Oct 312008

The College of St. Catherine bans Bay Buchanan from speaking on campus. The reason? Because as a 501(c)(3) organization it has to avoid any appearance of partisanship. (Buchanan is not running for office or campaigning for anyone, so that isn’t really the reason, but you know what they mean.  If not, see below.)

Robert F. Kennedy Jr., on the other hand, goes into a fourth grade classroom and tells the kids that in Lincoln’s time, “Republicans used to be the good guys.” One mother was not amused, but Kennedy says it’s OK, “since those children struck me as exceptionally bright and capable of making their own political determination.”

Does this mean that the children attending the College of St. Catherine are exceptionally dumb?

Does it mean Murch Elementary School now has to start paying taxes?

h/t to The Weekly Standard

May 072008

Here are a couple of items that need reticulating.

The first is this article at Wired Magazine about Piotr Wozniak and how to remember things. No, it’s not all in the wrist. Instead, as with stand-up comedy, it’s about timing.

The second is this web site about block scheduling, one of the latest fads that’s ruining our secondary schools. Actually, the fad started some time ago. We had a big battle about it in our own school district several years ago, back when I still had a kid in high school. But the battle is still being waged — the educational establishment vs. actual evidence about how people learn.

One thing the Wired Magazine article didn’t mention was the Pimsleur language courses, which as far as I can tell are based on the very same principles that Wozniak is studying and promoting. It criticizes Rosetta Stone (which I’ve never used) but for some reason doesn’t mention Pimsleur. And I think the Pimsleur method does work, even though for me the switch from tape cassettes to MP3 has been a step backwards in getting the timings right as Pimsleur intended. MP3 players *could* be a huge improvement over cassettes, but… well, that’s a rant for another day.

There is one piece of the Wired article that could be guaranteed to draw jeers from the educational establishment. I’ve been there myself at a board meeting where the superintendent argued against me, repeating all the educational cliches about why learning facts doesn’t matter. So I was glad to see this article take on that particular canard:

The problem of forgetting might not torment us so much if we could only convince ourselves that remembering isn’t important. Perhaps the things we learn — words, dates, formulas, historical and biographical details — don’t really matter. Facts can be looked up. That’s what the Internet is for. When it comes to learning, what really matters is how things fit together. We master the stories, the schemas, the frameworks, the paradigms; we rehearse the lingo; we swim in the episteme.

The disadvantage of this comforting notion is that it’s false. “The people who criticize memorization — how happy would they be to spell out every letter of every word they read?” asks Robert Bjork, chair of UCLA’s psychology department and one of the most eminent memory researchers. After all, Bjork notes, children learn to read whole words through intense practice, and every time we enter a new field we become children again. “You can’t escape memorization,” he says. “There is an initial process of learning the names of things. That’s a stage we all go through. It’s all the more important to go through it rapidly.” The human brain is a marvel of associative processing, but in order to make associations, data must be loaded into memory.

And as for the Block Scheduling controversy, it’s not as though the traditional scheduling of high school classes was designed to get the spacing effect just right. (I hadn’t known about the term “spacing effect” before reading the Wired article, but I knew about it.) But Block Scheduling is a huge step in the wrong direction. When we were doing research on it during our local controversy, we came to find out that language and music teachers were some of the biggest opponents. They know how their subjects get learned, even if they don’t know about it to the degree of mathematical precision described by Wozniak. And that sort of learning also plays a huge role in other subject disciplines. But anti-intellectualism now rules in our schools.

Educators will tell you that education is about a lot more than memorization.   Very true.   It is more than that.  But it shouldn’t be less than that.

Apr 122008

I’ve added a new blog to my list: “Speed Gibson: of the International Secret Police“. I noticed him over at SCSU Scholars when he made a remark about responsibility, pointing out that it’s not a standalone word. It means one has to be responsible to someone.

Well, that’s the way I’ve been saying it for the last 30 years. Here is the way Speed Gibson said it:

Reworking Thomas Sowell’s thought on “social justice,” what forms of “Responsibility” are there that are not social? Can someone be said to be irresponsible if alone on a desert island?

I had to check out somebody who would point this out, so went to his blog and found some delightful writings about the workings of his local Minnesota school districts, into which he’s worked characters from Sinclair Lewis’s books. Maybe that description doesn’t make any sense, but there are some interesting insights inside all the fun he seems to be having. I’m going to pay attention to this one, at least for a while.

Sep 302007

When I first saw this Yahoo news article, I figured there had to be more to the story:

A Spencer, N.Y., student was sent home from school last week for wearing a T-shirt that denounces homophobia.

Heathyre Farnham, 16, said she was not trying to be inflammatory by wearing the shirt that says, “Gay? Fine By Me.”

Contrary to what the lead sentence says, there’s nothing in that message about homophobia. (What would have been really interesting would have been a T-shirt that said, “Gay? Fine By Me. Homophobic? Fine By Me.”)

It turns out there are news articles with additional information, though it seems most of the information comes from one side of the conflict. The school doesn’t want to talk to the news media about it, which I suppose is reasonable. These types of stories can get spun one way or another so easily, as any parent or teacher who has had to referee a squabble can tell you.

But it’s interesting that all of a sudden, out of the blue, religion is dragged into it. Here it is, a non sequitur from another version:

Beeman [the kid’s mother] noted that religious issues had proven disruptive the previous school year, with students saying that their lessons at school contradicted their religious training.

Said Beeman, “There’re six churches in the area,” and added that the locale “tends to revolve around this religious hub.”

Added Beeman, “It tends to infiltrate into the school. Last year classes would be interrupted by period-long debates, that ’they shouldn’t be teaching this.’”

Said Beeman, “We’re very tolerant of people’s beliefs, but we don’t want them shoved down our throats and that tends to be what happens.”

Note the word “infiltrate.” It took me a while to realize why that bothered me. But now I remember. Back in the 50s, it was a word often used by people complaining about communists “infiltrating” schools and Hollywood. I know the folks using that word back then meant it was a bad thing. Sounds like this Beeman thinks it’s a bad thing, too.

Others might thing think it healthy that people with diverse beliefs can have their say and debate issues.

Here’s what one academic had to say about the subject of debates in the classroom. It’s something that’s posted in the library in the department where I work. You can find it in various places on the web, too.

It is important that students bring a certain ragamuffin, barefoot irreverence to their studies; they are not here to worship what is known, but to question it. — Jacob Bronowski

Sounds like that’s what’s happening at that school, in more ways than one. It’s too bad the news reporters didn’t do a little more questioning of their own, though, such as asking Beeman how she defines “shoved down our throats.”

Sep 292007

District 3 schoolyard

This photo is dredged up from what once was a web site of mine, circa 1995. I got it to go with an article in the Weekend Edition of the WSJ, titled “Inconvenient Youths.” Here are samples:

In households across the country, kids are going after their parents for environmental offenses, from using plastic cups to serving non-grass-fed beef at the dinner table. Many of these kids are getting more explicit messages about becoming eco-warriors at school and from popular books and movies.


Some parents object to what they see as proselytizing by their kids’ schools. Mark D. Hill, who until recently was chairman of the Republican party in Marin County, says some mothers called him upset when their children came home from Bacich Elementary School in Kentfield, Calif., with fliers stuffed in their backpacks advertising a screening of “An Inconvenient Truth.” The parents thought the public school shouldn’t promote the screening, which was paid for by a local parent, because they considered it a political statement.

Sally Peck, the principal of Bacich, disagrees. “We have a responsibility to educate our children,” she says.

Mr. Hill says the mothers worried their children would be criticized if they spoke out, so they kept their names secret. “It’s very scary for mothers,” he says. “They kind of go with the programs because they don’t want to be viewed as trouble-makers.”

It would seem that Principal Sally Peck is having trouble distinguishing indoctrination from education.   These people think it’s OK to indoctrinate kids in environmental morality, but watch what happens when you suggest that kids be taught sexual morality.

But it can’t be helped.  Some sort of morality is going to be taught.

Here’s an idea, and this is where the photo comes in.   The photo is of the old District No. 3 schoolyard in Bazile Mills, Nebraska.  It was taken a couple of hours before my first bike tour ever, in summer 1995.  The school was long gone, but I’m showing my youngest son where we used to play softball.  When I was a kid we lived in a house to the right of the church in the photo, where my father was pastor.   We usually walked to school across that field.

It was a two-room public school, and when the school consolidation movement came to Nebraska in the 1950s there was a big battle over whether the school should be closed and consolidated with the Creighton school, three miles away.   My parents were on the anti-consolidation side.   They were so unhappy with the high-handed techniques that had been used in an attempt to close the school that when it came time for me to go to high school, they didn’t send me to Creighton.  They instead sent me to a smaller school to the north at Center, on the edge of the Santee Sioux reservation.   I was fortunate to have had that experience — both the school experience and the witnessing of what my parents did to try to  preserve quality of education.

What does that have to do with our little eco-warriors?   Well, if teachers really want to teach about cutting down on greenhouse gases, they will want to teach the kids that the school districts should be broken up into small neighborhood schools — us-consolidated, if you will,  so that not so much fuel will need to be burned transporting kids to school and school activities.

One photo I didn’t find was of the area at the base of the Gull Creek valley in Kalamazoo County, MI.  That used to be the prettiest little valley in Kalamazoo County.  It reminded me of Ireland somewhat.  But when the community of Galesburg decided to build a new school, they did the same as so many others and built it out in the country where there was room for massive parking lots for all the kids who drive to school.   It destroyed the lower end of that little valley.  And who can blame kids for driving, or parents for driving their young ones, when the alternative is that abomination known as the school bus Whether children travel by bus or by car, if schools were unconsolidated it would make a huge difference in greenhouse gas emissions.

But no, just the opposite is being done.  Our Gull Lake school district recently closed a fine little elementary school in Bedford — the one my youngest son attended.    Now kids have to be transported a much greater distance to a centralized school.   Given that research has shown that smaller community schools usually provide better education, the school district isn’t going to have much credibility the next time it appeals for more money.

Of course, teachers and administrators are -not- going to advocate decentralization.  Doing so would give parents a greater say in their children’s education, which is anathema to the modern educational establishment.  Environmental issues are OK up to a point, and that is one of those points.

Sep 212007

The Daily Eudemon talks about the slippery slope:

New hero: A 72-year-old man with a wine purchase refuses to produce proof that he’s 21 years old. I understand the policy: “If we don’t card everyone, we end up on a slippery slope. Do we not card the 40-year-old? The 30-year-old? Eventually, we’ll end up making judgment calls and offending people. We might even discriminate!”

Well, deal with it in a rational manner. What the slippery slope chanters don’t realize is, everything is a slippery slope: Anything not reigned in with moderation can go too far. What the haters of discrimination don’t realize is, everyday life is full of discrimination: judgment calls, nuanced calls, irrational calls, emotional calls, reflex calls. People make simple decisions that are so complex in their formulation that we couldn’t flowchart them on movie screen, and 99% of people make these decisions just fine. The other 1% are the mentally addled, and they can’t hold down a job. If a person is mentally normal enough to hold down a job, he ought to be given the discretion to decide that a 72-year-old man is over age 20.

This reminds me of how school boards get all bureaucratic about behavior control. They come up with bureaucratic rules to apply district wide about “1st offense we do this, 2nd offense we do that,” or they come up with a zero tolerance policy about inappropriate touching and end up sending seventh graders off to jail for butt-swapping.

It seems that’s what we get when our schools too large and centralized. We can no longer trust teachers and principals to use their good judgment because they are beyond the social controls of the local communities. So we have no choice but to get all bureaucratic and formulaistic in the way we run the places.

As for the situation in the U.K., I blame it on the welfare-police state, for similar reasons. And I agree with the Daily Eudemon — the resistor is a hero.

Aug 062007

It’s not often that there is anything good to say about Julie Mack’s articles in the Kalamazoo Gazette, but here’s an opportunity: Those who study history are doomed to spend $100 million. She raises some good questions, and does it in a gracious manner, too.

It’s good that school superintendents are making waves over this sort of thing.

And it’s interesting to hear that Sen. Robert Byrd got us a federal law requiring schools to teach about the Constitution on September 17. He seems to have an interesting notion of what the Constitution is about. Maybe we could follow his example, though, and set aside September 18 as a day to honor the 1st Amendment by prohibiting anyone in schools from talking about it. The possibilities are endless.

But if Byrd really wanted to honor the Constitution, he’d dismantle the federal Department of Education and return the money that funds it to taxpayers, who then might be able to afford the next millage request that comes along.

And with extra money those schools that find the Teaching American History program to be the best way to spend their money could do so. Those that need to beef up their programs for at-risk students could do that, instead. And so on.

Jun 132007

Time to pick on the Kalamazoo Gazette and Julie Mack some more.

Bureaucracy or efficiency? Granholm would expand role of intermediate districts; critics say they are a waste.

One reason given for ISDs is that they do things that school districts themselves cannot easily manage. And to some extent, that’s true. It’s hard for smaller school districts to run specialized facilities and hire highly specialized workers who serve only a few students. That doesn’t mean ISDs are the best way to deal with it, though.

A couple of  paragraphs from the article:

Olson, the education analyst for the Mackinac Center, said ISDs are a waste of money and should be scrapped. He said local districts could pick up services such as vocational and special education, but acknowledges a funding mechanism would be necessary.

“We could have an incentive structure that would allow schools to compete for the privilege of educating special-education children,” Olson said.

There is a sneaky put-down of this Olson here.  It’s those two words, “but acknowledges.”  Given what he is quoted as having said, Julie Mack could as well have written “and suggests a funding mechanism.”  Or even more exuberant words, such as “can barely contain his enthusiasm for the possiblilities.”  But instead she makes it sound as though she did a gotcha that put him on the defensive.    It’s a good ploy, if your editor lets you get by with it.

 I mean, it’s as if I tell her I’d like to go on a bicycling vacation in Russia (which is true) and then she goes back to her office and writes, “…but he acknowledges that he will need to travel outside the country to do this.”  Well, duh.   But if she wants to make it sound as though I’m being defensive about some huge flaw that I hadn’t planned on, that’s the propaganda technique to use.

I hereby propose a journalism reform.  News writers should not be allowed to say “but acknowledges.”  Maybe they shouldn’t even be allowed to use the word “but”.   Most of the time “and” would do just as well, and would be more neutral.