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).

Training for What?

Wednesday, August 6th, 2014

Our commitment to good schools is not matched by a similar commitment to defining what they should be good for:

The aim of education is to prepare students for adult life. So the role of schools should be thought through only after we have identified the challenges of adult life. If school is essentially conceived as a training, we need to explain what it is training for. What are the relevant difficulties and challenges that we need to be equipped to deal with?


If we work backwards from life, it is clear that schools fail all but a tiny portion of their students. This is a generic problem, as much in evidence in posh, highly academic private schools as in more deprived, government-run ones. Trouble around work and relationships remains very widespread indeed.


In the Utopia, unlike today, schools would be designed by people who asked systematically about the main problems in people’s work and home lives – and then worked backwards to put adequate, thoughtful responses in place in the training years.

Students in our society should learn about capitalism, business, consumption, self-knowledge, and relationships.

Running Education

Monday, July 28th, 2014

Liberals are completely amnesiac about how they’ve been running education for a long, long time, Steve Sailer notes:

For instance, I went to a Catholic parochial school with nuns, and there was a little knuckle-rapping still going on in the mid-1960s. But by the time I got to St. Francis de Sales’ 7th grade in 1970, the younger teachers had staged a coup and organized a junior high school teaching collective that was more relevant. Most of my schooling in 1970-72, as far as I can remember, consisted of listening in class to album sides from Abbey Road, Deja Vu, Hair, and Jesus Christ Superstar for examples of symbols and metaphors, and sitting in a circle and rapping about how the deaths of Hendrix, Joplin, and Morison bummed us out.

And this was at a prim parochial school. I went to public Millikan Junior High for summer school those years and it looked like Dazed and Confused. Granted, St. Francis de Sales is just over Coldwater Canyon from the Sunset Strip, so we were probably a year or two out in the lead of the rest of the country, but your junior high school probably went through the same changes within a half decade.

Inadequacy of our Historical Studies

Tuesday, July 22nd, 2014

Sir John Glubb laments the inadequacy of our historical studies:

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

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

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

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

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

Why Poor Schools Can’t Win at Standardized Testing

Wednesday, July 16th, 2014

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

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

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

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

Reading to Newborns is Probably Useless

Saturday, July 12th, 2014

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

Can Video Games Make You Smarter?

Friday, July 11th, 2014

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

Alone With Their Thoughts

Wednesday, July 9th, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The real “grabber” is this bit though:

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Open Learning

Tuesday, July 8th, 2014

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

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

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

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

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