Thursday, June 16, 2005

Wisdom from a defender of markets & civilization

I am about to wind up my long and rambling essay on "Modernism and its Enemies." Stay tuned in a few days for a major summing up.

Soon thereafter (with frequent asides about politics & the news, this award-winning blog will move on to a new topic... "Twelve Modern Questions About Humanity’s Relationship With its Creator, In the Context of an Age of Science."

Should be interesting.

--

But first, I want to cite some words of wisdom (and my answers/addenda/arguments) from one of the smartest guys commenting on economic trends today. Robert Hormats, vice chairman of Goldman Sachs, began a recent essay in one of the world's top online newsletters with this anecdote about Albert Einstein:

There was one great story that I thought really encapsulated - and
still does - the environment in which we live. Einstein was going to give a
test in his advanced course in quantum physics. He was talking to his
research assistant and said, "You know, this year I'm going to give
exactly the same test with exactly the same questions that I gave last
year."

The assistant said, "Well, Professor Einstein, do you think that's a
good idea? Because the students this year will go to the people who
took the test last year. They'll find out who did well, they'll get the
answers, and they'll just give you those answers on the test this year."

Einstein said, "Yes, you missed one point. The questions will all be
the same, but this year the answers are all different."


Hormats comments: "I think this really summarizes a philosophy of trying to look for new answers to older questions."

Obviously, this relates to our ongoing theme of modernism and the core lesson of the enlightenment. The lesson that underlies the miraculous success of science, consisting of a willingness to re-evaluate with an eye toward the dangers and opportunities presented by change.

In contrast, consider the aphorism that "insanity consists of doing the same thing, over and over, while expecting different results. " This can be likened, certainly to the feudal, socialist or hierarchical orders that have always opposed modernist impulses, even before the Enlightenment. (e.g. those who fought against Pericles, Spinoza, Montaigne, lone voices in their times.)

So let us follow Hormats into an aside into economic policy.

First, Robert Hormats is no pinko lefty. He is one of the world experts of commerce, currencies and trade. He served as assistant secretary of state for Economic and Business Affairs from 1981 to 1982, as ambassador and U.S. trade representative from 1979 to 1981, and as senior deputy assistant secretary for Economic and Business Affairs at the Department of State from 1977 to 1979. He served as a senior staff member for International Economic Affairs on the National Security Council from 1969 to 1977, during which time he was senior economic advisor to Dr. Henry Kissinger, Gen. Brent Scowcroft, and Dr. Zbigniew Brzezinski.

I am going to quote pretty liberally here from a recent newsletter in which Hormats says some very wise things... though here and there I either amend or bring up complicating factors.

"A strange thing happened in the course of the debate after 9/11. In every single war the United States has fought since the Revolution, when the United States went to war a number of things were done to make room in the budget to pay for the war. This time we did no such thing. This time, we in effect cut taxes. We've cut taxes four times over the last four years, and the Congress has been on a spending spree - not just for defense purposes, but for lots of pork-barrel nonessential programs.

"And then we have, in addition to that, the contingent liabilities of the federal government for Medicare or Medicaid and Social Security, which are going to grow dramatically toward the end of this decade and into the next decade, as Baby Boomers retire. So we have a fiscal deficit which is big now, but it's going to be a lot bigger several years from now. This is going to be one of the problems that we as a country are going to have to face: how do we fund this very, very big imbalance? "


All right, first the obvious. Americans aren't saving enough. And the other savings plan... Clinton era budget surpluses that aimed to buy down the Debt - (biblically speaking: using fat year riches to prepare for lean times ahead) - was instantly abandoned by the Bush administration in favor of a $trillion gift to the top 1% aristocracy. (Seen any of it invested in "stimulus" lately?)

So how are we paying for the budget and trade deficits? Hormats points out that :

"You have India and China and South Korea and Taiwan and Hong Kong and Malaysia - each should have enormous opportunities for using capital at home, for productive investment. In many cases, they have unemployment problems, but in most cases, you'd think they'd have awfully good investment opportunities. What do they do? They ship billions and billions of dollars - 850 billion on a gross basis last year; 850 billion dollars - to the United States, to buy Treasuries or corporate bonds or stocks or Fannie Mae securities. This is an enormous distortion of global resources."

His explanation for why the Asians are financing our spendthrift ways?

"It happens because since the financial crisis of 1997-1998, the Asians have been very conservative about the way they've used their money. They want to build up precautionary reserves in case there's another problem."

Of course there is another (bigger) reason? "Job creation in China is the essential element of growth in China, and even more important, the essential element of stability in China. They do not want to do anything that compromises their growth rate."

Hence, they HAVE to buy our debts in order to subsidize our spending spree. A spree that is lifting them bodily into the 21st Century. (I have spoken of this elsewhere as the "weirdly fantastic but unknown $5 Trillion Marshall Plan" - George Marshall's brilliant move to create ANTI-mercantalist trade flow patterns after WWII, something that no other pax imperium in history ever did. I believe this one move - by arguably the greatest man of the 20th Century - is the biggest reason why the world has a chance today. It may be remembered as America's greatest accomplishment... though we will almost certainly pay for it when our economy finally collapses.)

Hormats goes on to say: "The last of the imbalances may turn out to be, from an American point of view, the most significant, and that is the skills, or the innovation, imbalance... And if you look at the number of people in this country going into science and engineering, it's diminishing dramatically. So our pool of skilled, innovative workers is growing at a far slower rate than it was 10, 15 years ago."

Now of course, this is at one level about the deteriorating repute of science that I have been talking about here, in discussing the decline of modernism. And while I agree with everything that Hormats says, I must go farther.

While EVERYBODY blames the school system, I am forced by natural contrariness to look around for other explanations that have gone uncommented. For example, I think the schools may far be less to blame than is publicly stated.

Mind you, I DO have plenty of complaints against modern education, (complaints learned the hard way, with three kids in public school!) But given the "culture war" against the Enlightenment and all of its fruits, and the hatred of science expressed by radicals of both left and right, is it any wonder that young people are drifting away from such fields, even more quickly than servicemen and women are departing the armed forces?

This is a serious issue, very complex. There are many eclectic ways that I consider the schools as awful as everybody else does... poor priority and investment (a complaint of the left) and poor standards (a complaint of the right). Interference by both creationists and political correctness police. Lack of competition and lack of parental involvement.

Let me elaborate on the downside of the extremely popular recent "standards trend". First, I readily concur that it has helped ensure minimal basics for the bottom half. Indeed, we are doing better at ensuring "no child will be left (completely) behind", getting a diploma while unable to read or cipher at all. On the other hand standards obsession has simultaneously eviscerated laboratory science and gifted programs almost completely out of the schools. Teachers are virtual slaves to the yearly standardized exams. Indeed, most have desultorily given up their own attempts at innovation and stimulation, hewing close to the prescribed and tested curriculum without exception. Teacher morale is in dire shape.

What had been the unsung glory of the American school system - something never measured in those international tests (on which Americans score so badly) - is the way open class discussion has fostered free thinking and rambunctious argumentativeness. And yes, confident creativity, to some degree. And here's a startling irony. While we run thoughtlessly to copy the rote memorization techniques that enable kids in Japan to score so well on standardized tests, the education ministries in Japan, China and India are exhorting teachers to "teach in a more American fashion," in order to stop squelching the creativity and imagination that we encourage (or used to encourage) so well.

Because science relies upon processes like imaginative hypotheses and laboratory experience that are hard to measure on tests, there has been a creeping de-emphasis on science across the board. My own kids see their science classes become the catch-all dumping ground, within which all the sex education, abstinence training, drug education, self-esteem, anti-bullying, and other remedial socialization topics are thrown. Even PE is spared this stuff, thus illustrating the way that sports have a vastly higher priority in American life than science.

Oh, it's complex, all right. One can go back and forth endlessly. Yin against the schools and yang defending them. Great for contrarians but frustrating for those who want a single ideological explanation for all things.

Another example. One thing that I have noticed as a parent... and I have seen it commented on NOWHERE ELSE... is that *mathematics* appears to be an exception to the recent trend of downgrading science.

I don't know how it is elsewhere, but here in San Diego, the bright kids are doing vastly MORE math than I did at the same age. Tougher topics, introduced earlier. I suppose because math CAN be measured on those $%#*! tests.

But back to Bob Hormats's worry about a decline in our rate of creating new scientists and technologists. While I find his comments wise, I really do not think we can keep using the schools as the whipping boy. Not when the real answer is all around us, in the media, in politics. In the rising tide of fanaticism.

I don't think there can be any question that the chief driver of the de-emphasis of science is cultural. It is part of the Great Big War Against Modernism that is discussed here at http://davidbrin.blogspot.com

Left and right are in this together. Extremists on both sides have made it clear that science is the real enemy, along with the concomitant general attitudes of even-tempered criticism and acceptance of contingent truth that underlay the entire Enlightenment.

That is why you see the world's smartest businessmen parting company with the frat boys who are running things right now. They may be conservatives, but - above all - they want a civilization that works.

50 comments:

editor said...

You said,"But given the "culture war" against the Enlightenment and all of its fruits, and the hatred of science expressed by radicals of both left and right, is it any wonder that young people are drifting away from such fields, even more quickly than servicemen and women are departing the armed forces?"

I've appreciated what you've said in this post, but do you perceive the "culture war" of which you speak as a primary reason for students shying away from the sciences? Myself, I find that a lot of the brightest students are disillusioned by the coporate investiture of research. That is, they like science as a means for easing human suffering, but don't like science as a means of creating products for corporate profits. Any comment?

Tony Fisk said...

David Brin said:
"Twelve Modern Questions About Humanity’s Relationship With its Creator, In the Context of an Age of Science."
..what creator? (as in, which one??)

...The lesson that underlies the miraculous success of science, consisting of a willingness to re-evaluate with an eye toward the dangers and opportunities presented by change.
You could use this to view in a more positive light the current crop of summer remakes you've been grouching about. eg: one of the flyers for 'War of the Worlds' reads This summer, the next war won't be started by humans. It opens Jun 29. err.. when does GOP get it's senate majority again?
('The Great Dictator', now there's a thought!)
Sorry! Black humour: but I prefer laughter to the alternative!

...*mathematics* appears to be an exception to the recent trend of downgrading science.
Could this be because Maths has always had a foot in both the Arts and the Science faculties? (I believe you can, or could, get a BA major at some universities)

.. They may be conservatives, but - above all - they want a civilization that works.
Don't we all! And the romantic 'culture of lief' just doesn't cut it, does it?

Anonymous said...

Education is indeed a complex subject. Anyone who says there's one solution (more money for teachers, vouchers, the Ten Commandments in the lobby) is a fool, or trying to sell you something.

In some cases, literally selling something: Lesson plans, textbooks, metal detectors, etc. There's a lot of snake-oil out there.

* * *

"I readily concur that it has helped ensure minimal basics for the bottom half."

In some places, it doesn't even do that!

It turns out that Texas has been meeting No Child Left Behind standards by getting rid of the lowest performing students. Encouraging them to drop out or making them disappear through "accounting" tricks.

* * *

It pains me to suggest it, but: I think it may be time to formalize the de facto triage that occurs in Junior High and High Schools:

* Identify the kids who don't have the interest or smarts for college, and give them every resource -- expertise, equipment, and time -- required to give them a rigourous vocational education. Right now, vocational education is a joke; a demeaning dumping ground for "bad" and dumb kids. That has to change.

(My parents' recently got a visit from an old friend; the guy who fixed their cars before they moved off of Long Island. He had just quit, after one injury too many, his dream job as a race car driver. It turns out he loved his new gig, teaching auto mechanics, just as much. An experienced businessman with decades of experience and a lot of neat stories to tell . . . what a great teacher he'll be!)

* One the other end, identify the really bright kids and give them a chance to go to public magnet schools where they can shine.

* In the middle, give kids a real idea of what college is about. Encourage them to think realistically about all of their options, including community college or the military.

(A lot of the kids I went to my undergrad school with -- and students I taught in my brief stint as an adjunct professor -- were bright, but terrible slackers with bad study skills, poor discipline, and no clear career goals. Many dropped out, or squeaked through after taking years of "easy A courses." They really shouldn't have been wasting their parents' money. A few years working crappy low-skilled jobs would have done them a lot of good.)

Stefan

Cereal Jones said...

Students today need a role model in science. But where?

donna said...

I became a computer science engineer because my dad was an electrical engineer who had worked decades for Motorola. I loved my dad and found him to be one of the most interesting people I knew, so I sort of followed in his footsteps. Besides, then it was really fun to be one of the few women in engineering, and get all that extra attention. ;^) But I went into it with the full expectation of having a good career and basically being at a company as long as I wanted to.

Sadly, that turned out to no longer be true, and the company I started with had layoffs within just a few years. Then the whole industry shifted to PCs instead of mainframes, and all the great jobs went out the window as companies hired anyone who could write a program, whether they knew what they were doing or not. All those years I spent learning to do it right seemed like wasted effort, almost.

Why in the world would people put themselves through the difficult training to be a scientist or engineer when they will have zero job security? The whhole structure of our society has shifted so people no longer have the expectation of being rewarded for long years of training, and it is destroying our economy. The rich still take their huge slice off the top, but by leaving nothing for the rest of us, they are eating their own seed corn and don't even care.

Tony Fisk said...

David Brin said:
...Teachers are virtual slaves to the yearly standardized exams...hewing close to the prescribed and tested curriculum without exception...

What had been the unsung glory of the American school system ... is the way open class discussion has fostered free thinking and rambunctious argumentativeness. And yes, confident creativity, to some degree.


It's long been one of my more cynical conspiracy theories that education policy can be viewed as an exercise in 'mushroom management' (keep 'em in the dark and feed 'em ...). Here in Vic. Australia in the nineties, we had a 'dry' Liberal state gov't swept into power after disastrous economic mismanagement by Labor. One of their main responses was to sell off the state schools! (And privatise all infrastructure. And hamstring the auditor-general... at which point they were given the boot. But I digress)

It's ironic that a supposedly 'scientific' approach (standard exams) is stifling creative thought, as well as harming scientific teaching. Who enforces this policy in the US?

You mention India and Japan exhorting a more 'trad. American' approach to education. There are some trends that way in Australia, too. Carmellio Reggio is v. popular at junior levels, at least (looks good, but we'll be seeing how that pans out in the next year or two, when our young'un heads off)

David Brin said...

sayeth Martial Faber: " That is, they like science as a means for easing human suffering, but don't like science as a means of creating products for corporate profits. Any comment?"

I doubt very many young people oppose fair profits from the delivery of fresh innovations and sevices.

We all face the problem of fine-tuning capitalism so that innovation, goods and services include all costs, including costs to our grandchildren, in their market prices.

Also, every generation of elites will be tempted to use their influence in order to cheat. By mutual collusion (interlocking directorates), taking over government (the "revolving door"), making taxpayers pick up costs while profits are privatized, and by excluding/deferring the costs of environmental degradation and resource depletion.

Are we smart enough to deal with these methods of cheating, as our ancestors dealt with cheating by kings, nobles clerics, robber barons and so on? Are we smart enough to do it the way they did, by NOT giving into the sick-weet sanctimony of socialism, which has been decisively proved to be inferior to a good market, any day, any time?

But I wander. You think young people are turned off from science by its commercial usefulness? I see romantic twaddle more reponsible. Celebrity for its own sake. Entertainment and sports as end alls. Movies like Star Wars that show lots of tech toys to consume, but never any of the fun of creating them. And relentless propaganda from left and right that science is simply vile.

re: education, many in this country can afford, I I can, to supplement the public education with the music lessons, swimming, karate, art and such that are absent. But dig this. Despite those idiotic "kids need more art" ads on TV, EVERY class my kids ever have includes art projects as a teaching tool. Sometimes useful pedagogically - like map-drawing or perspective, but generally fatuous.

But it's worse. Looking at summer camp programs in our area, we find that a third of them are art camps! (Drama, music, etc.) HALF are sports camps. A tiny dribble are "science is fun!" programs that do show off some cool things, but never teach the laboratory or field process itself.

And NOWHERE is there a single summer program that will teach my young engineer how to have fun wiring, soldering, welding, engine-tuning, robot building (NOT LEGO!), auto repair, or any of a zillion great things that kids used to learn from some cousin in the greasy shop around the corner, or from their older brothers.

Sayeth anonymous: "It pains me to suggest it, but: I think it may be time to formalize the de facto triage that occurs in Junior High and High Schools..."

I agree that the gifted are being cheated today... again by consensus from left and right. But I refuse to see it as either-or. There have to be ways to uplift those who need it without dragging others down.

GreedyAlgorithm said...

"I agree that the gifted are being cheated today... again by consensus from left and right. But I refuse to see it as either-or. There have to be ways to uplift those who need it without dragging others down."

And if there aren't? There exists some strategy to maximize the 'no child left behind' heuristic -- to maximize the ability of the least able of our students. By definition, any other strategy will 'drag down' the least able. Similarly (and much more obviously) any strategy other than that which provides the most appropriate resources for the gifted will drag them down. Only if both strategies are the same can we 'do the right thing' for both sets of students without dragging anyone down... there are always compromises short of perfection. Someone has to suffer... the question is who.

f said...

Hm, I thought one of the larger problems - both with US education & more generally - is the 'winner takes all' approach that is becoming ever more common (or such is my perception). Instead of the top 10% of an endeavour being well rewarded, there seem to be ever more examples where the top 0.0001 get extraordinarily over-rewarded, at the expense of all the rest. While this is most prevalent in sports, it seems to me that it is spreading throughout many segments of business as well (cf the ever-rising CEO pay levels, completely detached from performance).

Of course, as someone remarked upthread, there is also the problem of role models

Rachael said...

Education is an interesting topic.

My take:

Anyone claiming to have discovered a solution is an imbecil. There simply is no "one" solution.

Have you heard of the recent situation in Florida?

Teachers are not qualified - a Spanish teacher attempting to explain Algebra to high school students just doesn't work.

AND, for the record, what happened to the "No Child Left Behind" Act? As if it is bad enough having a foreign language teacher explaining mathematics, over 50 children in a single classroom? Special attention cannot be offered!

Anonymous said...

GreedyAlgorithm has a point...as long as one accepts the situation as a zero-sum game. If part of the "smart-kids" educational program was tutoring the "dumb kids" (although probably not the "violent kids"), there seems to be a way to win-win this situation. Obviously, I'm not proposing this as a "one solution" kind of thing, but rather as an example of seeing the problem differently.

Dave Baker said...

I recognize the problem, and I think David's diagnosis may even be a large part of it (though realistically, how many "postmodern" parents parents out there are keeping their kids from studying science?). But in the end, how bad can the consequences be? So there will be fewer American citizens with PhD's in scientific fields. Students and academics all over the world are champing at the bit to buy into the American university system. I imagine the trend that we've seen since the beginning of this century -- more foreign professors teaching at US universities -- will continue, at no detriment to the overall quality of research and education.

Anonymous said...

"And NOWHERE is there a single summer program that will teach my young engineer how to have fun wiring, soldering, welding, engine-tuning, robot building (NOT LEGO!), auto repair, or any of a zillion great things that kids used to learn from some cousin in the greasy shop around the corner, or from their older brothers."

First, buy him a copy of MAKE magazine!

http://makezine.com/current/

Then start writing proposals to create an engineering camp.

Stefan

TaiChimp said...

I think a large part of the problem is adherance to attitudes expressed here, as well as in society. People are looking to measure the results of education as applied in "the real world." You speak of different motives for studying science, for example. Omitted is the previous motivation to seek truth.

Too many college students expect to get a piece of paper that will allow them to make more money in their adult lives. They choose their majors based on marketing studies, rather than on affinity and passion for a subject. Liberal arts are disrespected: it's hard to translate a History of Architecture course into a job.

True education is slipping, because no one seems to remember, "No knowledge is useless." The development of a versatile and insightful mind is no longer a goal. Unfortunately, someone who gets a salable degree in information technology will have to completely retrain if a switch in careers is dictated by economic factors. In today's world of shifts from company to company, and from career to career, it is the solid liberal arts student who is most versatile.

Improving education must include a return to the core values of the Enlightenment. Knowledge must be respected as a boon in and of itself. Also, there needs to be an articulation of benefit of diverse studies. One does not simply absorb a variety of packets of information drawn from separate courses. One gains a deeper appreciation of how to think. Learning how to think is what offers the liberal arts student to adapt to virtually any conditions.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps apropos:

A recent commencement speech by Steve Jobs:

http://wiredblogs.tripod.com/sterling/index.blog?entry_id=1136852

mapletree7 said...

Kids don't need role models - there are plenty of those. What spurred the scientific/engineering renaissance of the 50s and 60s was a concerted effort by government to increase American students' abilities because of the space race.

I have to wonder whether civilization is doomed to collapse. I haven't cashed out the 401k yet, but....

Ambi said...

How can one expect the young show "affinity and passion for a subject" after letting them grow up in an environment that breaks their ideals at a tender age?

The Cardassian Scot said...

TaiChimp, I have to disagree fundamentally with what you say about the best education being a liberal arts one. Part of the reason is I'm a science geek. I love science and I think science teaches you how to think. But apart from being a bit of a physics snob who looks down on the arts, I'd like to compare the European system with the US one.

I studyed Physics and Maths in my first undergraduate degree, that meant I studied Physics and Maths, with some computer science in my first year. (OK so I also did computer science in my second year, but only because I took an extra subject from what was required in the hopes I could persuade my university to let me do a Physics and Computer Science degree. I didn't manage to persuade them.) Later, I retrained as a pastor in an evangelical church so I went back to get a BA in theology (much to my shame, science geek snobbery again, sorry) and for that I studied theology and Biblical studies. (You should be able to tell I'm looking forward to your next series Dr Brin.) The thing is at the end of my undergraduate degrees I was qualified for those fields, a situation which is not the same in the USA where as I understand it (correct me if I'm wrong) I would have needed to go and do postgraduate studies. The lecturer in theology from my College left to go and teach in the US. He says that he teaches from the same set of notes in his US MA courses that he used for his UK BA courses.

My wife trained at my Church's european Bible college which grants its degrees from a US university, while I attended my church's UK Bible college which grants its degrees from the University of Manchester. The thing is, lots of people from different churches and youth ministry organisations come to the UK college but only people from my own denomiation go to our european college because the degree is pretty much worthless in Northern Europe outside of my church.

Apart from the possible exception of the IV league, a US undergraduate degree is next to useless over here, because it's not in depth enough. (I know other people with US undergraduate degrees.)

I'm not wanting to bash the USA here. I'm just saying trying to provide the other side of the arguement from the liberal arts degree is the best. From this side of the pond it appears that to do any useful work in your area of study you have to do postgraduate study in the USA, whereas an undergraduate degree will do in Europe.

However, I'm sure people will jump in and point out where I am wrong.

Ash said...

OMG, you have waaaaay to much time on your hands.

aSh

Mabus said...

The Scot has a point.

I come from a poor family, but had National Merit scholarships throughout my undergraduate studies. When I was done, I had a Bachelor of Sciences degree....but there was no work for that. In order to become employable (without searching the entire United States for a quasi-grunt job as somebody's assistant, and hoping it wasn't snapped up by someone closer), I needed a Masters, minimum. And for that, I could get financial aid only in the form of loans.

Just past the midpoint of my graduate studies, I caught an unusual eye infection from wading through streams in the Tennessee backwaters and was unable to finish. I made a few procedural missteps, didn't jump through all the right hoops, and now I am a janitor at Cracker Barrel hoping to one day be financially secure enough to go back to college.

Tough luck, eh? If I lived in England, it sounds like I'd be better off.

HarCohen said...

"But in the end, how bad can the consequences be? So there will be fewer American citizens with PhD's in scientific fields. Students and academics all over the world are champing at the bit to buy into the American university system. I imagine the trend that we've seen since the beginning of this century -- more foreign professors teaching at US universities -- will continue, at no detriment to the overall quality of research and education.".

I expect we are in the final generations when persons from all over the world come to attend American universities. What sustains these universities are the gifts of benefactors who acquired material success in commercial markets, be they manufacturing, engineering, finance, or medicine. That success is shifting overseas. The expertise is shifting overseas. The wealth is shifting overseas.

In another 100 years we may be the Greeks and some other part of the world, the Romans. Will the Romans come to learn in our gymnasia, or will our main exports be our philosophies (sciences), for the edification and exploitation by the Romans?

Wait! Didn't that already begin with Deming?

Joel said...

Another very apropos article, this one on education, respect for science, and Star Wars.
"Scientists and technologists have the same uneasy status in our society as the Jedi in the Galactic Republic. They are scorned by the cultural left and the cultural right, and young people avoid science and math classes in hordes."
-Neal Stephenson.

Full text.

If you don't have a NY Times account, this will come in handy.

Personally, I'm both a science geek and an academic slacker. I did fine in a relatively exclusive undergrad program because all the details were fun and at my fingertips. I'm struggling in my PhD program because now I have to not only do my homework (rarely the case before), but often to assign it as well. Hopefully I won't fail entirely.

Frank said...

The story that should have been.

More on topic, it's actually strange that in an era of access to a surplus of information, people find it harder to give their children a good education. There is of course more to teaching than getting students to absorb data. A good teacher gets to know his/her pupils, so that tests are only one more way to determine the level of a students proficiency. One might argue that relying on standardized tests is evidence of a lack of confidence in the ability of teachers to evaluate their students. But how are teachers supposed to develop this ability with those tests taking that task from their hands? Seen that way, standardized tests are actually endangering the quality of teaching.

Anonymous said...

"it's actually strange that in an era of access to a surplus of information, people find it harder to give their children a good education"

Since when does information have to do with education? You can plop a five year old in the middle of the largest library in the world and he won't recieve an education.

* * *

I think there is a great deal of "golden age" thinking going on regarding education.

I think that it is true that high school in America today is less rigorous and demanding than in the past . . . but the very nature and purpose of high school has changed so much that exact comparisons are not reasonable.

The biggest change is this:

A large majority of Americans not only expect their kids to graduate high school, but to go on to college.

In the past, this simply was not true. Young people dropped out in droves. Perhaps "dropping out" is the wrong phrase; they simply didn't choose, or couldn't afford, to compleat high school. It was a career choice. Back then, you could not only survive, but raise a family on the wages from unskilled or semi-skilled labor.

High school was something you completed if you had aspirations, and if your family could support you for those extra years. There was more rigor and discipline involved; in exchange your job prospects were a lot better.

The job market and standards of living have changed so much that the old ways simply won't work. At the very least, if you want to go back to those "good old days," you have to deal with the wage issue. Are businesses prepared to double the minimum wage? You might have to do that to convince Americans to take on the jobs that don't require an education.

Stefan

Ken said...

"High school was something you completed if you had aspirations, and if your family could support you for those extra years. There was more rigor and discipline involved; in exchange your job prospects were a lot better.

The job market and standards of living have changed so much that the old ways simply won't work. "

I think you've got cause and effect reversed here. Declining rigor in high school caused an increased need to go to college to prove that you're decently knowledgeable and capable of learning and working.

Today, our children must waste their entire childhoods to get a high school diploma that proves nothing about their ability to handle any task that is even minimally intellectually demanding. Only then can they begin to get real training and prove themselves.

A rigorous course of high school study would fix that. Employers would once again accept high school graduates for decent jobs, the number of people that failed to complete the training needed for middle class life through pregnancy or other mischance would drop, and our effective lifetimes would be increased by four or more years.

And a world where high school graduates are qualified for middle class jobs and those not capable of it dropped out really wouldn't be worse than one in which high school graduates were qualified for very little besides manual labor but nearly everyone finishes and those capable of more must go to college. In fact it's better overall, since it adds four years to everyone's effective lifetime and reduces the window of opportunity for training that one is capable of handling to be derailed by some mischance. And the general educational level could only be improved by such measures.

Anonymous said...

"And a world where high school graduates are qualified for middle class jobs and those not capable of it dropped out really wouldn't be worse . . ."

I disagree.

One: Even a "rigorous" high school education wouldn't be enough, these days, to teach everything that needs to be taught.

At the least, something like a career-oriented Associates degree might be needed after a high school program of general education.

Two: What happens to the drop outs? The harder high school is, the more drop outs there will be. If you read up-topic, I suggested effective vocational training for kids who can't hack a college-track high school program.

Three: There is more to education than career training. We live in a complex world and a pluralistic society where well rounded citizens need a general education. It is not enough to learn grammar and math, however rigorous. High school is a chance to provide some of that, albeit often in a half-assed way.

Stefan

Robert Prior said...

David Baker wrote: "Students and academics all over the world are champing at the bit to buy into the American university system. I imagine the trend that we've seen since the beginning of this century -- more foreign professors teaching at US universities -- will continue, at no detriment to the overall quality of research and education"

According to the last article I saw on this topic, I don't think you can count on that.

In the short term, a lot of good students etc are beging kept away by Homeland Security. I know folks who have been told not to go home to visit their families, because they probably won't be allowed back in to finish their PhDs.

In the long term, as more countries catch up I suspect that the prestige of an American degree will be worth less. For example, my niece's cousins in China will be going to a Chinese university -- their parents decided that they could get as good an undergraduate engineering degree in Beijing as they could here.

SJ said...

And here's a startling irony. ...Japan, China and India are exhorting teachers to "teach in a more American fashion,"

Not that ironic, really, in the new globalized world people are trying to learn from each others' systems and try to get that so far elusive balance between "rote" and "riot" learning.

Tony Fisk said...

A thought prompted by DB's comments about how all the odds and ends get lumped into the (US) science curriculum:

It might seem utterly trivial but, how many of you can recall ever being taught logic?

The reason I ask is that I once was sent on consulting course which covered (among a lot of other things) logical argument construction. I thought it pretty basic stuff ('all dogs have four legs, Fred is a dog, therefore...').

The revelation, for me, came afterwards, when I found that about a third thought it was amazing how clear it made everything when you organised your thoughts like this!!
Come to think of it, I don't recall actually receiving any formal lessons on the topic (having just 'picked it up').

The basics aren't difficult, and wouldn't take more than a lesson or two: it's more a realisation that, 'hey, you can actually use this way of thinking!', that might lead (among other things) to someone realising that the science room isn't the place for something like anti bullying. (OK, there's probably other issues at work, but...)

So, I wonder, is logic taught anywhere at high school level?

Just call me T said...

You all makes valid reasonings and comments... but I am stuck on the no child left behind...How is it that we call a child graduating from high school but still cannot read... Why is it that we play everyone except ourselves? I agree that we are not spending enough money to entice our children to become scientists, engineers and so forth but here in Michigan, I am not sure about other states, we have election on where the money goes, whether to raise taxes, or eliminate things to have the funds and usually we all hear the complaining about cutting programs and cutting money but when there is an offer on the table on how to raise money everyone votes it down or scuffs at the ideas presented... to me that is saying, "Let's all complain but do nothing to solve the problem"! Our govenor said she would take a pay cut so that that money would help schools and so would tbose in her office... but nowhere was it readily stated that this pay cut wouldn't take affect until her next term in office.. if she was elected. Now call me anything you want but why is everyone so happy about something that may not even happen?

Max said...

taichimp said:

"True education is slipping, because no one seems to remember, "No knowledge is useless.""

The problem with thinking this way is that it implies that all information that a teacher can give you is fundementally equivalent. My English teacher couldn't figure out why forcing us to memorize long lists of facts about a story was any different from learning Calculus, a truly beautiful system.

Also, Paul Graham, a brilliant hacker and author, has written an essay in which he presents an idea explaining the failure of schools. It probably isn't a one-answer solution, but it's certainly a very interesting idea.

http://www.paulgraham.com/nerds.html

Frank said...

Tony Fisk said:
"I thought it pretty basic stuff ('all dogs have four legs, Fred is a dog, therefore...'). "

...Fred has 4 legs ? But what if Fred has 3 legs or none ? Is he still a dog ? Not so basic.

Buffy said...

Some people here seem confused about requirements for certain careers. You think "if a person doesn't have what it takes to go to college then give him a vocational education," etc etc etc

In reality the best vocationally trained students are head and shoulders above the average college student intellectually. Besides the practical problem solving ability, modern blue collar workers need a variety of skills, many of which the average liberal arts students could never master in a million years.

Give everybody a vocational education by the time they graduate high school and let those who want go on to college. If they don't get grants they'll be in a better position to help finance their own education plus they'll have practical skills that will save them money and let them barter for sex and other favors.

Eddie said...

www.stockdiscussion.blogspot.com
Our education system should encourage people who wish to go on, to go on. However, those who don't believe it's necessary, should also do as they please. Let's leave subsidies out of education so only those who wish to go on will go on. See also www.stockdiscussion.blogspot.com

Ken said...

"One: Even a "rigorous" high school education wouldn't be enough, these days, to teach everything that needs to be taught."

Why not? What's the limit? Why can't "everything that needs to be taught" be taught by the age of 18? Seems to me there would be a lot of advantages in a serious attempt to do so, and I don't see any downside whatsoever.

"Two: What happens to the drop outs?"

The same thing that happens to today's high school graduates that don't go on to college.

"The harder high school is, the more drop outs there will be."

And the less of a stigma there is at dropping out. The stigma we have today about not being able to make it through a "high school" curriculum that is more suitable for 12 year olds is necessarily greater than the stigma associated with not being able to get through college or the high schools we should have that are its rough equivalent.

"If you read up-topic, I suggested effective vocational training for kids who can't hack a college-track high school program."

Offering real vocational education to those interested can't hurt. But don't expect a course that morons can pass to be of any use in getting a decent job of any sort.

Like it or not, there are morons in this world, and any course of education that is of any use is going to have people fail or drop out. If no one fails or drops out, no one is going to be convinced of anything by the fact that you have passed it. There's no getting around it.

"Three: There is more to education than career training. We live in a complex world and a pluralistic society where well rounded citizens need a general education."

Well, they ain't getting it. And I don't see how letting government employees teach people how to be good citizens - which often involves voting against the best interests of those same government employees - is a good idea. The marketplace of ideas isn't going to be robust if everyone gets the public school system's idea of good citizenship (not to mention history and economics) pounded into their heads. Our only saving grace at present is that our schools are so ineffective at teaching "good citizenship".

Tallyho said...

THE CORBY SAGA
THE ABSOLUTE GARBAGE SHE GOES ON WITH.
Its obvious Aussies under 30 are no different. They were at each others throats with the Azariah Chamberlain case, from which we learned how easy Australian media hype can whip up theGreat Unwashed into brawling with each other. If Corby was a fat German or Sri Lankan you wouldn't have given a rats. Neither would the Oz media. I must say I'm impressed with Corby's media exposure plan. Always appear well dressed, well groomed, don't swear, emphasise the tits, be the 'model upstanding darling'. If Ted Bundy had the same choreographer back then they would have pushed the same line. The judges have heard it all before - "Someone else put it in my bag Tuan!" Well SE Asia has a way to deal with drug importers wether they are 'model upstanding darlings' or not: Indonesia - death by firing squad.. Singapore - death by hanging.. Malaysia - death by hanging ..(remember the poor druggie compatriots Matthew Barlow and Thomas Chambers?) Vietnam - death by firing squad, and they bill the parents for the costs of the bullets! A nice touch. :) SE Asian justice takes into account 'accountability', which the Oz and pommy systems long ago abandoned. Corby was bloody lucky that she was caught on a Hindu island and got off light - 20 years. Elsewhere in the Region its either acquittal or death. None of this mid-stream 20 year business. If you do ever travel to that part of the world (and I hope you dont, please leave your drugs in Australia where they belong. And learn to actually READ the arrival cards that are written in big fat letters 'DEATH PENALTY FOR DRUG IMPORTERS'. There's nothing more bothersome than constantly hearing about another stupid matsalleh getting caught and executed for bringing in drugs.
Cheers...
& Tallyho

Tony Fisk said...

@Frank:
I wasn't advocating a full-on course, just the basics (which my little anecdote suggests aren't as widely known as might be thought, and they should be: more fundamental than the three 'ar's, if you think about it!)

Anyway, your three legged 'dog'* isn't a dog in my reckoning because I clearly state that 'All dogs have four legs'. (Of course, you could be seeking to prove, by converse, the premise that 'not all dogs have four legs', but that's part of the postgraduate course. And, I could be arguing in my spare time;-)

*A no-legged dog!!? Maybe it's just one that found an open bottle of bourbon! Or, could it be an uplifted species of daschund designed to accompany man into space (how would it get around? ...Argh!!)

James said...

I'm not so sure about the claims that schools are not as academically demanding as in the past. I know that it is a commonly held notion, but the fact that something is commonly believed does not make it true (such as in the commonly held but incorrect belief in a connection between Iraq and 9/11). I am in a pre-teaching credential program, and what I have observed is a higher standard than I remember from my own experiences in the late '70s and early 80s. For example, I have seen attempts at Algebra instruction in the fourth grade, a subject that previously wasn't typically covered until the 8th grade before. To meet the demands of the all important tests more material is covered in a shallow manner, rather than covering core skills in depth.

I think one of the big failings of NCLB is that despite having good intentions (all children deserve to have a quality education, teachers should be well trained before entering the classroom), it does little to bring about these conditions beyond widespread testing and a sort of mythical belief that the free market system and competition for funds will magically force people to come up with a solution (essentially assuming that the problem is solely one of motivation). Well, in a way they have - as in the solution in the 'Texas miracle', in which administrators gamed they system to meet the high test score requirements by 'encouraging' less skilled students to drop out in a way that wasn't considered 'dropping out' by some technical bureaucratic standard. Tests can be a useful tool for measuring educational achievement, but they shouldn't be the only tool used. Like the old saw about money, tests can be a good servant but a horrible master.

Logic is an interesting skill. I used to take it for granted that most people had basic logical skills. Time in the real world, and even more so in the 'online' world seems to indicate that my assessment of people's skill may have been overly optimistic. Doing what little I can I will sometimes post a [URL=http://www.nizkor.org/features/fallacies/]link[/URL] to a site on common logical errors to back up a critique on a premise I consider to be flawed.

On the questions of the budget, I find myself asking where all the 'fiscal conservatives' seem to have disappeared to. I can see a few of them around, though most I know defected from the GOP to become Clintonian democrats. My biggest longstanding complaint, not just in education but in most government programs, is not simply how much money is spent but how it is budgeted. If a school district buys a whole bunch of computers but no software, the computers can become little more than another classroom decoration (or an oversized paperweight). Many of our reservists in Iraq had to long suffer without adequate armor, because of (a) the neo-con pipe dream that we would be welcomed with open arms and flowers, and (b) their fiscal priorities were on pork barrel projects such as SDI and next generation nukes - items for which there is little to no practical use in the current international climate (we would probably do better with improved intelligence gathering and rapid special forces deployment for counter terrorism purposes). Unfortunately, military pork is hard to cut, as doing so tends to reap the slur of ‘soft of defense’.

I’m not sure what the solution (or solutions) to all these problems may be, but I know that a well educated populous with good basic critical thinking skills (essential to CITOKATE) is an important part of the puzzle. I hope to play some small part of that - after all IAAMOAC, and damn proud of it.

Frank said...

@Tony Fisk:
I was just trying to say that teaching merely the basics of logic would be insufficient, restricting and potentially confusing in a fuzzy world. It may make things clear and organised, but also very abstract. There is a danger that people start thinking that because of this, logic is crap and thus useless.

Frank said...

WE'RE LOOKING FOR A FEW BORING DORKS A somewhat blog-related article by Ted Rall.

Progressive Indian-American Woman said...

As the mother of a middle/high school students, and an erstwhile tutor, here is my 2c -

http://myturn2.blogspot.com/2005/05/american-public-schools-what-works-and.html

As for fostering interest in science - I agree that we need camps or programs that let kids do hands on stuff. My son would love to do wood-working, soldering, electronics... Since no such resources are available, I subscribed to Make magazine...

http://myturn2.blogspot.com/2005/06/i-am-maker.html

grendelkhan said...

Ah, damn it, Frank got there first. Ted Rall's We're Looking for a Few Boring Dorks, in which Ted Rall complains that scientists are not only boring, but evil as well. Several paragraphs later, he mentions flunking out of a physics program, but assures us that the event had nothing to do with his vitriol directed to those damned white-coated Frankensteins.

Anonymous said...

GROW A PENIS!

Tony Fisk said...

'white coated frankensteins??'
In Oz, they're much more cosmopolitan, and far from boring. No, what Ted Rall needs is a Sleek Geek!

Reading the comments on Summer Camps, it sounds like America needs an army of them: to 'wage war on error'!

BTW: there seems to be a tendency to regard the disciplines of engineering and science as being equivalent. While they use the same tools (math, chemistry etc.) there are differences in approach.

Engineers tend to be 'concrete' thinkers, being more comfortable working out the details to specific problems, whereas scientists tend to take a more abstract and general approach. I certainly notice this at work, where both types co-exist.

(Hmmm! That's one reason why science has never been a great career move: particularly in this era of microeconomic justification for every cent spent. In NGOs at least!!)

...Actually, I also noticed it at high school: an aptitude for math did not automatically mean an aptitude for physics.

Anyway, the point here is that both modes of thinking have their place and students should be given a workout in both. Because, as Stefan says, schools can't teach everything children need to know these days. Nor should they. What they can and should do is teach them how to learn, and *then* point them at what they need to learn.

...alas, as someone said: 'there is no one solution'!

Tony Fisk said...

@Frank: Missed your reply, sorry!
You seem to think that there is a danger that an abstract concept (and hence, logic) would be considered irrelevant and useless for students.

I just said that both concrete and abstract approaches to thinking should be covered. The trick is, as always, to emphasise the relevance of abstract thinking (ie logic) to the immediate problem (for school students, that means passing those 'standardised exams')

They can be tackled either by sheer exhausting grunt, one set problem at a time.

Or, they can be tackled by learning how to recognise the patterns common to the problems. Yes, it takes a little more preparation, and yes, it is a nerve wracking experience when you've got a deadline approaching not to be able to show steady progress. But the end result is worth it!

I suppose that all that may sound rather 'abstract and irrelevant' (Simplistic, too!). A better analogy is that old saw about giving a starving man a sack of grain. He will be fed for a week. Give that starving man a sack of grain and a lesson in agriculture, and he will feed himself (and stop pestering you for more sacks of grain)

@James, you make some fair points about how standards are improving, and 'checking the facts'. Easy to forget the basics in mid-flight!

Korrektiv said...

Kierkegaard: "People demand freedom of speech as a compensation for the freedom of thought which they never use."

Tony Fisk said...

Oops! Stuffed the link!!
Sleek Geeks can be found at: http://www.abc.net.au/science/sleekgeeks/

David Brin said...

sayeth "f": "there seem to be ever more examples where the top 0.0001 get extraordinarily over-rewarded, at the expense of all the rest."

Want to see this extrapolated? Read Kiln People! In which the best in any field can make COPIES of themselves!

BTW I have nothing against some reforms that make the smartest kids tutor other kids. You really do learn by teaching. But this is no substitute for rewarding them also with stimulating gifted classes.

sayeth TaiChimp: 'True education is slipping, because no one seems to remember, "No knowledge is useless." The development of a versatile and insightful mind is no longer a goal."

Well, the US bachelor's degree takes (nominally) 4 years while the european baccalaureate takes three. Why? A european will say it's because US kids are dim. But in fact, it is because of the basic PURPOSE of university education was conceived differently over here. That extra year is mostly BREADTH REQUIREMENTS. Science majors must take some arts and vice versa. In Europe, *Undergraduates* specialize! (Believe it or not.)

To American eyes, that is a horrible thing to do, during a time when the mind is fresh for exploration.

sayeth The Cardassian Scot: "Apart from the possible exception of the IV league, a US undergraduate degree is next to useless over here, because it's not in depth enough. (I know other people with US undergraduate degrees.)"

;-) it's "Ivy League"... though your usage is interesting. In any event, the perception you describe is narrowminded. The purpose of a european Bachelors is to create useful clerks or specialized scholars. What they see as "not in depth enough" we see as rounding out a widely balanced citizen. You learn your specialty in grad school.

And yes, this goes too far. Liberal arts degrees - even "breadth'd" with some science, can be pretty dang shallow.

Mabus? Dang! Hang in there guy. Read a lot during your hiatus. Get the syllabus for some courses you intend to take and read those books, so the courses will be repeats when you take em. Take lunch twice a week at a nearby campus where you'll eat while listening to some department seminar in a topic you like. Crank the mind. And don't let those hoity toity euros get you down! ;-) Only THIS LAST YEAR did one of them pass the US in college attendance. And it was rich, homogeneous NORWAY! The US takes in 50% of the world's immigrants, and STILL graduates more folk from university, per capita, than anyone else. heh!

(That rant was brought to you by Contrarian Brin, who felt that, after calling his nation's leadership all sorts of names, it was time for a burst of patriotism! ;-)

Much shorter rant: Stefan is right and Ken is a grouch! ;-) I did say that standardized tests do not test what US education emphasizes! Argumentation skills and mental agility! And yes, today that is manifesting as a propensity for romantic dogmas. But we have to have faith that is a phase...

And yes, the 20th century bargain is being destroyed.

Back then, The world's BEST and brightest begged and stole and competed and sweated to get into our grad schools, PAYING for the privilege and (at the same time) absorbing our values. We then skimmed of f the top 20% - gave them passports - and let the others take our ideals home after paying tuition for 3-5 years. What a deal!

But no more. Yes, a lot of good students etc are being kept away by Homeland Security. And now, the top 10% are going home where China etc offer plenty more opportunities to get rich fast. Ah well, it was nice while it lasted.

I liked the Greece Rome analogy, BTW. Shivers.

---

Tony: Logic is valuable... up to the point where is becomes a weapon AGAINST clear thinking! Indeed, the rediscovery of Plato, from Islamic Spain, empowered Scholasticism to lift the European Dark Ages, around 1100. But that in turn became a horrifying-stultifying , used BY the Church and elites to repress true experimental science.

In fact, "reason" is not the opposite of magical thinking. It is a TYPE of magical thinking. You are still insisting the universe obey a set of incantations.

Now, logical incantations tend to be more helpful, instructive than those that are PURELY subjective. But the very assertion of objectivity is simply childish and leads to the ruination of many a good start: e.g. Ayn Rand's so-called "objectivism." Mathematics is even farther along this path. Its incantations are very, very often right... and we scientists know that our math buddies are half-mad. They actually believe you can "prove" something with symbols!

What 'reason' very often "proves" is whatever the logician wanted to prove. Read Plato or Descartes, and give in to the impulse to answer the socratic "Isn't it therefor obvious that...? With... "Um... no, not always."

Hey, I DO believe kids should be taught it! But then they should be taught to poke experimental hole in self-justifying edifices of "logic.."

...especially their own.

Private Ejaculations said...

David - I am well-known for my boring rants about how schools have been dumbed-down to prevent them from graduating people who free-think, picket, write blogs, and otherwise irritate the establishment. I was taught to question authority and not stop at the easy answer, while my younger siblings were taught exactly the opposite: don't question the answer, it's disloyal and disobedient. There's only one answer and we just gave it to you! Sshh!
My wife teaches at a small college, and most of her students have blue-collar jobs or job skills that they desperately want to improve. When they realize that she's teaching them logical thinking and critical skills along with commas and periods, they become excited and very motivated. Over and over she hears angry people say "Why wasn't I taught this in high school?"

David Brin said...

I agree with all you say...

...but also look at your own standards by which you are evaluating all this. See elsewhere where I discuss HOW you absorbed SOA (suspicion of authority). You aren't the only one. MOST americans and westerners think themselves and their "side" to be the brave rebels against oppressive authority figures.

Believe it or not, Limbaugh is still saying this, despite being the chief shill for a group that has taken every rein of power and most media.