Video Conference Seminars

Wednesday, September 10th, 2014

Is the Minerva Project the future of college?

Minerva is an accredited university with administrative offices and a dorm in San Francisco, and it plans to open locations in at least six other major world cities. But the key to Minerva, what sets it apart most jarringly from traditional universities, is a proprietary online platform developed to apply pedagogical practices that have been studied and vetted by one of the world’s foremost psychologists, a former Harvard dean named Stephen M. Kosslyn, who joined Minerva in 2012.

Nelson and Kosslyn had invited me to sit in on a test run of the platform, and at first it reminded me of the opening credits of The Brady Bunch: a grid of images of the professor and eight “students” (the others were all Minerva employees) appeared on the screen before me, and we introduced ourselves.

[...]

[French physicist Eric] Bonabeau began by polling us on our understanding of the reading, a Nature article about the sudden depletion of North Atlantic cod in the early 1990s. He asked us which of four possible interpretations of the article was the most accurate. In an ordinary undergraduate seminar, this might have been an occasion for timid silence, until the class’s biggest loudmouth or most caffeinated student ventured a guess. But the Minerva class extended no refuge for the timid, nor privilege for the garrulous. Within seconds, every student had to provide an answer, and Bonabeau displayed our choices so that we could be called upon to defend them.

Bonabeau led the class like a benevolent dictator, subjecting us to pop quizzes, cold calls, and pedagogical tactics that during an in-the-flesh seminar would have taken precious minutes of class time to arrange. He split us into groups to defend opposite propositions—that the cod had disappeared because of overfishing, or that other factors were to blame. No one needed to shuffle seats; Bonabeau just pushed a button, and the students in the other group vanished from my screen, leaving my three fellow debaters and me to plan, using a shared bulletin board on which we could record our ideas. Bonabeau bounced between the two groups to offer advice as we worked.

(Hat tip to Al Fin.)

A Tale of Two Charter Schools

Wednesday, September 10th, 2014

Michael Strong tells a tale of two charter schools, both starting their fourth year of operation:

School A is in a precarious position. Started by an uncertified, incompetent administrator, it has received numerous audit findings and has received low performance ratings from the state department of education. State-mandated academic standards were not being taught. Many of the original faculty were unqualified, though that is finally being remedied. Building code violations were a problem throughout its first several years. The school was chronically late turning its data in to the state. Discipline problems were chronic at the school; on one occasion an unlicensed volunteer teacher tried to choke a student in the classroom. At one point the school had to be supervised by the local district because it lacked a qualified administrator; the second one had quit after only one semester. Although it is now led by an experienced, professional, properly licensed administrator, given the school’s history of chronic problems it is not surprising that the school district questions the ongoing independence of the school and has filed a complaint against the school with the state department of education. The school may yet be shut down as the district believes it ought to be.

School B is arguably one of the greatest charter school success stories in the nation. Started by an experienced administrator whose innovative pedagogy had been recognized by leading national experts in learnable intelligence and brain-based learning as well as a McArthur Genius award-winning educator, the school has been dramatically successful at creating a culture of learning in one of the most academically backward regions of the country. In its second year of operation, the school had taken students who had never taken an AP test at their previous school (AP was almost non-existent in this part of the country) and become one of the top 200 public high schools in the country based on Newsweek’s Challenge Index. In its third year of operation, it had moved into the top 100 in the nation. The state AP organization organized a week-long summer AP training so that the administrator and faculty could share their expertise with other teachers across the state. SAT scores increased at a rate double the national average. The federal department of education awarded the school a large grant to replicate its physical education program in charter schools across the state. Several foundations rewarded the school with hundreds of thousands of dollars of grants for its obvious successes. Most of the students love the school and love learning at the school. Teachers moved from across the country to teach at the school. Parents moved from across the country to send their children to this school. Students across a broad range of learning abilities, including highly gifted and autistic students, flourish at the school. Twenty percent of the students commute almost an hour each direction through a dangerous mountain canyon to get to this school. Residents of nearby towns have expressed an interest in having this school replicate itself so that their children can benefit from this school’s unique program.

The challenge facing those who would like to see charter schools lead innovation and thereby improve education for all students? School A and School B are the same school, the first seen through the eyes of the state and the second through the eyes of supporters of the school.

He recommends reading Seeing Like a State to better understand the problem.

How to Give Your Child an Expensive Private Education — For Less Than $3,000 per Year

Tuesday, September 9th, 2014

Michael Strong explains how to give your child an expensive private education for less than $3,000 per year — by working toward complete autodidacticism with a coach, rather than covering curriculum with a teacher:

Consider the advantage your child will have had if she has spent 3–5 hours each day reading for the past ten years, 2–3 hours engaged in mathematical activity for the past ten years, and 2–3 hours writing each day for the past ten years.  Most students sit in class listening for six hours per so each day, of which much of that time actually consists of teachers managing the class rather than teaching.  The only real time that children practice skills are when they do homework at night, at which point they may be tired and longing for play or free time.  A child that reads, writes, and does math from 9–5 p.m. each day, with time off for lunch, will spend far more hours actually learning than does a child who goes to school — plus that child will be free to spend family time together in the evening instead of chained to their desk at night doing homework.

In the early years, this means working on three things:

  1. Reading, reading, reading, and more reading.
  2. The development of sophisticated writing skills.
  3. As much advancement in mathematics as is possible.

“Whenever I encounter a student who is a habitual reader,” Strong says, “I regard the educational problem as 90% solved”:

Although this sounds odd to modern ears, in many cases some of the most famous thinkers in history self-educated simply by reading, “and then I read all the books in my father’s library.”

Just as reading skills are developed by means of many hours of reading, writing skills are developed by means of many hours of writing — and talking:

But expository writing, the ability to explain his or her understanding of the world and how they obtained such an understanding, is the key to all of collegiate writing and much adult professional writing. Although one can “teach” techniques for such writing, such teaching proceeds far more naturally if one has spent many thousands of hours talking with your child and asking them why they liked the story, why they respected certain characters, how and why they might have handled certain situations differently, etc.

The ideal is to create a home atmosphere in which thinking and talking about life and how one understands life has become second nature, in which dinner time conversations routinely move ever more deeply into explorations of what happened during the day and why, in which explicitly understanding the world by means of conscious thought is the daily norm.

For children raised in such a rich dialogic atmosphere, for children who have “rehearsed” their thoughts in conversations for thousands of hours, expository writing becomes a natural extension of their habitual conversations. As they write more and longer pieces, you as parent, or a hired writing coach if you prefer, can assign various structures, coach on the detailed use of mechanics, and develop in your child a rich, distinctive writing voice well before adolescence. Indeed, a bright child raised in a conversationally rich home environment can easily develop a mastery of Strunk and White by means of coached writing of long essays while most school children are still doing formulaic book reports at school.

The chief flaw of most school math programs is that the pace is far too slow:

Develop in your child the habit of sitting down to work on solving mathematics problems for at least an hour per day, preferably a couple of hours per day.

Many children spontaneously love to read, and do not need to be forced to read. With a sufficiently rich conversational atmosphere, one can develop in young people an appetite for writing. Such a spontaneous love for mathematical problem solving seems to be rarer. This is the single area in which the development of a routine, daily disciplined work period is probably the most important.

Math curricula are fairly linear and standardized. You (or your child’s math coach) should closely monitor progress to ensure that the child is practicing enough to learn each concept without engaging in repetition to the point of boredom. Ideally this would be highly individualized; there are some children who grasp some mathematical concepts almost instantaneously and do not need many repetitions. Other students may need many repetitions of some concepts but grasp other concepts quickly. Individualized mathematics coaching, combined with an ideal of two hours of highly disciplined practice each day, is one way in which your child can develop a tremendous advantage over students in school. Because even elite private schools typically adhere to the glacial grade level pace of American mathematics education, a personally coached mathematics student with good work habits can easily arrive at middle school age one, two, three or more years ahead of his or her age-level peers.

At some point your child should undertake a substantial enterprise:

In traditional cultures young people typically underwent a right of passage at the age of thirteen or so, after which they were welcomed into the adult community with adult responsibilities. In American culture prior to the imposition of compulsory schooling, individuals such as Benjamin Franklin, Andrew Carnegie, and Thomas Edison began their careers at thirteen and built a foundation for lifetime achievement upon real world achievements in adolescence. This type of real world achievement should be a goal for you and your child.

Often parents eager to get their children into elite colleges are eager for their children to participate in many school “activities.” And yet colleges are overwhelmed with students who list participation in numerous activities. They are more interested in real achievement than in long lists of “participations.” It is one thing to be student body president; it is another to create a successful business, publish an academic article, or develop a career as a professional musician prior to entry into college.

Existing K-12 education, Strong notes, is largely training in immaturity:

We neither expect nor allow our children to aspire to real achievement. It is all a game for children, and they know it. One of the goals of having read real books, magazines, journals, and newspapers rather than textbooks is to have introduced your child fully into the adult world as it really is. They should know about business, and government, and relationships, and entertainment not as “subjects” to be taught but as living realities in the adult communities in which they were raised. The thousands of hours of conversations should have focused them not on preparation for tests, but rather on understanding the real world of real life.

So, how much does this education cost?

Twenty-five dollars an hour buys an excellent tutor (or academic coach) in most parts of the country. Many graduate students or retired people would be glad to teach a well-behaved, motivated young person for $25 per hour. Two days of mathematics coaching would thus be $50 per week; another two days of humanities (reading, writing, and conversation) coaching would be another $50 per week. At one hundred dollars per week one can buy thirty weeks per year of personalized academic coaching for $3,000.

Minerva Project Business Plan

Tuesday, September 9th, 2014

The Minerva Project has an unusual business plan:

To seed this first class with talent, Minerva gave every admitted student a full-tuition scholarship of $10,000 a year for four years, plus free housing in San Francisco for the first year. Next year’s class is expected to have 200 to 300 students, and Minerva hopes future classes will double in size roughly every year for a few years after that.

Those future students will pay about $28,000 a year, including room and board, a $30,000 savings over the sticker price of many of the schools — the Ivies, plus other hyperselective colleges like Pomona and Williams — with which Minerva hopes to compete. (Most American students at these colleges do not pay full price, of course; Minerva will offer financial aid and target middle-class students whose bills at the other schools would still be tens of thousands of dollars more per year.) If Minerva grows to 2,500 students a class, that would mean an annual revenue of up to $280 million. A partnership with the Keck Graduate Institute in Claremont, California, allowed Minerva to fast-track its accreditation, and its advisory board has included Larry Summers, the former U.S. Treasury secretary and Harvard president, and Bob Kerrey, the former Democratic senator from Nebraska, who also served as the president of the New School, in New York City.

Nelson’s long-term goal for Minerva is to radically remake one of the most sclerotic sectors of the U.S. economy, one so shielded from the need for improvement that its biggest innovation in the past 30 years has been to double its costs and hire more administrators at higher salaries.

[...]

Minerva is built to make money, but Nelson insists that its motives will align with student interests. As evidence, Nelson points to the fact that the school will eschew all federal funding, to which he attributes much of the runaway cost of universities. The compliance cost of taking federal financial aid is about $1,000 per student—a tenth of Minerva’s tuition—and the aid wouldn’t be of any use to the majority of Minerva’s students, who will likely come from overseas.

Subsidies, Nelson says, encourage universities to enroll even students who aren’t likely to thrive, and to raise tuition, since federal money is pegged to costs. These effects pervade higher education, he says, but they have nothing to do with teaching students. He believes Minerva would end up hungering after federal money, too, if it ever allowed itself to be tempted. Instead, like Ulysses, it will tie itself to the mast and work with private-sector funding only. “If you put a drug”—federal funds—“into a system, the system changes itself to fit the drug. If [Minerva] took money from the government, in 20 years we’d be majority American, with substantially higher tuition. And as much as you try to create barriers, if you don’t structure it to be mission-oriented, that’s the way it will evolve.”

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.”

“Nothing.”

“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.