A Talk with an Asian Dad

Sunday, August 31st, 2014

Education Realist sat down with one of his SAT-prep students, Nick, and his dad, a genial Indian gentleman, for a little talk:

“I wonder if you could advise me on how best to prepare Nick for the PSAT this fall.”


“No practice? No classes?”

“He’s a sophomore. He was solidly over 600 on both reading and writing, over 750 on math, in all our practice tests — which are skewed difficult. If for some reason he gets lower than 60 on any section, I’d be shocked, but not because he was unprepared. He shouldn’t go back to PSAT practice until late summer or fall of junior year — he’s definitely in National Merit territory, so he’ll want to polish up.”

“But wouldn’t it be better for him to practice?”

“No. If he gets below 60 — even 65 — then look closely at his results. Was he nervous? Or just prone to attention errors? But it won’t be lack of preparation.”

“Oh, that makes sense. We are trying to see if he has any testing issues.”

“Right. Content isn’t a problem. I don’t often get kids scoring over 600 in reading and writing in this class. Which brings up another issue. I want you to think about putting Nick in Honors English and Honors World History.”

“English? That’s not Nick’s strong subject.”

“He’s an excellent writer, with an outstanding vocabulary, which means he is ready to take on more challenging literary and composition topics.”

“Really?” Dad wasn’t dismissive, but genuinely taken aback. “He gets As, of course, but I get glowing reports from his math and science teachers, not English and history. Shouldn’t he focus on science and robotics, as well as continue programming?”

“If Nick really loves any of these subjects, then of course he should keep up his work. And please know that I’m not suggesting he give up math and science. But his verbal skills are excellent.”

“But I worry he’ll fall behind.”

“He’s starting pre-calculus as a sophomore. And that’s the thing….look. You know as well as I do that Nick’s college applications will be compared against thousands of other kids who also took pre-calculus as a sophomore. His great verbal skills will stand out.”

This point struck home. “That’s true.” Dad turned to Nick. “Are any of your friends taking honors English?”

“No, most of the kids taking honors English aren’t very good at math.” (Nick’s school is 80% Asian.)

“But shouldn’t he just wait until his junior year, and take Advanced Placement US History?”

“Nick. Tell your dad why I want you to take these classes, can you?”

Nick gulped. “I need to learn how to do more than just get an A.”

“Isn’t that enough?”

I kept a straight face. “No. Nick is comfortable in math and science classes. He knows the drill. But in English and history classes, he’s just….getting it done. He needs to become proficient at using his verbal skills in classes that have high expectations. This will be a challenge. That’s why I want him to start this year, so he can build up to the more intense expectations of AP English and History. He needs to learn how to speak up in school at least as well as he does here…”

Dad looked at Nick, gobsmacked. “You talk in class?”

“….and learn how to discuss his work with teachers, get a better sense of what they want. Remember, too: Nick’s GPA and transcript is important, but ultimately, he’ll want to be able to perform in college and beyond, as an employee or an entrepreneur.”

Dad nodded; he got it. “He needs to write and read and think and express his thoughts. And this will help. Hmm. This has been most helpful. So he shouldn’t do any SAT prep this fall?”

“He shouldn’t do any SAT prep this year.”

Most Americans Want to Criminalize Pre-Teens Playing Unsupervised

Thursday, August 28th, 2014

A whopping 83 percent of Americans think there should be a law that prohibits kids 9 and under from playing at the park unsupervised, despite the fact, Lenore Skenazy points out, that most of them no doubt grew up doing just that:

A whopping 68 percent of Americans think there should be a law that prohibits kids 9 and under from playing at the park unsupervised, despite the fact that most of them no doubt grew up doing just that.

What’s more: 43 percent feel the same way about 12-year-olds. They would like to criminalize all pre-teenagers playing outside on their own (and, I guess, arrest their no-good parents).

Talked At By Famous People

Monday, August 25th, 2014

After a few months at Harvard, Michael Strong was bored by being talked at by famous people:

I arranged for a “year abroad” at St. John’s College, which is known for its Great Books curriculum, in which one reads the classic works of western civilization, including original works in math and science including those by Galileo, Kepler, Newton, Faraday, Maxwell, Einstein, Bohr, Schroedinger, etc. More importantly, all classes are taught by means of Socratic discussion, where the tutor (there are no “professors”) is simply the best student in the class. After my second day at St. John’s I knew I would never return to Harvard.

Virtue Cultures

Sunday, August 24th, 2014

All cultures prior to modern European culture were virtue cultures, Michael Strong suggests:

Humans were raised understanding that they had a role and standing in society and that their entire life was a reflection of how well they fulfilled that role. Indeed, in many cultures, this reputational effect was multigenerational: if one violated a cultural norm, it damaged one’s children, and children’s children, and so forth.

Each culture had a vision of excellence in that society. This vision of excellence was transmitted by means of myth and heroic tales, it was transmitted by a multitude of comments, jokes, attitudes, manners, behavioral corrections, and so forth: the very texture of day-to-day life provided a consistent, coherent template that taught young people how they were to behave. From time to time, a member of the society was sanctioned or expelled in a manner that made it perfectly clear what types of behavior were not condoned by the community. And young people were brought up in a set of cultural practices that allowed them to practice the requisite virtues of that society so that they would naturally become respectable adult participants in such a society.

Of course, western civilization has been seeking liberation from these sorts of “intolerant” virtue cultures for some 500 years. The social rebellions known as the Renaissance, the Reformation, and the Enlightenment in their resistances to traditional authorities unwittingly provided the foundation for the more radical liberations of the 20th century. In the 1920s and the 1960s it appeared as if radical individual freedom was the final goal.

What none of the liberators seems to have realized is the truth of Goethe’s insight, that “Whatever liberates our spirit without a corresponding increase in self-control is pernicious.” I continue to be committed to the liberation of the spirit; and I have gradually come to realize that as I liberate spirits, I have an absolute obligation to simultaneously provide training in self-control. Else I am responsible for disasters.

Traditional cultures did not seek to liberate the spirit: by and large, they sought to constrain the spirit within very well-defined cultural boundaries. As a consequence, they were often highly bigoted, shaming, and sometimes cruel: Zorba the Greek contrasts Zorba’s own liberated spirit with the cruel stoning of a young widow. Films continue to celebrate the liberation of the young from the constraints of traditional narrow-mindedness: See My Big Fat Greek Wedding and Bend it Like Beckham for recent sweet comedies based on the same theme. Few people who are truly knowledgeable about traditional cultures would want to return to their brutal stasis, conformity, constraints, and judgementalism.

And yet many people long for community, tradition, ritual, structure, and meaning in their lives. We (including most emphatically Socratic intellectuals such as myself) have ripped traditional societies and norms to shreds. We had to do it. There were gross injustices and bigotries. We must now re-build more humane, tolerant, decent replacements for those earlier meaning systems.

He notes that we only see honor in fantasy and sci-fi characters:

In reading about the concept of honor in Japanese society at Bronze Doors last week I noticed, as is typically the case, that the students are fascinated. Adolescents, I find, crave a sense of honor. I asked them if characters in science fiction and fantasy had a sense of honor, and they all acknowledged that usually such characters did have honor, and that that was partly why they loved those genres.

And then I asked if the people in reality tv shows had honor, and those who were familiar with such shows agreed that those people did not.

How strange it is that young people in our society must look to fantasy novels to enter a world in which honor is a living reality, and yet “reality” television typically shows us a society made up of human beings motivated entirely by short-term vanities and pleasures.

It seems abundantly evident to me that we evolved in tribes in which a sense of honor was a key element of society.

Traditional Cultural Traits

Friday, August 22nd, 2014

It has become very difficult to pass on traditional cultural traits to children in contemporary circumstances, Michael Strong laments:

In the West there are plausible claims that characteristics such as character and integrity, courage and honor are not what they used to be. In Japan, which experienced a very rapid transition to modernity in the late 19th century, older Japanese observed the rapid decline in the Samurai Bushido ethos in a matter of decades. Alaska natives saw an even more rapid introduction to modernity in the mid-20th century, in which thousand-year old survival skills ranging from hunting knowledge to extraordinary physical toughness and prowess, vanished almost overnight.

A skeptic may suggest: Fine and good, but we don’t really need seal-hunting skills, arctic survival skills, Samurai self-discipline and shame, or perhaps even old-style honor and integrity. Regardless of what one thinks of these claims, my point is that if there were any human characteristics whatsoever that required long tutelage by trained masters in a supportive culture they would be invisible to us at present. There may be amazing capabilities that might allow human beings to adapt to the 21st century but which do not exist, which cannot exist, because our society has prevented the development of those institutions that would bring forth such human capabilities.

Traditional cultures, having evolved through centuries of interaction with a relatively stable environment, are models of such integrated, coherent cultures. “Education” in such cultures was a natural, unconscious experience in which young people gradually learned the practices of their culture. With the exception of the rapidly disappearing vestigial remains of such cultures, human beings today are raised in a more or less incoherent cultural universe. In the absence of a coherent culture, humans are more likely to find themselves prey to impulsive and compulsive behaviors, variously directed towards material goods, status, sex, food, vanity, emotional attachments, gambling, electronic stimulation (television, video games, etc.), or drugs. We are very complex organisms; in order to live as healthy adults, we need to be raised well.

Public Health Benefits of Culture

Thursday, August 21st, 2014

The Latter-Day Saints (Mormons) provide a dramatic case study of the “public health” benefits resulting from involvement in a particular culture:

The Mormons have created a distinctive culture with remarkable health and welfare benefits. Utah, where 70% of the population are Mormon, has the lowest, or near the lowest, rates of smoking, lung cancer, heart disease, alcohol consumption, abortions, out-of-wedlock births, work-days missed due to illness, and the lowest child poverty rate in the country. Utah ranks highest in the nation in number of AP tests taken, number of AP tests passed, scientists produced per capita, percentage of households with personal computers, and proportion of income given to charity.

Utah is often ranked among the best places to live and the best places to raise children. Provo, more than 90% Mormon, was ranked by Self magazine as the healthiest city for women in the country, because it had the lowest incidence of cancer, violence, depression, etc.

Within Utah, it is clear that Mormons are disproportionately represented within these positive statistics, and Mormon populations outside Utah share similar phenomenally positive statistics. Indeed, although no academic researcher would dare to propose such a thing, one could conclude that a mass conversion to Mormonism would reduce social problems more effectively than all welfare spending, academic research, and public health initiatives in the last fifty years.

Practical Guidance for Prudent Students

Thursday, August 21st, 2014

Bryan Caplan offers practical guidance for prudent students deciding how much schooling to pursue:

  • Go to high school unless you’re a terrible student.
  • Go to college only if you’re a strong student or special case.
  • Don’t get a master degree unless the stars align.

Training in Passivity

Wednesday, August 20th, 2014

Michael Strong cites John Taylor Gatto’s description of conventional K-12 education as thirteen years’ training in passivity and dependence, meaninglessness and incoherence:

The method is the only real lesson learned by the students. Existing K-12 education largely consists of experiential indoctrination in the lesson that learning is boring, humiliating, and meaningless and that therefore the only rewards in life come from intense stimulations. Appetites for community, spirituality, art, and nature are systematically stunted in our young people in the first 18 years of their lives. As adult consumers, they then go on to create the society in which we live.

As traditional cultures erode in the face of the media mass cultures, as addictive behaviors and substances degrade the lives of increasing millions, those of us who care about human well-being have one opportunity to new cultures which are more humane while also being suitably adapted to 21st century global society. Innovative enculturating K-12 education is the only means of raising new generations with the coherence and structure of a culture in the face of the avalanche of commercial stimulation that has become inescapable and will become as addictive as any drug.

The impact of traditional cultures around the world is decreasing. Tribal cultures in Africa, Indonesia, and South America are vanishing. Ethnic subcultures in the urban U.S. are gradually disappearing. A few mass media monocultures are taking over the world: a Muslim mass culture, a Hispanic mass culture, a Chinese mass culture, and an Anglo mass culture. The traditional idiosyncrasies, practices, prejudices, and virtues of those cultures in which mankind evolved are rapidly vanishing. Insofar as traditional cultures are being replaced by new idiosyncratic cultures, for the most part the new cultures are being formed by electronic media rather than by human beings.

Around the world, life with human beings in a common culture is being replaced by daily experiences of flashy, stimulating, electronic sounds and images. Electronic stimulation is becoming increasingly potent and seductive. Technology will continue to develop ever more compelling television and video, computer and video games, musical stimulation, and virtual reality. As a teen I read a science fiction novel in which most people no longer wanted to live life; they prefer to “experience” their virtual realities, complete with electrodes to stimulate the brain so at to simulate physical experiences and mental states. “Life” consists of the virtual experience of having sex with the most attractive partners, reliving the most transcendent religious experiences of saints and martyrs, or triumphantly fighting as a gladiator engaged in orgies of violence, all “achieved” while lying down in a lounger and not moving a muscle.

Each year advances in entertainment technology bring us closer to this world. The gaming world is now a bigger industry, by revenues, than the motion picture industry. These massive revenue streams will result in ever-larger investments in ever-more sophisticated virtual experiences. Role playing games and virtual reality technologies are rapidly becoming more intensely stimulating and more intensely real.

Adolescence in America

Tuesday, August 19th, 2014

Adolescence in America is largely a disaster, Michael Strong says:

Bill McKibben, the environmentalist writer and advocate of natural living, is as harsh as any fundamentalist parent: “If one had set out to create a culture purposefully damaging to children, you couldn’t do much better than America at the end of the 20th century.” Patricia Hersch, in a book titled A Tribe Apart: A Journey into the Heart of American Adolescence, states: “All parents feel an ominous sense — like distant rumbles of thunder moving closer and closer — that even their child could be caught in the deluge of adolescent dysfunction sweeping the nation.” According to a USA Today poll, although 75% of American parents say they have taken steps to shield their children from outside influences deemed undesirable, 73% concede that limiting children’s exposure to popular culture is “nearly impossible.”

WWF wrestling is the most popular television show among adolescent males. Mary Pipher’s well-known book Reviving Ophelia makes the case that contemporary teen culture amounts to an assault on teen girls: “America today is a girl-destroying place.” Students across America acknowledge that the viciousness of high school cliques and hierarchies could lead to another Columbine massacre anywhere.

The obvious power of teen culture to shape human lives has only recently been re-recognized. We were much wiser in the 19th century. Emerson summed up the perspective well: “I pay the schoolmaster, but it is the schoolboys that educate my son.” More recently, Judith Rich Harris, in The Nurture Assumption, has shown that the majority of evidence of psychological research suggests that peers have a greater influence over young people than do parents: “In the long run it isn’t the home environment that makes the difference. It is the environment shared by children. It is the culture created by these children.”

Influenced by Our Peers

Monday, August 18th, 2014

One of our genetic predispositions, Michael Strong reminds us, is to be influenced by our peers:

The desire for acceptance, recognition, and respect from our peers and from our society is very powerful.

It is largely futile to try as individuals, or even as families, to form isolated bulwarks against the overwhelming force of pop culture. The fundamentalist Christians realize this, which is why they are so insistent on mobilizing en masse on political issues and why they are eager to home school, send their children to Christian schools, and create a voucher system as a first step in eliminating public schools. (It is also the reason why they have created Christian rock, Christian radio, Christian bookstores, Christian television stations, etc. They realize the importance of mounting a coherent, coordinated cultural campaign against pop culture.) Advocates of new culture, advocates of a more just, kind, and humane world, those who believe in human potential, all need to realize that their goals are also best realized by means of freeing education from government control.

Although a certain percentage of the high school population is working hard in order to get into competitive colleges (perhaps 20-30%), the vast majority of high school students are devoting only a small fraction of their intellectual and moral energies towards learning. For most middle and high school students, school is a social activity, a kind of game in which the goal is to obtain adequate grades while doing as little real learning as possible. The number of hours wasted, the number of dollars wasted, and the sum of human energy wasted, is colossal. No other sector of the economy has as great a potential for improvements in efficiency.

As someone who has brought numerous adult professionals into the classroom, I can say that most professional adults, who themselves worked reasonably hard in school and were reasonably polite (they were almost invariably among the 30% who actually worked in school), are shocked when they first teach contemporary students. The level of apathy and indifference to learning — the disrespect for authority — is astounding. “Beavis and Butthead” is a joke very much based in reality. Anyone who doubts this should substitute teach in a local government high school for a week. Be sure to get a course schedule that includes a few non-honors courses; the view from the high end may be misleading.

People Crave Guidance

Sunday, August 17th, 2014

Aspirations and ideals are crucial to the psyche of Western civilization, Michael Strong argues:

Marxism exercised such an extraordinary influence over millions of minds because it promised a better world. Indeed, it boggles the mind that the need for aspirations and ideals was apparently so great that a movement that was more murderous than Nazism, whose murders were repeatedly documented over a 70 year period, nevertheless continued to serve as an ongoing focus for idealism throughout 70 years of mass murder. It seems that we crave a vision for a brighter future.

Since the collapse of communism there have been no widely recognized aspirations for society. The nightmare of communism should not prevent us from having humane aspirations.

Environmentalism, multiculturalism, and anti-globalization, those movements in which the spirit of the Left lives on, are wholly inadequate as visions for the fulfillment of human potential. Conservatives mostly fight against the social changes of the last 40 years, without offering much of a positive vision of their own.

There is a large market for books and workshops on how to live a better life. The Chicken Soup for the Soul series and Stephen Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective People series are but two well-known examples. They have each become small industries in their own right; during a period in the late 90s a list of the top-selling 100 books of the year contained several volumes from each series; more than half the books overall were either inspirational or self-help. M. Scott Peck’s The Road Less Travelled has been on the New York Times bestseller list for longer than any other paperback. Apparently people crave guidance.

Many people, perhaps most people, would like to become more successful at “the art of living.” Although individuals may receive inspiration from quotations, inspirational speeches, religious sermons, works of art, or nature, very few individuals are able to learn the art of living from a quotation, a speech, a sermon, a workshop, a work of art, or an experience of nature. They must be provided with experiences in which the inspiring approach to life is constantly supported and re-enforced. Thus the emphasis that many churches place on “fellowship.” It is very difficult for us to create better lives for ourselves in isolation. We usually need peer communities to support our practice of the good, of wellness, of excellence, however we perceive such goals.

Beyond the genetic component, human beings become who they become based on the daily, moment-to-moment, manner in which they live. They learn, or fail to learn, the art of living from those around them. We have no institutions in which young people may learn better ways of living. Schools at present are mostly institutions in which young people learn worse ways of living.

Books, and Compassion, From Birth

Saturday, August 16th, 2014

Ginia Bellafonte’s anecdote about books, and compassion, from birth ends with a punchline that, Steve Sailer notes, is a litte too good:

Last year, when I was visiting a public school in Sunset Park in Brooklyn for teenagers with boundless difficulties, my host, a poet who teaches at various city schools, mentioned a student who had become pregnant. Hoping to start a library for the child soon to arrive, the poet told the young woman embarking on motherhood that she would like to give her some books — books of the kind her own grandchildren growing up in a very different Brooklyn had by the dozens. The offer was met skeptically. “I already have one,” the girl said.

“We should concentrate our energies on helping the most vulnerable parents and children beginning at, or before, birth,” she argues. Sailer quips, “How about 9 months and 1 day before birth?”

How Tests Make Us Smarter

Tuesday, August 12th, 2014

Henry L. Roediger III reviews how tests make us smarter:

One insight that we and other researchers have uncovered is that tests serve students best when they’re integrated into the regular business of learning and the stakes are not make-or-break, as in standardized testing. That means, among other things, testing new learning within the context of regular classes and study routines.

Students in classes with a regimen of regular low- or no-stakes quizzing carry their learning forward through the term, like compounded interest, and they come to embrace the regimen, even if they are skeptical at first. A little studying suffices at exam time — no cramming required.

Moreover, retrieving knowledge from memory is more beneficial when practice sessions are spaced out so that some forgetting occurs before you try to retrieve again. The added effort required to recall the information makes learning stronger. It also helps when retrieval practice is mixed up — whether you’re practicing hitting different kinds of baseball pitches or solving different solid geometry problems in a random sequence, you are better able later to discriminate what kind of pitch or geometry problem you’re facing and find the correct solution.

Surprisingly, researchers have also found that the most common study strategies — like underlining, highlighting and rereading — create illusions of mastery but are largely wasted effort, because they do not involve practice in accessing or applying what the students know.

When my colleagues and I took our research out of the lab and into a Columbia, Ill., middle school class, we found that students earned an average grade of A- on material that had been presented in class once and subsequently quizzed three times, compared with a C+ on material that had been presented in the same way and reviewed three times but not quizzed. The benefit of quizzing remained in a follow-up test eight months later.

Public Middle School Girl Culture

Monday, August 11th, 2014

Michael Strong tells a bittersweet tale about public middle school girl culture:

Upon opening the middle school, about half the incoming students were normalized Montessori students and the other half came from public schools. Among those who came from the public schools were three girls who had already adopted typical public middle school girl culture — jaded and cynical, heavy make-up and provocative clothing, socially successful cool girls. The internal Montessori culture, boys and girls alike, was sweet, open, innocent, and full of a love for learning and friendly camaraderie. The new girls hated the Montessori middle school and complained about how uncool the kids were. They lobbied their moms hard to let them return to “a normal school” so that they could get away from these weirdo kids who liked learning and being nice.

Gradually, after about six or eight weeks, the new girls began to change and adapt to the Montessori culture. By the end of the year they enjoyed the friendly, open environment and they (mostly) loved learning.

When the original Montessori students approached middle school graduation, although they knew they were going to miss Emerson School, they also were excited about entering the big world and having new experiences. When the oldest of the girls from the public school cohort approached graduation, she cried and cried bitter tears — she did not want to have to return to the culture of brutality she had known before, in which she knew that she would have to pretend to be jaded and cynical, and in which she would no longer be allowed to express the same love of learning and community that had been her daily nourishment at the Montessori school.

Again, skeptics often don’t believe, first of all, that American teen culture could be anything other than what it is. When I describe how wonderful the peer culture is in many Montessori adolescent programs, the response of many is first that it can’t really exist, and then that if it does exist it is unnatural and that kids ought to be exposed to the rough-and-tumble of public middle school life. I always reply by pointing out that, in my adult life, the only time that I experience boredom as numbing as experienced in public school is when I have to renew my driver’s license, and I never experience interpersonal cruelty as an adult. Outside a few elite suburban districts, public middle schools have mostly become brutality factories, and it is terrifying that caring parents glibly accept it everyday.

Initiative and Independence

Thursday, August 7th, 2014

Children who have been educated in a system designed to cultivate initiative and independence learn initiative and independence, Michael Strong reminds us:

Shortly after I arrived at The Emerson School in Palo Alto to create a Montessori middle school program there, three upper elementary girls, who would be entering the middle school in the fall, asked if they could speak to me. It turns out that they had been examining algebra textbooks and were requesting that I use a specific textbook in the middle school.

Now as someone who has also spent ten years working in non-Montessori schools, public and private, and consulted in hundreds more, the notion that sixth grade girls would unilaterally initiate a textbook adoption process, for algebra no less, and then present their findings openly, maturely, and politely to an adult male school director whom they had just met, is truly extraordinary. In the Montessori world, however, such behaviors are not surprising — children who have been educated in a system designed to cultivate initiative and independence learn initiative and independence.

It seems odd to have to persuade outsiders that a system designed to cultivate these traits succeeds in doing so (Montessori) whereas a system that is not designed to cultivate these traits does not do so (conventional education).