Inadequacy of our Historical Studies

Tuesday, July 22nd, 2014

Sir John Glubb laments the inadequacy of our historical studies:

In fact, the modern nations of the West have derived only limited value from their historical studies, because they have never made them big enough. For history to have meaning, as we have already stated, it must be the history of the human race.

Far from achieving such an ideal, our historical studies are largely limited to the history of our own country during the lifetime of the present nation. Thus the time-factor is too short to allow the longer rhythms of the rise and fall of nations even to be noticed. As the television director indicated, it never even crosses our minds that longer periods could be of any interest.

When we read the history of our own nation, we find the actions of our ancestors described as glorious, while those of other peoples are depicted as mean, tyrannical or cowardly. Thus our history is (intentionally) not based on facts. We are emotionally unwilling to accept that our forbears might have been mean or cowardly.

Alternatively, there are ‘political’ schools of history, slanted to discredit the actions of our past leaders, in order to support modern political movements. In all these cases, history is not an attempt to ascertain the truth, but a system of propaganda, devoted to the furtherance of modern projects, or the gratification of national vanity.

Men can scarcely be blamed for not learning from the history they are taught. There is nothing to learn from it, because it is not true.

Why Poor Schools Can’t Win at Standardized Testing

Wednesday, July 16th, 2014

I had to laugh at the title and subtitle of Meredith Broussard’s recent Atlantic piece:

Why Poor Schools Can’t Win at Standardized Testing
The companies that create the most important state and national exams also publish textbooks that contain many of the answers. Unfortunately, low-income school districts can’t afford to buy them.

Imagine how badly kids would do with no textbooks at all! Why, those Montessori kids must underperform even the low-income public-school kids…

The article is interesting. It just doesn’t make the point it professes to make.

Reading to Newborns is Probably Useless

Saturday, July 12th, 2014

The single biggest thing you as an expectant parent can do to have a child with a large vocabulary, Razib Khan reminds us, is to select a mate with a large vocabulary.

Can Video Games Make You Smarter?

Friday, July 11th, 2014

Can video games make you smarter? Yeah, sort of:

Alone With Their Thoughts

Wednesday, July 9th, 2014

U.Va. psychologist Timothy Wilson and colleagues have found that people do not enjoy being alone with their thoughts:

The period of time that Wilson and his colleagues asked participants to be alone with their thoughts ranged from six to 15 minutes. Many of the first studies involved college student participants, most of whom reported that this “thinking period” wasn’t very enjoyable and that it was hard to concentrate. So Wilson conducted another study with participants from a broad selection of backgrounds, ranging in age from 18 to 77, and found essentially the same results.

“That was surprising — that even older people did not show any particular fondness for being alone thinking,” Wilson said.

He does not necessarily attribute this to the fast pace of modern society, or the prevalence of readily available electronic devices, such as smartphones. Instead, he thinks the devices might be a response to people’s desire to always have something to do.

In his paper, Wilson notes that broad surveys have shown that people generally prefer not to disengage from the world, and, when they do, they do not particularly enjoy it. Based on these surveys, Americans spent their time watching television, socializing or reading, and actually spent little or no time “relaxing or thinking.”

During several of Wilson’s experiments, participants were asked to sit alone in an unadorned room at a laboratory with no cell phone, reading materials or writing implements, and to spend six to 15 minutes — depending on the study — entertaining themselves with their thoughts. Afterward, they answered questions about how much they enjoyed the experience and if they had difficulty concentrating, among other questions.

Most reported they found it difficult to concentrate and that their minds wandered, though nothing was competing for their attention. On average the participants did not enjoy the experience. A similar result was found in further studies when the participants were allowed to spend time alone with their thoughts in their homes.

“We found that about a third admitted that they had ‘cheated’ at home by engaging in some activity, such as listening to music or using a cell phone, or leaving their chair,” Wilson said. “And they didn’t enjoy this experience any more at home than at the lab.”

An additional experiment randomly assigned participants to spend time with their thoughts or the same amount of time doing an external activity, such as reading or listening to music, but not to communicate with others. Those who did the external activities reported that they enjoyed themselves much more than those asked to just think, that they found it easier to concentrate and that their minds wandered less.

The real “grabber” is this bit though:

The researchers took their studies further. Because most people prefer having something to do rather than just thinking, they then asked, “Would they rather do an unpleasant activity than no activity at all?”

The results show that many would. Participants were given the same circumstances as most of the previous studies, with the added option of also administering a mild electric shock to themselves by pressing a button.

Twelve of 18 men in the study gave themselves at least one electric shock during the study’s 15-minute “thinking” period. By comparison, six of 24 females shocked themselves. All of these participants had received a sample of the shock and reported that they would pay to avoid being shocked again.

“What is striking,” the investigators write, “is that simply being alone with their own thoughts for 15 minutes was apparently so aversive that it drove many participants to self-administer an electric shock that they had earlier said they would pay to avoid.”

Weapons Man notes a similar empirical discovery by the men developing the original Special Forces Qualification Course, which has led to every subsequent edition of SFQC including some type of isolation period:

In the field exercise portion, soldiers were isolated in the woods for approximately five days and four nights. There would always be a number of people who had never been alone before for a single night of their young lives, and who found this aspect of the survival training extremely difficult. Some would endure. Some would fire the flare that would draw instructors to their location and write an ignominious end to their Green Beret aspirations.

[...]

Certainly the introverts and the self-sufficient (two sets with a large intersection, but not entirely the same) did well in the old survival exercise, at least on the isolation axis of measurement. It wasn’t the sole purpose of the drill. One also had 14 or 15 mandatory tasks to accomplish, some of them difficult and time-consuming, and had to obey rules like not linking up with other students — or at least, avoid getting caught breaking the rules. But it was one important aspect of Special Forces training that produced operators capable of individual operations, although those were almost never done deliberately. It also identified for SF men for whom the de facto isolation of being the only American amid a group of strange foreigners of different race, language and culture, would not be too stressful.

Needless to say, those who came through the isolation exercise best were usually those for whom being isolated and alone for several days was nothing new, including hunters, hikers, single-hand sailors, and other adventuresome youth.

Open Learning

Tuesday, July 8th, 2014

Mimi Ito is shocked — shocked! — that “open educational resources” and online courses are mostly serving already wired, well off, and highly educated families:

I’ve seen this dynamic again and again in my research on ed tech, where well-meaning tech folks are creating goodies theoretically accessible to everyone, but they end up giving more advantages to kids who are already well on their way to being digital elites.

I can’t possibly imagine why this would be. I’m glad Ito gives us the correct answer:

When you’re a kid whose main point of access to the net is your mom’s smartphone, and your only broadband is at your school or library, it’s tough to make it through a series of Kahn Academy videos or a Udacity course on your own to become an awesome coder. And, you probably don’t have coder friends or much as far as school offerings in the digital arts or programming in these days of dwindling school budgets.

As we all know, it would be literally impossible to learn to code, let alone get a Computer Science degree, without owning your own computer and having lots of friends from your same background who code. Impossible.

The Age of Intellect

Friday, July 4th, 2014

After the Age of Affluence comes The Age of Intellect, Glubb says:

We have now, perhaps arbitrarily, divided the life-story of our great nation into four ages. The Age of the Pioneers (or the Outburst), the Age of Conquests, the Age of Commerce, and the Age of Affluence. The great wealth of the nation is no longer needed to supply the mere necessities, or even the luxuries of life. Ample funds are available also for the pursuit of knowledge.

The merchant princes of the Age of Commerce seek fame and praise, not only by endowing works of art or patronising music and literature. They also found and endow colleges and universities. It is remarkable with what regularity this phase follows on that of wealth, in empire after empire, divided by many centuries.

In the eleventh century, the former Arab Empire, then in complete political decline, was ruled by the Seljuk sultan, Malik Shah. The Arabs, no longer soldiers, were still the intellectual leaders of the world. During the reign of Malik Shah, the building of universities and colleges became a passion. Whereas a small number of universities in the great cities had sufficed the years of Arab glory, now a university sprang up in every town.

In our own lifetime, we have witnessed the same phenomenon in the U.S.A. and Britain. When these nations were at the height of their glory, Harvard, Yale, Oxford and Cambridge seemed to meet their needs. Now almost every city has its university.

The ambition of the young, once engaged in the pursuit of adventure and military glory, and then in the desire for the accumulation of wealth, now turns to the acquisition of academic honours.

It is useful here to take note that almost all the pursuits followed with such passion throughout the ages were in themselves good. The manly cult of hardihood, frankness and truthfulness, which characterised the Age of Conquests, produced many really splendid heroes.

The opening up of natural resources, and the peaceful accumulation of wealth, which marked the age of commercialism, appeared to introduce new triumphs in civilisation, in culture and in the arts. In the same way, the vast expansion of the field of knowledge achieved by the Age of Intellect seemed to mark a new high-water mark of human progress. We cannot say that any of these changes were ‘good’ or ‘bad’.

Magnus Carlsen’s Route to Chess

Wednesday, July 2nd, 2014

World Chess Champion Magnus Carlsen’s route to chess took longer than his subsequent progress might suggest:

Henrik, 52, a keen chess player himself, remembers introducing the game to Magnus and his older sister, Ellen, now 25, when his son was turning 5. But after a month or two, Henrik says, “I gave up, basically, in the sense that we continued to play chess occasionally, but I didn’t have any ambitions.” He knew that legendary players such as Capablanca and Kasparov had understood the game — he clicks his fingers — “just like that.” Magnus and his sister, he says, “learned the rules quickly, and they could capture a piece, but to get two or more pieces working together, which is what chess is about, this spatial vision took a long time.”

At the time, Henrik reconciled himself to the fact that chess would simply be an enjoyable family pastime. “I felt, OK, they’re definitely not geniuses, but it doesn’t matter. Because, I mean, we loved our children. Chess was something we could do together, just a hobby, like playing cards or anything else.” In the meantime, there were signs that Magnus had the aptitude and the determination to perform impressive mental feats. Sigrun, 51, recalls her son sitting for hours with puzzles or making advanced Lego models, patiently working his way through pages and pages of instructions meant for children a decade older. “He had the ability to sit for a very long time, even when he was small,” she recalls.

This quality has contributed in no small measure to his success; chess commentators draw attention to his ability to wear down opponents, to wait patiently for them to make the tiniest mistake. Magnus himself maintains that he is an aggressive player but that audacity isn’t always what’s called for. “When you play against the best people in the world, they see through your plans, and you cannot win with a swashbuckling attack all the time,” he says. “You just need to take what’s there.”

His parents are eager to point out that he wasn’t an obviously faster learner than his sisters (he also has two younger siblings, Ingrid, 20, and Signe, 17) but that he kept on going, focusing his attention on a specific subject, such as car brands, until he knew it inside out. When I ask Magnus about his childhood proficiency, he replies simply: “I didn’t particularly know if I was good at it or not; I just tried to do it.”

Then came a turning point. Just before Magnus turned 8, says Henrik, “Ellen suddenly understood enough to make it interesting for me to play with her.” Magnus would sit to watch them and, a little later, join in. Henrik’s dilemma was that if he adopted poor strategy, his children wouldn’t learn anything, but he also didn’t want them to become discouraged. So he began to play with limited resources — just his king and a pawn — slowly adding pieces as they learned the game. Magnus’s interest started to grow, although Henrik maintains that “he just wanted to beat his sister.” He had a competitive streak even as a small child? “Yes, absolutely,” Sigrun says, “he still has that.” More competitive than his sisters? “Absolutely.” She laughs and gestures to her husband. “It’s not from me, it’s from him!”

Soon he was entering and very quickly winning tournaments. At home, during dinner, he began sitting apart from the family so he could study his chessboard while eating. “He was in the same room,” remembers Sigrun, “so we could speak to him if we wanted to; he could hear what we were talking about if he wanted to join.” Despite their unorthodox meals, they were, and remain, a close family.

The Age of Affluence

Tuesday, July 1st, 2014

An Age of Affluence precedes an empire’s decline, Glubb finds:

There does not appear to be any doubt that money is the agent which causes the decline of this strong, brave and self-confident people. The decline in courage, enterprise and a sense of duty is, however, gradual.

The first direction in which wealth injures the nation is a moral one. Money replaces honour and adventure as the objective of the best young men. Moreover, men do not normally seek to make money for their country or their community, but for themselves. Gradually, and almost imperceptibly, the Age of Affluence silences the voice of duty. The object of the young and the ambitious is no longer fame, honour or service, but cash.

Education undergoes the same gradual transformation. No longer do schools aim at producing brave patriots ready to serve their country. Parents and students alike seek the educational qualifications which will command the highest salaries. The Arab moralist, Ghazali (1058–1111), complains in these very same words of the lowering of objectives in the declining Arab world of his time. Students, he says, no longer attend college to acquire learning and virtue, but to obtain those qualifications which will enable them to grow rich. The same situation is everywhere evident among us in the West today.

Art and Luxury

Monday, June 30th, 2014

The Age of Commerce is an age of art and luxury, Glubb explains:

The wealth which seems, almost without effort, to pour into the country enables the commercial classes to grow immensely rich. How to spend all this money becomes a problem to the wealthy business community. Art, architecture and luxury ?nd rich patrons. Splendid municipal buildings and wide streets lend dignity and beauty to the wealthy areas of great cities. The rich merchants build themselves palaces, and money is invested in communications, highways, bridges, railways or hotels, according to the varied patterns of the ages.

The ?rst half of the Age of Commerce appears to be peculiarly splendid. The ancient virtues of courage, patriotism and devotion to duty are still in evidence. The nation is proud, united and full of self-con?dence. Boys are still required, ?rst of all, to be manly — to ride, to shoot straight and to tell the truth. (It is remarkable what emphasis is placed, at this stage, on the manly virtue of truthfulness, for lying is cowardice — the fear of facing up to the situation.)

Boys’ schools are intentionally rough. Frugal eating, hard living, breaking the ice to have a bath and similar customs are aimed at producing a strong, hardy and fearless breed of men. Duty is the word constantly drummed into the heads of young people.

The Age of Commerce is also marked by great enterprise in the exploration for new forms of wealth. Daring initiative is shown in the search for pro?table enterprises in far corners of the earth, perpetuating to some degree the adventurous courage of the Age of Conquests.

The Age of Commerce

Sunday, June 29th, 2014

Sir John Glubb turns to the Age of Commerce:

Let us now, however, return to the life-story of our typical empire. We have already considered the age of outburst, when a little-regarded people suddenly bursts on to the world stage with a wild courage and energy. Let us call it the Age of the Pioneers.

Then we saw that these new conquerors acquired the sophisticated weapons of the old empires, and adopted their regular systems of military organisation and training. A great period of military expansion ensued, which we may call the Age of Conquests. The conquests resulted in the acquisition of vast territories under one government, thereby automatically giving rise to commercial prosperity. We may call this the Age of Commerce.

The Age of Conquests, of course, overlaps the Age of Commerce. The proud military traditions still hold sway and the great armies guard the frontiers, but gradually the desire to make money seems to gain hold of the public. During the military period, glory and honour were the principal objects of ambition. To the merchant, such ideas are but empty words, which add nothing to the bank balance.

Maybe paying for good grades is not so bad

Thursday, June 19th, 2014

Jay Mathews has been compiling data on college-level courses and exams at every public high school in the Washington area since 1998, and this year the numbers from Stafford County have triggered his curiosity:

Three of its schools had big increases in Advanced Placement tests given last May. Those are difficult three-hour exams at the end of tough courses. Many students who would do well in them don’t take them, even though they help prepare for college. But at Colonial Forge High School, the number of AP tests jumped 25 percent. Tests at North Stafford High were up 56 percent. At Stafford High, the increase was 105 percent, from 543 to 1,113 tests. The passing rates declined slightly from the previous year, but the number of tests with passing scores was much higher.

I sought an explanation from Valerie Cottongim, the Stafford school system’s spokeswoman. She said a nonprofit organization called Virginia Advanced Studies Strategies had given those three schools a big grant to strengthen AP. That sounded familiar. After a few moments, I remembered.

Uh-oh.

Virginia Advanced Studies Strategies, funded by the nonprofit National Math and Science Initiative, are the backers of a movement I have been warning against for years. They pay bonus money to students and teachers for good AP exam scores. This is the first time this initiative has reached the Washington area.

The dollars involved are astonishing, at least to me. Every English, math or science AP test at the three Stafford schools with a passing grade from independent College Board readers meant a $100 check for the student and another for the teacher. Checks totaling $90,800 went to students and $145,370 to teachers.

[...]

Northwestern University economist C. Kirabo Jackson found that in Texas, the bonuses and extra support sparked an increase in AP and IB test takers primarily among black and Hispanic students. The portion of students scoring above 1100 on the SAT or above 24 on the ACT increased 80 percent for black students and 50 percent for Hispanic students.

Stafford County accounted for 8 percent of the increase in all public school AP passing scores in Virginia and 13 percent of the gains by minority students. There is so far no sign that students who have received initiative checks have lost their desire to learn.

So no more finger-waving rants from Grandpa Jay, at least for awhile.

(Hat tip to Arnold Kling.)

Fab Lab

Wednesday, June 18th, 2014

A generation ago, schools offered “shop” classes. Now we’re looking at fab labs:

Blair Evans is an alumnus of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and an entrepreneur. For the past 15 years, he’s been the superintendent of a group of charter schools for troubled kids in Detroit, and in 2010 he opened the city’s first Fab Lab inside one of his schools. The do-it-yourself factories are designed to make it easier and cheaper for ordinary people to turn an idea into a product. Every Fab Lab includes a computer-controlled laser, a 3D printer, and a pair of computer-controlled milling machines — all connected by custom software.

“We’re building people, not just products,” Evans says. “We get better outcomes if the kids can engage in useful work. This is much more effective than having them sit on a couch and talk.” His Detroit lab, he says, “comes up with 20 different ways to customize a bike.” Evans added a water jet cutter to the workshop: “Most Fab Labs don’t have one of these,” he explains, “but we wanted one. It cuts titanium and steel. We use it to make gears for bicycles that we’re creating with modularized components, which allows people to adjust the heights or customize the controls.”

Sounds expensive:

The initial Fab Lab in Detroit cost from $200,000 to $250,000 to assemble, and Evans put his own money behind the project. A second one has opened in another of his schools, and Evans says both have paid for themselves with social-service contracts for youth development.

The fab labs have paid for themselves! (With social-service contracts for “youth development”…)

The Chaos Wrought By Progressive Education

Tuesday, June 17th, 2014

Matthew Hunter paints a picture of the chaos wrought by progressive education in Britain:

I do not teach Dylan Page, but I know who he is. Everyone at our school knows who Dylan is. He comes and goes to lessons as he pleases, habitually swears at teachers, and is an accomplished playground bully. After a year of horrifying stories, there is not a single thing I could hear about Dylan’s behaviour that I would not believe.

During the school prize-giving ceremony at the end of the year, I was surprised to hear Dylan’s name announced. He had collected one of the largest amounts of “reward stickers” in year seven, and was due to collect a prize. Many teachers, it turned out, had taken to bribing him with these stickers in a desperate attempt to appease his unruliness. As the school applauded his name, I thought of the dozens of his classmates who had had a year of learning ruined by this one pupil. Such is the moral condition of many of today’s state schools.

Hunter was educated at a “public” school, where the ethos was still shaped by the 19th-century ideal of muscular Christianity, so he wasn’t prepared to teach at a modern state school, which sees such a “moralising” agenda as reactionary and oppressive:

Rules exist, but are broken on such a regular basis that it would probably be better not to have them at all. Pupils know that their school is chaotic and that most of their misbehaviour will go unpunished. Thus, on a routine basis, justice is not seen to be done. Personal responsibility is never developed among the pupils, as they are so rarely held to account for their actions. Only misbehaviour of an extraordinarily extreme nature (such as hitting a member of staff) is sure to be met with definite consequences. The idea that senior staff will deal with the most serious infringements does not exist. Far from being the school’s ultimate moral arbiters, senior members of staff perceive themselves as administrators, often unknown to the pupils. Similarly, events such as school assemblies are not seen as an opportunity for moral inspiration, but instead a convenient time to read out school notices and play the occasional game. Little platoons such as houses, sports teams or prefects, which should engender bonds of allegiance and notions of community, either do not exist or play little part in school life. Even the language of reward and reproach is lobotomised to remove any notion of judgment. Behaviour is not good, it is “appropriate”. Swearing is not rude, it is “unacceptable”.

[...]

Apologists for the state sector argue that schools have been innocent bystanders in these developments, vulnerable to the wider forces of social deprivation. However once you understand the philosophy that has taken hold in state education, such an argument becomes untenable. The idea that schools should be institutions designed to cultivate virtues was one of the many casualties of the 1960s turn towards “progressive” education — a movement which sought to transfer authority from the teacher to the child. The movement’s leading light, A.S. Neill, wrote: “No one is wise enough or good enough to mould the character of any child… An adult generation that has seen two great wars and seems about to launch a third should not be trusted to mould the character of a rat.”

[...]

As Melanie Phillips wrote in her 1996 book on British education All Must Have Prizes, “Morality has now become a subject to be discussed only by consenting adults in private.”

Learning from History

Tuesday, June 17th, 2014

Sir John Glubb discusses learning from history:

‘The only thing we learn from history,’ it has been said, ‘is that men never learn from history’, a sweeping generalisation perhaps, but one which the chaos in the world today goes far to confirm. What then can be the reason why, in a society which claims to probe every problem, the bases of history are still so completely unknown?

Several reasons for the futility of our historical studies may be suggested.

First, our historical work is limited to short periods — the history of our own country, or that of some past age which, for some reason, we hold in respect.

Second, even within these short periods, the slant we give to our narrative is governed by our own vanity rather than by objectivity. If we are considering the history of our own country, we write at length of the periods when our ancestors were prosperous and victorious, but we pass quickly over their shortcomings or their defeats. Our people are represented as patriotic heroes, their enemies as grasping imperialists, or subversive rebels. In other words, our national histories are propaganda, not well-balanced investigations.

Third, in the sphere of world history, we study certain short, usually unconnected, periods, which fashion at certain epochs has made popular. Greece 500 years before Christ, and the Roman Republic and early Roman Empire are cases in point. The intervals between the ‘great periods’ are neglected. Recently Greece and Rome have become largely discredited, and history tends to become increasingly the parochial history of our own countries.

To derive any useful instruction from history, it seems to me essential first of all to grasp the principle that history, to be meaningful, must be the history of the human race. For history is a continuous process, gradually developing, changing and turning back, but in general moving forward in a single mighty stream. Any useful lessons to be derived must be learned by the study of the whole flow of human development, not by the selection of short periods here and there in one country or another.

Every age and culture is derived from its predecessors, adds some contribution of its own, and passes it on to its successors. If we boycott various periods of history, the origins of the new cultures which succeeded them cannot be explained.