “Invalid Registration Status” message, or any other one, e-mail me and we’ll fix it on this end.

Written by janeh

November 16th, 2010 at 10:13 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Thou Shalt Not

with 2 comments

Okay, before I get going, I’d like to recommend this


that I picked up on Arts and Letters Daily today.  Because, when I get back to “college” education…well.  Read it and you’ll see what I mean.

But as to the comments:

There are only “many ways to build a bridge” if you define “bridge” as broadly and as fuzzily as possible.

If I say, “we want to build a bridge across the Cuyahoga River at exactly this point, in such a way that it will be able to carry this traffic at peak usage hours and last this many year”

then the ways to build a bridge are very limited. 

And the optimal way to build that bridge will be even more limited.

Yes, we may not be able to get to optimal because we lack knowledge that we will only discover later–but that doesn’t change the fact that the optimal answer to that question above is not “many ways” but “very few ways, and possibly only one.”

What’s more, the very few ways to build that bridge will share a few things in common:  they will have a common set of things that cannot be done. 

Some things that you can try will fail, because they will defy the laws of physics.  The objective basis of this set of rules for building this particular bridge cannot be defied at all. 

That’s why we say the rules of engineering are objectively based.

Those things that cannot be done are the “thou shalt nots.” 

The thing about “life” is similar–although it’s more like all the talk of “successful” and “thriving” societies.

It all depends on what you mean by “life.”

If you go to Rand, what she would say is this:

Human beings survive to the extent that they practice a particular set of moral rules.

If you, yourself, do not obey these rules, you have two choices:  find somebody else who is and use his work and effort to save yourself, or die.

If your society privileges the people who appropriate the work of others to survive, your society will get so far and no farther.  The extent to which producers are able to produce without punishment will determine how far you will get.

If your society looks like indigenous aboriginal Australian culture before the arrival of the Europeans, it is breaking a lot of moral rules.  If it looks like New York in 1950, it’s breaking a lot fewer.

She goes into it in much more detail, and since her moral rules are mostly not about things like sex–for Rand, morality is about honesty, integrity, and productivity–the system makes sense. 

As other people besides me have pointed out here, I think Rand is the only person ever to have made even a half successful attempt at constructing an entirely secular moral system.

But to get back to the issue at hand:

Cheryl points out that scientific knowledge is tentative.

Yes, of course it is–and knowledge of morality must be tentative, too.  In fact, it can only be tentative. 

Our knowledge of anything we must discover rather than invent will be subject to the limitations of time and place.   We learn, we try, we learn some more, we change.

But I do think that the radicalism of such change gets exaggerated quite often, and it gets ridiculously exaggerated when it comes to the rules of engineering–the thou shalts and the thou shalt nots.

We may have changed out understanding of what an atom looks like on the subatomic level, but that hasn’t much affected the rules for engineering those bridges.

When something does come along to affect those rules, it tends to be something new in the technology–we have this neat new material now, tempered steel, and it doesn’t work like iron, so we need rules that take it into account.

This is how we go about discovering the laws of nature and applying those laws to contemporary purposes–to building bridges and houses, to making pudding, to find our way to the North Pole or the Moon.

There is no reason at all why we should not go about discovering moral rules in exactly the same way, and everything to say that doing it would be an advance over where we are now.

The simple fact of the matter is that there are some ways you simply cannot build a bridge, any bridge–or a house, or a pudding.  There are limits to what will work on any level at all.

And of the ways left to build a bridge, some of them will be bad ways–inefficient, unstable, overly expensive, unworkable.

And at the base of it all will be a list of thou shalt nots that will be unbudgeable no matter what you do.


I’m going to post the thing about comments and go get some work done.

It’s Monday.



If you try to post a comment and can’t, then try to register a password and end up getting the error message

            Invalid Registration Status

please e-mail me, and we’ll get you into the system manually.

So far, at least four regular contributors have had this problem, and I’m a little worried about new people with no experience of how the system usually works.

So if it happens, it’s just the program screwing up.  E-mail me–if you don’t have the address  you can use the contact form on the web site–and we’ll get you signed in.

Thanks.  Sorry for all the fuss. 

Written by janeh

November 15th, 2010 at 6:52 am

Posted in Uncategorized


with 8 comments

I got up late.  Well, latish.  For me.  And I’m feeling better, so I have my fingers crossed.

But I just wanted to jump in on three points.

First, I’m sure there really are cases out there where kids are so extremely jumpy and distracted that we’re looking at an honest  problem in mental functioning.

I’m also sure that those kids never comprise a quarter of any middle school, or over half of all males in any middle school–numbers Connecticut got quite close to in the 1990s. 

A lot of this was definitely driven by parents, as I’ve noted here before.  Upper middle class parents are on a crusade to make sure they never have to accept the unpalatable news that their offspring are…well…not exactly academically inclined.

This is a group of people in a generation of people for whom “smart” was the most important thing, and “smart” meant “good at school.” 

What’s more, these are people who believe in setting goals and doing everything possible to go after them, and who are convinced that if they do that they will always succeed.

When junior arrives on the scene more interested in Monster Trucks than getting into AP Calculus–well, that won’t do, there must be something wrong with him. 

And, you  know, if that was all it was–parents going nuts on this level–I’d feel sorry for the kids and let it go.

But the fact is that once the fad got started, the teachers got started with it, and it suddenly became fashionable to “diagnose” any kid not behaving the way teachers wanted him to.  And I  want to stress the “him.”

And even then I would be okay with it if it had not come to attempts by the school to threaten and bully parents into putting the kids on Ritalin whether the parents wanted the kids to be on it or not.  The threats and bullying were not idle.  They included being reported to Child Protective Services for neglect–he needs medicine and the parents are withholding it!–and quite a lot of other nastiness.

The second thing is that when I said “lecture,” I was using a code for a larger problem.  I don’t mind actual lectures, myself.  What I do mind, and what I’m increasingly beginning to think is counterproductive, is this:

It doesn’t matter what the “subject” is.  You go into a classroom and sit at a desk.  The teacher outlines material in the front of the room.   She asks questions of the class and the class raises its hands and tries to answer them.  There are right and wrong answers about everything, including things it is not actually possible for anybody to know the answers to. 

Then papers are assigned, and everybody writes one, five to ten pages, with a works cited list.  They have to get their topics approved first.  Their topics are things like “Guilt and Innocence in Crime and Punishment” or “Plato’s Concept of the Good.” 

At the end of the term, there is an exam.  It’s probably an essay exam.  It asks things like “Compare and contrast the concept of the ‘social contract’ in the works of John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau.”

Now, there’s nothing wrong with all that–except that it’s the only way we ever teach anything these days. 

That is, assuming we teach it at all. 

I tried to outline a pretty good approach, here.  I’m just complaining that it’s the only one we use. 

It’s not the way I got into the Great Conversation myself, and I don’t think it’s the way most people actually get into it.  What they do, instead, is start asking the questions and then stumble across the fact that other people have been asking them for a long time. 

To me there seems to be something almost perverse in the idea that you can use the great conversation as the basis for credentialing people to–what?  Go to law school?

Like I said, we’re so used to the idea that this is how we learn and teach things, we don’t realize that there might be other ways of doing it that do NOT entail this scenario. 

And I can see why a fair number of people who are in fact interested in the Great Conversation might not be interested in doing that kind of thing.

Third, there’s that thing about “arriving at a satisfactory philosophy of life.”

I’ll have to say that not only have I never done that, but that I’ve never been interested in doing it.

I don’t want to find a philosophy that’s satisfactory, or satisfying, to me.

I want to know what is in fact objectively true.

Written by janeh

November 14th, 2010 at 9:13 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Even More Drifty

with 8 comments

Okay, so maybe just random today.

Let’s start with:  dead men talking.

What made me think of this is that there’s a new Toby Keith song out there, called “Bullets in the Gun,” in which the ballad is sung by the guy who gets shot in the last verse.  The video is a little better, since the guy singing still ends up dead but the woman he’s with gets away.

Okay, I like this thing.  It’s overwrought as hell, but overwrought the way medieval ballads are–a story song where everybody dies.  It’s practically a tradition in English.

It started me thinking, though, about how much there is ought there narrated by dead people.  The most famous of which, of course, is Sunset Boulevard, where the guy is not just dead but–as my older son put it–face down in the pool.

What gets me is that, as a literary device, it seems completely normal–at least, it seems so to me.  I never find myself questioning how this guy is talking.  The idea that somebody could tell you his story while freshly dead seems completely natural.

I don’t think this is just because I’m used to the device.  I wasn’t always used to it, and yet I don’t remember ever being surprised by it.  I do remember thinking it was odd when a teacher in college made a big point of the dead guy narrating in Sunset Boulevard.

Maybe other people are bothered by this and I’m not?  If so, I wonder why not?

The other thing has to do with something Robert said sort of offhandedly about something else.

I once said here that, in terms of the Great Conversation (the long centuries of intellectual thought, in art and philosophy and science and history and whatever) that makes up Western Civilization, Western human beings talking to each other down the centuries about the things that matter to being human–

Okay, I could write a longer sentence than this one is turning out to be but it would be hard.  You catch my drift.

In terms of the Great Conversation, only about ten percent of the school aged population is even capable of doing the intellectual work that would be necessary to that kind of an education.

Well, Robert said, half the ones capable aren’t interested in doing it.

But here’s the thing:  I think they are.  I think they’re just not interested in doing it in school.

There’s a kid like this at our place this term–not a remedial kid, obviously, but a kid who is passionately interested in all the stuff you can through at him, but who has absolutely zip interest in taking college courses in it.   He’s even interested in talking about it.  He’ll read his way through Nietzche and Plato and even Castiglione.   He can give an off the cuff analysis of something like “A Good Man Is Hard To Find” that I’d have been happy to hear from a grad student.   He’s even overjoyed to find people who also like the stuff to talk to about it.

He just doesn’t want to do it in a classroom.  In fact, he seems repelled by the idea.

I might find this more curious than I do if it weren’t for the fact that I’ve got two sons who are very similar, and the younger one is very similar. 

The older one will at least put up with the routine.  The younger one wants nothing to do with “all that,” by which he seems to mean having to sit still in a room at a desk for long periods of time and listen to “idiots.”

Okay, he’s always been smarter than most of his teachers, and surrounded by people who were also smarter than most of his teachers, and he’s an adolescent.

But I’m beginning to sympathize here.

Maybe it’s just that Matt’s in his senior year, and I’ve been at this a long time, but I’m increasingly appalled at what counts for a college education, even in good places, these days.

It’s not just that the approach to the Great Conversation is fragmentary, it’s that it’s often nonexistent, and when it does exist it seems to be used to teach platitudes of one kind or another. 

Or used as decoration.

Maybe it’s just the set up itself that’s become out of date or worse–maybe it’s just that there is something about sitting in a room at a desk while somebody lectures you and then taking a test on it that’s the wrong way to go about this.

More and more often I feel that the point to school these days–not just to college, but to high school and elementary school–is not knowledge, and not introduction to Western civilization, either, but to inculcate certain mental and physical habits:  sit still, be orderly, follow directions exactly, be as little out of the ordinary as possible.

I finally got my hands, recently, on a book I’ve been after for over a year:  Science and Pseudoscience in Clinical Psychology.  I haven’t read it yet, and I’m not likely to get to it any time soon.

And, okay, I’ve forgotten the name of the author and it’s in the other room and I’m lazy this morning.  It’s Saturday.

But I did look through it, and one of the things I found was a long section on ADD and ADHD–which includes both all my problems with drugging ten year olds because they won’t pay attention in class, to asking some serious questions about whether or not the syndrome actually exists, at least as its been commonly defined in schools.

It surprised me, because I’ve always understood–at least from the lectures I got from administrators–that there was one of those scientific consensuses around the existence of ADD and ADHD, and that I was being a know-nothing jerk to think that the whole thing sounded to me like nothing more than the resistance of young males to what’s become a hyperfeminized environment.

Okay. maybe I should do more of that when I have my mind on it.  I’m going to repost the thing about commenting on the blog and then go have tea.


If you try to post a comment and can’t, then try to register a password and end up getting the error message

            Invalid Registration Status

please e-mail me, and we’ll get you into the system manually.

So far, at least four regular contributors have had this problem, and I’m a little worried about new people with no experience of how the system usually works.

So if it happens, it’s just the program screwing up.  E-mail me–if you don’t have the address  you can use the contact form on the web site–and we’ll get you signed in.

Thanks.  Sorry for all the fuss. 

Written by janeh

November 13th, 2010 at 8:52 am

Posted in Uncategorized

About Posting To The Blog

with one comment

Hi–This is sort of not a real post.  I’m tired, I couldn’t sleep, it’s too early in the morning.

But we’ve recently experienced some difficult here, so I’m going to post this, and then I’m going to post the message at the bottom of every regular post until we get it cleared up.

If you try to post a comment and can’t, then try to register a password and end up getting the error message

            Invalid Registration Status

please e-mail me, and we’ll get you into the system manually.

So far, at least four regular contributors have had this problem, and I’m a little worried about new people with no experience of how the system usually works.

So if it happens, it’s just the program screwing up.  E-mail me–if you don’t have the address  you can use the contact form on the web site–and we’ll get you signed in.

Thanks.  Sorry for all the fuss. 

Sometimes I think computer programs are trying to get me.

Written by janeh

November 12th, 2010 at 5:07 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Notes From the Front

with 7 comments

I don’t know what it is this year.  I’m getting sick more often, and I’m getting sick worse.  This last round has felt like a whiplash–pretty sick for a while, okay sort of, really sick, can’t get it to go completely away.  I did get to sleep a little late this morning, so there’s that.

At the moment, I’m a little floaty, but I’ve got a couple of things.

One is that I was flipping channels last night after we’d watched Band of Brothers through to the end, and I caught Bill O’Reilly on his own show–defending the position that atheistic humanists are not “immoral people.”

I was, by then, very tired, and I got it only at the end of the segment, but he seemed to be doing this in opposition to a guest (young, blonde, but not one of the usual suspects) who was declaring that humanists had to be immoral.

But then, of all these guys, O’Reilly is the one I like the most.  So there’s that.

The other thing is incredibly depressing, but I don’t think I’m ever going to forget it.

And if you’re one of those people who thinks a knowledge of history is important to the health of a nation and a civilization, this will blow your corks.

Yesterday, in class, I had to explain–not to one person, but to several–what a genocide was.

Then I had to convince them that “stuff like that” actually happened.

They’d heard of “the Holocaust,” but had no idea whatsoever what it entailed.  I had to bring up visuals on the computer to convince them I wasn’t making it all up.

They hadn’t heard of Pol Pot or the killing fields.

Which explained why they were having so much trouble with the assignment, since it consisted of the stories of three young men whose families had all immigrated from Cambodia back in the 1970s.  

The young men had never bothered to become American citizens, and they all had felonies, and they were all being deported–but my kids couldn’t untangle any of the issues, or even understand them, because they didn’t know why these families had come to the US to begin with.

Anyway, okay, I admit it–these aren’t the cream of the academic crop.  They aren’t even the middle.

But they are doing better than at least half the kids they graduated from high school with, since they’re in a postsecondary program, no matter how weak.

If they didn’t know, what are the chances the people at home know? 

And this is not like my last jaw-dropping moment, when an adult student in a night class I taught didn’t know that slavery had ever existed outside the US.

That’s because she actually did know, she just hadn’t put the words together in her head.   She was so used to hearing the word “slavery” used in radically different contexts that she hadn’t realized the two were the same thing–the slavery in Egypt in church, the slavery in the US in school.  She’d never connected the dots.

In this case, the kids really didn’t know.  They had no idea that anybody had ever done anything like that.   They’d seen Nazi bad guys in a thousand movies, and had no idea why the Nazis were bad guys, except that they were.  You know, like aliens.  They just were.

I suppose I just sound like I’m doing it again, wailing on and on about how they don’t know anything.

I think that even when I complain that they don’t know anything, I’m internally qualifying the point by going, “except, of course, they know the really obvious things.”

Sometimes, I don’t know how to cope when they don’t know the obvious things.

More and more lately, I don’t know how to cope.

Written by janeh

November 11th, 2010 at 9:15 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Reality Bites The Big One

with 5 comments

So yesterday, when I left the house, I was feeling a lot better, and pretty sure I was almost over this.  Then I went to school and did my long day–or almost did it.  About twenty minutes into the two twenty class, I started coughing and couldn’t stop.  And that’s when I came home.

By then, of course, I was so fuzzy and out of it that I was barely paying attention to anything.  I was even having trouble following Band of Brothers, which is up on the free on demand again.  And I love Band of Brothers.   I love it because it is, simply, wonderful.  But I also love it because Spielberg and Hanks didn’t try to fix WWII.  There are no African American soldiers in Easy Company–because there weren’t any. 

And there should have been.  And it was not just.  And the segregation of the American Army was a bad idea.

But WWII is WWII, we can’t change it now, and for once the history mattered more than the moral lecture.

But I was sitting on my couch, watching the thing and looking through magazines on the loveseat because my head was too stuffed up for me to concentrate on anything. 

And I came across an article in Free Inquiry about education. 

Actually, I really was addled, so I don’t remember what the entire article was about.  What I do remember is that part of it was about how awful No Child Left Behind is, and how it’s resulted in a dumbing down of elementary and secondary education at all levels.

And I ended up thinking both about my kids–as of the post yesterday–and about what always bugs me about those arguments.

I am not a big fan of No Child Left Behind.  The damned thing set standards without every doing any basic research in what the standards should be, what could reasonably be expected of anybody at any grade level, even what we already were expecting of anybody at any grade level. 

It also represents, to me, another attempt to nationalize American education, which is something I really am not in favor of.  I tend to cheerlead for the opposite of a national curriculum–as many disparate and unconnected parts as possible, with no central control. 

But the one thing that never bothered me about NCLB was the possibility that teachers would start “teaching to the test.”   

It seems to me that if I am a local school district–or even the Department of Education–and I want to make sure that students learn X, then it makes sense for me to test them on X. 

And if the only way teachers can make sure that students learn X is to “teach to the test,” then so be it.  If I want them to learn X, and that’s the only way, then that’s what should be done.

I said this once on a certain Internet discussion forum and got seventeen kinds of wailing indignation landed on my head.  What if the students weren’t learning other things–you’d never know about it!  Well, yes, I never would.  But if I want to make sure they know X, then it makes sense to me to insist that there be some proof that they know X.

And I know a lot about what happens when they don’t know X.  My kids are the ones who don’t. 

And Robert is absolutely right.  If we took them step by step over the course of a few years, some of them could definitely learn to do college work.  We’d just have to make sure they learned to do junior high school work first. 

But we won’t.

Let me try to make clear what’s happening here.

These kids will never be given a few years to catch up.  Either they’ll flunk out entirely, or they’ll be spoon fed through four years of “college” and given a “degree” that everybody in the immediate area knows for exactly what it is worth.

The kids who flunk out will flunk out because they’ll go on to a low-level state four year where the academic standard reaches to about the level of a middling public high school.  Since the year, or at most two, that these kids will get in remedial programs will not bring them even close to that, they’ll just fail.

But in a way, they’ll be lucky.  They’ll at least realize that there are academic standards out there that are higher than they’re able to reach.

The kids who go on to the phone four-year “college” programs won’t even know that.   The level of the work they will be required to do will reach no higher than what was required in class a couple of days ago, and they will leave with their “degree” convinced that academic work is just a con game–nothing important, and something anybody can do, so that the only thing that accounts for why they’re not getting the kinds of jobs they want or why the law and medical schools won’t take them is…well, it must be racism.  The black kids think the only reason they’re getting turned down is that they’re black.  The white kids think the only reason they’re getting turned down is that affirmative action means some black guy had to get it even if his grades were worse.

It is difficult to explain just how much of a sham American “college” education on the lowest level really is. 

Nobody is looking to make these kids competent in research skills.  Nobody is even looking to bring them up to the academic level high school should have.

What this system wants, mostly, is a sort of plausible deniability.  It wants to be able to sit back and go:  failing schools?  But we graduate more than half of our kids, and they go on to college and they even graduate!

And since most Americans have no idea what goes on inside programs like mine,  that even looks plausible on paper.

In the meantime, nobody fixes anything, because in order to fix things you would first have to face the fact that the numbers are going to be wildly skewed by both race and class.

And I am increasingly convinced that the people who will not face that fact are secretly of the opinion that race determines intelligence, at least a little–that my kids are incapable of learning much of anything, so that there’s no real reason to try to teach them. 

And in the meantime, of course, this is costing mostly poor kids and their families a ton of money.  It costs a lot more for one of my kids to finish four years of a phony “college” than it does for just about anybody to finish Johns Hopkins, or Harvard.

Back in the middle of the 19th century, Vassar decided that it would not admit girls who could not pass a standard college entrance exam–the same one they used at Yale–and instead instituted a training program to bring them up to speed before allowing them to attend classes.

My kids could use something like that, but they’re not going to get it.  They’ve only got the two choices–a phony “college” degree that’s worth less than a high school diploma from someplace like Westport, or to be sent defenseless into a poor but halfway honest program which they’ll have very little chance of completing.

The only chance any of them have got is to be able to actually make it through one of those halfway honest programs.

But to do that, they’re going to have to be able to handle research in scholarly journals by next year.

Okay, I really am feeling a little better today, on the have-a-cold-front.

But I’m obviously in a much worse mood.

Written by janeh

November 10th, 2010 at 6:06 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Calms and Storms

with 2 comments

This is what I think of as a calm week in the middle of the term. 

I used to design courses with an ever-increasing stress level–more work every week, harder assignments every week, tote that barge, lift that bale.

It made sense to me, at least theoretically.  First you do a little, then you do a little more, and if you keep it up, you’re suddenly in a place you never expected yourself to be.

I finally figured out that real life didn’t work that way. Or, at least, it didn’t work that way for “remedial” and “developmental” students, who tend to feel that they’re drowning. 

And a lot of them are drowning.  I’m still wandering around wondering what I’m supposed to do about that, and I don’t really know.  If there’s one thing that drives me crazy about this particular process, it’s the professional-speak with which many of my fellow teachers approach it, full of theory and jargon.  The professional-speak hides from them–as well as from anybody in administration or the state government who wants to look in on the program–the fact that there are substrata of our students for whom it is not working. 

What I did, finally, in order to give everybody a chance to catch his breath before we hit the research project–or the attempt at the research project–was to move a week that used to be early in the course to about now. 

That week is the observation and description paper, which is about the easiest thing we do.  It requires nothing much in the way of cultural context.  The assignment itself isn’t long.  I can bring show and tell that makes people laugh.

This term, it also turned out to be the week when the library ladies wanted to come into the class to do their presentation. 

We schedule two presentations every term for classes like mine, because one of the hardest things we have to do is to convince them that they will in fact have to go to the library, that looking up things online will not be acceptable as college research–at least, not if they stick to those exclusively–and that they will, in fact, eventually have to deal with books.

Most of my kids seem to thing of books as alien artifacts.  They know books exists, but they’ve never had anything to do with them except to carry them around from class to class in high school.   While they were there, their teachers assigned readings, which they didn’t do.  Their teachers then spent class time reading out of the book and recapitulating what was in it. 

In college, therefore, they see very little reason to actually buy their textbooks, and they get highly indignant when they find out their teachers expect them to know things without having been told all about them in class.   Teachers should teach, they insist.  And by that, they mean teachers should read out of the book so that they don’t have to.

But the library ladies wanted to come in this week, and I didn’t see any reason why not, so they did.  And this time, for the first time, I sat in the class while the presentation was going on. 

And I was, quite frankly, stunned.

I’m used to the fact that the teachers around me are basically doing work on a junior high level while describing it in terms that make it sound like a seminar at Oxford, but this was truly and thoroughly incredible.

For one thing, the teaching style was out of fifth grade, if that.   “Misinformation is what we call it when somebody tells us something that is wrong, but they don’t know it’s wrong,” the woman said.  “What do you think disinformation means?”

Then there were the homework handouts, that consisted of little blocks of declarative sentences with one or two blanks the students were supposed to fill it.   An article is more credible if it’s ______, one of them said.  The answer was “peer reviewed.”

The whole thing was astonishing.  I found myself waxing indignant myself, on their behalf.  If anybody had ever come into any of my college classrooms and treated me like that, I would have been furious beyond belief.

But the real kicker was this:  they weren’t furious.  In fact, the longer I watched, the more I realized that this was what they wanted.  It’s what they think “school” should be like.  Encouraging little voice.  Simple little questions.  Everything chopped up and boiled down to a level that would be an insult to a bright ten year old. 

Everything, in fact, that I had fled to college to escape.

And I don’t know what to make of it.  On one level, the presentation was a roaring success.  They all felt they’d learned something, and possibly they had. 

But I’m not too sure how we get there from here.  Now that they know about professional journals and peer-reiviewed articles, how are they going to be able to use them?  What’s going to happen when they pick up a copy of the American Journal of Social Psychology and even the abstract isn’t divided up into easy to swallow little bits, when they have to read page after page of little tiny type on the relationship between expressive behavior and social norms?

I am not, now, talking about introducing them to the Canon, or the Great Conversation, either.  People who need to fill in the blanks this way to learn something are not at a level of competence capable of doing actual college work.  They’re barely at a level of competence capable of doing high school work.

And I do understand that the point is to get them there.  But is this how we get them there?  Can we get them there like this?  At some point, don’t we have to bite the bullet and give it to them straight?

I don’t know.  The throw them in the deep end school of learning to swim isn’t something I’m usually in favor of.

But this is…I don’t know what.

Tomorrow or Thursday, maybe, a bit about readers and vocabulary, techniques and referents, plus controversial subjects.

Written by janeh

November 9th, 2010 at 7:03 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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