Saturday, January 31, 2009

Thoughts About Memes, or Memes About Thoughts

I just wanted to share an interesting e-mail exchange that I am currently having with a fellow reviewer. It is on the topic of memes (the thought that just as genes are the building block of phenotypes, the meme is the basic unit of our mental life).

This was the e-mail sent to me:

I really liked your review [of Denis Dutton's "Art Instinct"] and it was so convincing I decided not to buy the book, even as I was poised to do so. However the book's title alone sparked a cascade of useful thoughts.

Since you're familiar with Stephen Pinker and ideas about evolution, I guess you must also be familiar with Richard Dawkins. But maybe you don't know about a wonderful book inspired by Dawkins: "The Meme Machine" by Susan Blackmore, with an introduction by Dawkins. Dr. Blackmore takes Dawkins' meme concept and runs with it. I found it to be a novel and delightfully argued theory of how ideas (including commercial jingles, fashion styles, catch phrases and religions) spread and evolve in a Darwinian manner. There are other books and articles about the meme concept, but hers is the only one I found convincing and revelatory.

Here was my response:

Thanks very much for the very kind words about my review. In honesty, it is an interesting book even though I find its ideas a bit rough. While I don't reccomend its ideas, the book is quite an interesting read.

Yes, I am definitely familiar with Pinker, Dawkins and Blackmore. To be honest, I am not very attracted to the idea of the meme (or the meme of the meme?). The reason is that it doesn't "explain" much of anything. Anything that the invocation of a meme can explain - why songs are catchy, why we can't stop thinking about that movie line, etc - can be juust as easily, and less problematically, explained by invoking the concept of "ideas." Yes, the meme is much more materialistic and therefore scientific seeming, but it doesn't expain much at all.

I am not sure we know nearly enough about neuroscience to explain ideas, their origin, and why sometimes they "pop up" without us wanting them to, but my suspicion is that we will find that the reality is much more pedestrian than the meme: ideas occur because of certain combinations of neurons firing between synapses, and sometimes, these firings occur without conscious will on our part.

My biggest problem with the idea of "memes" is that they do not make sense in several ways. (a) They don't really account for creativity and novelty; (b) they don't make sense given our strong intutions that we control our thoughts (rather than thoughts just "happening" to our passive brains; and (c) for such a physicalistic theory, the meme does not appear to have any physical nature as a thing (like the gene).

I am always amazed that the idea of memes has any credence at all. It seems that the only thing it really has going for it is that it is materialistic in nature (thus appealing to very hardcore materialists), and that it makes sense out of the phenomenon we sometimes have about thoughts "popping into" our heads without us willing them to.

When discussing memes with others, I am always amazed that defenders of memetics naturally assume that I am not a materialist, and must be a mind/body dualist, because of my rejection of memes. It just seeems quite natural to me that while the material brain gives rise to our inner life, it does not need "mind viruses" to infect it from the outside, but creates thoughts solely from the inside.

I guess time will tell if this idea has any staying power. My guess is that it will be gone within a decade as neuroscience gets a bit older.

Special Ed Students Immune From Failure?

Yesteday, I took part in an IEP (Individualized Education Program) meeting for an autistic student on my case load. The goal of the meeting was to evaluate whether the student is progressing academically with the strategies we have put in place for him.

And, out of the blue, there it was. One participant, a "resource teacher" specializing in autism, said, "Well, the child is recieving special ed services. There is no reason he should be failing."

I worked hard to keep my jaw from dropping. A few months ago, I would have said something to follow up such a comment - something to the effect of, "Special education students can fail, if they are not doing the work required desipte our best efforts." I would have said something like this but have learned to keep my mouth shut so as to avoid an "everyone against Kevin," scenario. Sadly, the view that kids recieving special ed services should not fail is commonplace.

To clarify, I do not accuse those holding this view of suggesting that students should pass simply because they recieve special education services. Their view is more nuanced: if a student receiving special education services is failing, then it must be because their work is not appropriately tailored to suit their abilities or strengths. This was what the participant at Friday's meeting was saying: as the student is failing classes, it must be because we special and general educators are not meeting his/her needs.

IF there is one over-arching problem with special education as administered in public schools (particularly high schools), it is this: special education inadvertently ends up shielding students from accountability. Special educators will pay lip-services to the idea that students must "meet teachers halfway," but these words collapse each time we introduce new services for a child in proportion to how badly they are failing. The worst part is that, by high school, students often know this and use it to their advantage. (I can't tell you how many times, for instance, I have seen kids recieve new services only to become lazier, thereby recieving new services, etc.)

The situation gets particularly delicate when we realize that, fairly often, a student is placed into special education because they are coming in far below the grade level required of the actual grade they are in (10th graders reading on a 3rd grade level, for instance.) Thus, when we talk about what "modificaitons" we need to make to their work, it often consists of reading things for them, scaling down the reading level of readings we give them, and, in a nutshell, making "10th grade english" into "3rd grade english that carries a 10th grade credit." This obliterates the entire idea of a "standards based" education by allowing some students to pass the same class as their peers, while having to master far less content in order to do so.

"Well, the child is recieving special ed services. There is no reason he should be failing." There has simply got to be a better way.

Progressive Education: A Bridge Too Far,

On another blog, there is an intersting post questioning America's over-reliance on standardized test scores, and test scores in general. As an educator, I share the blogger's concern that American schools are cranking out students that are ill-able to think well.

The problem is that much of this criticism of the current educational approach comes from the vantege point of (what is loosely termed) progressive education. Influenced by in large by John Dewey, Maria Montessori, Edward Thorndike, etc, these educators tend to take the approach of "whole child education" where schools focus less on instilling disciplinary knowledge and more on educating students to participate in social democracy. Less about reading and math, and more about "critical thinking" and social-mindedness.

In this blogger's post, was the example of the Eight Year Study, which allegedly found that progressive schools turn out more "well rounded" and competent students than do "traditional" schools.

What bothers me about the study is not that it shows progresssive schools to turn out more self- and socially-attuned individuals (this is of little suprise considering that progressive schools offer explicit instruction in these areas). My big problem is the ASSUMPTION made in the study that the proper school is one that teachers particular social values.

Here is an example from the study of some objectives of things the study's progressive schools wish to instill in students:

The development of effective methods of thinking
The cultivation of useful work habits and study skills
The inculcation of social attitudes
The acquisition of a wide range of significant interests
The development of increased appreciation of music, art, literature, and other aesthetic experiences
The development of social sensitivity
The development of better personal-social adjustment
he acquisition of important information
The development of physical health
The development of a consistent philosophy of life

While siome of these - cultivation of work habits and study skills, acquisition of important information - are relatively uncontroversial, some cause me concern: to see schools as "inculcat[ors] of social attitudes," or facilitators in the development of "consistent philosoph[ies] of life," skirt dangerously close to the idea of schools as value-pushers and teachers as opiners.

It seems to me that schools in any kind of pluralistic society should stay as neutral towards any non-academic value as possible, and seeing teachers' role as helping students develop philosophies of life open the floodgates for value-pushing. Teaching english is not value pushing (and is necessasry for academic function). Teaching a philosophy of life is, if anything, the job of parent, pastor, community, or anyone except a public school teacher.

Second, schools have enough on their plates in teaching academic subjects, which we do not do well anyway. Why place a role onto schools which can be best achieved by private entitites like churches, clubs, families, and communities? If focusing on one job is proving to be difficult, why add the additional job of curing social ills as well?

The two foremost problems with "whole child education" is that (a) it forces schoools to play a role that are better played by families, pastors, community, and parties more interested than the school board; and (b) it opens up the potentially dangerous idea that schools become value-pushers, people-molders, and anything but academic-knowledge-conveyers.

While there are many other flaws in the progressive education vision (abolishing letter grades in favor of more "holistic" grades, lack of academic rigor) the two I mentione in the paragraph above are the most concerning to me. I do not want to see a day when schools devote a piece of each school day to "inculcat[ing] social attitudes," and helping students "develop... a philosophy of life."

If we are having enough truouble teaching facts, then why open schools up to teach values?

Libertarianism and Why It is Superior to Randian Objectivism

By almost coincidence, I have been thinking about the philosophy of Ayn Rand lately. Not only is one of the blogs I've been following been having some interesting discussions on the merits of Rand as philosopher, but I am reading a book about education using Rand's principles of free market capitalism. In addition, I have received several comments on my posts from Atlas Fan, a blogger with Objecitivst sympathies. All of this has put Ayn Rand's philosophy back into the forefront of my brain. As will be clear, I am not very sympathetic with it.

Before going on to a look at why libertarianism is superior to Objectivist justifications for a minimal state, I want to briefly outline my history with objectivism. In the years 2000 and 2001, I was an objectivist of the ARI variety. I was very convinced that Rand's Objectivism was a viable, fully developed, closed system of philosophy. Gradually, I noticed what I thought were some serious flaws in some of Rand's argument - her ethical philosophy was insufficiently thin, her view of what constituted "reason" was too monolithic, etc. - and fell out of love with Objectivism.

Since then, the one sympathy I truly share with Rand is a belief in liberty, a minimal state, and the use of coercive force as suspect. That said, I think libertarian belief without Randian justification is much stronger than it is with.

First, one of Objectivists key complaints against non-Randian libertarianism is that "Although some call libertarianism a "philosophy," in fact it is just a relatively broad political position..." whereas Rand's defense of freedom "is a systematic philosophy: it starts with a theory of reality and a theory of knowledge, then develops a moral view using conclusions from the previous two fields, and all those conclusions provide the basis for its politics. (1)

Guilty as charged! There is a plurality of possible justifications for libertarianism: thinkers have argued that libertarianism is justified on utilitarian grounds, via natural rights, on religious grounds, or in a plurality of other ways. If libertarianism is to leave people free, though, I could not see that a "one justification system fits all," (like Rand's) as fitting a libertarian community.

In fact, if one suggests that there is only one very specific way to justify liberty (as Rand does) then you run a serious risk of restricting yourself into a minority view. As Rand views hers as a deductive system (it is actually inductive, but that is no matter), then she is saying, "If you don't share my views on epistemology or metaphysics, you can not possibly be a true defender of liberty. Check your premises!" With this very restrictive view, you will win only a handful of adherents (as witnessed by the relatively small number of people who actually consider themselves objectivists).

I have long been an advocate of having a plurality of justifications for any moral or political action. The more ways you can justify x (x is justified on utilitarian, natural rights, pragmatic, grounds) then the more chance you have of being able to justify x to a wide variety of audiences. As I take it a free society will likely have a variety of moral codes for people to subscribe to, it seems obvious that the more traditions one can appeal to in justification of a moral act, the better one will be. Rand's "one size fits all" practice of making a proper defense of liberty contingent on literal adherence to a very particular philosophic code means that you are dooming yourself to appealing to the few, rather than to the many.

More troubling still, whenever I read Rand (or an Objectivist's) denunciation of libertarianism, I can't help but think that they are not defending freedom so much as "freedom to be an Objectivist." In other words, Objectivists' insistence that "rational" people will agree on just about everything (i.e., they will follow Rand to the letter) reminds me of the type of "free society" that exists in Mormon Utan, where everyone is free to act as they choose (with the understanding that if one makes a wrong move, one will be excommunicated or cackled into submission.)

Take the following invective from Peter Schwartz:
"Subjectivism, amoralism and anarchism are not merely present in certain “wings” of the Libertarian movement; they are integral to it. In the absence of any intellectual framework, the zealous advocacy of “liberty” can represent only the mindless quest to eliminate all restraints on human behavior—political, moral, metaphysical." (2)

First, this is a bad oversimplification. No libertarian that I have ever been in contact with has ever advocated an "eliminat[tion of] all restraints on human behavior." Libertarians certainly draw the line at the Millian (yes, it was around before Rand) "no harm" principle - the principle that, while certain acts are permissible, government is justified in "stepping in" as soon as one person or ground engages in coercive harm to another. In other words, libertarians are far from the hedonists Schwartz describes, but agree fully with Rand (and Locke) that the purpose of government is to protect the individual.

To libertarians, it seems obvious that no free society would endorse one moral system - particularly a horribly restrictive one - as Schwartz seems to want for his "free society" (Galt's gulch, perhaps, where everyone is completely like-minded?). To libertarians, it is obvious that when you leave people RELATIVELY free to live their own lives, a plurality of value systems and ways of life will emerge; people don't think the same, and generally, a society of people that thinks the same is indicative of coercion.) If Galt's gulch or an Objectivist village is teh model of a free society, then it is either indicative that coercion or threat is involved, or is a "membership only" society that restricts membership to those subscribing to a certain view. Neither is consistent with any real libertarianism.

Would an Randian "free society" look like the Ayn Rand Society, where those championing liberty exercise banishment from their group at fast rates? (The David Kelley incident is instructive here, as it led to several 'banishments' from the club, holding no idea of academic freedom. Another great example of such childish and collectivistic behavior can be seen here.)

Objectivists like Schwartz and Peikoff hold an interesting admixture of zeal for individual rights but absolute scorn for those who would exercise it in any way of which they disapprove. Of course, intolerant individuals can certainly function within a free society, and a free society is one in which they would not be barred or coerced unless they did real harm to others. But I shudder to think of how quickly a free society consisting only of those individuals would erect into a statist one where the state monitors behavior to ensure that it is compatible with "reason." Or such a society of like-minded intolerant individuals may quickly become "free" in the way Mormons are in Utah: individuals are free to act in accord with the restrictive ethical code that binds them under threat of banishment or ostricization.

What really concerns me, though, is Objectivism's negativity towrads objectivism's inability to provide strong moral sanction:
Anyone from a gay-rights activist to a criminal counterfeiter to an overt anarchist can declare that he is merely asserting his “liberty” (3)

Why is Schwartz concerned that libertarianism cannot stop the "gay-rights activist" or "overt anarchist" from exercising his liberties? (Surely, libertarians are justified in penalizing the criminal, via the "no harm" principle). My fear is that, in Schwartz's "free society," the gay-rights activist would be censored or censured for doing nothing other than adcovating for the rights of gays to have relationships and marry. (Rand is incapable of justifying, on Objectivist principles, why gays should not be able to marry.) Schwartz also seems desirous of being able to stop "overt anarchists" from expressing their obviously non-Objectivist views.

Schwartz really does seem to want a society where all views other than Objectivism meet with strong reprobation. This is not defense of freedom, but defense of freedom to follow a restrictive code or be censured (a Mormon-esque freedom with Uncle Warren's role being replaced by Aunt Ayn).

This is why I think libertarianism of a plural variety (and with plural justificaitons) leads to a safer liberty than Rand's very restrictive Objectivist view of freedom. It is more inclusive by allowing for a plurality of justifications (appealing to a wider and more diverse audience), and it is certainly more free in that it would allow various groups with various beliefs and codes to live with the maximum freedom possible (as consistent with a "no harm" or similar principle.

(For anyone curious, the libertarianism that I am in favor of looks much like that written about in the works of William Galston, particularly the book Liberal Pluralism..)

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Review of Stout's "Feel Good Curriculum"

Here is a review I recently wrote about another highly reccomended book, Maureen Stout's "Feel-Good Curriculum." It is a very good indictment of an overly progressive education, a la ED Hirsch


Maureen Stout's book, "The Feel-Good Curriculum," would make a good companion to the works of ED Hirsch, author of "The Knowledge Deficit." These two authors' theses are much the same: over the past forty-or-so years, the "progressive" changes in American education have led to the decline of academic standards, the over-valuing of (a misguided view of) self-esteem, and and the turning out of students ill-prepared for the disciplined nature of the "real world."

Stout is a professor of education at UC Berkley, and like her philosophical kin Hirsch, is interested not only in demonstrating these saddening trends but in exploring their ideational roots. While the usual suspects (Dewey, Thorndike), she also links non-educators like psychologist Carl Rogers and Erik Ericksson with the "child-centered," whole child," and "self-actualization" movements in education.

These movements changed virtually everything about schooling. Instead of teaching students basic academics, their primary goals were not wo help the child reach self-actualizaiton (whatever THAT means!). Instead of seeing discipline as necessary for an ordered school, it was now seen as an antiquated stifler of student enthusiasm.

...And, as Stout points out, the movement kept on going, becoming more and more extreme despite yielding worse and worse reults. As an educator, I found myself oscillating between chuckling and containing anger as I read about current trends in educaiton - Vygotskyan cooperative learning, social (rather than standards-based) promotion, educators as facilitators rather than instructors - that I sadly recognize all too well. And as an educator, I can attest that these are trends that need to be rethought and revamped, but never seem to be; Stout hits these problems right on the head in writing about these problems, not only identifying THAT, but WHY, they are problems.

Stout ends with a section on how we can turn some of these effects around (and her suggestions sound much like those of ED Hirsch). She does not advocate a return to the dark ages where students memorize rote passages and are paddled for misbehavior. She advocates a return to standards-based, rather than "outcome-based" educaiton, readjust our views on the value of discipine, and maybe get rid of the "progressive" idea of self-esteem that equates it with "feeling good for no good reason" rather than an earned feeling of accomplishment.

This is a very, very good book. Those who read it will either be challenged to re-examine cherished views or be further outraged by problems they know too well. Either way, it is not a book to be missed.

Ayn Rand, Tibor Machan, and Their Mistaken Defense of Objective Morality

Like many others, I first got hooked on philosophy by reading Ayn Rand. Also, like many, there came a time when I started reading other phiosophers. Therefore - again, like many - there was a time when I realized that Rand got just about everything wrong in her philosophizing. In particular, Rand had a habit of claiming that she had solved a vexing philosophic problem generally by vastly oversimplifying, if not getting wrong, a problem only to "solve" something different than the actual problem.

Recently, I have been reading essays in a colleciton called The Promise of Liberty by a follower of Rand's, Tibor Machan. In reading his first essay, which defends Rand's defense of ethical objectivism, I have re-realized how wrong her solution is, and how, as usual, she even got the question wrong.

As PoL is still in press, I am not going to quote from it, but rather from Rand's own essay "The Objectivist Ethics". machan does not really add to or expand to Rand's unfortunate defense, but only restates it with the intention of clarifying it.

In short, Rand and Machan's argument is that ethics are objective because ethical judgments are made with the aid of facts. Once one chooses to live ones life, certain values inexorably follow from that: we ought to seek food, shelter, that which will promote our flourishing, etc.

An organism’s life depends on two factors: the material or fuel which it needs from the outside, from its physical background, and the action of its own body, the action of using that fuel properly. What standard determines what is proper in this context? The standard is the organism’s life, or: that which is required for the organism’s survival.

Al;ready, though, Rand has misunderstood the dispute between objectivists and subjectivists. Quite honestly, what is at dispute is not whether values and moral judgments are (or should be) made in reference to facts, but what the nature of moral norms are. Subjectivists argue that moral norms are come to by subjects, not by some quality inherent in objects. The echo famous subjectivist JL Mackie, for morality to be objective requires that morals have some subject-independent existence in the world.

In fact, Rand's view is completely comapatible with a subjectivist account of morality. Subjectivists can easily, and without contradiction, suggest that moral judgments should - or must! - be made in the face of actual subject-independent facts, so long as the judgments being made are made by individual subjects. All that is required for subjectivism is the acknowledgement that judgments are made by the subjects and are not a pre-existing imperative that we happen to "come across" existing in the world independent of our minds.

The next question is whether Rand or Machan have done enough to show that an objective morality is possible. Life may be the "ultimate value" that undergirds all other values, but is that one value enough to give us any obvious answers to any but the most pedestrian moral questions?

Since reason is man’s basic means of survival, that which is proper to the life of a rational being is the good; that which negates, opposes or destroys it is the evil.

Before going on, I want the reader to pause and notice the subtle "no true scotsman" fallacy going on here. "[t]hat which is proper to the life of a RATIONAL being is good..." By framing it this way, Rand can easily say that x is an objective value. When one point out that more people choose y than x (a possible reason to suppose that x is not an objective value), Rand can simply dismiss them all by saying that they are not rational, and if they were, they'd choose x. Like the "no true scotsman" fallacy, one cannot win with this set up becuase Rand's caveat - "rational" - has rigged the game!

Beyond that, though, Rand once again demonstrates obliviousness to philosophers and ideas that she full well should have known about: in this case, GE Moore, author of Principia Ethica. If she had been aware of Moore's work - what ethical philosopher wasn't?! - she would have realized the need to show how this "equation" was not a violation of the naturalistic fallacy.

Moore's idea was simple; efforts to equate the terms "good" or "bad" with any demarcatioin principle - utility, survival, pleasure - was invalid and we can see this by realizing that our intuitions understand that "good" and x (pick any criteria) are two different things. "Good" is not a direct synonym for happiness (there are good things that don't make us happy), or, in Rand's case, survival (there are many things that don't enhance our survival that accord with our intuition of what is good).

By way of example, Machan's article mentions more than once a moral obligation to be generous. He mentions is as if to imply that choosing to live inexorably entails this obligation to be generous. He does not explain how this is, and I have serious doubts that any attempts to do so would not be very, very erroneous. I am all for generosity, but it is easy to think of a dozen examples of sceanrios where my survival is impeded or harmed by generosity. More straightforward, A person could certainly argue that being generous has social utility and CAN be personally beneficial (via game theory, say) but such argujments would tend to be utilitarian (or rule-utillitarian) in nature, and I am left mystified as to any plausible argumenst that the choice to live necessarily entails an obligation towards generosity (particularly for egoists like Rand and Machan).

Another example of this blunder can be seen when Rand tries to justify the objective (not subjective) value of productiveness.

The virtue of Productiveness is the recognition of the fact that productive work is the process by which man’s mind sustains his life, the process that sets man free of the necessity to adjust himself to his background, as all animals do, and gives him the power to adjust his background to himself.

To Rand, this value is objective in the sense that it is the "central value that integrates and determines the hierarchy of all his other values." To choose non-productiveness is, in essence, to act against the ultimate value of life and thus the objectively wrong choice.

To be honest, this is the type of rhetoric that I and many others got hooked on when we got hooked on Rand. Now, when I read those words, it is hard to see how, because as stirring as they are, they are wrong. While one can argue that produciveness is a life-sustaining virtue, it is certainly not objectively the only choice. One can - and many have - sustained their lives by freeloading off of people. Also, productiveness is no guarantor of sustaining one's life. Eithe way, to argue that productiveness is an objective value by reference to its utility in sustaining life is hollow, as it is neither a necessary or sufficient condition for sustaining life.

Like all of the other values that Rand defeds - egoism, capitalism, generosity, rationality, etc. - productiveness is a contingent and subjective value choice. One can choose it, but there is nothing compelling us to do so. Rand and Machan would object that the facts of life comepel values like productiveness and generosity, but any anthropologist or sociologist can easily demonstrate that there are a plurality of ways to answer moral questions consistent with sustaining, and flourishing in, life.

There are many other points that could be brought up, but I think I have done enough to show that Rand came nowhere close to solving the problem of moral objectivism v. subjectivism. The fact that she was so confident that she did, and that Machan is confident enough not to heavily modify and reconfigure her arguments, is testimony of the insularity that has and does plague the objectivist "movement."

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Positives and Negatives

One of the favorite educational ideas in the past twenty-or-so years has been the all-encompassing power of positive reinforcement. Rather than punish, scold, or take away privleges from a child, it is best to cajole, praise and rewward your child. Far be it form me to suggest that one should not reward and praise children/students when they deserve it, and I would never argue that punishment is the only effective discipline tool. Like so many shortcomings of the "self-esteem movement," the problem does not lie with the method presented, but with the "all or nothing" way it is held. Parents and teachers need to get back to being comfortable with the idea that positive reinforcement goes only so far, and negative reinfofcement is also necessary.

I recently began thinking about this issue when talking with the behavior interventionist at the school. On several occasions, we have talked about what to do with certain out-of-control students that refuse to follow rules, defy authority, and display inappropriate behaviors. The behavior interventionist always reaches the same conclusion: create a positive incentive plan whereby a certain number of x (days without incident, hours on task, completed homeworks) results in a postive reward (everything from "video game time" to free food in the cafeteria).

I always end up arguing with the behavior interventionist over this method. I ask him questions like, "why are we going to reward this student for doing what other students are expected to do?" and "Why can't we try penalties instead of rewards (as they are often more cost-effective and fair than giving bad students rewards for being adequate). The response I get, in so many words, is that "students are motivated best by working for what they want."

I have heard this platitutde many times, and it has been ingrained in us for so long that many think it is the end of the story. Of course, people are motivated by want of reward, but this misses the other half of the coin: people are also motivated by fear of negative cosnequences. To see this duality of motivations, we need only look at why peolpe hold jobs. We work because we need to have income to live and while we are positively reinfoced by our paychecks, we also work because we fear the negative consequences of failing to do so. (If a benefactor immunized us from the possible negative consequences of doing a poor job, many of us would secretly begin slacking, no matter howm much we were "positively rewarded" by high pay.)

There are two main reasons, though, that I dislike positive reinforcement: first, it is not fair to reward some to do what is expected naturally of most; second, it does not reflect how the post-school world works.

As mentioned in a previous post, the special educaiton world has a bizarre notion of what "equal" means. There, "equal" does not mean that rules are applied to all and all alike, but rather, that rules are appplied in proportion to a stduent's abilities and needs. Where some students are expected to do problems 1-12, others wil only be expected to do 1-7 (for the same grade). While some students have 45 minutes to take the test, others get 90 minutes.

Sometimes, these rules can be justified (the second could be justified for students with documented processing delays, for instance). Other times, it is not (even as a special educator, I cringe the "reduced number of problems" rule). Point-sheets offering misbehaving students the chance to earn prizes for following school rules that others are expected to follow simply translates to rewarding those who behave badly. It gets students used to the idea that kids who follow rules are unrewarded, whille those who don't follow rules earn the chance to win free stuff and benefits.

Not only do misbehaving students see this, but the students who behave also see it. Like the child that acts out because his parents only notice bad behavior, these well-performing students see that it may be in their interest to act up, so that they too might earn a shot at being rewarded for doing what has been hitherto unrewareded.

The second reason I dislike overuse of positive reinfocement is that it gives kids the false idea that this is how the world works. Yes, the world rewards us, but it only rewards us for doing well and going above what is expected. Contra the way point-sheets work, the world does not reward us when we only do what is expected. We might get a positive bonus when we do well at our job, but when we merely show up and do some work, the boss will likely threaten our termination. Students raised on point-sheets and incentive plans will likely not adjust to this very inverse reality, because they were taught that the mere act of sitting in their seat and paying attention could earn them a prize. ("You can't fire me. I've showed up at work every day this week and didn't cuss anyone out!")

I am simply worried bcause for twenty + years, education's zeal to promote "good" self-esteem has made it so that we see positive reinforcement as the only option, rather than one of two options. If we are to train students to adjust well to the post-high-school world, we cannot send them off with the idea that doing only what is expected will be rewarded. We cannot send our children off with the message that an exasperated world will bribe them to do basic things, just because it is the only way to get them to be civil. If we expect them to go to college and/or hold jobs, we need to instill in them that doing good work will get you rewarded, but doing the minimum will get you terminated. (Or should we just give the students' employers point sheets?!)

Governor Blagojevich, the moral philosopher?!

Here is an interesting article pertaining to the Illinois Governor, Rod Blagojevich. This week, the governor chose not to attend his impeachment trial, where he is accused of conspiring to sell Illinois senate seat left vacant by Barack Obama, and instead, go on a media blitz. The governor went on the View, Larry King Live, Good Morning America (but curiously, avoided America's Most Wanted and World's Dumbest Criminals - must be a strategic move).

Now, it is bad enough that Bagojevich loosely comapred his self-inflicted travails to "Mandela, Dr. King, [and] Gandhi, for which he is now being deservedly lampooned in a musical called Rod Blagojevich Superstar.

Yes, that is bad enough. But the governor, as senseless as he is incredulous, has now become a moral philosopher. On Larry King Live, that is, the governor was called on his repeated assertions that the wire-tap tapes that find him intimating his plans to sell a senate seat were "taken out of context." When asked about what context would justify the statements he made about selling the senate seat, our dear moral philosopher said this:

"If you do an exchange of one for the other, that's wrong," he told ABC's "Nightline." "But if you have discussions about the future and down the road and what you might want to do once you're no longer governor in a few years, what's wrong with that?"

While I am sure that Blagojevich had a good time in law school, I am guessing that he never payed attention in any criminal law classes, and surely never took or understood clases in moral philosophy. Of course, what Blagojevich is trying to do here is distinguish between a criminal act and thoughts about a potential criminal act. The former, for sure, is illegal - he seems to have a firm grasp of that fact - but the latter is perfectly legal so long as it does not lead to a criminal act.

Right? Kind of. One will certainly go to prison if one murders. One will not go to prison, though, if one thinks or fantasizes about murder. What the governor is leaving out though is that one commits a criminal offense when one talks about, and plans, a murder, even if the murder never comes to fruition. As long as there is strong evidence, which apparently the tapes provide, that the governor was talking with seriousness about a plan to sell a senate seat, then it is an offense.

That is from a purely legal standpoint; the governor may not be as guilty as he would be if he actually sold the senate seat, but he is still quite guilty.

Not only does the governor make a poor criminal lawyer, but he makes a bad moral philosopher. To say that one gets a moral free pass because they did not commit a crime, even though one thought and talked seriously about comitting the crime is to ignore the value of intent in blameworthiness. (If I thought about robbing the governor's house and talked seriously about it with others about doing it in "the future and down the road," but got caught before I could do it, would the governor be right - using his "logic" - to say that I am morally in-the-clear? I think he would, rightly, acknowledge that the act of thinking about, and talking about, a crime is itself worthy of moral condemnation.

Before we are through with the governor, he also says something rather revealing in the above-quoted snippet. He makes an unjustified distinction between selling a sensate seat as governor and selling a senate seat as (?!) a private citizen. The latter, he implies, would be not a crime at all. ("...[W] hat's wrong with... discussions about...what you might want to do once you're no longer governor?) Apparently there is nothing wrong with selling a senate seat "when you are no longer governor."

Needless to say, I hope this beast is impeached and goes to jail for a good long time. Clearly, he has jumped off the deep end and I hold no hope, nor desire, for his rehabilitation. The very fact that he was elected to office should make anyone who voted for him question their fitness to vote.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Some Thoughts on What Intelligence Is

To me as an educator, one of the more interesting, and challenging, questions is: what is intelligence? Further, we can ask how many "intelligences" are there and how do we recognize intelligence? For what it is worth, here are some of my thoughts on these questions:

What Is Intelligence

The word "intelligence" has proven quite resistant to any single definition (or discovery of any necessary or sufficient conditions). I think this has a large amount to do with its function as an abstract noun, a noun that doesn't refer to an existant so much as an abstract generalization. As with a term like "justice," we all might have our own ideas as to what we think intelligence is, but there is no "thing" that we can point to to prove or disprove any competing conception. (If we suggested that a dog must have x condition, we can point to dogs that may not have x condition in order to disprove the assertion, but we cannot do the same with abstract nouns, as there are no concretes to point to.)

on the online dictionaries, a most common definition goes like this: intelligence is the "ability to comprehend, or, to acquire and use information." I have yet to find fault with this definition except to say that if we use it as our guide, there must be as many "intelligences" as there are things to be "intelligent" about. (I will get to that in the proceeding section.)

But ultimately, I do think that the "abstract noun" problem faces a very Wittgensteinian dilemma in that it seems to prove incapable of any obviously correct definition in the same way concrete nouns are. Further, attempts at defining words like "intelligence" seem like exercises in circularity; in order to define "intelligence," we must think about examples of intelligence we know of, and abstract their common traits. But doing this presupposes a working definition (or way to recognize) what counts as intelligence. This, in a circular way, defining a term like "intelligence" requires a pre-existing idea of what intelligence is (as we define by abstracting from concrete examples).

In short, I don't hold out any real hope of any once-and-for-all correct definition of intelligence, nor am I worried about it. Like other ab tract nouns - beauty, justice, evil - we as often as not rely on the "Potter Stewart" definition: we know it when we see it.

How many intelligences are there?

As mentioned above, If we use the above definition - intelligence is the "ability to comprehend, or, to acquire and use information," it seems quite obvious that there are as many intelligences as there are things to be intelligent about.

First, I do stress the contingency of the above sentence: there is no a priori reason to use that definition over others, other than the fact that it is nondescript enough to accord with most intuitions I think we have about intelligence.

There is one big problem with this definition, though. For some, it will be too broad and for others, too narrow. This mostly hinges on whether people want to see things that we might otherwise call "talents" be labeled as "intelligences." To see this, take the example of the songwriter. Some want to narrow the definition of "intelligence" to disallow the "talent" of songwriting from being an "intelligence." Others, though, want to see songwriting included as an intelligence. (As mentioned, we often circularly define words like "intelligence" based on what we want that definition to allow for.)

The problem here seems to be that most people debating this issue seem to talk about different disciplines as "either/or" scenarios; either it an example of intelligence, or talent. Songwriting, they say, is a talent; math is an intelligence. What they often don't see is that both activities involve admixtures of both "talent" ( the "natural" and unteachable predilection) and intelligence (for now, the ability to acquire and use information). Math, generally thought of as an intelligence, requires both of these as much as songwriting does (just in different proportions). Just like songwriting seems to be more a talent than an intelligence because you can't really teach it - either you have it or you don't - we can easily see math in the same way; some have the intuitive number sense and those who don't have immense difficulty learning it.

I do think that those taking a more restrictive view of intelligence, and wish to preclude art, music, sports, etc. - from being called "intelligence" take an unusually strict view because they fail to see that just because one has a talent for something does not negate the fact that they also can develop those talents in ways deserving of the "intelligence" categorization. To take a favorite example of tennis player Roger Federer, one might be tempted to suggest that tennis playing is a talent rather than an intelligence. One could only do this, of course, if they neglect the amount of skill and learning involved in the enterprise. Like any other genius, Roger Federer's ability to acquire and use knowledge about his craft surpasses, in sensitivity in breadth, what most will achieve. Talent? In part. But talent only goes so far, and it is HERE where I think it becomes a crime not to call Roger Federer's tennis ability an intelligence.

I am hard pressed to come up with examples of things that qualify all the way as talents or all the way as intelligence. It seems that just about every constructive human activity requires both some sort of natural predilection (talent) and an ability to acquire and use information (intelligence). That is why I think that under our dictionary definition of intelligence there are as many intelligences as things to be intelligent about.

How do we recognize intelligence?

Much of the dispute over what to call an intelligence and what not to has to do with whether the proposed activity can be measured? It is uncontroversial that ma thematic ability and spatial reasoning should be called intelligences because we can objectively measure them. It is, however, controversial to say that creative writing ability should be called an intelligence and the reason is because it cannot be objectively measured (it can, of course, be subjectively measured, as any lover of writing will tell us.)

This, I think, is a mistake. We should not base whether x intelligence exists by deciding whether it can be measured. We do not, for instance, say that talent for acting does not exist because it cannot be measured. What we do say is that while there is such a thing as talent for acting, such a thing cannot be objectively determined or measured, but is a matter of subjective judgment. We should say the same when it comes to "intelligences" that cannot be objectively measured. We should not say that they simply don't exist because htey can't be measured. Rather, we can recognize that a thing like "social intelligence" is recognizable, even if it cannot be objectively measured.

I am as big a fan of measurement as the next, and I think that IQ is a valid measure of a person's scholastic aptitude. What I don't think is that IQ exhausts the possibility of what can qualify as an intelligence simply because other "intelligences" cannot be objectively measured. (The only persons who would object are psychometricians, and this is no sup rise, because their profession only allows them to target those capacities that can be measured, even if they realize that other capacities exist in the same way a lawyer's profession demands that she recognizes only codified law but can acknowledge that uncodified morality exists.)

To conclude, I see no reason to suppose that "intelligence" will ever yield to any once-and-for-all agreed-upon definition, nor would I expect it to (as an abstract noun). Partly because of this, I think it is folly to suggest any narrow definition of intelligence and support a more pluralistic view: intelligence exists wherever there is a recognized ability to acquire and use information to inform one's actions. In holding this view, I see it as backwards to suggest that intelligences exist only when they can be objectively measured. To hold this is to put the cart before the horse.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Against "practicing without a license"

Below is a review of Stanley Fish's recent book "Save the World on Your Own Time," where he takes the college world to task for getting away from instruction and instilling knowledge and, instead, preaching and instilling preferred values.

I cannot say enough great things about the book and professor Fish's thesis. I am very much in agreement with all but a few minor details. I strongly urge anyone concerned with the proper role of educators to read it.


In "Save the World on Your Own Time," former professor and dean Stanley Fish is quite clear on what he wants: "I want a university infected by no one's politics, but by the nitty-gritty obligations of teaching and research." (p. 16) Fish draws on his own experience in academia, as well as the usual highly publicized examples a la Ward Churchill, to argue that the academy is focusing less on teaching and more on preaching. And unlike those like David Horowitz and Dinesh D'Souza, Fish does not simply want to make political discourse by university faculty more "balanced," but to remove it all together. As Fish writes repeatedly, teaching political ideas (how to think about them, the history of them, etc) is different from preaching political ideas.

That the latter is happening on a pretty large scale is not much in dispute. From Ward Churchill being removed from the U of Colorado for comments made after 9/11, to universities taking collective stands on policy issues, to the "speech codes" that several universities have experimented with over the past decade, Fish documents this trend quite well.

But what to do about it? Fish wants us to "return" to the "proper" job of universities: to teach students how to think, rather than what to think. Teach about ideas, rather than endorse ideas. Let's avoid the rhetoric, contra Derek Bok and Martha Nussbaum, about the universities' responsibility to promkote tolerance, democracy, pluralism, or any other value and accept the fact that universities are not in the "making good citizens" business, but in the "making educated citizens" business.

Does this mean that universities should not talk about values, politics, literary ideas, etc? No. "You can probe [a] policy's history,...explore its philosophical lineage... [and] examine its implicaitons... but you can't urge it on your students." (p. 24) Will this make the university stale or self-censorious? Fish offers persuasive reasons to suggest that self-censoring can lead to more excitement. Anyone can offer and talk about their opinioins; it is quite more exciting to show students how to analyze and talk about ideas then it is to opine about them.

Some of Fish's other ideas will doubtless rub some the wrong way. For instance, many people take it as a given that the goal of a university is to promote social justice, democracy, pluralism, multiculturalism, or some other such value (other than the pursuit of truth and knowledge). Fish says no! This is the job of the counselor, clergyman, television pundit, and politician; for an academic to preach values other than pursuit of truth and knowledge is to, in effect, "practice without a license."

Fish even gets into a juicy discussion on the "intelligent design" movement, and argues quite persuasively that the very subordination of pursuing truth to pursuing "democratic pluralistic debate" is what gave rise to this fiasco. Some may think it is a stretch, but Fish is quite convincing in his suggestion that our infatuation with keeping debates as pluralistic as possible has gotten in the way of our asking whether a certain position is true or the opposition worthy. (ID exploits this by focusing less on the "theory's" scientific merits and more on the value of "democratic dialogue.")

My only real complaint about this book is that I was hoping to hear Fish's take on the dilemma caused by professors at once having to take positions in publications (particularly humanities publications) while expecting not to let students find out their biases. (The Ward Churchill incident is a good example, where Churchill seemed very neutral and fair in his classes, but was fired becuase his writings rubbed people the wrong way.) Should we not expect professors to take iconoclastic positions in print for fear that their students might find out? Or is taking strong positions okay, so long as one keeps their research and teaching seperate? I think I know where Fish would come out here, but I was hoping to hear him discuss this very vexing and pertinent topic.

All in all, though, the book was well argued, economically written (176 pp.) and is bound to stir up an academy that needs stirring up.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

A Sad Incongruity

It is a unique experience to have witnessed the inauguration of the first black president of the United States at a majority black school. Today, during our third period class, my high school showed students the inauguration, and it was exciting to see the look of pride on many of their faces during the event.

In the same day, though, occurred an event seemingly at odds with this inspiring event. today, as the first black president was taking his oath, another black student dropped out of high school. While one man was achieving a zenith opportunity, one boy was putting an end to many future opportunities.

I knew this boy fairly well. He was in one of the classes that I co-teach, and while he was sometimes considered the "terror of the school," he was quite intelligent. On his good days, he was a stand-out in the class, raising his hand astutely answering questions. On his bad days, it was all teachers and administrators could do to control him.I do not know for sure, but I have heard, and strongly suspect, that the student was "thuggin'" and had a gang affiliation. Several teachers, including myself, gave it a mighty effort but in the end, he couldn't be reached.

Some teachers may be glad to see this student go and, to be honest, there is a small part of me that saw the futility of forcing an education on a so-often unwilling, if not defiant, participant. There is another part of me that is just plain sick of seeing young people, especially black boys and girls, drop out of school. Some have been lost to pregnancy. Others have succumbed to the gang life. Some have dropped out for no apparent reason other than dislike for school minus parental pressures to get an education. However it happens, as a teacher, it is never a good feeling.

I can't help but see the irony in the fact that on the same day as a Harvard Law degreed black man takes the oath to the highest office in the land, another black boy resigns the chance of having a respectable future. I hope that Barack Obama might represent, to some other black students, the realm of possibilities for smart black youths. In his speech today, Barack Obama said:

This is the meaning of our liberty and our creed, why men and women and children of every race and every faith can join in celebration across this magnificent mall. And why a man whose father less than 60 years ago might not have been served at a local restaurant can now stand before you to take a most sacred oath.

My fear is that if too many more black students - students in general, really - forfeit the right of educaiton that was fought so hard for 60 years ago, the above vision may be more rhetoric than reality.

Error Theory: A Brief Defense Based on Moral Psychology

For many years, I have been entranced with the puzzle that is quintessential to meta-ethical philosophy: are moral values in any way objective and absolute? if so, how do we know, and if not, why do they often feel as if they are?

After much graduate-school (and beyond) deliberation, the "solution" I have been most comfortable with is that of error theory. In a nutshell, error theory tells us that moral values are subjective and relative (rather tahn objective and absolute), and that we easily fall into error because they are felt so strongly as to appear objective. The most famous expounder of error theory (I think, the pioneer of the name) was JL Mackie, though shades of error theory can be found in earlier philosophers like Bertrand Russell, William James, and David Hume.

As error theory is a form of relativism, it is best to briefly justify relativism and only then, bring up reasons why error theory is the best explanation of our moral climate.

Why am I a relativist? Before even getting into meaty philosophical argument, I am a relativist because of the very existence of widespread moral disagreement. Moral objectivists argue that for ethical questions, there exists one right answer (whether it is discoverable by reason or an intuitive moral sense that we all share). Were this true, then the only explanation for the fact of widespread moral disagreement on issues would be that only some of us are attuned enough (in reason or intuition) to recognize the right answer. (Generally, when moral objectivists are presented with the fact of moral disagreement, their answer to it IS in fact to poinit out that those who do not arrive at a particular answer are simply wrong).

While I guess this is plausible, there is a better solution: that there often exists more than one possible "right" answer to a question (pluralism) or, further still, that the very idea of what the "right" answer is, is a question that each individual judges for themselves based on their own sentiments, experience, and reasonings.

Why go for relativism over pluralism? This is where we get into moral psychology. I am a relativist because, as an epistemic fact, each of us has direct mental access only to our own brains. In addition, as best as we can tell, none of us has direct access to any "ethical plain" that exists outside of our brains. In some sense, this is what led to JL Mackie's idea, that undergirds error theory, called The Argument
From Queerness
. The Argument from Queerness states that ethical propositions cannot be metaphysically "out there" in the world because they do not in any way appear to be natural properties. Moral debates are not like debates over concretes, as we cannot "point to" in order to show that a moral act is inherently right or wrong.

Moral objectivists will tend to reply that this is a scientism of the type which says that nothing exists which is not concrete. In a sense, they are correct. For someone to say that morality exists objectively would mean that they need to show how moral disputes can be objectively (rather than subjectively) resolved; what can be pointed to that is outside of the arguer's own moral sentiments that can prove to someone with different moral sentiments that "x is true." Often, the only avenue for the objectivist here is to suggset that "good" is an obvious quality (like "red" or "hot"). Here, it is easily pointed out that, unlike "red" and "hot," "good" cannot be experienced with any of the five senses, but rather "felt" with the moral intuition (bringing me back to the same suspicion that "good" and "bad" are judgments made differently by different people's intutions).

In the absence of any really good reason to see moral judgments as anything but subjective appraisals, or accompoanying arguments that human mind has some sort of direct access to anything outside of its own thoughts, I see no good choice but to suspect that subjective relativism is the most accurate description of how things are.

But why is this so hard for people to accept? Even though relativism seesm the most logical description, it is hard to actually be a moral subjectivist/relativist but in theory. We hold moral precepts very strongly and it is hard to think that they are simply subjective preferences. When I say that slavery, sodomy, murder, rape, etc., are wrong, I feel like they really are wrong and not just that I think them wrong.

This is why I think that error theory - the idea that, at times, our psychological natures make us experience our own preferences so strongly that it is impossible to imagine that they are not objective - is the best description of how things really are. Imagine the best piece of music you have ever heard in your entire life. At the apex of its enjoyment, isn't it just well nigh impossible to imagine that some people might derive no pleasure from it at all? Another common example is our senses of humor. It is probably tempting to suggest that those who do not laugh at the funniest joke you have ever heard are those who "have no sense of humor," rather than simply not sharing your sense of humor.

That is the way, I think, human psychology often works. When we deeply feel certain preferences, our brain presents these to us not as prefernces, but as imperatives that simply are (inependently of us feeling or thinking them so).

So, we can either see moral disagreement as a sign that some people are simply not good at moral reasoning or reading their moral intuitions (leading them into wrong answers), or suspect that people differ in moral sentiments becuase, like aesthetic sentiments, moral sentiments are not objective. We can either suggest that the reason people feel strongly about their moral opinions is because these opinions are objective (while ignoring that even "wrong" opinons are felt as strongly as "right" ones), or we can suspect that human psychology often "tricks" us into feeling sentiments so strongly that they appear, but are not, objective.

Quite simply, I think the latter options - subjective relativism and error theory - are the best interpretation of the facts of our moral universe.

Monday, January 19, 2009

The Last Professor, or, What Are the Humanities Good For?

Yesterday, Stanley Fish wrote an interesting blog post reviewing a book that's main premise was that that collegiate humanities are dying in favor of more practical and marketable disciplines. In an iconoclastic twist, though, the author of the book does not decry this trend, but simply speaks of its inevitability as universities rightly become more pragmatically career-focused. Gone are the days where "healthy humanities departments populated by tenure-track professors who discuss books with adoring students in a cloistered setting." Today, universities focus on career preparation.

No one with use of their senses disputes the factual accuracy of this trend, so the only question left is whether the trend is desirable. Should schools focus on personal cultivation or career preparation? Should the proper end of a university education achieve well-roundedness or a marketable skill? (As a high-school teacher, I do not limit the question simply to higher education, but also to K-12 education at large.)

In all honesty, I am of mixed opinion on this score. In the end, though, I think the situation must be left up to the market and individual consensus. Put simply, education should do what individuals who pay for it want it to do, and what will see the best 'return' (whether social or economic) on its investment.

Per the author of the book which Fish reviews, I think the public has largely spoken as to what it wants to see from university education. Humanities departments are declining and fewer students are choosing humanities-based majors (largely because they are realizing that there are few jobs for philosophers and literature majors). None of the ten most popular majors (as measured by CNN) are "humanities disciplines," but more employable areas like biology, education, and marketing.

While it can always be debated as to whether this trend is desirable, the question this begs is: "Desirable to whom?" Since universities must compete for funding from prospective students and businesses (who can "shop around" for where to spend their money), universities must cater to the desires of those in a position to give them money. Both of these groups of consumers have decided that focusing on employability and creating graduates that can get good jobs provides a better return on their investment than would focusing on creating "well rounded" students who can appraise poetry as well as business finances.

So, in a market economy, where the universities must cater towards the desires of willing consumers, whether the decline of the humanities is desirable to professors, academics, social theorists, or anyone not a consumer is somewhat irrelevant. As long as universities offer a service to paying customers, they must cater first-and-foremost to those customers' expectations.

A different story exists, of course, with regard to K-12 education, which does not function primarily in the market model. Here, education is the domain of the state and, while one can choose to pay for private education, the majority of students receive "free" education at tax-payer expense. Thus, the tax-payers and their representatives are the ones who decide what schools should do.

I have no statistics on this point, but recall hearing of several surveys which suggest that taxpayers expect schools to raise citizens first, and potential workers second. This makes sense because the historic rationale for public education seems always to have been that informed citizens capable of participating in civic activities need to be taught the art of thinking and appropriate mores (this at least, according to founders like Jefferson, Madison, and Washington). This is also evidenced by the relatively modern additions of subjects like math and science into the curricula, compared with subjects like civics and literature.

As a high school teacher, however, I think that the goals of producing "well rounded" students as well as future workers are not mutually exclusive. It is true that over-focus on one can only be done at the expense of the other, but there is no reason these cannot be done simultaneously as well as in complimentary ways.

In order to see this, though, we have to give up on any idea that there is any single purpose to education. Different subjects have different purposes; while algebra and technology education may prepare students to enter the workforce, literature and civics prepare students to be good citizens and people. I do not see any reason why these subjects cannot have different purposes yet coexist peacefully (and the only people who seem to think they can't are committed partisans like scientists and humanities professors).

Producing "well rounded" citizens as well as future members of the workforce not only can, but should, be done conjointly in K-12 education. While colleges can afford to be more specialized than K-12 - and thus more narrowly focus the scope of its curricula, K-12 education must retain a broad focus. As it educates everyone, including the many students who will not go on to college, it must raise both whole individuals and well-prepared workers. For students not going on to college, it is equally unjust to raise good, but unemployable, citizens as to raise good, but not "well rounded," workers. Thus, I cannot see the logic in any suggestion that the "main goal" of K-12 education be in one of these areas at the neglect of the other. Not only can K-12 education focus on both "well roundedness" and employ ability without conflict, but they should continue to do so.

As dodgy as my answer may seem, I simply don't think that the "liberal arts v. college prep" question has any good final answer, other than to say that it is continuously up to the "consumers" to decide and redecide the question. At the university level, this is easy to do because it fits the market model and, as such, must compete for business by offering what customers want. K-12 is stickier because schools do not directly compete with other schools for money, but the question can be answered by parents telling the school system what they want to see (as long as policy-makers care enough to listen).

As a lover of the humanities, I am very sad that I have to agree with the author of the book Stanley Fish reviews: whether or not we like it, the humanities are gradually dying at the collegiate level. I am comforted, though, by the belief that those who love the humanities will find a way to keep them alive without the help of universities. I know I will.

Believe and You Can Achieve? Maybe, and Maybe Not.

My fiancee, a freelance book editor, is currently editing a book that gives advice to teenagers on how to achieve life goals. Occasionally, she reads passages aloud and we both chuckle. I am not allowed to divulge the name, or quote from, the book, but I will say that the reason for our chuckles is that the book endorses the very Oprah-esque idea that believing almost always leads to achieving. Here is an approximation of one chuckle-worthy passage:

The act of believing that one can achieve a goal has a way of alligning the universe in a way favorable to achievement of the goal.


A goal is a dream that comes true.

Now, I am all for inciting optimism in our youth and telling them that, in theory, they can achieve anything with the right amount of effort and belief in themselves. Unfortunately, ideas like those quoted above take the idea of encouraging youth and "extremize" it by telling them to expect success... and without reminding them that hard work, rather than belief in ones self, is the biggest factor in success.

So, rather than telling bright-eyed teenagers that a "goal is a dream that comes true," it may be better to tell them that "a goal is a dream that can come true with a lot of effort put towards it." Instead of saying that believing that one can achieve "alligns the universe" in favor of the goal coming true, it might be better to tell students that it is they who must allign the universe (as the universe is under no obligation to allign itself to anyone).

And what are the dangers of telling kids that believing equals achieving? What harm does it do to tell our students that the most important ingredient to becoming a famous singer, an NBA superstar, or a successful entrepreneur is belief in ones self?

The dangers to such an approach are as follows: (a) by overemphasizing positive thinking, we are underemphasizing the value of hard work towards achieving goals; (b) by being afraid to tell students that they very well may not achieve their goals - no matter how hard they believe - we are setting them up for probable disappointment; (c) by teling them that the "universe will allign itself" to their goals, we are setting up an entitelement mentality that does not reflect the way the world actually is.

Frankly, I am all the more concerned about the pernicious effects of the "believe and you can achieve" mentality by my work as a school teacher. Per my job as a special educator, I am required to talk with all of my students on their desires after high school. Most of them want to be famous singers, sports stars, or entrepreneurs. On top of this, all but a handful of my students have goals that are well alligned with what tehy aspire to do. (Paritcular standouts are the student convinced of NBA stardom who is a second string on the high school team and the budding entrepreneur who has recently contemplated dropping out of high school.)

I don't wish to sound like a person who would discourage students from having aspirations. I am not going to tell any student that they absolutely cannot be in the NBA, but what I will tell them is that the realistic chance of them being there is small enough that if they are not the very best at what they do, they should not expect the NBA to come knocking. And I am sure that there have been entrepreneurs that never completed high school, but I will tell any student contemplating this path that entrepreneurship requires a whole lot more than a desire to make money and that most businesses (headed by people with college degrees) fail.

The bottom line is that someone needs to tell our students that there is a whole lot more to achieving than believing. Someone needs to tell students that the universe is under no obligation to allign itself to their goals and that no one has give them a job on desire alone. Someone must tell them that they must allign the universe to them and do the work necessary to earn their future jobs, and even then, success is not guaranteed.

I know that "the power of tenacity and hard work" is not nearly as poetic as "the power of positive thinking," but...then is not always poetry.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

On Laissez Faire Parenting

Yesterday, I was speaking with the school social worker about several students that we both "see" on our caseloads. Late in the conversation, she said something very interesting - something that encapsulates what I and many other teachers go through: "Sometimes," she exclaimed, "I feel like I am more invested in some of these kids than their parents are."

How true.

One of the travesties of the American education system is that we often wind up educating the students in spite of parental behavior that serves to undermine what we do. When I misbehaved as a child, my parents either (a) confer with my teacher(s) to reach an suitable consequence to be enforced at school and home; or (b) beat the teacher to the punch and take care of the problem themselves.

Today, we often deal with parents who (a) aren't present enough to hold much authority over their children, (b) are more concerned with being their kids friend and advocate than being a parent, or (c) don't see the value in their child's education and, thus, don't take anything we do seriously.

As an example of the first type of parent, there are simply too many examples. Each time we have "parent/teacher conference night" at the middle-class suburban school where I teach, I am lucky to have five parents show up the entire night. They are always the same faces that showed up the previous time, and generally are parents of the "average" kids, rather than the strugglers who really need the conference. (Does anyone see the correlation? The strugglers have parents who don't show up for conferences while the "average" performers' parents are involved? I wonder if this is causation?)

The second type of parent - the overly ffiendly parent - is also an unfortunately all too common occurence. Sonme parents have lost control of their kids completely, like a parent I dealt with last year who has a son that refuses to attend school and a ninth-grade daughter who has been pregnant twice. She confided in me several times, in tears, that she does not know what to do with her kids, that they do not listen to anything she says, and that she finds it increasinly difficult to try with them. Of course, my question is: what did this parent do when the children were young? I suspect that she put few, if any, demands on them, instilled in them that rules were flexible, and did very little follow through. If the children do not see the parents as an authority, then I doubt authority was established when they were young and malleable.

Some parents also think that the best way to "support" their kids is to advocate for them no matter what. An English teacher recounted for me the following incident: he gave a particular student an "F" on a test because she talked throughout the testing period, ignored frequent warnings that a failure to quiet down would result in a failing grade to no avail. Instead of talking productively with the teacher, the parent came into his office with "guns blazing": "Why the f... did you give my kid a failing grade?! You're going to retract the grade or else!" The teacehr tried to explain his position, but to no avail.

The problem, of course, with this parental approach is twofold: (a) in the parent's zeal to "support" their child, they are inadvertently doing damage by shielding them from normal accountability, and (b) the child learns to disrespect authority and to be adversarial simply by observing the parent's actions.

I have talked with many disgruntled teachers, and what many of them say they dislike the most is dealing with parents. Several have gone so far as to confide that parents are often ruder than students, and I am familiar with more than a few incidents where parents have brought teachers to tears in conferences.

Where did we lose the idea that parents first and foremost job is to be an authority in their child's life? Where did we begin adopting the idea that children do not need consistent rules, discipline, and guidelines? Children don't need more fiends; that's what the playground is for. From my vantage point, what children need the most is parents.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Mock Trial

I have said so many negative things about my job as a high-school special educator that I feel like I am neglecting the positive things. (The former oustrips the latter but does not render it non-existent). So, for the past week, I have been debating on what positive things I can write about my job. At the top of the list: mock trial.

All teachers at my high school are required to "sponsor" at least one extra-curricular activity, and I was offered to be the co-coach of New Town's mock trial team. For those unfamiliar, mock trial is a competitive endeavor where two teams put on a 'court case.' At the beginning of the year, each team is handed a 'case book' with all the relevant information to the case, inclulding synopsis, affidavits, and case law. Teams may be called to 'put on' the part of the prosecution or defendants, and students play the part both of lawyers and witnesses.

At first, I wasn't quite excited about doing mock trial but now I am finding it to be one of the things that is getting me through this job. Being a special educator, I am often working with kids who are academically less-than-motivated. Mock trial sees me working with some of the best academic minds in the school. It gives me a chance to interact with thoughtful students and push them to think and analyze in a way that I might never be able to push some of the special education students. (This is not to say anything negative about the special education students, but simply to point out facts.)

Today, for instance, was quite rough. We have been administering the HSA standardized tests, and most of my special education kids are not taking the test seriously at all. (It is emotionally jarring to see kids not take seriously a test that could affect their ability to get a diploma.) By the time of mock trial practice, I was tired, hungry, and not in a very great mood.

One hour later, I have (at least a bit of) my invigoration back! We had a good "dry run" of the case (with me and the other coach playing the other team's parts). These kids are so enthusiastic, eager, and intelligent that they make a brilliant cap to a disasterous day.

I know I have a tendency to be very negative about my job, but there do exist good parts; as small as they might be, they sometimes help save me. Thank you, mock trial!

Monday, January 12, 2009

I quit...kind of!

Today, I finally told New Town High School that I would not be returning next year. A little before the halfway point in the year, the Baltimore County School system gives its employees a survey asking them their projections for whether they will return the next year. I have thought long and hard over the past several weeks and I have concluded that I cannot face another year at New Town High.

Is this the smart move? Though I am quite sure I will be accepted into a good PhD program in Education, I have not recieved any formal acceptance. So why tell New Town that I will not be back if I am not assured of where I will be next year?

The honest reason is that the past five months have made me accutely aware that I do not believe in what I do: I do not believe in the approach taken by the debacle that is high school special educaiton. As I've mentioned in previous posts, we special educators are as much "professional enablers" as we are anything. Where we should be educating, we are ensuring that students need not learn anything. Where we should be helping students reach standards, we adjust standards more than students. When students fail to meet established goals in spite of the many "accomodations" we give, we question not the student or whether the goals are unrealistic, but whether we are giving enough accomodations.

I am finding it more and more difficult to adhere to, and participate in, a system with which I so passionately disagree. I do not like the the everyday-more-common feeling that my job consists of "getting students through" even when, as is often the case, this is not in their best interest. Generally, "getting kids through" is a nice way to say, "do whatever is expedient."

When I was an instructional assistant, I was told by several special educators that the average shelf-life of special educators was two years. I never disbelieved them, but decided to see what I could do. Today, I actualized a decision a while in the making to become one of the special educators they cautioned me about.

If PhD falls through, I will likely try my hand at administering college-level disability support, which subscribes to a much less coddling model; there, colleges are a bit more stingy with accomodations, expect the individual to initiate support services, and do not offer any modifications to the curriculum (only supports and supplements to it).

That's that.

Maryland High School Assessment Days

Today, I spent my day administering the Maryland HSA test to four students who have failed it previously. The Maryland HSA tests are state standardized tests that every high schooler mus pass in order to graduate from high school. I administered to this particular group of students because they needed the test to be read to them verbatim, as per their Individualized Education Plan (IEP).

Today, I administered the Algebra test and I will be administering tests (Government, English, Biology) for the rest of the week. I personally am of mixed emotions about the existence of tests that decide whether our high schoolers will recieve diplomas by measuring their ability to take 3+ hour tests on whether they can identify functions, command economies and evidence for endosymbiotic theory.

On one hand, I am quite an "anti-federalist" in terms of education; more directly, I do not see standardization as an unqualified good. Most people wrongly equate "standardization" to be a synonym for "rigorous." While that which is standardized MAY be rigorous, the two terms are in no way related necessarily. In fact, current educational trends seem to suggest the opposite: the more we standardize into a one-size-fits-all model, the more we are forced to make the standards more and more basic (if one wants everyone to jump through the hoop, you need to make the hoop very, very wide!).

Want proof? This year, the state of Maryland is doing away with the writing requirement on the HSA tests. Where former tests saw students having to do Brief Constructed Response items (writing prompts, basically), the state has elected to make future tests to contain only multiple choice problems. Their rationale? The state says that BCR's are simply too hard to grade in the limited time between when students take the test and the end of the school year. The real reason? Too many students are failing, and the test has gotten progressively easier every year (a la the Flynn Effect)

On the other hand, my job as an educator is to prepare students to meet state standards whether I agree with those standards or not. Thus, I am always disheartened when I see students take the test seriously. A few of the students I tested today - not all! - dumped questions by guessing, laughed during the testing procedure, and very obviously did not take the consequences to failing the test seriously. I constantly tell the students that their future diplomas are on the line, but it feels like I am talking past them.

An article I read last year, dealing with the disproportionate failure of middle-classs black students to pass the HSAs, quoted an education official as saying that it may well take students actually not recieving diplomas due to HSA failure to get the picture that the tests have consequences. As distasteful as this conclusion is, I have to say that I agree. Sadly, this is the first year where seniors will be accountable for passing all their HSA"s in order to recieve diplomas. I wonder how many seniors that otherwise could have had diplomas will not recieve them?

So, while I think that policy of standardized tests as an obstacle for diplomas is misguided (the tests are misguided as is the quest for standardization), it is deflating to me to see the number of kids who do not take such tests seriously when they haev such a serious consequence.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

There is a new study which has found that playing the video game tetris might minimize the number and intensity of post-traumatic stress "flashbacks."

First thoughts: It seems to me that the study is concluding what should have been, but regrettably is not, common sense. It concludes, in essence, that keeping one's mind occupied on other things helps decrease the severity of painful events. For the last twenty or so years, though, we have been told the opposite: that the best thing to do after a painful event is to talk about and obsess over the event. To do otherwise - to play tetris or read a magazine rather than think about the event - would be 'repression' and 'denial.'

I sincerely hope the study is widened to test whether other activities can help minimize the severity of painful memories - maybe playing a card game, reading a novel, or watching a comedy show. It seems self-evident to me that taking one's mind off of painful events would help to reduce their ability to cause pain and I'd be curious to see if other activities besides tetris have similar effects (and which do and don't).

The article also contains this interesting passage:

The Oxford University experiment works on the principle that it may be possible to modify the way in which the brain forms memories in the hours after an event.

In a way, this is a sad revelation because it just shows how wrong the "therapy culture's" current thinking is. We are told that the hours after a traumatic event are precisely the time where we need to talk about and relive the event the most. We are told that those who do not get "counseled" in the hours after a painful event are those most at risk to go through longer periods of denial (which is a stage to be gotten past as quickly as possible).

Christina Hoff Summers and Sally Satel have written a very good book called "One Nation Under Therapy" touching on this problem. Utilizing a strong dose of common sense, they suggest that there is a big gap between "denial" and "refusal to obsess" that psychologists and counselors often don't see. Instead, many psychologists mistake the latter for the former.

As examples of this silliness, the authors point to the flooding in of "grief counselors" to scenes of school-shootings, scenes of accidents and even the events of 9/11/01. These counselors serve one purpose: get people to talk about the event, their feelings about the event, and memories of the event, all in the name of "dealing withi" the event.

If this study is right, though - and I have a sneaking suspicion that it is on to something - the best thing counselors can do in the hours after traumatic events is to show people how to take their mind off the event (without engaging in prolonged repression).

If this article is right, the "therapizers" have been shown once again to be doing more harm than good. Again.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

It Depends on What Your Definition of "Equal" Is...

What do affirmative action, socialism, and special education have in common? They all subscribe to the idea that "equal" means "the same in result" rather than "a consistent application of standards."

When I was first hired as a special educator, my soon-to-be supervisor mentioned her view that "'the same' and 'equal' are two different things." In context, what she meant is that applying the same rules and standards to all children does not lead to equal education, because some students have different needs than others. Being a new hire, I did not want to risk stirring waters by disagreeing with her, but the idea has become more and more worrisome and wrong-headed to me.

Now, "equal" can mean very different things to different people: (a) "equal" can mean a consistent application of rules; or (b) parity or result. Thus, equality can apply to (a) equality of rules and standards or (b) equality of results gotten.

Applied to the special education situation, one can argue that education can achieve "equality" in two ways: (a) education is equal when all students are held to the same standard, or (b) education is equal when all students are equally achieving. When my supervisor says that "the same" education is not "equal" education, her and I are disagreeing on what definition "equal" should have in education.

As a special educator, I certainly understand that different students come to education with very different abilities, predilections, and situations. But as an educator (without the 'special') I am also sensitive to the fact that American education operates on the premise that students are presented with standards they are to meet in order to advance to the next level. (The very idea of grade levels implies that different grade levels connote different levels of mastery of standards. If it were not this way, grade level would cease to mean anything.)

Unfortunately, special education is caught in a very tenuous middle position. On the one hand, American special education operates on the idea of "inclusion" or "mainstreaming," which says that disabled students and non-disabled ("abled") students should be in the same classes and be taught the same curricula. On the other hand, special education very much operates on a contradictory notion: that students should have work "individualized" to meet their unique needs. Thus, on the one hand, we have 'standards based' education, and on the other, 'child centered' education.

The problem is that these two ideas are in tension because they operate on two different notions of equality. "Standards based education" (the model of "inclusive" education) operates on "procedural, rather than outcome, equality") while "child centered" education operates on "outcome, rather than procedural, equality."

In my experience, special educators tend to be more sympathetic to the latter definition while general educators tend to be more sympathetic to the former definition. That makes me a rarity as I am a special educator who stands firmly with "equality of procedure" rather than "equality of results."

Why? Because it seems to me that there is little point in having a standardized curriculum and grade levels if each student is to have standards adjusted to fit their individual needs. How, in other words, are we to say that a student has passed ninth grade science that utilizes a standard curriculum if we add, as a caveat, that passing ninth grade science does not mean that all students had equal expectations put on them? "James had to do all the homework, while John only had to do 2/3rds" obliterates the idea that they both passed THE SAME class and mastered THE SAME material.

My supervisor might argue, though, that John has a processing delay or that, for some other reason, it takes him longer to do work than it does James. By this view, she is arguing that holding the same standard to two people of differing abilities is unequal.

I cannot say that this definition is wrong (words are defined by usage). I can, though, point out that such a view undermines the whole idea of American publication, with its desire to see all students come out with similar standards having been met. It undermines the idea inherent in grade levels - that passing x grade level means that the student has mastered the type of material expected of students in that grade.

So, in my personal opinion, special education is caught in a contradictory position. They are operating on a definition of "equal" that is in tension with the "procedural equality" that is the very cornerstone of what schools are designed to achieve. Quite simply, if education is to be individualized so that "equality of outcomes" becomes more important than "procedural equality," we might as well do away with grade level standards and any pretense of standards-based education. Quite simply, this would mean that the ideal of "common schools" and "common education" becomes lost.

Sadly, this seems to be where we are headed.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Thoughts on a Brand New Year

To be honest, I don't recall what I was doing 10 years ago when 1998 became 1999. All I can say for certain is that everything about me was different 10 years ago than it is now. I had different career aspirations, I was living in a different place, and I had very different ideas of where I would be 10 years in the future. All in all, I would say things worked out for the best.

The ringing in of the new year is, I think, an appropriate time to take stock: not just of what you are going to do with the next 365 days, but of how all the previous days prepared you for those ahead. Ten years ago, I was attending Berklee College of Music (Boston) with aspirations of becoming a Nashville songwriter or an in-demand jazz drummer. Today, I am a high school special educator with PhD aspirations who hardly ever has the time to play music.

If this were a movie, such an "ending" would be sad. It would be a cautionary tale of someone who "gave up on their dreams" and "settled" for a 9-to-5, who gave up the life of creativity for the rat race of the everyday.

Of course, life is not as linear as big-screen productions and scripts. As all but the most fortunate (or unfortunate) among us can attest, people change for no other reason than that life is contingent. We can change because we want to, we can change because we are forced to, because we want to adapt, because we are bored, or because . . . life just happens to us for better, worse, or neutral.

Ten years ago, I was graduating from Berklee College of Music. I did well there, won a few esteemed songwriting awards, and was urged by several professors to move to Nashville. They thought I would do well there. I did not. Songwriting is 10% about your talent and 90% about your ability to sell yourself and "schmooze." I might have had the 10%, but the 90% was wholly lacking.

While in Nashville, I worked at a bookstore andoften perused the shelves. One day, I began wandering in the philosophy section, deciding to try my hand at reading Camus's Myth of Syssiphus. I lacked the philosophic wherewithall to understand it, but was hooked nonetheless. Here was someone trying to grapple with a "big question" and I wanted to know more.

I began reading more in philosophy, biology, law, and other subjects until I decided that, while I was young, I might go and get a graduate degree; I can always, I told myself, come back to songwriting. I went to the University of Richmond (Virginia) and got a degree in political science.

From there, I moved back to my hometown of Eldersburg, MD, and, while waiting to apply to PhD programs, decided that I would get a job substitute teaching (I wanted to be a college professor and substituting at least would put me into the classroom, which beat most other jobs I was qualified for). One school I subbed for hired me as an instructional assistant, and I decided to try my hand at special education. This was the precursor to my accepting a full special education teacher position at a high school in Baltimore Co.

This brings me to the present. While I have always had a taste for the intellectual side of things, I tried very desperately over the past few years that I could do without it; that reading and thinking could be avocations to be dabbled in sparingly. My fiancee was the first to point out to me that I had not bought my own lie, and was miserable because of it.

So, my new year's resolution is to get into a PhD program in Education, where I can combine my love for intellectualism with my love for education and educating. My goal for this year is to not feel guilty at doing what I love simply because I have fun doing it - to realize that something can be fun and worthwhile at the same time. My goal for this year is to be happier than I was the previous year while working equally as hard.

When I reflect on my last 10 years, I struggle to make sense of what happened. How did I go from being a struggling songwriter to a special educator with academic aspirations? A led to B, and B led to C, but when the dots are connected, it looks a lot more like a disorderly zig-zag than a straight (or even close to straight) line. I don't think, though, that I am the only one that could say this about their past decade. We change; sometimes a little bit over long periods, and other times, rapidly over short periods. Sometimes there is a readily identifiable reason and sometimes the reason, if it is found at all, only appears in retrospect.

So here is to change. Let's never stop changing.