Talking to learn

I graduated from Berkeley in 1969 with a degree in history. But, as the song says, I don’t know much about history. I suspect that my failure to fully understand the dynamics of the Hapsburg Empire or the rise of the Robber Barons had much to do with the university system.

Imagine that you are one of a thousand students sitting in a vast lecture hall. The professor stands before a lectern at the front of the room. If you’re lucky, the professor is mildly entertaining, bringing some life to the past. For the most part, or at least for me, the lectures were, well, boring. Lots of words with little relevance, as we used to say. In my four years at one of the best universities in the world (and at the time I attended, Berkeley was ranked at the top) I never got to know a professor, save one, who volunteered to be my undergraduate advisor.

To be sure, I was an athlete first and a student second or third. My Big C jacket was more important to me than the stacks of books on my desk, which I rarely opened. That I graduated at all was a small marvel. But graduate I did.

Then a few years later circumstances led to me to California State University at Hayward, as it was called back then. Having taken a philosophy of education course for a teaching certificate, I became hooked on philosophy. And I learned, perhaps for the first time in my post-secondary academic career. What was difference?

My philosophy classes were much, much smaller than my Berkeley lectures. Often there were just a half-dozen students studying logic or Bertrand Russell or existentialism. Also, the professors were more engaged with their students, perhaps because there were so few of us. And, of course, I was a bit more mature, having exhausted my baseball-playing days, and better disposed to absorb the subject matter.

Yet, I think the most important element in my learning was my interactions with both my fellow students and my professors during and, especially, after classes. There were lots of discussions, and philosophy invites thinking and talking and writing.

Harry Brighouse is a philosophy professor who blogs on the Crooked Timber site. He recently posted a piece on the importance of classroom discussions, in which he limits his own speaking to a quarter of the period, encouraging and facilitating conversations about what he’s said, what the textbooks say, and what students are thinking. He writes:

So they need to discuss intellectual issues in class, both to do the learning of the discipline-specific content and skills that can only occur through discussion – through practical application if you like – and to get habituated to doing the same outside of class. They need, I think, to be told explicitly why classroom discussion is such an important part of the class, and that they should discuss the material with friends or classmates outside of class – not just when they have a test, but all the time, instead of discussing the much less interesting things that make up small talk. (And, just as a general matter, I have become much more explicit over time about everything I want them to do.

Most of his students, he reports, experienced the “factory model” of learning, what I encountered at Berkeley. As he describes it:

[They] have been taught, since middle school, on a kind of factory model – you go to class, you learn things, you regurgitate them on tests (or, very occasionally, in papers) and then you either (if you are poor or working class) go to your job, or (if you are middle or upper middle class) devote yourself to being a semi-professional athlete, or musician, or actor, or debater, or whatever.

Though I attended one of the elite universities in the world, I learned a great deal more at Hayward, a few miles down the road. My grades were certainly better at the latter. And I’ve kept many of my philosophy books and discarded nearly every history text, of which there were hundreds, all told.

I should close with an anecdote from my philosophy days. There was a fellow student by the name of Ira. We began a discussion, really an argument, one day. It lasted through a couple of quarters! The topic, as best as I can recall, was: Which comes first: thought or language? I argued the former, he the latter. Our months-long conversation took place over coffee, in between classes, in our respective apartments, or at any time we accidentally bumped into each other. As”philosophers” we could pull this off, respecting each other’s person and point of view.

I wish that more of us philosophized as Ira and I did. I think the world would be a better place.

Childhood: we missed that

The corporate reform of education, led by Bill Gates et al., sets college graduation as the end-goal of all learning. So, it is no surprise that policy makers, having drunk the Gates Kool-aid, would impose draconian measures on public schools, focused on Common Core and testing ad infinitum. After all, how are kids going to find their way to university if they haven’t mastered the elements of one-size-fits-all curricula? While we’re at it, let’s hold teachers “accountable” via their students’ test scores. Ah, that’s the ticket.

But, of course, this is all bullshit. There is no scientific basis whatsoever that No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top, the two major pieces of federal legislation, work or even can work. Leave it to Americans to do it big and wrong. We don’t need no damn science or the lessons available from those who actually know what they’re doing when it comes to designing and operating superior education systems.

In their zeal to create college-ready automatons, the powers that be forgot at least one important factor: children are remarkably different in circumstance, desire, and ability. This is especially critical during early childhood development, which centers on play, socializing, and exploring immediate worlds.

A mother of a boy entering kindergarten wonders about the monsters produced by wrong-headed politicians and their wealthy benefactors. She also happens to possess a doctorate in educational policy. She wrote an essay for The Washington Post.

I’m sad that my son won’t experience kindergarten as a gentle transition into the rhythms of school, as a space primarily for exploration and play, and as a place where building strong relationships with adults and other children is the primary annual goal. I’m sad that our culture of testing and assessment has moved down to even the youngest grades.

And I’m angry. I’m angry that in kindergarten he may be expected to meet standards that are not developmentally appropriate for him. I’m angry that our educational system ignores what research and evidence from other countries tells us is best for our children’s emotional, social, and academic lives.

I want to protect my son’s childhood, and I want him to grow and learn at his own pace. Increasingly, the early grades of our country’s public schools are not the place for kids like him — kids who are not ready at five to become “proficient” readers and writers — to thrive.

In a footnote, we’re told that the mother has enrolled her son in a local Waldorf school, which does not answer to the beat of the draconian drummer.

Brexit to Trump

Perish the thought. But consider:

Look at those who voted for Brexit. The strongest single predictor was education. Those who had been university educated opted overwhelmingly to remain; those who had only made it through the British equivalent of high school or less wanted to leave. Similarly, the young voted to remain—75 percent of eighteen-to-twenty-four-year-olds voting in, according to one survey—while the old were adamant in heading for the exit. This generational divide has an educational dimension. Recall that not that long ago only 7 percent of Britons attended college. Today that figure is closer to 50 percent. Put bluntly, in the UK the old and the less educated are overlapping categories. That fact entrenches a divide that finds an uncanny mirror across the US. The older and less educated account for many among the 14 million voters who backed Trump in the primaries—a fact enshrined in his now-famous declaration that “I love the poorly educated”—while the young, recent college graduates especially, rallied to Bernie Sanders. In this respect at least, Trump and Sanders are Leave and Remain in human form—albeit with New York accents.

— Jonathan Freedland, writing for the New York Review of Books

Let’s see just how many dumbasses there are in America come November.

Weep for America

Tragedies abound, here in the good old USA. Judging by the concerted inaction among those parading as our representatives to stop the mayhem and bloodshed, we can look forward to more of the same, if not worse.

Indeed, on nearly every issue that matters, from health care and employment security to skewed priorities favoring military spending over basic services like education and guaranteed pensions, America’s elected officials consign us to an ugly, nasty, and brutish existence. Except, of course, for the billionaires, who have fashioned a legislative-economic-and-political system that redounds to their benefit, while the Rest of Us practice a crude, spiteful form of social Darwinism. The many must fend for themselves against increasingly miserable odds.

Much of this was brought into sharp, albeit somewhat ironic relief in the newest film by Michael Moore, Where to Invade Next. I commend the movie to you, but here is the quick takeaway: most European countries have those basic services as a matter of right and culture. The promise of our Constitution’s Preamble is being fulfilled elsewhere. Meanwhile, we Americans have been beaten down, denied necessities, and been forced to worship at the altar of unbridled capitalist greed.

I mentioned culture. The many people interviewed by Moore across Europe embraced their countries’ general welfare policies as common-sense givens, integral to the widespread notion that decent society demands people care for one another. Let’s take a quick look.

Moore spoke with several Italians who benefit from extended vacations, holidays, and generous family-leave programs. Italians, both business owners and their employees, believe that happy, well-rested workers make for improved productivity and company balance sheets. Despite receiving upwards of two months or more of paid time off, Italian productivity is just a shade lower than America’s, said Moore.

In Portugal, drug possession and use has been decriminalized completely. As a consequence, usage has plummeted, in part because the Portuguese spend resources on curing addictions. America’s wars on drugs, in contrast, targeting mostly African-Americans, has stocked our nation’s burgeoning prison system. Moore suggests that America reintroduced slavery via its draconian drug policies. And it was no accident.

Moore took us to a public school in France. The cafeteria, to be exact. There a full-time chef plans and produces three-star meals for children, who sit at round tables to which food is delivered by servers. No greasy pizzas. No cans of soda pop. Nothing that is found in the typical American child’s lunch. All healthy stuff, with plenty of vegetables and fruit, eaten over a leisurely hour or so.

In Slovenia Moore found American students earning degrees from that countries’ universities. And get this, at no cost to themselves. Education is completely free, and there is no such thing as student debt. The benefit is afforded to anyone from anywhere, and a hundred or more classes are taught in English.

Workers comprise half the corporate boards of German companies. Moore visited the Farber pencil company. He interviewed workers and managers alike. They reported that the employee involvement in decisions at all levels yielded a better-functioning workplace. Moreover, employees earned a living wage, supplemented by free health care, of course.

What about education? Moore flew north to Finland. I’ve written often about Finnish lessons. (Just search for the term on this site.) Finland completely reformed its education system, which bans private charter schools, by the way. That system is now the envy of the world. Shocking to Americans bombarded by Race to the Top, and No Child Left Behind, not to mention the excessive impositions of Bill Gates, et al.—Finnish children spend the least amount of time in the classroom of all OECD children. They do no homework, and there are no standardized tests.

Iceland was the first nation to elect a woman to its highest political office. That was in 1980, five years after a nationwide strike by women. Today, political bodies and company boards must have at least 40 percent of their membership female, though no gender can exceed 60 percent. During the 2008 global economic crisis, those Icelandic banks led by men all failed. The one dominated by women survived. Also, and worth noting, the male bankers are now spending time in a remote prison. No prominent U.S. banker was ever prosecuted. One woman CEO interviewed by Moore said that she could never live in America, because America is all about the individual and getting more of everything. There is no sense of caring for others, demanded of a decent society. Amen.

I admit to shedding a tear for what could be here in America. We could have all the services and cultural amenities enjoyed by our European counterparts. Indeed, as Moore emphasized at the end of his film, most of the ideas that have become reality in Europe had their origins in the U.S., including the abolition of the death penalty (Michigan in 1846). The Finnish education transformation is based on the teachings of John Dewey, an American philosopher and educator. The Equal Rights Amendment predated Iceland’s woman’s movement, though its ratification failed by three of the 50 states.

Alas, we’re confronted by a growing fascist spectacle and a citizen-less democracy. You, too, should weep for America.


Learning from the Swedes

Americans, as a rule, believe against all evidence to the contrary that they live in the greatest country on the planet. I doubt, however, that Americans can articulate why, other than to parrot tired platitudes that are much more myth than reality. Worse, in our patriotic cocoon, we cultivate a pervasive ignorance of alternative viewpoints and practices, believing that we have nothing to learn from others.

It is refreshing, then, to encounter different perspectives from those with direct experience by which to compare the American way from a more rational, sensible approach to living life. For example, we have this essay posted in Vox by a retired professor who divides his time between Sweden and Wisconsin. Tom Heberlein punctures a few misconceptions about Sweden, especially tax policies, while also pointing out obvious deficits in America’s approaches.

Take health care, for example. Heberlein writes:

The 33 million Americans who are still not covered by health insurance don’t have much choice when they get sick, unless you think, “Your money or your life?” is a choice. Paradoxically it turns out the bloated, heavily lobbied, privatized US system spends more tax money ($4,437) per person than Sweden’s socialized health care ($3,184).

This is due to Swedish efficiency rather than poor service. I do get to choose my doctor, have high-quality care a short walk from my home, same-day appointments and short waits when I walk in unannounced. And one day my physician himself phoned to tell me I had left my gloves in his office — it was my choice to walk back and get them.

The rest of the essay is worth the read. Fair warning, you may become further depressed by the yawning chasm between a society that works and a country, our own, that conjures new opportunities to transform basic necessities into profitable extractive enterprises. Somebody has to get rich. Why not you?

Dead man makes a difference

I’m talking about Antonin Scalia, who passed away a few weeks ago. Had he still been on the Supreme Court the outcome of Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association would have been different, a ruling that would have denied the teachers union the ability to collect dues from non-members who nevertheless receive the protection and bargaining services the union provides members. The court vote was a tie, 4-4. Scalia would surely have sided with the conservatives, jeopardizing the existence of all public unions, if not eventually even private-sector labor organizations. As the New York Times explains:

Under California law, public employees who choose not to join unions must pay a “fair share service fee,” also known as an “agency fee,” typically equivalent to members’ dues. The fees, the law says, are meant to pay for collective bargaining activities, including “the cost of lobbying activities.” More than 20 states have similar laws.

Government workers who are not members of unions have long been able to obtain refunds for the political activities of unions, like campaign spending. The case, Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, No. 14-915, asked whether such workers must continue to pay for any union activities, including negotiating for better wages and benefits. A majority of the justices seemed inclined to say no.

Had the court decided in the plaintiffs’ favor, it would have upended its own 1977 ruling with essentially the same issues at play. Nothing to do with politics, of course, though we can bet that the Koch brothers were involved directly or indirectly in the Center for Individual Rights, a libertarian group that spearheaded the case.

This case also underscores the importance of who replaces Obama in the White House. If it’s any of the Republicans, and if the GOP maintains control of the Senate, then a Scalia-like appointment would deliver a court whose decisions would further erode the power of unions.

Skewering educational reformers

Diane Ravitch, whose blog is a must-read for those concerned about public schools, reviews two books in the New York Review of Books. One chronicles the disasters of Newark, New Jersey, where money and politics combined to make a hopeless situation even worse. The other features Mission High School in San Francisco, whose principal and teachers adopted a school-based, collaborative approach to educating children. Each book tells us that we would do well to jettison the corporate reformers, especially Bill and Melinda Gates.

I would add two more suggestions: first, Congress should repeal its reformist legislation, the latest iteration being Every Student Succeeds Act; and, second, learn from Finland.