Wonder

Yesterday I asked, what about the world beyond the virtual? Computers didn’t have, for the longest time, sensors. Their only interaction with the world was through input devices such as punch-cards, then later keyboards and mice. They only knew what they were told. Many have a variety of sensors now: antennae, gyroscopes, cameras, thermometers, and so forth.

In the late-1980’s, if I recall correctly, science fiction fans and aerospace professionals engaged in heated arguments in the Planetary Society‘s journal  over what should be the policy direction of the United States’ space program. Should we attempt Mars directly or build a base on the moon first? Should we have a space station? Should we emphasize manned missions or send robots off to explore? It was a matter of cost vs. benefit for some: robots were cheap; humans die. I was in favor of both human and robot missions, but as a teenager I wasn’t sensitive to prices. I just thought we should get off this rock and go have a look-see.

I traveled in books. I’m left with sense impressions, of days lying on the braided rug on the floor, musty National Geographic in black-and-white or fresh issues in color in front of me. Nights listening to rain on the tin roof, wind in the tree outside my window, after I’d left the seashore: a plastic square recording that came with the National Geographic of whale song. Nights in the forest primeval listening to The Language and Music of the Wolves. Nights on the moon.

Listening today to an interview with Sylvia Earle, I recalled glimpses of the universe through the Life Nature Library and the Life Science Library, and the big telescopes at Greenbank. The world was full of wonders just waiting to be explored. Will a robot marvel at the wonder? Will a robot follow its curiosity in to a dark forest?

Sometimes it seems like there’s no wonder now. Only fear and greed.

 

But I Get Up Again

I didn’t hit publish on my latest until after midnight, so it looks like I missed two days, not one. I could fudge the record by back-dating posts, but I’d rather not. Instead those gaps in the calendar stand as an example, assuming I continue writing.

Everyone stumbles and falls. Some get up and keep going.

How we approach failure matters. Even in this one sentence, this one paragraph, I keep writing even though I’m not quite sure how best to say what I’m thinking. I could wrestle over each individual word used before I put pen to paper, and do — that’s how I normally approach the page — but when I do that two things happen: I forget what I was trying to say, and I don’t write. Why would I even do this to begin with? I’m not producing permanent etchings on rock; I can change words as I go along, or come back later and revise whole sections — and that’s just on paper. Digital ink is even more flexible. But I’ve done this for decades; I stopped writing in a journal when I was 11: my scribblings were defacing the beautiful book.

I recall some author attempting to make the case that these specific lines in Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” were proof that they were a Satanic band, because you can’t get to Heaven on the highway to Hell:

Yes, there are two paths you can go by / but in the long run / there’s still time to change the road you’re on.

Which is funny because this point is made several times in the Gospels: there’s still time to change. We are all sinners, redeemed by the grace of God. As Paul argues in Romans, because God has forgiven you, refrain from continuing to sin, and instead walk in the path of righteousness.

What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. — Romans 6:1-4 (ESV)

(Now that I think about it, that commentary on Led Zeppelin hides a temptation. Shall we despair and continue to sin because there is no hope?)

Let not your sins be a heavy burden, but get up and walk with God, “for my yoke is easy, and my burden light.” That attitude applies not just to grievous faults, but to every little mistake we make. As the Zen Buddhists say in teaching mindfulness, and the yogis in teaching yoga, approach with beginner’s mind. Return to the breath if your attention wanders. It is still there. Observe that thought passing through, how you are not your thoughts. Begin again.

“Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. — Matthew 18:3 (ESV)

We carry the mistakes of the past with us, as lessons: The bee may sting if you try to pet it. What lesson will we learn? What will we teach? If we do not risk failure, if we win without effort, is that success? Each moment, this moment, is new. Pick up the pen and write.

Special Snowflakes

Number Two Daughter asked if I was writing a book. No, just my journal, I replied. It looks like a book, though: it’s bound nicely and is filling. I suppose I could write a book, but at the moment I have no ideas for a book. I do have ideas for short essays, and if I wait long enough another of the 7.5 billion monkeys will write them. There’s many a thing I’ve read where I recognize the thoughts and arguments that have gone into the work, from premise to conclusion. One of the fascinating things about history is how often ideas bubble to the surface around the same time, sometimes more than once. Sometimes they even stick.

I was told stories as a child. You are unique, they said. You are gifted. You are talented. You are handsome. You are smart. God gave you innate gifts — use them in his service.

The thing about half-truths is that they are so easy to believe. That kid is bigger than I am. His parents are bigger than mine are. He must be bigger because he was born this way. He must be stronger and faster and smarter and richer and otherwise all-around better all for the same reason. It’s no leap at all to believe that if I’m better at something, it is because of my natural talent alone. Similarly if I’m worse at something. Einstein’s a genius. Mozart’s a prodigy. Rainman didn’t need to practice math. If it’s easy, it’s because I’m good. If it’s hard, because I’m bad.

Small children know this in their heart of hearts to be true, by the time they are six, or seven, or eight.

But if they think about it, they see it’s a lie. Life is much more nuanced.

Last night at the U10 soccer practice, one of the players said, “I love the homework you give us! It’s so much fun!” Made my day. Each week along with a letter about the week’s schedule, I’ve been sending a short homework assignment tenuously tied to soccer: play FIFA, balance on the curb, run around the house, watch others play soccer. The idea being that in addition to the techniques specific to soccer, there are certain general skills that pretty much anyone can cultivate and which are necessary: attention, agility, balance, coordination, speed, and so forth.

Recently, our understanding of human performance has improved beyond the story of Conan taking his place by right of birth as king of Aquilonia. Neurology, endocrinology, psychology, and other fields have provided insight into how humans work, fleshing out previously vague assertions about willpower with details about executive function, ego depletion, and glucose; connecting the dots between illness, stress, placebo, and mindfulness; showing how learning from deliberate practice excites myelinization; how physical exertion exercises the brain as well as the body; how both muscles and learning form while the body rests after a stress; and how perspective is tied to persistence: mindset and grit.

This is something we have known before. Motivational posters have lots of examples.

The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. — 老子 (c. 6th Century BCE)

Practice makes perfect. — Anonymous

Slow and steady wins the race. — Aesop (c. 620 – 564 BCE)

“…we are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then is not an act but a habit.” — Not Aristotle (384–322 BCE)

My success, such as it is, was not, or not entirely, because I was gifted with being smarter, but because once I learned to read, I loved it, and so practiced reading diligently and with attentive love. I liked looking at maps, and pored over them, and so was already familiar with geography by the time it came up in school. I read the World Book Encyclopedia, because I was curious, and so was already familiar with topics covered later on in school. Later, topics caught my interest and I learned of them before I needed to, though I could more precisely say that I simply pursued my interests where they led. Unfortunately, I didn’t learn practice as a discipline.

But still the Nature vs. Nurture debate rages on, both arguing that they can’t both be right, while some people, perhaps with a naturally finer attention to subtlety, grasp that it doesn’t need to be one or the other. And this assumption, that talent is simply a gift — though perhaps it’s a confusion over the definition of the word, talent — is, in fact, my major complaint about talent identification programs, whether by parents, sports programs, schools, or employers; and the current fad of arguing over which astonishing athlete is the GOAT.

Or, to put it another way, this isn’t Highlander.

I Wish I Could Go Back to College

No. 1 Daughter is a junior in high school this year. My how time flies. Her next act on the world stage approaches. Last year, to be helpful, because she was really not interested, and didn’t take the PSAT, I signed her up for the mailing lists of a couple of colleges. Specifically, I signed her up for those which I was interested in when I was looking at schools.

That’s not wrong, right?

Not all of them, though. I didn’t put her on the mailing list for Deep Springs or Hamden-Sydney because she’s, ahem, female. Or for Stamford, since this isn’t about me: it’s about getting her interested in the possibilities.

Yeah. Right.

Maybe I could visit her far too many times if she chose Bard (or, better yet, Simon’s Rock) or Vassar or Fordham, or even just a few too many for a modicum amount of comfort if she chose Mary Baldwin or St. John’s College. Perhaps the better choice, beyond a semester at sea, is something far away, like Oxford.

A community college is right out. I’ll be there every day.

Great Scientists

A friend of mine posted a Carl Sagan quote that reminded me of something.

Every kid starts out as a natural-born scientist, and then we beat it out of them. A few trickle through the system with their wonder and enthusiasm for science intact.

A few years back we saw Fourth of July fireworks from the causeway across Lake Carmel. I think the Big Sister and the Little Sister were four and two, respectively. We had a conversation that went something like this.

Big Sister: Why don’t the sounds match the fireworks?

Me: Why do you think?

Big Sister: I think the light is faster than the sound.

That’s my girl!

Time Enough

Apparently President Obama remarked on education yesterday.

For decades, Washington has been trapped in the same stale debates that have paralyzed progress and perpetuated our educational decline.

Obviously Washington hasn’t been involved enough in education, so he proposes more interference. The specific policy proposals are not horrible, except for the increased Federal interference in a local matter, though others could probably cite studies contrary to the studies he mentions. Unfortunately for the President, I happen to have numbers to hand about one proposal in particular: the length of the school day and year.

[L]et’s also foster innovation in when our children are learning. We can no longer afford an academic calendar designed for when America was a nation of farmers who needed their children at home plowing the land at the end of each day. That calendar may have once made sense, but today it puts us at a competitive disadvantage. Our children — listen to this — our children spend over a month less in school than children in South Korea — every year. That’s no way to prepare them for a 21st century economy. That’s why I’m calling for us not only to expand effective after-school programs, but to rethink the school day to incorporate more time -– whether during the summer or through expanded-day programs for children who need it. (Applause.)

Now, I know longer school days and school years are not wildly popular ideas. (Laughter.) Not with Malia and Sasha — (laughter) — not in my family, and probably not in yours. But the challenges of a new century demand more time in the classroom. If they can do that in South Korea, we can do it right here in the United States of America.

Education at a Glance 2008: OECD Indicators has more comparative data than you might ever want to wade through, which makes it helpful for validating assertions like the above. Let’s look at Indicator D1: How much time do students spend in the classroom? Oh, wait, data is not available for the United States. So, Mr. President, how do you make the claim that South Korean students sit at their desks longer than American students?

I expect the U.S. Department of Education provided some numbers. I’ve found the statistics for private schools, but nothing yet for public schools; the Digest of Education Statistics 2007 is not exactly well-organized. If we take the average of the private school data, we’re sitting about 200 hours longer each year than the Koreans. Interestingly enough, Korea is on the low end of the OECD’s comparisons of classroom time.

What we can look at in in the OECD data is Indicator D4: How much time do teachers spend teaching?, which contains this helpful chart.

D4: How much time do teachers spend teaching?

Whoa! Leader of the Pack!

So what, exactly, is it that we’re short on?

Four Years Too Many of College

Is a four-year college degree excessive for most? Charles Murray, writing at Cato Unbound, thinks a bachelor’s degree is unnecessary for most professions, has little bearing on success in a field, and suspects that college attendance rates are artificially high.

Cato has structured the Cato Unbound journal as a series of dialogues. The response from Pedro Carneiro contains this interesting chart from “Human Capital Policy”, in Inequality in America: What Role For Human Capital Policies (MIT, 2005).

This leads one to wonder what factors cause the flat trend lines in the graph since approximately 1950. A very brief glance at related papers and the related books (as judged by Amazon) seems to presuppose that equality of outcome is desirable, so research focuses on identifying the differences in inputs which determine those outcomes, and suggests methods to alter the inputs so as to alter the outcomes. Heckman and Carneiro suggest that the differences in outcome are the result of very early differences in cognitive and non-cognitive skills of individuals from different backgrounds. Some of these differences are likely environmental; others, I would suspect, innate.

While there may be strong correlation between success in school and success in life, I do not think it wise to confuse success in school with success in life. Further, one would not want to confuse success in a career with success in life. High school and college are preparatory, in a sense, but they are not a requisite for success. In some careers, certain degrees are used officially to restrict entry to those careers, and have little actual bearing on the ability of the individual to succeed at the tasks required in that career. In others, the degree is simply unrelated to the career. The work performed in determining what causes failure in school and later careers is important, but a desired outcome of 100% high school graduation and college attendance is not. Schooling is a means to an end, and not the end itself. One way we might enhance the prospects of those who are not attending college, or not completing high school, would be by removing artificial barriers to entry to productive careers. Otherwise we are only attempting to achieve what Lake Wobegon has: everyone above average.

A second response from Bryan Caplan, who needs a shave as desperately as I do, raises an important point about the text of Mr. Murray’s essay.

So far, Murray and I are on the same page. But when he tries to explain how useless studies translate into big bucks, his story gets fuzzy. On the one hand, he tells us that “The BA really does confer a wage premium on its average recipient, but there is no good reason that it should.” On the other hand, he insists that “Employers are not stupid.” How can both be true?

Maybe some employers are stupid.

[Employers] have a strong incentive to see through academic hype. When firms overpay the overeducated — or needlessly “stigmatize” applicants without a BA — the market charges them for their mistake.

If they are in a competitive market. For example, a certain large corporation with which I am familiar has a tendency to assign relatively menial tasks to college graduates. These tasks could be completed by anyone with the ability to read and follow instructions. What appears to happen after years of this is that the skills to complete the nominal job for which the individual is paid are either undeveloped or atrophy, as they are no longer required, making the formerly highly educated and experienced employee unfit for anything other than making doughnuts.

Mr. Caplan suggests that Mr. Murray would have been better off remarking that the bachelor’s degree is a signal, and that this signal is flawed. But employers find it works. He suggests that government cease subsidies for higher education, thus increasing the value of a college degree and providing incentives for employers to find other ways of determining whether a potential employee is desirable. Meanwhile, I’m of the opinion that a high school diploma would work sufficiently well as a signal if its value were not diluted by compulsory attendance.

Mr. Murray concludes,

Everyone in every occupation starts as an apprentice. Those who are good enough become journeymen. The best become master craftsmen. This is as true of history professors and business executives as of chefs and welders.

Summer School

There’s been some concern among the professional educators about skills lost over the
Summer since I was a small child, and that concern has not abated. Well, duh, of course some children are not as proficient in September as they were in May: they didn’t practice those skills for three months. I’ve not practiced differential equations for 15 years now; do you think I can do them? The same goes for calculating the area of anything not a rectangle, or playing “Minuet in G.” Practice, as my parents reminded me often enough, makes perfect.

Use it or lose it.

But do I think children should attend school year-round? No. I think they should be given opportunities to use the things they’ve learned.

Are Guidance Counselors Superfluous?

The Arlington Central School District sends out a newsletter every now and again — oddly enough around budget season. This time it includes a piece titled “Arlington’s Investment Paying Off,” which discusses how additional guidance counselors have dropped the student to counselor ratio from 375:1 to 210:1.

Now, three years into the plan, our commitment to guidance services is clearly paying off. At its all-time high, the guidance counselor to student ratio was 375 to 1. Within the last two years, the counselor to student ratio has dropped to its current average of 210 to 1, a ratio similar to most successful suburban schools.

That’s an awful lot of guidance counselors! 210 to each student?! Wow.

OK, so bad English and math skills aside, what is the return on investment of adding these additional guidance counselors? Apparently, having more of them allows the students to meet with their counselors more often.

When guidance counselors were serving 300+ students from multiple grades, contact with students was infrequent and irregular with some students seeing their counselor only once or twice a year. Members of the Classes of 2010 and 2011 will meet with their guidance counselors five to six times this year.

Granted my high school experience was unlike Arlington’s — the Highland High School student population was, if I recall correctly, 172 souls from grades 7 through 12 — but meeting with one’s guidance counselor seems to me to be entirely unnecessary for most students.

What is it they do? How do we measure their effect? How do we determine whether or not an additional counselor is cost-effective? And without knowing that, how can we say that the investment is paying off?

Compulsory Education

via Arnold Kling, we learn that the State of California does not like home-schooling by parents who are not also teachers, on the assumption that certification ensures quality. Mr. Kling pulls out this quote from the article.

“Parents do not have a constitutional right to home school their children,” wrote Justice H. Walter Croskey in a Feb. 28 opinion signed by the two other members of the district court. “Parents who fail to [comply with school enrollment laws] may be subject to a criminal complaint against them, found guilty of an infraction, and subject to imposition of fines or an order to complete a parent education and counseling program.”

I’m not sure what interest the State has in compelling schooling, but I am sure that I have an interest in not being compelled.

Use English, not Jargon

My elder daughter is in first grade. She loves to read almost as much as she loves math. She’s just started the thirty-third book in The Magic Tree House series, Carnival at Candlelight. She was reading Misty of Chincoteague, but Carnival at Candlelight was more important.

The New York State Parent-Teacher Association has a reading program called Parents as Reading Partners, or, as everyone else calls it, PARP. This program encourages parents to read with their children, by making a game of it, for the simple reason that

Studies show that children who read at home are better prepared to succeed in formal education.

What they mean to say is that practice makes perfect.

The school system here, and the one in Mahopac, has trouble using English. Instead, they use a mish-mash of English and Bullshit. Blather among yourselves with your crapronyms if you’d like, but don’t inflict them on the children.