An Elaborate Career-Suicide Fantasy

Wednesday, May 6th, 2015

Jonathan Gottschall explains how he came to write The Professor in the Cage:

Well, I think I was 38 at the time (I’m 42 now). I’m an adjunct English professor at a small college in Pennsylvania, and I’ve been an adjunct for ten years. I make about $16,000 a year. I publish fairly well but, for various reasons, it’s pretty clear that my academic career is not going to come to anything. The tenure track hasn’t happened, and it’s probably not going to.

So I kind of reached this point where it was an authentic midlife crisis. It was like, Here I am: I’m pushing up on middle age, and I don’t quite have a real job. What am I going to do with my life? I knew the first thing I had to do was quit my job and move on to something else, but I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. I really wanted to be an English professor when I grew up. It was my great ambition in life.

So I thought, “Well, maybe I can get myself fired.” At about that time, when I was going through this sort of crisis, an MMA gym — Mark Shrader’s Academy of Mixed Martial Arts — opened across the street from the English Department, and I thought that was just hilarious. A cage fighting gym was now as far away from my office as you could throw a snowball. The juxtaposition of the incredibly refined world of the English Department and this savagery across the street struck me as very, very funny, and I started to fantasize about going over there.

The fantasy was never about “Hey, I’m a serious tough guy. I’m going to go over there and kick ass.” It was like a joke. I thought I could make people in the department laugh. They’d see me walk over there. They’d look up from their poems and there I’d be, in the cage, getting beat up.

And then I had this other funny thought: “That’s how I’ll do it. That’s how I’ll get myself fired. That’s how I’ll get out of this job, because English Departments really don’t approve of blood sport.”

It all began as an elaborate career-suicide fantasy. But then I thought, “Maybe there’s a book in this.” So I went across the street and tried to learn how to fight and ended up writing a book.

Scrabble Expertise

Monday, May 4th, 2015

Scrabble expertise follows the usual pattern — it depends on both practice and talent:

In one study, using official Scrabble rating as an objective measure of skill, researchers found that groups of “elite” and “average” Scrabble players differed in the amount of time they had devoted to things like studying word lists, analyzing previous Scrabble games, and anagramming—and not by a little. Overall, the elite group had spent an average of over 5,000 hours on Scrabble study, compared to only about 1,300 hours for the average group. Another study found that competitive Scrabble players devoted an average of nearly 5 hours a week to memorizing words from the Scrabble dictionary.

Clearly, expert Scrabble players are to some degree “made.” But there is evidence that basic cognitive abilities play a role, too. In a study recently published in Applied Cognitive Psychology, Michael Toma and his colleagues found that elite Scrabble players outperformed college students from a highly selective university on tests of two cognitive abilities: working memory and visuospatial reasoning. Working memory is the ability to hold in mind information while using it to solve a problem, as when iterating through possible moves in a Scrabble game. Visuospatial reasoning is the ability to visualize things and to detect patterns, as when imagining how tiles on a Scrabble board would intersect after a certain play. Both abilities are influenced by genetic factors.

Further evidence pointing to a role of these abilities in Scrabble expertise comes from a recent brain imaging study by Andrea Protzner and her colleagues at the University of Calgary. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), these researchers recorded the brain activity of Scrabble players and control subjects as they performed a task in which they were shown groups of letters and judged whether they formed words. (fMRI measures brain activity by detecting changes in blood flow within different regions of the brain.) The major finding of this study was that competitive Scrabble players recruited brain regions associated with working memory and visual perception to perform this task to a greater degree than the control subjects did.

What might explain Scrabble experts’ superiority in working memory and visuospatial reasoning? One possibility is that playing Scrabble improves these cognitive abilities, like a work-out at the gym makes you stronger. However, this seems unlikely based on over a century of research on the issue of “transfer” of training. When people train on a task, they sometimes get better on similar tasks, but they usually do not get better on other tasks. They show “near” transfer, but not “far” transfer. (Practice Scrabble and you’ll get better at Scrabble, and maybe Boggle, but don’t count on it making you smarter.) For the same basic reason that basketball players tend to be tall, a more likely explanation is that people high in working memory and visuospatial reasoning abilities are people who tend to get into, and persist at, playing Scrabble: because it gives them an advantage in the game. This explanation fits with what behavioral geneticists call gene-environment correlation, which is the idea that our genetic makeup influences our experiences.

Jon Stewart Wrong on Education in Baltimore

Monday, May 4th, 2015

The Fact Checker column at the Washington Post awards Jon Stewart four Pinocchios for this:

“If we are spending a trillion dollars to rebuild Afghanistan’s schools, we can’t, you know, put a little taste Baltimore’s way. It’s crazy.”

— Jon Stewart, The Daily Show, April 28, 2015

It’s not close to being true, Alex Tabarrok explains:

Baltimore schools spend 27% more than Fairfax County schools [which are among the best in the country] per student and a majority of the money comes not from the city but from the state and federal government.

Baltimore schools spend more than $17,000 per student per year.

College for the Masses

Thursday, April 30th, 2015

Stark admissions cutoffs provide researchers with a kind of natural experiment:

Students who score an 830 on the SAT are nearly identical to those who score an 840. Yet if one group goes to college and the other doesn’t, researchers can make meaningful estimates of the true effects of college.

And the two studies have come to remarkably similar conclusions: Enrolling in a four-year college brings large benefits to marginal students.

Roughly half of the students in Georgia who had cleared the bar went on to earn a bachelor’s degree within six years, compared with only 17 percent of those who missed the cutoff, according to one of the studies, by Joshua S. Goodman of Harvard and Michael Hurwitz and Jonathan Smith of the College Board. The benefits were concentrated among lower-income students, both studies found, and among men, one of them found.

Strikingly, the students who initially enrolled in a four-year college were also about as likely to have earned a two-year degree as the other group was. That is, those who started on the more ambitious track were able to downshift, but most of those who started in community colleges struggled to make the leap to four-year colleges. That finding is consistent with other research showing that students do better when they stretch themselves and attend the most selective college that admits them, rather than “undermatching.”

Perhaps most important, the data show that the students just above the admissions cutoff earned substantially more by their late 20s than students just below it — 22 percent more on average, according to the Florida study, which was done by Seth D. Zimmerman, a Princeton economist who will soon move to the University of Chicago. “If you give these students a shot, they’re ready to succeed,” said Mr. Zimmerman, adding that he was surprised by the strength of the findings.


But book learning isn’t anywhere near the full story of Mr. Escanilla’s growing up. His path also highlights another benefit that college can bring: Its graduates have managed to complete adulthood’s first major obstacle course. Doing so helps them learn how to finish other obstacle courses and gives them the confidence that they can, so long as they stay focused. Learning to navigate college fosters a quality that social scientists have taken to calling grit.

The Only Relevant Thing

Monday, April 27th, 2015

Instead of learning science, British pupils will learn about the way science and scientists work within society, because their education must be relevant to the 21st century — which reminds David Foster of this passage from C.S. Lewis’s A Preface to Paradise Lost, contrasting Milton’s takes on Adam and Satan:

Adam talks about God, the Forbidden tree, sleep, the difference between beast and man, his plans for the morrow, the stars and the angels. He discusses dreams and clouds, the sun, the moon, and the planets, the winds and the birds. He relates his own creation and celebrates the beauty and majesty of Eve…Adam, though locally confined to a small park on a small planet, has interests that embrace ‘all the choir of heaven and all the furniture of earth.’ Satan has been in the heaven of Heavens and in the abyss of Hell, and surveyed all that lies between them, and in that whole immensity has found only one thing that interests Satan.

The only thing relevant to Satan is Satan himself:

One need not believe in a literal Satan, or for that matter be religious at all, to see the force of this. There is indeed something Satanic about a person who has no interests other than themselves. And by insisting that everything be “relevant” and discouraging the development of broader interests, the educational authorities in Britain are doing great harm to the children put in their charge.

The new lite-yet-relevant curriculum leads to questions on the national exam like this:

In a multiple choice question, teenagers were asked why electric wires are made from copper. The four possible answers were that copper was brown, was not magnetic, conducted electricity, or that it conducted heat.

Generally Accepted Parenting Practices

Friday, April 24th, 2015

Megan McArdle doesn’t think there’s one easy answer to why we’ve become insane:

Why has America gone lunatic on the subject of unattended children? Parents hover over their kids as if every step might be their last. If they don’t hover, strangers do, calling the police to report any parent who leaves their child to run into the store for a few minutes. What’s truly strange is that the parents who are doing this were themselves left to their own devices in cars, allowed to ride their bikes and walk to the store unsupervised, and otherwise given the (limited) freedom that they are now determined to deny their own kids. The police are making arrests that would have branded their own parents as criminals. To hear people my age talk about the dangers of unsupervised children, you would think that the attrition rate in our generation had been at least 30 percent.

Even people who haven’t gone crazy are afraid of the Pediatric Patrol. A mom of my acquaintance whose house backs up to a school playground, with a gate that lets her children walk straight into the schoolyard, is afraid to let them go through the gate without an adult, for fear that someone would call the same nutty CPS that has taken to impounding the Meitiv children. She compromises by letting them play alone in the playground only when she is in the backyard, so that she can intervene if the police arrive.

Think about that: Kids have the priceless boon of a playground right in their backyard, but they can’t use it unless Mom drops everything to accompany them. I am running out of synonyms for “insane” to describe the state we have worked ourselves into. What on earth has happened to us?

How can we explain it? A few possible causes:

Cable news. When you listen to parents talk about why they hover, you’ll frequently hear that the world is more dangerous than it used to be. This is the exact opposite of the truth. [...] There were always stranger abductions, but they were always extremely rare, perhaps 2 or 3 per 1 million children under 12 in the U.S. each year. However, in the 1970s, you most likely only heard about local cases, and because these were rare, you would hear about one every few years in a moderately large metropolitan area. [...] Then along came cable news, which needed to fill 24 hours a day with content. These sorts of cases started to make national news, and because our brains are terrible at statistics, we did not register this as “Aha, the overall rate is still low, but I am now hearing cases drawn from a much larger population, so I hear about more of them.” Instead, it felt like stranger abductions must have gone up a lot.

Collective-action problems. When it comes to safety, overprotective parents are in effect taking out a sort of regret insurance. Every community has what you might call “generally accepted child-rearing practices,” the parenting equivalent of “generally accepted accounting principles.” These principles define what is good parenting and provide a sort of mental safe harbor in the event of an accident.

Ray Wolters’ The Long Crusade

Thursday, April 23rd, 2015

Ray Wolters has written an excellent and fascinating book about education, John Derbyshire says — and he’s flattered to be included among the dramatis personae:

In his final section, Wolters covers “Contrarian views of school reform.” He gives a chapter to Diane Ravitch, who argues an interesting combination of Kozol-style social reform with Hirsch’s Core Knowledge instruction.

He then ventures into taboo territory with a chapter on race realists. The intractability of the race gaps, and the fact that they remain constant even when overall achievement rises, strongly suggests that they have a biological origin.

The names here will be familiar to readers of Murray and Herrnstein, James Watson, Bruce Lahn, Jason Richwine, and … me.

Wolters describes my address to the Black Law Students Association at the University of Pennsylvania in 2010, in a panel discussion of the question: “Should the government play a role in eliminating racial disparities in education and employment?”

Derbyshire began his remarks by stating that he thought the question before the panel was based on a false premise. He did not think racial disparities in education could be eliminated … According to Derbyshire, these disparities were “facts in the natural world, like the orbits of the planets.”

He also gives a fair, even-handed account of my roughing-up by the Thought Police in 2012, and the discussion that followed.

The last contrarian Wolters presents, in the final chapter of The Long Crusade, is our own Happy Warrior Bob Weissberg.

Bob’s 2010 book Bad Students, Not Bad Schools was a fresh breeze in the cobwebbed halls of education theory.

Elite Anti-Elitists

Monday, April 20th, 2015

A modern textbook tries to “sell” students on physics as a source of “new technologies for leisure” and tries to humanize physicists as regular people, but, Matthew B. Crawford laments, it makes no effort to resuscitate the ideal of ancient science, learning for its own sake:

The pose of anti-elitism seems to be a cover for something far more disturbing, something that is perhaps typical of elite anti-elitists. The author writes, “Sometimes the results of the work of physicists are of interest only to other physicists. Other times, their work leads to devices…. that change everyone’s life.” Are these the only two possibilities? Physicists on their mountaintop, speaking only to one another, and the rest of us in the plains, waiting for them to descend bearing magical devices? Nothing in-between? Aren’t there intelligent, curious people who are not professional physicists, but who have the patience and desire to learn? I believe it is this dichotomization of humanity into two ideal types, professional scientists and ignorant consumers, that is responsible for this book’s cynicism. The author doesn’t seem to think his readers are really capable of being educated. This is the worst sort of elitism. Paradoxically, we have here the worst of both worlds: an anti-elitist rhetoric that discredits the higher human possibilities, the very possibilities by which the author orients his own life as a scientist, together with a more substantive elitism that views students from so far above that it can’t be bothered to cultivate in them those same human possibilities.

The author’s cynicism is ultimately rooted in a common confusion, a false conflict between democracy and elitism, one that forgets the ways in which these two human ideals actually depend on one another. Thomas Jefferson envisioned a “natural aristocracy,” made possible by the liberation of talents that comes with equality of opportunity. He suggests that democracy not only makes such a natural aristocracy possible, it is also peculiarly in need of cultivated human beings who can exert a leavening effect on society, giving our common freedom the character of liberty rather than license. That distinction seems to turn on the objects toward which freedom is directed. It is a distinction that allows us to speak of liberal pursuits, such as music, science, literature, mathematics, and so forth. If liberal democracy requires a critical mass of liberally educated citizens, it would seem to require a regime of education guided not only by the love of equality but also by the love of thinking. Happily, such a love is requited by those beautiful things that unveil themselves before a powerful and disciplined mind working at full song. Here is a logic that reconciles the private good of the student with public felicity. It is the logic of liberal education, classically understood.

A great teacher once said that precisely because we are friends of liberal democracy, we are not permitted to be its flatterers. With its confused anti-elitism, this book flatters the lowest elements of the democratic spirit. This is unfortunate because it is precisely the democratic spirit that, at its best, provides the most fertile home for the spirit of scientific inquiry. Glencoe Physics takes a very dim view of the educability of students, never venturing to lead them beyond the narrow concerns of comfort and entertainment. This is not so much meeting the students on their own terms as capitulating to the terms offered to students by mass commercial culture. Cowed by the times, our author lacks political courage on behalf of thinking, something that is incumbent on all teachers.

The Problem with Textbooks

Thursday, April 16th, 2015

Matthew B. Crawford (The World Beyond Your Head) examines the problem with textbooks:

One can learn a great deal by surveying the physics textbooks now in widespread use, as I recently did as part of a project directed by the Environmental Literacy Council. Begin with some superficial impressions: On nearly every page one finds boxes, insets, three-dimensional marginalia in four colors, and all manner of gratuitous graphics. It is difficult to discern any rank order to the different kinds of information presented. Since physics depends on coherent argument, this manner of presentation is clearly ill-suited to the books’ purpose.

Naïvely, I initially thought the formatting of the books might be intended to suit the cognitive peculiarities of today’s students. I recently taught a course (not physics, but Latin) in a suburban public high school. I was shocked to discover that relatively few students at this “Blue Ribbon National School of Excellence” (so says the Department of Education) seemed capable of real concentration. My impression was confirmed by veteran teachers who speak of a dramatic change in students over the last fifteen years. The culprits they name are familiar enough: the near-complete demise of reading, coincident with the rise of video games and the Web. The ability to follow a monological narrative or argument from beginning to end seems to have been diminished, along with the habit and taste for reading. So surely the textbooks are adapting to this sad fact in a principled way, out of necessity, guided by the latest findings of cognitive science? Not so, it turns out — as becomes all too apparent when one learns how textbooks get produced.

Not surprisingly, the textbooks offered by publishers are products of market demand. Like any market, the market for textbooks does not exist in a political vacuum. In the U.S. there is no omnipotent ministry of education that sets standards for curriculum; the states set their own standards. There are a number of well-meaning, semi-official organizations that try to bring good sense to bear on the chaos. For example, in 1993 the American Association for the Advancement of Science issued its “Benchmarks for Science Literacy,” and in 1996 the National Research Council issued its “National Science Education Standards.” But these efforts have had little real effect. The movement toward states setting their own standards received a sort of federal blessing with the Improving America’s Schools Act of 1994, which linked federal funding for schools to states’ efforts to set content standards and assess academic performance.

The problem is not so much federalism itself as the way most states actually operate. Each jurisdiction sets out standards in excruciating detail, including long lists of topics to be covered. These lists are given to the publishers as “bid specs.” Publishers can maximize the likelihood that a book will be widely adopted by including everything in the bid specs of the ten or fifteen biggest markets. It is no surprise, then, that textbooks often run as much as 900 pages long. The reason this simplistic business strategy is successful, and the reason publishers’ salesmen push for allocating an ever greater share of a book’s development costs to graphics, has to do with the way textbooks are adopted.

The members of a state’s textbook adoption committee are often appointed so as to obtain geographical and political representation (they come from different congressional districts), not because of any expertise in the subject matter. In most states it is a one-time appointment, and a form of political patronage. Members generally have other jobs. In a typical scenario, they come away from their first meeting with a couple of documents from the state’s Curriculum Task Force to help them: a list of several hundred “behavioral objectives” to be accomplished by the state’s schooling in general, and another list of perhaps a hundred topic items specific to the subject. The coverage of these topics is to be checked off on a form, ranked on a scale of one to five for each textbook and the mass of materials that go with the book: teachers’ editions, consumable workbooks, wall charts, ready-made transparencies and exams, demonstration materials, lab manuals, and all manner of classroom pizzazz. Committee members had better have a spare bedroom available. As one close observer put it, “Back in their homes, committee members leaf through the mass of materials aimlessly, not sure of what to look for. Some members alight on pages they don’t understand. Some of them conclude that things must have changed quite a bit since they were young, and others conclude that they are too tired to tackle the task and go to bed.”

Even for a diligent committee member, the best that can be accomplished under such a system is merely to ascertain the presence of requisite topics, not the clarity or depth with which they are presented. The reality is that nobody involved in the selection process is actually reading the books, so from a publisher’s perspective, the important thing is that every conceivable topic be mentioned and, just as important, listed in the index for quick reference. The Third International Mathematics and Science Study found that the average U.S. science middle school textbook covers 50 to 65 topics, while texts in Japan include only five to 15 topics and German textbooks cover an average of seven topics. The superficial treatment of dozens of topics comes at the expense of students’ conceptual understanding.

In the end, the question whether students can get any pleasure or meaning out of the text is never really brought to bear on this process. And the superficial nature of the selection process dictates a coffee-table approach by the publishers, leading them to produce a lavish physical product that is heavy on impressive-looking graphical clutter. “Thus the de facto national curriculum is a thin stream of staccato prose winding through an excessive number of pictures, boxes and charts,” as Harriet Tyson-Bernstein puts it in A Conspiracy of Good Intentions. Teachers, of course, needn’t follow such texts slavishly, and in fact those teachers who have real mastery of their subject typically depart from the text and conduct their own classroom investigations. But textbooks are relied upon quite heavily by less-experienced and less-knowledgeable teachers. More generally, research conducted as part of the Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) indicates that textbooks have a major impact on teachers’ decisions about how to present their subject material. In a survey of 16,000 science teachers conducted by Education Market Research in 2001, over 80 percent of science teachers reported using a traditional science textbook.

In many middle school texts, questions at the end of each chapter require students to do no more than repeat some definition verbatim from the text. Students generally have deeply held prior beliefs about natural phenomena, often wrong, and they can easily answer such textbook questions without recognizing the inconsistency between their understanding and the text they are memorizing. The result is that students work their way through the material without being changed by it, and often without really seeing the point of the questions asked or the answers given.

Poor kids have smaller brains

Thursday, April 16th, 2015

A recent Nature Neuroscience paper demonstrated that poor children have smaller brains than affluent children:

Neuroscientists who studied the brain scans of nearly 1,100 children and young adults nationwide from ages 3 to 20 found that the surface area of the cerebral cortex was linked to family income. They discovered that the brains of children in families that earned less than $25,000 a year had surface areas 6 percent smaller than those whose families earned $150,000 or more. The poor children also scored lower on average on a battery of cognitive tests.

The region of the brain in question handles language, memory, spatial skills and reasoning, all important to success in school and beyond.

So, what did the study’s authors conclude?

“We’ve known for so long that poverty and lack of access to resources to enrich the developmental environment are related to poor school performance, poor test scores and fewer educational opportunities,” Sowell said. “But now we can really tie it to a physical thing in the brain. We realized that this is a big deal.”

Really? Yes, these are their two hypotheses for why:

One is that poor families lack access to material goods that aid healthy development, such as good nutrition and higher-quality health care. The other is that poor families tend to live more chaotic lives, and that stress could inhibit healthy brain development.

Amazingly, journalist Lyndsey Layton interviewed James Thompson and accurately shared his thoughts — and Charles Murray’s:

“People who have less ability and marry people with less ability have children who, on balance, on average, have less ability,” he said. Thompson noted that there is a genetic component to intelligence that Noble and Sowell failed to consider.

“It makes my jaw drop that we’ve known for years intelligence is inheritable and scientists are beginning to track down exactly how it happens,” Thompson said. “The well-known genetic hypothesis has not even had a chance to enter the door in this discussion.”


“It is confidently known that brain size is correlated with IQ, IQ measured in childhood is correlated with income as an adult, and parental IQ is correlated with children’s IQ,” Murray wrote in an e-mail. “I would be astonished if children’s brain size were NOT correlated with parental income. How could it be otherwise?”

Science Education and Liberal Education

Wednesday, April 15th, 2015

Matthew B. Crawford (The World Beyond Your Head) compares science education and liberal education

As a component of liberal education, science is both similar to and different from the humanities in spirit and effect. The humanities might be understood simply as a record of the best that has been thought about the human situation. Acquaintance with this record has the effect of freeing us from the present, with its necessarily partial view, and opening us up to the full range of human possibilities. Further, to enter truly into the great works of the past, or of other cultures, requires an effort to free oneself from the present and its certainties. A cultivated willingness to make that effort is perhaps the cardinal intellectual virtue. Science makes similar demands, with similarly liberal effects. In studying nature closely, we are confronted with the fallibility of common sense. In fact, heavier things do not fall faster than lighter ones. More radically, the very idea of nature stands as a rebuke to convention altogether.

Yet science surely differs from the humanities as well. Pascal famously spoke of l’esprit de finesse et l’esprit de géométrie, representing different habits of mind. What is really on offer, then, in a physics class? The math instills a taste for rigor, and through experiment one learns intellectual responsibility: facts often astonish theory and compel one to rethink one’s position, starting anew from first principles. In its subject matter as well as its method, physics ennobles the mind by directing it to the permanent order of the world. One learns, first, that the world has such an order, and that it is intelligible; that there is a mere handful of truly fundamental things, and that these can be expressed with haiku-like economy. To arrive by argument at a relation such as F=ma is to experience a genuine revelation. One can’t help but feel that there is some deep harmony between the natural world and our efforts to understand it, or understanding wouldn’t be so pleasurable. Through such pleasures one acquires the tastes of a serious person.

But science is hard. It is therefore inherently “elitist,” merely in this obvious sense: as with skateboarding, some will be demonstrably better at it than others. One can fall on one’s behind while skateboarding, and when it happens there is no interpreting away the pavement. Similarly, in a physics course there are answers in the back of the book, standing as a silent rebuke to error and confusion. This sits ill with the current educational imperative of self-esteem. It has been clear for some time that the elephant of anti-elitism has run amok in education; my purpose is to report what happens when this elephant runs into the cold, hard surface of Newton’s laws. The material covered in a physics course can’t be dumbed down ad absurdum, as can that in a history or social studies course. What is to be done, then, to make physics more “inclusive”? The author of a physics textbook has certain artificial devices available to make his subject suitably democratic-looking. He can recite the technological blessings for consumers that flow from scientific research. He can emphasize good work habits or vocational skills that may incidentally be developed by a student in the course of his studies. These efforts to popularize in a superficial way carry the implicit message that science, and intellectual life more generally, must answer to the tribunal of economic life; physics has no standing as something worthwhile for its own sake. Far from giving physics a wider appeal, I suspect this merely disheartens students. Because it treats them as though they are insensitive to intellectual pleasures, this kind of anti-elitism seems strangely … elitist. As though students are merely being prepared to assume their place as workers and consumers.

What A Good Job Looks Like

Tuesday, April 14th, 2015

When Matthew B. Crawford graduated, he found that there was more demand for his services as an unlicensed electrician than as a credentialed physicist. He discusses what a good job looks like:

The work of electricians, plumbers and auto mechanics cannot be outsourced. That is reason enough for a young person to consider going into the trades. But let’s take a broader view of the matter and consider also the possibility for real satisfaction, which may or may not be present in the work we do. Human beings seem to be built in such a way that we want to see a direct effect of our actions in the world and feel that these actions are genuinely our own.

Consider the striking fact that when Henry Ford introduced the assembly line in 1913, most workers simply walked out. His biographer, Keith Sward, wrote, “So great was labor’s distaste for the new machine system that toward the close of 1913 every time the company wanted to add 100 men to its factory personnel, it was necessary to hire 963.”

Obviously, the men who walked out had other options. Early on, the automotive industry had recruited people from carriage shops and bicycle shops–all-around mechanics who took pride in their skill and knowledge. To merely pull the same lever over and over on an assembly line was stultifying, and insulting too. Eventually Ford raised wages enough to keep the line staffed, and people got used to it.

This story has a parallel in our own time. White-collar work too gets routinized and dumbed-down. This fact often gets obscured by the fact that you may need an academic credential to get the job. I went to graduate school in the early 1990s and loved every minute of it. With my new master’s degree, I landed a job as an “indexer and abstractor.” I was to write brief summaries of articles in scientific and other academic journals.

It sounded really challenging. But my quota, after 11 months on the job, was 28 articles per day. The only way to meet the quota was to stop thinking, and in fact I was given rules for writing these summaries that were based on the supposition that it could be done in a routinized, unthinking way. The job paid $23,000 a year. I never did get used to it.

As far back as 1942, Joseph Schumpeter wrote that the expansion of higher education beyond labor-market demand creates for white collar workers “employment in substandard work or at wages below those of the better-paid manual workers.” What’s more, “it may create unemployability of a particularly disconcerting type. The man who has gone through college or university easily becomes psychically unemployable in manual occupations without necessarily acquiring employability in, say, professional work.”

The current glut of college graduates, many of them with heavy debt loads, may need to overcome this problem of being “psychically” (not physically) unemployable in manual occupations, a disability acquired from sitting in classrooms from age 5 to age 22. I am happy to report that it is possible. After getting a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago, followed by another prestigious-sounding but soul-killing job at a think tank, I opened a motorcycle repair shop.

Motorcycles are made on assembly lines, but the work of fixing them isn’t too far removed from what those craftsmen in the bicycle and carriage shops were doing. There’s a lot of thinking involved, and it is always my own thinking. In fact, the work of diagnosing mechanical problems is often more intellectually challenging than my think tank job was. “Motorcycle mechanic” is a less prestigious answer to give at a cocktail party when someone asks what I do, but in saying it, I feel more genuine pride.

(He also wrote Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work.)

Napoleon stooped to conquer

Tuesday, April 14th, 2015

In the US today, Napoleon is an obscure figure, Walter Russell Mead laments:

To the extent he is remembered, it is for two great blunders and his fall: Louisiana, Russia and Waterloo are the words most prominently associated with his career in the minds of those few American undergraduates today who know anything specific about him at all.

Ignorance of and indifference to Napoleon is one of the chief differences between educated Americans and educated Europeans. On this side of the Atlantic he doesn’t have much of a legacy; though as Stanley Kowalski points out in Streetcar Named Desire, Louisiana still uses the Napoleonic Code as the basis of its law, the other 49 states don’t. In Europe he is the father of the modern legal system that still underlies the laws and procedures of the European Union and the man who abolished feudalism in Germany. It was Napoleon who laid out the model of church-state relations that still governs the European approach to this issue — and Napoleon whose emancipation of the Jews solved one set of problems and created another. His vision of a united Europe able to resist Anglo-Saxon influence still resonates; his effort to reconcile the powerful state of European absolutism with democratic legitimacy in a post-revolutionary age remains an influential political idea. Americans didn’t embrace Napoleon like the French; the battle against him that became a national epic in Britain and Russia leaves us cold; his unintentional role in the birth of German nationalism and in Hegel’s proclamation of the end of history do not engage much attention over here.

In teaching Napoleon to young grand strategists, I find that the first thing I have to do is to open their eyes to Napoleon’s enormous historical importance and continuing impact on our world today; the second is to help them grasp the sheer greatness and audacity of the man. They have to feel his accomplishment: how a poor young man from Corsica, who didn’t speak French well, wasn’t particularly handsome or witty or charming, who had no connections with the powerful and the rich made himself master first of France and then of half the world. That Napoleon was a great commander when given armies to lead is one thing; that he got himself into a position to command armies at all may be the more remarkable accomplishment of his career.

The most important thing about the young Napoleon, Mead says, is the intensity of his ambition:

Most bright and ambitious Americans start out in life more like Napoleon than like Pericles; they are born and grow up far from the centers of power. They can’t rely on their parents’ money or rolodexes to boost them into contention for political power. Like Napoleon, they have to work their way in.

As students start to see the young Napoleon in this way, they begin to consider the parallels between his situation and ambitions and their own. Do students want power, influence and wealth enough to work and scheme for them? If so, how should they start? What ethical considerations, if any, should inform or limit their quest? What does success look like and how is it assessed?

Napoleon had extraordinary political and personal as well as military gifts. His genius was not limited to the ability to read a battlefield and take the right action at the right time. He had a gift for reading people, for knowing what each one most desperately wanted and needed. He then had the ambition and singleness of purpose to decide which people mattered to him, and then to give them what they wanted. Napoleon betrayed almost everyone in the end, and one can retrace his progress through life by tracking discarded friendships and betrayed collaborators much as the Grand Army’s retreat through Russia was marked by abandoned wagons, loot and artillery pieces. Nevertheless before you can betray someone you have to win them over and Napoleon was willing and able to do whatever it took. One doesn’t want to end like Napoleon, but one could do much worse than begin as he did.

As Napoleon rose, he had to judge how to keep people loyal to him. This again required an exquisite sensitivity to what others want. One man can be yours for money, another seeks dignity and honor, a third power, and someone else wants the freedom and the resources to undertake an interesting and exacting task. In Napoleon’s day, when women could only play politics indirectly, taking (or no doubt in some cases pretending to take) women seriously on intellectual matters and working through political discussions with them to give them a sense of ‘being in the game’ could take a man very far with some women. Napoleon played this game for all it was worth.

I’m trying to encourage my grand strategy students to hone their people reading and people pleasing skills. This is not, as Johnson said of Lord Chesterfield’s letters to his son, to teach them ‘the manners of a dancing master and the morals of a whore’. George Washington worked very hard to ingratiate himself with powerful women and men around him; so did Alexander Hamilton. A great man and a scoundrel will need many of the same skills; I would hope my students would be as good at reading people as an accomplished scam artist, but then use those powers for good.

Napoleon stooped to conquer; it’s a skill many of us could use.

Power fascinates and disorients the academy today:

Throughout the millennia teachers have assumed that getting and keeping power was one of the chief reasons that students came to their classes. The rhetorical instructors of ancient Greece and Rome were teaching students the skills that would enable them to persuade: either to persuade jurors to acquit or convict, or to persuade voters to support a given course of action or a particular candidate.

Today we focus on introducing them to various lines of academic inquiry and on giving them ‘job skills’ that will help them earn a good living. Both of these are perfectly good things to study, but how many professors would start a class off by saying that the goal of the class is to teach students to acquire, hold and use power in society at large?

More classes should start in exactly that way. An education, among other things, should help you become adept at the power game. Few things are as deeply human as the drive for power, and ambition remains one of the great drivers of any society. Getting away from that reality and providing courses that aren’t grounded in helping young people achieve the fame, glory and power that it is natural for them to seek is getting away from an essential and vital part of the educational process.

How MOOC Video Production Affects Student Engagement

Sunday, April 12th, 2015

How does video production affect student engagement in MOOCs?

We measured engagement by how long students watched each video and also whether they attempted to answer post-video assessment problems.

We took all 862 videos from four edX courses offered in Fall 2012 and hand-classified each one based on its type (e.g., traditional lecture, problem-solving tutorial) and production style (e.g., PowerPoint slides, Khan-style tablet drawing, talking head). We automatically extracted other features such as length and speaking rate (words per minute). We then mined the edX server logs to obtain over 6.9 million video watching sessions from almost 128,000 students.

The lessons learned:

  1. Shorter videos are much more engaging. Engagement drops sharply after 6 minutes.
  2. Videos that intersperse an instructor’s talking head with PowerPoint slides are more engaging than showing only slides.
  3. Videos produced with a more personal feel could be more engaging than high-fidelity studio recordings.
  4. Khan-style tablet drawing tutorials are more engaging than PowerPoint slides or code screencasts.
  5. Even high-quality prerecorded classroom lectures are not as engaging when chopped up into short segments for a MOOC.
  6. Videos where instructors speak fairly fast and with high enthusiasm are more engaging.
  7. Students engage differently with lecture and tutorial videos.

Focusing the Brain on Better Vision

Saturday, April 11th, 2015

As we age, our vision deteriorates, including our contrast sensitivity, our ability to distinguish gradations of light to dark and thus to discern where one object ends and another begins:

But new research suggests that contrast sensitivity can be improved with brain-training exercises. In a study published last month in Psychological Science, researchers at the University of California, Riverside, and Brown University showed that after just five sessions of behavioral exercises, the vision of 16 people in their 60s and 70s significantly improved.

After the training, the adults could make out edges far better. And when given a standard eye chart, a task that differed from the one they were trained on, they could correctly identify more letters.


During each session, the subjects watched 750 striped images that were rapidly presented on a computer screen with subtle changes in the visual “noise” surrounding them — like snow on a television. The viewer indicated whether the images were rotating clockwise or counterclockwise. The subject would hear a beep for every correct response.

Each session took an hour and a half. The exercises were taxing, although the subjects took frequent breaks. But after five sessions, the subjects had learned to home in more precisely on the images and to filter out the distracting visual noise. After the training, the older adults performed as well as those 40 years younger, before their own training.

The older participants were also better able to make out letters on an eye chart at reading distance, although not one 10 feet away. The younger students were better able to see the distant eye chart, but not the closer one.


Dr. Andersen and his colleagues, including Denton DeLoss, a graduate student and the paper’s lead author, say they do not know how long the effects of this modest intervention will last. But an earlier study in which older adults received training to sharpen their ability to discern texture showed that the improvement was sustained for at least three months.