Our sin tends to be timidity, not rashness

Saturday, July 22nd, 2017

Arthur C. Brooks’ advice for young people heading out into the world is to be prudent — because prudence means something more than what we’ve been led to believe:

When I finally read the German philosopher Josef Pieper’s “The Four Cardinal Virtues,” which had sat unread on my shelf for years, I was shocked to learn that I didn’t hate prudence; what I hated was its current — and incorrect — definition. The connotation of prudence as caution, or aversion to risk, is a modern invention. “Prudence” comes from the Latin “prudentia,” meaning sagacity or expertise. The earliest English uses from the 14th century had little to do with fearfulness or habitual reluctance. Rather, it signified righteous decision making that is rooted in acuity and practical wisdom. Mr. Pieper argued that we have bastardized this classical concept. We have refashioned prudence into an excuse for cowardice, hiding behind the language of virtue to avoid what he calls “the embarrassing situation of having to be brave.” The correct definition, Mr. Pieper argued, is the willingness to do the right thing, even if that involves fear and risk. In other words, to be rash is only one breach of true prudence. It is also a breach to be timid. So which offense is more common today? [...] Our sin tends to be timidity, not rashness. On average, we say “no” too much when faced with an opportunity or dilemma.

The math students dropped out because they could not understand anything

Saturday, July 22nd, 2017

June Huh took a path less taken to the peak of the math world:

Huh was born in 1983 in California, where his parents were attending graduate school. They moved back to Seoul, South Korea, when he was two. There, his father taught statistics and his mother became one of the first professors of Russian literature in South Korea since the onset of the Cold War.

After that bad math test in elementary school, Huh says he adopted a defensive attitude toward the subject: He didn’t think he was good at math, so he decided to regard it as a barren pursuit of one logically necessary statement piled atop another. As a teenager he took to poetry instead, viewing it as a realm of true creative expression. “I knew I was smart, but I couldn’t demonstrate that with my grades, so I started to write poetry,” Huh said.

Huh wrote many poems and a couple of novellas, mostly about his own experiences as a teenager. None were ever published. By the time he enrolled at Seoul National University in 2002, he had concluded that he couldn’t make a living as a poet, so he decided to become a science journalist instead. He majored in astronomy and physics, in perhaps an unconscious nod to his latent analytic abilities.

When Huh was 24 and in his last year of college, the famed Japanese mathematician Heisuke Hironaka came to Seoul National as a visiting professor. Hironaka was in his mid-70s at the time and was a full-fledged celebrity in Japan and South Korea. He’d won the Fields Medal in 1970 and later wrote a best-selling memoir called The Joy of Learning, which a generation of Korean and Japanese parents had given their kids in the hope of nurturing the next great mathematician. At Seoul National, he taught a yearlong lecture course in a broad area of mathematics called algebraic geometry. Huh attended, thinking Hironaka might become his first subject as a journalist.

Initially Huh was among more than 100 students, including many math majors, but within a few weeks enrollment had dwindled to a handful. Huh imagines other students quit because they found Hironaka’s lectures incomprehensible. He says he persisted because he had different expectations about what he might get out of the course.

“The math students dropped out because they could not understand anything. Of course, I didn’t understand anything either, but non-math students have a different standard of what it means to understand something,” Huh said. “I did understand some of the simple examples he showed in classes, and that was good enough for me.”

After class Huh would make a point of talking to Hironaka, and the two soon began having lunch together. Hironaka remembers Huh’s initiative. “I didn’t reject students, but I didn’t always look for students, and he was just coming to me,” Hironaka recalled.

Huh tried to use these lunches to ask Hironaka questions about himself, but the conversation kept coming back to math. When it did, Huh tried not to give away how little he knew. “Somehow I was very good at pretending to understand what he was saying,” Huh said. Indeed, Hironaka doesn’t remember ever being aware of his would-be pupil’s lack of formal training. “It’s not anything I have a strong memory of. He was quite impressive to me,” he said.

As the lunchtime conversations continued, their relationship grew. Huh graduated, and Hironaka stayed on at Seoul National for two more years. During that period, Huh began working on a master’s degree in mathematics, mainly under Hironaka’s direction. The two were almost always together. Hironaka would make occasional trips back home to Japan and Huh would go with him, carrying his bag through airports and even staying with Hironaka and his wife in their Kyoto apartment.

[...]

Meanwhile, Hironaka continued to tutor Huh, working from concrete examples that Huh could understand rather than introducing him directly to general theories that might have been more than Huh could grasp. In particular, Hironaka taught Huh the nuances of singularity theory, the field where Hironaka had achieved his most famous results. Hironaka had also been trying for decades to find a proof of a major open problem — what’s called the resolution of singularities in characteristic p. “It was a lifetime project for him, and that was principally what we talked about,” Huh said. “Apparently he wanted me to continue this work.”

In 2009, at Hironaka’s urging, Huh applied to a dozen or so graduate schools in the U.S. His qualifications were slight: He hadn’t majored in math, he’d taken few graduate-level classes, and his performance in those classes had been unspectacular. His case for admission rested largely on a recommendation from Hironaka. Most admissions committees were unimpressed. Huh got rejected at every school but one, the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, where he enrolled in the fall of 2009.

At Illinois, Huh began the work that would ultimately lead him to a proof of the Rota conjecture.

Experts’ brains transform data into action

Friday, July 21st, 2017

Neuroscientists Jason Sherwin and Jordan Muraskin are studying what happens inside the brain of a baseball player trying to hit a pitch:

Sherwin and Muraskin think they’ve identified a pattern of brain activation in professional hitters. One key area is the fusiform gyrus, a small spot at the bottom of the brain that is crucial for object recognition. For baseball players, this region is much more active during hitting. Recent data also suggests that in experts the fusiform gyrus may be more connected to the motor cortex, which controls movement. Sajda says this has important implications because the increased connection could indicate that experts’ brains are more efficient at transforming data about the pitch into movement.

The expert hitters also tend to use their frontal cortex — a part of the brain that is generally in charge of deliberate decision-making — less than nonexperts do when hitting. (When we decide to order a baked potato rather than french fries, it’s a good bet that our frontal cortex is deeply involved. However, this part of the brain tends to make decisions more slowly and meticulously; it is not adept at split-second choices.)

This diminished frontal participation is crucial, they say. “Players seem to make the decision in their motor cortex rather than their frontal cortex,” Sajda says. “Their brains recognize and act on pitches more efficiently.”

Another key area that appears to be more energized among expert hitters is the supplementary motor area (SMA), a small region at the top of the brain. It is involved in the coordination of sequences of preplanned movements such as hitting. In expert hitters, this area is especially active as the pitcher winds up and as the pitch approaches the plate. In essence, the researchers say, experts are better at preparing to swing.

Muraskin thinks that the SMA plays a key role in helping hitters choose when not to swing. Many good hitters — the Nationals’ Daniel Murphy is known for this — have a preternatural ability to wait for the “right” pitch, the pitch they can hit. In other words, they excel at inhibiting their swing. “When you choose not to swing, that’s a choice,” Muraskin says. “It is a learned expertise.”

The games get increasingly difficult as the player’s heart rate increases

Tuesday, July 18th, 2017

Boston Children’s Hospital researchers have developed videogames for children who need to learn how to control their emotions better:

The videogames track a child’s heart rate, displayed on the screen. The games get increasingly difficult as the player’s heart rate increases. To be able to resume playing without extra obstacles the child has to calm themselves down and reduce their heart rate.

[...]

The impact of the games was tested in two studies.

In a pilot study, they first tested the game in a psychiatric inpatient unit with children with anger management issues, said Joseph Gonzalez-Heydrich, director of the developmental neuropsychiatry clinic at Boston Children’s. They found improvements in just five days and published the results in 2012 in a study in the journal Adolescent Psychiatry.

“A lot of these kids we are seeing are not interested in psychotherapy and talking,” said Dr. Gonzalez-Heydrich, who is head of the scientific advisory board of Mighteor, and said he has a small amount of equity in the company. “But they will work really hard to get good at a videogame.”

In a subsequent outpatient study the researchers randomized 20 youth to 10 cognitive behavior therapy sessions and videogame therapy that required them to control their heart rate, and 20 youth to CBT with the same videogame but not linked to heart rates. All the adolescents had anger or aggression problems, said Dr. Gonzalez-Heydrich, who was senior author of the study.

Therapists interviewed the children’s primary caregiver before and two weeks after their last therapy session. They found the children’s ratings on aggression and opposition were reduced much more in the group that played the game with the built-in biofeedback. The ratings for anger went down about the same in both groups. The findings were presented at the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry conference in 2015. The study is currently under review for publication.

University establishments are the next best thing to a cult

Wednesday, July 12th, 2017

The Toronto Star reports that a certain controversial U of T professor is making nearly $50,000 a month through crowdfunding:

Prof. Jordan Peterson, who made headlines last fall when he publicly refused to use gender neutral pronouns, has been using the fundraising platform Patreon since last March to subsidize costs associated with filming and uploading videos of his lectures to YouTube.

He is now harnessing his online clout with eyes on a new goal — to offer an online university degree in the humanities for which students pay only for examinations.

“I’m fighting this as a battle of ideas,” Peterson told the Star. “Hopefully I can bring high-quality education to millions of people — for nothing. Wouldn’t that be cool.”

Peterson said he views university establishments as “the next best thing to a cult” due to their focus on what he calls “postmodern” themes such as equity. He says his independent project will contrast the university model by providing straight humanities education.

For about his first seven months on Patreon, Peterson earned about $1,000 per month. That changed last October, when he saw a dramatic increase in support, which has not slowed. The professor surpassed a fundraising goal of $45,000 on June 10, and is now aiming for $100,000 per month. On Monday, Peterson was making $49,460 every month from 4,432 patrons.

He is currently the 32nd highest-earning Patreon creator, of more than 75,000 people who are using the site to fundraise.

“Obviously people are pretty happy with the approach that I’ve been taking to psychological matters and, I suppose, to some degree, political matters online,” Peterson said.

He does have quite a few YouTube videos now. Here’s his message to Millennials on how to change the world — properly:

Mattis called him back

Tuesday, July 11th, 2017

The Mercer Island High School newspaper, the Islander, snagged an interview with James Mattis :

In a photo published alongside this article by The Washington Post on May 11, Trump’s bodyguard, Keith Schiller, could be seen carrying a stack of papers with a yellow sticky note stuck on the top. Written on it, in black ink, was the name “Jim ‘Mad Dog’ Mattis” and a phone number.

Paul Redmond of Orange County, California, contacted The Post the next day, informing them that they’d accidentally published what seemed to be Mattis’ private number.

The photo was quickly removed, but not before many, including MIHS Islander sophomore staff writer Teddy Fischer, saved it.

Calling the number, he left a message asking if Mattis would be interested in conducting a phone interview with The Islander. A few days later, when Teddy said Mattis had agreed, I didn’t believe him.

But, after receiving three more calls from the defense secretary to set up a date and time for the interview, Teddy and I got to work preparing questions.

[...]

When asked why, out of thousands of calls, Mattis chose to respond to us, he returned to his love of teaching.

“I’ve always tried to help students because I think we owe it to you young folks to pass on what we learned going down the road so that you can make your own mistakes,” he said, “not the same ones we made.”

Mattis is a history buff enshrining himself in history. Through teaching and reaching out to students like Teddy, he’s sharing history, and the wisdom he’s gained in creating it, as it’s being made.

Known simply as “the Program”

Sunday, July 2nd, 2017

I don’t think I’d even heard of St. John’s College, America’s third-oldest institution of higher education, founded in 1696, until a few years ago. The school is known for its not-exactly-innovative methods and materials:

So what makes St. John’s unique? First, as David Brooks of the New York Times recently wrote, the college has the “courage to be distinct” amid a marketplace of more than 5,000 colleges and universities in the US. A big part of that distinction is due to a strict adherence to its own curated curriculum and teaching methods, known simply as “the Program,” implemented back in 1937.

In contrast to some liberal arts stalwarts like Brown or Wesleyan that allow students to choose from a vast array of classes with few restrictions, St. John’s offers only the Program; it’s prix fixe is a higher education world of a la carte. Four years of literature, language, philosophy, political science and economy, and math. Three years of laboratory science, and two of music. That’s it. No contemporary social studies. No accounting. No computer classes. No distinct majors or minors.

The Great Books, or “texts” as they are referred to at St. John’s, flow largely in chronological order. Starting with the Greeks and working through the 20th century, including some “recent” science readings from the 1950s and 1960s, the curriculum is rarely altered. The college adds only what it believes are seminal works, and often it takes decades to reach consensus on what may be worthy of inclusion. Juniors and seniors have “electives” and can suggest texts for a class or two. The sequencing of classes is very important to the St. John’s method, with knowledge building over the semesters and years.

[...]

You will not find 100-person lectures, teaching assistants or multiple-choice tests at St. John’s. Instead classes are led by “Tutors” who guide students through Socratic inquiry (and yes, students do read about the Socratic practice during freshman year in Plato’s Theaetetus). Despite its reputation as a sadistic exercise in student humiliation, the Socratic method is actually an interactive form of intellectual sandpapering that smooths out hypotheses and eliminates weak ideas through group discourse. Tutors lead St. John’s discussions but rarely dominate; they are more like conversation facilitators, believing that everyone in class is a teacher, everyone a learner. And you won’t find Johnnies texting or surfing social media while in class; there is no place to hide in classrooms that range from small (seminars, 20 students led by two tutors) to smaller (tutorials, 10 to 15 students, one tutor) to smallest (preceptorials, 3 to 8 students, one tutor).

There is a formality in a St. John’s classroom—an un-ironic seriousness—that feels out of another era. Students and Tutors address each other by “Mr.” or “Ms.” (or the gender-inclusive honorific of choice). Classrooms have a retro feel, with rectangular seminar tables and blackboards on surrounding walls, and science labs filled with analog instruments, wood and glass cabinets, old school beakers and test tubes.

The Statement of the St. John’s Program lists the works (starting on page 19).

One should pack the lunchbox with quinoa crackers and organic fruit

Thursday, June 29th, 2017

Thorstein Veblen’s conspicuous consumption has evolved into conspicuously inconspicuous consumption:

Eschewing an overt materialism, the rich are investing significantly more in education, retirement and health – all of which are immaterial, yet cost many times more than any handbag a middle-income consumer might buy. The top 1% now devote the greatest share of their expenditures to inconspicuous consumption, with education forming a significant portion of this spend (accounting for almost 6% of top 1% household expenditures, compared with just over 1% of middle-income spending). In fact, top 1% spending on education has increased 3.5 times since 1996, while middle-income spending on education has remained flat over the same time period.

[...]

While much inconspicuous consumption is extremely expensive, it shows itself through less expensive but equally pronounced signalling – from reading The Economist to buying pasture-raised eggs. Inconspicuous consumption in other words, has become a shorthand through which the new elite signal their cultural capital to one another. In lockstep with the invoice for private preschool comes the knowledge that one should pack the lunchbox with quinoa crackers and organic fruit.

One might think these culinary practices are a commonplace example of modern-day motherhood, but one only needs to step outside the upper-middle-class bubbles of the coastal cities of the US to observe very different lunch-bag norms, consisting of processed snacks and practically no fruit. Similarly, while time in Los Angeles, San Francisco and New York City might make one think that every American mother breastfeeds her child for a year, national statistics report that only 27% of mothers fulfil this American Academy of Pediatrics goal (in Alabama, that figure hovers at 11%).

[...]

Perhaps most importantly, the new investment in inconspicuous consumption reproduces privilege in a way that previous conspicuous consumption could not. Knowing which New Yorker articles to reference or what small talk to engage in at the local farmers’ market enables and displays the acquisition of cultural capital, thereby providing entry into social networks that, in turn, help to pave the way to elite jobs, key social and professional contacts, and private schools. In short, inconspicuous consumption confers social mobility.

Many education interventions are either harmful or costly

Monday, June 26th, 2017

Education Realist notes some harmful interventions and costly interventions in education:

Harmful interventions:

  1. Ending tracking
  2. De-emphasizing demonstrated test scores on difficult tests in favor of grades.
  3. Increased legal protections for discipline disasters.

Of the first two, neither have done anything to improve achievement or access. Both have done tremendous damage to high achievers. Caveat: most people think of helping high achievers via coverage (learning faster) but in fact, this has been the most damaging aspect of the changes. Kids are only able to demonstrate ability by the age at which they take a particular math course, and so you have sophomores taking 1st year calculus classes and memorizing enough to pass an AP test without particularly understanding the underlying math.

No, the cost to high achievers is that we aren’t pushing them hard because we can’t, because GPA means so much that teachers can’t create a proper leveling schema. I taught trig. Five kids never showed up regularly, so they got Fs. Other kids worked hard despite having no understanding of the concept in a class they had no choice but to take, so they got Ds. Others had some limited understanding and could successfully do about half the work, so there’s your C. And so on.

And that’s in math. Things are far worse in literature and history, so that even top students are often terrible writers and teachers can’t even begin to address it in classes where the bottom students can’t even read and everyone’s using Schmoop or Sparcnotes to get the short version. We can’t have classes just for bright kids and give hard workers of merely adequate performance in a tough class a C for trying, because that C will do tremendous damage to those kids without the context of a test score.

The third is causing tremendous damage in low income schools, as well as creating more segregation as parents who can leave do. (I get annoyed at people who blame teachers for reduced discipline. It’s a specific policy demand forced on us by the state.)

Costly interventions:

Special education now gives additional money to 1 out of 8 kids and we see nothing for it. Special ed means different things. (1) The severely retarded, who cost hundreds of thousands to educate and should not be part of public school. It’s free childcare service for 16 years, at which point we then dump the kid over to a different state budget. (2)Then there’s the low IQ kids, what we always meant by special ed, who get relatively little in services. (3) Then there’s the emotionally damaged kids who can’t function in regular classes despite no IQ problems. (4) Then there’s the kids with a real disability (blind, wheelchair bound) who get access and aids. (5) Then there’s everyone with a “learning disability” — the fastest growing group. Only 2 and 4 were originally intended by the special ed category. We should dump 5 entirely, create centralized institutions for 1 and 3. 2 and 4 would still cost a lot, but at least they were intended to be addressed by K-12 ed.

We spend billions on “English language instruction,” which hasn’t one meaning. In schools like mine, it means free English lessons for immigrant kids who just got here — mandatory lessons that are often frustrating to bright kids whose English is adequate to work in academic courses (and far better than the bottom third in each course) but aren’t allowed because the “get me out of ELL” score is ridiculously high. In more homogenous schools, it means running half the classes in (usually) Spanish, because ELL from the 60s on was designed on the expectation that ELL kids would be illegal immigrants from across the border.

So the things that do actual harm aren’t extremely expensive, and the things that are a waste of time don’t so much do harm as create hugely expensive systems to support kids that aren’t improving their education and often given tremendous support to kids who just got here while not offering that service (enrichment) to citizens who might benefit from it.

A couple years ago he put forward five education policy proposals for 2016 presidential politics.

The null hypothesis is not an iron law

Friday, June 23rd, 2017

Statistically, educational interventions tend to affect resource allocation much more than outcomes, Arnold Kling reminds us, so, for educational interventions within roughly the current institutional setting, the null hypothesis is not an iron law, but it is an empirical regularity. This led me to add:

What stands out to me is just how little variation we see between schooling options. Public schools are all run on the same basic plan. Catholic schools are too, but with stricter discipline. Private schools aren’t much different, but with a wealthier clientele.

Only a few niche alternatives, such as Montessori and Waldorf, offer something truly different, and they obviously attract unusual families.

All because of a failure of nerve

Monday, June 19th, 2017

Theodore Dalrymple was recently accosted by a canvasser for the local Labour Party candidate:

The canvasser was a pleasant lady, and I stopped to discuss educational policy with her. Both main political parties think that more money should be allocated to schools. I said that I did not believe that the abysmally low level of education and culture in much of the country was caused by a lack of money. We spend, on average, $100,000 on a child’s education and yet an uncomfortably large proportion of our children leave school with reading and math skills below those stipulated for 11-year-olds. Moreover, the proportion of such people has remained more or less constant for the last 40 years, despite vastly increased expenditure. The problem, therefore, is not lack of funds, as the canvasser’s party pretended that it was, but something much deeper and harder to solve.

The canvasser was a retired teacher who had taken her retirement as soon as she was able, largely because of the immense number of irrelevant, time-consuming, boring, and intellectually dishonest bureaucratic procedures imposed upon teachers — procedures funded, as it happens, by the increases in education spending.

It also so happened that her daughter was a teacher but had quit after an unpleasant incident. She had given a 14-year-old boy a punishment for bad behavior — he was to stay in school for an extra hour. That night, the boy’s 19-year-old brother came to the teacher’s house and began to smash her car. She was frightened and called the police, who removed the perpetrator from the scene but otherwise did nothing — because, of course, nothing would have been done higher up the criminal- justice chain had they done something: so why bother?

The canvasser’s daughter did not return to teaching. She had undergone what psychologists call one-trial learning. She had taken the opportunity to get a master’s degree and find employment within the educational bureaucracy, into which no misbehaving child might obtrude.

I mentioned that many teachers who had been patients of mine had told me that if they complained to parents of their children’s behavior, the parents blamed the teachers and even became aggressive toward them. This was true in her experience, too, said the teacher.

We agreed, therefore, that there was a profound cultural and moral malaise in the country. The clear implication was that it had nothing whatever to do with insufficient government spending. The schools don’t teach and the police don’t protect, all because of a failure of nerve. We parted amicably, I to my shopping, she to canvassing on behalf of a political party that maintains that all problems arise from lack of government expenditure, problems that will somehow be solved by taxing the rich.

Students earn their degrees without improving their ability to think critically or solve problems

Monday, June 12th, 2017

The Wall Street Journal took a closer look at CLA+ test results, which purport to measure critical-thinking skills, and found that the average graduate shows little improvement in critical thinking over four years:

A survey by PayScale Inc., an online pay and benefits researcher, showed 50% of employers complain that college graduates they hire aren’t ready for the workplace. Their No. 1 complaint? Poor critical-reasoning skills.

“At most schools in this country, students basically spend four years in college, and they don’t necessarily become better thinkers and problem solvers,” said Josipa Roksa, a University of Virginia sociology professor who co-wrote a book in 2011 about the CLA+ test. “Employers are going to hire the best they can get, and if we don’t have that, then what is at stake in the long run is our ability to compete.”

International rankings show U.S. college graduates are in the middle of the pack when it comes to numeracy and literacy and near the bottom when it comes to problem solving.

The CLA+ test raises questions about the purpose of a college degree and taps into a longstanding debate about the role of colleges: Are they are designed to raise students’ intellectual abilities or to sort high-school graduates so they can find the niche for which they are best suited?

The role of a diploma as signal of ability has been in the ascendancy recently, given how having a degree is closely related to graduates’ lifetime earnings. The test data, by contrast, show that many students earn their degrees without improving their ability to think critically or solve problems.

(Almost) Everything he learned about science he learned from Isaac Asimov

Saturday, June 3rd, 2017

(Almost) everything he learned about science he learned from Isaac Asimov, Jamie Todd Rubin says:

I never learned about the Germinid meteor shower in any of my schooling. Instead, I learned about it and about meteor showers in general through Isaac Asimov’s science essays that appeared monthly in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. The first of Asimov’s science essays appeared in the November 1958 issue (of which I happen to posses a copy).

Those monthly science columns continued unabated for 399 consecutive months. (And eventually, Isaac’s wife, Janet, put together a 400th column after his death.) The essays were collected in more than two dozen books. The columns themselves ranged through all realms of science, and occasionally into philosophy and humanities. They were written in Asimov’s familiar colloquial style, making it easy for anyone to approach even arcane subjects. I devoured every one of those essays and it is from those essays that I truly believe that I learned nearly everything I know about science today.

[...]

Asimov’s essays taught me not only the hows and whys of science, they taught me the history of science. Taken together, anyone who reads all 399 F&SF science essays can’t miss certain patterns in logic and reasoning, can’t miss the evolution of thought and experiment. The essays taught me that scientists were real men and women.

[...]

Today, only a few of these essays are truly dated. Some facts have changed because science evolves, but the core is still valid and the history that these essays provides is an invaluable tool for understanding the cumulative nature of science. Seven of these early essays were never put into any collections, and there were six or seven that Asimov wrote before his death that have not, to my knowledge, been collected either. Perhaps I am a lone voice in the wilderness here, but I think it’s high time that a newly reissued compendium of all of Isaac Asimov’s F&SF science essays be put together and re-released.

I was shocked to find that Amazon’s Isaac Asimov page doesn’t list any nonfiction, at least not until the second page, where Understanding Physics shows up. It’s out of print.

Asimov’s New Guide To Science is the book that came to mind when Rubin mentioned the history of science. I had that same experience of finding historical context really, really illuminating.

The atomic bomb was basically a Hungarian high school science fair project

Sunday, May 28th, 2017

The Atomic Bomb could be considered a Hungarian high school science fair project:

A group of Manhattan Project physicists created a tongue-in-cheek mythology where superintelligent Martian scouts landed in Budapest in the late 19th century and stayed for about a generation, after which they decided the planet was unsuitable for their needs and disappeared. The only clue to their existence were the children they had with local women.

The joke was that this explained why the Manhattan Project was led by a group of Hungarian supergeniuses, all born in Budapest between 1890 and 1920. These included Manhattan Project founder Leo Szilard, H-bomb creator Edward Teller, Nobel-Prize-winning quantum physicist Eugene Wigner, and legendary polymath John von Neumann, namesake of the List Of Things Named After John Von Neumann.

The coincidences actually pile up beyond this. Von Neumann, Wigner, and possibly Teller all went to the same central Budapest high school at about the same time, leading a friend to joke about the atomic bomb being basically a Hungarian high school science fair project.

Those geniuses weren’t of Martian descent:

Here’s something interesting: every single person I mentioned above is of Jewish descent. Every single one. This isn’t some clever setup where I only selected Jewish-Hungarians in order to spring this on you later. I selected all the interesting Hungarians I could find, then went back and checked, and every one of them was Jewish.

Scott Alexander presents a pretty reasonable explanation of the Martian phenomenon:

For the reasons suggested by Cochran, Hardy, and Harpending, Ashkenazi Jews had the potential for very high intelligence. They were mostly too poor and discriminated against to take advantage of it. Around 1880, this changed in a few advanced Central European economies like Germany, Austria, and Hungary. Austria didn’t have many Jews. Germany had a lot of Jews, but it was a big country, so nobody really noticed. Hungary had a lot of Jews, all concentrated in Budapest, and so it was really surprising when all of a sudden everyone from Budapest started winning Nobel Prizes around the same time. This continued until World War II, and then all anyone remembered was “Hey, wasn’t it funny that so many smart people were born in Budapest between 1880 and 1920?”

Stigma-free consequences

Thursday, May 25th, 2017

Kay Hymowitz hasn’t visited Cheltenham High, in the prosperous Montgomery County suburbs of Philadelphia, since she graduated “in the faraway American Graffiti era,” but a recent brawl there went viral and raised the issue of unsayable truths about the failing high school:

Students described rape threats, stalking, kids sent back to classrooms after menacing teachers or classmates, teachers walking past fighting kids, security guards looking the other way. The problems, students insisted, weren’t limited to the high school; they remembered thuggery in middle and even elementary school, too.

There was no way to chalk up these complaints to adolescent theatrics. A February survey of CHS teachers had already revealed a school that resembled Lord of the Flies. Cursing, yelling students roamed the halls, pushing, shoving, ramming each other into walls, sometimes “accidentally” colliding with teachers. Thirty-six out of 79 teachers surveyed believed that they were unsafe in the hallways, and those who didn’t acknowledged either being big enough to stare down students or practiced at minding their own business. “What are you going to do about it? You can’t do anything,” “Fuck off, crazy old motherfucker,” were some of the choice rejoinders they told of hearing. “If I feel uncomfortable by the language and noise level a student displays,” one teacher wrote, “I can 1) address it and open myself up to insubordination and/or a verbal retaliation for which no consequences will be delivered or I can 2) choose to ignore it which I struggle with ethically because then I feel complicit. It’s a complete ‘no-win,’ and I battle this every day.”

What could not be said out loud was that the problem kids were all black, though the district superintendent did delicately indicate that the school’s trouble is “racialized.” Like many inner suburbs, once predominantly white Cheltenham has become increasingly African-American over the past decades. Back in the day, only about 10 percent of the high school population was black; Reggie Jackson, who graduated two years before me, remains the school’s most famous alum. The large majority of my classmates were the sons and daughters of second-generation Jews who had followed the immigrant dream into Philly’s northern suburbs in the postwar years. (Yoni “Jonathan” Netanyahu, who would die in the 1976 Entebbe raid, graduated the same year as Reggie; his brother Bibi picked up his diploma three years later. Their unflattering view of their coddled American baby boomer classmates is the subject of this blunt 2015 Washington Post article.)

Today, the district is 53 percent black, though the demographics defy easy generalization. Most of those students are the children of a growing black middle class that had moved to Cheltenham for the same reason postwar Jewish families had: its relatively affordable, attractive homes and its highly regarded schools, the holy grail of American house-hunting parents of all races. A number of black parents at the meeting spoke poignantly of the hopes that had brought them to the district. “I moved heaven and earth to make sure my child had a chance,” one voluble mother of a 12-year-old pleaded. “I could have lived in a wonderful house in Philly. No way I’m sending my girl to those schools. I’d rather live in a box and let my kid get a good education.”

Some of Cheltenham’s arrivals are spillovers from nearby North Philadelphia, the city’s immense and long-suffering black ghetto. They have moved into aging apartment complexes on the district’s border, bringing with them the old neighborhood’s broken culture. Forty-five percent of the black children in Cheltenham are born to unmarried mothers; it’s jolting to realize that “illegitimacy,” as it was once called, was almost unheard of at the time my peers were piling into school bleachers to cheer Reggie Jackson. Poverty rates for these kids are well below the national average, but almost 30 percent of single-parent households in Cheltenham are nevertheless in the ranks of the poor or near-poor.

If those households are like the struggling single-parent homes studied by social scientists, then the children are experiencing radically different domestic lives than their middle-class black and white classmates—with few routines, disappearing fathers and stepfathers, and little adult interest in homework, teachers, and discipline. Researchers have repeatedly found that boys growing up in single-mother households are especially prone to “externalizing” behavior like fighting, impulsiveness, rudeness—in other words, precisely the sort of behavior that the community meeting was demanding the administration do something about.

This class and family divide, intertwined as it is with race, is off-limits to polite discussion, leading conversations like the one at the community meeting into a verbal traffic jam of contradictions and dodges. The student council president shed tears over the mayhem in one breath and in the next demanded an end to the black-white achievement gap and adoption of “data-driven solutions” like “restorative justice.” (Unsurprisingly, this popular education fad has yet to be subject to careful study.) The audience retreated to the familiar litany of policy fixes with a long history of uneven or meager results: more black teachers! More counselors! More mentors!

One solution is alternative schools, which would place the small number of students making education impossible for the majority into schools explicitly designed for kids unable to function in ordinary education environments. The February teacher survey showed that the vast majority of instructors supported the approach; several black parents also endorsed it at the meeting. (A white father reviled the idea as stigmatizing.) For three hours, parents and students demanded that the administration impose clear “consequences” for fighting and rudeness. The administrators have their self-contradicting marching orders: stigma-free consequences.