All things excellent are as difficult as they are rare.


30 November 2011

From the Archives: Teaching History

I probably don't blog enough to warrant titling a post "From the Archives", but I was re-reading some comments by an Anonymous commenter to my post about History which, oddly, is by far the most trafficked post on my blog since I started it up again earlier this year.

Anyway, here's the relevant portion of the comment:

The whole business of studying history is to upset everything we reflexively believe.

* * * *

And the job of educators is to bring unreflective practice into line with more current, sophisticated research and thinking.

The comment itself is mostly on a tangential issue to the original post, and I'm not really interested in its substance, anyway. I'm concerned with the underlying view of "education" that I see represented in the two excerpted sentences. If it were just one sentence, I'd think, "Eh, whatever. Off the cuff writing." But two sentences makes it seem like something the writer actually believes.

And I think he's wrong.

You see, I tend to think that it is the job of educators -- history and otherwise -- to do their best to speak the truth. And sometimes the truth is what we reflexively believe. (Actually, this is true a lot more than it is false -- we've got VERY good instincts about the truth.) I also think that sometimes the truth is not in line with the "more current, sophisticated research and thinking" and various subjects, even assuming that one could come up with some objective measure of which thinking is more 'sophisticated'.

We have a saying in Philosophy that I've heard at least five different ways, but it always boils down to the same thing: say the true things, and try not to say the false things.

Lots of very smart, sophisticated people think that Rawls' Theory of Justice is right. If it's right, then it's right. But if it's right, it's right because it accurately states the truth about morality and social governance. It's not the fact that lots of smart people think it is right that makes it so, and in fact -- as a very smart person myself -- I happen to think it's mostly malarkey. Well written and thought out malarkey, but fundamentally mistaken.

One problem with some of our teachers might be (is that enough qualification?) that a lot of them see the study of various subjects as the mastery of a body of dogma rather than an excursion into the truth. Some history teachers are teaching a body of facts. Some English teachers are teaching points 3 through 7 of the Style Guide. Some teachers would be incapable of giving a cogent explanation of why what they are teaching is important. (Which is why students love asking that question so much -- it's so often a stumper.)

Our only concern in education should be the truth. Not being "current" or "sophisticated", not being revolutionary or upsetting our reflexive paradigms. And not meeting some political agenda, he mutters wearily.

Defining "Success" and Graduation Rates

Today, over at Joanne's, there is (by way of Joanne's other blog, Community College Spotlight) a link to a somewhat disturbing story:
At its final meeting on Tuesday in Washington, D.C., the 15-member Committee on Measures of Student Success (CMSS)—which includes several community college leaders and individuals who have served public two-year colleges—voted to approve its 26-page report. Among the recommendations: including part-time, degree-seeking students in the federal Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS), and collecting data on federal student aid recipients and students who are not academically ready for college.

The American Association of Community Colleges (AACC) was especially pleased that the committee urged the Education Department to calculate and publicize a single completion rate that includes students who receive degrees and certificates, as well as those who subsequently enroll in another higher education institution. The combined graduation-and-transfer rate would vastly improve the student success rate, AACC said in a statement, noting that the combined rate is required by federal stature but has not been implemented.

“The community college completion rate would immediately increase to 40 percent from the current 22 percent if this single recommendation were adopted,” AACC said. .

The first, most disturbing aspect of the story is this: there's an organization in the government (in the Dept. of Education, specifically) called "The Committee on Measures of Student Success". You can read a little about it here. Their sole job, as far as I can tell, is to write reports about how to help clarify for implementation the provisions of another law. All hail the regulative state, I suppose. When I was young, I was under the impression that the courts were the ones who interpreted the law when it wasn't clear. Silly me.

That's not really what I wanted to write about, though. I want to write about success.

Anyone with a pulse should be able to spot the logical problem with a statement like, "The completion rate would immediately increase from 22 to 40 percent." It's not the same rate if you change what you're measuring. Now, I don't mean to say that the people at the AACC are stupid -- they mean "the rate measured by law", and they're just using the word "completion rate" somewhat inartfully. I didn't come here today to pick on perfectly smart people speaking casually. That's allowed.

But this concern over how to define completion rates bring up an interesting set of issues. In this case, the concern seems motivated by the reporting requirements of federal legislation. Those requirements are in turn motivated by an apparent belief that measuring "successful outcomes" at a school is how to determine if a school is doing its job.

Which is sort of true, I suppose, but problematic if you don't look outside the school's own standards for determining "successful outcomes." Let me explain what I mean.

Naval SEAL training is a school. It's an excellent school. We can tell it's an excellent school because its graduates go out and proficiently defend their country in a wide variety of extremely difficult situations. Their "outcomes" are damn good. But their outcomes are measured in terms of actual, real success -- not just success at school. Indeed, the success rate at the school is somewhat abysmal, something on the order of 20%.

But here's the interesting thing about SEAL school failures: they're mostly "successful outcomes", too. If you put someone into a high intensity combat situation who isn't ready for it, and they slip, miss, stumble, or just choke and get people killed, that's a failure for the school. It's not a success at all, despite the fact that the school's graduation rate might be higher because they passed.

If you take a community college and judge its success by its graduation rate, something entirely within the control of the school, then a perverse situation develops. The school going to be able to increase its number of "successful outcomes" (as we use the term officially) by lowering its standards and shuffling more people out the door, diploma in hand. More graduates, yes, but they could be less skilled than otherwise might be the case.

In other words, the schools will be able to increase their official success rate by decreasing the number of real successful outcomes. Which isn't to say that they would do that -- but if that's even a possibility, it's a pretty strong clue that our way of measuring success is all messed up.

But, you might say, schools like Naval SEAL training "weed out" people. That shouldn't be the job of second grade!

Well, yes. It should. Second grade should "weed out" the people who aren't ready for third grade. And third grade should "weed out" the people who aren't ready for fourth grade. And so on.

The reason for this is that at some point the school system is going to have to weed people out, and it's not fair to put someone in twelfth grade and ask them to demonstrate high school academic proficiency if they weren't ready for the training in the first place. The lower grades are supposed to prepare you for the upper grades, which are supposed to prepare you for "life" or something like that. That's the theory. And if people are going into sixth grade unable to do sixth grade work, then the fifth grade teacher is failing to generate "successful outcomes", no matter how blisteringly high the graduation rate is.

If you look at graduation rates to determine success -- or even transfer rates, which while a little better, can similarly be affected by academic fraud on the community colleges' part -- you're not looking at anything substantive at all. You're looking merely at process: how many people are being approved by this school? The answer, of course, is always going to be "As many as the school approves of." Think about that for a second and ask yourself what substantive standard is involved there.

We could, of course, look at the schools themselves and what they are actually doing. Are the classes filled with interesting, useful, and challenging information or are they busywork? Do the professors/teachers demand excellence or are they just marking time? Is failure of various academic sorts frowned upon or cavalierly tolerated? Is the environment supportive, competitive, combative, or apathetic? These are all substantive questions about what the school is doing and how it is doing it. And they have no necessary connection whatsoever to graduation rates. A graduation is only a "successful outcome" if it's an accurate signal for a certain kind of competence.

Let me distill my thoughts down to a short paragraph, something you can take away and quote:

Success might be its own justification, and it might have many fathers. But when you're teaching in a school, your success is your students' success. And their success is out there, not in here with you.

09 November 2011

Hugging in School: The Power of the Inter-Tubes

From Professor Volokh over at the Conspiracy, we are treated to a blog post devoid of comment and linking us to an article which informs us that
[Nick Martinez, age 14,] said he quickly hugged the girl, whom he called his best friend, between classes. The principal saw it and hauled them off to the dean for an in-school suspension. The principal even told WKMG Local 6 that the hug was innocent....

The school has a strict no-hugging policy and is the only school in the district where hugging is not allowed. Under the policy, there is no difference between an unwanted hug, like sexual harassment, and a hug between friends....

In the former version of this blog, I wrote extensively about zero tolerance policies and my natural antipathy to them. I may do so again, but that's not what I want to do here. What I want to do now is talk briefly about the Internet, or the "Inter-Tubes", as I sometimes call them in moments of mirth.

Here's a comment from a Conspiracy reader:
Steve: I realize everything is stupid today, but way back in the Golden Age when I attended public school, I recall fairly strict policies against “public displays of affection,” as they were known.


(I)n the cable and Internet age when every local story is shared with a national audience, the fact that one kid somewhere in a nation of 350 million got sent to detention for a hug is obvious proof that everything is going to hell.

And here's another:
We weren’t even allowed to hold hands in public at my high school.

This is a normal thing. But the fact that Eugene blogs it, and in the context of other things Eugene blogs, it seems like some kind of damning indictment school administrators.

And two more:
Back in the early ‘50s when dinosaurs roamed the elementary schoolhouse halls, we played football with real tackling, mumblety-peg with real pocketknives, and marbles and tops for keeps. Some girls played these games too. We had no idiotic rules against “touching” either.

At the public school I attended there were always kids hugging, giving kisses, and even feeling-up each other alongside the lockers between classes.

I didn’t think it was such a great idea at the time because it seemed that the kids who engaged in this behavior were less academically successful, less likely to participate in extracurricular activities, and were less achievement oriented in general.

My own high school experience (I talk about high school despite the fact that the story is about a Middle School because the kid's 14, which means 9th grade; 9th grade is high school out here) is filled with a lot of memories. Leaving out names to protect the innocent, one of the starkest is noticing how sorta adorable two of my fellow classmates were kissing between classes. (I was also a little jealous/in awe of their relationship, which didn't last, btw.) I also recall being vaguely bothered by the intensity of the touchy-feeliness of another couple. In other words, there very clearly was hugging, kissing, and even some groping going on in my high school, even between 14-year old freshmen.

So let's go back to that first reader comment. Steve (the commenter) says with just the right amount of snark that it's silly to get worked up about a single failure of judgment in a nation of 350 million people. I pretty much agree with him -- that's a silly reason to get worked up. But as I read through the comments, I started to muse that even if this incident was a single lapse in judgment, and the fact that only one school in the district has such a policy suggests that it is, it needn't be thus. There could, conceivably, be districts where this sort of treatment of hugging is an every-day occurrence and there are social norms about such things that differ dramatically than what I grew up with.

And so I started to think about the Internet and the constant deluge of information we get these days. Perhaps, I wondered, the Inter-Tubes might be allowing us to see what happens all the time in other parts of the country, and perhaps this isn't always a good thing. I wonder if one of the reasons our country was able to survive so well for as long as it did wasn't that we didn't always make every local policy choice a national issue.

That's sort of abstract, so let me bring it down to the level of the concrete. I think policies on no hugging are silly and stupid, and I would argue against them in my community. But they also would be exceedingly unlikely (I hope) to happen in my community, because that's not how we roll. In other communities, as we can see in the comments above, that is how they roll. But with the Inter-Tubes, we get to read about it all the time.

In other words -- and I'm speculating wildly here -- people like me could have gotten just as upset about what those weird no-touching schools were doing back in the 50's, or back in the 80's and 90's. We just didn't know what was going on because we didn't read about it with our morning tea. It was happening on the other side of the hill.

So I'm wondering if having this sort of accessibility to "foreign" practices, that is, understanding all the things that your neighbors in the next town or next state are really up to on a micro level, is such a good thing. People don't go to war over nothing. But they often go to war because those godless heathens in the next town eat lamb, or something like that. I wonder if perhaps we weren't protected against stirring up that sort of inter-cultural nastiness -- at least to some extent -- by the relative paucity of information we used to have about what occurred elsewhere. We know those folks on the other side of the hill vote for President, just like us, and that's good enough for us!

But now, with the Inter-Tubes, we have 24-hour access to the happenings of the Edgefield school board in Posterior County, Egyptia. We get to see what they do as a matter of course, and we have the opportunity to get upset, and to make it an issue of national culture. The internet enables the little cultural facist lurking in all of us, who wants everyone to do things like we do. (Truly being a libertarian about things is hard work, and anyone who tells you it is the natural state of mind is lying to you.)

Please bear in mind that I'm not saying that this sort of hugging suspension happens all the time in the county in question. I'm merely suggesting that it's possible, and that the internet age has had a profound effect on how we relate to manifestations of that possibility, or possibilities like it. Finally, I want to caveat that I think the district policy on touching is a separate issue from the obvious ramping-up of penalties that has occurred in the last few years. That, I suspect, really is a national concern and not merely a case of differing local sensibilities finally coming onto each others' radar.

Anyway, that's what I was thinking this morning and that's what this blog is for.

04 November 2011

Some Lighthearted Frivolity

Via Althouse, I came to a fascinating little photo essay at the Daily Mail online. It's a side-by-side of some modern celebrities, and the Old Skool celebrities that they resemble. The headline asks, "Do today's icons measure up to their classic lookalikes?"

Just for S&G's, let's find out. No politics. No nostalgia. Let's just see who looks better -- as a combination of beauty and style -- because appearance is what really matters, right?

George Clooney vs. Cary Grant: This seems to me like a no-brainer. Clooney's good looking on his own, but next to Grant he looks like an over-surgeried boy-man. Point for the old guard. 0-1

January Jones vs. Grace Kelly: I have to remind myself that we're not judging talent, interview skill, or choice-of-roles here. It's just pure looks and fashion. Jones actually has more of an old-style, low-cheekbone classical look. That picture also gives her more of a pouting-19th Century painting look. In fact, if you made her picture black and white, you might think that Kelly was the modern day actress -- there's a little more vivacity there. This is a close one, very nearly a tie. Based on these pictures, it's Jones. 1-1

Penelope Cruz vs. Sophia Loren: Seriously? 1-2

David Beckham vs. Errol Flynn: This is almost an apples to oranges comparison. Beckham and Flynn are two very different kinds of style and face structure. Were I choosing someone to put up against Flynn, I'd probably pick Sean Penn. Still, a choice is a choice. Beckham has a really great Clint Eastwood vibe going in that picture, so we'll give it to the Tyros. 2-2

Brad Pitt vs. Robert Redford: When both were in their prime, this would be a much closer contest. But it looks like they're comparing the older versions of these two actors. That's Redford's territory, hands-down. 2-3

Carey Mulligan vs. Mia Farrow: This gets my vote for the picture that started this column. Someone (Claire Cisotti) probably saw the picture of Carey Mulligan... who is... I'm not sure exactly.... and said, "WOW she looks like Mia Farrow." A column idea is born. These two are, in this picture at least, basically twins. But Farrow looks like she'd be more fun. 2-4

Keira Knightley vs. Audrey Hepburn: This match-up seems to be the result of, "But it's Audrey Hepburn. We have to include her. Who can we credibly put up against her?" A hair cut doesn't do it. Neither does being thin. I would have picked Natalie Portman for the Hepburn match-up myself. They're much closer in terms of their style and the "type" of beauty they have. But with that said, I've always been a fan of Hepburn's acting rather than her looks, and I think Knightley's earth-scorching drop-dead hotness comes out on top here. 3-4

Scarlett Johansson vs. Marilyn Monroe: Marilyn Monroe is typically thought to be better looking than she actually was, in my opinion. But I'm evaluating the beauty of a person (or the picture of a person), not a concept. Johansson has the worse picture, but they probably had to pick a bad picture of her to make it seem like a fair fight. 4-4

Catherine Zeta-Jones vs. Cyd Charisse: That sound you just heard was Cyd Charisse scraping Zeta-Jones off the bottom of her shoe. 4-5

Hugh Jackman vs. Clint Eastwood: Physically this is a dead tie, as near as my woman-oriented libido can tell. But I try to imagine Hugh Jackman saying, "Just because we're holding hands doesn't mean we're going to take long, hot showers together till the wee hours of the morning," I choke on my coffee because he doesn't have the mystique to pull that off. Personal style is part of this competition, so Clint takes it. 4-6

James Franco vs. James Dean: Like the Farrow competition, above, this is like comparing twins. One of whom is strung out on meth and drinks too much. But that's like the worst picture of James Dean on the first page of the Google Image search, and a strikingly good picture of James Franco. Victory is officially out of reach of the new guard with our first tie. 4-6-1

Katie Holmes vs. Natalie Wood: The caption says "Katie Holmes and Natalie Wood captivate with a glance." There are some things missing from that sentence. It should read, "Katie Holmes. (pause) And Natalie Wood captivates with a glance." 4-7-1

Old Skool wins. As my friend Russell once said, "It's a (bleep) when those twentieth level fighters come out of retirement."

And that's my frivolous, superficial opinion for the day.

03 November 2011

The View From the Bleachers

There's a fight going on. Depending on who you ask, it's a fight between the New Class Elites...

In social theory, OWS is best understood not as a populist movement against the bankers, but instead as the breakdown of the New Class into its two increasingly disconnected parts. The upper tier, the bankers-government bankers-super credentialed elites. But also the lower tier, those who saw themselves entitled to a white collar job in the Virtue Industries of government and non-profits — the helping professions, the culture industry, the virtueocracies, the industries of therapeutic social control, as Christopher Lasch pointed out in his final book, The Revolt of the Elites.

... or a fight between the haves and the have-nots.

As the police in Oakland, California, breaking up the occupy protests there, "Occupy Oakland." Part of the "Occupy Wall Street" movement is for economic justice. This one in California, the police moved in with batons swinging, they tore down tents and smashed signs.

They sent tear gas grenades into the crowd. The cops are also alleged to have fired rubber bullets, something they are denying, despite injuries to protesters that look like they were caused by rubber bullets. And police admits to firing bean bag rounds, though.

It might even be a fight between the taxpayers and the government dependent class.

America is engaged in class war, but not of the sort one reads about in the mainstream press. The truly indigent - young African-American men, for example, most of whom are now unemployed - have little to do in this war. Large corporations for the most part are bystanders as well; they will make their peace with the victor. This is a war of survival between the productive middle class on one hand, and the dependents of the state on the other.

But those fights seem to me to be mere power struggles, purely economic and political in nature. The fight between the haves and the have-nots is not -- despite the rhetoric -- grounded in a moral complaint. The fact that someone has a lot of stuff doesn't make them evil, no matter how much you shriek that it does.

That's not to say that the possible outcomes of these fights can't be talked about sensibly in moral terms. I'm merely pointing out that the conflicts themselves aren't really about moral complaints.

But there's another way of looking at this conflict that does make it a moral issue -- one that I, frankly, find compelling. Via Joanne, we are given a number of arguments by Alex Pareene over at Salon about why it is that the 99% has gotten such a raw deal. On the whole, the piece is excremental and its litany of broken promises can be refuted simply by pointing out that adults make choices, sometimes things don't work out, and ultimately the only person responsible for you is you.

But there is one line of argument that Pareene raises which can't be dismissed this way:
For the young, higher education was said to be a ticket to class mobility, or at least a secure career. Instead, middle-class students have taken on billions of dollars of inescapable debt during a prolonged jobs crisis. Lower-income students are blatantly ripped off by usurious scam artists working for educationally dubious for-profit schools. Even those seeking to join the professional class, through medical school or law school, find themselves with mountains of debt and dwindling job prospects.

This is a real complaint. It's one thing to be misled by political leaders as adults. No one put a gun to your head and forced you to vote democratic, or forced you to purchase that home that the laws of mathematics said you couldn't afford.

But it's another thing to be misled as a child, to be given a false vision of the world, and to take your first steps into adulthood in trust of that vision. I think the "broken social promises" complaint Pareene presents is a valid one when it comes to the young. They're adults now (maybe), but they weren't really fully autonomous when they made the decisions that they did. Indeed, we've been structuring society precisely to make them less autonomous. (Stay on your parents' insurance till your 26???).

This complaint is, morally speaking, much more grounded and coherent than the disorganized class warfare blather that generally comes out of the Occupiers/99 percenters as rhetorical cover for their praxis struggle.

Indeed, and this is where the title of this post comes in, as a member of Generation X, what this moral conflict looks like to me is a fight between the Boomers and the Millennials. "Our parents lied to us about life!" seems to sum it up nicely.

And the millennials are right. The Boomers really screwed up. They should be ashamed of themselves, and if they had any sense of shame, they'd do what they could to make things right.

Unfortunately, as a generation, they don't. Have shame, that is. So what sort of redress can be given for this moral wrong that has been perpetrated against the Millennials?

Well, just because you're correct that your parents were horrible and lied to you doesn't mean you get compensated for it. You just have to deal. Yes, you have the moral high ground -- it was wrong for your parents and their friends and coworkers and the others in their generation to lie to you about the efficacy of the college degree, just like it was wrong of them to destroy its value at the same time by beginning the transformation of college into a high school extension program in order to subvert the Draft and establish a wider political power base.

So to the extent that their complaints actually reflect a genuine, grounded moral outrage, I have great sympathy for the mis-named "99%". I genuinely feel bad about how they were misled and saddled with unsustainable personal debt to pursue worthless degrees... all because they had faith in what the Boomers told them. It's an awful place to be and it's unjust.

That doesn't mean there's compensation coming. Not by moral implication, anyway.

Though there may well be compensation coming. As I said above, in addition to the valid moral complaint, there's also a pure praxis struggle going on -- a raw force fight for political and economic power. There's even odds, I think, that the Occupiers are going to win this fight, so they'll probably get their compensation for their parents misleading them -- it will just be because they took it, not because they morally deserve it.

And, knowing how history works, it's going to be us Gen-Xers in the bleachers who are going to have to pay it.

Pass the mustard. I'm going to enjoy this hot dog before someone down there tries to take it from me.