There are people who could afford any of the private schools in LA but want that school in particular

Tuesday, July 16th, 2019

I’ve mentioned Elon Musk’s Ad Astra school before, and now word is slowly spreading:

Ad Astra has a lower profile than most start-ups in stealth mode. Its website is just a logo and an email address, and the school does not market itself to parents. Musk himself has said virtually nothing about Ad Astra, and both SpaceX and Ad Astra declined our requests for comment. Currently, the only glimpses of Ad Astra available to outsiders come from a 2017 webinar interview with the school’s principal (captured in an unlisted YouTube video) and recent public filings like the IRS document referenced above.

Despite this mystique, demand among families in Los Angeles is astronomical, says Christina Simon, author of Beyond the Brochure, a guide to private elementary schools in the city. “There are people who could afford any of the private schools in LA but want that school in particular,” she says. “It’s very much about Elon Musk and who he is.”

The last admissions cycle in 2017 saw up to 400 families visit in the hope of securing one of just a dozen open spots.

In December, an online application form purportedly for Ad Astra starting popping up in Los Angeles parenting forums and Facebook groups. The form asked for details of grades, test scores, and personal information about families, but it had no affiliation or contact listed.

“I talked to several parents who were going to take a chance and apply, even though it was impossible to verify that it was an Ad Astra application,” says Simon. “That’s the level of interest in this school. I cannot imagine that happening with any other school, public or private.”

The school is even mysterious within SpaceX, Musk’s rocket company that houses Ad Astra on its campus in the industrial neighborhood of Hawthorne. About half Ad Astra’s students are children of SpaceX employees, and the school is touted during recruiting, says Simon. “I’ve heard from various SpaceX families that they have tried and failed to get information about the school, even though they were told it was a benefit during the interview,” she says.

The lucky few who succeed in applying, pass a reasoning test, and are admitted ultimately enter a school quite unlike any other. For a start, Ad Astra’s location inside a working company is unconventional to say the least. “We started with eight kids in a really small conference room with transparent walls,” says Joshua Dahn, head of the school, speaking in conversation with entrepreneur Peter Diamandis last year. “Engineers [would] always come drop by and peek on it.”

That first year, Musk’s children accounted for nearly two thirds of the student body. “It was really small,” remembers Dahn. “Especially when five [students] from the same family… go on vacation and you have three kids [left].”

It is not unusual for parents to have a grassroots effort to build their own school, according to Nancy Hertzog, an educational psychology professor at University of Washington and an expert in gifted education. “But money talks in terms of how that school is directed and supported,” she says. “The worry would be, are these schools preventing kids from other populations getting in? Are there strict test scores, and can they support kids with disabilities?”

A non-discrimination policy quietly published in the Los Angeles Times in 2016 stated that Ad Astra does not discriminate on the basis of race, color, national and ethnic origin, but the document made no mention of disabilities.

Although Ad Astra now has dedicated classrooms and a chemistry lab at SpaceX, its start-up chic still includes whiteboard walls, a Mac laptop for every student, and food trucks for after-school sessions. These, like everything else at school including tuition, are paid for by Elon Musk. He gave Ad Astra $475,000 in both 2014 and 2015, according to the IRS document, and likely more in recent years as the school grew to 31 students.

“[Elon] is extraordinarily generous,” says Dahn. “And it allows us to take any kid that sort of fits… We don’t have unlimited resources but we have more resources than a traditional school.”

All the hand-wringing about getting into good colleges is probably a waste of time

Wednesday, July 10th, 2019

Scott Alexander looks at increasingly competitive college admissions and ends with this summary:

  1. There is strong evidence for more competition for places at top colleges now than 10, 50, or 100 years ago. There is medium evidence that this is also true for upper-to-medium-tier colleges. It is still easy to get into medium-to-lower-tier colleges.
  2. Until 1900, there was no competition for top colleges, medical schools, or law schools. A secular trend towards increasing admissions (increasing wealth + demand for skills?) plus two shocks from the GI Bill and the Vietnam draft led to a glut of applicants that overwhelmed schools and forced them to begin selecting applicants.
  3. Changes up until ten years ago were because of a growing applicant pool, after which the applicant pool (both domestic and international) stopped growing and started shrinking. Increased competition since ten years ago does not involve applicant pool size.
  4. Changes after ten years ago are less clear, but the most important factor is probably the ease of applying to more colleges. This causes an increase in applications-per-admission which is mostly illusory. However, part of it may be real if it means students are stratifying themselves by ability more effectively. There might also be increased competition just because students got themselves stuck in a high-competition equilibrium (ie an arms race), but in the absence of data this is just speculation.
  5. Medical schools are getting harder to get into, but law schools are getting easier to get into. There is no good data for graduate schools.
  6. All the hand-wringing about getting into good colleges is probably a waste of time, unless you are from a disadvantaged background. For most people, admission to a more selective college does not translate into a more lucrative career or a higher chance of admission to postgraduate education. There may be isolated exceptions at the very top, like for Supreme Court justices.

The anti-college is on the rise

Sunday, June 30th, 2019

The anti-college is on the rise, Molly Worthen (Apostles of Reason) notes, in the New York Times:

A small band of students will travel to Sitka, Alaska, this month to help reinvent higher education. They won’t be taking online courses, or abandoning the humanities in favor of classes in business or STEM, or paying high tuition to fund the salaries of more Assistant Vice Provosts for Student Life. They represent a growing movement of students, teachers and reformers who are trying to compensate for mainstream higher education’s failure to help young people find a calling: to figure out what life is really for.

These students will read works by authors ranging from Plato and Herbert Marcuse to Tlingit writers. The point is to “develop and flex a more rigorous political imagination,” according to one course syllabus. They will take on 15 to 20 hours a week of manual labor in Sitka, and set their group’s rules on everything from curfews to cellphones. Last summer’s cohort discouraged the use of phones during class and service hours and ordered everyone to turn off the internet at 10 p.m.

This is Outer Coast, one of an expanding number of educational experiments born out of a deepening sense that mainstream American colleges are too expensive, too bureaucratic, too careerist and too intellectually fragmented to help students figure out their place in the universe and their moral obligations to fellow humans.

There are alternative colleges that replace traditional courses with personalized study; gap-year programs that combine quasi-monastic retreats with world travel; summer seminars devoted to clearing trails and reading philosophy. They aim to prove that it is possible to cultivate moral and existential self-confidence, without the Christian foundation that grounded Western universities until the mid-20th century. They seek to push back against the materialism and individualism that have saturated the secular left and right, all at an affordable price. It’s a tall order.


Outer Coast, founded in 2015, offers one partial solution. Bryden Sweeney-Taylor, who is 38, helped found the program in order to give young people a taste of the education he received at an older countercultural experiment, Deep Springs College, which was founded in 1917. Deep Springs — a tuition-free, highly selective two-year liberal arts college and working ranch near Death Valley in California — combines intense study, manual labor and intimate community to give students “a sense of the purpose of education not just being for oneself but for something larger than one’s self,” Mr. Sweeney-Taylor told me.

Outer Coast — which was co-founded by Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins, an Alaskan who dropped out of Yale to serve in the Alaska Legislature — plans to eventually expand into a two-year undergraduate program. The aim is to recruit Alaska Natives and other students from underrepresented backgrounds, but also to develop a program that reformers elsewhere might copy — which means “being as financially lean and economically efficient as possible, creating a replicable model for these micro-institutions,” Mr. Sweeney-Taylor said.


After graduating from Yale in 2010, Ms. Marcus founded a Deep Springs-style program for women: the Arete Project, in the Blue Ridge Mountains in North Carolina. She has recently opened a second, coed program in rural Alaska.

The Arete Project — the Greek word means “excellence” in the broadest sense — calls itself “education for citizenship, stewardship and leadership.” It operates on a “pay what you can” model and bans alcohol, tobacco, marijuana and recreational drugs. The project began as a summer seminar with plans to grow into a yearlong undergraduate program (participants can earn college credit). Like Outer Coast, it immerses a small group of students in the demands of self-governance, study and manual labor. Students read a mix of “classical texts and contemporary texts,” Ms. Marcus said.

The curriculum has been a source of contention. “Some students feel strongly that Plato has a great deal to offer their intellectual situations, and some can’t believe they’re being asked to read a dead white man,” she told me. Moreover, romanticizing the pursuit of the pure “life of the mind” risks alienating working-class students. “For organizations that want to be accessible to students in all walks of life, as we do, that means having some kind of value proposition that translates into other parts of their life.”


A second set of new programs — the humanist individualists — owe more to the experiments of the counterculture era: schools like Evergreen State College, founded in Olympia, Wash., in 1967; Kresge College at the University of California, Santa Cruz, founded soon after; or the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics, founded in Boulder, Colo., in 1974 by the poets Allen Ginsberg and Anne Waldman. These schools combined an interest in Eastern spirituality with the principles of humanistic psychology and the human potential movement, which emphasized the goodness in all humans and their gift for self-actualization.

In the 1960s, psychologists like Abraham Maslow and Carl Rogers challenged the dark, animalistic portrait of human beings advanced by behavioral psychologists and disciples of Freud — not to mention the grim vision of original sin in traditional Christian theology. Their ideas caught on among educators at a time when students were already in revolt against traditional curriculums. The result was the further collapse of eroding general education requirements in favor of radical student choice, which may have felt empowering in the short term, but added more confusion and doubt to universities’ sense of mission.


The trends that inspired Kresge and Evergreen State have only accelerated. Michelle Jones taught organizational behavior for 15 years in mainstream academic institutions, and in that time “higher ed became more of a business — all the administrators, all the K.P.I.s” (key performance indicators) “all detached from student experience,” she told me. After she got tenure, she said, “I paused to reflect, and I said, ‘I don’t think this is the job I thought it was going to be.’ ”

In 2015, she founded Wayfinding Academy in Portland, Ore., which offers a two-year associate degree in “self and society.” The curriculum is less conventionally academic than those of Outer Coast or the Arete Project, and more personalized.

Students shape their coursework with tutor-counselors called guides. They receive narrative evaluations instead of grades and design independent projects that help them learn “what it takes to do something epic” and how to “find their way back to their purpose when they feel lost,” according to a syllabus for a course on “Making Good Choices.” In that class, assigned readings and videos ranged from interviews with Noam Chomsky to a handout on “Anti-Oppressive Facilitation for Democratic Process” by a group called the Aorta cooperative.

Free throws should be easy

Wednesday, June 26th, 2019

Free throws should be easy, right?

For decades, elite players in the NBA, WNBA, and NCAA have averaged between 70 and 75 percent from the foul line. Most of basketball’s sharpest shooters top out in the high eighties, with Nash being one of only two NBA players to retire with a career average above 90 percent. His consistency at the line raises some questions: For starters, why isn’t everyone else better? But also: If Nash can show up unpracticed, four years after retirement, and drain 98 percent of his free throws in an impromptu shootout against a ham-handed journalist, what kept him from shooting that reliably during his career?

On paper, the free throw could not be more straightforward. It’s a direct, unguarded shot at a hoop 18 inches across, 10 feet off the ground, and 15 feet away. Like a carefully controlled experiment, the conditions are exactly the same every single time. Larry Silverberg, a dynamicist at North Carolina State University, has used this fact to study the free throw in remarkable detail. “It’s the same for every single player, so you can actually look at the shot very scientifically,” he says.

An expert in the modeling of physical phenomenon, Silverberg has examined the physics of the free throw for 20 years, using computers to simulate the trajectories of millions of shots. His findings show that a successful free throw boils down to four parameters: the speed at which you release the ball, how straight you shoot it, the angle at which it leaves your hand, and the amount of backspin that you place on it.


The ideal rate of spin is three backward rotations per second, which, incidentally, is about how long it should take the ball to make the trip from a player’s hand to the hoop. (That spin buys you some wiggle room, in the event you over- or under-shoot.) The best angle of trajectory is between 46 and 54 degrees from the horizon, depending on your height. The most advantageous release angle for a given shooter also corresponds to their lowest launch speed—a relationship that helps explain why shots that go in often feel like they require less effort than shots that don’t. As Nash describes it: “There’s no strain, there’s no forcing, there’s no flicking at the rim, there’s just a really smooth stroke.”

The best free throw shooter on earth isn’t a pro basketball player, but Bob Fisher, a 62-year-old soil-conservation technician from Centralia, Kansas:

“I played high school basketball, and I played recreationally till I was 44.” A few years later, in his early 50s, he started practicing free throws every day at his local gym. That was September 2009. Within a couple of months he was consistently sinking more than 100 shots in a row. In January 2010 he set his first world record. Since then, his speed and accuracy from the foul line have garnered him an additional 24 Guinness titles.

Fisher happily shares the secrets to his success. He attributes his accuracy and precision to something he calls the centerline technique (it involves aligning the lower palm and middle finger with the rim of the basket), the details of which he has recounted in a book and instructional video. His consistency he attributes to preparation. For years, Fisher has spent hours a day refining his shot. “All it takes to become good is three things: knowledge, practice, and time,” he says.

There’s a reason we shoot better in practice than in a game:

“I think we’ve all had the experience where we can hit that shot when no one’s watching, but when all eyes are on us we fumble,” says cognitive scientist Sian Beilock, president of Barnard College and author of Choke: What the Secrets of the Brain Reveal About Getting It Right When You Have To. Beilock attributes those mistakes to something she calls paralysis by analysis: When a player overthinks a task, it interrupts the working memory they’ve establish through hours of practice. Remember the hyper-coordinated movements required for releasing a free throw shot at a precise speed? They’re exactly the kind of thing that overanalysis tends to screw up. Closing the gap between training and competition, Beilock says, is a matter of practicing under conditions that simulate high-pressure scenarios: Training under a watchful eye, or competing against the clock.

Americans spend three to four times more time watching TV together than talking with one another

Saturday, June 22nd, 2019

Jared Diamond argues (in Upheaval) that the US is facing a political and cultural crisis:

No one, in the 5,400-year history of centralized government on all of the continents, has figured out how to ensure that the policies implemented with enviable speed by dictatorships consist predominantly of good policies.


I also acknowledge that democracy isn’t necessarily the best option for all countries; it’s difficult for it to prevail in countries lacking the prerequisites of a literate electorate and a widely accepted national identity.


To understand the fundamental benefits of an immigrant population, imagine that you could divide the population of any country into two groups: one consisting on the average of the youngest, healthiest, boldest, most risk-tolerant, most hard-working, ambitious, and innovative people; the other consisting of everybody else. Transplant the first group to another country, and leave the second group in their country of origin. That selective transplanting approximates the decision to emigrate and its successful accomplishment.


One friend of mine, nominated to a second-level position in the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, withdrew his candidacy when he still hadn’t been confirmed after a year of waiting.


Why has this breakdown of political compromise accelerated within the last two decades? In addition to the other harm that it causes, it’s self-reinforcing, because it makes people other than uncompromising ideologues reluctant to seek government service as an elected representative. Two friends of mine who had been widely respected long-serving U.S. senators, and who seemed likely to succeed once again if they ran for re-election, decided instead to retire because they were so frustrated with the political atmosphere in Congress.


One suggested explanation is the astronomical rise in costs of election campaigns, which has made donors more important than in the past.


As one disillusioned friend wrote me after retiring from a long career in politics, “Of all the issues that we face, I think that the skew of money in our political system and our personal lives has been by far the most damaging. Politicians and political outcomes have been purchased on a grander scale than ever before… the scramble for political money saps time and money and enthusiasm… political schedules bend to money, political discourse worsens, and politicians do not know each other as they fly back and forth to their districts.”


Formerly, our representatives served in Congress in Washington during the week; then they had to remain in Washington for the weekend because they couldn’t return to their home state and back within the span of a weekend. Their families lived in Washington, and their children went to school in Washington. On weekends the representatives and their spouses and children socialized with one another, the representatives got to know one another’s spouses and children, and the representatives spent time with one another as friends and not just as political adversaries or allies. Today, though, the high cost of election campaigns puts pressure on representatives to visit their home state often for the purpose of fund-raising, and the growth of domestic air travel makes that feasible.


Those of you American readers over the age of 40, please reflect on changes that you’ve seen yourself in American elevator behavior (people waiting to enter an elevator now less likely to wait for those exiting the elevator); declining courtesy in traffic (not deferring to other drivers); declining friendliness on hiking trails and streets (Americans under 40 less likely to say hello to strangers than Americans over 40); and above all, in many circles, increasingly abusive “speech” of all sorts, especially in electronic communication.


American academic debates have become more vicious today than they were 60 years ago.


Already at the beginning of my academic career, I found myself involved in scholarly controversies, just as I am now. But I formerly thought of the scientists with whom I disagreed on scientific matters as personal friends, not as personal enemies. For example, I recall spending a vacation in Britain after a physiological conference, touring ruined Cistercian monasteries with a nice and gentle American physiologist with whom I had strongly disagreed about the mechanism of epithelial water transport at the conference. That would be impossible today. Instead, I’ve now repeatedly been sued, threatened with lawsuits, and verbally abused by scholars disagreeing with me. My lecture hosts have been forced to hire bodyguards to shield me from angry critics. One scholar concluded a published review of one of my books with the words “Shut up!”


All of these arenas of American life are facets of the same widely discussed phenomenon: the decline of what is termed “social capital.”


“… social capital refers to connections among individuals—social networks and the norms of reciprocity and trustworthiness that arise from them. In that sense social capital is closely related to what some have called ‘civic virtue.’”


But Americans have been decreasingly involved in such face-to-face groups, while becoming increasingly involved in on-line groups in which you never meet, see, or hear the other person.


The telephone appeared in 1890 but didn’t saturate the U.S. market until around 1957. Radio rose to saturation from 1923 to 1937, and TV from 1948 to 1955. The biggest change has been the more recent rise of the internet, cell phones, and text messaging.


Americans spend three to four times more time watching TV together than talking with one another, and at least one-third of all TV viewing time is spent alone (often on the internet rather than in front of a TV set).


In a Canadian valley were three otherwise similar towns, one of which happened to be out of reach for the TV transmitter serving the area. When that town did gain reception, participation in clubs and other meetings declined compared to participation in that same town before TV arrived, down to levels comparable to participation in the other two towns already served by TV.


In the remote areas of New Guinea where I do fieldwork, and where new communication technologies haven’t yet arrived, all communication is still face-to-face and full-attention—as it used to be in the U.S. Traditional New Guineans spend most of their waking hours talking to one another. In contrast to the distracted and sparse conversations of Americans, traditional New Guinea conversations have no interruptions to look at the cell phone in one’s lap, nor to tap out e-mails or text messages during a conversation with a person physically present but receiving only a fraction of one’s attention.


One American missionary’s son who grew up as a child in a New Guinea village and moved to the U.S. only in his high school years described his shock on discovering the contrast between children’s playing styles in New Guinea and in the U.S. In New Guinea, children in a village wandered in and out of one another’s huts throughout the day. In the U.S., as my friend discovered, “Kids go into their own houses, close the door, and watch TV by themselves.”


South Korean applicants for training as primary schoolteachers have to score in the top 5% on national college entrance exams, and there are 12 teachers applying for every secondary school teaching job in South Korea. In contrast, American teachers have the lowest relative salaries (i.e., relative to average national salaries for all jobs) among major democracies.


All schoolteachers in South Korea, Singapore, and Finland come from the top third of their school classes, but nearly half of American teachers come from the bottom third of their classes.


In all my 53 years of teaching at the University of California (Los Angeles), a university that attracts good students, I have had only one student who told me that he wanted to become a schoolteacher.


For instance, Canada’s criteria for admitting immigrants are more detailed and rational than the U.S.’s. As a result, 80% of Canadians consider immigrants good for the Canadian economy—a far cry from the lacerating divisions in American society over immigration.

The influence of those Asian immigrants has been far out of proportion to their numbers

Wednesday, June 19th, 2019

Australia has accepted many Asian immigrants, Jared Diamond notes (in Upheaval):

Under the Colombo Plan for Asian development, Australia accepted 10,000 Asian student visitors in the 1950’s.


The despised dictation test for prospective immigrants was dropped in 1958.


The Migration Act of that same year allowed “distinguished and highly qualified Asians” to immigrate.


Between 1978 and 1982 Australia admitted more Indochinese refugees, as a percentage of its population, than any other country in the world.


By the late 1980’s, nearly half of Australians were either born overseas or had at least one overseas-born parent.


By 1991, Asians represented over 50% of immigrants to Australia.


The influence of those Asian immigrants has been far out of proportion to their numbers: Asian students have come to occupy over 70% of the places in Sydney’s top schools, Asian university students appeared to account for a sizeable fraction of the students whom I saw strolling across the University of Queensland campus in 2008, and Asians and other non-Europeans now make up more than half of Australian medical students.


In 1986 Australia ended the right of final appeal to Britain’s Privy Council, thereby abolishing the last real trace of British sovereignty and making Australia fully independent at last.


In 1999 Australia’s High Court declared Britain to be a “foreign country.”

College students aren’t checking out books

Monday, June 17th, 2019

University libraries across the country, and around the world, are seeing steady, and in many cases precipitous, declines in the use of the books on their shelves:

The University of Virginia, one of our great public universities and an institution that openly shares detailed library circulation stats from the prior 20 years, is a good case study. College students at UVA checked out 238,000 books during the school year a decade ago; last year, that number had shrunk to just 60,000.

Before you tsk-tsk today’s kids for their lack of bookishness, note that the trend lines are sliding southward for graduate students and faculty members, too: down 61 percent and 46 percent, respectively, at UVA. Overall, across its entire network of libraries, UVA circulated 525,000 books during the 2007–08 school year, but last year there were only 188,000 loans — nearly 1,000 fewer books checked out a day. The Association of Research Libraries’ aggregated statistics show a steady decrease of the same proportion across its membership, even as student enrollment at these universities has grown substantially.

Maybe students aren’t checking the books out but are still consulting them regularly within the library? This also does not appear to be true. Many libraries also track such in-house uses, by tallying the books that need to be reshelved, and the trends are the same. At my library at Northeastern University, undergraduate circulations declined 50 percent from 2013 to 2017 — before we decided to do our own book relocation — and our logged number of books removed from shelves but not checked out also dropped by half.


A positive way of looking at these changes is that we are witnessing a Great Sorting within the library, a matching of different kinds of scholarly uses with the right media, formats, and locations. Books that are in high demand; or that benefit from physical manifestations, such as art books and musical scores; or that are rare or require careful, full engagement, might be better off in centralized places on campus. But multiple copies of common books, those that can be consulted quickly online or are needed only once a decade, or that are now largely replaced by digital forms, can be stored off site and made available quickly on demand, which reduces costs for libraries and also allows them to more easily share books among institutions in a network. Importantly, this also closes the gap between elite institutions such as Yale and the much larger number of colleges with more modest collections.

The way to develop the best 20-year-old athlete is not the way to make the best 10-year-old athlete

Thursday, May 30th, 2019

David Epstein’s The Sports Gene was excellent. In Range he argues for generalism and against specialization:

I do find the Tiger Woods story incredibly compelling; there is a reason it may be the most famous tale of development ever. Even if you don’t know the details, you’ve probably absorbed the gist.

Woods was 7 months old when his father gave him a putter, which he dragged around in his circular baby-walker. At 2, he showed off his drive on national television. By 21, he was the best golfer in the world. There were, to be sure, personal and professional bumps along the way, but in April he became the second-oldest player ever to win the Masters. Woods’s tale spawned an early-specialization industry.

And yet, I knew that his path was not the only way to the top.

Consider Roger Federer. Just a year before Woods won this most recent Masters, Federer, at 36, became the oldest tennis player ever to be ranked No. 1 in the world. But as a child, Federer was not solely focused on tennis. He dabbled in skiing, wrestling, swimming, skateboarding and squash. He played basketball, handball, tennis, table tennis and soccer (and badminton over his neighbor’s fence). Federer later credited the variety of sports with developing his athleticism and coordination.

While Tiger’s story is much better known, when sports scientists study top athletes, they find that the Roger pattern is the standard. Athletes who go on to become elite usually have a “sampling period.” They try a variety of sports, gain a breadth of general skills, learn about their own abilities and proclivities, and delay specializing until later than their peers who plateau at lower levels. The way to develop the best 20-year-old athlete, it turns out, is not the same as the way to make the best 10-year-old athlete.

The same pattern holds in other fields.

Fooling the men is the first principle of life

Saturday, May 25th, 2019

In the army in the United States, Dunlap says, “fooling the men” is the first principle of life:

The official stand is that all enlisted men are morons and must be treated at that level of intelligence, therefore all officers and a lot of non-coms will tell any soldier anything at all, regardless of truth. Consciences are parked with the intelligence. Training for the past war was as a rule conducted on the basis of peacetime training in past decades. A man could not be a good truck driver if he could not march well. He could not hold a rating as a tank mechanic if he did not know his military courtesy. He could not be a platoon sergeant in the line if he was not a whiz on the drill field. The old officers training the armies still believed there was “Nothing like drill to make a soldier.” The snappy, salute-happy lads, commissioned or enlisted, were not much good either in the line or in the shop, until they learned their job on non-union hours, which was often quite late in their lives. In war, only the results pay off, but they were of the tradition which dictated that not the result, but the way it was obtained was of greatest importance.

Toward the end of the war the infantry troops were given more sensible training which gave them a better shake for their money, but did not bring back the guys who died in Tunisia and Sicily and Italy, and the Islands. Even service troops got some realistic night training, mostly useless. I went through a few infiltration courses, crawling under machine gun fire, etc. when I came back from Africa. What irritated me was that our brass-hats were determined not to learn except the hard way — the British made every error we did, two years before, but after Dunkirk they realized it and reorganized.

They had written a lot of books and manuals about modern warfare, but none of our brass read them. Africa was a fine example; what Rommel’s boys did to Patton and his Fort Knox tank tactics was pitiful. For exact details, find a member of the original 1st Armored Division, if any are still alive. General Patton made a great name in Europe, with the Air Corps to knock out German armor ahead of him, but he was sure a chump in Tunisia. The colonels who led his his columns learned how through their own experience, and a lot of guys died before they got experience.

They would exclude foreign kids at higher rates

Friday, May 17th, 2019

The UK Department of Education has released the 2017 figures for suspensions:

By way of benchmarking, White British children are excluded at the rate of 5.23%. If British teachers were prejudiced against other racial groups, then they would exclude foreign kids at higher rates. Inspection of the rates show this is an unsupported assumption. For example, another benchmark is the Chinese exclusion rate of 0.56% which is what is attainable using Confucian principles, which presumably can be inculcated to the general benefit of all children, and all teachers. Indian children at 0.84% are doing almost as well.

UK School Exclusions by Ethnicity

If teacher’s animus is against Black foreigners, then they have got their prejudices the wrong way around. Black Africans are definitely foreign, while Black Caribbeans are British born and have been exposed to as much local culture, cuisine and weather as the White British, yet the Black Africans are excluded at the lower rate of 4.21% and the familiar Black Caribbeans at higher rate of 10.2%.

The purpose is to get to race without using race

Thursday, May 16th, 2019

The College Board plans to assign an adversity score to every student who takes the SAT:

This new number, called an adversity score by college admissions officers, is calculated using 15 factors including the crime rate and poverty levels from the student’s high school and neighborhood. Students won’t be told the scores, but colleges will see the numbers when reviewing their applications.

Fifty colleges used the score last year as part of a beta test. The College Board plans to expand it to 150 institutions this fall, and then use it broadly the following year.

SAT Score Distributions by Race

White students scored an average of 177 points higher than black students and 133 points higher than Hispanic students in 2018 results. Asian students scored 100 points higher than white students. The children of wealthy and college-educated parents outperformed their classmates.

Adversity Index

“The purpose is to get to race without using race,” said Anthony Carnevale, director of Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce. Mr. Carnevale formerly worked for the College Board and oversaw the Strivers program.

Cheating by American celebrities is more fun

Sunday, May 5th, 2019

College admissions cheating by American celebrities is more fun, Steve Sailer notes, but cheating by Chinese nationals is a much bigger problem, Los Angeles Magazine reports:

According to prosecutors, Cai, along with four current and former UCLA students and another student at Cal State Fullerton, helped at least 40 Chinese nationals obtain student visas by fraudulently taking the TOEFL, an English proficiency exam, on their behalf. Cai’s ringers would show up to testing sites with fake Chinese passports bearing their own photos but with the names of the clients. Where Cai slipped — and where investigators caught up to him — was charging 39 test registration payments to his credit card.

Any other day the UCLA bust might have made national headlines, but the news got swamped by a bigger, sexier college cheating scandal: Operation Varsity Blues. (The UCLA investigation was dubbed “Operation TOEFL Recall.”) While the UCLA case is less shocking — bribes in thousands of dollars instead of millions; Chinese high schoolers instead of Full House cast members — it represents an equally notable underbelly of American college admissions.


It’s hard to find data on cheating that is broken down by country of origin, but a survey of 14 public universities by The Wall Street Journal found that in the 2014-15 school year, those universities reported cheating among international students at a rate five times higher than among domestic students. In 2018 a professor at UC Santa Barbara told the Los Angeles Times that Chinese students comprise 6 percent of the student body but account for a third of plagiarism cases. A 2016 study conducted by United Kingdom newspaper The Times says that students from outside the European Union were four times more likely to cheat than U.K. and European Union students.

From now on we would need to find time to cultivate a hobby

Tuesday, April 23rd, 2019

Tanner Greer has spent a great deal of time with Chinese teenagers:

When I lived in Beijing, I paid no rent: instead I lived in the homes of various Chinese families who allowed me to live with them free of charge on the condition that I help their children with English. In addition to writing, I earned a small sum through private tutoring and teaching high school seminars. My specialty were the high fliers aiming for the Ivy League. [...] The “highest fliers” were usually the children of Beijing’s rich and prominent. By living in their homes, teaching in their schools, and meeting with them often to customize the education of their children, I was exposed to the inner life of Beijing’s high society. It fundamentally reframed how I understand China.


Consider, for a moment, the typical schedule of a Beijing teenager:

She will (depending on the length of her morning commute) wake up somewhere between 5:30 and 7:00 AM. She must be in her seat by 7:45, 15 minutes before classes start. With bathroom breaks and gym class excepted, she will not leave that room until the 12:00 lunch hour and will return to the same spot after lunch is ended for another four hours of instruction. Depending on whether she has after-school tests that day, she will be released from her classroom sometime between 4:10 and 4:40. She then has one hour to get a start on her homework, eat, and travel to the evening cram school her parents have enrolled her in. Math, English, Classical Chinese — there are cram schools for every topic on the gaokao. On most days of the week she will be there studying from 6:00 to 9:00 PM (if the family has the money, she will spend another six hours at these after-school schools on Saturday and Sunday mornings). Our teenager will probably arrive home somewhere around 10:00 PM, giving her just enough time to spend two or three hours on that day’s homework before she goes to bed. Rinse and repeat, day in and day out, for six years. The strain does not abate until she has defeated — or has been defeated by — the gaokao.

This is well known, but I think the wrong aspects of this experience are emphasized. Most outsiders look at this and think: see how much pressure these Chinese kids are under. I look and think: how little privacy and independence these Chinese kids are given!


No middle-class Chinese teenager has a job. None have cars. The few that have boyfriends or girlfriends go about it as discreetly as possible. Apart from the odd music lesson here or there, what Americans call “extra-curricular activities” are unknown. One a recent graduate of a prestigious international high school in Beijing once explained to me the confusion she felt when she was told she would need to excel at an after-school activity to be competitive in American university admissions:

“In tenth grade our home room teacher told us that American universities cared a lot about the things we do outside of school, so from now on we would need to find time to ‘cultivate a hobby.’ I remember right after he left the girl sitting at my right turned to me and whispered, ‘I don’t know how to cultivate a hobby. Do you?’”

Nothing like drill to make a soldier

Monday, April 15th, 2019

After serving overseas, Sergeant Dunlap found himself training recruits stateside:

Theoretically, we were to give them the benefit of our experience and practical knowledge. Actually, we were not allowed to mention anything not in the training manuals, most of which had been written in the 1920’s. Except for the impromptu bull-sessions, the rookies got the same old marching-pup-tent-pack-rolling schedule the army had been putting on for years. This was late in the winter of 1944, February and March. Some attempts were made to modernize the training, but the rub was that most of the officers still believed that there was “nothing like drill to make a soldier.” None of them realized that this war did not need “soldiers” — it needed fighting and working specialists.

Minerva is an existence proof

Friday, March 29th, 2019

I’ve mentioned Minerva University a few times here. Arnold Kling calls it an experiment in centrally planned education:

I can applaud Minerva as an “existence proof” that it is possible to create a viable alternative to the standard university as it exists today. But I am concerned that Minerva’s emphasis on a highly-designed approach might give students the misleading impression that central planning is the best form of social organization.

Minerva started from a clear vision of how students should emerge from college. This vision included four core competencies, which were:

  • Thinking critically
  • Thinking creatively
  • Communicating effectively
  • Interacting effectively (page 24)

These core competencies were then broken down into dozens of what Minerva calls “habits of mind” and “foundational concepts,” each of which is given a hashtag abbreviation.

Habits of mind are cognitive skills that with practice come to be triggered automatically. (page 25, emphasis in original)

Foundational concepts are fundamental knowledge that is broadly applicable. (page 26, emphasis in original)

Two examples of habits of mind are:

Understand and use the emotional tools of persuasion. #emotionalpersuasion

Mitigate the role of conformity in group settings. #conformity (page 387)

Two examples of foundational concepts are:

Apply and interpret measures of correlation; distinguish correlation and causation. #correlation (page 381)

Identify ways that multiple causes interact to produce complex effects #multiplecauses (page 382)

The terms “habits of mind” and “foundational concepts” are examples of what I call Minerva-speak, a language that pervades the book. Another element of Minerva-speak is “far transfer.”

Far transfer occurs when students apply what they have learned in one context to a situation in a different time and place, one that, on the surface, does not resemble the original context. Far transfer is at the epicenter of what makes education effective. (page 51)

Another element of Minerva-speak is “active learning.”

Active learning requires students to engage with the material, relying on such activities as debate, role-playing, and group problem-solving. Active learning leads students to comprehend and retain much more information than do lectures. (page 135)

At most universities, it is up to each faculty member to design and implement a course. At Minerva, these processes are directed consciously from the center.

A Minerva syllabus is unusually detailed, often running to more than twenty single-spaced printed pages for a fifteen-week semester… As the author works through these details, he or she is able to discuss individual elements—everything from the overall summary of the course to the specific rubric descriptions used to evaluate student work on individual learning outcomes—with the course reviewer via discussion threads directly anchored to that element for context.

Once the reviewer is satisfied with the draft of the syllabus, Course Builder produces a shareable [document], which the course reviewer sends to an external reviewer for feedback, which the course author and reviewer later incorporate into the draft. (page 223)

Classes are conducted seminar style, albeit by computer conference rather than in person. Minerva uses a “radically flipped classroom,” with students expected to learn material, including what would be covered in lectures at other institutions, on their own before class. Class time is used for discussions and group problem-solving exercises that are carefully planned by the faculty in advance. Although there is room for spontaneity within these exercises, there is a lot of central control over what takes place in the classroom. Weekly meetings are held with all instructors teaching a particular course, in which they review the lesson plans to be used in advance.

Again, these lesson plans are pre-packaged and approved before the course even begins.

I think it’s fair to say that central planning is a bête noir of Kling’s, and the Minerva-speak is largely jargon they did not themselves create.