Tag Archives: education

Look! It’s the Spring Bunny!

The P.C. police are out in full force, just in time for the holiday. Which holiday, you ask? Well, it sure ain’t Easter. Yes, there are bunnies, there are eggs, there is chocolate, but we can’t call it Easter, because that term might offend some people. Actually, I can’t imagine why.

Easter as it is celebrated in this country has no more connection to the rising of Christ than Christmas has to his birthday. We have managed to eliminate most of the Christian parts of each holiday, while retaining only the pagan rituals. It’s amazing that anyone can relate a day filled with junk food and rabbits to a religious holiday. In fact, instead of not using words like Easter, we should be using them all over the place. There is nothing guaranteed to make words lose their meaning faster than uttering them without any context. Sort of the way parents yelling, “And I mean it this time!” comes to mean nothing if they fail to follow through yet again.

It is the words that are spoken in hushed, reverential tones that acquire mystical meanings. Those words that are tossed around like garbage quickly lose all ability to generate a rise out of anyone. Think of the words that are commonly used on network television this days. Not so long ago, those words were shocking, titillating, provocative.

Nowadays, if the young’uns hear words meant for grown-up ears, the response is more, “Just ignore that, dear,” than a gasp, a “Tsk!”, or a reach for the remote. We still may not want to hear the sounds coming from little mouths, but those words, so often heard these days, have lost a great deal of their power.

So is it with Easter. You’d have to look hard to find any Christian symbolism in any of the public celebrations of the day. For most people, the term “Easter” could easily be replaced with “Hiding Eggs Day”, “Fun Day”, or “Another Excuse to Pig Out on Chocolate Day”. I’m surprised that no one has yet come up with a non-religious acronym for Easter, like Eat All Sorts of Things Everyone Relishes.

You want people to continue to be offended by religious terms? Be very careful about which ones are used, and when, and make sure to infuse them with plenty of mystery and sacrament.

On the other hand, you want religious words to quickly lose their offensiveness? Invest the original meaning with new associations. For most people Easter will soon not have any connection with Christianity. Just as many groups have adopted terms that were once pejorative and made them standards, so allowing Easter to remain in use will deprive it of its religious meaning for all except those who practice the religion. In fact, they will decry its sacrilegious use.

We made up these words, we get to decide what they mean, and how much power we invest them with. After all, they are only words. As the great philosopher, Humpty Dumpty, once said about us versus words, “The question is, which is to be master—that’s all.”

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Filed under Critical Thinking, Education, Politics, Religion

A Change in the Making

I know that I rag on the educational system a lot, but really, is it so unjustified? My father-in-law gave me yet another example of a true success story the other day.

It seems that my in-laws had stopped at a deli, and ordered a sandwich, side, and a drink, to split. The cashier punched in whatever she needed to, to arrive at a total bill of $9.52. My father-in-law is old school, and learned how to do maths back in the day. He found a Ten Dollar bill in his wallet, and handed her that, then said, “Wait a minute,” while he fished in his pocket for change. Before he could locate the change, she’d rung up the Ten Dollars, and the cash register was now telling her to return $.48 to him.

Being a good little obeyer, as is the wont these days, she retrieved Forty-eight cents from the cash drawer. Okay, now here is where it gets complicated. By this time, my FIL had located two pennies, and set them on the counter. The cashier (I use this term loosely) stared at the pennies for a moment, then her face brightened. She counted out Forty-six cents, and held it out to my FIL, who couldn’t help but chuckle in disbelief.

Being a polite sort, instead of saying what was on his mind, he merely inquired how she had come up with that amount. She said, “I took off the two cents.” I know, I know. It would be funny if it weren’t so sad.

He gently said, “That’s not right, you know.” The blank look on her face cluing him in, he said, “Let’s start over.” He took back the Ten, pushed all of the change except his two cents back her way, then said, “If I give you Ten Dollars,” handing it to her, “plus two cents,” dropping them into her palm, “that totals $10.02. $10.02 minus your bill of $9.52 equals Fifty cents. You owe me Fifty cents, not Forty-six.”

By this time, her eyes had glazed over, and she was clearly simply waiting for instructions. When she heard Fifty cents, she was relieved. She picked up the two dimes and the three pennies that were lying on the counter (fortunately, somewhere along the way she had learned to count change), and added a quarter to the one left there.

“Did you see how that worked?” My FIL asked, intent on not cheating either himself or her. She merely smiled. The cash register had told her one thing, he had told her another, but even though she had not learned higher math in school, she had learned the more important lesson that the customer is always right. And I guess that’s got to be good enough, these days. Let’s just hope that somehow the people who will be programming our computers get the chance to be introduced to some math along the way.

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Closed Shops

There is a lot of talk lately about the evil, nasty unions. But they are not the only closed shops in town. Many professions refuse entry to those who do not possess the proper credentials: lawyers, engineers, teachers. Used to be that a person could apprentice to masters in these arts, and when the master had determined that the apprentice was sufficiently practiced so that he wouldn’t embarrass the master when representing his office to the public, the master would declare the apprentice to be fit and capable to perform the duties of the profession.

Nowadays, the state requires that aspiring whatevers attend school, for a pre-determined amount of time, take a minimal exam, pay the required fee, then voila! the student is magically transformed into an expert, and allowed to hang out a shingle. Book learning has become all. And by book learning, I mean the payment of vast sums of money to attend class and take tests. The practicum, the nuts and bolts of each profession, have taken a back seat to the rote pedagogy. But this system does do its job—not to prepare students for the professional life they are about to enter—but to keep the number of possible aspirants to a particular profession to a minimum.

You think there are lots of attorneys now? Just imagine how many there’d be if the rigors of three years of law school weren’t thrown in their path. If apprentices were permitted to contribute to their upkeep somewhat while in the throes of mastering a new way to deal with the world. The same holds true for teachers, engineers, scientists. Amazingly enough, we have come to accept that years spent in the classroom are better preparers than are years spent in actually doing the work.

The current common wisdom is that everyone needs a college education in order to be successful. In addition, the push is for schooling to begin earlier and earlier. But more schooling does not necessarily equal more competence, more ability. In fact, in many cases, it seems that quite the opposite has occurred. What more sanctioned schooling does do, however, is provide the establishment with many more years of opportunity to mold and create the kind of citizenry that is most amenable to the thinking and tactics of persuasion of the powers that be.

The ostensible reason given for the  need for more schooling is standardization. Just a glance quickly gives the lie to that concept. Even within a school district, the opportunities available to each student are quite varied. Within a school, even more so, depending upon how individual students are tracked and guided. Even if the methods of teaching and the materials available to each student were somehow able to be measured and doled out precisely, every student is different, and will achieve a different outcome. No, it doesn’t seem that the actual goal can be competence for all.

The next time you wonder about the power that the unions have over industries like construction, automobiles and the like, consider the power the non-acknowledged unions have over the professions, as well. Gone are the days when professionals were deemed competent based on their output. Gone are the days when a master would not dream of holding out his apprentice as skilled unless and until the apprentice could perform up to the master’s standards. Now, students are given a certificate of completion, and their potential employers (and clients) can only hope that they know what they’re doing.

What we have done to the education system in general, we have also applied to the professions in particular. Years spent, or misspent, listening (or not) to lectures have been substituted for actually doing the real thing. When we are contemplating how to deal with the power of the unions, let’s not forget those invisible closed shops that exist all around us.

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School’s in session

Although study after study confirms that the single most important element to success is what we used to call “grit”, before quietly dealing with whatever obstacles came your way became un-p.c., our education system is still geared toward rewarding “hard work”, no matter how unproductive, and “self-esteem”, no matter much that warps a child’s sense of quality.

Given a level playing field of intelligence, the person who focuses more on the job to be done, the methods of accomplishing that task, and what the final outcome is to look like, and who then applies himself to creating that final outcome, will do better than the one who says, “I’m smart, they told me I was smart, I can use the ‘think system’ till my brain hurts, then tell them I worked really hard, and I’ll get the lollipop.”

It’s good old-fashioned industrious endeavor that makes a difference in this world, not luck, not being rich, and certainly not waiting for someone else to lead.

Given an unlevel playing field, where one person is much smarter than another, the one who focuses on the job to be done, the methods of accomplishing that task, and what the final outcome is to look like, and who then applies himself to creating that final outcome, will do better than the other—no matter the native intelligence of either. And if it’s the less intelligent one who is doing the applying, he will get smarter in the process.

Our education system is all about labeling children, and putting them into “tracks”. Once a child is labeled, it’s almost impossible for him to move into another track. The argument in favor of this system is that those children in the lesser tracks can “get the help they need.” They don’t need help—they need the opportunity to attempt, the chance to fail (especially to fail badly), and the encouragement to try again, until they succeed. What they get is the assumption that they will fail, and the door shut in their face if they attempt to succeed using some means that has not been pre-approved.

Success in the current system is defined as the ability to parrot back the pre-packaged dogma that has been propounded by the authority at the front of the classroom, who is parroting what some textbook author has decided is the wisdom of the day. True success is learning enough about a subject to question its assumptions, apply critical thinking to the answers that are given, and deciding for oneself whether the answers make sense. Not much opportunity for that in today’s schools. Even if a teacher wanted to give his students the opportunity to go through that learning cycle, there’s not enough time in the day, what with all of the standardized testing, and the prep for the standardized testing, and whatnot.

I was astounded to read recently about a history professor (!), who, when questioned about what had occurred at a trial in the 1920’s, went to what the authorities had written about that trial to find the answer. He admitted that it took him awhile to figure out that, maybe, just maybe, the appropriate source might be the trial transcript itself!

We have gotten so hung up on the idea that the experts have spoken, and that’s the end of the matter, that we have gotten away from the concept that we all have the right to question, to discover, to investigate, to learn. Even though study after study has shown that we learn best by doing and by questioning authority, somehow we just can’t seem to learn that important lesson.

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Awake and Arise!

Image courtesy of Suvro Datta/freedigitalphoto.net

Image courtesy of Suvro Datta/freedigitalphoto.net

Since I was dissing The Economist the other day, I want to give them some props this morning. They recently came out with their Technology Quarterly section, a review of upcoming and in-works items that make this TEDtalks follower swoon. Everything from the latest robotics to a cardboard and rubber bicycle to medical apps was profiled. Seeing the innovation that is still occurring on a daily basis heartens me.

The sad thing is that most media are so focused on the latest doings of Justin Bieber, Kim Kardashian, and Lady Gaga, that they don’t have time to relate the newest strides of the human mind. Our education system is intent on instilling in us how difficult science is, and how hard math is. It’s so much easier to simply relate gossip than it is to teach creativity.

What’s astounding is that we are all born creative. It takes a great deal of effort to pound that out of us. The shame is that the current method of schooling is somehow doing a good job of that. We are taught that great thinkers are rare, different, and not to be emulated. We are told that we don’t not have what it takes to succeed in the hard sciences: those are reserved to the few who don’t otherwise have a life.

And yet, the overwhelming call is for more of the same, except with more money. Why we would wish the deadening of intellect for our children just so some people can keep their jobs today, I cannot fathom. In order to maintain the status quo, we have had to elevate teaching to a mystical status. We are not allowed to question teachers’ authority or critique their methods.

Any criticism of the current system, or calls for change, sound the death knell for our children, according to teachers. Other professionals feel the sting of dissatisfaction without the entire system crumbling. Lawyers are routinely bashed, not for not doing their jobs, but for doing their jobs too well. Only teachers are allowed to churn out uneducated louts year after year, while maintaining their hallowed position.

When will we call a halt to this tremendous waste of resources? Not only our tax dollars, but our children? The push for students to be great occurs few and far between, while the herd mentality is touted as sufficient. Just shove the students through the halls, shuffling them from classroom to classroom until they reach the age of majority (if they can stand the tedium for that long), then pronounce them fit to join the workplace, and wash your hands of them, moving on to the next bunch.

Whether those graduated students succeed does not seem to concern the educators. The fact that many students who attend college—many because they are not qualified for any jobs, despite years of education—must immediately be placed in remedial classes does not inspire any mea culpas. There is always some other reason that the children who were supposed to be prepared for the adult world end up not so, none of which is a reflection on the educational system which did not serve them well.

Fortunately for me, I am a great believer in cycles and pendulums. The world swings way off-balance one way, then self-corrects. I don’t think that the way it is is the way it is going to be forever. We just have to wait a short while longer, as more and more people realize that they were sold a bill of goods along with their diplomas, as more options become available on the internet, as more skilled workers are needed and the increase in pay and prestige leads to innovations in teaching.

That’s not a death knell we’re hearing when the unions take to the streets. It is the alarm that is waking us to a new day. Too bad for those students who were fed the worst of the lot. They’ve got a lot of ground to make up. But the ground swell is rising, and the celebrity culture may soon be swept away in a sea of individual creativity.

Or we’ll all go the way of those poor sods in Nightfall.

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