Monday, May 31, 2010

Is It Weird Enough, Part 1

This New York Times article analyzes over-analyzes opera diva Renee Fleming and her decision to cut a pop album.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Everything Must Be Local

The maxim "all politics is local" has been uttered so often it has become a punchline or a cliche.  At the personal level though, it continues to ring true. 

I should be angry that BP is unable to contain the underwater gusher and may continue to foul the Gulf for up to two months.  I should be sad because Dennis Hopper and Gary Coleman. troubled actors whose performances thrilled and amused millions, have both died.  As a sports fan I should probably be watching NHL or NBA playoffs.

I really can't get up the energy to be angry or root for an athlete who probably makes more money on a three-year contract than I'll ever make.  The million little things of day to day living from worrying about kids at college to aging parents to broken down cars are just more immediate today.

As a teacher I need days like to day to remind me that English classes are just as far away for most students as the NBA is for me.  Their local concerns are going to get in the way too.  It's too bad that it's the first full weekend of summer and I'll probably forget by August.

Thursday, May 27, 2010


I just spent most of the past two days cleaning my classroom.  I am a slob of the first order.  My natural talents are augmented by debaters who love paper so much they leave it strewn all over the classroom so that they can always look at it.

My wife and I also cleared out a storage unit because the rent payment can be better used elsewhere. (Actually my wife did  most of the cleaning, but I did help unload a pickup.  I can still carry a small refrigerator just like I could when I was but a lad in college.)  Anyway, it's amazing how much crap a person can accumulate.  It's more amazing how attached a person can become to that crap.

After looking at the garage, I guess I'll have to look for a 12 step program to overcome addiction to stuff.  I would guess that step one would be distinguish junk from valuable and that step two would throw away junk without crying.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

The Semester Ends

I don't want to suggest that I'm a powerhouse blogger in any sense of the word, but the ending of the school year will mean that posts may be nonexistent or really short during the next few days. 

I foolishly believe that I should have the younguns take semester tests, but that means that I have to correct the damned things.  I also think that I need to have an essay component.  Ever so often, people flatter me by telling me they think I'm intelligent.  The fact that I do semester tests and final essays seems to indicate otherwise.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

A Question Springing from A Comparison

Dick Cheney was on the search committee to find George W. Bush’s VP.  Suddenly, Dick Cheney was the best person to be VP. Our new assistant principal was on the committee to find a new assistant principal.  Does that mean students sent to the principal’s office will now be waterboarded?


Monday, May 17, 2010

If the classroom is important, then . . .

Why do they mow the lawn outside my classroom window when I'm trying to give a test?  It seems to me that lawns can be mowed before 8:00 am or 3:30 pm.  Why do they call my room to tell me kids have to leave for appointments?  Shouldn't the kids have to remember their own appointments?  Whey do they have announcements blaring over the loudspeaker during class time?  Why can students be late to class because they have a message at the office?  Why is lunch the only time that can't be altered during the school day?  They tell me that classroom is important, but I can't think of a single thing that someone who doesn't teach won't use to warrant a classroom interruption., but the classroom is important.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Is It Time To Grow Up?

I spent a good part of today getting stacks of comic books in long boxes to store so that we can celebrate graduation.  Gotta love those manufactured coming of age rituals that seem to mean nothing to those who are coming of age.

While storing and sorting, I noticed that there's about five months of issues that I haven't read. I will get to some this summer, but work keeps getting in the way of reading.  Besides, I could spend the time reading comics reading more substantial fiction.  Also, those long boxes take up a lot of room.  Further, the damned things now cost $2.99 and up.  They were 12 cents when I was a kid.  (By the way, why doesn't my computer keyboard have a symbol for cents?)

On the other hand, there is the cliche about one doesn't quit playing because one gets old; one gets old because one quits playing.  I would hate to lose my boyish charm because I quit reading comics.  Enough introspection.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Education: An American Tragedy

The New York Review of Books posts this E.D Hirsch review of Diane Ravitch's  The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education.  As a teacher, I began to channel Cassius from Shakespeare's Julius Caesar when I read the following paragraphs.
Yet I do not agree with Ravitch that we should chiefly rely on experienced educators. We certainly should consult them and win them over, but we have been relying on them, and they have failed us—not least in their response to the No Child Left Behind law. Ravitch strongly criticizes NCLB for its narrow emphasis on reading and math and its reduction of schooling to preparation for tests. Her analysis is factually accurate. But to understand why the law failed we need to imagine what might have happened had our experienced educators responded differently to it.
The law would have had a much more beneficial effect if educators had reacted with more insight to its provisions. NCLB was quite right to place a dominant emphasis on the development of language ability and reading skill. Verbal skill is known to be a chief constituent of adult success and effectiveness. But verbal ability is not, as the schools wrongly assumed, simply a how-to skill. It is largely a knowledge-based skill. NCLB did not, after all, mandate that the schools must practice reading strategies at the expense of a strong curriculum in literature, history, science, and the arts—the very kind of schooling that, according to the findings of cognitive science, would raise reading abilities by systematically building background knowledge. The decision to teach strategies instead was made by experienced educators who had been indoctrinated by education schools into an anticurricular point of view, emphasizing “how to” read, and giving quite inadequate attention to what should be learned to build up needed knowledge (Hirsch, How to Save the Schools, 13/5/2010). [Bold Mine]
Some of the blame goes to those who love what Emerson in "Self-Reliance"calls the "foolish consistency [that] is the hobgoblin of little minds.  This consistency is "adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines"  I'm pretty sure that and school principals, district superintendents, and secretaries of education at all levels also have a love affair, metaphorically, of course, with that same foolish consistency.

As comforting as passing the blame is, however, it strikes me that Cassius in Shakespeare Julius Caesar has it right, "The fault . . .is not in our stars,/But in ourselves, . . ."  I just hope we get a chance to fix the mess we created.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Positive Peer Pressure

This Slate article contends that girls do better when surrounded by intelligent female peers whereas boys may not fair as well when confronted by intelligent male peers.  I don't know enough to comment wisely on the premise or the research, but the following quotations struck me as extremely perceptive.  First, it seems that a few bad apples may spoil the whole barrel.
The studies examined the academic achievement of high school students and found that being surrounded by underachieving classmates has a negative effect on girls and boys—both genders feel pressure to conform to the lower standards of their peers (Bold Mine, Italics in original) (Fisman, The Right Kind of Peer Pressure, 11/5/2010).
Second, the Demotivational geniuses are correct; when people are given the opportunity to do as they please, they usually imitate each other (, Conformity).  It will be hard for anyone, especially high school students avoid that trap.
The takeaway from all of this is clear for parents looking to maximize their kids' SAT scores—surround your daughters with smart peers and make sure to keep any kid, boy or girl, away from the influence of academic laggards. Both boys (discouraged by stiff competition) and girls (deterred by peer disapproval) might also look back on the advice dispensed by Mary Pipher in the closing pages of Reviving Ophelia. Adolescents, she writes, need to "forge self-definitions independent of peer pressure." (Bold Mine) (Fisman, The Right Kind of Peer Pressure, 11/5/2010).

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

A Question In Which I Act Like A Cranky Conspiracy Theorist, Sort Of

BP is a corporation.  The courts have said that corporations are individuals; therefore BP is an individual.  BP has caused millions of dollars of damage to the United States.  The damage may be the result of negligence or criminal activity.  If true, why can’t BP the individual be declared an enemy combatant for terrorizing the United States?  The harm done by the spill is far greater than the harm that would have been done by the Times Square Bomb attempt.  In fact, people actually died because of BP’s actions.

It strikes me as extremely odd that politicians strive to be the toughest anti-terror person in the room when it comes to punishing stupid people who commit terrorist acts.  The fireworks the Times Square Bomber bought “wouldn’t damage a watermelon.”  Some want the US to strip the citizenship from terrorists.  If individuals like Faisal Shahzad are facing the ultimate sanctions such as the death penalty and loss of citizenship for their stupidity, why shouldn’t individuals like BP and Halliburton face similar punishments for their hubris, recklessness, and arrogance.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Reaping the Whirlwind???

According to this post, an Elana Kagan confirmation to the Supreme Court means that that no Protestants will be serving on the nation's highest court.  Did the problem enunciated by the title of this book contribute to the situation?  Just asking.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Some Education Philosophy

I wanted to answer a commenter who responded to my post about procrastination, so I was link jumping my way from the post that prompted my query to a post that the article linked to when I hit a link to a Mortimer J. Adler article entitled "Invitation to the Pain of Learning."  The article was written in 1941, but it says what I believe about 2010 better than I can.  Of course, I might be old fashioned, but then again, there's "nothing new under the sun." Adler begins,
ONE of the reasons why the education given by our schools is so frothy and vapid is that the American people generally-the parent even more than the teacher-wish childhood to be unspoiled by pain. Childhood must be a period of delight, of gay indulgence in impulses. It must be given every avenue for unimpeded expression, which of course is pleasant; and it must not be made to suffer the impositions of discipline or the exactions of duty, which of course are painful. Childhood must be filled with as much play and as little work as possible. What cannot be accomplished educationally through elaborate schemes devised to make learning an exciting game must, of necessity, be forgone. Heaven forbid that learning should ever take on the character of a serious occupation-just as serious as earning money, and perhaps, much more laborious and painful.
 He concludes,
. . . let us not fool ourselves about what we are doing. "Education" all wrapped up in attractive tissue is the gold brick that is being sold in America today on every street corner. Everyone is selling it, everyone is buying it, but no one is giving or getting the real thing because the real thing is always hard to give or get. Yet the real thing can be made generally available if the obstacles to its distribution are honestly recognized. Unless we acknowledge that every invitation to learning can promise pleasure only as the result of pain, can offer achievement only at the expense of work, all of our invitations to learning, in school and out, whether by books, lectures, or radio and television programs will be as much buncombe as the worst patent medicine advertising, or the campaign pledge to put two chickens in every pot.
Here endth the sermon.  Go forth and do good.  Amen.

The Interwebs and Philosohy

In my Sunday geekiness, I took my wife and mother-in-law to Sunday dinner.  (That's a noon meal on the plains.)  I called my mother to wish her a happy Mother's Day, and I watched  C-SPAN 2 Book TV coverage of a Richard A. Clarke speech about his new book Cyber War.  Clarke's thesis is that the United States is probably well positioned to make cyber attacks, but may not be able to adequately defend itself from foreign attack.

His presentation made me think of Ecclesiastes 1:9 "What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again;  there is nothing new under the sun."  Clark discussed the idea that mutually assured destruction is a model that may not work because North Korea and Iran are not sufficiently connected to the world community to suffer the same devastation as more connected societies.  He also claimed that we may need treaties saying that civilian targets like banking may not be destroyed.  I hope that holds true for power grids and civilian air traffic control as well.  In short, we'll need to rethink just war theory. In a Twitter world, I hope that we can do it in 140 characters

The idea of just war theory made me commit philosophy without a license.  If, as some claim, the postmodernists have have their roots in ancient Sophists, I am fairly certain that someone will attempt to create a theory that illustrates an "ideal form" of the internet.  Then we'll be hearing the new arguments between the 21st Century equivalents of Plato and Sophists.  This time the argument won't be about the ideal horse or human or chair, the argument will be about the ideal world created by 1s and 0s.  I hope the people in the position to make good arguments aren't too busy checking their email.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Do These Mind Tricks Work??

In my world, work is work and play is work.  I don't really like work, hence I frequently procrastinate.  I also muse about methods to motivate myself and others Lifehacker, a website of much goodness, has posted the Top 10 Motivation Boosters and Procrastination Killers.  The list includes
10. Pick Good Sounds
9. Use Minor Distractions to Fend Off Big Distractions
8. Set a Timer and Crank Until It Beeps
7. Move and Breathe Like You're Excited
6. Make Your To-Do List Doable
5. Don't Check Email for the First Hour of Work
4. Create a Fake Constraint
3. Move Quickly on New Skills and Great Ideas
2. Have a Status Board (of Some Kind)
1. Understand and Overcome Your Fear of Failure
I really wonder if any of these work or if they are just more work.  Comments are welcome while I procrastinate.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

A Language Argument I'll lose

Parents tell students to “pay attention in class, study hard, and get good grades.”  Many students listen to their parents.  They “pay attention in class, study, and get good grades.”     

When they urge students “to get good grades,” parents are telling students that grades not knowledge or skills ought to be the end result.  Making grades the end goal seems akin to “turn on the oven, mix the right ingredients so that you can produce good measuring cups.”  I’d prefer to eat cake not cups, and I’d prefer students work to acquire skills or knowledge rather than grades.  

Ideally, grades should reflect education.  They don’t.  They reflect the fact that some students have done busy work in lieu of learning.  I wish that parents use an online thesaurus to discover that “grades” and “education” are not synonyms.  I wish that they’d want a system that has grades reflect accomplishment rather than time served.  I don’t think I’m going to get either wish granted by the grand educational genie in the sky, so I’ll settle for parents telling their children to “pay attention in class, study hard, and learn.”  I suspect that my third wish won’t be granted either.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Just When I Was Getting Ready To Convert To Cyber Utopianism--

This Foreign Policy article made me get all warm and cynical again.  The whole article is worth a read, but this summary says it all.
Two decades in, the Internet has neither brought down dictators nor eliminated borders. It has certainly not ushered in a post-political age of rational and data-driven policymaking. It has sped up and amplified many existing forces at work in the world, often making politics more combustible and unpredictable. Increasingly, the Internet looks like a hypercharged version of the real world, with all of its promise and perils, while the cyberutopia that the early Web enthusiasts predicted seems ever more illusory.
Oh well, I'm sure some administrator will figure out how to make the Internet revolutionize education and make teachers unnecessary.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Iron Man, James Madison, Prometheus, and Us

I recently picked up a copy of Iron Man and Philosophy.  One of the articles "Did Iron Man Kill Captain America" by Mark D. White recounts Iron Man's efforts to implement the Superhuman Registration Act, build a prison in the Negative Zone to house superheroes who refuse to register, and institute a Fifty State Initiative to give each state its own team of superheroes.  (I have no idea which heroes would be assigned to South Dakota.) In short, Iron Man was expanding the role of government, but he was doing it to provide for public safety.  Given that he built a prison in some alternate dimension, Iron Man's actions can be seen to be similar to building a supermax prison or instituting a national ID card.

Tony Stark, Iron Man's alter ego, may be a scientific genius, but he apparently forgot James Madison's injunction from The Federalist 51: 
If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.
 Perhaps some members of the superhero community need to be controlled; they have caused damage and civilian deaths.  Stark did set up a government to control the governed; he did not, however, oblige his creation to control itself.  Stark eventually lost his position to Norman Osborn, the Green Goblin, a member of Spider-Man's rogues gallery.  It's difficult to see how the Americans of Stark's world are better off than they were before his foray into prison building and registration.

Stark claims to be a futurist.  He seemingly is like Prometheus, the Titan who gave humans fire.  Prometheus could see the future and warn Zeus that Thetis, a minor goddess Zeus wanted to bed, was destined to bear a son greater than his father.  The Titan, however, could not that giving humanity fire would result in his being chained to a mountain and having an eagle devour his liver.

In my mind, the superhero, mythological deity, and American founder are all making me wonder about many of the loud voices who fear the new health care but who support enhanced surveillance to protect citizens from terrorism or who want to build a fence to keep out illegal aliens. 

The national health care bill may turn out to be a disaster because it will mushroom out of control like the opponents fear.  If, as these prognosticators fear, this mushrooming is a natural result of government, what's to keep the government from turning the surveillance against innocent citizens or using the fence to keep citizens in instead of keeping illegal immigrants out? 

The fear about government seems to be selective and incoherently applied.  The same people who say bank reform will destroy the country often claim building more prisons and increasing the number of crimes that can be called terrorist acts will make citizens safer.  Six banks now have assets equal to 63% of GDP.  Shouldn't that fact scare one as much as a threat posed by a car bomb in Times Square?

Mythological deities and superheroes are imperfect futurists, and we mere mortals are not angels.  Everyone, therefore, should listen to Madison.  Iron Man and Prometheus show what can happen if we don't.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Why Ask Only One Kind of Question?

Rod Dreher, a blogging Crunchy Conservative, writes about Science vs. Religion: What Scientists Really Think by Elaine Howard Ecklund.  Dreher mines one quotation that really caught my eye; many scientists apparently believe " [i]f the answer to a question [can] not be found through science, then why ask it at all?"

That attitude scares me. First, it carries the science fiction attitude illustrated by The Six Million Dollar Man to its conclusion.  The television program's intro begins, "We have the technology; we can rebuild him . . . .to be better than he was before, bigger, stronger, faster. . ."  That opening conveniently ignores the fact that failed technology caused the damage that necessitated turning Steve Austin into a cyborg.  Second, it assumes that being "better" is limited to physical attributes not intellectual or spiritual characteristics.

Likewise, believing that one shouldn't seek answers to questions that science can't answer ignores the fact that questions are necessary for all human endeavors.  Asking why Hamlet acts the way he does or asking what one can learn from that answer has little scientific relevance, but that doesn't mean one shouldn't ask those questions.  To the best of my knowledge, there's no scientific way to create art, but that doesn't make art whether concrete or abstract unworthy of study.  It also doesn't obviate the need to question the processes that allow one to create art.  Even at the scientific level, one may accept that the universe operates on mathematical principles but that acceptance shouldn't stop one from asking why the numbers work.

Arguing that questions that can't answer shouldn't be pursued seems to indicate a lack of curiosity, the same curiosity that enabled many of the world's greatest scientific discoveries.  In short it's a self defeating attitude.

Unfortunately, its a view that students express with alarming regularity.  If they're not curious now, there's little hope that they'll develop it in the future.  Many economists predict that the current generation of high school students will be the first American generation to be less well off then their parents.  The best way to avoid that fate seems to be to ask questions both scientific and philosophical.  If scientists don't want to ask those questions, it's doubtful these students will be willing to.