Current Reading

This blog is primarily for me to blog my responses to books that I'm reading. Sometimes I blog about other stuff too, though.

I'm currently reading Edward Teller's Memoirs.

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Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Hiatus: Low initiative roll

My next book on the reading list is not an academic one that would be much for blogging.  It's Of Dice and Men, a book about gaming.  I'll come back to blogging about academic books in a few days, or maybe a week, depending on what's going on and what sort of init roll I get.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Reflections on Hofstadter: Why should cultural subtext matter in educational debates?

First, let me make it clear that  the question in the post title does not refer to cultural contexts involving student-teacher interactions.  If a teacher raised in an Italian neighborhood in New York City finds themselves teaching in the rural Midwest, they should probably keep in mind that some of the people might be a bit more reserved than people back home.  Rather, I'm referring to the cultural context of the educators, officials, and members of the public debating over the purposes and methods of mass education.

The modern education reformers mostly make a genuine and sometimes very successful effort to be scientific in their approach.  That is to be applauded.  If they have reproducible data from carefully-controlled experiments, one might argue that it doesn't matter if they happen to be cultural heirs of Great Awakening preachers rather than Puritan essayists.  I nonetheless maintain that it does matter for 3 reasons:

1) Truly double-blinded, single-variable experiments are often impossible in social science.  The person who walks out of the workshop speaking of how "transformed" they are is not going to simply adopt a new teaching technique.  They are going to adopt it with enthusiasm and passion and come into class with a degree of energy and preparation that they might not otherwise project if they were doing the same-old-same-old.  The effect of the experimenter's interests on the experimental subjects is of old vintage in social science, being named the Hawthorne Effect after an experiment on work conditions at a factory in the 1920's.  It is probably similar in mechanism to the placebo effect in medicine.

I maintain that there are cultural factors intimate that determine which interventions will resonate with the instructor, cultural factors that are entwined with American views on democracy, equality, the role of the expert, the practical value of knowledge, and even religion.  You cannot understand the enthusiasm that American educators will have for a teaching method, and the way that they will transmit that enthusiasm to their American students, unless you understand American cultural history.

So far I've argued that most educational experiments are two-variable experiments (method and enthusiasm) rather than 1-variable experiments (method only).  But I would go farther and argue that there is often a third variable, one that is also laden with cultural baggage:

2) Adoption of a new instructional method is often accompanied by a change in what is taught and tested.  That is not a priori bad from a normative standpoint, but it certainly complicates interpretation of experimental data.  In physics, for instance, there are different schools of thought on the relative importance of "conceptual" understanding and more traditional emphases that might, for lack of a better term*, be termed "mathematical", "calculation", or "problem-solving."  The precise nature of the difference is less important than the fact  that if two classes emphasize different things AND use different instructional methods, and then both groups of students take the same test, a test that happens to better align with what was emphasized in one class but not the other, you cannot be sure what to attribute differences in performance to.

Now, the Puritans and the Awakeners were certainly not debating electromagnetic theory (excepting Puritan descendant Benjamin Franklin, of course), but the different approaches in physics do roughly correspond to a difference in how mathematics is used or emphasized, and in American culture mathematics is a subject that is often perceived as carrying heavy intellectual baggage. Americans believe that you have to be a real Einstein to "get" math. It's a subject for "smart kids" (and is often lamentably stereotyped as being for smart boys but not smart girls).  If a pedagogical divide happens to include a divide over the aspects of the subject that carry the heaviest intellectual and cultural baggage, it is fair to examine the ways in which these pedagogical schools might emulate different American traditions concerning experts, intellectualism, etc.

3) However scientific the founders of a movement might be in their scholarly approach, however empirically-driven their proposals might be, no movement can scale beyond small cohorts of enthusiasts without escaping the control of its founders and getting caught up in broader cultural currents.  If reformed pedagogy ultimately enjoys mass adoption it will become its own thing, subject to the biases and quirks of adopters, the pecuniary interests of publishers, the agendas of school administrators and public officials, and the wider culture of the Academy, to name just a few among a multitude of factors.  Indeed, Hofstadter's penultimate chapter notes that Dewey, like many a Great Man before and after him, ended his career shaking his head at the excesses of his followers, people who tried to institutionalize the Revolution.

Finally, one might note that I keep speaking of American culture, even though many college professors are immigrants and many of our students are immigrants or first generation Americans, and mostly do not have any ancestors who were either Puritans or participants in the Great Awakening.  My first answer is that there is nobody more American than an immigrant. Whenever I examine cultural strains that have been repeated again and again in American history I am examining events that included the participation of innumerable immigrants. My second answer is that culture is not transmitted solely by parents.  If America is good at anything, it is good at assimilating the children of immigrants into our culture.  Schools, entertainment, churches, neighborhood kids, employers, and other factors all conspire to take children with parents from every corner of the globe and make them into bog-standard Americans (for good or for ill).

I am thus comfortable in saying that American cultural history is an absolutely crucial background to educational debates, even if we should have a Middle Eastern immigrant professor teaching the theories of German physicists to the children of Latin American immigrants (a common enough occurrence in my department).

Indeed, let me gaze at my own navel: To my knowledge, I have no Puritan roots in any meaningful sense.  What English blood I have is from people who either moved to the South or came to Canada in the 1800's.  To the extent that I identify with any culture other than Midwestern White, I identify with southern Italians because of my very close bond with my grandfather, who was born in the Midwest but was raised in a family and community of southern Italian immigrants.  I attended a Franciscan grade school that was founded primarily by Slovak immigrants.  I attended college and grad school in California, not at a New England school of Puritan derivation. Even a lot of my academic mentors did most of their training at schools not founded in the Puritan tradition.  (Though there is nonetheless a bit of New England in my academic family tree.) Despite that, through my interest in books and science, and my subsequent sojourn in higher education, I internalized many cultural traits of America's intellectual classes, and thus there is a strong dose of Puritanism in the cultural patterns that I have internalized.  Much of this Puritanism comes from my teachers and relatives and friends who also have no direct ties to New England but have likewise absorbed those values through American culture.

*We traditionalists have, to our discredit, been bad at articulating precisely what we value and the ways in which it differs from the approaches termed "conceptual."

Hofstadter, chapter 14: Dewey

I haven't read Dewey, only Hofstadter's synopsis of a long and prolific career.  I will not try to summarize the summary, but I will quote the last sentence of the chapter, because it encapsulates much that is tragic in progressive education:  "And so the quest for a method of institutionalizing the proper anti-institutional methods goes on."


Monday, March 23, 2015

Chapter 13: Hofstadter unloads

Chapter 13 is the one with lots of awesome polemic.  Hofstadter clearly hates progressive education in all its forms, probably even more than I do.  He's so on fire that the book is close to spontaneous  combustion.  I will excerpt some of the more blistering quotes below, but before I get there I will offer a more substantive observation:

Most of the k-12 "reforms" that set Hofstadter on fire with rage apparently came into vogue after WWI.  There were certain fads and experiments in k-12 in the 19th century, but high school attendance was far from universal.  In the early 20th century, especially right after the Progressive Era, high school attendance became much more common place.  Once that happened, the experimentation started.  Fads, anti-intellectualism, and democratic sentiment in education spring from American cultural strains of colonial pedigree (if not older), but they did not really come into their own until a bureaucracy had to spring up to cater to the masses.  Intellectualism is, almost by definition, not scalable to mass production.  I can hold forth on the weird psychology of faculty, the incentives of the educational software vendors, and the cultural legacy of the Great Awakening until I go blue in the face, but the full energies of reformist zeal will only be unleashed against us academics when there's a call to cater to the masses.  God help us if graduate education is ever targeted for some good, hard "democratization."

Anyway, on to the blistering:

Page 335, in response to a 1918 NEA commission report on restructuring high school, Hofstadter summarizes their recommendations with:
In short, the inner structure of various disciplines was to be demoted as an educational criterion and supplanted by greater deference to the laws of learning, then presumably being discovered.
Page 340:
There is an element of moral overstrain and curious lack of humor among American educationists which will perhaps always remain a mystery to those more worldly minds that are locked out of their mental universe.  The more humdrum the task the educationists have to undertake, the nobler and more exalted their music grows.  When they see a chance to introduce a new course in family living or home economics, they begin to tune the fiddles of their idealism.  When they feel they are about to establish the school janitor's right to be treated with respect, they grow starry-eyed and increase their tempo.  And when they are trying to assure that the location of the school toilets will be so clearly marked that the dullest child can find them, they grow dizzy with exaltation and launch into wild cadenzas about democracy and self-realization.
The silly season in educational writing had now opened.  The professionalization of education put a premium upon the sober treatment of every mundane problem, and the educators began to indulge  in solemn and pathetic parodies of the pedantry of academic scholarship.  Not liking to think of themselves as mere advocates of low-grade utilities, they began to develop the art of clothing every proposal, no matter how simple, common-sense, and sound, in the raiments of the most noble social or educational objectives.
Page 345, in response to a high school curricular movement called "life adjustment" (which apparently peaked in the 1950's):
Life-adjustment educators would do anything in the name of science except encourage children to study it.
Page 349:
As W.C. Bagley once remarked: "It was inevitable that any theory which justified or rationalized the loosening of standards should be received with favor," by those who, without deliberate intent, distorted experimental findings in the interest of their mission to reorganize the high schools to accommodate the masses.
Page 353:
The life-adjustment movement would establish once and for all the idea that the slow learner is "in no sense" the inferior of the gifted, and the principle that all curricular subjects, like all children, are equal.
It should go without saying, of course, that today's educational fashions are completely different and nowhere near as silly, and they will certainly not fall out of favor with the passage of time.

Hofstadter, Chapter 12

In chapters 12-14, Hofstadter is moving into the history of American education.  I find it rather heartening to know that since at least the Founding, if not even earlier, Americans have fiercely held to 4 uncomfortably juxtaposed notions:

1) Education is an absolutely critical tool for the advancement of our country.  It wasn't always viewed as a tool for economic advancement and class mobility, but whether viewed as a means to republican virtue in the Founding era, technological superiority in the Sputnik era, or class mobility in the present, Americans have always believed that education will save this country.

On balance, that reverence for learning is a good thing, even if it does lead to unrealistic expectations.

2) Our education system is failing to accomplish its task.  Students are dullards, they lack intellectual curiosity, they are ignorant of the world, etc.  Today we lament that they don't know where Mexico is on a map; in an earlier era we lamented that they didn't know where the Austro-Hungarian Empire was.  (Answer:  Austria and Hungary.  Duh!)

When you expect an educational system to groom the masses for the salvation of the country, I suppose it's inevitable that you'll be disappointed.  Teachers have always had less ability to shape their charges than they (or anyone else) would like to admit.  (Though if you read enough dystopian novels you might be somewhat glad that public school teachers are unable to mold the youth...)

3) Teachers are incompetent dolts of low character and little intellectual curiosity.  Any idiot could do a better job than them.  Laments about teacher quality are as old as public schools.

(To be fair, anytime I grade a freshman assignment I find myself ranting about the defects of k-12 teachers.  I'm not saying that it's right, but when the frustration is raw and vivid...)

4) Paying teachers more and/or according them more markers of status and respect will not improve the schools.  Then we wonder why the profession is (allegedly) full of incompetent dolts.

To be sure, there are reasonable arguments to be made that better pay is not the answer, but when you find yourself asking "Why are the smart people (allegedly) not going into this job?" you might well ask "What is the cost of talent?"

I actually find it reassuring to know that if things aren't any better than the past they at least aren't any worse.  All of this has happened before and will happen again.  So say we all.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Methodological mismatch

It just occurred to me that the strongest criticisms of "sages on stages" tend to come from people focused on questions of content mastery, and these same people generally also subscribe to egalitarian critiques of higher ed.  However, to whatever extent higher education can promote or does promote economic advancement, it does so more via socialization, acculturation, and indoctrination (in the more benign sense of teaching people about the doctrines of the educated class, not necessarily in the harmful sense of promoting single-minded and uncritical adherence to a doctrine).  To the extent that skill acquisition plays into economic advancement via education, it is often in the form of more general intellectual skills (e.g. sophistication in writing, "critical thinking", numeracy, comfort with reading complicated texts, etc.) rather than specific content mastery.  A lecturer is a key player in the indoctrination and acculturation aspects of undergraduate education.

Of course, a lecturer is probably a poor contributor to the skill acquisition aspects of higher education, which argues for a balanced pedagogical strategy rather than an ethos of ever-diminishing the role of the instructor.  Balancing socratic lecture with discussion and activity = good.  Regarding the expert voice as The Problem = bad.

Interestingly, I pieced together the contrast examined in this post while visiting an old mentor in poor health, and talking about my reading with her.  It was admittedly a discussion rather than a lecture, but my reverence for her as a sage was definitely a factor in my psychology as I interacted with her.  She probably doesn't have much time left, and I did more talking than her (she has very little energy left) but the mode of the discussion was very much me approaching my older, wiser teacher and telling her that I have been reading more history and philosophy lately because I am gaining an appreciation for her insistence on their pivotal role in the life of the mind.  I have come to understand that problems of teaching and learning are not really technical problems, though they are so often approached that way in research, but rather they are timeless issues in human activity, and the lenses of history and philosophy are indispensable.  I told her that I finally get this, even if it took me so long to get it, and that I now only appreciate it when she is near her end.  Her role as sage was critical to this interaction and the thought processes that got me to this.