Race and Discipline

Friday, July 3rd, 2015

Black students in Seattle cause four times more trouble than their white classmates, based on their suspension rates — and that’s simply inconceivable:

More than 800 black students were sent home last year, many missing weeks of instruction for comparatively low-level offenses like “disruptive conduct” or “disobedience” or “rule-breaking.” At some schools such as Seattle’s Washington Middle — where, despite comparable populations, 94 African-American kids were disciplined and just seven whites — the data is so lopsided that confrontation with uncomfortable questions becomes difficult to avoid.

As striking as the racial split is the age at which it begins: kindergarten.

Statewide, more than 8,716 students younger than sixth grade were suspended or expelled in 2012-13, and patterns in Seattle suggest that a disproportionate number were children of color. (The state has not released breakdowns by race in students that young.)

The reason given for these sanctions speaks to the enormous role that individual judgment plays in disciplining kids. While there were only 119 suspensions for clear-cut violations like alcohol, tobacco or drugs, schools logged a whopping 7,479 incidents for “other behavior.”

The meaning of this data confounds African-American parents, who wonder whether white teachers are targeting their children and has made educators increasingly uncomfortable.

Steve Sailer dubs this the racist nice white lady menace.

Is Special Education Racist?

Friday, July 3rd, 2015

Is special education racist? With the New York Times asking, you’d have to assume, yes:

More than six million children in the United States receive special-education services for their disabilities. Of those age 6 and older, nearly 20 percent are black.

Critics claim that this high number — blacks are 1.4 times more likely to be placed in special education than other races and ethnicities combined — shows that black children are put into special education because schools are racially biased.

But our new research suggests just the opposite. The real problem is that black children are underrepresented in special-education classes when compared with white children with similar levels of academic achievement, behavior and family economic resources.

The belief that black children are overrepresented in special education is driving some misguided attempts at policy changes.

I was not expecting that:

In a study published today, we report that the under-diagnosis of black children occurs across five disability conditions for which special services are commonly provided — learning disabilities, speech or language impairments, intellectual disabilities, health impairments and emotional disturbances. From the beginning of kindergarten to the end of eighth grade, black children are less, not more, likely than white children with similar levels of academic performance and behaviors to be identified as having each of these disabilities.

In fact, our study statistically controlled for many possible factors that might explain these disparities. Examples included differences in children’s academic achievement, behavior, gender and age, birth weight, the mother’s marital status and the family’s income and education levels. In contrast, many previous studies reporting overrepresentation have not adjusted for these factors. Instead, these prior studies have relied on school- or district-level data that did not adequately control for differences in risk factor exposure between black and white children.

Since nobody remembers anything, Steve Sailer notes that racial differences in special ed were what led Arthur Jensen of Berkeley to the Dark Side a half century ago:

Jensen’s interest in this topic began when one of his graduate students noted that the white special education students he was working with appeared to be more genuinely “retarded” than the students from minority groups who had been placed in special education. In fact, it seemed to Jensen’s student that whereas the white children functioned at a low level both inside and outside the classroom, the minority children sometimes appeared “quite indistinguishable in every way from children of normal intelligence, except in their scholastic performance and in their performance on a variety of standard IQ tests (Jensen, 1974, p. 222).”

A Sentimental Education

Wednesday, July 1st, 2015

The Guardian has published a glowing review of Drumduan Upper School, a Steiner school co-founded by Tilda Swinton:

Through the windows Krzysztof points to a pair of handsome canoes sitting outside, and fetches a paddle for my inspection. “They were made out of slabs of local Douglas fir, with no machines and no vices, just clamps on desks,” he says. To Krzysztof the boat is a paragon of interdisciplinary education. As he puts it: “You’ve got mathematics, geometry, physics of buoyancy, the chemistry of epoxy resins, the art and aesthetic of colour and shape, the process of collaboration and the physical, outdoor experience of it all.” Of course, you’ve also got a boat.

But there is no A-level exam in boat making, and the question of how these students will make it to university should they wish to go – as, for example, Arran does — is never fully resolved. The students’ work is documented in books that they write and design “to their own best intellectual and artistic standard,” and there’s some suggestion that these can take the place of exam results, but in an education system so heavily predicated on grades, it seems a big ask. There are precedents, however. The Acorn School in Gloucestershire is run along near-identical lines. This year, its students were offered places at universities in Bath, Exeter, Manchester and Bristol. The school claims that no Acorn student applying for university has ever failed to secure a place.

Drumduan parents are obviously a highly self-selecting group. Sharon McAlister says she’s not worried by the absence of exams. Her youngest son, Angus, a sparky and genial 15-year-old (“You shouldn’t ask a boy his age,” he jests), spent seven years in the state system, where he was bullied and unhappy, before transferring to Drumduan in 2013. “It’s that wonderful thing of being able to celebrate a burgeoning individualism that you don’t get in a state school,” McAlister tells me. Tilda refers to this as “each chain on each moving bicycle” in contrast to the widespread practice of teaching children as if they’re all on the same bike. “I didn’t have a particularly toxic education, but my chain was not on my bicycle,” says Tilda. “I managed to coast down a few hills and got off and walked the rest of the way.”

I like to describe Steiner, or Waldorf, schools as what people only vaguely familiar with Montessori schools imagine when they hear them described.

Rudolph Steiner founded anthroposophy, a proto-New Age philosophy.

Moneyball for Life

Monday, June 29th, 2015

Michael Lewis (Moneyball) pens an imaginary letter from Harvard Admissions to the Harvard Management Company about what traits predict whether a student will accumulate a Wall Street fortune — and then share it with the school:

Self-importance. The odds that a child will make outlandish sums of money when he grows up turns out to be strongly correlated with his willingness to challenge adult authority when that authority does not give him exactly what he wants. At bottom, he does not accept any authority higher than himself.

An extreme need for external validation. By sifting teacher recommendations for such phrases as “intellectual passion” and “an ability to lose himself in a subject,” and avoiding the students so described, we can locate those students most likely to have achieved high grades for the so-called wrong reasons. Above all we will seek to avoid students who think they have some “calling,” as they are anathema to Harvard’s mission.

The X factor. It consists, in part, of the ability to seem to be a selfless collaborator while in fact acting in a narrowly selfish manner.

We in admissions can almost hear you in Harvard Management thinking: It’s all well and good to find future billionaires, but that is only half the battle. How do we persuade them to share their fortune with Harvard? Herein lies the beauty of our algorithm. The very qualities in children most likely to lead them to great financial fortune also render them predisposed, as adults, to giving those fortunes to rich universities, instead of, say, charitable organizations that actually need the money. They weren’t put on earth to alleviate human suffering, or to make it a different and better place. They were put on earth to erect a building with their name on it, in a place it can be seen and admired by other people like them!

Harvard has already performed this analysis, Steve Sailer says:

The reason Harvard is still Harvard is because they invested a lot of talent in the 20th Century into statistical analyses of whom to admit.

Years ago, an anonymous commenter at iSteve asserted that he had held this exact job of moneyballing which kind of students were likely to donate to the Famous University. And his models confirmed what you’d expect: the people most likely to write checks with a lot of digits to the alma mater are the ones the college would prefer not to admit if they weren’t so generous: white, male, jockish, legacy, fratty, and relatively conservative politically. He said the college would never admit this publicly, but the administration is very aware of the stats of who gives and who doesn’t.

Fixation Error

Tuesday, June 23rd, 2015

In a crisis, the brain’s perceptual field narrows and shortens:

We become seized by a tremendous compulsion to fix on the problem we think we can solve, and quickly lose awareness of almost everything else. It’s an affliction to which even the most skilled and experienced professionals are prone.

Imagine a stalled car, stuck on a level crossing as a distant train bears down on it. Panic rising, the driver starts and restarts the engine rather than getting out of the car and running. The three doctors bent over Elaine Bromiley’s throat were intent on finding a way to intubate, just as the three pilots in the cockpit of United 173 were determined to establish the status of the landing gear. In neither case did these seasoned professionals look up and register the oncoming train: in the case of Elaine, her oxygen levels, and in the case of United 173, its fuel levels.

When people are fixating, their perception of time becomes highly erratic; minutes stretch and elongate. One of the most striking aspects of the transcript of United 173’s last minutes is the way the captain seems to be under the impression that he has plenty of time, right up until the moment the engines cut out. It’s not that he didn’t have the correct information; it’s that his brain was running to a different clock. Similarly, it’s not that the doctors weren’t aware that Elaine Bromiley’s oxygen supply was a problem; it’s that their sense of how long she had been without it was distorted. When Harmer interviewed him, the anaesthetic consultant confessed that he had no idea how much time had passed.

Imagine, for a moment, being one of those doctors. You have a patient who has stopped breathing. The clock is ticking. The standard procedure isn’t working, but you have employed it dozens of times before and you know it works. Each of the senior colleagues around you is experiencing the same difficulty, which reassures you. You cling to the belief that, between the three of you, you will solve the problem, if it is soluble at all. You vaguely register nurses coming into the room and saying things but you don’t really hear what they say. Perhaps it occurs to you to step back from the patient and demand a rethink, but you don’t want your peers to see you as panicky or naive. So you focus on the one thing you can control: the procedure. You repeat it over and over, hoping for a different result. It is madness, but it is comprehensible madness.

Educational Romanticism & Economic Development

Friday, June 19th, 2015

What’s the best way to interpret Hausmann’s Education Myth?

Yes, “years of schooling” is a poor proxy for educational outcomes. But it captures very well the policy instrument that governments can actually control easily — building large boxes and herding children into them like cattle. That investment has obviously not caused a convergence in test scores between developed and developing countries.

There’s no evidence that education, how ever measured, promotes the sort of growth rates that result in eventual convergence with the rich countries. There’s plenty of evidence to suggest education has contributed to the positive but relatively low growth rates which have been insufficient for convergence. Economic growth research implicitly assumes that the rapid convergence of East Asia with the western countries is ‘normal’ and the slow growth of other non-western countries ‘abnormal’. But maybe the former is the anomaly.

Children of Uneducated Parents Don’t Go to College

Monday, June 15th, 2015

Norwegians whose parents did not go to college are just as unlikely to go as Americans whose parents did not go to college — even though tuition’s basically free in Norway and far from free in the US:

And what happens is that — even though it’s essentially free — only 14 percent of children from the least-educated families in Norway go to college, compared to 58 percent of children from the most-educated families, according to an analysis by a Norwegian education researcher, Elisabeth Hovdhaugen.

That’s almost exactly the same proportion as in the United States, where the cost of college is borne largely by students and their families, and where the Organization for Economic Development and Cooperation reports that only 13 percent of children of parents without higher educations end up getting degrees themselves.


It’s a huge issue, considering that fully one-third of five- to 17-year-olds in the United States have parents who did not go to college, the College Board reports, at a time when policymakers are trying to increase the number of Americans with degrees. They’ll be needed to fill the 65 percent of jobs by 2020 that will require some sort of college or university training, according to the Georgetown University Center for Education in the Workforce.

The circularity here amuses me. Very, very few jobs require the skills taught in college. Many more require the kind of people who go to college. As more people go, more graduates are needed.

Some of these Norwegian “problems” are also amusing:

Also, because wages remain high for blue-collar occupations, she said, there’s less of a financial incentive for some Norwegians to bother with college, since they can get jobs more quickly, and earn almost as much money, working as plumbers or electricians. American advocates for higher education worry that a similar thing might be happening in the U.S., as people increasingly question the return on investment for degrees; a new federal report shows that the average annual earnings of 25- to 34-year-olds with bachelor’s degrees actually fell from $53,210 in 2000 to $46,900 in 2012, even as tuition continued to rise.

“A bachelor’s degree in the U.S. has been seen as one serious option for getting into the middle class, whereas in Norway everything is a ticket into the middle class, because everyone is in the middle class,” Rice said. “It’s now less clear that it really is a ticket into the middle class in the U.S.”

The causality here is a mystery:

American students’ scores on the SAT and other college entrance exams also correlate with the level of their parents’ educations; the better-educated a student’s parents, the higher he or she scores on the tests, according to the College Board, which administers the SAT.

Since education affects income, children whose parents didn’t go to college are also unlikely to be well off, said Margaret Cahalan, vice president for research at the Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education. And families that are less well off are statistically more likely to face health problems, problems with the law and unplanned pregnancies, among other challenges.

Students from such backgrounds “are going to be on average facing more obstacles than a student who comes from a more advantaged background,” including nonfinancial ones, Cahalan said.

The credulity:

With a third of U.S. primary and secondary school students now coming from families without higher educations, the most important lesson is that cultural, and not just economic, considerations may keep many of them from going on to college.

Young people from backgrounds such as these, when considering whether or not to go to college, often “don’t even really know that they can go to the library and borrow books” instead of buying them, said Gomperts.

“How do you know that? You’re not born knowing such a thing. And who’s going to tell you? Stripping away the money piece shows how complicated this is.”

These poor things! No one has taught them about libraries in their first 13 years of public education!

Being a Better Online Reader

Sunday, June 14th, 2015

After Maryanne Wolf’s Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain came out, she started receiving letters from readers:

While the backgrounds of the writers varied, a theme began to emerge: the more reading moved online, the less students seemed to understand. There were the architects who wrote to her about students who relied so heavily on ready digital information that they were unprepared to address basic problems onsite. There were the neurosurgeons who worried about the “cut-and-paste chart mentality” that their students exhibited, missing crucial details because they failed to delve deeply enough into any one case. And there were, of course, the English teachers who lamented that no one wanted to read Henry James anymore.

We don’t read the same way online as we do on paper:

When Ziming Liu, a professor at San Jose State University whose research centers on digital reading and the use of e-books, conducted a review of studies that compared print and digital reading experiences, supplementing their conclusions with his own research, he found that several things had changed. On screen, people tended to browse and scan, to look for keywords, and to read in a less linear, more selective fashion. On the page, they tended to concentrate more on following the text. Skimming, Liu concluded, had become the new reading: the more we read online, the more likely we were to move quickly, without stopping to ponder any one thought.

The online world, too, tends to exhaust our resources more quickly than the page. We become tired from the constant need to filter out hyperlinks and possible distractions. And our eyes themselves may grow fatigued from the constantly shifting screens, layouts, colors, and contrasts, an effect that holds for e-readers as well as computers. Mary Dyson, a psychologist at the University of Reading who studies how we perceive and interact with typography and design online and in print, has found that the layout of a text can have a significant effect on the reading experience. We read more quickly when lines are longer, but only to a point. When lines are too long, it becomes taxing to move your eyes from the end of one to the start of the next. We read more efficiently when text is arranged in a single column rather than multiple columns or sections. The font, color, and size of text can all act in tandem to make our reading experience easier or more difficult. And while these variables surely exist on paper just as they do on-screen, the range of formats and layouts online is far greater than it is in print. Online, you can find yourself transitioning to entirely new layouts from moment to moment, and, each time you do so, your eyes and your reading approach need to adjust. Each adjustment, in turn, takes mental and physical energy.


When Mangen tested the readers’ comprehension, she found that the medium mattered a lot. When readers were asked to place a series of events from the story in chronological order — a simple plot-reconstruction task, not requiring any deep analysis or critical thinking — those who had read the story in print fared significantly better, making fewer mistakes and recreating an over-all more accurate version of the story. The words looked identical — Kindle e-ink is designed to mimic the printed page — but their physical materiality mattered for basic comprehension.


Julie Coiro, who studies digital reading comprehension in elementary- and middle-school students at the University of Rhode Island, has found that good reading in print doesn’t necessarily translate to good reading on-screen. The students do not only differ in their abilities and preferences; they also need different sorts of training to excel at each medium. The online world, she argues, may require students to exercise much greater self-control than a physical book. “In reading on paper, you may have to monitor yourself once, to actually pick up the book,” she says. “On the Internet, that monitoring and self-regulation cycle happens again and again. And if you’re the kind of person who’s naturally good at self-monitoring, you don’t have a problem. But if you’re a reader who hasn’t been trained to pay attention, each time you click a link, you’re constructing your own text. And when you’re asked comprehension questions, it’s like you picked up the wrong book.”

Maybe the decline of deep reading isn’t due to reading skill atrophy but to the need to develop a very different sort of skill, that of teaching yourself to focus your attention. (Interestingly, Coiro found that gamers were often better online readers: they were more comfortable in the medium and better able to stay on task.) In a study comparing digital and print comprehension of a short nonfiction text, Rakefet Ackerman and Morris Goldsmith found that students fared equally well on a post-reading multiple-choice test when they were given a fixed amount of time to read, but that their digital performance plummeted when they had to regulate their time themselves. The digital deficit, they suggest, isn’t a result of the medium as such but rather of a failure of self-knowledge and self-control: we don’t realize that digital comprehension may take just as much time as reading a book.

Last year, Patricia Greenfield, a psychologist at the University of California, Los Angeles, and her colleagues found that multitasking while reading on a computer or a tablet slowed readers down, but their comprehension remained unaffected. What did suffer was the quality of a subsequent report that they wrote to synthesize their reading: if they read the original texts on paper or a computer with no Internet access, their end product was superior to that of their Internet-enabled counterparts. If the online readers took notes on paper, however, the negative effects of Internet access were significantly reduced. It wasn’t the screen that disrupted the fuller synthesis of deep reading; it was the allure of multitasking on the Internet and a failure to properly mitigate its impact.

Indeed, some data suggest that, in certain environments and on certain types of tasks, we can read equally well in any format. As far back as 1988, the University College of Swansea psychologists David Oborne and Doreen Holton compared text comprehension for reading on different screens and paper formats (dark characters on a light background, or light characters on a dark background), and found no differences in speed and comprehension between the four conditions. Their subjects, of course, didn’t have the Internet to distract them. In 2011, Annette Taylor, a psychologist at the University of San Diego, similarly found that students performed equally well on a twenty-question multiple-choice comprehension test whether they had read a chapter on-screen or on paper. Given a second test one week later, the two groups’ performances were still indistinguishable. And it’s not just reading. Last year, Sigal Eden and Yoram Eshet-Alkalai found no difference in accuracy between students who edited a six-hundred-word paper on the screen and those who worked on paper. Those who edited on-screen did so faster, but their performance didn’t suffer.

I must admit, I’m surprised that editing on screen works just as well as on paper.

Wolf is optimistic that we can learn to navigate online reading just as deeply as we once did print — if we go about it with the necessary thoughtfulness. In a new study, the introduction of an interactive annotation component helped improve comprehension and reading strategy use in a group of fifth graders. It turns out that they could read deeply. They just had to be taught how. Wolf is now working on digital apps to train students in the tools of deep reading, to use the digital world to teach the sorts of skills we tend to associate with quiet contemplation and physical volumes.

The Morals of Chess

Thursday, June 11th, 2015

The game of Chess is not merely an idle amusement, Benjamin Franklin explains, in the opening of The Morals of Chess:

Several very valuable qualities of the mind, useful in the course of human life, are to be acquired or strengthened by it, so as to become habits, ready on all occasions. For life is a kind of chess, in which we have often points to gain, and competitors or adversaries to contend with, and in which there is a vast variety of good and ill events, that are, in some degree, the effects of prudence or the want of it. By playing at chess, then, we may learn:

1. Foresight, which looks a little into futurity, and considers the consequences that may attend an action: for it is continually occurring to the player, “If I move this piece, what will be the advantages of my new situation? What use can my adversary make of it to annoy me? What other moves can I make to support it, and to defend myself from his attacks?

2. Circumspection, which surveys the whole chess-board, or scene of action, the relations of the several pieces and situations, the dangers they are respectively exposed to, the several possibilities of their aiding each other; the probabilities that the adversary may make this or that move, and attack this or the other piece; and what different means can be used to avoid his stroke, or turn its consequences against him.

3. Caution, not to make our moves too hastily. This habit is best acquired by observing strictly the laws of the game, such as, if you touch a piece, you must move it somewhere; if you set it down, you must let it stand. And it is therefore best that these rules should be observed, as the game thereby becomes more the image of human life, and particularly of war; in which, if you have incautiously put yourself into a bad and dangerous position, you cannot obtain your enemy’s leave to withdraw your troops, and place them more securely; but you must abide all the consequences of your rashness.

And, lastly, we learn by chess the habit of not being discouraged by present bad appearances in the state of our affairs, the habit of hoping for a favourable change, and that of persevering in the search of resources. The game is so full of events, there is such a variety of turns in it, the fortune of it is so subject to sudden vicissitudes, and one so frequently, after long contemplation, discovers the means of extricating one’s self from a supposed insurmountable difficulty, that one is encouraged to continue the contest to the last, in hopes of victory by our own skill, or, at least, of giving a stale mate, by the negligence of our adversary. And whoever considers, what in chess he often sees instances of, that particular pieces of success are apt to produce presumption, and its consequent, inattention, by which more is afterwards lost than was gained by the preceding advantage; while misfortunes produce more care and attention, by which the loss may be recovered, will learn not to be too much discouraged by the present success of his adversary, nor to despair of final good fortune, upon every little check he receives in the pursuit of it.

(Hat tip to T. Greer.)

The Education Myth

Tuesday, June 9th, 2015

The push for better education is an experiment that has already been carried out globally, and the long-term payoff has been surprisingly disappointing:

In the 50 years from 1960 to 2010, the global labor force’s average time in school essentially tripled, from 2.8 years to 8.3 years. This means that the average worker in a median country went from less than half a primary education to more than half a high school education.

How much richer should these countries have expected to become? In 1965, France had a labor force that averaged less than five years of schooling and a per capita income of $14,000 (at 2005 prices). In 2010, countries with a similar level of education had a per capita income of less than $1,000.

In 1960, countries with an education level of 8.3 years of schooling were 5.5 times richer than those with 2.8 year of schooling. By contrast, countries that had increased their education from 2.8 years of schooling in 1960 to 8.3 years of schooling in 2010 were only 167% richer. Moreover, much of this increase cannot possibly be attributed to education, as workers in 2010 had the advantage of technologies that were 50 years more advanced than those in 1960. Clearly, something other than education is needed to generate prosperity.

As is often the case, the experience of individual countries is more revealing than the averages. China started with less education than Tunisia, Mexico, Kenya, or Iran in 1960, and had made less progress than them by 2010. And yet, in terms of economic growth, China blew all of them out of the water. The same can be said of Thailand and Indonesia vis-à-vis the Philippines, Cameroon, Ghana, or Panama. Again, the fast growers must be doing something in addition to providing education.

The experience within countries is also revealing. In Mexico, the average income of men aged 25-30 with a full primary education differs by more than a factor of three between poorer municipalities and richer ones. The difference cannot possibly be related to educational quality, because those who moved from poor municipalities to richer ones also earned more.

And there is more bad news for the “education, education, education” crowd: Most of the skills that a labor force possesses were acquired on the job. What a society knows how to do is known mainly in its firms, not in its schools. At most modern firms, fewer than 15% of the positions are open for entry-level workers, meaning that employers demand something that the education system cannot — and is not expected — to provide.

When presented with these facts, education enthusiasts often argue that education is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for growth. But in that case, investment in education is unlikely to deliver much if the other conditions are missing. After all, though the typical country with ten years of schooling had a per capita income of $30,000 in 2010, per capita income in Albania, Armenia, and Sri Lanka, which have achieved that level of schooling, was less than $5,000. Whatever is preventing these countries from becoming richer, it is not lack of education.

A country’s income is the sum of the output produced by each worker. To increase income, we need to increase worker productivity. Evidently, “something in the water,” other than education, makes people much more productive in some places than in others. A successful growth strategy needs to figure out what this is.

NHL Analytics Tracking of 8U Hockey Players

Wednesday, June 3rd, 2015

USA Hockey applied the NHL’s cutting-edge analytics technology to eight-and-under players, and found that the kids played more like the pros when they played cross-ice, rather than on the whole, wide-open rink:

Smaller rinks came up while discussing kid-sized spaces earlier.

The Mirman School

Monday, June 1st, 2015

I did not realize where Elon Musk was sending his children before he created his Ad Astra school:

Musk pulled some of his children (and Ad Astra’s first teacher) from Los Angeles’ Mirman School, a private educational institution for gifted children that requires pupils to pass an IQ test and also does not have traditional grade levels. Its alumni include former Microsoft chief technology officer Nathan Myhrvold. A school newsletter written by a parent boasted of Musk being a “Mirman parent” after a class toured SpaceX’s factory.

“Mirman’s proven 52 year track record as an exceptional school for highly gifted children should not be disregarded, yet we have absolutely no ill will towards Elon or his new educational venture,” Geoffrey Gardner, Mirman’s spokesperson, told Quartz in an e-mail. “As an institution, we would like to see many more schools founded across the country that serve our unique population of gifted learners, and we wish him (and his students) nothing but the best.”

The Mirman School‘s motto, by the way, is contendite ad astra — reach for the stars.

Ad Astra School

Sunday, May 31st, 2015

In an interview for Chinese television, Elon Musk mentions (at 24:45) that he created his own school to educate his five boys — and the children of other SpaceX employees, too:

Jonathan Gottschall’s Fighting Words

Saturday, May 30th, 2015

Jonathan Gottschall tried to save literary studies. Instead he ruined his career:

A “distinguished fellow” at Washington & Jefferson College (he doesn’t teach or get paid, but he does get to use the campus library), Gottschall has had his work cited in The New York Times Magazine, The New Yorker, The Chronicle Review, Nature, Science, Scientific American, and The New York Times, which in 2010 ran a photo of him under the headline “Next Big Thing in English: Knowing They Know That You Know.”

Today he characterizes his academic career in a different way: “Dead in the water.”


The story of how things went so wrong for a promising young scholar is one of disciplinary politics, contentious methodological debates, and the respective statures of the sciences and the humanities. Above all it is the story of how brash literary Darwinists and evolutionary theorists attempted to “save” English departments — by forcing them to adopt scientific methodology — and were, on the whole, repelled.


He was a graduate student in English at Binghamton University in 1996, when one day he picked up a copy of Desmond Morris’s The Naked Ape for 50 cents. He was at the time reading the Iliad in a seminar and found that Morris’s zoological method — studying human beings in light of their evolutionary needs and desires — broke open the poem. Suddenly characters’ violent behavior — their petty jealousies, vendettas, rapes, and homicides — made sense in light of the evolutionary impulses for social dominance, desirable mates, and material resources.

When Gottschall proposed writing on Homer from an evolutionary angle, though, his professor discouraged him. Instead, in 1990s literary-studies fashion, he wrote a Lacanian analysis. (Reflecting on the incident, he says that was to his “great shame.”) It was only a temporary capitulation. He insisted on writing his dissertation on Homer, male violence, and evolution, and did so in “de facto exile” from the English department. His dissertation committee was made up of a classicist, Zola Pavlovskis-Petit; an economist, Haim Ofek; and an evolutionary biologist, David Sloan Wilson, and he received his Ph.D. in 2000.

In 2005, Gottschall edited a volume of essays with Wilson, The Literary Animal: Evolution and the Nature of Narrative. The collection, to which Gottschall contributed a critique of social constructivism in feminist studies of fairy tales, was rejected by some 20 publishers before Northwestern University Press accepted it. In his foreword, E.O. Wilson, the sociobiologist and author of Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge (1998), laid out the stakes. If “naturalistic theorists” like Gottschall are right, Wilson wrote, “and not only human nature but its outermost literary productions can be solidly connected to biological roots, it will be one of the great events of intellectual history.”

Gottschall had two more books published in 2008: The Rape of Troy (Cambridge University Press), which is an evolutionary reading of Homer, and Literature, Science, and a New Humanities (Palgrave Macmillan), which is part manifesto for the adoption of scientific theories and methods in literary studies, and part case studies that perform such work. Gottschall analyzes, for example, the language of male and female attractiveness in folk tales and also attempts to determine if romantic love is a literary universal. His answer: Signs point to yes.

In the 1990s, says Joseph Carroll, a literary Darwinist who is a professor of English at the University of Missouri at St. Louis, the idea of incorporating evolutionary biology into literary studies “was a broad general program; nobody knew how to put it into practice.” He regards Literature, Science, and a New Humanities, in which Gottschall tagged, coded, and quantified language, as a proof of concept. Given adequate academic resources, that kind of work could take root and advance the scientific study of literature.

The book opens as a polemic in which Gottschall diagnoses a “thick malaise” in the humanities and describes literary studies as a field beset by “moral vanity” and “contempt for reality.” He calls for “upheaval,” arguing that “the alternative is to let literature study keep spinning off into a corner of irrelevance to die.” Those are not the words of a scholar looking to ingratiate himself into the profession.

In the atrium of the science center, Gottschall explains his combative tone: “Everyone agreed the field was deteriorating, on the verge of imploding.” His mind-set at the time was, “How do we save the sinking ship?,” he says, his voice echoing off the marble. Then as now, the economic situation for literature Ph.D.’s was perilous, morale low, and, Gottschall believes, intellectual progress had stalled.

Gottschall’s work started to receive attention. His books were blurbed by E.O. Wilson and Steven Pinker, the Harvard University psychologist. The New York Times Magazine’s 2005 article, titled “The Literary Darwinists,” gave momentum to the emerging field. “I was like, ‘OK, well, this is going to blow it open,’” Gottschall recalls thinking. “It was a pretty giddy feeling.”

That excitement never transferred to the academy. While “literary Darwinists” and apostles of consilience like Gottschall were embraced by the news media and popular press, English professors gave them a chillier reception. “First people tried to ignore us, thinking we would die off of asphyxiation,” says Brian Boyd, a Nabokov scholar and professor of English at the University of Auckland. “We battled on.”

Remembering the “devastating and false” ideologies of social Darwinism and eugenics, literary scholars like G. Gabrielle Starr, a professor of English at New York University, were dubious. “Evolution does not have all the answers to all the questions raised by and about works of art, and any claim to the contrary is nonsense,” she wrote in an email. She adds that scholars can “engage with evolution fruitfully in studying literature and other arts without treating it as the key to all mythologies.”

While most in the field ignored Gottschall and company, Jonathan Kramnick, a professor of English at Yale University, engaged them in a Critical Inquiry article in 2011 titled “Against Literary Darwinism.” Its evolutionary psychology, he argued, “is both more controversial as science than they let on and less promising as a basis for criticism than they might wish.”

“Literary Darwinists did not respect the modes of explanation particular to literary studies,” Kramnick says, “not only the close reading and formal analysis of texts but also historical contextualization and the considered engagement with other critics and scholars.” They wanted to junk all of that to concentrate on scientific themes, he says. “Literary studies has its own particular mode of explanation and disciplinary rationale. They wanted to ignore both.”

Six responses — from Carroll; Boyd; Blakey Vermeule, of Stanford University; and Paul Bloom, of Yale, among them — were published in the journal in 2012, ranging from hostility to acceptance, and Kramnick responded. “I get more email about those two articles than about anything else I’ve ever written,” he says, describing much of the correspondence as a version of “Thank you for doing this so I don’t have to do it myself.”

Gottschall, meanwhile, floundered on the job market. In roughly a decade of seeking a stable academic post, he’s had only one formal interview, around seven years ago. It didn’t go well. “Steven Pinker, E.O. Wilson, they have great power, but they don’t have hiring ability in English departments,” he says. “Becoming a scholar was my boyhood dream. It was the great ambition of my life. I devoted about half my life to it, and it was almost entirely rejected. I do feel sad about that. For a while I was really quite heartbroken.”

Unlock the School Library

Monday, May 25th, 2015

Bryan Caplan suggests that we unlock the school library:

By this I mean…

  1. Give kids the option of hanging out at the library during every break period.
  2. Give kids the option of hanging out the library in lieu of electives.

My elementary, junior high, and high schools all had marvelous libraries. But they were virtually always closed to the student body. You couldn’t go during recess or lunch. And you certainly couldn’t say, “Instead of taking music, dance, art, P.E., woodshop, I’ll read in the library.” Virtually the only time I entered a school library was when an entire class went as part of an assignment.

Caplan is pretty transparently promoting what he would have preferred as a kid:

Socially, unlocking the library allows students to escape pointless classes, boring teachers, and obnoxious peers. It also gives kids a chance to exercise independence and self-control.

In his mind, making kids take music, dance, art, P.E., or woodshop is simply bossing them around, because adults like that.

Michael Strong suggests something I’ve been thinking about for years:

I’ve often proposed a low-cost chain of schools in which grades 3-8 consisted of nothing but reading and playing chess (or similar self-guided, cognitively rich activities that develop intellectual focus) — with no teaching of any subjects at all. It would cost almost nothing at all to supervise because the adults need to play no active role other than keep things quiet. I predict students in such a program would, after a year or two of updating their math and writing skills in grade 9, dramatically outperform most students from conventional educational programs. We are forcing students through expensive, boring, humiliating rituals for no reason at all.