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A Swede in Germany

Posts Tagged ‘School

Reading and thinking / Follow-up: Profound vs. trite

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In an excursion to a recent text, I wrote that:

A reason for my scepticism towards e.g. business studies and social sciences is that I, when reading such materials, often find myself raising issues like “this cannot be true—consider X”, “but what about special case Y?”, “important observation Z immediately follows—why is there no mention of this?” only to see the book address X, Y, and Z a few pages later on—and in a manner that makes it clear that the author is now teaching the reader something that he could not expect to figure out on his own.

(Footnote removed.)

Looking at harder sciences, the situation is usually better (if less so today than in the past, cf. below). I have, for instance, always tended to think ahead, put claims to scrutiny, whatnot with math books too—but with math this seems to be not just allowed or welcomed but outright expected by the authors.* Indeed, most math books relegate pieces of reasoning entirely to exercises and/or add exercises to make the reader expand on his knowledge and understanding on his own. In math, we are supposed to think for ourselves; in business (to some degree) and social sciences (to a high degree), we are all too often supposed to just accept the Revealed Wisdom.

*Beyond a certain border, maybe somewhere during high school. (To specify the border would require considerable research; it might vary from time to time, country to country, and field to field; and it must be seen as an average over many authors.) There might or might not be a similar border in any other given field, but, with reservation for math adjacent fields, it is then far further up the years.

Unfortunately, there seems to be a general trend for the worse in most fields, math included, likely as a result of continual dumbing down and the acceptance of evermore students into college or specific college programs who are not actually college material resp. sufficiently strong for the specific program. An increasing assumption seems to be that the reader/student/whatnot simply does not have the brains to master something without being led by the hand.* In particular, the obsession with lectures and teachers is depressing—two tools to reach education, knowledge, and understanding that are highly inefficient, yet remain ubiquitous.**

*Leaving the question aside, whether this type of “mastery” truly deserves the name, as the ability to create new knowledge, to apply old knowledge to new problems, to understand unaided a book on the topic, and similar is likely to be far more developed in those who have proved themselves on a harder road.

**The claim “there are no bad students—there are only bad teachers” is pretty much the reverse of the truth. A bright and motivated student with a good book can learn despite the teacher, barring the possibility that the teacher kills his motivation or otherwise outright sabotages him; a dull one can hardly be taught much beyond rote learning, even should he be motivated.

It might be argued that many books of yore* took the issue of understandability too lightly, put a burden of thought on the reader that excluded too many, and made the journey unnecessarily hard for the included.** However, today’s books err on the other side, and are often “premasticated” to such a degree that little thinking is needed, which hampers the development of a deeper understanding. Worse, those who do enjoy to think can see the opportunity to do so diminished. There is also often a shift from time spent thinking to time spent reading, which removes much of the time that could have been saved (at the cost of inferior understanding), e.g. in that a book of old might require one minute of reading and two minutes of thinking (for some amount of content), while a newer book might require two minutes of reading and one of thinking—or, worse, three minutes of reading and none of thinking. Then there is the issue of half-truths, “lying to students”, etc.

*Here, too, I cannot give a specific border, but in a very rough guestimate, the 19th century and earlier might have been too low on understandability, most of the 20th was “just right”, while the latter parts of the 20th century and onwards have been too dumbed down and simplistic.

**Note that this often included a shift of brainpower from understanding the underlying matter to deciphering the text qua text. (I realize that I am not the ideal thrower of the first stone, but sometimes stones still should be thrown.)


Written by michaeleriksson

December 15, 2022 at 10:42 pm

Lake Woebegone (sic!), where all the teens are more miserable than the others

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As much as I sympathize with the many who had a poor experience of life in high school, or school in general, I find annoying the self-obsession that sometimes, especially among girls, follows it in real life and almost invariably does so on TV.

Certainly, there are some who have it much worse than others, but most of those who complain about “poor me”* actually seem to be fairly average in their experiences. The teenager years can be hard, being in school does not help, and being surrounded by other teens is often a bad thing—but it is approximately the same for everyone. Unrequited love? Bad break-up? Fight with the best friend? A mean-girl clique? Feeling misunderstood? Studying hard and still getting a poor grade? Insecurity about physical attractiveness? Being nervous around the other sex? Being homosexual and insecure both about that and about being around the same sex? Having a close relative die? Parents divorcing? Being forced to move to a new school and starting over without the old friends? Not being made home-coming queen?** Chances are that most high-school students run into several of these and/or several others that simply did not occur to me off the top of my head.

*As opposed to “poor us”: There is a difference between complaining about general problems using personal experiences as examples (I often do, myself; note e.g. the locked-in-a-train situation in my previous text) and painting fairly normal problems as something much worse than what others encounter. Ditto between complaining about one’s own specific situation when it is unusually tough and when it is not. Ditto between just letting of some steam with a personal complaint and demanding the sympathies of the world.

**With variations depending on personal priorities, e.g. “Not being made valedictorian?” and “Not making the football team?”. (I stick with a more female perspective in the main example, as the girls, again, seem to be worse complainers on average.)

Nevertheless, we have many who complain about their specific personal situation relative everyone else based on just these several items. Consider “Tall Girl”*: Unsurprisingly, this movie deals with a tall girl. She goes to high school and sees her complaints center around being tall and how everyone, supposedly, considers her a freak. Various adventures ensue, and towards the end of the movie she gets up on a pedestal** and holds a speech about how horrible it is to be a tall girl in high school to the gathered students—most of which likely had problems of a similar or greater magnitude, but who were not given a pedestal by the filmmakers.*** Interestingly, she was not even that tall, being somewhere in the 1.80s, where she could still expect to, e.g., find plenty of taller men. Certainly, she did not seem to consider or take advantage of potential upsides of being tall, say, a chance to be the star of the local basket team and maybe getting a college scholarship—while there is no or very little upside to most other teenage complaints, e.g., unrequited love. (Well, I suppose that unrequited love might help someone looking for a career in poetry, but …)

*A third rate movie that I caught when stuck in a hotel room with nothing else to do. With reservations for the exact name and various other details.

**Whether literally or just metaphorically, I do not remember.

***In the case of fiction, there is often a question of whether the fault results from a realistically portrayed character or from filmmakers pushing some angle. In the latter case, there is the additional question of whether the angle is more-or-less arbitrary or rooted in personal experiences.

Of course, this type of condescending and self-centered speech is not unique to “Tall Girl”. On the contrary, I have seen a number of variations over the years. The same attitude, without a speech, is very common. Consider “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” for a much more intelligent take and many interesting contrasts between those with superficial problems, like Cordelia and her clique, and those like Buffy (who spends her days in school and her evenings risking her life to fight “the vampires, the demons, and the forces of darkness” or something to that effect). A particularly interesting scene follows shortly after the death of Buffy’s mother: kid sister Dawn is at school, desolate and crying in the bathroom, and it is revealed that this was over some boy or something mean that some inconsequential mean-girl said—the news of her mother has yet to arrive.

The trigger for writing this text, however, is “13 Reasons”, where I am currently midway through episode 4. The premise is that a high-school girl, Hannah, has killed herself and left behind a set of tapes with various recapitulations of how some other students gave her these “13 Reasons” to end her life. So far? Nothing truly impressive. Combined with her accusatory tone and streaks of pontification on tape, and her behavior during flashbacks on screen, she often seems to be over-sensitive, irrational, self-centered, and/or attention seeking. (To the series credit, something similar is also stated by one of the other characters.) Examples of her complaints include boys making a list of who-is-or-is-not attractive (apparently male sexism,* even though she did well), which led to one of her “friends” freaking out and blaming her for a breakup.** Well, that sucks, but it is not the end of the world and nowhere near suicide territory. It is certainly not, for instance, comparable to having a parent die or oneself losing a limb in a car crash—and I doubt that suicide is a typical reaction to these either.*** Few, in all fairness, see a “13” in lieu of “several” above, and within a comparatively short time, but, so far, I do not see suicide as an even remotely reasonable reaction—or the death rate of teenagers would be far higher than it is.

*In real life, over twelve years in school, I encountered exactly one such list—made by the girls.

**I am a little vague on the details, but it might be that Hannah’s “friend’s” boyfriend was the one who was complimentary, which led to unwarranted suspicions of an affair with Hannah. The loss of this “friend” is the worst damage seen so far, but, from the overall material, it seems to not have been a true friendship to begin with (hence my scare quotes). This does not lessen the pain in the moment, but it does reduce the practical damage.

***I acknowledge that those who commit suicide in real life do not necessarily have reasons that others would understand, but when an entire TV series is made on the topic such reasons should be present. I note, in particular, that there has not been any signs of pre-existing complications, say, a clinical depression, a severe substance-abuse problem, abusive parents, or a very prolonged state of unhappiness. Moreover, it is clear from the existence of the tapes that suicide was neither a spur of the moment decision, nor a “number 13 was the last straw—I just cannot take it anymore”.

Of course, all this even going by Hannah’s versions of events, the truthfulness of which has been disputed by at least one other character.

I had great hopes, after a promising first episode, but right now I am uncertain whether I will even watch episode 4 to an end—in part, because the promises of the first episode do not seem to be fulfilled; in part, because there have been repeated unrealistic “evil male” portrayals;* in part, because I fear that the series will end with some type of cop out, e.g. a rape scenario, as there are strong signs that a group of boys is trying to keep something very bad quiet.

*Including, in this episode, a photographer who secretly takes photos of other students. The sheer amount of such portrayals in modern fiction is both tedious and annoying. To boot, they can feed into the very distorted view of men that many in modern society (already) have.

Excursion on mean girls and suppressed information:
When I hear about somewhat similar events in real life, say, that some girl did commit suicide or that some girl saw her reputation blown to pieces by incriminating photos, the formulations used typically amount to “poor girl” vs. “mean fellow students”. However, looking at the type of meanness presented, e.g. that the girl with incriminating photos is condemned as a slut or was excluded from her previous group of friends, it usually seems more like something that specifically the other girls would do. (In the second example, additionally, because girls usually have more girls than boys as friends.) Factor in what I have myself seen and heard in real life, most (at least, pre-woke) fictional portrayals,* and the known issue of the ethnicity of criminals being censored by media, and I strongly suspect another case of suppressed information, that the perpetrators are predominantly female. I also note a similar pattern of “society”, “media”, whatnot being blamed for “pressuring” women into this-and-that, where it is often clear that the pressure either stems from other women or from the individual woman, herself, e.g. because she believes that others have certain expectations. (Eating disorders is a recurring example.)

*Note e.g. parts of an older discussion of Carrie and the book, itself.

Written by michaeleriksson

November 23, 2022 at 10:58 am

When discrimination begets discrimination / Follow-up: A call for more (!) discrimination

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Various forms of official and unofficial race-based discrimination (often hiding under the euphemism “affirmative action”; often under outright excuse making, like “holistic admissions”) around higher education have been in the news repeatedly this year. Notably, there is a big SCOTUS decision on pro-Black and anti-Asian discrimination at Harvard coming up.

This type of bad discrimination, however, makes it harder to perform good discrimination, and it often backfires against those favored by the bad discrimination, as the bad discrimination begets compensatory* discrimination.

*Whether compensatory discrimination is good or bad will depend on the details at hand. In a better world, however, it would not be needed.

One of my more important texts is A call for more (!) discrimination (of the good kind, see the text for details), where I write:

Not all discrimination, depending on exact meaning implied, is good, but this is usually due to a lack of discrimination. Consider e.g. making a hiring decision between a Jewish high-school drop-out and a Black Ph.D. holder: With only that information present, the hiring decision can be based on either the educational aspect, the race/ethnicity aspect, or a random choice.* If we go by the educational or race aspect, there is discrimination towards the candidates. However, if the race aspect is used, then this is a sign that there has been too little or incorrect discrimination towards the hiring criteria—otherwise the unsuitability of the race aspect as a criterion would have been recognized. This, in turn, is the reason why racial discrimination is almost always wrong: It discriminates by an unsound criterion. We can also clearly see why “discrimination” must not be reduced to the meanings implied by “racial [and whatnot] discrimination”—indeed, someone truly discriminating (adjective) would not have been discriminating (verb) based on race in the above example.

*Or a combination thereof, which I will ignore: Including the combinations has no further illustrative value.

Now, when comparing two such extremes (high-school drop-out vs. Ph.D. holder) even massive manipulations are unlikely to make a significant difference,* and even a Ph.D. holder who received several legs up is likely to be the better choice for most qualified jobs. However, smaller differences, or the absence of differences, in formal qualifications can be the result of preferential treatment rather than true merit, and then compensatory discrimination is likely to arise. For instance, Clarence Thomas, in his autobiography,** notes how his hard-earned Yale J.D. did not give him what he had expected—because too many Blacks had been given an artificial leg up, which had diminished the credibility of the Yale J.D. for Blacks relative Whites. Would it not be better then, to (a) apply the same criteria for admission, grading, and whatnot to Blacks, and (b) have the degree count for just as much as the “White version”? As things stand, a prospective client looking for a lawyer would be justified in being cautious about hiring a Black one—and what will this imply for the long-term success of Black lawyers? With corporate hiring and hiring within the justice system, things are better, as a more thorough vetting can take place, but even the worthy Blacks will still start with a handicap*** because of the lower face value of various qualifications that prior pro-Black discrimination has brought about. For attractive jobs, with many applicants, this handicap might even be preventative, as a high applicant-to-position ratio tends to lead to hard pre-filtering based on easily checked surface criteria, with a more thorough process reserved for those who make the short-list.

*Although, other factors might. The high-school drop-out could be a once-in-a-million genius who quit to implement some private project that he found more intellectually worthwhile. Then again, once-in-a-million geniuses are once-in-a-million.

**More on this very educational book will follow at some later time.

***Barring further pro-Black discrimination, which will ultimately do harm to others, as better candidates from other groups miss opportunities that are rightfully theirs, as the actual job is performed worse, etc.

Note how the unfairness of pro-Black discrimination creates an impossible dilemma: Some of the Blacks will be worthy of, e.g., a Yale J.D. and applying a discount to their formal qualifications will be unfair; some will not be worthy, and not applying a discount will be unfair to everyone else. In many cases, notably healthcare, even lives might be on the line, as the quality of e.g. a physician really can make a difference.

Going back to my quote, the presence of prior pro-Black discrimination turns things around. It makes the later racial discrimination needed to compensate not wrong, it makes race a sound (if secondary) criterion, and someone truly discriminating would have used race in the above example. Is that truly the type of world that we want to live in?

Similarly, further down, I write:

Unfortunately, sometimes proxies are used that are less likely to give valuable information (e.g. impression from an interview) and/or are “a proxy too far” (e.g. race). To look at the latter, a potential U.S. employer might (correctly) observe that Jews currently tend to have higher grades than Blacks and tend to advance higher in the educational system, and conclude that the Jew is the better choice. However, seeing that this is a group characteristic, it would be much better to look at the actual individual data, removing a spurious proxy: Which of the two candidates does have the better grades and the more advanced education—not who might be expected to do so based on population statistics.

But there are considerable signs that Blacks (on average) do get higher grades for the same level of work, be it because they are favored* by teachers or because they go to schools with laxer grading or a grading relative** their local peers.

*Not necessarily in the “I like Blacks better” sense. Far more common, I suspect, is thinking like “Yes, D’Jamal only scored a D on the test, but he is Disadvantaged and Underprivileged. Besides, he tried so hard. Better give him a B.” and other emotional, irrational, and misguided attempts to do good in order to feel good.

**Be it informally or through formally “grading on a curve”. An “A” from a stereotypical inner-city school might fall well short of an “A” from a good school, let alone a magnet school dominated by East-Asians.

Of course, this often creates a vicious circle, where, on level after level, Blacks are given a leg up on one level, are admitted to the next level based on the prior level,* underperform (on average) on the new level,** and are given a new leg up “because Racial Justice” or “because Evil White Supremacy”—after all, if someone Black performs worse than someone White/Asian/Jewish/whatnot, despite having the same prior qualifications, it just must be because society is out to oppress Blacks.

*Unless over-admitted based on racial discrimination…

**Note that this is not explained by natural race-based difference. The problem is the laxer admission. Keep Blacks to a higher standard and Whites to a lower standard and this would reverse.

Excursion on the SCOTUS decision:
I am not certain what will happen (as much as I hope that Harvard will have its knuckles rapped and be forced to stand in the corner with a dunce’s cap on), but it is important to bear in mind that the job of the SCOTUS is to make decisions on what is legally/constitutionally right/acceptable/whatnot—not on what is ethically so. Harvard’s behavior is unethical. In fact, it is grossly unethical. It does not automatically follow that it is illegal.* (If, however, things go Harvard’s way, then an overhaul of relevant law should be strongly considered.) Based on prior records, I would advise the observer to focus on Thomas (the aforementioned autobiographer) and Alito, as they are the two out of the nine most likely to stick to the law.**

*I have not done the legwork on the issue. It might or might not be, but the issue is detached from ethics.

**The great problem with the Left-leaning SCOTUS members, be it today or e.g. during the Warren Court, is that they often forget this and abuse the Court to push their own private preferences. Ditto many Left-leaning lower judges. Conservative justices/judges tend to do much better, but are not infallible. (What specifically Roberts is up to is often puzzling.)

Excursion on bad discrimination begetting bad discrimination:
A sad twist is that prior bad discrimination can lead to increased demands for further bad discrimination and/or the abolishment of good discrimination, especially when moving from one level to another. Consider e.g. a high-GPA Black student who does poorly in college, whose failure is blamed on “White Supremacy”,* and who is given a compensatory leg up. Or, for “abolishment”, consider when this high-GPA Black student scores low on the SATs or (a few years later) LSATs. It must be because these tests are evil—it cannot possibly be because that high GPA was misleading. Similarly, if Blacks fail disproportionately at the various bar exams, it cannot possibly be because they earned their law degrees too cheaply—it must be because the bar exams are evil. Conclusion: abolish the SATs, the LSATs, and the bar exam.**

*This sounds ridiculous, but it actually happens. This expression has become a catch-all excuse for anything that certain Leftist groups disagree with or want to change—including the idea that some questions have a single right answer and the idea that grammar and spelling matter.

**Again, this might sound ridiculous, but it actually happens. Indeed, both the SATs and the LSATs are increasingly discounted, and the only thing that saves the bar exam might be its role to keep outsiders out and ensure less competition for the insiders. (In a twist, this saving aspect is the true argument that could be used against bar exams. The world is truly upside down.)

Excursion on other distorting factors when comparing qualifications:
More generally, equivalent or equivalent-seeming qualifications need not have the same implication for two different persons, and some care must be taken when comparing—even absent any deliberate or accidental distortion. For instance, a certain high-school GPA might stem from a brighter kid putting in some amount of work or from a duller kid putting in a greater amount of work. They look the same at a casual glance, but chances are that the brighter kid will fare better in life, be a more valuable employee, etc.* For instance, in many softer and/or leg-work oriented fields, it is possible to earn a degree even with brains short of true “college material” by compensating with that much harder work.

*Here it can help to look at individual grades. If e.g. the one has an A in math and a C in home economics, and the other a C in math and an A in home economics, this is a strong indication that the former is the better choice—likely, in the long term, even for something related more closely to home economics than to math.

Note how both examples are made the worse when poor teachers/schools move from grading on ability to grading on effort, e.g. by reducing the weight of tests relative the weight of homework when grading or by reducing the difficulty of the material. A particularly harmful approach for grading* is “continuous** assessment”, especially for the brightest students, who tend to dislike low-thinking but high-effort work, tend to learn better on their own and at their own tempo, etc.

*The use of continuous assessment to help the weaker students in time, to direct the stronger students to more advanced and stimulating material, and similar, is a different issue.

**The word “continual” matches the actual process better in my impression, but the official name appears to use “continuous”.

Excursion on admissions as an artificial bar:
My own degrees come from European universities and I have no personal experience with the likes of Harvard. However, I have repeatedly seen claims that certain U.S. top colleges are very hard to get into—but comparatively easy to graduate from. If this holds true, a distorting admissions process is the more negative, both for reasons of fairness and because it weakens the usefulness of college as a filter even further than it already has been weakened.

Written by michaeleriksson

October 30, 2022 at 10:24 am

Follow-up: Children vs. parents vs. the government (circumcision)

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Long ago, I wrote a text ([1]) criticizing a Conservative complaint about anti-circumcision suggestions by the Left ([2]). While I stand by that text in principle and remain strongly opposed to (non-voluntary) circumcision, I have since seen many practical complications around rights and power that make me question my priorities. In particular, it might well be that some arbitrary power given to the parents would be a far lesser evil. As the author of the complaint said to another commenter, but representative for much of the reactions:

Your missing the point of the original post. The problem is the government’s intervention in this very personal decision. That is the danger to society, not whether you are for or against the practice. Once we allow the government to start running our families or religions, Fascism will follow.*

*Compared with my impression, he might have the causalities wrong. Does Fascism follow because we allow the government to X, does a Fascist government insist that we “allow” it to X, or is it a mixture? Witness e.g. Joe Biden.

Similarly, in direct response to me:

[…] The issue is not circumcision; it’s whether some Left-wing (or Right-wing for that matter) Moon-bats know better than parents and should be allowed to intervene in child rearing. Just look around and see the results. We are in the 5th decade of the Progressive experiment to have Social workers and other government agencies take over the responsibilities of raising our children. Object failure with kids coming out of school who cannot read, teenage pregnancies and abortions at all time highs.

Government does very little right. Suggestion that we continue to cede parental rights to it makes no sense.

Notably, the Leftist attitude of very selective and hypocritically applied rights (both with regard to “what rights” and “rights of whom”) and great centralization of power has done much harm and is very contrary to a free and democratic society.

The status of parents relative their children (and vice versa), which was at the core of the original circumcision discussion, is a great source of examples—and shows why it is very hard to say what measures are acceptable. This to the point that a circumcision dictated by the parents is a far smaller danger than what current schools, governments, whatnot, impose or would impose if not resisted. (Also see excursion.)

In the last few years, we have e.g. seen schools presuming to go behind the parents’ backs when it comes to gender-dysphoria, which could result not just in a slice of skin missing from a penis but an entire penis being surgically removed and/or used for vaginoplasty (or whatever the word might be), in a decision that could be regretted* a few years later and that cannot be considered truly informed**. The same, m.m., applies to the girls. Note that even lesser interventions, e.g. hormone supplements and suppressors might have far-going and/or permanent effects, and certainly more so, on average, than a circumcision.

*While I have never seen formal statistics, the Internet is full of complaints that e.g. “I was pushed to go ahead and now, when it is too late, I realize that this is not what I wanted” or “transitioning seemed as it would solve all my problems, but it just made matters worse”.

**The decision is monumental and life-altering. Should any teen, let alone proper child, make such a decision without even getting the parents’ perspective on the issue? (Even assuming that the parents are not given a legally binding veto; and even disregarding the question of whether a teen has half the knowledge and experience to make an informed decision.) This includes not just different perspectives, but also own experiences. What if e.g. one of the parents can truthfully say that “I went through something similar, but it blew over after a year or two and now I am happy that I did not act on it”? Is that not something that the child would benefit from knowing? An interesting thought-experiment is to replace this monumental and life-altering decision with something lesser, but still very, very major—say, a girl of 14 who wants to marry her boyfriend. Would even the gender-fanatics consider this an appropriate decision to make behind the parents’ back?

Something very similar applies to COVID-vaccines, where at least some schools have put pressure on children to get vaccinated without the parents’ knowledge, let alone consent. This despite the uselessness of these vaccines in the age group(s) relevant; and despite the risks (small, but by no means trivial) involved.

Then we have matters like indoctrination into far-Left quasi-religions like CRT and attempts to turn the children into Leftist/environmental/whatnot activists. Note, in particular, “action civics”, which foregoes true civics education in favor of activism on issues/for causes that the children themselves are typically far too poorly qualified to judge, but which happen to match the opinions of e.g. the teacher, Greta Thunberg, AOC, or Bernie Sanders. (Which is not to say that Thunberg et al. are good judges of the matters at hand—but they do have strongly voiced opinions.)

Indeed, from what I have read on schools (sadly, often including colleges) in the U.S., and often other countries, the old principle of parents being the guardians and school merely having an “in loco parentis” right during school hours has been inverted: the school (or, worse, the state) is the guardian, and parents are given a mere “in loco scholae” right during the dark ages when schools are closed and children risk exposure to wrongthink. Moreover, this right is often thin and combined with more duties than rights relative the school,* to the point that parents might be reduced to unpaid caretakers.

*In [1], I opine that parents (should) have more duties than rights towards their children. This claim is not to be confused with the above, which is an unrelated matter with a very different ethical situation.

A particularly absurd demonstration of the sheer presumptuousness of schools is shown by a representative* incident from the COVID-era: A student was participating in a remote class. The teacher spotted something “offensive” in his room, reprimanded him, and demanded that the “offensive” object be removed. Justification: during the participation, the student’s private room would be part of the classroom and everything had to conform to the rules of the classroom. A saner attitude, and what I would have told the presumptuous teacher and/or the principal, had I been one of the student’s parents, is the reverse: This is my home and my rules apply. If you intrude through an online class, then you are a visitor in this home and should behave accordingly. If you are not willing to do so, I will exercise my legal right to throw you out.

*I have seen several somewhat similar incidents. Unfortunately, I do not remember the exact details of any individual incident.

However, similar problems are very widespread, and I suspect a deliberate strategy to (a) reduce or remove non-governmental* instances of (in some sense) power, (b) transfer power to more and more centralized points. Everyone should obey and no-one should presume to object. No-one should have any power, unless that power is granted by the government** for the purposes of the government. No-one should form an own opinion, unless appointed by the government to do so—and then the opinion becomes mandatory for everyone. Etc.

*Or maybe non-Leftist.

**Or maybe the Left, here and elsewhere. While the drift to a larger and more powerful government is by no means uniquely Leftist, it is the stronger with the Left; at least the current Left seems think that only the Left could ever be “legitimately” in power (unlike e.g. Donald Trump); and the associated machinery, including a large proportion of civil servants, often has a strong Leftist tilt, implying that even with non-Leftist political leadership, the government as a whole tends to remain Left-of-Center. (Also see excursion.)

Consider, among other examples:*

*However, note that many of these might have partial explanations in natural developments unrelated to the Left. Also note that they are not necessarily caused by Leftist politicians, even when they do relate to the Left. (For instance, a Leftist activist abuse of administrative positions in colleges and/or Leftist propaganda pressure on colleges might have much to do with the below item on the infantilization of professors.)

  1. A continual strengthening of the U.S. federal government over the state governments, giving the individual states less possibilities to stand up to the federation.

    This is paralleled by a similar trend in the EU, where the core principle of subsidiarity grows ever more neglected. (I might go as far as suspect that some national governments use the EU as an excuse to do what they want to do, but do not want to take the blame for.)

  2. The move from many small to few large businesses, which are easier to control, and through which the number of persons truly* in charge of something is reduced. Note how Leftist governments, including e.g. Communist China, Nazi-Germany, and Social-Democrat Sweden, often have pushed hard to achieve such centralization. (And, whether for similar reasons or accidentally, many Western countries have so large obstacles to running small businesses, especially with employees, that too few take the leap.)

    *A sole owner and CEO of even a small private company is in charge in a manner beyond that of a non-owner CEO of a public company, and far beyond a middle-manager in a larger company, even should they have the same number of subordinates.

  3. Flattening of hierarchies within companies, as in e.g. Sweden and as pushed by many “progressive”* business experts. The more employees are “equal” and the fewer “bosses” there are, the fewer citizens there are accustomed to some level of power or authority. (This the more so, cf. above, when someone today “equal” would have been owner/CEO of his own small business a 100 years ago.) Moreover, there are lesser rewards and recognition for excellence, which might reduce self-confidence among those who would have been willing to take a stand. Ditto lesser responsibility at work and potentially a resulting lesser responsibility in matters political.

    *Not necessarily and automatically in the Leftist sense, but certainly in the “look how forward-thinking and modern I am” sense.

    (Whether larger and/or deeper hierarchies are a good thing, I leave unstated. Other factors play in, e.g. that promotions often go to incompetent smooth talkers and to those who understand more about company politics than about the company business—a deeper hierarchy might well just leave us with more incompetents ordering the competent around.)

  4. Not only are college students increasingly infantilized, reducing or delaying their ability to stand up for themselves against e.g. the government, but the same applies to college faculty and scientists, full professors included. Sites like Minding the Campus contain a great many examples of highly educated and intelligent persons having to bow down to various administrators hired to ensure Leftist goals A, B, and C. This includes cases of having to write letters of apology or take classes on A, B, and C for having said something in class that some snowflake thought offensive—and usually something that no reasonable third-party would have considered offensive.

    Someone who researches the “wrong” topic and/or reaches the “wrong” result can see a promising career end, tenure denied, research grants go to someone more PC, etc. Speak out about scientific knowledge that contradicts an official narrative and cancellation will follow—as will accusations of being variously “racist”, “sexist”, “anti-vaxx”, whatnot, depending on the topic at hand.


    No, no mere professor should have the right to make statements about reality or to encourage students to think on their own. His, sorry, their only message should be what is Approved and compatible with the Cause. What that message is, is for us Administrators and Activists to determine.

  5. Then there is the whole COVID-debacle, which might provide material for dozens of items for someone patient* enough. I lack this patience, but I do point to e.g. how physicians and medical researchers have seen problems similar to the previous item, how physicians have been limited in their rights to treat according to their own best beliefs, and a great number of earlier texts on various COVID-related issues (not always ones relevant to the current topic, however).

    *Pun unintended, but fortunate in that someone who has been a hospitalized COVID-patient might well have much to add that we others have missed.

Excursion on “government”:
The word “government” is tricky, due to differences in international meanings and implications, and my own use tends to be inconsistent. Above, it is mostly intended in the more U.S. sense of the sum of all elected politicians, civil servants, departments, agencies, and whatnots. Sometimes, the use in the more international sense of those-currently-in-charge might be intended; sometimes, the use of either meaning in a given sentence is compatible with my intentions.

Excursion on benefactors and power:
There is an aspect of benefactors and power that applies above, but is easily missed: If (misperceived or real) good deeds, charity, rightings of judicial wrongs, and other help cannot come from outside the government, there is less reason for the citizens to be grateful or loyal to other entities than the government. Consider e.g. a privately owned business with a dozen employees, where one employee needs some type of help.* In one universe, the owner can choose to help or not help,** in the former case earning loyalty points. In another, his hands are tied by tax payments, some of which go to render the same help in a manner that tricks the employee into believing that the government helped him at no cost to anyone else. In yet another universe, the employee works for a public multi-national company, and there might be no-one in the hierarchy who is and feels*** authorized to help him with company resources.

*I find it hard to give a specific enough example that also works generically. For instance, “needs an expensive operation” might work in one jurisdiction but not another, depending on the rules for and coverage by various health-insurance plans. (And might be abused by some naive Leftist by “You see! We need mandatory single-payer insurance!”, with no consideration for the bigger picture, overall costs, flawed incentives, whatnot.)

**Depending on the details and modalities, the chances might be good, e.g. in that a solid employee receives a loan against future wages. (Which is also better for the employer than tax payments that result in money being gifted, and often fairer for society.)

***Even someone with the formal right might abstain in order to avoid criticism from above.

The effect of taxes on such situations should not be underestimated. For instance, for a private individual to be charitable is much easier when taxes are low than when taxes are high, and higher taxes for the purpose of “good deeds” might well result in a similar effect on the recipients, but with gratefulness transferred away from deserving private individuals, who would have helped or, in the past, did help, to the undeserving government. For the religious, tithing with low taxes and with high taxes are worlds apart. Etc.

Indeed, it is often the governmental intervention that causes the need for governmental help (or “help”). Consider the German health-insurance scam,* where rates around 15 percent of income are typical. What if the brunt of these 15 percent were instead invested by the individual, and used to pay for health (or other) costs as they arise? Chances are that he would do considerably better (and have better incentives), and that his “need” for help when something does happen in today’s system largely arises through his loss of money to pay for health insurance in the first place. (Ditto unemployment insurance, mandatory pension fees, and many taxes.)

*Not a true insurance at all and I stand by the word “scam”. A true insurance would pay for those few large events that are problematic for normal earners, e.g. cancer treatments and big operations, not for everyday nonsense like the common cold. I am very much in favor of a true health insurance; I am very strongly opposed to the current wasteful bullshit.

Excursion on hypocrisy and motivations:
Many of the above problems are given hypocritical and weak motivations to justify their presence. For instance, I have repeatedly heard claims in the family “mandatory schooling is necessary, because some parents might indoctrinate their children and school is needed as a counterweight”, while the schools, themselves, engage in massive indoctrination. Without mandatory school and/or with home schooling, maybe some children would be indoctrinated; with mandatory school, it is virtually all of them. The true issue is not one of indoctrination, but of indoctrination into a certain set of wanted-by-the-Left (and/or -the-government, -educators, -whatnot) opinions. If the indoctrination conforms with this set, it is viewed as good; if it is contrary, it is seen as evil. Similarly, merely not exposing the children to the “good” indoctrination is seen as evil; similarly, teaching the children to think for themselves, which might cause them to withstand the indoctrination, is seen as evil. In effect, it is less a matter of making school a counterweight to the parents and more of preventing the parents from being a counterweight to school. This is the more annoying as the indoctrination in school is often more harmful/evil than the parental—contrast e.g. “All Whites are evil by birth!” with “Christ died to redeem us all.”, let alone with “We should think for ourselves. Sapere aude!”.

Excursion on the duration of indoctrination:
For indoctrination to be durable, an absence of contradiction is beneficial, maybe necessary. A lone pair of indoctrinating parents from the previous excursion are unlikely to have a major permanent influence, unless the rest of society is on similar lines. School is typically supported by the press, many politicians, the message from TV shows, etc., and this indoctrination is harder to shake, as I know from my own experiences.

Written by michaeleriksson

September 28, 2022 at 9:27 pm

Rethinking education: School as a vehicle for history education

with one comment

I have previously made claims along the lines that what most pupils* need to learn is Reading, wRiting, aRithmetic, with the majority of the more “academic” parts of the curriculum being wasted on most pupils;** and that schools fail by ignoring*** the practical sides of life to a too high degree. (As well as a great many other criticisms.)

*Throughout, I will stick to “pupil” over “student” to indicate the comparatively low age and development, and over “children” to avoid a perceived exclusion of e.g. high-schoolers. (Generally, I tend to avoid words like “child” beginning with puberty, and often-but-inconsistently use a child–teen–adult division.) The intent is on primary and secondary education, with a gradual shift from history of a field to the field it self as the years pass. (And, often, with a shift from history in general to history of various fields. See excursion.)

**With the additional complication that those who actually benefit would typically be better able to learn on their own than in school. (Maybe, excepting the first few years of school.) I certainly was and, when time outside school allowed it, did.

***While the misguided practical education that took place during my own school years was largely wasted in, at least, my own case. I have had no practical use of either the mandatory wood-shop or textile-shop, and what I might have learned in “cooking class” (“home economics” would be too generous, but might match the official intent) came too early to (a) be of interest, (b) actually have remained with me when I began to live on my own.

As my knowledge of history has grown beyond the few hours a week provided by school, I have increasingly developed a different view, where more material (than in my old view; still less than today) is present, but with a strong emphasis on exactly history and where history is the usual entry point to the treatment of the actual subjects for those bright or old enough to benefit. Life-skills and the three Rs would remain, of course, but most* of the rest of school would deal with history—including national and world history, history of thought, history of science, history of economics, history of literature, history of this, and history of that, with a slow transition towards the this and that, per se, over time. I would recommend a particular focus on classics** studies, but do not see the focus*** as mandatory, and plenty of space must be left for the post-classical world, even should a focus be implemented.

*In some areas, even the three Rs aside, this might be too impractical. For instance, replacing physical education or a foreign language with the history of physical education, resp. the history of that language, would border on the idiotic. In other cases, some core-topic education might be necessary before its history, or the topic might need to be moved to a later year. For instance, during my own early years in school, some time was spent (wasted) on learning the names of various animals, trees, whatnot. The sensibility of this activity is disputable (cf. excursion), but replacing it with a, for that age, too specific history of biology would bring little benefit. Even in these cases, however, some degree of history of the topic might be sensible as a companion or complement.

**Assuming education in a Western context (also see excursion). In other contexts, e.g. in China, this might need modification to reflect the local equivalent. In others yet, e.g. large parts of Africa, there might be no usable local equivalent or only equivalents that are too close in time.

***However, some knowledge of ancient civilizations and works is mandatory or the entire program turns into a travesty. For instance, to deem some time frame the “modern era” and then ignore everything that came before is untenable. (Sheer lack of reliable information might force limits on non-trivial study before a certain time in a certain place, but that is a different matter entirely.)

This would naturally, to some degree, go hand in hand with knowledge of the underlying field. For instance, a discussion of the history of astronomy would naturally establish e.g. the rough structure of the heliocentric solar system and the non-heliocentric galaxy, some approximation of the age of the Earth, some understanding of the difference between the distance from London to New York and the distances from the Earth to the Moon and the Earth to the Sun, whatnot. This either because it follows directly from the natural knowledge of history or because supplementary information is provided to put the historical information into context. As the pupils grow older, history of X will fade into the background and be more of a springboard to engage with X proper—if the pupil has the brains for it.

A major intended benefit is that a pupil who is over-challenged by a core field might have a better chance at the history of the field, and less of his time will be wasted on an activity with little or no return value. (Although, as always, the duller or lazier* pupils might receive less benefit than the brighter and more industrious*.)

*I am torn between formulations like “lazier” vs. the likes of “less motivated” (ditto, m.m., the more positive phrases). The latter will often be closer to the truth , but have been used and abused by educationalists and politicians for so long that they border on being meaningless and/or on being generic and blanket terms for “does poorly in school” (no matter the reason).

A solid knowledge of history, or even the knowledge available to the weaker pupils, has many advantages, including:

  1. Inoculation against destructive ideologies and poor policies, like most variations of the Left. For instance, someone who has a solid understanding of 20th-century history and economic history is unlikely to vote for the Left (especially, the Old Left), while someone who understands the history of Europe vs. (sub-Saharan) Africa, of slavery,* of women, of civic rights, whatnot will be far less likely to fall for the propaganda of the New Left.

    *Including its historical extent (far larger and older than the “transatlantic slave trade”) and the massive inclusion of Whites and other non-Blacks, the strong Black (and other non-White) involvement in the Black slave trade, how Whites/Europeans/the U.S. North were the ones who eventually reduced and locally banned slavery, and how the South was hindered, not helped, by slavery in its economic development.

    This might to some degree extend to e.g. COVID, as someone with a knowledge of past medical practices, the effects and characteristics of past epidemics, whatnot, would be far more sceptical towards the effectiveness (let alone efficiency) of and the risk of side-effects from various counter-measures and reactions, and would have a far better understanding of how trivial COVID is relative some past epi-/pandemics.

  2. More generally, there is an aspect of learning from past errors and the mistakes of others, of not being “doomed to repeat”, etc. For instance, in politics, someone who has some understanding of the relative or absolute failures vs. successes of the economy of the Soviet Union vs. the U.S., Mao’s China vs. Deng Xiaoping’s, North- vs. South-Korea, East- vs. West-Germany, Socialist vs. pre-Socialist Venezuela, etc., is unlikely to repeat the mistakes that lead the failures to failure and likely to favor what made the successes successful.* (This includes an important general observation, with an eye at many current demands and plans: government intervention very often makes things worse—and often much worse.) For instance, in a business setting, a CEO might look at the decline of the U.S. auto industry and draw conclusions about how to and how not to handle his own business. For instance, on a more individual level, someone wise to history might note a continual clampdown on various civic rights, notably free speech, draw the right conclusions, and either begin a protest while there is still time or leave for another country.

    *To which we can add a few recent examples that are less wide in scope, e.g. the Sri Lankan crisis (mandatory “organic” farming), the U.S. lack of baby formula (a mixture of an artificial oligopoly and a forced reduction of capacity), the U.S. oil crisis (strong contributors include various Biden interventions, notably the termination of the extension of the Keystone pipeline), artificial inflation (e.g. monetary expansion), artificial lack of willing employees (the state pays people to stay at home), various energy crises (Keystone, embargoes, abolishment of nuclear power, state subventions of dubious “green” technologies, state money to offset (idiots!) rising gas prices, …), etc. (Note that this list is not limited to the U.S. and that, while Biden is often a major factor in this, even internationally, many other leaders of other countries have made similarly poor decisions—albeit rarely even half as many as Biden has.)

    Note that the first example is highly relevant even to the average citizen, which is what the average pupil will grow up to be, with the modification that he is unlikely to vote for someone who would repeat the mistakes. The same might to some degree apply to the second example too, e.g. in that a stock owner might move his investments elsewhere in time.

  3. Similarly, it can be highly beneficial to draw on the ideas of the past, especially as we do have a great problem with ideas disappearing from common consciousness or being gradually misunderstood over time. A splendid example is the early ideas on what the U.S. (qua political entity) should be, how it should be governed, etc., and why this was so. Precious little of the thoughts of, say, Thomas Jefferson still remain in the philosophy of the current political system—and what there is, many ignorants* want to abolish.

    *Note that I do not call them ignorants because they want to abolish something. I do so because they are ignorant of why this-and-that was originally introduced, do not understand the potential downsides, and generally have a simplistic and, well, ignorant view of related matters.

    A personal example is my changed understanding of the jury system. I long considered it idiotic, because it opened up the doors for decisions by those of disputable intelligence, insight into criminal science, knowledge of legal principles, whatnot—never mind the risk that the jury members might prove more vulnerable to emotional manipulation than a judge. Indeed, going by TV,* having the lawyer better at manipulating the jury was more important than having the better evidence. These problems remain, but there was something to the jury system that I was unaware of,** namely that the “jury of one’s peers” was aimed at being a counter-weight to governmental power and a means to give the peers a way to prevent unjust laws and prosecution from infringing on “true” justice.*** (With some similar ideas also applying, e.g. that a single judge might be statistically more likely to be partial or easier to bribe than twelve jurors.)

    *Unfortunately, this appears to be at least partially true in real life too, but not to the extreme degree seen on TV.

    **Maybe, because neither Sweden nor Germany uses juries.

    ***Of course, the main way that a jury can do that, “jury nullification”, is something that the government wants to see banned, and the mention of which towards a U.S. jury already is banned. (Note that I am, myself, in two minds about jury nullification, as it can be a tool for both justice and injustice; however, the point above is not whether it is good or bad, but that I was originally unaware of even the idea.)

    As a special case, historical knowledge can remove the need to reinvent the wheel. For instance, most of the “clever” thoughts and “wisdom” of today have an at least approximate correspondent in the past (often several). Take something like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy—at least the general idea was covered by the Stoics during classical times. (Also see excursion on the Ship of Theseus for a more personal example.)

    Generally, our ancestors might have trailed us in scientific understanding, but not necessarily in terms of e.g. insight into philosophy, human nature, how to live one’s life, whatnot. The accumulated wisdom of a few hundred or thousand years is almost bound to exceed the snapshot of today’s reinvented wheels.

  4. A better knowledge of past thought leads to a better understanding of various fields and aspects of the world, including how something might have come into being or how something currently weird or silly seeming* might not be so in the light of the past. Good examples are often found around wars and international conflicts, including the Russian–Ukraine situation since 2014 (or whatever years is used as the starting point).

    *Consider the Third Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which, without knowledge of the historical context, appears not just weirdly specific but outright weird.

    More generally it can lead to a more nuanced worldview, as every exposure to something different can, and to the insight that the norms of today are not absolutes or necessarily better than those of the past (ditto e.g. methods). (The reverse of the latter is a very common fallacy and one that I, myself, was not immune to in my youth.) Is this is or that change over time actually progress—or is it mere change? Maybe, even, change for the worse? Is A actually better than B, or does it merely have a different set of advantages and disadvantages? Is C actually better than D, or is it merely better for some special interest group, e.g. politicians? Etc.

  5. Chances are that history education will allow at least some “big picture” insights to remain, even if the details fade (and they usually do). For instance (cf. excursion), memorizing the names of animals will bring next to no value, as merely knowing the name allows no insight and as the name will too often be forgotten a few days or years later. In contrast, a pupil who forgets almost everything about the Romans is still likely to remember that they had big empire around the Mediterranean*, centered on Rome* in what is now Italy*, in the past. Someone who manages to forget even that, will still remember that the world was different in the past. (Unfortunately, an insight that some adults in the modern world seem to lack.) A memorizer of animal names might still remember that there are animals, but that insight actually (still…) is present with virtually everyone even without the help of formal education. If in doubt, even a one-year old might have seen a few dogs, pigeons, or flies.

    *Here we see a pleasant potential side-effect of history: there is some, often a considerable, knowledge effect on other areas, notably geography. Chances are that most of the early geography education can be replaced entirely with a side-effect from history education.

Excursion on school vs. education:
The above (and below) is often phrased in terms of “school”, including in the title. This reflects the realistic realities of the foreseeable future, as well as the historical situation for a good chunk of time,* but by no means the ideal. School is and remains disturbingly inefficient and, often, ineffective, and the true focus should by rights be on education—not school. School, at least in its modern incarnation, is not a good way to gain an education and the education is what matters.

*How good depends on the “where”, but often begins at some point in the 19th century on a near-mandatory level and can go back far further on non-mandatory level.

Excursion on more advanced pupils:
There is a minority of pupils who would be under-challenged by the above, and who would benefit from more direct contact with the subject matter at an early/-ier stage. These should be allowed and encouraged to have that direct contact. Indeed, giving the brighter pupils room, means, and encouragement to develop themselves at their own tempo is central to a successful school system. (Whether a successful school system currently exists, I leave unstated.)

Excursion on higher education:
As the level of education increases, the relative importance of “history of X” relative “X” decreases. (Unless, of course, X is a field of history to begin with, in which case “history of X” would amount to history-of-the-historiography and will usually be the far less important subject on all levels.) However, it is likely to be of some importance on all levels and should not be ignored. For instance, a mathematician is likely to benefit from knowledge of what approaches have been taken to a certain sub-field or problem in the past, or how to solve a certain type of problem with less “fancy” methods than the current. Exactly how to address this, I leave unstated, as off-topic, but possibilities include an extensive one-off survey course with a focus on history, the inclusion of a (sub-)module in the individual (regular) course, and just pointing to a certain treatment that the student can choose or not choose to study on his own terms. (The relevance of this material for a test decreases accordingly, from core for the survey course, to minor for the (sub-)module, to none for the “own terms” study.) Noteworthy is that the relevance of history might vary from field to field. For instance, a knowledge of the history of math for a mathematician is likely less valuable than knowledge of the history of economics to an economist.*

*The contents of the respective histories might also be different in character. For instance, the history of math will deal relatively more with what approaches the mathematicians took and what beliefs they held (“history of the field of math”), and the history of economics relatively more with actual developments of an economic nature, say, causes and consequences of the “Great Depression” and what might have happened with a more sensible POTUS than FDR (“history of economic developments” or “history of the economy”). To some degree, but not necessarily for educational purposes, a subdivision into several history fields relating to X might be beneficial, e.g. history of X as a field of study/science, history of thought on X, history of events relating to X, etc.

From a personal point of view, I have occasionally made the experience that I know less about mathematicians and scientists than someone with a weaker knowledge of the respective field. A good (and accessible to others) example is Murray’s “Human Accomplishment”, where I often had a different expectation of who was how important* and often had a “Who the hell is that?” moment when looking at the top-twenty science lists outside of math and physics. This is an interesting side-effect of my having studied primarily math (physics, whatnot), it self, the history of math only secondarily, and biographies of, anecdotes about, human-interest pieces focused on mathematicians hardly at all. (At least, at a somewhat adult age. Some autobiographical works by physicist Feynman are an exception.) The counterpart, on the other hand, might have gobbled down the human-interest pieces without actually touching the math.**

*But, as Murray stresses, the relative importance of some figures might change considerably with a change in methodology.

**In the specific case of Murray, we have to considered a systematic and prolonged busyness with various works of a who-is-who-in-X and history-of-X character for the specific purpose of writing his book. That I trailed even in the scientific lists (let alone Japanese literature) is unexpected.

(Whether this is a problem is debatable. I would certainly prioritize an understanding of the developments of the field of math, it self, over knowledge of who-was-who.)

Excursion on the Ship of Theseus:
In an older text, I dealt with (among other things) the grandfather’s axe (pseudo-)paradox. Finding it too simplistic, I dropped the two-piece axe in favor of a many-piece T-Ford, replaced piece by piece over decades. Some time later, I discovered the Ship of Theseus—a many-piece version of the same idea that preceded my T-Ford by some two millennia.*

*It was used by Plutarch, whose lifespan falls a little short of two millennia ago, but it might not have originated with him. (And any actual ship owned by Theseus, should he have a historical basis, would necessarily have been built long before that, as he was ancient history even to Plutarch.)

Indirectly, this might also point to a danger of school trying to stuff too much into the pupils or doing so too early, as I seemed to “post-remember” having encountered the Ship in school. However, this applies with any choice of topic—and I remain, even after the altered opinion discussed above, with my line that modern school tries to cover too much material and, often, too early.

Excursion on risks:
There are of course some risks and disadvantages with this history-focused scheme, which must be considered during implementation. The most important is that history education can easily be abused to give the pupils a flawed worldview by outright distortions of history, but also by undue focus on certain groups or angles, by agenda pushing, and by application of some pseudo-scientific framework. The infamous “1619 project” is a great example of how not to do it. Anything Feminist, Marxist, Post-Colonial, or Post-Modern is also to be avoided like the plague.*

*Among what is likely to be encountered today. The threats of tomorrow might be something different altogether. The point is to be truthful and scientifically minded—not ideological or agenda pushing.

(However, the same abuse risk is present even in today’s school, as with the aforementioned “1619 project”, and I suspect that a broader and deeper history knowledge would make it harder to keep the truth from at least the somewhat brighter pupils, even when abuse takes place. The more information is present, the likelier it is that an attempted distortion will miss something or be internally inconsistent.)

Another risk is an implicit over-focus on “thoughts of others”, as opposed to own thinking. This is, obviously, a staple of school, but I suspect that it could be worse in a history-centric school. Countermeasures like encouragement of own thought and critical engagement* with claims by e.g. old philosophers are recommended. Ditto a juxtaposition of thinkers who have held opposing ideas.

*By the pupil! Not the teacher or some Leftist destroy-the-past or everything-old-is-wrong fanatic.

Excursion on learning animal names:
The memorization of names of animals, trees, whatnot mentioned above is a good example of school failing. These pairings fell into roughly three categories: (a) Those that I already knew (yes, a kid in school will know what a bear is). (b) Those that I soon forgot again and later learned permanently from a more sensible source in a more sensible manner, e.g. by watching a nature show, where ten minutes were spent showing and discussing the whatnot (vs. the single still image and name presented in school). (c) Those that I soon forgot again and never relearned, because they never had any kind of relevance to me. (In all cases, we have the additional complication that the Swedish names have been less important to my adult life than the German and English.)

What then, apart from busywork or the ability to claim that the pupils were learning something, was the point of this nonsense? Would it not have been infinitely better to just show a few nature shows in class or, in lieu of class, give watching some nature show on TV as home work?

To boot, this mere association of name and image is fairly pointless. A good example is posed by a test where I just could not come up with “järv” (“wolverine”). I knew what the image depicted, I knew what a wolverine was, I had already learned the word outside of school, and had even read a book which featured a wolverine as the protagonist.* (But I had not yet encountered the superhero Wolverine.) I just could not come up with the right word in the heat of the moment. I tried to salvage the situation by giving “carcajou”, which the book had mentioned as a local-to-the-setting-of-the-story name for wolverines in general** (and which might have been the proper name of the protagonist too), but received 0 points. Someone else might well have received points merely for having memorized the right name for the right image and actually having a cooperative memory, without having any further clue about wolverines.

*The school library had a large number of books with animals-as-protagonists, which I had wolverin…, wolfed down.

**Checking for the exact name, which over the decades had faded, I see that this is indeed the case in French Canada. But knowing a French-Canadian term was of no help with a Swedish test. Other names that I learned on my own, over the decades since, include the English “wolverine”, the German “Vielfrass”, and the Latin “gulo” (resp. scientific “gulo gulo”). Today, the “French French” “glouton” was added. Now, how would my progress have been hampered by not having the mere name–image combination included in the curriculum? (Not at all.) What benefit might the other pupils have had, even had they managed to answer the question? (Likely, none.)

Excursion on various shifts:
As mentioned above, there will be shifts as time passes. Their exact nature and many other details are beyond the scope of this text, but a general idea, using the Swedish 4 x 3 years division of låg-/mellan-/högstadiet + gymnasiet,* might be that those on lågstadiet focus on (elementary) national and world history, those on mellanstadiet see this complemented with various histories of various fairly large fields (e.g. history of science), and those on högstadiet complement history with a study of the actual fields and see histories of somewhat smaller fields (e.g. history of physics**). Gymnasiet would then be mostly the fields proper and histories of new fields (exactly what fields go where is another implementation detail, but history of economics seems a good example for gymnasiet).

*Sweden has mandatory education divided into blocks (låg-/mellan-/högstadiet) of three years, for a total of nine years, followed by a voluntary (usually) three-year fourth block, gymnasiet. I have found this parcelling into equally long blocks of three years to be very practical when thinking about school.

**Which is not to say that no history of physics should be given earlier—it should, as part of history of science. However, with the specialization there would be more depth and breadth and more involvement of actual physics. To detail what goes where is beyond the scope of this text, but we might e.g. have mellanstadiet and history of science cover how the world was once viewed as geocentric, but is now known to be heliocentric; while högstadiet and history of physics might contrast Keplerian calculations of elliptical heliocentric planetary movements with older circular heliocentric movements and with the older still geocentric epicyclical calculations. (Not necessarily with much mathematical detail, however.)

Excursion on politics and other fields:
Generally, I have become more and more convinced of the importance of history over the years, and I would certainly see history as the single most important subject for a politician to study (be it during formal education or in private). Looking e.g. at the U.S., what do we typically get instead? A BA in pol-sci, or some other weak field,* followed by a JD.** In fact, I would consider both pol-sci and law studies to be of only secondary benefit to someone who wants to be a good politician. They might help with understanding the machinations of the branches of government and how to write new and understand existing laws, but they are less helpful when it comes to deciding what policies make sense, what laws should be made, etc. No, the clear top-one subject for a politician is history; the equally clear second placer is economics. After these two, we can look at topics like pol-sci,*** law, philosophy (including ethics and various works relating to governance), public administration, business administration, etc.****

*Not that history would be inherently harder. The point is that there are many fields where a brighter student might gain much more than a duller student, but where the dull student might still manage to gain the degree, maybe even with a strong GPA, because the minimum requirements on brightness are low. That someone has a bachelor in e.g. pol-sci simply does not tell us anything much about his intelligence level or how much he gained through his studies. Contrast this with the footnote on STEM fields below.

**Of the common “professional” post-bachelor degrees, I suspect that an MBA would be more beneficial than a JD. Chances are that an “academic” master/doctorate in e.g. history or economics would be far better than either.

***With the reservation that pol-sci often contains pieces of the other fields, which might, depending on point of view, either make it less valuable (due to shallowness of coverage of these fields) or more valuable (due to a width that makes a separate study of some other fields less urgent).

****I do not mention STEM fields here, because they are rarely immediately relevant. However, they can be extremely good filters for intelligence (unlike most of the above) and a good general scientific understanding can be very useful when it comes to specific topics. (And most of my own formal education was in STEM fields.)

This with the reservation that a position in a certain field could require a deeper knowledge of that field, which might change the priorities for the individual concerned. For instance, to become secretary of defense, a prior education and career in the military would be highly recommendable, while considerable knowledge of economics is secondary (but still advantageous), and while the history knowledge might be tilted in the direction of military and conflict history at the cost of, say, the histories of art, agriculture, and architecture. A legal requirement of some minimum level of qualifications might even be an option. Consider, as a negative example, the current Swedish “Försvarsminister”, Peter Hultqvist: As I understand Swedish and English Wikipedia, he has no (!) higher education and was a journalist (!*) before entering politics. The true reason behind his appointment? His career within the Social-Democrat movement, beginning in the 1970s.

*Not only is journalism a pointless qualification for a politician, but journalists are also one of the few groups that might rank lower in my mind than even specifically Leftist politicians.

Excursion on classics studies:
To expand a little on the benefit of classics studies for a Westerner, I would note (a) the additional value in understanding Western culture, gaining a cultural continuity, etc.;* (b) that the wide range of thoughts and interests, often at a level that post-Roman Europe only reached again during the late medieval times or the Renaissance, provide many natural entry points into other fields, including literature, language, art, mathematics, philosophy, and to some degree** natural philosophy/history/science.

*However, I stress that, unlike some other proponents, I do not necessarily see Western culture as a natural or unprecedented number one. (Although, it is legitimately one of the few most interesting.) I am, for instance, well aware of great Chinese and Indian accomplishments at comparable times in history. There is still an increased benefit through the connection over time: In order to understand later thoughts in the Western or European room, and many historical developments, some understanding of e.g. Plato and Aristotle can be quite helpful. (Vice versa, to understand Chinese thought without exposure to Confucius would be a challenge indeed.) The effects of the Romans are still visible in languages and borders, and the West-/East-Rome (and/or the older Rome/Greece) division is at least an indirect contributor to the Western/Eastern European differences of today. Etc.

**The hitch is that the shallowness of knowledge compared to today and the lack of modern scientific methods is troublesome here.

As a special case, Latin is an excellent first foreign language for a native* English speaker.** The drawback of being a dead language is countered by (a) its benefits on understanding English, which has been enormously influenced by Latin (be it directly or indirectly over e.g. French); (b) the great differences in grammar compared to English, which allow a better understanding of languages in general; (c) the great help that it gives if*** a (living) Romance language is attempted at a later stage.

*While English is the obvious choice for most other Westerners, e.g. Swedes.

**Unless special interests need to be considered. Notably, even among dead languages, someone aiming for study of Christian theology is better of with (classical) Greek and Hebrew, while someone aiming for an actual career in the “classics area” might be better of beginning with Greek and only adding Latin at a later stage.

***And the chances are considerable that a further foreign language will indeed be one of these, e.g. Spanish in the U.S. or French in the U.K.

(I am tempted to add a (d) of access to some important works in the original language, but that applies to virtually all languages major enough to be candidates for a first foreign language—and the point of strong reading skills can take frustratingly long to reach. However, this also reduces the disadvantage of learning a dead language—it will take a long time before mastery of a language is sufficiently progressed that a living language brings practical benefits over a dead one. For instance, many or most with only a school-level knowledge of a foreign language will be able neither to converse fluently with a native speaker of, nor to read a book in, that language.)

Excursion on me and history:
As with many school topics, at least pre-gymnasiet (cf. above), I likely learned as much or more history outside of school as I did in school, even back then. This through a mixture of own readings that to some degree dealt with history, what could be gleaned from novels/TV/movies playing in the past*, and various TV documentaries.

*Not necessarily “historical novels” and their screen equivalents, as many were written at or shortly after the time of the events, and had simply reached me at a date when the events had passed out of the “contemporary”. For a trivial and very early example, I very likely first heard of the WWII bombings of London and the evacuation of children to the countryside through the “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe”, which was written roughly a decade after the events. In contrast, the portions of “The Magician’s Nephew” that play in “our” world would fall in the “historical novel” category. (I note that these “shortly after” books are less likely to contain inadvertent falsification and guesswork than “historical novels”, but also that both should be taken with a grain of salt.)

It was only far later that I began to gain a true appreciation for history, including spending a great many hours reading Wikipedia articles on historical topics in my late 20s. These readings were originally motivated by a general curiosity, but increasingly by the observation that there were more abstract things to be learned, e.g. about success in warfare,* by applying thought to the material—something which was not very clear from the too basic school history. This move from merely knowing facts** to seeing connections, understanding causes and consequences, drawing conclusions, whatnot lead me to a very different view of history than school had instilled. (Just like math and what school calls “math” have little to do with each other.)

*Examples include that a long war tends to be won by the party with the stronger industry (and/or ability to recuperate and keep production up), not the stronger military; that wars and battles are often won by making fewer mistakes than the other party; that better training can outweigh superior numbers; and that the technology or strategy that won the one war might be outdated by the time of the next war.

**Not restricted to who did what in what year, but also including e.g. that the Romans had a large Mediterranean empire.

Since then, I have added a very considerable amount* of historical knowledge and understanding—but still too little. There is so much to learn that I simply have not had the time for, and I truly wish that my early education had given me a better start. To this, bear in mind that I am not a professional historian and that I have a great many other interests/there are a great many other worthy fields, while the day is only so long. History, however, is a field were school might truly bring something—provided that a greater focus is put on understanding, which was not (cf. above) the case during my school years.**

*How much is hard to say, in part due to how spread out it has been, in part due to the different nature of my studies relative (what I would expect from) formal college studies. I would, however, take for granted that I am ahead of the average U.S. fresh-out-of-college history major.

**I deliberately do not go into details of how history should be taught above. This because (a) it would make this text twice as long, (b) would require considerable additional research or speculation on my behalf, (c) the problems with e.g. more facts than understanding and a too elementary level are ubiquitous in school, and reforming this is a separate issue from the shift towards more history.

Written by michaeleriksson

May 31, 2022 at 12:31 pm

Follow-up: COVID-19 reactions doing more harm than good?

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Since my recent text on COVID-19 reactions, the stream with we-are-shutting-this-and-that-down, stock-exchanges-are-crashing, etc., has continued, now (if not earlier!) reaching ridiculous proportions. France, apparently, is trying to legally force people to remain in their homes absent non-postponable errands—a truly extreme measure. Denmark is blocking Swedes from entry. Etc. While the threat must be taken seriously, the vast majority of the damage until now has been caused by the reactions to the epidemic and by the fear of the epidemic—not the epidemic, it self. While the number of infected can grow much larger than today, I note that we are not dealing with the Spanish Flu or the Bubonic Plague, which posed a truly great risk of death to the infected. Moreover, again, that limiting the infected proportion of the population might well be doable with less extreme means.

We are rapidly approaching a point where even a worst-case scenario of the actual epidemic might cause less damage than fear and counter-measures.

To boot, recommended actions can have unexpected negative effects, be pointless, or see contradictory advice from other sources. For instance, today, I read on SVT’s video-text* that the Swedish police is urging schools to remain open for as long as possible, because the effect** on the police’s work would be too large otherwise. For instance, yesterday, someone noted that closing schools would be ineffective if the same students just met privately outside of school instead, and that students must also be kept at home.***

*The pages are short and not archived, and I have been unable to find a more detailed and linkable source on short notice. (This in part, because Swedish online news-papers are moving more and more towards pay-walling; in part, likely, because the video-text tends to react faster with news.)

**What effect is not specified, but I speculate that they fear having the cities overrun with restless children and teenagers. This especially, as the same page quotes or paraphrases the education minister (Anna Ekström): “Om skolor stängs måste barnomsorgen för dem med samhällskritiska jobb säkras” (“If schools are closed, the childcare for those with critical-for-society jobs must be secured.”) Both, incidentally, supports the school-skeptics claim that the role of school is too much “child storage” and too little education.

***I only partially agree: The claim would hold, if we truly had the same students meeting (and in similar or worse interactions as in school), but this is unlikely to be the case. Groups are likely to be smaller, interactions more restricted to certain “cliques”, and many will prefer to remain at home and/or physically alone anyway. (I certainly would have, at that age, and that was long before social media and smart phones moved social interactions away from personal meetings.) Nevertheless, this type of critical thinking is vital when dealing with far-going measures—and it seems to be missing among journalists and politicians.

Excursion on resistance:
An unfortunate side-effect of trying to avoid infections is that the overall human resistance to infections drops or fails to increase over time, making us less prepared for subsequent epidemics. This both regarding the training of the immune system of the individual (for sufficiently similar infections) and regarding evolutionary pressure. From this point of view, the current attempts to reduce exposure might well backfire in the long-term (assuming that future epidemics are handled similarly).

Excursion on “epidemic” vs. “pandemic”:
My choice of “epidemic” over “pandemic” in my first text was unconscious. However, I consciously stick with “epidemic” in the current text, because it is the more general word and much of what is said would apply equally without a global spread (e.g. assuming the same risks and reactions within an individual country).

Written by michaeleriksson

March 17, 2020 at 3:06 pm

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Comparative, superlative, and correct thinking

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During my visits to Sweden, I re-encountered some old grammar material, including the old bull-shit that a comparative compares two entities and a superlative three or more.

This is a good example of how undue dumbing-down* can hurt the students’ ability to think correctly and to gain a correct understanding of the matter:

*Or is the teacher or book author that lacking in own understanding?

The respective character of the comparative and superlative is quite different, and the above descriptions are outright contrary to accepted use:*

*I make some reservations for different situations in different languages, but this applies to at least Swedish, German, and English.

The comparative compares with no regard for numbers. For instance, all of the following are grammatically correct: “I am taller than Tom, Dick, and Harry.”, “I and Tom are taller than Dick and Harry.”, “I, Tom, and Dick are taller than Harry.” Equally correct is: “No-one among the four whose name begins with a ‘Q’ is taller than I am.”—even though there is no object to compare “I”/“me” with. Even dropping to comparing nothing to nothing is possible: “No woman taller than fifty feet is shorter than any man taller than sixty feet.”*

*There are neither women nor men of that size. Note that the paradoxical statement is actually truthful, not just grammatically correct, as long as at least one of the sets is empty.

In contrast, the superlative makes a statement about who in a certain set has a certain characteristic to the highest degree. For instance, “I am the tallest of us four.” says that “I” have the characteristic of being tall to a higher degree than any other element of this set of four. Again, this applies with no regard for numbers: “Out of Tom and Dick, Tom is the tallest.” implies a comparison between two entities—the alleged realm of the comparative. Indeed, even “Out of those among the four whose name begins with a ‘T’, Tom is the tallest.” is correct, despite an implied comparison involving just a single entity. In the same one-person set, Tom is obviously also the shortest, oldest, youngest, thinnest, fattest, best and worst educated, … (It could be argued, however, that the superlative fails on empty sets, due to the resulting weakness of formulation. If so, I would see it more as a matter of syntax than of logic, in that the concept extends to empty sets but is harder to formulate using e.g. English.)

From another perspective, it might* be sensible to view the comparative as comparing two** different sets and the superlative as discussing one single set. (In which case the “two vs. three” thinking is turned into “two vs. one”.) For instance, “I am taller than Tom, Dick, and Harry.” could be seen as “Everyone in set A is taller than everyone in set B, where set A consists of me and set B consists of Tom, Dick, and Harry.”. (And so on, for the other above examples.) The superlative formulation “I am the tallest of us four.”, in contrast, amounts to “In the set A, I am the tallest element, where set A consists of me, Tom, Dick, and Harry.”. Here we also see the futility of thinking in terms of the number of individual elements, as any of these sets could contain 0***, 1, 2, 3, or e.g. 534 elements.

*Reservations: (a) This might be a too abstract approach for people without prior exposure to set theory. (b) This is a spur-of-the-moment idea, which might have weaknesses that I am not yet aware of. (c) The implied use of “taller” on two levels of recursion in this paragraph should be understandable, but would be unsuitable for a formal definition.

**An extension to more than two might seem plausible in as far as e.g. “All elements of the set A are taller than all the elements of set B and C.” is an acceptable formulation. However, this is still better seen, I suspect, as a comparison between just two sets, one of them being the union of B and C.

***With the above reservation for the superlative and empty sets.

Written by michaeleriksson

September 16, 2019 at 11:36 am

Quotes on school and unschooling

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Going through some unread browser tabs, I encountered a page with “unschooling” quotes that I highly recommend. While I do not agree with everything there, much of it overlaps with my own observations and previous claims on school, schooling, education, etc.

This including (items are often overlapping):

The importance to think for one self, e.g in:

3. “The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn.”

— Alvin Toffler

9. Believe nothing merely because you have been told it . . . or because it is tradition, or because you yourselves have imagined it. Do not believe what your teacher tells you merely out of respect for the teacher. But whatsoever, after due examination and analysis, you find to be conductive to the good, the benefit, the welfare of all beings — that doctrine believe and cling to, and take it as your guide.

— Gautama Buddha

That learning stems from the student, not the teacher, and/or that education and schooling are different things, e.g. in:

20. “Learning is not the product of teaching. Learning is the product of the activity of learners.”

— John Holt

38. Education is an admirable thing, but it is well to remember from time to time that nothing that is worth knowing can be taught.

— Oscar Wilde

42. “Self-education is, I firmly believe, the only kind of education there is.”

— Isaac Asimov

73. Schools have not necessarily much to do with education… they are mainly institutions of control where certain basic habits must be inculcated in the young. Education is quite different and has little place in school.

— Winston Churchill

The importance of curiosity and/or how school is troublesome through damaging curiosity, e.g in:

6. “Just as eating contrary to the inclination is injurious to the health, so study without desire spoils the memory, and it retains nothing that it takes in.”

— Leonardo da Vinci

Exposing the horrifyingly flawed claim that school is beneficial through socialization or through teaching social skills. Putting children together with other children, rather than adults, and expecting them to learn social skills is absurd:

11. “Nothing bothers me more than when people criticize my criticism of school by telling me that schools are not just places to learn maths and spelling, they are places where children learn a vaguely defined thing called socialization. I know. I think schools generally do an effective and terribly damaging job of teaching children to be infantile, dependent, intellectually dishonest, passive and disrespectful to their own developmental capacities.”

— Seymour Papert

The low practical relevance of school:

8. “There were no sex classes. No friendship classes. No classes on how to navigate a bureaucracy, build an organization, raise money, create a database, buy a house, love a child, spot a scam, talk someone out of suicide, or figure out what was important to me. Not knowing how to do these things is what messes people up in life, not whether they know algebra or can analyze literature.”

— William Upski Wimsatt

(I do not necessarily agree with the exact examples given in this quote, but I do agree with the principle.)

Disclaimer: I have not made any attempt to verify the attribution of these quotes, nor have I read them in the original contexts. I caution both that quotes are often misattributed and that a reading in context can change the implications considerably.

Note on typography, etc.: The original typography might have been changed in detail for technical reasons, but should be true in principle. The inconsistent use of quotation marks is present in the original. The numbers are taken directly from the original page. (In all cases, referring to the state at the time of my opening the page.)

Written by michaeleriksson

May 29, 2019 at 8:54 am

A few thoughts on educationrealist

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In December, I read large portions of the blog educationrealist.* I found it particularly gratifying that the author (henceforth “Ed”) verifies a great number of my opinions on schools and schooling with “from the trenches” information regarding current U.S. schools.**

*Already briefly mentioned during a recent blogroll update. I wrote most of the below a few weeks before publication, based on keywords and short descriptions gathered in December. Taking up writing again today, I can no longer recall much of what I had intended to write for the remaining keywords. This has led to some points being considerably more abbreviated than others. I was torn between throwing them out altogether and keeping the short version, but mostly opted for the short version. With hindsight, I should also have kept more links.

*My opinions are based on a mixture of my own experiences from Swedish schools in the 1980s and early 1990s, reasoning from principles (of e.g. human behavior and abilities), less detailed accounts by students or teachers, and discussions by (mostly) other outsiders. Correspondingly, there was a risk that the non-trivial changes over time or when moving from country to country had mislead me. This does not appear to be the case.

Among the interesting observations to be made:

  1. There is a strong component of innate ability to school success.

    This has corollaries, many contrary to what politicians tend to believe, like: It is not possible to teach everyone everything with a reasonable effort. A one-size-fits-all* school system will fail many students through under- or over-challenging them and through necessitating pedagogical compromises. Over-education is wasteful and unproductive at best. Ignoring group differences in “academic talent” is a recipe for failure.**

    *Ed usually discusses this in terms of (absence of) “tracking”, which is one way to make the school system “multi-sized”. I note that during my own school years more-or-less no such efforts of any kind took place. Cf. e.g. some discussion of skipping grades/being held back in [1]. No in-year acceleration or other differentiation, from which I could have benefited greatly, were available to the gifted. The first true differentiation took place in (the rough equivalent of) senior high-school, where students self-selected into more specialized programs based on interest, with some minor filtering based on previous grades when there were more applicants than places.

    **This especially with an eye on racial variety (which was almost a non-issue during my own school years, with an almost homogeneous population). Many posts deal with racial realism, the evils of various affirmative action measures, etc., approaching the statistics driven topics of “The Bell-Curve” from a more practical/personal/anecdotal angle. However, in the big picture, this is not limited to race—I note e.g. how German news-papers and politicians ever again complain about how the German system would hinder working-class children, without even considering the possibility that the differences in outcome could be partially caused by differences in (inherited) abilities that affect the respective probability of the parents being working-class and of the children doing poorly in school.

  2. The grade system is broken through rewarding effort, compliance, whatnot over actual ability and performance. Indeed, the picture painted is much bleaker than during my own school years, where there was a strong subjective component in the teacher’s evaluation, but where, at least, performance was measured through tests—not home work.

    This is particularly interesting in light of an earlier text on admission criteria, where I oppose the suggestion to remove Högskoleprovet (“Swedish SATs”) for admissions to higher education in favor of a purely GPA based admission.* If we assume that the same trend is (or will be) followed in Sweden, the correct resolution would be to abolish GPA admission and rely solely on Högskoleprovet… (But just as Ed complains about the dumbing-down of the SATs, there is reason to fear that Högskoleprovet is suffering a similar faith. There certainly is a constant fiddling with it—notably, to ensure that boys do not outscore girls.)

    *Swedish admissions are centralized and use numerical criteria—not interviews, essays, extra-curriculars, …

  3. The negative effects of destructive students on others can be considerable.

    Interesting sub-items to consider is what type and degree of disciplinary measures should be allowed, and the benefit of splitting students into groups that are more homogeneous in terms of e.g. interest and behavior. (Yes, the latter might make it even worse for the trouble students, but they are not exactly thriving anyway—and doing so would improve the opportunities for everyone else.)

    I did some minor reading on this from other sources (but did not keep links), and found some stories that make even Ed’s experiences, already well beyond my own,* look harmless—including a female teacher writing about regularly crying with frustration in the evening…

    *To speculate on the difference, I note that I spent a fair bit of my school years in small classes, that anti-authority attitudes were not yet as wide-spread, and that Ed has taught many classes of a remedial nature. Racial factors might also play in, e.g. in that the cognitive differences in the class-room are greater in the U.S. or that many minority boys have a deliberate “tough” image. I know too little of his situation and experiences to say anything with certainty, however.

  4. Student motivation is highly important, and often something that the school system fails at (but which is often blamed on the student).

    This is the more depressing, seeing that a knee-jerk political reaction to school issues is to increase the time spent in school, which obviously will reduce motivation further even among the motivated, let alone the unmotivated. It also comes with other problems. Someone fails in school due to lack of motivation? Put him in summer school so that he will enter the following year already “school tired”. Let him repeat a year to prolong the torture. Let him take remedial classes to make his days longer. Etc.

    The correct solution is, obviously, to attack the lack of motivation (which is very often to blame on the school/teacher/school-system/… in the first place). If this problem cannot be fixed, other efforts are pointless or even harmful. If it can be fixed, the strong students will advance on their own, weaker will at least have a chance, and we have to have enough realism to be willing to part with the too weak students at an earlier time than “year twelve”.

  5. Politicians and education reformers are often very naive.
  6. There is a lot of trickery with re-classification of children, artificial passes of courses, and similar, for the purpose of making schools look good (or “not disastrously bad”?).

    A particularly interesting variation is the confusion of classes for/students in “English Language Learning/er” and special education: Apparently, many students who should be in special ed are put into ELL based on excuses, e.g. because the parents were first generation immigrants, while the child is a reasonably proficient native speaker who happens to do poorly in school. This way, the failure in school can no longer be blamed on the school (or, God forbid, the possibility that not all students are equally smart)—but on an alleged language handicap.

A point where his experiences (and some citations?) do not match my expectation is the competence level of teachers: He repeatedly expresses the view that the effect of increasing the subject* competence levels or minimum test-scores** of teachers has little effect on student outcomes. There is even some speculation on a negative effect on Black students, because they appear to do better with a Black teacher, and increasing the test-score limits would reduce the proportion of Black teachers. My own experiences with teacher competence are very different, but I could see a possible reconciliation in teachers affecting different students differently, e.g. in that a dumber teacher will bore/under-challenge/annoy/whatnot the bright students, while a brighter teacher might similarly over-challenge or have troubles with adapting to the dumber students—leaving the total effect on the student population roughly constant. (Similar explanations could include e.g. brighter teachers being stricter on dumber students when grading than dumber teachers are, resp. dumber teachers failing to appreciate good answers from brighter students.***) If this is so, we have an additional argument for segregation by ability (combined with corresponding choices of teachers); while ignoring teacher competence would be particularly bad for the brighter students.

*E.g. requiring better math knowledge in a math teacher. This in contrast to e.g. pedagogical training, where I am uncertain what his stance is—apart from a negative opinion of some of the training actually on offer.

**On some type of qualification test for teachers. Similar statements might or might not have been made concerning e.g. SAT scores or GPA.

***With several of my own less bright teachers, what I said sometimes went well over their heads. More generally, I have made the life-experience that stupid people often are under the misapprehension that someone brighter disagrees because he lacks insights that they have, while the true cause is typically the exact opposite—he has insights that they lack.

Looking at Ed, himself, he appears to do a great deal of experimentation and tries to improve his teaching over time. There are a few things that appear to work well for him and that could prove valuable elsewhere, including (big picture) running a hard line against students, treating students very differently depending on their behaviors/need/abilities/…, and attempts to motivate his students, as well as (on the detail level) many pedagogical tricks and techniques.

Unfortunately, there are a few other things that strike me as negative, even if some of them might be a result of external circumstances, e.g. that the school system leaves him with no good options or that he must make compromises between the interests of the students, his school, society, whatnot. This applies especially to his “D for effort” policy, which makes him a contributor to problems that he, himself, complains about, e.g. misleading grades and remedial students making it to college (while still being remedial). My take? It is never “D for effort”, it is never “E for effort”, it is absolutely never, ever “A for effort”: Unless actual accomplishment results from the effort, it must be “F for effort”. (Which, to boot, makes for a phonetically better saying.)

Another negative is a considerable mathematical naivete for a math teacher,* that is likely the cause of some weird ideas that are more likely to hinder than help his students, e.g. that higher order polynomials (or functions, depending on perspective) are arrived at by “multiplication” of lines** (i.e. first-degree relations like y = 5x + 3). Yes, this is a possible perspective, but it is just a small piece of the overall puzzle, and it strikes me as highly counter-intuitive and pedagogically unsound as an approach. (In my preliminary notes, I have a second example of “identifying numbers graphically only”, but I am not certain what I meant. It might have been something like requesting students to draw a graph and find the y-value from the x-value by measurement, instead of calculation, which would be pointless as an “only”, but could be acceptable as a preliminary step or to demonstrate the occasional need to use other methods than pure calculation.)

*In all fairness, he, unlike many others, understands and acknowledges that his understanding is superficial when he moves beyond the classes that he teaches.

**Generally, there is an extreme over-focus on geometry; however, I am not certain whether this is caused by Ed or the school (or the text-book publishers, politicians, whatnot). This includes e.g. viewing functions more-or-less solely as graphs, root learning of sine and cosine values, and similar.

Yet another is “lying to students” (see excursion), as demonstrated e.g. in a post on “The Evolution of Equals”. This post also shows some examples of enormous efforts being put in to teach the trivial to the dumber students, who might not belong in high school to begin with—at least a basic grasp of the equals sign should be present years earlier. Move them out of school or to some more practical course and use the freed teacher resources to teach those teachable… (Some other posts make a better job of displaying a great effort with little return, but this is the one post for which I kept the URL.)

Some other points could be seen as positive or negative depending on the details. For instance, he does some type of interactive/quizzing teaching that expects a “chorus answer” from the class. This might keep the students alert and force them to at least rote-learn some material—but it does not allow for much true thought and it does not demonstrate any deeper understanding among the students. I would certainly have found it annoying (or worse), had it been applied during my own school years.

Excursion on a generic solution to tracking, acceleration, etc.:
I have for some time considered taking a more “collegey” approach to school as a solution (sketch) to some problems. I see some support for this in the non-integrated approach taken to e.g. math in Ed’s descriptions.* What if the material to be covered, even in year one, is broken into rough packages of four quarter-semesters per semester and topic—and the students then go through these packages in whatever tempo they can manage? The strong students will soon move ahead of schedule, be it in general or in their favorite topics. Similarly, the student with an interest in a certain area, e.g. math, can move ahead in that area. The weaker students can take their time until they have mastered the matter sufficiently well. Etc. Exactly how to handle the teachers in this scenario is not yet clear to me, but it is clear that mere lecturing** to the class would have to be considerably reduced or combined with a division of people based on the package that they are currently involved with.

*Math was integrated through-out my own school years. While I do not see this as a pedagogical problem, it does limit flexibility.

**With some reservations for the first few years, I consider lecturing to be highly inefficient, often boring, and increasingly only suitable for weak students as we move up in grades. Strong students are able to learn mostly on their own and based on books. Cf. an earlier text on college material. In at least a U.S. context, it also helps with hiding the problem of sub-grade-level literacy—better to reveal and address the problem.

Excursion on memory:
A recurring issue is that Ed’s weaker students often actually do learn how to do something—but have forgotten it again by the next semester. This is likely partially caused by a too superficial understanding,* but it could also point to many simply having very weak long-term memories. Revisiting some past interactions with others, such a weak memory could explain quite a few incidents that I had hitherto considered rooted in e.g. an original pretended understanding or agreement,** willful non-compliance using pretended ignorance as an excuse, too great a stupidity to be able to make even a trivial generalization of a known fact, or similar. (Whether weak memory is the explanation I leave unstated, but it is something that I must consider in the future.) A twist is that I have partially not considered memory an issue, because I thought my own memory poor and rarely had such problems—but in comparison to some of Ed’s students, my memory is excellent…

*Understanding does not only help with recollection, but can also be used to fill in many “blanks”. Of course, in terms of school, it can require a teacher with the right attitude: I recall an oral examination (on the master level, no less) where the professor asked for a formula. I had not bothered to learn the formula, knowing that the derivation was very easy from first principles, and set about deriving the formula. He immediately interrupted me, stating that he was content with the formula and that the derivation was out of scope. Apparently, he expected students to blindly memorize the formula, while having no clue how it came about…

**Something that also occurs among some of Ed’s students, as might some of the other items mentioned.

Excursion on lying to students:
“Lying to students” roughly refers to giving them a simplified (or even outright incorrect) view, which is (perceived as) good enough for now and which they can easily understand—without telling them that it is a simplified view. The result of this is that those who do not progress in their studies believe things that are not true, while those who do progress have to unlearn and relearn things in a highly unnecessary manner. A particular complication is that it can be very hard to be certain what opinions/knowledge/whatnot, gathered over a prolonged time period, corresponds to what state of knowledge. In many cases, the simplifications can make something harder to understand for the bright students, because it simply does not make sense or because the non-simplified version is (in some sense) cleaner. A very good example is the theory of relativity taught on the premise that the speed of light in vacuum is fixed* vs the premise that there is an upper speed-limit on causality or information, which light reaches in vacuum—the latter is much easier to see as plausible, leads to more natural conclusions, etc.** To toy with a simpler example in Ed’s direction: Compare the teacher who says “It is not possible to subtract a larger number from a smaller number!” with the colleague who says “If one subtracts a larger number from a smaller number, the result is a negative number—but that is for next semester!”. Which of the two is more likely to have confused students the next semester? Possibly, to the point that other claims made are no longer seen as credible? Which is more likely to peak an interest into what negative numbers are? Possibly, to the point that ambitious students read ahead or ask for explanations in advance?

*In all fairness, this could be based less on a wish to (over-)simplify and more on historical development. Even so, it should not be the starting point today.

**Consider e.g. questions like “What is so special about light?!?”, “Why must it be the speed in vacuum?”, “What happens when light travels through a crystal at a lower speed?”, …

Written by michaeleriksson

January 14, 2019 at 10:42 am

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Guns don’t kill people; people kill people

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For most of my life, I have considered “Guns don’t kill people; people kill people.” to be a cheap and pointless slogan. It is not without cleverness, but the main observation is so trivial as to be uninteresting and I detest argumentation by slogan instead of real arguments.

However, over the last few years, I have encountered several discussions of mass- and school-shootings—all followed by a call for greater gun-control. In light of these, I have slowly grown to understand that this slogan contains a truly profound insight into issues around guns and gun-control, or (more accurately) what is wrong with the debate on these issues:

If a teenage boy goes to his school and blasts away at students and teachers alike, how can questions like “Where did he get the gun?” and “How do we prevent others from getting a gun?” be the first to be asked?!? Is it not self-evident that the first questions should and must be “Why did he do it?” and “How do we prevent others from wanting to do the same?” in an exploration of actual motive, motivation, psychological problems, social situation, …?!? Is it not self-evident that a society (and/or school system) that brings about such events again and again has something much worse wrong with it than too little gun-control?!?

For that matter, would gun-control really even have helped? There are other ways to kill people than guns, e.g. by setting a fire, driving a car into a crowd, building a home-made bomb (instructions are available on the Internet), stabbing someone with a kitchen knife, poisoning a punch bowl, … True, guns might have enabled at least some shooters to kill more people than they otherwise could have, but if someone is driven to the point where these people have obviously been driven, I seriously doubt that a lack of guns would have stopped him.

Here is the rub, or at least a part of it: More gun-control is easy to come up with, easy to explain, easy to paint as (in a contextually unfortunate metaphor) a silver bullet, whatnot. Deeper analysis of what went wrong with the shooter, not just his guns, requires far more thinking and understanding, and might lead to answers that are unpopular. What if, as is my personal suspicion, it turns out that the school or school system carries a significant part of the burden? What if the consequence is that decades of ideas and reforms relating to school must be rolled back?

Now, I do not know what went wrong with the shooters or who/what is to blame, I do not know what the best way to prevent future shootings is, I do not know whether more gun-control would have helped. I do know this: The focus must be on the shooter—not the gun: Guns don’t kill people; people kill people…

Written by michaeleriksson

August 6, 2018 at 9:54 am