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.

Word cloud

Word cloud

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Next Book: The Age of Reform

Since I love Richard Hofstadter so much, my next read will be The Age of Reform by Richard Hofstadter.  This book is, on the surface, not about education at all, but about the Progressive Era and (to a lesser extent) the New Deal Era.  The book is not offered as a detailed account of policy-making and the associated negotiations among players, much less a detailed and quantitative account of the consequences of those policies.  Rather, it is a story of the ideas that were popular in the broad middle of American culture, to get a sense of Americans as a people.

Already, just in the introduction, I can tell that I will like this book.  I shall quote from page 16:
A great part of both the strength and the weakness of our national existence lies in the fact that Americans do not abide very quietly the evils of life.  We are forever restlessly pitting against them, demanding changes, improvements, remedies, but not often with sufficient sense of the limits that the human condition will in the end insistently impose upon us. This restlessness is most valuable and has its most successful consequences wherever dealing with things is involved, in technology and invention, in productivity, in the ability to meet needs and provide comforts. In this sphere we have surpassed all other peoples. But in dealing with human beings and institutions, in matters of morals and politics, the limits of this undying, absolutist restlessness quickly become evidence.  At the so-called grass roots of American politics there is a wide and pervasive tendency to believe--I hasten to add that the majority of Americans do not habitually succumb to this tendency--that there is some great but essentially very simple struggle going on, at the heart of which there lies some single conspiratorial force, whether it be the force represented by the "gold bugs", the Catholic Church, big business, corrupt politicians, the liquor interests and the saloons, or the Communist Party, and that this evil is something that must be not merely limited, checked, and controlled but rather extirpated root and branch at the earliest possible moment. It is widely assumed that some technique can be found that will really do this, though there is always likely to be a good deal of argument as to what that technique is.
Indeed, am I not myself pitting myself against the perceived great evil of edufads?  What could be more American than for me to go off on this crusade?

Edufads come, of course, from our adorably earnest belief that there is some secret trick that will surely fix our social problems.  We need only find it and adopt it whole-heartedly and it will be great, and if it isn't it will be because some insufficiently dedicated professors didn't really adopt them with the proper enthusiasm.  It was our selfishness and conservatism that kept us from fixing timeless problems.  But if we had just adopted the fad then we could have made American schools great again and there would have been so much winning on the international comparisons that we'd frankly get bored of it.

Anyway, it occurs to me that not only do edufads come from this restless desire to fix problems, but also that the particular form of edufads these days arises from the determination to personify the stubbornness of educational problems.  There are many things that one can do to improve the structure of a course and help students learn more, including more frequent tests and checkpoints (as noted in the book Make It Stick), and better-crafted assignments, but education reformers in higher ed mostly aim their fire at professors for their manner of presenting and interacting and discussing.  I am more personified in my presentations and Q&A's than I am in my assignments, so that is what physics education reformers largely focus on.  Interestingly, the physics education community has put a lot of effort into developing online homework systems, and there's even a buzzword called "Just In Time Teaching" (JITT) which involves a lot of pre-lecture quizzes to help the professor make better use of class time and incentivize students to prepare (and also echoes a buzzword in business management), but most education reformers aim most of their rhetoric at the professor for being a "sage on a stage."  It fulfills our need to personify the perceived obstacles to achieving universal success.

(A tempting rejoinder to my contention that edufads fit this cultural strain identified by Hofstadter might be that some of the most enthusiastic adopters and promoters of edufads are immigrants, but, as I have said before, immigrants are Americans par excellence. If even the immigrants are playing along that's just another way of saying that you're tapping deep into the American psyche.)

Finally, I continue to find comfort in the fact that the things that frustrate me have happened before and will happen again.

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